This is the first in a four-part mini-series of articles focused on key counterfactuals in the Asia-Pacific.
History, paraphrased by the British historian Niall Fergusson in Civilization, can be taught in many ways. Lamenting the lack of proper context and structure in British sixth-form school history classes, Ferguson quotes the playwright and actor Alan Bennett: “There is a trilemma in history teaching today. Should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty or is it just one … thing after another?”
One often underestimated but immensely popular form is the “What if?” form, or counterfactual history. Often derided as mere fiction, or in the words of the historian and international relations scholar E.H. Carr “mere parlor games,” plausible counterfactual history can in fact be very useful. It can be a tool to enhance the understanding of history and make it come alive. It can reveal, often in stark detail, how the world could, or even should, be. History is the literature of what has happened; counterfactuals can lead to the questioning of long-held assumptions.
A great place to start reading contrafactual history is the Collected What If?, edited by Robert Cowley. It includes over 20 essays written by authors like John Keegan, Stephen E. Ambrose, and Caleb Carr. This is the first of the the Diplomat’s four holiday counterfactual articles which will be presented over the next few weeks.
What if Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomingtang had won the Chinese Civil War?
In The Collected What Ifs?, distinguished Professor Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania argues that in the spring of 1946, the Nationalists could have militarily defeated the communists under Mao Zedong. Late in 1945, after the Japanese surrender, Chiang had begun to airlift his battle-hardened, U.S.-equipped troops to Manchuria, where the Chinese Red Army (not to be confused with its Soviet namesake) had made its main base.
The communists resisted but, having avoided the worst of the fighting against the Japanese during World War II, were quickly defeated by Chiang’s veteran troops. Many of these men had been fighting for several years in the China-Burma-India (CBI) campaign, and were led by well-trained (and, for a change, mostly non-corrupt) officers. The Nationalists were able to decisively defeat the Red Army at a month-long battle in Sipingjie in May 1946, occupying Southern Manchuria. Lin Biao, one of Mao’s favorite generals, threw 100,000 conscripted factory workers into the path of the advancing Nationalist army, to little avail. The suburbs of Harbin, the gateway to the north, had been reached by the advancing Nationalist units by early June.
However, at the moment of victory, Chiang called a halt. This proved to be a fatal a mistake from which the Nationalists never recovered. Within three years, the communists reorganized and counterattacked, eventually pushing Chiang’s forces out of China proper to Taiwan. The reason for this can be summarized in two names: U.S. President Harry Truman and George C. Marshall. Both these men were undoubtedly great statesmen, but had little experience in navigating the “snake pit of Chinese politics.”
After several failed diplomatic missions (notably the Dixie and Hurley missions), Truman sent his heavyweight secretary of state, General George C. Marshall, to negotiate a coalition government between Mao and Chiang. Marshall ultimately become famous for his ability to inspire his subordinates and build bridges between conflicting personalities, as well as the Marshall Plan, a keystone of Europe’s post-war economic recovery.
However, Marshall was completely unprepared for the political situation that met him in China in 1946. Although Chiang was dependent on the Americans for military aid and support, that hardly meant he trusted them. Much of this was not Marshall’s fault. Chiang’s trust in the U.S. had been severely strained by his sour relationship with General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the U.S. commander in the CBI theatre. (As Jay Taylor writes, Stilwell basically hated Chiang due to his perceived corruption and incompetence, calling him “the Peanut,” and at one stage requested that the Office of Strategic Services plan an assassination of the Nationalist generalissimo.)
Marshall requested that the Nationalists call off their offensive in Manchuria, or risk losing American support. Chiang reluctantly agreed. His shocked generals begged him to be allowed to capture Harbin, which might have dealt a knock-out blow to the Red Army. On the other hand, the Nationalists’ supply lines were stretched perilously thin, and a continued advance could have exposed their flanks to the sort of guerilla tactics that Mao’s forces were so adept at. In any case, this represented the last chance the Nationalists had at defeating the communists militarily.
What if Chiang had either ignored Marshall’s request, or what if the Truman administration had never requested it in the first place? These questions are the first order counterfactuals in this hypothetical scenario.
The Soviet Union had invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the twilight weeks of the Pacific War. Under the Soviet Red Army’s protection, Mao’s forces were given weapons and allowed to reorganize in late 1945. This represented a crucial move for Mao’s forces, as their previous headquarters in Yanan was strategically isolated from the most populous parts of China. However, the Soviets were on speaking terms with the Nationalists as well. When Chiang asked Moscow to withdraw its troops from Manchuria by May 1946, the Soviets obliged, perhaps, as Tanner suggests, reassured by American and British guarantees of the preservation of Soviet interests in the region.
Looking into our contrafactual crystal ball, several possibilities arise. If it had been possible that the Nationalists were able to overrun Manchuria as quickly as Chiang’s generals promised, China might still be under the Kuomingtang (or some derivative) today. However, it is far from certain that Stalin would have accepted the wholesale conquest of Manchuria by Chiang’s regime. The KMT had enormous problems trying to govern China in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps China would have fragmented again, as it had so many times during its history.
If Chiang had elected to ignore the Americans’ request, the Cold War and the present day might look very different as well (here we get into second- and third-order counterfactuals). While the KMT were on relatively good terms with the Soviet Union, it is perhaps more likely to believe that Chiang would have gravitated either towards the U.S. or a non-aligned movement. This could have meant that China would have been integrated in the post-war U.S. order, in essence becoming another South Korea, or might have entailed a looser association, as for example the U.S. and France.
Another aspect of the hypothetical path is the differences that could have occurred within China’s domestic politics. Would humanitarian disasters on the scale of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution have occurred without Mao’s regime? Probably not, but considering Chiang’s record of human rights abuses and authoritarian leadership, China, under Nationalist rule, could have suffered some serious internal challenges all the same. Chiang was not exactly an ardent advocate for human rights and democracy.
How China’s economic development might have progressed under Chiang is another interesting hypothetical. Historically, the KMT on Taiwan was able to spark a remarkable economic recovery, becoming one of the so-called “Asian Tigers” by following the “Developmental State” model. Could the Nationalists have recreated this on the mainland if they had been victorious over Mao’s forces? There are many variables—most notably the vast difference in size between Taiwan and the mainland—but that the CCP has been largely able to achieve breakneck economic growth since the late 1970s at least indicates that it is possible. Another alternative is that China would have stagnated due to the KMT’s endemic corruption and mismanagement, ending up as a poor country even today.
Another interesting scenario is that Moscow and Washington could have pressured Chiang and Mao into accepting a division of China, much like Korea or Germany. In this case, there is a possibility that China would have become another ideological battleground of the Cold War. For one thing, Communist China might have been much more dependent and aligned with the Soviet Union than it historically was. The renowned scholar Chen Jian of Cornell University argues the case that Mao was in essence a nationalist ideological warrior; it is far from certain that he would have accepted a division of the country. However, parts of the CCP leadership conceivably could have, which might have led to him being deposed in a Soviet-backed coup. As the Brezhnev doctrine later proved, Moscow had no compulsions about deposing supposed client rulers who didn’t fall in line.
How this would have been resolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union is an interesting question. If the KMT had been able to keep the country together and been able to develop economically, perhaps Nationalist China would have absorbed its communist neighbor, as happened in Germany. Or maybe our contrafactual “People’s Republic of China” would have become another North Korea: belligerent, dangerous and desperately poor.
History is learning about what has been. That does not mean that it’s impossible to think of history as it could have been or even should have been. Only by making some plausible assumptions about what would have happened if history had taken a different path than it actually did is it possible to understand the full implications of the present day.
Please share your thoughts on this counterfactual scenario in the comments, but do keep in mind The Diplomat‘s comments policy.