Chap Omatic

GMAP P230, International Politics

Prof. Lee


          In the discussion board for the class, much was made of the decisions the Truman administration made to not meet with Asian Communist leaders shortly after World War Two.  Two specific examples were Ho Chi Minh of Communist Viet Nam, who at one point approached the United States, and Mao Tse Tung of Communist China, who also was rebuffed about the time Chiang Kai-Shek was routed from mainland China.  This paper sketches the circumstances surrounding both attempts at contact, describes some of the common feeling in the Truman administration that colored the decisions, and attempts to characterize situations that would have changed those decisions.

Communist China and the Truman Administration

In January 1945, Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse Tung jointly sent a communiqué from Yenan, offering to travel to the United States to discuss the future of China.  World War Two was still raging as well as a civil war, and there was a significant amount of intrigue amongst the different factions inside China as well as fighting against the Japanese.  The factions inside China broadly narrowed down to the Kuomintang, Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Chinese Communists, led primarily by Mao Tse Tung.  Chiang had already been a presence in the United States.  Both he and his wife were regarded as safe, known quantities despite their corruption and weak organization.  Mao and Chou, on the other hand, were well known to China hands[1], but not to Washington hands.  When the U.S. Army General Joseph Stillwell was relieved by General Patrick Hurley as a result of Chiang’s insistence on a more sympathetic troop commander, the American mood in China changed from a pragmatic, sympathetic attitude towards the Communists, to a view that the Communists were too weak and small to be regarded and just like the Soviets as a threat.  As the civil war within China simultaneously was fought along with the war against the Japanese, the belief of weak Communists spread to the rest of the United States.  U.S. Army units didn’t fight much alongside the People’s Liberation Army, either; official Army histories barely mention the presence of the Chinese Communists in the same theater of operations.[2]  Hurley facilitated the derailing of any potential rapprochement between Chinese Communists and Americans, with the support of virulent anti-Communists in Congress.  Hurley, despite being fired by Truman upon making his accusations, spearheaded a drive to not only reject Mao but also to ostracize the American fighters and diplomats in China who predicted the Communist victory and recommended contact with the Communists.[3]

Details about what actually happened in the U.S. State Department about China at the end of World War Two were essentially suppressed until decades later.  The 1944 log was not released to the public until 1967, and the 1946 log was not released until the year President Nixon visited China.[4]  The decisions were considered so sensitive (especially in the context of “losing China”) that the subject just wasn’t mentioned for years.

There were other considerations affecting the issue.  The Soviets well knew that they could more easily acquire industrial aid by stealing it from the Chinese mainland immediately after the Japanese surrender, and played both sides to have a more sympathetic government in China.  The American worry about the Communist aggression after WWII also helped to color views of Chinese Communists; COMINTERN efforts to spread governments friendly to the Soviet Union were assisting more overt efforts all over the world.  To add to the frenzy, the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunt had started in full swing, preventing more experienced views such as those of John Davies or John Service from carrying the day.

It appears that the timing of the chaos of the war, the start of the Red scare, the public campaign in favor of Chiang, the Yalta decision to ignore the Chinese Communists, and the concentration of American China experts outside the United States all worked together to drive the decision to rebuff the Communists.

Ho Chi Minh and the Truman Administration

          In February of 1946, a telegram from Ho Chi Minh to President Truman stated, in part:


          So why did this telegram get ignored?  A different view of the world than today that considered Vietnam unworthy of independent life, a perceived need to support the recently liberated France in rebuilding to its former state, the limited appeal of Ho to American decision makers, and no champion for the Vietnamese Communists in the decision making process swiftly killed any consideration of assistance. 

          The French had been requesting American assistance for at least a year earlier.  The same American fighters involved in China were giving token support to the French, who were trying to expel the Japanese and Chinese from Vietnam.[6]  There was a strong push from the French to support the French effort, and not much of a push inside the US to support the Vietnamese.  Very few meetings took place even in Vietnam between the Americans and the North Vietnamese[7].  Clark Clifford, former Special Assistant to President Truman, recalls Indochina as having been a minor issue compared to all the other postwar issues at the time.  He later recalled the general feeling in the administration about Indochina:

“It was more the attitude that now that the Second World War was over, we would attempt to help the nations of Western Europe reconstruct. France had owned Indochina. The reason they'd lost it was due to Japanese aggression. We were, I believe, attempting to take those steps which would tend to return areas of that kind to the status quo. I don't recall taking part in any kind of discussion or policy debate about whether we should assist the French in their colonial or imperialist attitude. I would be rather surprised if there was much of a debate in that regard because it seemed to me to be the rather settled policy that we were attempting to return conditions to those that had existed prior to the changes that had taken place in the Second World War as the result of Communist aggression--Communist or Japanese aggression.”[8]

          Other former colonies, such as Indonesia, got a different reaction within the Truman administration.  Other administration officials such as Frederick Nolting later compared the difference between the Vietnam and Indonesia questions, concluding that Indonesia’s Sukarno was regarded “rightly or wrongly” as a nationalist, while Ho was anything but.  Nolting also pointed out that the Dutch and French offices were actually two different organizations within State, and the offices acted differently in each situation.[9]

          The North Vietnamese situation with Ho Chi Minh is contemporary to the Chinese situation with Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse Tung, and many of the timing issues discussed previously are germane to both.  For Vietnam, though, there wasn’t even a group of Americans in North Vietnam who deeply knew the situation, and not only the Soviets but also the French were intervening in the situation.  Only deeper knowledge of the situation, a better counter to French pressure on the United States, and a reassessment of the importance of Vietnamese independence, would have saved Ho from the 1946 rebuff.

[1] Such as interactions between Chou, Mao, and Gen. Henry Byroade, as described in interview by Neil Johnson, oral history transcript, Truman Library, September 1988.

[2] An example description is in Theresa L. Kraus, China Offensive: The U.S. Army Campaigns of W.W.II. U.S. Army Center for Military History brochure, September 2000.

[3] Davies, John Paton, Dragon By The Tail: American, British, Japanese, and Russian Encounters With China and One Another.  W.W. Norton, New York, 1972.

[4] John Gitlings, “A Shameful Tale”.  Review of Dragon By The Tail, as cited above.  New York Review of Books, 16 November 1972, pp. 7-12.

[5] Letter from Ho Chi Minh to President Harry S Truman, 28 Feb 1946.  Record Group 226, Office of Strategic Services files, 1919-1948, United States National Archives and Records Administration.

[6] Philip F. Dur, "The American Ambassador's Views of French Policies in Indochina, 1946-1949," Proceedings of the Sixth and Seventh Annual Meetings of the French Colonial Historical Society, 1980- 1981, ed. James J. Cooke (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982)

[7] Dur, ibid.

[8] Interview of Clark Clifford by Jerry Hess, July 1971, Truman Library, oral history.

[9] Interview of Frederick Nolting by Richard D. McKinzie, June 1975, Truman Library, oral history.