History Can Be Unkind: FDR, Truman and China
America’s economy has been shutdown and more than 50,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, a virus either recklessly or deliberately unleashed on the world by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Deaths worldwide, including Americans, total more than 200,000. There is growing evidence that after Chinese authorities learned about the virus’ outbreak in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, and learned that the virus could be transmitted from person to person, they hid that knowledge from the world, and forbade domestic travel, but permitted international travel from Wuhan. As a result, tens of thousands of Wuhan’s citizens traveled to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, spreading the deadly virus in their wake.
In a very real sense, the United States and the world today are reaping the whirlwind from the failed China policies of the Roosevelt-Truman administration in the mid-to-late 1940s. Between 1945 and 1949, the United States failed to prevent Mao Zedong’s communist forces from gaining power in China. During World War II, China under the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was America’s ally. FDR envisioned Chiang’s China as a postwar great power that would help bring stability to Asia. Truman was initially committed to continuing support for Chiang and the Nationalists. When, however, the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists resumed after Japan’s defeat, U.S. policy shifted from favoring the Nationalists to attempting to forge a coalition government that included the Communists.
Marshall’s China mission
Truman asked General George Marshall to embark on a mission to persuade Nationalist and Communist leaders to share power. It was an impossible task. Neither Chiang nor Mao wanted to share power. But Marshall’s China mission and the Truman administration’s arms embargo on Nationalist forces signaled the end of America’s alliance with Chiang. U.S. policies during the next few years practically guaranteed a Communist victory.
To be sure, Chiang’s regime included corrupt officials and was not democratic in any sense. But its flaws paled in comparison to the Communists, as history would demonstrate. But Mao and the Communists benefitted from their cheerleaders within the U.S. government and the media. We now know that the FDR-Truman administration had been infiltrated by communist agents, fellow travelers, and useful idiots who promoted the notions that Mao and the Communists were agrarian reformers, and that a communist China would not join the Soviet bloc and, therefore, would pose no threat to U.S. interests. Several American journalists and think tanks (Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, the Institute of Pacific Relations and Amerasia magazine writers, for example) parroted this nonsense.
Chambers warned of folly of befriending China
One ex-communist who understood what was happening was Whittaker Chambers, then an editor at TIME magazine. Chambers, when he became TIME’s foreign news editor in 1944, created a furor among the magazine’s China correspondents by rewriting stories that he believed portrayed Chiang’s Nationalist regime as corrupt and pictured the Chinese communists in a favorable light. In a November 1944 article, Chambers warned that efforts to form a coalition government in China that included the Communists were doomed to fail and would result in the Communist takeover of China and China’s alliance with the Soviet Union — which is exactly what happened.
Chambers was not a lone voice in this respect. James Burnham, Clare Boothe Luce, Alfred Kohlberg, Isaac Don Levine, William Bullitt, Emmanuel S. Larsen, and others advanced similar warnings, all to no avail. The Truman Administration instead acted as if a Communist victory in the civil war was inevitable and preferable to a Nationalist victory, which, as Michael J. Green, Arthur Waldron, and others have argued, was simply untrue. The Truman administration even issued a White Paper in an effort to escape any responsibility for the CCP’s victory.
In his letter of transmittal of The China White Paper, Secretary of State Dean Acheson blamed Chiang and accused Republicans of unfair attacks on Truman’s policies. The New York Times, however, no bastion of conservatism then or now, wrote that The China White Paper “is not the work of a serene and detached coroner but of a vitally interested party to the catastrophe.”
Truman’s success in implementing the policy of containment in Europe has always overshadowed his failures in Asia. It is not a matter of “Who lost China?,” but rather an acknowledgment that the United States failed to prevent a communist takeover of the world’s most populous country, and the consequences that have flowed therefrom.
Global effect of communism in China
That failure, that catastrophe, has had enormous consequences for the Chinese people and for the United States. The CCP killed tens of millions of its own citizens during the Great Leap Forward, enslaved the people of Tibet, and ruined millions of lives during the Cultural Revolution. It killed thousands more at Tiananmen Square. It has constructed a totalitarian surveillance state to maintain control over its own citizens. It has imprisoned minorities and dissidents in “re-education” camps. It is not known how many Chinese citizens have died from COVID-19 — because the regime will not tell us the truth.
China fought U.S. and UN forces in the Korean War, a war that was instigated by China and North Korea. China’s threats to Taiwan and smaller offshore islands in the 1950s caused President Eisenhower to threaten atomic reprisals. China provided military assistance to our enemy during the Vietnam War. It was an ally of convenience during the last two decades of the Cold War, but it has now embarked on a geopolitical course to replace the United States as the world’s preeminent power. And, through recklessness, indifference, or deliberate policy, it has unleashed upon America and the world a deadly virus.
History can be unkind. The CCP’s conquest of China set all of those events in motion, and the FDR-Truman administration’s policy of withholding aid from the Nationalists ensured a communist victory. As General Douglas MacArthur reflected in his memoirs, “The decision to withhold previously pledged support [to Chiang’s regime] was one of the greatest mistakes ever made in our history. … Its consequences will be felt for centuries, and its ultimate disastrous effects on the fortunes of the free world are still to be unfolded.” America, the Chinese people, and the world are feeling those consequences today.