Paul Varg’s The Closing of the Door: Sino-American Relations, 1936-1946 explains the shift in relations between America and China as a result of World War II and the rise of the Communist regime. Having written numerous books on American foreign policy, Varg is a specialist in United States diplomatic concerns. Before the start of the Second World War, America was focused on expanding its commercial interests in China. As war ravaged China’s economic system, inflation caused issues with the exchange rate. The United States turned towards military affairs by trying to keep the Japanese from becoming the largest and strongest power in Asia. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the United States shifted its focuses to politics by trying to unify China under Kuomintang rule. Relations between the Kuomintang and the United States were fairly amicable because they seemed to espouse democracy and skillfully kept their autocratic ways hidden behind the veil of a willingness to cooperate to receive American aid. Relations between the Chinese Communists and the United States were always strained because of the American people’s aversion to anything Communist-related. But Varg states that “understanding the other man’s values is necessary”1 in foreign relations. Because the United States never made an effort to understand the Communists, America was unable to accomplish its goal of unification.
The United States wanted to make sure its interests in China were secure. The American public wished to pursue China economically, religiously, and strategically. The Open Door Policy of 1899 showed America’s desire to establish economic connections with China. Missionaries created an important religious tie with China. The threat of Japan disturbing the balance of power in Asia was the cause of America’s strategic interest in a strong, unified China. The United States hoped a unified China would become a stabilizing factor in Asia. Franklin Roosevelt’s policy of neutrality was to avoid conflict with Japan from 1933 to 1938. As the threat of war with Japan became imminent, the United States and China were mutually disillusioned by “false expectations, differences in priorities, and misunderstanding.”2 China expected that American support in the struggle against Japan would turn the tide in China’s favor, but America’s first priority was defeating Germany before focusing on the Japanese. Misunderstanding was shown by the difference in enemies–the primary enemy of the Chinese Nationalists was the Communists while the primary enemy of America was Japan. China did not have the technology it needed to carry out a war against the modern military power of Japan, so Americans glorified Chinese determination and unity in the face of an enemy. China faced the problems of inflation, enlistment, and mobilization. In 1943, the Chinese army was poorly fed, trained, commanded, and supplied. The lack of provisions led the Kuomintang to steal from the peasants, leading to a hatred of soldiers among the people. The Kuomintang “had forgotten the very substance and method of democracy.”3 When the American public found out about the situation in China, the gap between the countries widened.
The United States needed China’s support when attacking the Japanese on the mainland and Chiang, the Nationalist leader, needed American funds to buy Chinese warlords’ support; however, China was unable to form the united government the Americans hoped for. The poverty of China and the limits of Chiang’s political control led to weakness in the Kuomintang army. For the Nationalists, the Communists were an enemy more dreaded than Japan. Americans strongly believed that the Soviets were to blame for the Communist takeover in China. But in reality, Mao built the Communist party based on peasants because they had the greatest potential for rebellion because of their wealth in numbers. He used his forces to help farmers resist the Japanese and used their extreme nationalism to turn against the uncompromising United States. Communists promised equality for everyone, claiming that they were more democratic than the Nationalists. The Kuomintang focused on economic nationalism and pushing out foreign investments, so they “were seen as laggards in the war against Japan”4 and their support diminished. The Communists forces went into the masses, helped farmers fight back against the Japanese through guerilla warfare, and treated people with respect, something that the Kuomintang troops neglected in their dealings with the people. America had questions about Japan’s strength and the Communists were willing to give answers. This exchange of information was the high point in Communist China and America’s relations. The Nationalists were unwilling to form a coalition government with the Communists. They wanted to maintain their one-party rule, knew that the Communists would win in a struggle between the two, and were well aware of the fact that the Communists enjoyed much more public support than they did.
America’s biggest blunder in Sino-American relations was its decision to continue the Kuomintang regime after it lost all public support. The United States wished to preserve the Chiang regime because Americans saw the possibility of civil war as dangerous. War could “result in a divided China”5 that would be vulnerable to foreign nations trying to take advantage of its weakened state. The United States was especially worried about Soviet intervention in the Communist stronghold in Manchuria and Northern China. But the “inner drive of civil war in China was enough to propel it”6 to war, and it did not need any support from foreign nations. Chinese Communists did not need the Soviets to start their revolution. In fact, there was little evidence that the USSR provided China aid because its own national interests took precedence over the Chinese civil war. The Communists won the support of the masses, promoting democracy, speaking for the public, and claiming to understand their needs. For the United States, it was easier to be hostile towards the Communists than attempt to comprehend their fierce nationalism and hatred of capitalism. America’s greatest concern was that if China was taken over by the Communists, it would become “a puppet state of the Soviets.”7 The Soviets had the potential to disrupt the balance of power and destroy America’s hope of creating a stong China that would have a balancing effect in the Far East.
The United States found that the Nationalists were not as democratic as it had hoped, but they still gave more hope for freedom than the Communist regime did, so Americans continued to give them aid. In reality, the Nationalists were only interested in preserving their one-party domination of the government. The Nationalists’ hunger for sole power led to their unwillingness to compromise with the Communists. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s right-hand man, continued to make efforts to show Marshall and the United States that they were ready to negotiate, but their gestures did not elicit a response from America. The two controlling parties–the Kuomintang and the Communists–were still unable to cooperate and form a coalition government. Fear and distrust lingered between the two. The Marshall Mission was successful in “sharply reducing hostilities, planning for reorganization of the armed forces, and making recommendations for a new government.”8 Marshall was hopeful that China would make changes and that the Kuomintang and the Communists would come to a mutual understanding, but it did not ensue. But the Kuomintang carried on their undemocratic ways and military campaign “under the guise of willingness to negotiate.”9 The Nationalists kept up their act, hoping that America would come to their aid. Mao criticized the American government for “seeking to reduce China to colonial status and an appendage of US capitalism.”10 The Communists attacked the Kuomintang by appealing to nationalism and associating them with a foreign power–the United States. Ultimately, America was unable to unite the Chinese.
Varg’s thesis is that America was unable to fully understand the Chinese, so it was unable to realize that a single government under the Nationalists was impossible. Most people had a shallow grasp of “the nationalistic fervor that caused the Chinese to look upon all on foreigners as intruders.”11 The world only got a small glimpse into this patriotism during the Boxer Rebellion. In reality, the Chinese were the only ones who were able to truly recognize the complexity of this feeling. The years of imperialism, that deprived China of its individuality and self-determination, pained the nation. Mao was able to harbor this patriotism and use its strength against both the Japanese and the Kuomintang. America always feared that the Soviets would provide aid to the Communists. The United States was largely ignorant to the fact that although the seed of Communism “may have been Russian, the present Communist crop has grown on rich Chinese soil.”12 American qualms were irrational. The success of the Chinese Communists was not reliant on Soviet support. America largely underestimated the large difference in goals of the Kuomintang and Communists “and the irreconcilability of their dogmatically held convictions.”13 The Kuomintang was more interested in keeping foreign economic investments out of China, while the Communists were more interested in earning public support. In the end, the Communists proved that the public can bring victory to those who they support and failure to those who they oppose.
Paul Varg was influenced by the ideas of New Left historians. He believed in the idea of pluralism, or the existence of many different ethnic groups. The writer’s ability to stay somewhat impartial in his account of the struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communists shows that he has embraced the sense of acceptance and recognition of other nationalities. The author wrote his dissertation for his PhD on William Woodville Rockhill, the United States diplomat who wrote the Open Door Policy. Varg was influenced by Rockhill’s belief in that all foreign nations “must avoid infringement of China’s national integrity.”14 The author argues that the United States should not have interfered in the Chinese Civil War because Chinese affairs were Chinese affairs, not United States affairs. The American public’s belief that the United States should not “take action that could be seen as interfering in the affairs of another nation”15 also influenced the author’s views. For Varg, America’s biggest mistake in China was its decision to interfere in the domestic struggle for power between the two rival parties. The author allows the reader to ponder the fact that the United States would never be able to fathom the circumstances in China; therefore, the United States would never understand that the Chinese were no longer interested in anything other than jingoism.
Violence and political unrest of the 1960s caused New Left historians to focus on conflicts and prejudices. The emergence of women and minority movements in America threatened the homogenized image of a society in consensus. Varg examines the inability of the United States to realize that the Kuomintang was not going to perpetuate the United States’ commitment to democracy, to accept the fact that the “Communists would win in the struggle”16 against the Nationalists, and to understand the values of the Communists. Mao successfully stole the hearts and minds of the Chinese public. Although Varg does not denounce the United States’ decision to continue aiding the Kuomintang, his willingness to try to understand Communist values reflects his belief in the idea of pluralism. New Left thinkers emphasized pluralism, the existence of many races and ethnicities. The author makes the reader understand that Americans will never realize the sufferings of the Chinese under colonialism.
Paul Varg is clear in his assertion “that the United States did not “lose” China.”17 The author finally makes it clear to the public that China was not America’s to lose. He is successful in ridding the reader of the ridiculous myth of Truman “losing” China to the Communists. He pushes through the point that Americans knew nothing beneath the surface of the hardships the Chinese faced. James M. McCutcheon praises The Closing of the Door as a “balanced, scholarly narrative.”18 Varg emphasizes the goals of the Communists, the Nationalists, and the Americans, giving each an equal, but different voice. The author’s mistake is the fact that he leaves questions unanswered. He does not address why America so strongly believed the Chiang regime was capable of unifying China. This is a central issue in this book because he looks at both Americans’ inability to relinquish the fight in China and the Kuomintang’s inability to gain public support. The Kuomintang’s lack of public support should have been reason enough for the United States to stop fighting a losing battle. Americans knew that the Nationalists had no chance of winning after Communists captured the hearts of the people, so why did they continue to provide aid to the Nationalists? Varg leaves this question unattended.
The Closing of the Door provides the reader with a thorough understanding into the intricacies of the Nationalists, the Communists, and the United States. Although Americans tend to think of the Kuomintang government as a largely-supported, democratic institution, Varg reveals to us that the Kuomintang “had lost all credibility in its own territory.”19 This revelation helps the reader understand how the Communists were able to defeat the Nationalists even though the United States offered its support to the latter. Varg also helps the reader understand why the United States bothered to intervene in China. The United States was interested in China becoming a “friendly and peace loving…stabilizing force in the Far East”20 to ensure that balance of power was not ruined by the Japanese. Varg’s thesis echoes throughout the book, making it very effective. Varg continuously references the United States’ underestimation of the division between the Kuomintang and the Communists and the powerful jingoism that grew to be stronger than any army. Varg makes it clear that Americans could not have stopped Communist takeover and that America did not know anything about the hearts and desires of the Chinese.
Paul Varg’s The Closing of the Door relates to the civil rights movements of the 1940s because of its recognition of the patriotism of the Chinese. The pride that the Chinese felt was stolen from them by the Japanese and imperialist nations who were unwilling to look at China as anything other than a commodity in their economic games. This pride parallels the pride of the African Americans that was stolen from them by racist Americans who were unwilling to see this minority as anything other than slaves or subordinates. Varg’s ability to present the view that the Communists “were more democratic than the Nationalists,”21 even though this criticized American policy, shows that he opened his eyes to new ideas. This reflects the African American and women’s movements that opened the public’s eyes to the injustices they suffered because of their race or gender. Although gender was not touched upon in Varg’s book, race is hinted at. The Chinese had always been suppressed by imperialist European nations that were hungry for the economic and territorial gains that China had to offer. China was ready to take its stance and develop a uniquely Chinese government. The people were through with being suppressed, just as the African Americans and minority groups in America were.
American involvement in China’s own domestic battle was unsuccessful because of America’s shallow knowledge of China’s strong beliefs. The United States’ intervention in Chinese affairs not only failed to accomplish the goal of a unified government under Chiang, but also “created lasting ill will and distrust”22 between the Chinese and Americans.
1. Varg, Paul A. The Closing of the Door: Sino-American Relations, 1936-1946. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1973. ix
2. Varg, Paul A. 32.
3. Varg, Paul A. 80.
4. Varg, Paul A. 128.
5. Varg, Paul A. 166.
6. Varg, Paul A. 170.
7. Varg, Paul A. 218.
8. Varg, Paul A. 252.
9.Varg, Paul A. 277.
10.Varg, Paul A. 289.
11.Varg, Paul A. 3.
12.Varg, Paul A. 111.
13.Varg, Paul A. 292.
14.Varg, Paul A. 17.
15.Varg, Paul A. 243
16.Varg, Paul A. 130.
17.McCutcheon, James M. "The Closing Of The Door (Book Review)." American Historical Review 80.2 (1975): 532. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 May 2013.
18.McCutcheon, James M. 532.
19.Varg, Paul A. 165.
20.Varg, Paul A. 27.
21.Varg, Paul A. 209.
22.Varg, Paul A. 292.