Could Truman Have Worked With Mao?

In the fall of 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop Beijing's Tiananmen gate and proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The United States, however, refused to recognize Mao's Communist regime as legitimate. This created a freeze in U.S.-China relations that would last more than 20 years and perhaps contribute to subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Given that the United States and China ultimately forged a working relationship, was U.S. President Harry S Truman's refusal to work with Mao a mistake? It's far from obvious that the answer is yes, says the author Kevin Peraino.

"There are many ways in which a change in U.S. policy could have brought about a different outcome — but not necessarily a better one," Peraino said on Wednesday at Asia Society, where he was speaking about his new book on Truman and Mao, A Force So Swift. "Truman could have decided to hold more serious talks with Mao. But personally, I don't think it would have made much of a difference."

Forging a relationship with Communist China from the start would have had several advantages for the U.S., not least by driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union. This was the strategy that ultimately drove the Nixon Administration to seek rapprochement with China in 1972. But in 1949, China's split with the U.S.S.R. was still 11 years away, and Mao's relationship with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was actually very close — a fact that was not known until much later. It was far from certain then that Mao would have spurned Stalin in exchange for warmer ties with Washington.

But U.S. policy toward China could have been worse. In establishing his policy toward China in 1949, President Truman also resisted calls from hawkish elements within the U.S. government to arm Chiang Ka-Shek, China's Nationalist leader, who had decamped to Taiwan after the Nationalist loss in China's civil war. An invasion of mainland China — a policy supported by Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, would have led to a situation similar to the Vietnam War — "except 10 times worse," said Peraino.

For all the headaches caused by U.S. policy toward China in the postwar period, it may have been the best of bad options.

Read Asia Blog's interview with Peraino here.


About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.