In 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) emerged as a winner for an internal civil war in China after defeating the Kuomintang led faction. The US foreign policy towards China in the immediate aftermath of the CPC win was inconsistent and incoherent. The memo explores the evolution of the US foreign policy towards mainland-China during Truman, Eisenhower & Nixon Administration. The memo recommends that more realism in Truman’s policy towards CPC after it emerged victorious, could have paved a way for smoother economic and political relations between the two countries. Further, it was ill-advised of the US to move beyond the 38th Parallel, once the North Korean forces were pushed back during the Korean war. The move not only became political baggage for Truman but also cemented Mao’s apprehension of the US’s intentions.
Policy Analysis Section
Truman Administration’s foreign policy towards China demonstrated two distinguishable traits: the initial years, where Acheson-Kennan’s Enclave Strategy guided the US policy and, after the Korean war where it began to witness Mao-Stalin as one monolithic idea of thought.
The two most prominent voices during Truman's tenure- Dean Acheson and George Kennan, believed that the limited American resources were best used in denying the industrialization to their adversaries and kept China amongst the other ‘expendable’ Asian and African Nations.[i] They echoed their fifty years old predecessor Theodore Roosevelt in observing China as “a country of little potential, an ally of questionable value and enemy dangerous only in its own periphery”.[ii] Even though the administration had a documented Truman Doctrine- which called to assist people fighting communist threats through financial aid and military intervention, they had little concern for poor countries like China. They were fine if “Russians wanted to feed hundreds of millions of hungry Asians”.[iii] Defending Japan and its integration into the Western Alliance was the top-most priority in Asia.[iv] Even before the communist party won the civil war, the US had adopted an approach to minimize China’ s value for the Soviet Union. Consequently, the official support for the Nationalist government was sub-optimal. In the US, some voices opposed this thinking and demanded more support for Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist opposition to the communist movement citing the importance of Formosa (Taiwan) and removal of communism as the primary reason. However, Acheson’s evaluation of the importance of China and his dislike for Chiang prevented him from taking any substantial step.[v] Even the president believed the Nationalist establishment of China to be corrupt and was reluctant to offer more aid to Chiang.[vi] As a result, until the Korean War, Truman’s containment policy in east Asia was mere tokenism. [vii]
The US’s policy changed towards China, once the Korean war started. In a bid to repel North Korea’s aggression towards the south, Truman got US forces involved for ‘Police Action’. The US’s subsequent attempt to enter North Korea and its move to the Yalu river eventually led to direct Chinese PLA’s involvement. The event marked the undoing of several years of wishful policy of exploiting the fault lines between Mao and Kremlin to the US’s benefit. The decision of the US to move towards the Yalu river “brought Mao and Stalin on the same page as far as the opposition to the US was concerned”.[viii] This also forced Truman and Acheson to resume their support to Chiang much to their dislike.
The first half of Truman’s foreign policy towards China had strong individual impressions of Acheson and Truman, where their shared dislike towards Chiang prevented them from helping the nationalist forces in China thereby, conceding the ground to communists. Also, their miscalculation in evaluating the importance of China to the communist design added to their initial indifference. In the latter half, we witnessed the reactionary policy of thwarting the attempted aggression by the Soviet and China backed forces of North Korea. Here as well Truman’s administration was stumped by the surprising involvement of Chinese PLA, across the Yalu river, indicating, the extent of the misconception that pervaded the White House corridors.
This phase also demonstrated the role that domestic politics played in foreign policy. McCarthy’s ‘Red Scare’ kept Truman’s administration on their toes. The pressures from domestic politics did not allow Truman’s administration to leave Chiang wholly. Further, the role of domestic politics could be seen in congress’s free hand to Truman once, it was clear that the Korean war was between the communists and the free world, as demonstrated by the bipartisan support of Congress to the Nationalists forces in China.
Issues of ‘losing China’ and Korean war figured prominently in Eisenhower’s run to President. He held Truman’s administration responsible for the debacle. Consequently, a lot of his credibility depended on achieving a respectable end to the situation with China in Korea. So, when he came to power, he launched a three-pronged strategy to deal with China. First, he initiated a United Nations offensive along with the South Korean Army and reinforcements. Second, he decided to strengthen Chian Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi) or ‘unleashing Jiang’. Third, he started using nuclear threats as a tool for demonstrating strength.[ix]
Eisenhower and Dulles’ strategy of strength and psychological warfare initially had a little effect, partly, because Stalin had insisted on North Korea and China to continue the war, to keep China and the US at the loggerhead in Asia.[x] However, once Stalin died, his successor- Khrushchev, agreed on an immediate armistice. This led to the signing of an armistice on 27th July. While the administration claimed that the armistice was a direct result of the hard position taken by it and the threat of nuclear bombs, there were other factors such as the economic drain on China’s resources and the new five-year plan which convinced Chinese leadership in calling off the war.[xi]
The end of the Korean war did not make Eisenhower change his containment policy towards PRC, rather he pushed PRC further as it strengthened the US’s ties with Taiwan, signed a defense treaty with Korea and began helping Japan in its economic development. Towards this end, the US employed economic sanctions to contain China so much so that it insisted Japan to enforce much harsher trade sanctions against PRC than those of USSR- ‘Chinese Differential’.[xii]
Eisenhower administration openly supported the “two-China” policy by pitting Jiang against Mao- a policy rejected by both as each claimed China in its entirety. The two Taiwan-strait crises demonstrated that while the US was willing to support Jiang, it did not want to risk another Korea-like confrontation with China. The second Taiwan strait crisis allowed Mao to test the US’s resolve for confrontation and he realized that the nature of the US involvement was more defensive than offensive- thus, alleviating the concern that he had held ever since 1949. This reassessment, coupled with the speeches made by Dulles convinced Mao that the US was trying to capture China from within.[xiii] He thought that an attempt to induce a peaceful revolution within the socialist order was being undertaken. His resolve to counter the attempt along with other factors would culminate into the great cultural revolution of 1966.[xiv]
The Eisenhower administration adopted the tough China stance for two reasons. Firstly, to satisfy the domestic political rhetoric about a strong stance against communist China and greater support to Ziang.[xv] Secondly, the administration believed that keeping the pressure on China would make it more demanding of the Soviet Union and thereby, depleting the resources of the USSR and eventually creating the rift between the two.[xvi]The administration succeeded in both as could be seen in the second Taiwan-strait attack where Mao launched an offensive without informing Khrushchev. Another important observation of this period was the impact that the US foreign policy had on the domestic policies of China.[xvii]
Nixon Administration, arguably, can be credited with the most major shift in the US’s foreign policy towards China. Nixon, along with his secretary of state Kissinger, started the policy of Rapprochement towards China.[xviii] Nixon and Kissinger believed that the divergence between USSR and China, which had been growing since 1950, needed to be tapped and normalization of the relations with communist China was now inevitable because of its growing market and potential USSR-block.[xix] Further, China formed a crucial piece in the puzzle that was the Vietnam war, which further mandated its support if the US wanted to take the war to an end. Nixon’s standing as a hardcore anti-communist made this rapprochement towards communist China possible without much backlash in the US.
The administration for the first time made use of the ‘One-China’ principle and opened the way for intense negotiations over years, which finally culminated in the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 by president Carter.[xx]
Rapprochement with Mao after the PRC victory
I would have advised Truman’s administration to follow Britain’s policy of ‘foot in the door’. While the US continued to half-heartedly support Nationalist Jiang even after his defeat in the civil war, Britain followed a realist and much more pragmatic approach. From late 1948 the British assumed that CCP China was something which the west would have to accept.[xxi]
The approach would have served two purposes: 1. It would have opened up an alternative of exploiting the growing differences between Mao and Stalin. 2. With working relations with Mao, the Korean war could have been handled much better, thereby, limiting the political and economic cost that the US had to suffer in the aftermath of the Korean war.[xxii]
Truman’s administration displayed ambiguity in their policy actions in the run-up to the civil war. While on one hand, they provided token support to the Nationalist Jiang, on the other hand, they hated him and found him a “lost cause”. This indecisiveness, along with Acheson’s Enclave strategy to consider China as expendable, jeopardized the US’s policy objectives.[xxiii]
In the run-up to the final result of the Civil War, Mao showed ample signs that he might have supported the US’s favorable approach. Case in point being the Marshall’s visit to the PRC camp where Mao joyously encouraged his comrades, “The entire people of our country should feel grateful and loudly shout, long live cooperation between China and the United States.”[xxiv]
This decision would also have helped the growing feeling in the domestic politics that China had been lost to the communists. The administration could have used incidents of rifts between Mao and Stalin to demonstrate that the bigger communist enemy was being tackled by pitting the smaller one against it as a strategy. To be fair, Acheson did try to adopt the strategy but his efforts were stymied by domestic politicians- Nationalists supporters and even the President did not agree.[xxv] Had the President been on the same page as Acheson, we might have seen stronger support to the policy and different outcomes to the Korean war.
Not going beyond the 38th parallel during the Korean War
I would not have moved beyond the 38th parallel once the North Korean forces were successfully dispelled by following MacArthur’s brilliant strategy.
The initial success following the amphibious UN counter-offensive boosted MacArthur’s confidence and he convinced Truman to allow troops to move North and unite Korea under an anti-communist regime. He was confident that “the USSR and China would not intervene”.[xxvi] However, as the US-backed troops reached the Yalu River, they faced the surprise attack from Chinese, thereby complicating the matter further. MacArthur wanted to keep pushing and bomb communist China, however, Truman did not agree which led to a huge uproar in domestic politics.
If Truman had not listened to McArthur earlier and halted the troops at the 38th Parallel, it would have gone in a long way to dispel the Chinese fear that the US had a desire to attack China- a fear which would later be tested and reassessed by Mao later in Eisenhower’s tenure.[xxvii] The act of moving towards China and subsequent Chinese retaliation further pushed China away from the US and towards Stalin.
The US policy towards China evolved from being that of indifference and hostile in Truman’s tenure, threatening in Eisenhower’s time, to that of rapprochement during Nixon’s. An early rapprochement to Mao, like Britain’s ‘foot in the door’ policy, in the aftermath of CPC’s victory, would have ensured better ties between two countries. It would also have helped the US domestic politics in allowing to use Mao as a balancer against Stalin. Further, aggressive actions beyond the 38th parallel were ill-thought with little associated returns. A little restraint in the US force’s action would have avoided the Korean war to elongate and prevented large economic and stature losses to the US.
[i] Warren Cohen, “Harry Truman, China, and the Cold War in Asia,” Reviews in American History 6, no. 2 (1978): 146–54.
[iv] Warren Cohen, “Harry Truman, China, and the Cold War in Asia,” Reviews in American History 6, no. 2 (1978): 146–54.
[vi] LaFeber Walter, The American Age : United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750 (NewYork: Norton, 1994); Cohen, “Harry Truman, China, and the Cold War in Asia.”
[vii] Lewis Purifoy, “Harry Truman’s China Policy: McCarthyism and the Diplomacy of Hysteria, 1947-1951,” New Viewpoints, 1976.
[viii] Cohen, “Harry Truman, China, and the Cold War in Asia.”
[ix] Qiang Zhai, “Crisis and Confrontation: Chinese-American Relations during the Eisenhower,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 9, no. 3/4 (2000): 221–49.
[xi] Yangcai Fan, “John K. Fairbank and His Views on Sino-American Relations from the 1940’s to the 1970’s,” Canadian Social Science 8, no. 2 (2012): 1–20; Zhai, “Crisis and Confrontation: Chinese-American Relations during the Eisenhower.”
[xii] Chester Pach, “DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: FOREIGN AFFAIRS,” Miller Center, accessed October 2, 2020, https://millercenter.org/president/eisenhower/foreign-affairs.; Zhai, “Crisis and Confrontation: Chinese-American Relations during the Eisenhower.”
[xvi] Pach, “DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: FOREIGN AFFAIRS”; Zhai, “Crisis and Confrontation: Chinese-American Relations during the Eisenhower.”
[xviii] Jean Garrison, “FRAMING THE NATIONAL INTEREST IN U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS: BUILDING CONSENSUSAROUND RAPPROCHEMENT,” Asian Perspective 24, no. 3 (2000): 103–34.
[xx] William Overholt, “President Nixon’s Trip to China and Its Consequences,” Asian Survey 13, no. 7 (1973): 707–21.
[xxi] David McLean, “American Nationalism, the China Myth, and the Truman Doctrine: The Question of Accomodating with Peking, 1949-50,” Diplomatic History 02 (1986): 25–42.
[xxii] Warren Cohen, “Symposium: Rethinking the Lost Chance in China. Introduction: Was There a ”Lost Chance“ in China?,” Diplomatic History 21, no. 1 (1997): 71–75.
[xxiv] Daniel Phelan, “The Marshall Plan That Failed. July 30,” The Atlantic.com, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/07/failed-marshall-plan/564905/.
[xxv] McLean, “American Nationalism, the China Myth, and the Truman Doctrine: The Question of Accomodating with Peking, 1949-50.”
[xxvi] Andrew Berglund, “US-China Relations and Taiwan in 1950 : Grand Strategy or Historical Accident” (Austin, 2013); David Wagener, “The United States and China; a Closer Look at Sino-American Relations and the One-China Policy” (Radbound University Nijmegen, 2017).
[xxvii] Pach, “DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: FOREIGN AFFAIRS”; Zhai, “Crisis and Confrontation: Chinese-American Relations during the Eisenhower.”
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