Skip to content

Myths and Missed Opportunities

May 1, 2010

Myths and Missed Opportunities: The Possibilities of Sino-American Accommodation in Scholarship on Early 1950s China

Dahpon D. Ho

If a rickety bridge still existed between China and the United States after the Chinese Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949, the fortuitous outbreak of the Korean War sent its splinters crashing down into the chasm below, not to be repaired for over two decades. In his Search for Modern China, historian Jonathan Spence laments the North Korean aggression of June 25, 1950 as a tragedy for shattering the “apparent harmony” between American foreign policy and that of the newly formed People’s Republic of China (Spence 1990, 528). The ensuing war “reinforced Chinese perceptions of the evils of Western imperialism [and proved] the implacable hatred of the United States for China and the Chinese people”; on the other side, it ushered in a “corrosive period of domestic American anticommunism,” revulsion and fear that “precluded any firm or fresh look at American-Chinese relations for over a decade” (Spence 1990, 531-2).

Implicit in Spence’s description of the Korean War as a critical blow to Sino-American relations is a sense that the real calamity was not simply the loss of life, but the loss of an opportunity for cooperation and a shared historical destiny between the two nations and their peoples. This can be seen in Spence’s assertion that “the longer-range tragedy was that China had lost all hope of the ‘new democracy'” (Spence 1990, 533). A key query in Spence’s mind seems to be: what great things might have been possible had the American and Chinese governments come to terms in the early years of the People’s Republic?

In fact, this question is not a new one. Since the 1940s the work of John King Fairbank reflected an underlying faith in Sino-American friendship and mutual understanding that was frustrated mostly by ignorant governmental policies and accidents of history. Historians like Michael H. Hunt have also traced the old dream of a special U.S.-China relationship from its nineteenth-century origins to its influence on popular and official rhetoric well into the twentieth century (Hunt 1983). In the 1970s and 1980s the debate over whether American policy toward China had bungled a real opportunity to befriend the Communist regime swung largely in favor of the so-called “lost chance” thesis. In the 1990s and as recently as 2001, the idea that the United States had “lost a chance” in China has been challenged by new evidence (Chen 1994; 2001). In looking at several works on early 1950s China and the possibilities of Sino-American accommodation described (or refuted) therein, I am interested in how the authors’ personal views and the state of U.S.-China relations at the time of publication might have influenced their different interpretations. The purpose of this essay is to touch on some of the ways in which political views and agendas may help explain shifts in the historiography on the early 1950s.

Combating Ignorance: Early Works on the 1950s

Perhaps no single book has been as profound an exponent of the “special Sino-American relationship” as John King Fairbank’s 1948 work The United States and China (and its three subsequent revised editions in 1958, 1971 and 1981), which was “for at least two decades the standard general introduction to China and American China policy” (Hunt 1983, 299). An influential scholar and teacher, Fairbank was, according to Edwin O. Reischauer, “more than anyone else responsible for the vigorous development of Chinese studies in the United States” (Fairbank 1981, xi). In Fairbank’s work one can see a constant concern for promoting Sino-American understanding. Underlying his efforts seems to be a belief in the intertwined historical destiny of the United States and China, a vision of mutual respect and cooperation that had been thwarted throughout much of recent history by ignorance and regrettable historical circumstances. This we can see clearly in the preface to his 1981 revised edition of United States and China: “I aimed in writing this book to explain China to Americans so they could live in peace and friendship” (Fairbank 1981, xiii). Spence’s aforementioned lamentation of the Korean War tragedy and the lost opportunity for Sino-American accommodation may have been influenced by Fairbank’s humanistic views. This relationship seems all the more understandable given that Spence studied Chinese history with Mary C. Wright, a brilliant scholar at Yale University and a close colleague to whom Fairbank dedicated his book China Perceived (Fairbank 1974).

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Fairbank agreed with the basic premise of the “lost chance” theory: it was primarily “the ignorance and ineptitude” of American policy and not inherent enmity between the Chinese and American peoples that squandered the opportunity for Sino-American rapport in the 1940s and early 1950s (Fairbank 1981, 457). Moreover, it is clear that Fairbank, writing in the Cold War era, was motivated by a personal political agenda to combat American ignorance about China. Frustration with hotheads on both sides of the Pacific during the 1950s was a theme that colored Fairbank’s scholarship on late imperial China as well. In his 1953 book Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast, Fairbank deplored the vicious cycle of ignorance and fear that hampered the Qing dynasty’s response to Western contact. In an implicit critique of the attitudes of the 1950s, when he was writing the book, Fairbank concluded that the Qing government’s disdain for barbarians, “like the more recent occidental belief in oriental inscrutability was based on the same sort of ignorance that makes things Chinese still unfathomable in the West. It inspired in China a fear of the unknown Western menace comparable to the later Western fear of the Yellow Peril” (Fairbank 1969, 177). The Korean War blunder was to Fairbank a prime example of how the struggle between pro-Communist expansionism and anti-Communist expansionism colored everyone’s thinking about China with ignorance, speculation and prejudice. “Today anyone who feels himself quite free from bias,” he asserted, “is obviously a fool” (Fairbank 1981, 358-9). As he later elaborated in his book China Perceived, the whole Cold War against China in the 1950s was fundamentally mistaken and unnecessary, based as it was on an “utter misconception of Chinese history and the Chinese revolution – [a] quagmire of errors” (Fairbank 1974, 30). Here we can catch a glimpse of how a tragic war and the experience of oppressive domestic politics induced a leading academic to lash out against perceived – and sometimes dangerously real – ignorance and misunderstanding.

Fairbank was hardly the only contemporary observer to decry the blundering U.S. policy in China in the early 1950s. The late Derk Bodde’s Peking Diary (1950) and Allyn and Adele Rickett’s Prisoners of Liberation (1957) are examples of astute American commentaries that laid open the possibilities of productive Sino-American exchange while criticizing the government for its failure to capitalize on them. Writing his epilogue in May 1950, one month before the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, Bodde rather prophetically argued that relations between the United States and People’s Republic were hindered by American misunderstanding, with possibly dire consequences. He cited Fairbank’s 1948 edition of The United States and China to illustrate that modern China was bound to develop her own path and was not to be brought into the Soviet, American, or any other foreign power’s orbit against the demands of her own inner development. Bodde added that by refusing to deal with Communist China on the grounds that it was a Soviet satellite, the Truman administration was pushing the gears of a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The more we shout dire predictions, the more we make it probable that what we fear will come to pass” (Bodde 1950, 268). As a firsthand observer of the Communist victory in Beijing, Bodde found himself at odds with the “Washington view of the world” and demanded that U.S. policymakers’ statements on China be compared with those of “American educators and others who know present-day China at first hand” (Bodde 1950, 270). His wide range of contacts with Chinese individuals in Beijing – before and after the Communist takeover – suggested possibilities of Sino-American interaction at a more basic level than diplomacy.

The appeal of Bodde’s diary lies in the immediacy of his analysis, which speaks directly to major issues of concern in his experience at the time. In a sense, Bodde’s account is all the more powerful because it lacks the benefit of hindsight that Fairbank had in updating and revising his United States and China. The influence of the early 1950s political climate in America is evident in Peking Diary. Bodde’s final chapter, “A Plea and a Warning,” expressed his forebodings about the “growing uniformity of public utterance which masks, but fails to conceal, similarly growing feelings of fear, uncertainty and inner contradiction on the part of many” (Bodde 1950, 273). Prisoners of Liberation, Allyn and Adele Rickett’s 1957 memoir on their experience of internment and thought reform in China, is similarly forceful because of its strong personal voice. Allyn Rickett’s account of his mixed feelings about U.S.-China relations is a case in point. While his initial favorable encounter with Communist soldiers in Beijing elicited his respect for their honesty and enthusiasm for the revolution, Rickett wrestled with the notion that the Communists were dangerous enemies with whom open political warfare was necessary. At the same time, he agreed with what would later become the cornerstone of the “lost chance” theory: after the bitterness over American support for the Nationalists was resolved “it would be only natural for the Chinese Communists to incline toward friendly relations with the United States” (Rickett 1957, 27). Like Bodde, Rickett was continually frustrated because “every major move made by Washington with regard to China seemed to undermine what little good will we had left there” (Rickett 1957, 34). Agreement on the possibility of Sino-American accommodation and frustration with American policy in the 1950s seem to be common threads in the works of Fairbank, Bodde and the Ricketts.

However, one further issue that is notable about these early works on 1950s China is the preoccupation with self-reflection and self-understanding on the part of American individuals. There is an emphasis on individual relations at a much more basic level than official state relations. The battle against ignorance was also construed as a movement for self-knowledge. This is clear in the Ricketts’ book, where the focus is on the efficacy of thought reform for transforming each individual – and by extension, society. Under the “glaring light of self-criticism,” for example, Allyn Rickett discovered that “by contributing to the widening gulf between our people and the Chinese, I had been doing the United States a great disservice” (Rickett 1957, 265). The emphasis on the affinities between the Chinese and American peoples, rather than their governments, is worth noting – the possibility of understanding between Chinese and Americans, or between any of the diverse peoples in the world, is more about individual transformation of consciousness and mutual efforts to achieve a moral outlook on life than it is about state intervention. Of course, the Ricketts’ memoir was written as a rejoinder to criticisms of thought reform as “brainwashing,” and thus had a specific political message. Nevertheless, one need not look long and far for such personal concerns in the other two books. Derk Bodde did not limit his concerns to state policies, but rather expressed deep worries about the “inner insecurity” of the American people in general. “Worst of all,” Bodde wrote almost on the eve of the Korean War, “we appear to be losing our own self-control and self-understanding” (Bodde 1950, 273). Fairbank, too, wrote about mankind’s uncertain future and the need for the American and Chinese peoples to “find some common ground in their understanding of their common history” (Fairbank 1981, 452). Perhaps a combination of foreign policy dilemmas, increasingly right-wing domestic politics, and feelings of insecurity or failure regarding the China problem was at work in shaping the historiography of China in the early 1950s.

Sino-American Rapprochement and the Appeal of the “Lost Chance”

The spring of 1971 was famous for its “Ping-Pong diplomacy” and the beginning of a new phase in Sino-American relations. It was a time of exciting new possibilities and uncertainties for the futures of the United States and China, but it also resuscitated a host of old questions for scholars and heads of state. A. Doak Barnett’s 1971 book A New U.S. Policy Toward China sought to overcome “two decades of mutual fear and hostile interaction” by discussing some of the major issues in a compact and accessible form (Barnett 1971, 4). Rapprochement between the United States and the People’s Republic would clearly be desirable, pondered Barnett, but would it be possible? What was the legacy of the past? What would be required to overcome that legacy and to test whether a truly improved relationship could be achieved? Was the timing right for major changes in American toward policy China, and if so, what kinds of policy changes were desirable? (Barnett 1971, 2)

In his attempt to address these concerns, Barnett clearly sympathized with the “lost chance” theory and maintained that the Korean War was a fundamental turning point for Sino-American relations. However, he complicated the issue by making the Chinese side accountable as well for the failure of Sino-American accommodation in the 1950s. He wrote: “On various occasions, in fact, each side made decisions that provoked fear and anger on the part of the other, and both, therefore, share responsibility for blocking mutual accommodation and for creating the conflict and confrontation that ensued” (Barnett 1971, 4). What Barnett suggested was that during the late 1940s and early 1950s there were several occasions where one side or the other appeared open to the possibility of greater contact, but that in each instance the opposite side failed to respond. Thus, in World War II and the immediate post-war period, the Communist forces had been amenable to American aid, but U.S. policy rebuffed their overtures. In the case of American involvement in the Chinese civil war, Barnett argued that the U.S. government did alienate the Communists by supporting the Nationalist side, but that one must also give credit to Washington’s eventual decision to terminate its involvement in the civil war. In fact, Washington moved cautiously toward eventual accommodation to the reality of the Communist victory, and although it did not recognize the new People’s Republic immediately, “Washington did take steps which – if the Chinese Communists had chosen to respond in a conciliatory fashion – might well have initiated a process of interaction that could have led to the establishment of relations” (Barnett 1971, 7).

Why did Barnett’s study depart from those of his predecessors and assert the mutual failure of accommodation? It may be profitable to look at Barnett’s political agenda and the state of Sino-American relations at the time. Barnett’s objective was to argue for “a new China policy for the 1970s, a policy based on current realities and aimed at normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China.” At the same time, he stated that “our goal must be to stimulate a process of mutual accommodation” (Barnett 1971, 124, my italics). To admit the existence of American policy mistakes in the 1950s was an important concession for improved Sino-American relations, but it seems that Barnett also wanted to ensure that the accommodation was two-way. China would have to examine its own past and confront the history of its own failures to compromise with the United States as well. In 1971, when the possibility for rapprochement was only in its incipient stages, Barnett may have wished to be careful not to go too far in repudiating or criticizing past American policies. At such an early stage it might have been premature – and probably historically inaccurate, given the multifaceted nature of diplomacy – for the State Department to accept complete responsibility for two decades of severed relations. As Barnett made clear, the proposed changes to American policy should “clearly indicate the desire of the United States to avoid provocation, yet without providing Peking any encouragement for ‘adventurist’ policies” (Barnett 1971, 127-8).

Few if any such qualms appear in Warren I. Cohen’s 1980 book America’s Response to China, in which the Truman administration’s hardening of anti-Chinese policy is explicitly labeled as “The Great Aberration.” Cohen writes: “The great aberration in American policy began in 1950, as the people and their leaders were blinded by fear of Communism and forgot the sound geopolitical, economic and ethical basis of their historic desire for China’s well-being” (Cohen 1980, 221). Cohen agrees with the “special relationship” theory, which has been explained as a theory that posits a shared historical destiny between the United States and China based on “American benevolence, Chinese gratitude, and mutual good will in Sino-American contacts” (Hunt 1982, x). In Cohen’s view, there was no need for the United States to become China’s principal enemy in 1950 – the aberration, the lost chance, was America’s decision to turn away from its traditionally benevolent quest for a strong, independent China firmly grounded in American ideas and principles (Cohen 1980, 220). Writing in an era of closer U.S.-China ties, Cohen is able to accept the “lost chance” theory, with its implication of bungled American policy, in a much fuller fashion than Barnett did in 1971.

A similar trend can be seen in Robert A. Kapp’s Communicating with China, written over a decade after the Nixon-Kissinger demarche of 1971. With Sino-American relations “maturing rapidly,” Kapp writes confidently, “the icy silence of the fifties and sixties appears [in retrospect] as an interruption of a longer, more continuous dialogue” (Kapp 1983, 1). Again, there seems to be an implicit assumption of a lost chance and an historical affinity between China and the United States, as evinced by Kapp’s reference to “the tangible, poignant sense of bonds renewed, of opportunities wasted, and of lost time to be made up” (Kapp 1983, 1). Historiography on the possibilities of improved Sino-American relations in the early 1950s period, when looked at from the lens of the 1970s and 1980s, was certainly influenced by the hopeful euphoria of the decade in which they were written.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: