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Review by Steven I. Levine

America’s Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations. Fourth Edition.
By Warren I. Cohen. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. xviii, 270. $17.50 paper.)

In the three decades since the publication of the first edition of this durable text, Sino-American relations have undergone a sea change. A relationship that was at the margin of U.S. foreign policy through the first half of the twentieth-century has moved toward the center of Washington’s concerns. That change reflects a dramatic rise in the political and economic status of China, particularly in the quarter of a century since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. During that same period, Warren Cohen established his well-deserved reputation as the leading historian of Sino-American relations of his generation. This book has much to offer both newcomers to its subject as well as those who have been studying relations between these two countries nearly as long as the its author. At the same time, the book is not without its weaknesses, and it would be a disservice to Professor Cohen as well as to his readers to pretend otherwise.

The title itself pays puckish homage to John King Fairbank and Ssu-yu Teng’s China’s Response to the West (1954) by tacitly asserting the obverse of their thesis. Where Fairbank and Teng saw a weak China reacting to powerful Western countries, Cohen contends that the United States also often found itself reacting to events in China rather than playing an initiatory role. This simple but profound truth retains its validity through the present. The first five chapters of the book, or roughly half, cover the period from the origins of U.S.-China relations in the late eighteenth-century through World War II. Throughout this entire 150-year history, the U.S. government and the American people did not consider China important enough to warrant much attention, and certainly not to risk war with more powerful countries such as Japan. This inattention and inconsistency of U.S. policy towards China through the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt reflected the paucity of concrete American interests in a country which commanded more sympathy than focused attention. Even the Sino-American alliance of the Second World War derived more from Washington’s concern for Tokyo’s joining the Axis powers than from its Open Door policy to preserve China’s independence and territorial integrity.

The second half of this volume carries the story from the end of World War II through the Clinton administration. Chapter six gives disproportionate attention to the post-war period when Mao Zedong’s Communist forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in a bloody civil war. The rest of the book is given a much more summary treatment. Chapter seven, which covers the Sino-American cold war (1950-1971), is disappointingly thin, and one gets the sense that Cohen authored the last two chapters out of a sense of obligation and opportunity rather than interest. To be fair, the very recent past may not be the proper province of the historian.

Throughout the text, Cohen’s sympathies are evidently with the Chinese who he feels were exploited, ignored, or short-changed by Americans whose professions of sympathy for China were seldom matched by concrete deeds. There is a sharp edge to the author’s judgments about the policies of American leaders toward China, particularly in the twentieth-century. Every president from FDR through Clinton comes in for a good measure of criticism, either for taking China for granted or for kowtowing to one or another domestic interest. He sees the elder Bush and his successor as virtually playthings in the hands of skilled Chinese leaders. Although sharing Cohen’s basic perspective, this reviewer believes a little more credit is due to Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter for normalizing relations with the PRC after more than twenty years of Sino-American cold war. Cohen is no less critical of the current regime in Beijing whose human rights and other abuses elicited what he considers weak American responses. He ends the book on a properly ambivalent note concerning the future of U.S.-China relations, which require the American people and its leaders to accept what does not come easily, namely, uncertainty and unresolved issues.

A consistent strength of Cohen’s book is his presentation of Chinese as well as American perspectives on events and issues in the relationship. So while the book is primarily about America’s response to China, the reader also learns about China’s response to America. The focus of the book is on political and diplomatic interactions. Relatively little attention is paid to economic relations and virtually none to cultural intercourse. Nonetheless, this is an indispensable book that will continue to be read as a wise and literate introduction to its subject.

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