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Nixon's China Game | Article

Establishment of the People’s Republic Of China


When Japan invaded China in 1937, the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung, and the Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, stopped fighting each other and formed an uneasy alliance against their common enemy. For ten years, the Communists and Nationalists had been locked in a bitter struggle for political and military control of China. With the defeat of Japan by Allied troops in 1945, fighting between the Communists and Nationalists flared once more, and soon China was engulfed in a bloody, all-out civil war.

Initially Chiang's forces, backed by U.S. economic and military aid, seemed to have the advantage. But the Nationalists, plagued by mismanagement and corruption, alienated most segments of Chinese society over the next four years. As the Communist forces headed for victory, Chiang began to shift troops and gold reserves to the island of Taiwan, 100 miles off the Chinese mainland. Two months after the inauguration of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing on October 1, 1949, Chiang and the Nationalists installed the rival Republic of China (ROC) as a government in exile on Taiwan. Each claimed to be the sole, legitimate government of all of China. 

American policymakers now faced a thorny dilemma: whether to support their old ally Chiang, or open diplomatic relations with the new Communist government on the mainland. For several months, the Truman administration held off recognizing the PRC, while maintaining diplomatic ties with the Nationalists. But the official "wait-and-see" attitude soon became an explosive domestic issue in addition to a matter of foreign policy. 

The "China Lobby," an influential pro-Nationalist coalition of publishers, businessmen, military generals and Republican Congressmen -- including freshman Senator Richard Nixon -- attacked the White House for being "soft" on Chinese Communism, and blamed the Nationalists' defeat on a handful of allegedly treasonous State Department China specialists. In response, the administration published a "China White Paper." Intended to show that nothing more could have been done to save the Nationalists, it only fueled the critics’ fire. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in particular, backed by the China Lobby, exploited the so-called "loss of China" in his demagogic anti-Communist campaign of the 1950s.

Despite the pressure, Truman held to his "hands-off" policy, announcing in January 1950 that the U.S. would not intervene in the event of another Chinese civil war. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June, however, the U.S. sent naval troops to the Taiwan Strait to prevent expansion of the conflict, and soon began providing economic and military aid to the Nationalists as well. China's entry into the war in November cemented U.S. opposition to the PRC and support for Taiwan. 

The Korean War ended in 1953, but Washington-Beijing relations did not improve. In December 1954, the United States signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of China, which pledged American support for Taiwan against any attack from the mainland. And America's escalating involvement in the conflict in Vietnam only perpetuated the mutual hostility and distrust that would characterize U.S.-China relations for nearly the next two decades. 

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