A recent New York Times piece about the foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration was illustrated by a row of three mugshots: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, on the left; Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the right; and Xi Jinping, chief of the Chinese Communist Party, in the middle.
That triptych was a graphic illustration of a new American sobriety about China, now positioned as a problem, smack between a terrorist and a thug. This outlook is not confined to 2014 or to the newsroom of the Old Gray Lady; it’s nationwide, and it’s been building for years. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows a significant dip in Americans’ “favorable” opinions toward China — 35 percent in 2014 compared with 43 percent in 2005, and a big jump in American “unfavorable” views on China, from 35 percent in 2005 to 55 percent today.
American businesses, long the bulwark of warm feelings for the authoritarian government across the Pacific, are souring on China, too, as the Chinese government and its agents pilfer U.S. technology and use a variety of tactics — some of them sleazy — to outcompete U.S. firms; various American Chambers of Commerce in China are reporting annual drops in confidence about doing business in the People’s Republic.
And in Washington, from the State Department to the Pentagon, the bloom is clearly off the Chinese rose; President Obama, whose administration entered office openly vowing to cut China slack on human rights, Tibet and Taiwan, now routinely accuses the Chinese government of freeloading off an American-led international security and economic system that has arguably benefited China more than any other country on the planet. Although Obama’s recent trip to Beijing committed America and China to reducing carbon emissions and tariffs, the tension between the two behemoths remains high.
It’s natural that this new sobriety should affect not simply how China is viewed today but also how its past is depicted. The best history is not written in an ivory tower, after all; it’s done with an eye on today. And that brings us to Richard Bernstein’s excellent “China 1945.”
Bernstein tells the story of the United States, China, Japan and the U.S.S.R. during the last, dramatic year of World War II in Asia. The central question he explores is this: In the late 1940s, could the United States and China have avoided four decades of antagonism, thereby allowing America to dodge the depredations of the Korean War, a defeat in Vietnam and, it is implied, our current tensions with Beijing? In the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War, U.S. scholars were almost united in arguing that yes, if only the United States had seized the opportunity to befriend Mao Zedong in 1945, the history of America and Asia would have been completely different.
But in keeping with today’s hard-boiled view of China’s communists, Bernstein has marshaled a powerful rebuttal. There was, he insists, never a “lost chance” for the United States in China. Mao was as devious as, if not more so than, his mentor, Joseph Stalin. American officials then — and the academics of the 1970s as well, Bernstein writes — were “naively dazzled” by Mao’s assertions of Sino-American friendship, commitment to Western-style democracy and solicitations of Yankee capital to modernize China.
The crucial event in this story, Bernstein says, occurred one minute after midnight on Aug. 9, 1945, when 11 army groups from the Soviet Union, backed by 27,000 artillery pieces, 5,500 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 3,700 aircraft — 1 million soldiers shouting “Death to the Samurai!” — invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria in one of the great operations of World War II. Japan’s famed Kwantung Army was crushed. Because the invasion took place only three days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States, it’s been forgotten by history. But, Bernstein argues persuasively, the Soviet occupation of Manchuria — urged, ironically, by President Franklin Roosevelt and powered by Lend-Lease supplies — was “the dominant force shaping China and China’s future relations” with the United States and the Soviet Union. Immediately after Stalin’s occupation, Mao’s forces flooded Manchuria; Stalin’s Red Army handed over a treasure trove of Japanese weaponry and allowed the communists to recruit tens of thousands of soldiers as they prepared for the civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army.
Once Stalin’s armies occupied China’s northeast, any chance that Mao would settle for a deal with the beleaguered Nationalist Party of Chiang evaporated, regardless of the herculean efforts of George Marshall, who was dispatched to China by President Harry Truman. From that point on, Mao knew he was going to prevail, Bernstein says. “China may . . . have been ‘lost’ by Chiang Kai-shek, but mainly it was won by Stalin and his loyal acolyte, Mao.”
This is another example of how the perspective of today influences Bernstein’s conclusions about yesteryear. In the ’70s, U.S. scholars argued that the United States bungled its chance with China’s communists even though America was all-powerful, that it alone held China’s fate in its hands, that it alone was responsible for China’s destiny. It was ironic, to say the least, for these scholars, who prided themselves on their anti-imperialist credentials, to bestow so much influence on the United States. Bernstein, writing in a time of diminished expectations for a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-financial-crisis America, understands that even at the height of its reach, the United States had its limits and that other factors, in this case the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, turned China’s tide.
To prove his case, Bernstein relies on a close reading of a trove of documents that have emerged thanks to a new group of less ideologically blinkered scholars working in the United States, China and Russia. Writings by historians such as Michael Sheng, Yang Kuisong, Alexander Pantsov, Steven I. Levine and Yu Maochun are cited throughout the book and the notes.
Bernstein’s book is also seasoned with finely drawn portraits of the Americans, Chinese and Russian soldiers and diplomats involved in this passion play. Bernstein handles the portrayal of two U.S. diplomats, John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, particularly well. He acknowledges their heroism. “These were brave, intelligent, honest, and admirable men, trying to puzzle out the truth,” he writes. But he argues that they were completely wrong to advocate to the State Department that the United States drop its support of Chiang and arm the communists led by Mao. Service appears to have gone to his grave believing that he had been right; Davies, who died in 1999, came around in the end, acknowledging that it had been “unrealistic” to think there was much chance of yanking the Chinese communists from the Soviet embrace. As Bernstein writes, “Being straightforward men of integrity themselves, Service and Davies didn’t detect the breathtaking deceit that was practiced on them by Mao and Stalin, two of the greatest masters of deception that the world has ever known.”
Speaking of masters of deception, Bernstein also does a good job teasing out the complexities of the Communist Party’s paramount barbarian handler, Zhou Enlai, of whom Henry Kissinger was so enamored. Zhou cut his teeth in the late 1920s, Bernstein reminds us, as the head of a communist hit squad. It was Zhou’s peculiar mix of treachery and charm that made him such an enthralling character.
“China 1945” is an important book by an American who, first as a Time magazine correspondent in the 1980s and later as an author of books, has been trying to figure out China for decades. (In previous works, he explored Western sexual fantasies about Asian women and predicted a new war with China.) He has written “China 1945” as a cautionary tale at a time when the United States confronts a resurgent China, and its communist leaders, across the Pacific Ocean and wonders again if they can be believed.
John Pomfret is the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.”