A Force So Swift, Kevin Peraino. New York: Crown, 2017.
Summary: A study of how the Truman adminstration, under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, framed America’s response to the rise of Mao as the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek fell to Communist forces in 1949.
The role of the People’s Republic of China as a world power is an accepted reality in today’s global landscape. Threats to Taiwan, seizure of coastal islands, influence throughout east and southeast Asia, and economic growth and trading relationships with the U.S. regularly are subjects of the evening news. What is often less understood are the events nearly 70 years ago that helped shape current realities.
In 1949 the world was recovering from war. China invaded by Japan in World War II, nominally was under control of a Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. Beginning in the spring of 1949, Communist forces under Mao Zedong rapidly conquered Nationalist controlled territories, leading to a situation where the fate of Chiang’s government, which had enjoyed American support, was increasingly in doubt.
Kevin Peraino, using recently declassified information as well as Russian and Chinese sources, studies the U.S. response to what many viewed as a cataclysmic event. China under Chiang had been an object of American mission efforts as well as trade and a wartime alliance, all of which was in jeopardy. For that reason, the Truman administration faced significant factions who pressed for continued efforts to prop up the failing regime, led by one-time Truman ally, Warren Judd. These efforts were also fostered by Madame Chiang, who took up residence in the U.S., probably the most effective ambassador Chiang could have employed.
Louis Johnson, Truman’s Secretary of Defense favored efforts to support Chiang while Dean Acheson, as Secretary of State was much more doubtful of Chiang’s ability to survive, even on Taiwan. Acheson also recognized that China and Russia may not have had as much in common as was projected. There were even reasons to support rather than resist this new government. In the end, it wasn’t to be, even though there was good reason for the suspicions that the relationship between Russia and Communist China was an uneasy alliance at best. Instead, the U.S. extended its policy of containment, withholding recognition to the People’s Republic of China until the late 1970’s, and becoming involved in conflicts first in Korea and then in Indochina, leading to our Vietnam ordeal.
Peraino’s book explores how foreign policy is often constrained by the politically possible at home as well as by other global actors. Fears of Communism, of atomic war, and the concern not to be the administration that “lost” China placed great pressures on the Truman administration, which resulted in a compromise between acceptance of the new reality and the effort to project a strong response shaping events for at least a generation, and perhaps down to the present day. One wonders what might have happened if early American recognition and support of Mao had been possible. Would China have gone through the ordeals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? Would we have been embroiled in Korea and Vietnam? At the same time, would the vibrant, indigenous Chinese Christian movement have arisen, now estimated to number more than 100 million adherents?
It is not given to us to know “what if.” But Peraino helps us understand what happened and what resulted and how that has shaped the international landscape down to our own day. We see both the necessity of intelligent foreign policy in the careers of people like Acheson and George Kennen, and the limits even very bright people face. We see both the pressures and the folly involved in backing failing governments. And we see how Truman’s ideals of achieving the “federation of the world” of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” come smack up against the realities of the Cold War, one that really hasn’t ended to this very day.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.