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Examiner
  • Harry Truman and revolution in China, 1949

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  • Sixty-five years ago, in 1949, the Chinese Revolution swept the communists to power on Mainland China, causing the non-communist nationalists to flee the Mainland and go to Taiwan, an island off the coast of China. The revolution in China had an important impact on the presidency of Harry S. Truman, and its repercussions are felt to this day.
    When President Truman took office in April 1945, he didn't have much time to think about events in China, an area of the world in which he had relatively little knowledge or interest. As a young man, Truman had written about his bias against, and contempt for, the “Chinaman.” Still, China had been an important ally in the fight against Japan during World War II, and President Truman told the Chinese foreign minister that he wanted to see China “emerge strong and prosperous from [World War II] and to become a leading power in Asia.”
    But events in China doomed Truman's vision for the country's future. Shortly after World War II ended, China's communists and its nationalists resumed a civil war that they had put on hold during World War II, when they had united to fight the Japanese invaders. In 1946, Truman sent the esteemed General George Marshall to China to try to mediate an armistice between the communists and the nationalists. Marshall's efforts failed, however, and the government of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek increasingly lost ground militarily and politically, as its popular support eroded due to its corruption, incompetence, and undemocratic nature.
    President Truman was blamed for the communist victory in China. To his critics, the “loss” of China epitomized the weakness of his foreign policy. Republicans claimed that he should have done more to stop the communists from winning and to support Chiang. Truman had sent millions of dollars in economic and military aid to Chiang, who was seen as the best alternative to the communists, but he was hesitant about getting too involved. As he wrote in November 1945, “We are not mixing in China's internal affairs.” Truman refused to commit ground troops to support Chiang.
    Truman refused to recognize communist China as a legitimate government. He wrote, “As long as I am President, if I can prevent it, that cut throat organization will never be recognized by us as the Government of China….” Indeed, U.S. recognition of Communist China did not occur until 30 years later, in 1979. Truman also didn't mince his critical words about Chiang, a “warlord” who he felt had been responsible for the nationalists' defeat.
    Americans had long felt a friendship with China, a feeling that the Chinese reciprocated. For example, the Truman Library's museum collection contains a painting entitled “All the People Jump for the Joy of Peace,” by Chinese artist Peng Youshan. General Marshall saw the painting at an exhibition during one of his trips to China. He liked it very much, and it became a gift to President Truman.
    Page 2 of 2 - China's loss to the communists seemed to be yet another example of communism winning, and democracy losing, in more and more parts of the world. Americans felt the fears that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas expressed in a letter to President Truman in 1951. He told Truman, “The world you and I love is shrinking each year, Mr. President…. The trend against us is alarming.”
    To learn about the other fears that Americans experienced during the early Cold War, we invite you to visit the Truman Library's current exhibit, “Spies, Lies and Paranoia: Americans in Fear,” which is running through Oct.26.
    Sam Rushay is supervisory archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.
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