Journalist Bernstein (The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters, 2009, etc.), who was the first bureau chief in China for Time, uses his considerable expertise on the Chinese Revolution to create this immensely readable account of how the United States “lost” China to the communists and who was ultimately at fault: the Americans, the Soviets or Mao?
The dilemma of whom America should back as the Chinese civil war gained steam—the U.S. officially supported Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Nationalist People’s Party yet did not want to alienate Mao Zedong’s surprisingly resourceful Communists—was further exacerbated by the eight-year war with Japan. That war had consolidated the KMT’s resources, giving Mao a respite from Chiang’s attempts to wipe out the Communists and allowing them to gain an equitable status in fighting No. 1 enemy Japan. The State Department’s “China hands,” who would eventually be vilified as communist sympathizers—e.g., John Paton Davies, John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent—were “naively dazzled by the Communists in 1944 and 1945” and lulled by Mao’s charm campaign to put aside ideological differences with Chiang in the concerted effort to defeat Japan. Yet once Japan was vanquished and the Soviet Union rolled into Manchuria on Aug. 9, 1945, the Americans, led by Ambassador Patrick J. Hurley, continued to be optimistic (at the Yalta Conference, the Americans had agreed to give the Russians “certain privileges in China”), while Chiang, desperate for American support, saw the writing on the wall. Bernstein deftly sifts through the complex machinations of these excruciating few months, when all parties slyly engaged in a similar tactical ploy: “ingratiate yourself with your enemy when you need to keep him at bay, confuse him, or…exploit the ‘contradictions’ between him and other enemies, to prevent them from combining against you.”
A nuanced hindsight assessment that expertly pursues the historical ramification of roads not taken.