Gordon Chang, Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1972.
Chang contends that the United States avoided war over Quemoy, Matsu, and the other offshore islands due to causes beyond Eisenhower’s control, rather than anything Eisenhower did. Instead, Chang describes several of the actions Eisenhower contemplated as deliberate acts of provocation. The two most significant of these are the flights of eighteen American aircraft over China on April 1, 1955, and a proposed naval blockade of five hundred miles of the Chinese coast opposite Taiwan in order to keep the PRC from building its forces there. In the case of the over flights, Chinese officials contented themselves with diplomatic protests, while Chiang Kai-shek objected to the blockade because he did not trust the Americans to maintain it – it would also require him to give up his off-shore bases.
While the United States’ policy toward the Soviet Union continued to move toward détente, American policy toward China changed radically over the course of the war. This is a remarkable trend given the American belief that China was the main enemy in Vietnam. This is not meant to imply that the United States suddenly decided that the PRC was not a threat to Asian or world security, but that during the prosecution of the war in Vietnam American policies were re-evaluated in terms of preventing China from intervening there like it had in Korea. A 1965 policy review, seeking to determine how to keep Chinese troops out of the war in Vietnam, caused the United States to back away from a direct confrontation with China and began to seek a new relationship with the PRC.
Chang argues that from the time Harry S. Truman entered office as President in 1945 American officials were convinced that the Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe was a precursor to expansion in Asia, particularly with the Communist advantage in the Chinese Civil War. By 1946, the Truman Administration was actively investigating options to assist the Nationalists in China and to oppose increased Soviet influence there, and Chang dates the start of the Cold War in Asia to this point, in a dramatic contradiction to Gaddis’s idea that the United States was unprepared for the expansion of the Cold War.
American diplomats settled on a strategy of creating discord between China and the Soviet Union after Yugoslavia’s Tito broke ranks with the Soviet Union. They believed that like in Yugoslavia, China was dominated by an indigenously created Communist Party with its own locally developed ideology, and an organization independent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The revolutionary movements in Yugoslavia and China were nationalistic and popular in nature, not imposed from the outside by Moscow. State Department officials contended that Chinese leaders would chafe at Soviet interference in their economic, political, and military affairs.
To counter Soviet influence with the Chinese Communist Party, George C. Marshall attempted to negotiate a coalition government including both Nationalists and Communists, because he believed that continued fighting would force the CCP to move closer to the Soviet Union in order to procure logistical support. This effort ended in failure, leading the Truman Administration began to distance itself from the Nationalists in 1948, in order to keep the CCP from claiming that the United States was working to prolong the Chinese Civil War.
Following the Nationalist retreat to Formosa (Taiwan), American policy in China changed again. After reasserting its earlier policy of recognizing only the Nationalist government as the legitimate government of China, the Truman Administration began covertly working to keep Taiwan separate from China. The United States also enacted policies to force China to depend on the Soviet Union, in order to create friction between the two nations. One example of this was the cancellation of food and economic assistance to areas controlled by the CCP. Finally, the United States provided economic and military assistance to the Nationalists to fortify Taiwan and transferred ships to the Nationalists to allow them to blockade CCP-controlled ports on the coast.
British and American policies toward China illustrate different approaches intended to achieve the policy goal of driving a wedge between the Soviet Union and China. The United States believed that a hard policy toward China, making the PRC more dependent on the Soviet Union, would more quickly exacerbate tensions between the two Communist powers. Great Britain, on the other hand, believed that a softer approach that included at least de facto recognition of the Communists control of China, trade agreements, and economic assistance would woo Chinese leaders away from the Soviet Union. The two sides also reached different conclusions about the possible effect of their respective tactics. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin believed that strong opposition from the West would drive China into a closer relationship with the Soviet Union, leading it to become another Soviet pawn. In contrast, Dean Acheson contended that the tension created by unreasonable Soviet demands on the Chinese and the incredible amount of money it would require the Soviet Union to support China was the quicker and surer method to divide China and the Soviet Union.
These divergent approaches almost drove a wedge between the United States and Great Britain, itself a strategy of Mao Zedong, but Acheson warned British leaders of the danger preventing a split among the allies. While the United States did not adopt the British strategy, Chang argued that it lead the United States to account for British economic needs by moderating trade restrictions with China due to the weakness of the British economy and the large British investments there. Despite that small gesture, Acheson insisted that its allies toe the line of American policy toward China instead of reaching a generally accepted policy. Chang claims that economic issues were not a major consideration in determining British policy. Viewing Great Britain primarily through the lenses of its long history as a premier trade partner, Chang believes that this contributed to the British ability to simply accept political change around the world. He also asserts that the British recognized the limits of their power, and that the United States was the only Western nation with the power to influence the situation in China. Ultimately, the United States moderated some of its tactics against the PRC in order to relieve stress on its alliances with Great Britain, France, and other potential allies.
Chang identifies three main positions among the United States’ major allies. Great Britain and India wanted to maintain ties with China in order to woo the Chinese away from the Soviets by showing them the benefits of amicable relations with the West. Britain even continued limited trade with the PRC during the Korean War. Japan wanted to open unrestricted trade with the PRC, not necessarily as a way to break up the Sino-Soviet Alliance, but because China was their traditional trading partner and a major source of natural resources. These concerns kept the United States from enforcing an all-out trade embargo against the PRC, as it would have severely damaged relations with major allies by creating significant economic problems for them.
The political needs of some allies forced the United States to have limited diplomatic ties to the PRC. The most significant of these was the Geneva Conference of April 26, 1954, which was held to discuss the status of Korea and Indochina. The United States attended in order to support France’s desire to end its conflict against Vietnamese Communists and Nationalists, despite not wanting to enhance Chinese prestige. The conference was not a resounding success as American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake the hand of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and the United States and South Vietnam ended up refusing to sign the agreement that divided Vietnam and recognized the sovereignty of Cambodia and Laos. The United States attended only because its allies requested its presence, not out of a desire to develop lasting solutions.
Strained relations with allies also limited the types of nuclear diplomacy that the United States could use against China and North Korea. Eisenhower’s plan to treat nuclear weapons merely as much larger conventional weapons did not sit well with the British. The result was that the United States could not lean on its nuclear superiority quite as much as Eisenhower may have wished, especially as a method to deter Chinese incursions into Korea, or to relieve the budgetary stress caused by maintaining large conventional forces. Overall, divisions with American allies, especially the British, over how best to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union kept the U.S. from applying the kind of constant pressure on China that it believed most necessary. This meant that America’s “hard” policy on China was never as extreme as its proponents wanted, making it less costly for both the United States and China.
Despite British discomfort with American doctrine on nuclear weapons, Chang argues that they formed a significant part of its strategy to defend Taiwan, including the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. This is particularly true of his pre-BRAVO ideas that “the United States should regard nuclear weapons the same way as any other munition. Eisenhower believed that a credible nuclear deterrent would provide a less expensive military force than a large conventional one, and Chang demonstrates that the threat of nuclear weapons had a deterrent effect on Chinese leaders regarding their planned invasion of Taiwan and the offshore islands.
Chang argues that war did not occur because Chinese officials were concerned that they would not receive support from the Soviet Union in a war over the islands, and could not count on a Soviet nuclear deterrent or war materiel. He also considers it possible that the Chinese worried that the United States would start a war over the islands involving all of China, or multiple Asian nations, rather than a limited engagement in Taiwan Strait. Chang writes that the ambiguity of Eisenhower’s public statements regarding the likelihood of an American defense of the islands could have led to another misunderstanding by the Chinese over whether the United States would defend the island garrisons, or not. This strategy, and the praise heaped upon it by some historians, is remarkable in light of the role ambiguous public statements regarding the defense of South Korea played in the start of the Korean War.
Despite American and allied efforts to foster a rift between the Soviet Union and China, Chang argues that the core reasons for the Sino-Soviet split were differences over each country’s national security needs in the face of competition with the United States. As a result, they developed radically different grand strategies. Other problems in the relationship spring from this basis, with the Soviet Union instigating most of the dramatic conflicts.
The aggravating factors were the type of minor irritants that turn into major issues when the two parties involved become angry over more important concerns. From the Chinese perspective, it appeared that the USSR was attempting to pull them into a coercive military alliance like the Warsaw Pact. Chinese leaders were particularly suspicious of a Soviet attempt to build a long rang communication facility to support its submarine fleet in China. Certainly, a Warsaw Pact type of agreement would have allowed the Soviet Union to restrain Chinese aggression in promoting Third World revolutions, which the Soviets saw as potential dangers.
PRC officials also felt that the Soviets economic and military aid tend to be frugal, and in the case of the Korean War included a requirement that it be repaid to the Soviet Union. This combined with Chinese perception of Soviet arrogance, personality conflicts among leaders, competition for leadership among Communist states, and old ethnic rivalries to generally promote ill will between the two nations. These problems were a minor irritant compared to their strategies for dealing with the United States.
The Soviet survival strategy included the same basis as those for any other state: a strong defense, economic growth, and diplomatic power. These base goals, they share with China. However, the details of the diplomatic piece drove them apart. In order to seek détente with the United States, the Soviet Union moved away from the Stalinist doctrine that the Communist revolution would only develop through military conflict with capitalist states. Instead, Khrushchev sought peaceful co-existence and competition, hoping that revolution would come naturally to the West as it had to the Soviet Union and China.
Khrushchev believed that the move away from advocating armed revolution around the world was predicated by the power of nuclear weapons, which he saw as the greatest danger to world socialism, particularly in the case of a war launched by imperial nations like the United States. That being the case, he argued that it was the responsibility of the Soviet Union to reduce the threat of nuclear war, increase the Soviet sphere of influence, and seek accommodation with the United States in order to ensure that socialism had the opportunity to grow naturally over time.
PRC leaders had a different perspective on the issue, which Chang attributes to their closer association with revolutionary movements in the third world and the recent end of their own revolutionary struggle. This led Chinese leaders to argue that while diplomacy was acceptable in some cases, the best way to secure world socialism was to aggressively promote revolution in the Third World. To their way of thinking, the danger to socialism was not nuclear war, but a failure to take the fight against capitalism to the enemy. This basic disagreement was further compounded by Khrushchev’s actions toward China from 1958 – 1960. First, he blamed China for the Soviet Union’s problems related to the 1958 offshore islands crisis, and pushed for a two-china settlement to that problem. Then, he ended Soviet support for China’s nuclear weapons programs.
Khrushchev continued to aim most of his diplomatic attacks at the PRC, even after the 1960 U-2 incident. Throughout 1960, Khrushchev attacked the ideas of “ultra-leftists” in China’s government, and called China’s political theory “dogmatic and proactive.” The final straw came after Khrushchev withdrew Soviet technical specialists working on industrial projects in China. As they left the technicians also took the blueprints and plant designs for their projects. The resulting economic problems in China combined with poor harvests to create near famine conditions for the next three years. Chang concludes that the Sino-Soviet Alliance finally came apart when each camp realized that the other was a larger obstacle to their goals than external enemies like the United States.
Chang shows Kennedy’s policy regarding China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as both fearful and aggressive in nature, and certainly not in keeping with a “strategy of peace.” From all appearances, it seems that Kennedy was willing to use any diplomatic or military means to prevent China’s development of nuclear weapons, particularly if he could convince the Soviet Union to assist. Part of Kennedy’s reaction was almost surely due to what Chang sees as a racial bias toward the Chinese, but also colored by Kennedy’s belief that China was dangerous to world freedom, and that some members of China’s leadership saw the potential of nuclear war as positive for China. These two core ideas caused Kennedy to adopt preventing the PRC from obtaining nuclear weapons as a main goal, leading him to pursue adoption of the Test Ban Treaty.
Realizing that the Test Ban Treaty would not prevent China from developing nuclear weapons, Kennedy and his advisors began to search for some other way to do so, even to the point of telling questioners that the treaty says that signatories should use all of their influence to discourage others from developing weapons. However, it is not clear if he meant it in diplomatic and economic terms, or if Kennedy believed that the treaty justified military action. This is an important distinction because no nation had the diplomatic or economic influence with the PRC to affect its policies.
Not having the diplomatic leverage needed, Kennedy began exploring military options, even sending Averrell Harriman to Moscow to find out how far Khrushchev is willing to go to remove China’s nuclear capabilities. Harriman was told that he had room to explore any options with the Soviets. The military options explored included air strikes, a joint Soviet-American Nuclear attack, and covert action, but although Kennedy continued to push this issue with the Soviets, he could not convince Khrushchev, probably because the Soviets did not want a land war with China.
America’s first move toward improved relations was to announce that the United States did not seek to be an enemy of China and that the United States was leaving the door open to Chinese diplomacy whenever China was ready to join the community of nations. This was followed in 1966 when the United States began to tone down its rhetoric against China. Part of this included saying that China had not sought a confrontation with the United States in Vietnam. President Johnson also stopped calling China the instigator in the conflict, and, in a July 1966, speech, called for reconciliation between the United States and PRC. American spokesmen also began referring to the Chinese capital as “Peking” or “Beijing”, instead of the old Nationalist name of “Peiping.”
Strangely, it seems as if the war in Vietnam finally encouraged the leaders of the United States, including anti-communists like Richard Nixon, to re-evaluate American relations in China, perhaps because they realized that disputes could not be resolved without diplomatic ties. It is also possible that China’s development of nuclear weapons in 1964 enhanced this feeling. Regardless, the impact of the Vietnam War on Sino-American relations was to begin the process of normalization between the two adversaries.
Chang argues that Nixon realized that the United States would eventually have to establish formal relations with China in order to provide increased security for the United States and its allies. He first articulated these ideas during the Vietnam War with a paper written in the mid-1960s that recommended that China be allowed normalized relations because they might retrain its efforts to foment world revolution. This belief led him to instruct Henry Kissinger and the National Security Council to evaluate U.S. policy toward China and develop new approaches to dealing with the challenges represented by the PRC. When China and the Soviet Union became in involved in border clashes, this was expanded to include an evaluation of the impact of a Sino-Soviet war on the United States. Kissinger’s review of American policy toward China and the strategic impact of military conflict between the two Communist powers led to the conclusion that it was not in the United States’ interest for the Soviet Union to defeat China militarily. Ultimately, it Kissinger and Nixon believed that the United States need China to act as a counterweight against the Soviet Union, just as it needed the Soviet Union to act as a balance against the PRC.
Because the United States realized that it needed both of the other two major powers to maintain world stability, Nixon adopted a triangular balance of power. By moving to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union and improve relations with China, Nixon and Kissinger hoped to place the United States in the most powerful position of the strategic triangle. They hoped that by maintaining amicable relations with the two parties that were antagonistic toward each other that the United States would exercise more influence over world affairs. This model returned global politics to a 19th century style dominated by Great Powers and spheres of influence, in the hope that it would increase stability by allowing each of the powers the right to exercise influence over areas vital to their national interest without significant opposition from the others. It also required that the United States recognize the status of the USSR and PRC, and their responsibility for world events. The triangular relationship showed dividends quickly by giving the United States additional leverage in negotiations with the Soviet Union on arms control. Chang credits this new relationship between the PRC, USSR, and USA with providing American diplomats with the leverage needed to push through the SALT treaties of the 1970s.