My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Very good, but couldn't quite give it a fifth star.
First, yes, 1945 was the "key" year precisely because Stalin invaded Manchuria as part of entering the war against Japan, and established the old Russian hegemony that Japan had ended in 1905. That was a key to Mao's win.
But, Bernstein covers more than that. A full one-third of the book is, if not pre-1937, at least pre-1941. And, parts of it, such as the Marshall Mission, are post-1945. All of this is good, and necessary. However, it means the title isn't quite accurate, especially on the subheader.
"America's Fateful Choice" really didn't happen until 1946. That's when Marshall's Mission clearly wasn't going to succeed, and we faced the choice of whether to do what we actually did — give Chiang reasonable backing but no blank check, versus giving him a quasi-Vietnam blank check, versus cutting a deal with Mao sooner, versus trying to knock both of their heads together even more forcefully, which is an option Bernstein doesn't even mention.
That said, while 1946, not 1945, was the year of America's choices, it's arguable that neither year may have been the most crucial, from a purely Chinese perspective.
Instead, try 1936, because of an incident mentioned in this book.
The Xian incident is where Chiang was arrested by Marshal Zhang Xueliang, a former warlord of Manchuria, and Commander of the North Eastern Army. Zhang and other Kuomintang generals forced Chiang into a second National Front with the Communists.
However, it could have turned out far differently. Zhang reportedly originally planned to hand Chiang over to Mao. Mao would then presumably have executed him. However, when he asked Stalin for official permission, Uncle Joe said no.
Why? He feared a Japanese attack against the USSR. He knew a China strong enough to at least partially defend itself lessened that possibility, and he didn't think a China with Chiang removed, which likely would have left the KMT dissolving back into warlordism and Mao's Communists by default as the government of China, could have resisted Japan at all.
And, he was right.
Let's say Mao killed Chiang, and the KMT then fell apart. Japan, of course, did move south from Manchuria just months later, and Mao's Communists, who over the next eight years inflated for Western audiences the degree of their resistance to Japan, would have indeed been on the spot. And they likely would have wound up with the same opprobrium as Chiang's Nationalists.
That said, and speaking of this, while we had no easy options with China, Bernstein gets two things very right:
1. Nobody (at least in the US) "lost" China. Mao and Stalin won it.
2. The old China hands, while right about our tough choices, were naively wrong in extremis about the Chinese Communist Party.
On my critiques, besides changing the header and subheader of the book's title, Bernstein would have served readers well with an additional 50-100 pages.
Bernstein deserves one other kudo. And, that's pointing out how the whole "imperialist lackey," "running dogs" and other vomitoria of Chinese Communist dialectic dialogue started in this era, and also how, related to this, Chinese Communists, from Mao to today, have shown themselves to be totally trustworthy at one thing — not being trustworthy.
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