Book Review: A Force So Swift by Kevin Peraino

We’ve all watched with fascination those arrangements where hundreds or thousands of dominoes tumble one after the other to form an elaborate illustration. And who hasn’t somewhat envied the person who got to tip the first domino?

Such concepts aren’t limited to fun or entertainment. Images of dominoes falling were crucial to U.S. foreign policy following World War II. In fact, tipping dominoes became a political question, phrased as “Who lost China?” The fears that a communist China meant other Asian nations would, like dominoes, fall under communist control would, in fact, eventually lead America into the Vietnam War.

A number of books have been written about China becoming “Red.” Kevin Peraino, though, makes this a highly readable excursion in A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949. Peraino’s approach to drawing and keeping the reader in the story of American-Chinese relations in 1949 is by “slipping into the participants’ skins and looking at the dilemmas of 1949 through their eyes.”

Part of America’s problem was that Mao had one objective — to complete the efforts to make China “Red.” As A Force So Swift details, Amerca couldn’t decide on its objective. While a communist China was unanimously seen as detrimental, the well-intentioned but indecisive Harry Truman and U.S. foreign policy were caught up in a variety of factions. Some wanted to continue to support General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists but even they differed on the nature of that support. Others viewed the Nationalist regime as corrupt and saw supporting it as throwing good money (or military equipment) after bad. Additionally, the government was divided on whether it should attempt to work out accommodations with Mao and whether it should diplomatically recognize a Red China.

The fact thousands of Protestant American missionaries went to China in the first half of the 20th century played a significant role in two ways. First, their reports to their churches reached a large audience, helping create a large ”China lobby” in the U.S. For them, a communist China was anathema. Second, as Peraino shows, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was a far more powerful force in her husband in trying to cultivate and maintain financial and military support for the Nationalists. Her father had traveled to the U.S., where he became an ordained Methodist minister and returned to China to spend a few years as a native missionary. She, in turn, was sent to America at age 15 to be educated, eventually graduating from Wellesley College and becoming thoroughly acculturated to the U.S.

As an indication of her role in efforts to influence American policy, the first chapter opens with her arriving in Washington, D.C., in December 1948. The extent of her clout is evidenced by the fact that she not only visited then-Secretary of State George Marshall on the day she arrived but also a few days later — and both times he was hospitalized for kidney disease. While her husband would withdraw from public view for a lengthy period (by coincidence, the same day Dean Acheson succeeded Marshall in late January 1949), she would remain in the U.S. throughout the year, ultimately unsuccessful in generating support for a continued battle against Mao.

Acheson believed any further U.S. role in supporting the Nationalists was doomed to failure. On the other hand, Louis Johnson, appointed Secretary of Defense in March 1949, argued for continued support for the Nationalists. In addition, Congressional support for the Nationalists was headed by Minnesota Congressman Walter Judd, who’d spent approximately 10 years as a missionary in China. Like others, he argued that if Mao was victorious, other Asian countries would fall to the communists.

Truman, like Acheson, thought a wait-and-see attitude toward China was the best. Part of the State Department’s thinking was that by waiting China and the Soviet Union would come into conflict, reducing political conflict between China and the United States. Ultimately, events outpaced the administration. Not only did Mao take over China and find support from the Soviet Union, Great Britain would recognize Mao’s China.

With an established Red China, Congress wanted to know who, particularly in the State Department, “lost” China to the commies. In the eyes of many policymakers, the first domino had fallen. And in formulating foreign policy no one wanted to be the one who lost the next country.

To court Mao or to confront him? Truman did not want to do either.

Kevin Peraino, A Force So Swift

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