At Yalta Stalin had been given the Far Eastern railway and two major ports in Manchuria (presented as reparations from Japan) in return for the promise to intervene. When the atomic bombs were dropped, the invasion occurred, and Soviet troops moved into the north-east; they swept all before them. Stalin as ever played both sides. He recognized, and had an alliance with, the Kuomintang government because it had in effect ceded Outer Mongolia to him and because he thought he could manage it. But he also helped Mao. The Communists took areas only a hundred miles north-west and north-east of Peking, secured the northern half of Korea, and took over Manchuria, which had coal, iron and gold, with giant forests and over two thirds of China’s heavy industry; it also had a border with Siberia that was well over a thousand miles in length. The Russians at once gave Japanese weapons stocks to the Red Chinese, who also conscripted troops from the puppet Japanese government in ‘Manchukuo’ (along with the titular emperor, who ended up as a gardener in the palace of his ancestors).
The sequel showed how well Chou En-lai had understood the weakness of the West. Chiang’s best troops were in Burma and southern China and he could get them north only in American ships – and the Americans insisted on negotiations with Mao. In late August Mao did go to Chungkin (he insisted on the American ambassador’s accompanying him, as an insurance against an air accident) for six weeks followed by a treaty that the foreign embassies wanted. Chiang and Mao even met over a breakfast. But as soon as Mao was back in Yenan in October 1945 he started operations in Manchuria. At the turn of 1945-6 matters did not go well for the Communists – Chiang Kai-shek’s troops had had experience of fighting the Japanese and once they came north gave a good account of themselves, thousands of Communist troops deserting. The Soviets left Manchuria in early May 1946, and Mao made an initial error of trying to hold the cities, whereas his real strength lay with the peasants. The Nationalists did well, chasing the Communists to the north; at one stage Mao even planned to give up Harbin and retreat into Siberia. But in Jonathan Spence’s account the rush into Manchuria was a mistake: Chiang should have concentrated on building up China south of the Great Wall, not on a complicated adventure into territory where the Communists had ready Soviet support. However, Chiang was desperately anxious for victory, and at the same time unwilling to use his tanks and heavy weaponry; he neglected the countryside and mismanaged Manchuria when he ran it in 1946-7. Kuomintang finances went into an inflationary spiral, and even the Shanghai business people were alienated, while troops deserted for want of proper pay.
The Communists were in effect also saved by the Americans. President Truman did not want a fight over China, would grant dollars, would help with shipping, but believed he could insist on the Chinese co-operating. He sent George C. Marshall in December 1945 – a hugely respected man, who had some knowledge of the country from service there in the twenties. He took against Chiang Kai-shek because of his relatives’ corruption and his own dissolute doings (although Chiang had become a Methodist and a reformed character), and a subsequent American envoy, though more sympathetic, was a buffoon. To the American professionals, Mao and Chou had little difficulty in portraying themselves as efficient popular-front democrats, and Marshall himself was impressed when he saw them at work in Yenan, in March 1946. In any case, at this moment the Americans had enough on their plate. Europe was by far the greatest problem, but in Asia they faced one conundrum after another: what were they to do with Japan; the Philippines had to be sorted out; Korea was a muddle; the British, still influential, feared what a Nationalist government might do in Hong Kong. The last thing that the Americans wanted to see was a Chinese civil war, and for a time Marshall accepted what Mao told him. He stopped the Nationalists at a decisive moment. Chiang might have destroyed the Communists in Manchuria but on 31 May Marshall told him not to go on: Chiang Kai-shek was getting American aid – $3bn in all – and he was in no position to defy Marshall. Truman wrote to Chiang, admonishingly, and under American pressure the Nationalists set up an assembly that wasted time and attracted endless criticism for sharp practice: the Americans making exactly the same mistake as they were to make in Vietnam twenty years later, of assuming that democracy Western-style needed to be introduced at once. A truce was proclaimed, just as Mao prepared to abandon Harbin and the railway link to Siberia.
The upshot was that the Communists were left in control of Manchuria, an area twice the size of Germany, and they used these four months to consolidate their hold over it, using Japanese weaponry supplied by the Russians (as well as Japanese prisoners of war who even served as flight instructors). They took over 900 aircraft, 700 tanks, 3,700 guns and much else, together with 200,000 regular soldiers, and North Korea, which the Russians had occupied, was also a useful asset for Mao. In June 1946, when matters were going badly, he was able to send his wounded and his reserve materiel there, and when the Nationalists split Manchuria in two, North Korea was the link between the Communists in the north and the south, who would otherwise have been divided. The other decisive Soviet contribution was the remaking of the railway, which was linked up with Russia again in spring 1947. In June 1948 when Mao was preparing for his final push into all of Manchuria a Russian railway expert, Ivan Kovalev, supervised the work – over 6,000 miles of track and 120 large bridges. This was all done in very great secrecy and not even acknowledged in Party documents, where the general line was that the Communists romantically had only ‘millet plus rifles’. Soviet help was decisive, though it came at a grotesque price: the export of food from a starving country.
When Marshall imposed his ceasefire in June 1946 the Nationalists were greatly superior, with over 4 million troops to Mao’s 1.25 million; and they expelled the Communists from most of their strong-holds in China proper, with Nanking again the capital. In October 1946 Chiang Kai-shek did attack Manchuria but by then the Red bases had become too strong and Mao’s chief general, Lin Biao, proved to have much military talent (it was also the hardest winter in living memory, and his troops were made to carry out ambushes in fearful cold, at −40 degrees: they lost 100,000 men from frostbite). In January 1947 Marshall left China and it was the end of American efforts at mediation.
The collapse in China was astonishingly rapid, given the size of the country. The Kuomintang had become demoralized; some even of the senior commanders were secretly working for the Communists (using contacts from Whampoa, dating back to its Soviet period, when Chou En-lai had been head of its political department). In April 1947 Mao did win two surprising victories near Yenan as the Nationalist commander sent his troops in the wrong direction, or lost them to intensive shelling in a narrow valley; he even lost his base with all reserve supplies. A first-class artillery park fell to the Communists (now ‘People’s Liberation Army’) and Yenan was mainly retaken by them. East-central China was thus lost by spring 1948. There was another strange choice as commander for Manchuria, a man whom the Americans had supported as a liberal (he seems to have fought well in Burma) but, when appointed, he let Mao know, via Paris, and then failed to secure his line of retreat. Only 20,000 of half a million Kuomintang troops managed to escape from Manchuria, and that man lived on untouched in Mainland China until his death in 1960. Lin Biao was now free to move south for the Peking-Tianjin campaign, reckoned to be the second decisive one of the Civil War – again encountering a general who seems to have been surrounded by agents, perhaps including his daughter. This general had lost faith and in any case did not want to see Peking destroyed; he was on the edge of a breakdown, slapping his own face. But he kept his command, even though his forces were outnumbered two to one by Lin Biao’s 1.3 million men. Tientsin fell in January 1949 – the third-largest city in China. This general too went on to collaborate with Mao until his death in 1974.
At the same moment there was a great fight going on, this time for the heartland of China north of Nanking, the Nationalist capital. By mid-January 1949 Mao had taken the whole country north of the Yangtze, where four fifths of the Nationalist troops had concentrated: the way was open to Nanking and Shanghai and the Nationalists were in utter collapse. Here, a pattern built up that had been seen ever since the Russian Whites had imploded in 1919; the pattern was detectable again in Vietnam and even, in 1978, in Iran. There was vast corruption, food-hoarding, mismanagement of the currency (in this case an absurd exchange rate for the Japanese puppet government’s currency and a ridiculously variable rate for the dollar, which allowed speculators to make small fortunes just by moving from town to town). Enormous American imports were profitably sold off, as in Vietnam later on, and an investigation into Chiang Kai-shek’s in-laws reckoned that $380m had been illegally converted. On top of everything else there was American criticism of inadequate democracy, whereas the central point about Mao was a pitilessness that the Nationalists could not emulate, as when he starved out a Manchurian city in summer 1948, for five months, involving half a million civilians who were desperate to escape. More people were killed in this way than by the Japanese at Nanking in 1937. As the Reds moved in they would stage rallies for what they called land reform, which in reality affected quite small people, who were subjected to tortures. The terror expert was Kang Sheng: ‘educate the peasants . . . to have no mercy . . . There will be deaths’, and children were encouraged to join in against ‘little landlords’, – all of it deliberate terror that was a copy of the Cheka’s in 1919. An essential point was that the Party people themselves would be implicated in the terror and Mao’s own son was sent around with Kang, though in his diary he protested at what he saw. The Nationalists were unsubtle in response – they arrested and tortured students and intellectuals.
On 20 April 1949 1.2 million men started to pour across the Yangtze and Nanking fell three days later. The Soviets helped, by mowing down a Moslem cavalry army from the air near the Gobi Desert. Chiang Kai-shek and what was left of his army made for the port of Canton, taking away the great treasures now preserved in the Taiwan museum; a medley of Confucian scholars, grasping generals, old-fashioned lecturing liberals, Canton and Shanghai bankers and merchants fled, just as their Russian counterparts had done at the port of Novorossiysk back in March 1920, towards safety. In this case, there was an invulnerable fall-back position on the island of Taiwan, which was relatively unscathed from the wars; Chiang’s men had made certain of the island, severely controlling the native population, and there they established themselves, eventually with American naval protection. Taiwan, as the state was called, became in its way the alternative China. Despite isolation and, to begin with, severe poverty, it was to become the fourteenth greatest trading nation in the world – a sign of what might have happened in Kuomintang China if events had turned out differently. But for the moment, the hour was Mao Tsetung’s. On 1 October he stood on top of Tiananmen Gate and inaugurated the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as ruler of 550 million people. An appalling destructive energy reigned, though it was directed with a great deal of cunning.
China under the Communists was to go through another terrible generation, but she started out with a good deal of international sympathy. The Kuomintang had few admirers, and any observer of the terrible sufferings of the Chinese people at Japanese hands was prepared to give the Communists the benefit of the doubt. British recognition was almost immediate; and a man such as Joseph Needham, devout Anglican, distinguished Cambridge biochemist, and then the great historian of Chinese science, spent years in China at the worst time and was devoted to her; there were children of missionaries such as the American writer Pearl S. Buck, who won a Nobel Prize for her thirties novel about the life of the Chinese peasant (a New York wit wrote, not inaccurately, that of the seven American Nobel laureates for literature, five had been alcoholics, the sixth a drunk, and the seventh Pearl S. Buck). Many men in the American State Department had assured their superiors that Mao Tse-tung was just a well-meaning socialist. Besides, to begin with, Mao and his team were relatively moderate. All of this was of course to descend into frenzied nightmare, and the first stage came with China’s involvement in an absurd, bloody and long-lasting affair, the Korean War. When it ended in 1953, with a loss of 750,000 Chinese lives, it concluded almost thirty years of internecine and international war, further interspersed with famines and epidemics (brought about, in one instance, by the release of plague-bearing rats which the Japanese had raised in a biological warfare establishment in Manchuria, and then, upon surrender, released). It was small wonder that Mao and a very large part of the population did not respond altogether rationally to international events.
There was another factor: relations with the USSR. China was of course dependent upon foreign aid, and her Communists’ admiration for the Russian Revolution went back to the very beginning. True, Stalin had played a game between Mao and Chiang, but he counted as all-powerful and there were Soviet agents even in Mao’s closest entourage – his doctor, for instance. Stalin had wanted Mao to remain north of the Yangtze so as not to provoke the Americans. Disapprovingly, he delayed for weeks on end as to inviting Mao to Moscow, treating him as once the Khan of the Golden Horde had treated obscure, grubbing princes of Muscovy when they were supposed to turn up with their tribute to his vast tent-palace on the Volga. Stalin fobbed off Mao with the preposterous excuse that the grain harvest had to be brought in before a proper meeting could occur (summer 1948), and there was a minor row before Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, because his successors asked for peace, which Stalin said should be explored by the Chinese Party whereas Mao stood up for himself. The Russians still benefited from the ‘unequal treaty’ that gave them a sovereign role on Chinese territories in the north-east, linking Moscow with eastern Siberia, and they wanted controlling rights in Outer Mongolia as well, a very sensitive area that abutted on a Chinese Moslem region that was not necessarily loyal to Peking. Stalin fired some warning shots – arresting poor old Anna Louise Strong, who was stranded in Moscow; and, when Mao claimed some sort of ideological headship over questions of imperialism, Andrey Orlov, Mao’s doctor from the Main Intelligence Directorate, was arrested and tortured by the Ministry of State Security’s grand inquisitor, Viktor Abakumov (and several other contact men died strangely: even Mikhail Borodin, who had managed Comintern affairs in Shanghai, was picked up). Stalin sensed a rival, and when finally Mao did go to Moscow (by train) in December 1949 he was only one of several leaders greeting Stalin on his seventieth birthday (and for weeks he was belittled by his treatment – he even had to write a crawling letter to ask what was happening).
At length Stalin agreed to make a new treaty with China; Chou En-lai arrived – by train rather than plane for fear of ‘accidents’ – together with various experts who would work with the Russians to make China a major military power. A treaty did come about in February 1950 with a loan (much of which was subtracted in assorted ways). There were to be fifty major industrial projects and ‘the bases for strategic co-operation’; in exchange the USSR in effect took Outer Mongolia, or, as the Chinese saw it, half of Sinkiang and Manchuria, and through ‘joint ventures’ it had very favourable terms for tungsten and other materials important for armament. The Chinese had to pay large salaries for the technicians, who were exempted from Chinese jurisdiction. Both Stalin and Mao had come an enormously long way from their remote and bullied infancies. They had waded through tidal waves of blood, and, though neither was an ideologist of any seriousness, they did know that Communism was a formula for victory on an unimaginable scale. Under it, Russia had developed an empire far more powerful than that of the Tsars; and Mao had accomplished a feat still greater, to restore the power of the ancient Chinese empire. There was of course already an implicit rivalry, given that Tsarist Russia had been foremost among the European powers in stealing this or that march on China, ever since 1689, when Jesuits on both sides had negotiated the Treaty of Nerchinsk, laying down a common border. That rivalry broke out into the public gaze in 1960, but in 1950 it was still confined, given Mao’s dependence on Moscow, and given also his satrap-like admiration for the achievements of the Kremlin.
But Mao could at least test the old imperial waters. He could, for instance, consider Vietnam, where was now a common border. There, a battle had developed between the French empire, obstinately holding on, and the Communist resistance to it, under Ho Chi Minh. Stalin had shown little interest in this (he did not answer Ho Chi Minh’s telegrams in 1945) but matters changed once Communist Chinese troops were on the border late in 1949. Ho had fluent Chinese (having lived in China for ten years) and he made a dramatic entrance at the final dinner for Mao in Moscow in mid-February 1950. The two men went back by train (sandwiched between dismantled MiG-15 fighters and military technicians who were to advise as to the aerial defence of coastal cities). The first agreed step was for Mao to build up the link to Vietnam. New roads were created such that by August 1950 the French lost control of the border region to the better-armed Vietnamese Communists; and Chinese help meant that Ho Chi Minh could establish the same sort of ‘little-soviet’ base as Mao himself had had after the Long March. But there was another and more important part of the old Chinese imperial inheritance to consider: Korea.
Korea had a strategic position, as a south-eastern peninsula of Manchuria, pointing towards Japan. She also had a torn history at Japanese hands. However, she was a poor country, and in 1945 her fate was fairly casually decided: Soviet troops, invading from the north, would stop in the middle, at the 38th Parallel, and Americans would be established to the south. Rival regimes then emerged. A leathery Methodist, Syngman Rhee, was promoted in the South, while Communist North Korea formally became independent in 1948 under Kim Il Sung, a figure (also with a Protestant background) who emerged from Chinese shadows and had trained for a time at Khabarovsk in Siberia. Kim had megalomaniac qualities (he eventually proclaimed himself ‘President for Eternity’) and went to Moscow in March 1949, as Mao was winning in China. He wanted help to seize the South, where consolidation, with a small American presence, was ramshackle (as happened in Japan, there was a considerable enough Communist element there). That was refused: Stalin’s hands were full with the Berlin blockade. However, Mao was less discouraging, though he wanted action only ‘in the first half of 1950’, by which time he would control all of China. He even said that Chinese soldiers might be sent in, because the Americans would not be able to tell them apart.
In January 1950 Stalin did tell him that he was ‘prepared to help him’ but also said to rely on Mao. War in Korea would offer some advantages to the Soviets. They could test their own new technology as against that of the USA; Stalin told Mao in October 1950 that there was a brief opportunity to fight a big war as Germany and Japan were out of action and ‘if a war is inevitable then let it be waged now and not in a few years’ time’. There was another motive, to do with Japan. The USSR (and in the main the British) had been roughly shouldered aside by the American military when Japan was occupied. For a time, MacArthur ran Japanese affairs very high-handedly, comparing himself favourably with Julius Caesar, whereas Moscow felt that Japan was close enough to the Soviet eastern lands for Soviet interests to be taken into account.
Initially American policy in Japan was muddled and naively punitive; Japan sank into a morass of epidemic, starvation, black marketeering and crime that was worse than Germany’s: inflation reached 700 per cent in so far as there were goods with prices to be inflated. Then, in 1948, the American learning curve made its usual advance: Japan would have to be run not according to American New Deal principles, but according to her own patterns. Besides, there was a serious enough Communist presence in Japan, and by 1948 there was an even more serious Communist presence just over the water, in China. An equivalent of Konrad Adenauer, Yoshida Shigeru, emerged in politics, with a clean record, and the Americans co-operated. In December 1948 Dean Acheson, Marshall’s successor, saw that Japan would have to be the American industrial ‘powerhouse’, now that China was falling to the Communists, and he sent a banker, Joseph Dodge, to produce a (rough) equivalent of Ludwig Erhard’s plans for West Germany: currency stabilization, resistance to union wage demands, trade credits and a very low exchange rate for the yen against the dollar. The Korean War, breaking out a few months later, created a demand for Japanese goods and services, and injected $5,500 million into the economy. As with Germany, the new programme went together with relaxation of war criminals’ imprisonment; some were quietly rehabilitated and restored to the bureaucracy, and one (Shigemitsu Mamoru) even became foreign minister. All of this needed a regularization of Japan’s international position, i.e. a peace treaty, and discussion of this was in the air in 1950 (although formal negotiation only started in 1951, ending that same year with a San Francisco Treaty that not only gave the Americans several bases, but also foreshadowed Japanese rearmament). A rearmed Japan was an obvious threat to both Mao and Stalin; on the other hand, in mid-January Acheson had said in public that the outer line for the USA would not involve the Far Eastern mainland. Taking advantage of this, in April 1950 Stalin encouraged Kim. He would not help directly; Mao would have to do it. On 15 May Mao agreed to help if the Americans came in.
In the meantime, an election had been proclaimed in South Korea, in a context of upheaval; and there already had been bloody fighting on this or that occasion across the 38th Parallel, as the North Koreans tried to deter or terrorize non-Communists in the South. On 25 June, presenting these battles (which had already caused 100,000 casualties) as provocations, the North Koreans invaded. They had 400,000 men, 150 Soviet tanks, 40 modern fighters and 70 bombers, whereas the South Koreans had 150,000 soldiers, with 40 tanks and 14 planes. There were few American troops, and the immediate results were disastrous – Seoul, the Southern capital, captured on 28 June, and the Southern army disintegrating. However, Syngman Rhee did not surrender, and the Americans reacted very quickly. They were given a present: at the United Nations, the Soviet representative had been boycotting meetings of the Security Council, to protest at the exclusion of Communist China. He was therefore not present when Truman asked the UN to resist the aggression; accordingly, the Korean War was not just an American one, but formally concerned the United Nations; in effect, it became a NATO affair, with even a Turkish contingent.
However, the North Koreans’ advantage lasted for some time. By early August they had taken 90 per cent of the South, and there was a desperate fight for the area around Pusan; an American force was overwhelmed and its general captured. But the American shuttle from Japan started to operate, and strategic B29 bombers shattered the North’s communications and supply dumps. General Douglas MacArthur then launched a very bold amphibious operation at Inchon, on Korea’s western coast, near Seoul. Against difficult weather, over a sea of mud, and with tides that required very precise timing, it succeeded; only a few thousand of the North Koreans escaped entrapment, and in October 1950 the Americans invaded North Korea. MacArthur’s weakness was vainglory, and he advanced, without considering the risks, to the Yalu river and the Chinese border, no doubt dreaming that he could reverse the verdict of the Chinese civil war (American warships were also now protecting Taiwan).
On 29 September Kim asked Stalin for ‘volunteers’ from China, and Mao ordered his forces to be ready, even calling his Politburo for a discussion (though he later said that the decision to intervene was taken by ‘one and a half men’, the latter being Chou En-lai. They gambled, as it turned out, rightly, that the Americans would not use the bomb, that Chinese superiority in sheer manpower would prevent defeat (and many of the hundreds of thousands to be sacrificed were anyway former Nationalist soldiers). Chou and Lin Biao went to see Stalin on the Black Sea on 10 October, talked through the night and obtained a guarantee of equipment though not of direct air support. On 19 October Chinese intervention did occur, as Mao mobilized his millions, moved them by stealth, in fact enlisted some Soviet fighter support (which proved to be very effective) and confronted American troops on 1 November. Now came the great surprise: these Chinese troops, lightly equipped and able to move fast, defeated the Americans. One division marched at night over mountain roads and managed eighteen miles per day for nearly three weeks on end, and with such feats the Chinese brought about the longest retreat ever undertaken by an American army; a vast evacuation had to be carried out at the end of 1950. The line stabilized, roughly along the 38th Parallel where it had started out, and Seoul was retaken, in utter ruins, in March 1951. In some desperation, MacArthur publicly suggested an aerial attack on China, with hints that the atomic bomb might be used as well. Was Korea worth a nuclear war? Truman’s allies were appalled, and that gave him an excuse to remove MacArthur from command. His more prudent successor elected to stay on the 38th Parallel.
Under the nuclear umbrella, wars of this sort developed the surreal quality that George Orwell had foreseen in Nineteen Eighty-Four. A stalemate, in horrible terrain and terrible weather, went on and on, punctuated by offensives that got nowhere and were probably not really meant to get anywhere. Meanwhile, American air power was used, and wrecked much of North Korea, though of course without affecting the Chinese bases. Stalin could sit back and rub his hands with glee at the discomfiture of America, and Mao could rejoice in the return of China as a military power: a very far cry from the days of yore, when the junks of the imperial navy had been smashed to matchsticks and the ports of the Mandate of Heaven had been grabbed by foreigners selling opium.
An effort, also surreal, was made at peace. At Panmunjom, between the front lines, teams of negotiators haggled for two years, while the war went on outside the barbed wire and the huts. Thousands of the Chinese and North Korean prisoners did not want to be repatriated at all, but the Communist side insisted, expecting that American public opinion (which had turned against the war) would eventually rebel. Delaying tactics were used: there were a few deluded souls in Chinese prisons who volunteered to stay there (they trickled back, crestfallen, decades later) and various well-meaning Western scientists, including Joseph Needham, were deployed to accuse the Americans (wrongly) of biological warfare.
This slow-moving but murderous farce went on until the Americans started to use nuclear language. Ostentatious test flights went ahead; the new President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, visited Korea late in 1952, and used harsh language. The threat of the bomb was real enough, but the key moment came in March, when Stalin died. His successors had had enough of direct confrontation, and sent peaceable messages to the West. In Korea, finally, on 27 July 1953, on an Indian proposal, a ceasefire was proclaimed at Panmunjom. ‘Only the provisional is lasting,’ says the French proverb, and so it proved, again in surreal circumstances, the armistice negotiation teams remaining in their huts, decades in, decades out, thereafter, while North Korea became the weirdest country on the globe, and South Korea became an extraordinary first-world success story. The Korean War ended, where it had begun, on the 38th Parallel, with hundreds of thousands of dead on the side of the South and the Americans, and millions on the side of the North and the Chinese. But it had a side-effect, not foreseen by Stalin. The Korean War created Europe.