How Mao Won

In response to:

Was Chinese Communism Inevitable? from the December 3, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Although pleased by Martin Bernal’s laudatory reference to my piece criticizing Chalmers Johnson’s thesis concerning the reasons for the Communist triumph in China (The New York Review, December 3), I disagree somewhat with Mr. Bernal’s own explanation of Mao Tse-tung’s victory. Certainly, the Communists benefited greatly from the popularity they enjoyed among the peasants, to which they owed their survival during the 1930s and early 1940s; however, the fact remains that during this same period they suffered all but utter defeat at the hands of the Kuomintang and, until American pressure in the Pacific compelled Japan to withdraw from China its best troops, were in danger of being destroyed by the Japanese general Okamura’s so-called “kill all, burn all, loot all” offensives. Even after 1945, when the Nationalist armies possessed only a shadow of their former strength, the Communists initially suffered a shattering defeat in Manchuria, as well as major setbacks elsewhere in China and, at least in my opinion, were spared still greater losses only because of monumental military blunders on the part of Chiang Kai-shek, who vastly overextended both his forces and his lines of supply by sending his best, American-trained, troops into Manchuria and then hopelessly demoralized and antagonized a large part of his army by trying to use Japan’s defeat as an opportunity for eradicating the power of not only the Communist but also the many anti-Communist but “non-central” Nationalist commanders whose loyalty to himself he regarded as doubtful.

All of this suggests that in spite of their ingenious ways of translating their popularity among the peasants into military advantages, especially in the realm of morale and logistics, the Communists were unable to win in China so long as they confronted an enemy having a considerably more powerful military force, notwithstanding that enemy’s indisputable unpopularity in the countryside. Mr. Bernal himself acknowledges the key role played by armed might in the rise of the Communists when he notes that their movement flourished chiefly in areas where the Red, later the Eighth Route, Army was most active but then, for some reason, chooses to denigrate the importance of military power in the conclusion to his essay. Like Mr. Bernal, I believe that the Communists enjoyed the support of Chinese peasants and that they acquired this backing because they alone addressed themselves, in an apparently meaningful fashion, to the terrifying economic, social, and political problems which oppressed China’s rural masses; however, it would be unwise for those of us who share this point of view to let it blind us to the vulnerability of such mass movements when opposed by regimes possessing greatly superior military strength, a lesson which, I sometimes fear, is again being tragically demonstrated by developments in South Vietnam.

Donald G. Gillin
Department of History
Vassar College

Martin Bernal replies:

Donald Gillin is an expert on the northwestern province of Shansi—not to be confused with Shensi, its neighbor to the west in which Yenan is situated. He has written an important and fascinating life of Yen Hsi-shan, Shansi’s ruler between 1911 and 1949. There is no doubt that Yen was the most durable and adaptable warlord of his age. In his letter Dr. Gillin writes of the “all but utter defeat [of the Communists] at the hands of the Kuomintang.” However in February, 1936, less than four months after the Communists’ nadir, their arrival in Shensi after the Long March, they were able to launch an attack on Shansi which, as Dr. Gillin vividly describes it, militarily and socially shook Yen’s regime to the core.

The Japanese campaigns of 1941 and 1942 certainly did weaken the Communists’ control of territory and population as well as the size of their military forces. However, Japanese techniques of warfare uprooted millions of people, thus providing the Communists with a reservoir for recruitment and, as Professor Chalmers Johnson puts it, “drove the two—the army and the peasants—into a closer alliance.” Even if the Pacific war had not drawn away many Japanese troops, it seems to me extremely unlikely that they could have conquered the Communist base areas far away from railways and navigable rivers even for short periods, and I am totally convinced that they could not have held them.

The Japanese situation in North China compared very unfavorably with that of the Americans in Vietnam today. Their advantages—well-disciplined and relatively keen troops and no forest cover for the local resistance—were far outweighed by other factors. Firstly, much greater areas and populations were involved. Both were over ten times that of South Vietnam today. Secondly, the Japanese had no helicopters and lacked unlimited air transport and fire power. They were and could only have been genocidal at a tactical level. Strategic genocide, which, I am convinced, was the only way of destroying the Chinese Communists, was beyond their reach. By the 1930s enough Chinese peasants had seen the possibilities of organization, reforms, and the use of force to defend themselves to make it inevitable that Communist groups, guerrillas, and armies would spring up wherever outside authority weakened. An example of this was the extraordinarily rapid organization of the new Fourth Army in central China from Communist guerrillas surviving in a region where remarkably thorough repression had been going on for four years.

In the second part of Dr. Gillin’s letter he implies that if Chiang Kai-shek had not sent his best troops to Manchuria and if he had not tried to crush Yen Hsi-shan and other potential allies he might still have won in 1945. On the first point I feel I must leap to Chiang’s defense. He had to send troops to Manchuria. In war-devastated China the relatively undamaged plant in Manchuria probably made up over 80 percent of Chinese heavy industrial capacity. He was also convinced—wrongly—that the Russians who were occupying Manchuria were working hand in glove with the Chinese Communists. Finally, and in my view this was crucial, Chiang had to be a national leader or he was nothing. If he failed in this he would be seen by China and the world to be a mere warlord. As “leader of China” it was essential he assert himself in Manchuria which foreigners had been trying to prize away from China for the previous fifty years. If he was to stake a claim in Manchuria only his best American trained troops could make good use of the American air transport provided and only these could hope to withstand the Communists.

If Chiang was forced to overextend his military power it is no mere chance that he failed to build a united front of non-Communists. Violent conflict is inherent in warlordism. Lacking a strong positive ideology, and built up on flimsy networks of personal loyalty, it has nothing to make it coherent. Despite his national pretensions it seems to me more useful to look at Chiang as a powerful and immensely skillful warlord. Thus it seems to me to have been inevitable both that Chiang should try to crush his non-Communist rivals and that he should fail to do so.

I agree with Dr. Gillin’s contention that popular mass movements are not always capable of resisting violent repression. There are far too many examples to the contrary. I merely maintain that they cannot be beaten in east Asian countries with a tradition of peasant rebellion in which well-organized revolutionaries have gained support and devotion from large sections of the population. I also agree with Donald Gillin’s important implication that when writing on China in the 1940s we are really thinking about Vietnam today. I further admit that when I want something to happen as passionately as I want the Vietnamese to defeat the Americans, it affects my judgment of events there—and my interpretation of Chinese history. However over the last eight years, predictions of Vietnamese success based on this amalgam of passion and detachment seem to have been borne out by events better than those of men whose passions are on the other side or who claim to be “objective.”

There is one important proviso to my conviction that the NLF will win. That is the question of genocide. If America were prepared to kill more than two-thirds of the population of South Vietnam she could still have a “victory.” Up to now American genocide has been of the Japanese tactical type. Nonnuclear bombing and kill all, burn all, loot all operations that have made millions homeless have only killed a few hundred thousand. But, unlike Japan in the 1940s, America today has the means of strategic genocide. While I am sure that Mr. Nixon would be prepared to kill the necessary ten to twelve million people in order to maintain his faltering prowess, so far outside pressures have prevented this. Let’s try to keep it that way.