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Son of a prosperous peasant, Mao was born in Hunan province on December 26, 1893. Although he worked in the fields from an early age, Mao also received enough schooling to develop an interest in learning. This drew him back to school at age 16. Next, he worked at various teaching jobs and became active in radical student groups. In 1921 he was a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. Soon afterward, he began to develop his theory of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, which deviated from the traditional Marxist-Leninist emphasis on the industrial proletariat.
After the bloody communist fallout with Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, Mao established a base in the southern Kiangsi province. He began to put into practice his ideas about a revolutionary peasantry by way of a guerrilla war against the government. In 1934, Chiang's armies closed in, but the communist forces escaped for their "Long March" to the northwestern Shenshi province. When the Chinese civil war resumed after 1945, Mao and his movement were able to use their rural foundation to outmaneuver and eventually overwhelm the Nationalists. Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
In 1950, China concluded a mutual defense pact with Stalin's Soviet Union, and together Moscow and Beijing supported North Korea in its attack on South Korea. Soviet-Chinese relations deteriorated during the 1950s, when both sides competed for pre-eminence in the world communist movement, particularly in the Third World. Relations during the 1960s were outright tense, and in 1969 the sides even fought a brief border war. The Sino-Soviet split helped Mao's regime accept a normalization of relations with the United States. Although Beijing continued to resent Washington's support for Taiwan, in 1972 Mao welcomed U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing.
Domestically, Mao's record is dominated by two disastrous initiatives:
A broad campaign to organize peasants into communes during the late 1950s that resulted in mass starvation and repression; resulting in tens of millions of deaths. Estimates of the death toll range from 18 million to 45 million, with estimates by demographic specialists ranging from 18 million to 32.5 million. Historian Frank Dikötter asserts that "coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the very foundation of the Great Leap Forward" and it "motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history".
A youth- and army-driven nationwide campaign for ideological purity, again resulting in widespread repression and death. The Cultural Revolution was still sputtering under the leadership of Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing, when Mao died on September 9, 1976, at age 82.
Millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of urban youth to rural regions during the Down to the Countryside Movement. Historical relics and artifacts were destroyed. Cultural and religious sites were ransacked.
Mao officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, but its active phase lasted until the death of the military leader Lin Biao in 1971. After Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, reformers led by Deng Xiaoping gradually began to dismantle the Maoist policies associated with the Cultural Revolution. In 1981, the Party declared that the Cultural Revolution was
"responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic."
June 25, 1950
It is clear, therefore, that Stalin’s support of the North Korean plan to reunify the country through a rapid military assault on the South was not given in order to test American resolve. Just the opposite was true; it was only given after Stalin was persuaded that the action would not risk conflict with the United States. The question then remains, why did Stalin take this risk, which was such a sharp departure from his earlier cautious policy in Northeast Asia?
We see, first of all, that Soviet officials were well aware that conflict was likely to break out at any moment between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. The Foreign Ministry received a steady stream of reports of South Korean officials’ frequent declarations of their readiness and determination to reunify their country through military force.
Moscow also received reports of troop movements and fighting along the 38th parallel.
Stalin’s support of Kim’s plan to initiate this war could thus be seen as a preemptive strike, an attempt to make use of a temporary advantage in “the correlation of forces” to resolve an inevitable conflict in a favorable way.
June 1950 was a propitious time for an attack on South Korea because earlier that year the military capability of the DPRK had been significantly enhanced by the return to North Korea of 14,000 Korean communists who had fought with the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese civil war.
The example of the CCP’s victory in its struggle against another unpopular, reactionary regime supported by the United States also strengthened morale among North Korean communists, encouraging them to believe that they would be similarly victorious.
However, the factors stated above were not strong enough to overcome Stalin’s fear of directly confronting the United States.
We know from the example of the Greek civil war, among others, that at this time Stalin was quite willing to allow a foreign communist party to lose its bid for power if he concluded that Soviet interests would be harmed by direct involvement in the conflict.
Stalin’s decision to support the risky venture in Korea must therefore have been motivated by significant strategic concerns. The documents that will provide conclusive evidence of Stalin’s motives have not yet been declassified, but from information gained from recently published memoirs, it appears that Stalin’s insecurity about his relations with Mao Zedong and about Soviet relations with the PRC led him to approve Kim Il Sung’s reunification plan.
As is well known, since the mid 1920s Stalin’s policies toward the Chinese Communist Party had done more to hinder CCP victory than to aid it. In June 1949 Stalin admitted as much to the CCP delegation in Moscow. That Mao achieved victory on his own, combined with the size and importance of China, gave him a much stronger position vis-à-vis Moscow than that of any European communist leader.
Speaking to Liu’s delegation in Moscow in 1949, Stalin spoke of
“the fact that the Soviet people and the peoples of Europe should learn from your experience. . . . Owing to the arrogance of the leaders of the revolutionary movement in Western Europe, the social democratic movement in the West began to fall behind in its development following the death of Marx and Engels. The center of the revolution moved from West to East, and now it is moving to China and East Asia. . . . It is possible that in comprehending general problems of Marxist theory, we, the Soviet people, are somewhat stronger than you. However, with regard to the application of Marxist principles in practice, we can learn from the great amounts of experience you possess.”
Stalin even went so far as to state that the CCP should not subordinate itself to the CPSU and should not join the Cominform, but instead should form an alliance of East Asian communist parties.
According to the memoir of Mao’s interpreter, Stalin told Liu Shaoqi that
“he hoped to see the Chinese and the Soviets divide their spheres of responsibilities within the international communist movement. . . . As the Chinese had greater influence upon colonial and semi-colonial countries in the East, it would be easier for China to help promote Eastern revolution than for the Soviet Union.”
These statements should not be taken at face value, of course, but they do indicate that in 1949-50 Stalin was involved in a delicate power game with Mao. As Stalin’s representative in China, I.V. Kovalev, put it,
“at the end of 1948, when the prospects of a military victory of the CPC [Communist Party of China] finally became clear, both leaders in all likelihood understood completely that they would have to meet in order to work out a mutual agreement regarding their relations. From this moment on there began a process of mutually active shifting and probing of each other’s positions on key questions.”
Stalin’s humiliation of Mao upon the latter’s arrival in Moscow in December 1949, leaving him in isolation and refusing to see him for the first month of his visit, also testifies to this power play. This was classic “strong man” posturing toward a potential rival; its purpose was to leave no doubt as to who was in charge.
Stalin’s relationship with Mao affected his decision regarding Korea because if Stalin were to refuse to support Kim Il Sung’s perfectly reasonable goal of reunifying his country, which was comparable to what Mao had just accomplished in China, then Stalin would again be open to the charge of hindering the cause of revolution in the East. His position as the leader of the communist camp would be weakened while the authority and prestige of Mao, to whom Kim would obviously turn and who had a blood debt to support the Korean communists, would rise.
More important than the above concern, however, was apparently Stalin’s fear that the PRC would not long ally itself with the Soviet Union. A Russian scholar who has seen the relevant documents has recounted to me that Stalin calculated that even though the United States might not defend the ROK, once it lost South Korea it would not then allow itself to suffer the additional loss of Taiwan. The United States would move in to protect Chiang Kai-shek, thereby preventing a rapprochement between the US and the PRC. Mao would thus be forced to continue to turn to the Soviet Union for economic and military aid. We can test this explanation of Stalin’s motives only after the 1950 documents have been declassified, but from what is now known, it appears quite plausible. Stalin knew the Soviet Union could never match American terms for aid; Soviet negotiations with the PRC over the agreements signed in February 1950 had been as much a matter of haggling over every penny as had been the negotiations with the DPRK, and the pact ultimately concluded was on terms economically unfavorable to the PRC. Stalin knew that Mao had both political and economic reasons for turning away from an alliance with the Soviet Union, and preventing the huge communist state in East Asia from becoming independent of Moscow would have been a sufficiently strong motive for the Soviet leader to risk approving military action in Korea.
In conclusion, although many questions about Soviet policy toward Korea from 1945-1950 remain unanswered, the evidence now available indicates that the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 was not the result of Soviet determination to expand the territory under its control, and it was certainly not the opening salvo in a broader Soviet attack on the American sphere of influence. From 1945 to early 1950, Moscow’s aim was not to gain control over the Korean peninsula. Instead, the Soviet Union sought to protect its strategic and economic interests through the traditional Tsarist approach of maintaining a balance of power in Korea. However, in the context of the postwar Soviet-American involvement on the peninsula, such a balance could only be maintained by prolonging the division of the country, retaining effective control over the northern half.
The North Korean attempt to reunify the country through a military campaign clearly represented a sharp departure from the basic Soviet policy toward Korea. The initiative for this departure came from P'yŏngyang, not Moscow. In the spring of 1950 Stalin approved Kim’s reunification plan and provided the necessary military support, but only after repeated appeals from Kim and only after having been persuaded that the United States would not intervene in the conflict. Conclusive evidence of Stalin’s reasons for finally supporting the North Korean reunification plan has not yet been released, but it appears that Stalin’s motive may well have been to tie the Chinese communists more firmly to the USSR, to prevent a rapprochement between the PRC and the United States. If this interpretation is correct, it means that it was Soviet weakness that drove Stalin to support the attack on South Korea, not the unrestrained expansionism imagined by the authors of NSC-68.
June 25, 1950
But first, how did this situation come to be, only five years removed from the second world war? One need go back to the turn of the century when Japan had won its brief war with China to see why Korea was even in play. China after all had controlled Korea for over 200 years, and when Japan got kicked out following WWII, Mao just may have wanted it back.
The cold war, provides yet another clue as to what was happening in the world, at the time. Stalin had Truman jumping hoops all over the world, in the
The world was in flux, and for the most part dancing to Uncle Joe's tune.
For an accounting of the preceding 150 years, please follow this link:
Background on the lead-up to the Korean War.
June 25, 1950
Halfway around the glove, another force leavened by combat veterans was also on the move. On June 25, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) stormed across the border into South Korea with nine infantry divisions supported by three-tank regiments. Many of the 100,000 invaders had fought with the Soviet army against Hitler or with Mao Tse-tung in the Chinese Civil War.
They were well armed and well trained. Their opponent, the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army, was much less ready for battle.
The United States had equipped the sixty-fie thousand ROK troops with lighter weapons, in part, to prevent the southern President, Syngman Rhee, for carrying out his desire to unify the peninsula by force. They had 105mm howitzers, 81mm and 60mm mortars, bazookas, light antitank guns, scout cars, and machine guns, but no tanks, fighter planes, or heavy artillery pieces.
he greater weight of the NKPA told immediately.
June 26, 1960
The preparatory work was completed by late June and the CCP Central Committee decided that the mission would be led by Liu Shaoqi, who was authorized to discuss with Stalin all important problems concerning the international situation and Sino-Soviet relations. He would introduce to Stalin the considerations underlying the CCP's policy line (especially the CCP's policy of including non-Communist democrats into the CCP-led People's Political Consultative Conference), convince Stalin that the Chinese Communists were not Titoists, and lead the Soviets to a better understanding of China's situation and the nature of the Chinese revolution. He would also pursue practical Soviet support for the Chinese Communist regime, including a guaranteed Soviet recognition of the new China and Soviet military and other assistance. If everything went smoothly, this mission would open the way for a personal trip by Mao to the Soviet Union in the near future.
Mao and the CCP leadership saw Liu's visit as a crucial step in establishing strategic cooperation with the Soviet Union. To guarantee the success of Liu's trip, Mao knew that he had to do something significant and noticeable. So it was not a coincidence that he issued his "lean-to-one-side" statement [6/30/49] only two days before Liu's delegation departed. When Mao praised the Soviet Union as the undisputed leader of the international progressive forces, he had sent out an unmistakable message to Stalin: Now Stalin had no reason to suspect that the CCP leadership shared the thinking of Titoism.
During the CCP delegation's stay in the Soviet Union, they held four formal meetings with Stalin and other top Soviet leaders, touching upon a series of crucial themes.
First, to the surprise and satisfaction of Liu and his comrades, Stalin apologized for failing to give sufficient assistance to the CCP during the civil war. According to Shi Z he's recollection, Stalin asked Liu in the second meeting: "Have we disturbed you [in China's civil war]?" Liu replied: "No!" Stalin answered: "Yes, we have been in the way of hindrance to you because our knowledge about China is too limited." Although Stalin's apology came in a private meeting, Mao and the CCP leadership were deeply impressed by it. Most important of all, CCP leaders viewed this as a clear sign of Stalin's willingness now to treat his Chinese comrades as equals. Later, many top CCP leaders, including Mao, Liu, and Zhou, mentioned Stalin's apology on different occasions, using it as a strong justification for the CCP's "lean-to-one-side" approach.
Second, Soviet authorities immediately took steps to avoid engaging the American forces. On June 26, Soviet ships that had sailed from Dairen were ordered “to return to their own defense zone immediately” and throughout the war Soviet naval vessels stayed clear of the war zone. Third, in an attempt to distance itself from the conflict, the Soviet government refused to approve the fervent requests of Soviet citizens of Korean nationality to join their fellow Koreans in defending their homeland against “the barbarous attack by the American imperialists.”
Third, Liu's visit produced a CCP-Soviet cooperation on the settlement of the Xinjiang (Sinkiang) problem, which was an important and substantial achievement for the CCP. As a strategically important region located in Northwestern China, next to Russian Kazakh, Xinjiang, its northern part in particular, had long been viewed by the Russians as their sphere of influence.
In the late 19th and early20th centuries, several bloody disputes emerged between China and Russia in Northern Xinjiang. After the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, V. I. Lenin's Soviet Russia acknowledged China's sovereignty over Xinjiang, but the Soviet Union had never fully given up its claim of interests there. In November 1944, a pro-Communist rebellion backed by the Soviet Union erupted in Tacheng, Ili, and Ashan, three northern most counties in Xinjiang, and had since controlled that area. When the CCP achieved decisive victory against the GMD in China's civil war in 1949, Xinjiang became one of few regions still controlled by the GMD.
During Liu's visit to the Soviet Union, Stalin told Liu that according to Soviet intelligence reports, the United States was planning to help Muslim GMD forces in northwestern China establish an independent Islam republic in Xinjiang, which, he believed, would be extremely harmful to both the CCP and the Soviet Union. He offered to use the Soviet-supported revolutionary forces in Northern Xinjiang to check the GMD so that it would be easier for the PLA to enter Xinjiang. Then Moscow helped the CCP Central Committee to establish direct contact with the revolutionary forces in Northern Xinjiang by assisting Deng Liqun, the CCP Central Committee's liaison person, to travel from Moscow to northern Xinjiang. Before the PLA finally took over Xinjiang in October 1949, the Soviet Union and Outer Mongolia became the central linkage of communications and transportations between the CCP Central Committee and CCP agents in Xinjiang.
Most important of all, in their meetings Liu and Stalin touched upon problems concerning the international situation and the division between the Chinese and the Soviets of responsibility in promoting the world revolution and Asian revolution. Stressing that a new world war was quite impossible in the near future and that the world revolutionary forces were marching forward and were much stronger than ever before, Stalin expressed the hope that the CCP would play a more important role in pushing forward the rising tide of world revolution, especially in East Asia. He made it very clear that he hoped to see the Chinese and the Soviets divide their spheres of responsibilities within the international Communist movement: while the Soviet Union would focus on the West, China would take more responsibilities in the East. Stalin stressed that he was not flattering the Chinese, but telling the truth. As the Chinese, Stalin believed, had greater influences upon colonial and semi-colonial countries in the East, it would be easier for China to help promote Eastern revolution than for the Soviet Union. Liu, on the other hand, emphasized to Stalin that the Chinese viewed the Soviet Union as the undisputed leader of the progressive forces of the world. He seemed very cautious in acknowledging before Stalin that China would become the center of the Eastern revolution (In Shi'smemoirs, he mentions that when Stalin suggested to toast for "the center of revolution moving to the East and China," Liu refused to make response). But Liu agreed that Communist China would try to contribute more in promoting revolutionary movements in Asia. We may fairly conclude that Liu's conversation with Stalin had produced a crucial consensus: while the Soviet Union would remain the center of international proletarian revolution, the promotion of Eastern revolution would become primarily China's duty.
There is no indication in Chinese sources available today that the Korean problem was involved in Liu's talks with Stalin. Several GMD and South Korean sources mentioned that during the spring, summer and fall of 1949,China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union conducted a series of secret exchanges on military cooperations between them in Northeastern China (Manchuria) and Korea. The CCP and North Korea, these sources alleged, signed a mutual defense agreement in March 1949, after the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's visit to the Soviet Union, according to which the CCP would send PLA soldiers of Korean nationality back to North Korea.
No Chinese sources can prove the existence of the alleged March 1949 agreement. In my interview with Yao Xu, a Chinese authority on the history of the Korean War, he firmly denied the possibility of such an agreement. But we do know now that in July and August of 1949, right around the time when Liu Shaoqi was in the Soviet Union, the164th and 166th Divisions of the PLA's Fourth Field Army, the majority of whose soldiers were of Korean nationality, were sent back to North Korea. Considering the fact that a close relationship existed between the Soviet Union and Kim Il-sung's North Korean regime and that the problem of promoting revolutionary movements in East Asia was one of the central topics of Liu-Stalin conversations, we have no reason to exclude the possibility that the Chinese and the Soviets had discussed such matters as China's support of the Korean revolution and sending PLA soldiers back to Korea during Liu's visit.
June 26,1950 900
MacArthur heartily approved of the administration's decision to intervene though it was an even greater surprise to him, he said, than the invasion but he had many reservations, and some of his assumptions would have alarmed the Blair House planners. He believed that they understood "little about the Pacific and practically nothing about Korea," that they were certain to blunder because errors were "inescapable when the diplomat attempts to exercise military judgment." The President's war cabinet was determined to confine the war, but the new CINCFE believed in the Thomist doctrine of just wars believed that if the battlefield was the last resort of governments, then the struggle must be waged until one side had been vanquished. And while he scorned the military opinions of civilians, he didn't think that soldiers should shirk civil decisions; he had pointedly suggested to Dulles that he was quite "prepared to deal with policy questions." This was more than presumption. He had made such decisions in Australia, the Philippines, and Japan. Few world leaders, let alone generals, were more experienced in governing nations. It is understandable that Washington should want only his military talents in this fresh crisis, but it was unreasonable to expect him, of all men, to leash himself.
The issue was further complicated by his stature among Americans. The GOP might not want him as a presidential nominee, • but he remained one of the most popular military leaders in the country's history. Delighted by his new appointment, Republicans regarded it as a sign that the administration might be veering away from its Europe first policies. The General, they thought, didn't share the liberal conviction that Asian unrest arose from poverty and the rejection of Western colonialism. They were wrong there, but right in assuming that he didn't believe that Peking might be detached from Moscow if the United States courted Mao by abandoning Formosa that he would not, in their words, "sell out" Chiang to "appease" the mainland Chinese. Above all, both U.S. political parties recognized SCAP as a powerful Pacific force whose views about the Far East carried great weight with his countrymen. This was to have grave consequences in the conduct of the Korean War.
Reluctant to offend him, and thereby risk accusations of playing politics while men were dying, virtually all of Truman's advisers, including the Joint Chiefs, including even the President himself, would prove timid and ambiguous in many key directives to him. That was inexcusable. By now they should have learned that if he were free to construe unclear orders, he would choose constructions which suited him, not them. Sebald, the foreign service officer closest to him, observes:
"With his sense of history, experience, seniority, reputation, and temperament, he did not easily compromise when his judgment or his decisions were questioned. . . . He was never reluctant to interpret his authority or to make decisions and act quickly arguing the matter later."