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China Crosses the Yalu

January 29, 2010

Allen S. Whiting. China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War. New York: MacMillan, 1960.

Jeremy Brown (2004)

Allen Whiting’s China Crosses the Yalu is the result of Cold War cooperation between academics and the United States government to “understand the enemy.” A former member of the social science division at the RAND Corporation, Whiting wrote the book at the behest of the U.S. Air Force. Nonetheless, China Crosses the Yalu offers valuable insights on the origins of Chinese intervention in the Korean War.

One of Whiting’s main hypotheses is that Chinese leaders were extremely reluctant to enter the Korean War. Only after China had exhausted all political and diplomatic measures, Whiting holds, did Chinese troops finally cross the Yalu in October 1950. Whiting concludes that the American decision to cross the 38th parallel, advance to China’s Manchurian border, and unite all of Korea under United Nations control gave Chinese leaders little choice but to intervene. Chinese troops fought to protect Chinese national security, he writes, not as automatons following orders from the Soviet Union. Whiting draws upon Chinese propaganda and official statements to warn against American “miscalculation” and “failure in communication,” and argues that the United States failed to grasp China’s resolve to defend its borders (pp. 168, 172). In Whiting’s final analysis, China’s military successes in Korea bolstered the Communist regime both at home and abroad.

Because his source base was limited to official Chinese sources, Whiting’s findings are highly speculative. Indeed, more recent studies like Chen Jian’s China’s Road to the Korean War (1994) have drawn upon newly released archival material to flesh out the Chinese leadership’s decision-making process. However, even given the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to dispute Whiting’s contention that while China’s leaders did not welcome the Korean War in 1950, they took maximum advantage of the opportunities offered by the war.

In fact, recent scholarship largely overlooks several important factors highlighted by Whiting, particularly Sino-Soviet concern about American rearmament of Japan and how the Korean War permanently postponed the invasion of Taiwan. Considering the anti-communist atmosphere that prevailed when Whiting wrote China Crosses the Yalu, his attempt to analyze the months leading up to October 1950 from the “rational” perspective of Chinese leaders is remarkably even-handed. While later events would throw Mao Zedong’s rationality as a decision maker into serious question, it is important to avoid projecting the radical utopianism of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution backwards to the 1950s transition period.

Whiting begins the book on shaky ground with an ill-advised chapter on the factors that shaped the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy. The book’s main chapters tracing the path to full-blown Sino-American military confrontation contradict Whiting’s characterization of the Party as an isolated band of revolutionaries who had “xenophobic attitudes with expansionist tendencies” (p. 2). Whiting’s depiction of China’s diplomatic restraint in the face of a major security threat actually portrays a sophisticated, cautious regime.

Contemporary reviews of the book were quite mixed. Almost every reviewer faulted Whiting for his shaky sources. In a China Quarterly review, Chalmers Johnson assailed the book for its superficial analysis, jargon-laden writing, and lack of new information on certain unanswered questions about the Korean War. Johnson was particularly rankled by Whiting’s lack of emphasis on the phenomenon of Chinese nationalism, and complained that the book’s “usefulness is greatly restricted by major defects” (9.1, 1962, pp. 200-204). Although China Crosses the Yalu has problems and is clearly a product of its time and political environment, more recent scholarship has failed to invalidate Whiting’s insights about what the Korean War meant for China.

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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