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Review by James W. White

The China Threat: Memories, Myths, and Realities in the 1950s by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0-231-15924-1 (hardcover), 978-0-231-52819-1 (ebook), xiii+295 pp., $39.50. Kindle edition $19.89.

Professor Tucker’s detailed and insightful study of the Eisenhower administration’s China policy documents and analyzes a very curious case in US diplomatic history. A great many things happened, and at the same time nothing happened. Tucker covers every significant event in US China policy from 1952 to 1960: the end of the Korean War, crises in the Taiwan Straits, the shelling of the offshore islands, treaty-building with SEATO and the Republic of China (ROC), Chinese and US nuclear armament, mutual nuclear threats and diplomatic negotiations, the Bandung Conference, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, the Great Leap, the Sino-Soviet split—it’s all here, with many details on the ins and outs and an exhaustive cast of characters. But after all is said and done, American China policy was pretty much the same thing in 1960 as it was in 1952. All the fire and brimstone, saber-rattling, conniving, cajoling, hopes, fears, and warnings added up to just about zero, policy-wise. In 1960 the People’s Republic of China (PRC or, more popularly, “Red China”) was still unrecognized (by us, at least), still not in the UN, still embargoed, still officially demonized, still rhetorically threatened with attack by Chiang Kai-shek, and still an evil part of the International Communist Conspiracy.

The explanation, in Tucker’s summary of many historians’ arguments, is that Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were simply rabid, apocalyptic, anticommunist brinks men. In her somewhat revisionist view, this perception itself is not completely wrong, but far too simple. She acknowledges that US policy under Eisenhower and Dulles was muddled, simultaneously vacillating and inflexible, and accomplished little that was new or positive. But she also argues that he was not the passive, uninterested person some have perceived, but rather the calculating architect of a US policy that was far more nuanced (a term of which she is fond) than sometimes thought.

And what were Ike’s views on China? According to Tucker, he favored recognition of and more trade with the PRC, thought that the PRC was here to stay and would inevitably join the United Nations, saw no Chinese threat to the US, opposed “regime change” and “unleashing” Chiang (whose machinations and manipulations he detested), was intent on avoiding war, and even recognized the pluralism of a communist system in which China might play the role of rival to Russia.

Well, OK. But if this is all true (and Tucker makes the case persuasively), then why were his views almost never reflected in US policy or in Eisenhower’s public words or actions? Her explanation lies in two areas: priorities and constraints. Ike—and almost all of those advising him, after the McCarthyite decimation of the State Department—was a confirmed Europeanist, with little knowledge of or intrinsic interest in China. He was indeed staunchly anticommunist, but for him—shaped by his experiences in SHAEF and then in NATO—the major arena of conflict was Europe and the major adversary was the USSR. He was determined that nothing in Asia would be allowed to deflect attention from this.

However, Eisenhower was also subject to numerous constraints, which threatened the exercise of his personal views insofar as they might have had positive effect on China policy. A mercurial American public opinion fanned constantly by the hysteria of the China Lobby and its ROC clients (or patrons?), a divided press, and his own innate racism prevented him from actualizing his own preferences time after time. He despised the Republican right wing, but even as he adeptly gave himself freedom of action by neutralizing it, he never challenged it; indeed, “threw a bone to” or “caved in to” might be better terms than “neutralized.”

The upshot? For eight years US policy, albeit increasingly hallucinatory (China? Oh, it’s the ROC, that little island lying off the Asian mainland. And what of the mainland? Also part of the ROC, albeit contested for the moment by some bandits), did succeed insofar as a number of really dangerous confrontations in the Straits were defused, World War III was avoided, channels of communication were established, Chiang was bottled up, and the Vietnamese can was kicked further on down the road. But the process of reconciliation with the PRC ironically begun by Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, might have begun almost 20 years sooner if Ike had had a little more courage or a little more recognition of the importance of China in the world both in and of itself, and as a counterweight to Russia.

So how does Tucker evaluate Eisenhower? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her subject, she is ambivalent. She infers more flexibility and change, realism, and good sense in his China policy than the public record usually implies. I think she also credits him for his preference for alliance-building, covert action, and calculated (albeit scary) nuclear brinksmanship over open warfare. And he also had what were to him exceedingly more important fish to fry than China. But if his approach to China was nuanced, it was nuanced to the point of ineffectiveness. Two stories come to mind: in the 1930s some Japanese Army officers were planning a coup in Tokyo, but it was crucial that they have the at least the acquiescence of the commander of a tank unit in the capital. Not sure where he stood, they sounded him out, subtly and elliptically. Their hints and overtures were nuanced—so nuanced, in fact, that he remained unaware of what they were planning. Thinking that they had his tacit agreement, the coup leaders moved; the commander rolled his tanks, and the coup folded. The other story concerns Senator J. William Fulbright, as staunch a liberal internationalist abroad as he was a segregationist at home. One day someone asked him how he could be so liberal internationally and retrograde domestically. The senator responded, “Do you like your job?” “Yes, I do,” came the reply. Fulbright: “Well, I like mine too.” How much credit should we give Eisenhower for views he never had the inclination or courage to put into effect? Tucker credits him with maneuvering around the PRC, manipulating the ROC, and capturing the Republican right wing and the China Lobby, thus restoring and then largely preserving peace in East Asia. But is he then beyond criticism for accepting non-recognition of the PRC, letting ROC revanchism fester, and never standing up to the Right? Do we accept the relative importance of the European fish to which he gave priority? Perhaps—giving in to one last metaphor—Eisenhower’s China policy was like an iceberg: for fully eight years massive, monolithic, and formidable where visible, but melting away beneath the surface, until it required only a Ping-Pong game to overturn it completely.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

James W. White
James W. White

James W. White is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in the politics of East Asia. He is the author, translator, or editor of ten books, primarily on Japan, and has published essays in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, Comparative Politics, the Journal of Asian Studies, and the Journal of Japanese Studies, inter al.

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