July 26, 2005


Stalin, the ghost who haunts China: Jung Chang not only demolishes Mao with her new book, she sets Beijing a new problem (Jonathan Fenby, Times of London)

Four elements lie at the heart of the Mao story. All are totally or largely false.

A key assertion is that he was a pure nationalist who put his country first and led the only true resistance to the Japanese invasion of China from 1931 to 1945. This is particularly important today, when the wilting appeal of communism has led the authorities to promote nationalism to win public support, particularly against Japan. Mao as patriotic hero is a potent recruiting sergeant.

But this new biography shows how a foreign leader, Joseph Stalin, aided and directed Mao’s rise. Halliday is a Russian expert, and has extracted a wealth of documentation from the Moscow archives. The Soviet role in establishing the Chinese Communist party around 1920 was already known, but what is new is how, despite some divergences, Mao followed Stalin’s dictates to win power.

Only the Kremlin could provide the political backing, money and arms he needed. Since Stalin played a double game in China, maintaining relations with the Nationalists and supplying Mao’s great opponent, Chiang Kai-shek, with arms, Mao’s greatest fear must have been that Moscow would desert him in the name of realpolitik. To avoid that, he kowtowed to Moscow — even after he achieved power he rose to his feet during a visit by a Soviet envoy to cry out three times “ May Stalin live ten thousand years”.

Another big hole in the Mao-as-patriot story comes during the full-scale war that broke out with Japan in 1937. Apart from one offensive, of which the Chairman disapproved, the Red Army avoided conflict, saving its resources for civil war with the Nationalists after Tokyo’s defeat. Petr Parfenovich Vladimirov, the main Soviet adviser at Mao’s headquarters, makes this evident in his diary, which was published in 1974 in India but escaped attention until recently.

Communist forces, Vladimirov noted in 1942-43, “have long been abstaining from both active and passive action against the aggressors”. Instead, they were ordered to retreat and seek truces. Visiting battle areas a little later, a US unit found that Communist units had struck non-aggression agreements with the invaders. Trade flourished across the lines.

Nor was this all. The Communists maintained contacts with the collaborationist regime set up by Japan. Mao even floated the idea of a ceasefire with Japan in northern China.

Similarly, the base from which the Chairman operated during the war years at Yenan in north China turns out to have been very different from the model society of selfless idealists portrayed in official writing, and reproduced by many western accounts. The truth was that the base writhed with political intrigue as Mao used terror and mass indoctrination to get unquestioning allegiance.

On top of this, the politburo decided to go into the opium trade. Vladimirov records a cadre telling him narcotics would “play a revolutionary vanguard role”. Trading as the Local Product Company and describing its output as “soap” in its records, the Communist drug enterprise exported millions of boxes of opium a year, supplying it to itinerant merchants or using the Red Army for transport through enemy lines. A Taiwanese researcher estimates this provided 40% of the base’s revenue.

The war against Japan over, the orthodox story is that, led by the all-wise Chairman, China’s peasants overthrew the reactionary Nationalists in a template of rural revolution. In fact, Mao had a low opinion of the peasantry, amounting to contempt. While the masses in the Communist rural areas were needed to provide manpower and act as bearers, the Chairman preferred attacking cities to waging war in the fields as the Chinese civil war unfolded after Japan’s defeat in 1945.

Initially, he was not very successful. Though it was exhausted by the long war with Japan, Chiang’s regime pushed the Communists to the far north of the country, and was poised to finish them off. At that moment, a powerful American emissary, the future secretary of state George Marshall, forced Chiang to call a truce, which allowed the Red Army to escape.

Stalin then came through as Moscow provided large quantities of supplies to the Chinese Communists. Using Russian arms and tactics, Communist forces swept south, crossed the Great Wall, took Beijing and defeated the Nationalists in an epic battle involving millions of men in east China. Despite the peasant legend, this was the victory of a modern army using American equipment captured from the Nationalists, as well as Soviet supplies — the first troops to enter Beijing rode in US trucks.

A hidden element in that victory, as Chang and Halliday lay out, was that key Nationalist generals were secret Communist agents or switched sides. These defections hammered the final nail in the Nationalist coffin and, at the end of 1949, Chiang flew to Taiwan to dream fruitlessly of reconquering the nation he had lost.

It is also clear that the most important plank in the Maoist platform is deeply worm-eaten. The year-long Long March out of southeast China to a safe haven in the north of the country in 1934-35 is extolled as one of the great heroic feats of the 20th century, in which the Red Army, under Mao’s leadership, scaled mountains, forded torrents and crossed murderous swamps as it fought off Chiang’s troops. Fanned by uncritical reports from western writers, the trek became proof of the Chairman’s genius and his natural-born aptitude to lead the cause.

The reality was that regional warlords allowed the Red Army to escape for fear that Chiang’s central government troops would set up permanent camp in their domains. The Communists killed huge numbers of peasants along the way.

Far from trekking with his men, Mao was carried on a litter. When his wife was severely wounded by shrapnel, he paid her no attention. Chang and Halliday even report that the most celebrated incident of the journey, in which intrepid soldiers were said to have climbed across the chain links of a demolished bridge above a foaming river, simply never happened. They also say that Chiang let the Communists escape because he hoped that, in return, Stalin would release his son, who was being held in Moscow.

Confronted with such a charge sheet, what would Beijing be left with if it allowed the myths to be stripped away? An inhuman dictator who cared nothing for the ideology on which the post-1949 state is supposed to be based. A revolution achieved by armed force, not popular support. A wartime leader who dealt with the enemy, and presided over a drug empire. A serial murderer who dreamt up torture methods and exulted in the suffering of victims. A man for whom relationships had no meaning, who despised the masses and who fabricated his own image for posterity.

Though he was by all accounts an extraordinarily decent man and a dedicated public servant, few men are accidentally responsible for more evil than General Marshall.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2005 7:59 AM

Marshall was worried about Europe. Asia was at most a sideshow to him. Also, many of the American leadership, like Stillwell, had a very low opinion of Chiang. That opinion was well-deserved.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 11:52 AM

Besides, what's 60 million dead chinks when you're worried about France.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 12:00 PM

Given the racism that was endemic in the pre-WWII military, especially the officer corps, (read some of the officers manuals from the period, they're harrowing), that sentiment probably played a not irrelevant role. I doubt that Stillwell, the son of Protestant missionaries in China and a fluent speaker of Mandarin and other languages there, was guilty of that however.

Chiang and the people around him were crooks. It has often been said that had Chiang run China like he ran Taiwan, he would be a hero today and not the villain he is universally understood to be. History has shown that had Chiang been able to win and somehow unify the place, much of the later bloodshed would have been avoided. But I don't think Marshall had a crystal ball.

Marshall was worried more about Germany and Britain than France. Today, China is more important than Germany, Britain and France combined, but there is no way that Marshall, crystal ball-deprived as he was, could have known that would happen.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 12:22 PM

Stillwell was banging Madame Chiang--he just wanted a rival out of the way. Had we not back-stabbed Chiang he'd be a hero today. The attacks on him were wrtitten by Marxist historians.

The Christian Right knew.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 12:27 PM

Well, I think it was more Truman's fault. He made the US policy.

Bart: Any evidence that Marshall was a racist?

Posted by: Bob at July 26, 2005 12:30 PM

Marshall's intervention looks so badly timed;
another nail in the McCarthy myth.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at July 26, 2005 12:36 PM

Marshall acted on what Stilwell and Wedermeyer told him.

Short of the US intervening directly, China would most likely have fallen at some stage.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at July 26, 2005 12:45 PM

Marshall was the one who made the choice. He takes the hit. That's how it works.
Even if China was going to fall(not proven), there is a difference between a change in goverments and a threat to the race of reason.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at July 26, 2005 12:57 PM


If you read what I said, I did not call Marshall a racist. In fact, OJ did. What I did say is that there was a racist culture in the American military prior to WWII, especially against Blacks, Jews, Asians and Hispanics. There is enough documentation of this readily available and the DOD admitted the existence of the problem. But I guess, Bob, you come from some place where they only allow you to take books out of the library if you agree to finish coloring them in before returning them, and that the fact that inbreeding has caused your eyes to be so close together that reading comprehension is difficult for you, so perhaps I should be more understanding and compassionate.

However, being understanding and compassionate is not a part of my nature, at least not to non-canines.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 1:04 PM

Where is it stated Vinegar Joe was banging Madame Chiang? This is new to me.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 26, 2005 1:39 PM

That's in the OJ Encyclopedia, under 'S' right after 'R' for Julia Roberts=Eric Roberts.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 3:02 PM

Bart: I can read quite well. OJ was responding to your first comment. You respond to OJ's comment by stating there was racism in the Army and that Stilwell probably was not one. The inference is that Marshall was a racist.

By the way, I am glad to know that the pre-war army was only racist when it came to "Blacks, Jews, Asians and Hipanics". Just curious, what other groups are often subject to racism other than "Blacks, Jews, Asians and Hipanics"?

Posted by: Bob at July 26, 2005 3:17 PM

Marshall's decision to be worried about Europe was based on an examination of the military and economic realities of the time. Subtracting the US and the USSR, virtually all of the world's industrial capacity was located in Europe. Only 2% was in Japan, even before WWII, and China had even less.

He wanted as much of that industrial capacity to be under American control or that of its allies as was humanly possible. The problem he faced was that in the major industrialized countries of the period there were strong Communist parties or 'Socialist' parties with a neutralist position between the US and the USSR, such as Kurt Schumacher's SPD in Germany. They had to be defeated in free elections, or relatively free ones, in the immediate interwar period. Hence, the Marshall Plan which entailed an enormous dedication of American resources. As you are aware, the result of the elections was either ardently anti-Communist Christian Democratic governments in Italy under de Gasperi and Germany under Adenauer and a Socialist-Christian Democrat coalition in France under either Mendes-France or Schumann. Britain was ruled by the neutralist Attlee. Smaller countries like Belgium had similar results electing Paul-Henri Spaak for example.

Nothing racist about it. Maybe, as OJ implies, Marshall was anti-Asian or anti-Chinese. The American military, just as much of American society in the period, bought into the racist ideas of some of the loopier Social Darwinists like Madison Grant or Ulrich Philips. Racism against Jews, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics in the pre-WWII military is so broadly documented in so many places and has so much original source work to back it up that even the slightest efforts at research would find plenty of it. The society was full of it, and the military reflected the society. Read any biography of Benjamin O Davis or Hyman Rickover to get a picture of what went on.

N.B. Marshall opposed the creation of the State of Israel and threatened to resign from Truman's cabinet had he recognized Israel. As you know, Truman recognized Israel and Marshall backed down from his threat. You will also note that I would never call Marshall an anti-semite for having held his position. If you have read what Marshall said on the matter, it is clear that his position was one of pure realpolitik and not racism, as opposed to, for example, Forrestal.

Thus, my guess, as contrasted with OJ's, is that Marshall's position on China was motivated by realpolitik and by his understandable focus on Europe, given its economic importance and the way its fate was in the balance at the time.

As far as racism is concerned. It all depends who's on top. They inevitably sh** on everyone else. That's the nature of humanity and has been for millenia and ain't changing.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 3:51 PM


Marshall was right in what he said about Israeli, that it wouyld be more trouble for America than it was worth. He'd have been fine with giving them Uganda or Florida or whatev er, which would have made more geo-political sense.

The argument that he saw Europe as imminently great again, but also realized we had to rebuild it from scratch is incoherent.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 4:06 PM


His position was that either we rebuilt it (and it was not from scratch, as the French, Italian and Benelux factories were more or less untouched) or the Soviets would rebuild it. Now, with the benefit of 60 years of hindsight and basketloads of blinding ideology that make you impervious to facts, you can make loopy assertions like the Marshall Plan did not matter or it hurt Europe or whatever. Marshall, who was charged with the duty of defending the US against an enemy which was completely vicious and implacable and had a huge military and industrial machine, was living with a different reality. He made the right decision, history vindicates him and you'd be hard-pressed to find a dozen people outside of insane asylums who agree with you.

As far as Israel was concerned, he would have been a lot better off loading the whole kit and kaboodle of European Jewry onto boats and shipping them all to the States where they would become productive citizens. But the American electorate, mired in a postwar recession, never would have stood for it.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 4:32 PM

No, it was obvious at the time that Communism had failed and the idea that it could rebuild Europe, when it was itself destroyed was mere paranoia. People force themselves now to forget that we offered them Marshall Aid too because they were such a mess.

If the USSR did pose an actual threat then the failure to reckon with it immediately, while we held all the cards, is criminal.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 4:36 PM

It wasn't obvious to anyone but you. And you weren't around at the time.

I've already so amply demonstrated the balance of military power issues to you that I refuse to simply reiterate what I said earlier, other than that the facts of the time show you to be completely wrong.

Posted by: bart at July 26, 2005 5:09 PM


It was obvious to Marshall, who knew they needed our money to rebuild--or actually build, since there was nothing there even before the War.

But most Republicans, led by Taft, wanted us to just ignore them.

Posted by: oj at July 26, 2005 7:02 PM

This is fascinating and thanks Bart and OJ for some of the best blog comments exchange that I have come across in some time.

The real reason I am posting is to bleat that the link provided to the original Times of London review of the book is incorrect. It leads nowhere. No date for the article is provided. Fenby is a hell of an author himself. I would like to know more about the Chinese co-author of this Mao book. Where is she writing from? UK? America? This book will be undoubtedly banned in China. I also searched the gratis-past-seven-days archives of the ToL site. No hit for "Fenby' -- Amazon.co.uk has interesting reviews as well . . .

Posted by: greg at July 27, 2005 12:48 AM