Losing China: Revisiting American Involvement in China in the Early Cold War

PLA advancements in central China and Manchuria. China – Communist Controlled Areas as of 17 November 1948. National Security Council File; Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.

Giuseppe Paparella
University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @giuspaparella

Debates over the post-Second World War origins of Sino-American relations continue to inform – and daunt — policymakers and foreign policy experts in their effort to figure out a viable strategy to deal with Beijing. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2018, Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner – Biden’s National Security Council Indo-Pacific Affairs Coordinator and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs respectively – branded the Truman Administrations’ various efforts to shape China’s behaviour as a failure. However, in commenting on the article James Curran – an Australian scholar on U.S. foreign policy – noticed that both this piece and the several respondents to it collectively failed “to acknowledge … the pervasive influence of American nationalist mythology on U.S.-China policy over the last seventy years.” In conclusion, Curran noted that “a critical but to date sadly neglected part of that process must surely involve taking a good, hard look at how the myths of American nationalism have influenced the course of U.S.-China policy since 1949.”

My newly published open-access article in The International History Review takes a fresh perspective and contributes to these debates. In it, I argue that between late 1948 and early 1949 Communist China and the United States might have been able to strike a more collaborative relationship had Truman applied more restraint to his nationalist colony image of China – a concept developed in-depth in the article – and been more willing to listen to Dean Acheson and advisors in the Division of Chinese Affairs, who promoted the “Chinese Titoism” strategy.

Truman, by approving NSC 34/2 on 3 March 1949, deliberately chose to maintain a strong American involvement in China following the end of the Chinese Civil War. One of the recommendations of NSC 34/2 urged Truman to ‘avoid military and political support of any non-communist regimes in China unless the respective regimes are willing actively to resist communism with or without U.S. aid and, unless further, it is evident that such support would mean the overthrow of, or at least successful resistance to, the Communists.’

By adopting this policy statement, the United States officially committed not to support Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist Kuomintang government—which was firm in its request for unlimited additional economic and military aid; however, it remained open to alternative and more effective options. In particular, the final and concluding policy recommendation of NSC 34/2 (paragraph 18 – officially still ‘not printed’ on FRUS) declared that the American ‘principal reliance in combating Kremlin influence in China should, however, be on the activities of indigenous Chinese elements. Because we bear the incubus of interventionists, our official interest in any support of these elements, a vast and delicate enterprise, should not be apparent and should be implemented through appropriate clandestine channels’.

The type of ‘vast and delicate enterprise’ that such ‘indigenous’ actors had to pursue through ‘clandestine channels’ was outlined in a letter to Walton Butterworth, director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs at the State Department and dated 11 February 1949, that introduced ‘Operation Belly’. The operation – whose ‘working terms’ were discussed with prominent Democratic senators ‘very very close to Truman’ – foresaw a ‘defense-for-democracy’ encirclement strategy on ‘the eastern front vis-à-vis Soviet Russia’. In relation to China, the plan explained that Taiwan had to be used for ‘ground force training and naval installations’; and it pointed out that the ‘provinces of Kwangtung, Hunan, Fukien, southern Kiangsi, Kweichow, Yunan, Szechuan, southern Shensi, Kansu, Ningxia, Chinghai, Western Suiyuan, and eventually Sinkiang will form the mainland of the Asiatic belly’.

Intro letter to Operation Belly. Merchant to Butterworth, March 4, 1949. Top Secret. Records of US State Department’s Division of Chinese Affairs, RG 59.

Crucially, the document clarified that ‘the so-called Moslem troops of the Ma family in the northwest shall be the bulwark of this flanking task force’. This finding is significant as it demonstrates the Truman Administration’s intention to develop a system of alliances with warlords in Western China. This aim reflected the American imperative ‘to back potential regional leaders to replace Chiang’ which were capable to guide regional anti-communist movements in the mainland, at least until late 1949.

On this point, the article presents newly declassified material – found during archival research at the Truman Presidential Library in November 2019 – about the US cultivation of the Muslim minority in China in the spring of 1949, as revealed within memoranda by Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency. As confirmed in the recently declassified reports of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service run by the Civil Air Transport (CAT), in April 1949 Ma Hongkui requested the American ambassador in China, John Leighton Stuart, further ammunition for his weapons to keep on fighting against the Communists. Stuart recommended the State Department to provide ‘effective assistance’ to the Chinese warlord, and he was backed in his plea by the American minister Lewis Clark in Canton.

The discovery of the involvement of the Ma family in the American strategic and military dealings in China post-civil war is important for at least two reasons: first, it exonerates American domestic actors like the China lobby, which after the 1948 presidential elections had lost much of its political clout in the House, for being responsible to shape Truman’s decision to approve NSC 34/2 and encourage covert actions against the CCP. Admittedly, it would have made little sense for the supporters of the Christian Chiang Kai-Shek to approve his dismissal, deny further aid, and at the same time make Muslim warlords – that had no links with the lobby – the fulcrum of Chinese resistance to the Soviets. Second, the article highlights the important but neglected role of Muslim minorities in shaping the history of modern China post-1945. Although the Ma family of warlords was able to build long-lasting relations with the Qing state, in exchange of gradual political assimilation, the dynamics that brought to their opposition to the Chinese Communist Party – and concurrent association with the Kuomintang during the last stages of the Chinese Civil War – would deserve deeper historical investigation.

The full article is open access and available at this link: https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2021.2018344