The Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and Dean Acheson were exact contemporaries, born in 1893. But while Acheson enjoyed a comfortable boyhood and moved rather casually through Groton and Yale, Mao left school at thirteen to help with the family farm, married at age fourteen (and was widowed at seventeen), and in 1911 joined the Republican army in its quest to unite and strengthen China. When he was twenty years old Mao, who came from the rural province of Hunan, returned to school and came under the influence of a teacher named Yang, who inspired in him a passion for reform, a strong ethical sense, and an enthusiasm for exercise, generally taken in the nude. When Yang got a job at Beijing University, Mao went north with him. It was the young farmer's first time out of Hunan.
He took a job as a clerk at the university library and came to know a corps of intellectuals who published an influential magazine called New Youth, which became the literary centerpiece of an inchoate but determined reformist movement that emerged following the formal end of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a republic in 1912. Sun Yat-sen, a Japanese-educated radical from Canton, was the movement's leading political light, but his faith in republicanism was not shared by some young Chinese who sought the end of class oppression. Li Dazhao proclaimed an interest in Marxism and endorsed the Bolshevik revolution. Hu Shih, who had a degree from Cornell, was a literary critic who wrote on women's liberation. Mao was not in their intellectual circle, but the yeastiness of the Beijing scene plainly affected him.
Mao returned to Hunan and the city of Changsha in the early spring of 1919. He thus missed the great urban demonstrations of 4 May, out of which would flow reformist currents that would dominate China for the next thirty years. But Mao contributed a small tributary of his own. He taught history at local schools. And he edited a journal called the Xiang River Review, for which he wrote nearly all the articles. His writing heralded the forthcoming "liberation of mankind," which would arrive when people lost their fear of those who ruled them and the superstitions that held them in thrall. When the local warlord stopped publication of the Review, Mao shifted to another journal; when it, too, was suppressed, he wrote for Changsha's biggest newspaper.
On 23 July 1921 thirteen Chinese and two members of the Soviet-sponsored Comintern (one Dutch, one Russian), met in Shanghai for the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao Zedong was among them. After days of discussion the Congress decided that it should devote its efforts to organizing the working class, putting off plans to mobilize the peasants and the army. The capitalists would be overthrown and "social ownership" of land and machinery would ensue. Buoyed by these resolutions, and presumably in agreement with them, Mao returned to Hunan to begin building a mass movement.
He organized workers and orchestrated strikes. Mao did not attend the Second Party Congress meeting in July 1922, but he soon after learned that the party, nudged by the Comintern agents, had decided to enter into coalition with the Nationalist, or Kuomintang, Party, then headed by Sun Yat-sen. Communists were instructed to form "a bloc within" the party. In this way, they would work alongside the bourgeois elements in China to overthrow the feudal oppressors, all the while securing their bonds to the working class and awaiting the revolutionary situation that would someday emerge in the country. Mao dutifully joined the Kuomintang. Certainly the Communist decision to create a United Front with the Kuomintang seemed reasonable at the time and was consistent with Marxist doctrine. The Kuomintang under Sun was a militant organization, sympathetic to workers and willing to help them strike for their rights. Nor were there many Communist Party members in China, and the party was broke. The Communists could decide their ultimate course as events unfolded.
Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, and leadership of the Kuomintang, and thus the United Front, was grasped by Chiang Kai-shek, a general who was commandant of the United Front's military academy. In the spring of 1926 Chiang led his forces north out of Canton, determined to destroy the power of local warlords and unite the nation under United Front rule. Communists marched alongside Kuomintang troops, but even more important were the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organizers, among them Mao, who were assigned to prepare the way for Chiang's soldiers. The men and women of the CCP served as agitators, turning peasants and workers against their local regimes in order to soften them up for the expedition forces. Alarmed at the success of CCP organizers in mobilizing workers, Chiang decided to purge the United Front of its Communists, thus purifying the Kuomintang ideologically and eliminating any awkwardness about power sharing in the future. Chiang's purge was bloody everywhere, but particularly so in Shanghai, where Kuomintang troops killed thousands of their recent allies in April 1927. As the ideological cleansing spread westward, Mao found himself the de facto leader of a demoralized peasant army whose ranks dwindled daily. Increasingly isolated, he moved his remaining supporters to a mountainous area on the border between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.
His force, as he noted at the time, consisted of "ten thousand messy people." The description was not altogether disparaging. In 1927 Mao had written a report on the peasants in two Hunan counties. Contrary to the Comintern view that peasants were benighted and thus unlikely revolutionary tinder, Mao discovered that the country people were doing a remarkable job of radicalizing and organizing themselves. The Communist Party was at a crossroads: it could continue to deny the revolutionary potential of the rural masses, or it could break with Moscow-inspired orthodoxy, take its place at the revolutionary vanguard, and guide the peasants to victory. For Mao the second road seemed best; however, this decision put Mao at odds with the Comintern and Stalin.
Under pressure from Kuomintang forces, in 1930 Mao and his peasants moved to a new border base and created a government in what they called the Jiangxi Soviet. Mao's grasp of power now slipped. He fell seriously ill several times. In 1932 the national CCP leadership removed to Jiangxi, and the bosses pushed Mao to the side. It was they who decided that the Soviet had become indefensible, and that the Communists would have to leave, though exactly where they would end up was unsettled. Thus began the Long March, an event that would assume legendary status among the Communists, especially as the passage of time dimmed memories of its horrors. Some eighty-six thousand people left Jiangxi in the fall of 1934, Mao among them, though without a leading role. Harried by Kuomintang troops, exploited by the locals, frozen, hungry, and sick, the Communists lost marchers at an alarming rate. As the former Soviet leaders were blamed for the debacle, Mao's star rose. By the time the remnants of the column—only eight thousand people—reached far off Shaanxi province a full year after its departure from the Soviet, Mao was back in charge.
The Communists made their new headquarters in the town of Yan'an. Living in caves carved into the sere hillsides, they worked to create their version of a just society, to include some land redistribution and respect for the local peasantry. Mao was the acknowledged leader in these efforts. He insisted that intellectuals learn from rather than teach the masses. But he abandoned sociology in favor of political theory that he represented as unassailable.
In July 1937 the Japanese forced a clash with Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, then used the incident as a pretext to launch a full-scale assault against China. The Japanese attacked the major eastern cities, took Shanghai, then drove Chiang's Nationalist Kuomintang out of its capital at Nanjing, committing appalling atrocities as they did so. The spreading war forced Chiang to reinstitute the United Front with the CCP. Mao welcomed this step, though he understood that it was born purely of expediency; once the Japanese were defeated, he knew, war between the parties would resume.
Nationalist and Communist troops frequently fought hard against the Japanese, but they cooperated minimally and kept a wary eye on each other. When the war ended in August 1945 Japanese troops remained on Chinese soil. The Americans, who had sent representatives to Yan'an during the war and had encouraged the maintenance of the United Front, were nevertheless determined to help Chiang regain political and military superiority. They gave weapons to the Kuomintang, ferried its troops north to accept the Japanese surrender and thus their weapons as well, and kept Japanese soldiers armed in order to prevent Communist advances. The Russians, for their part, ushered Communist troops into Manchuria in the wake of their own departure. Thus did the Cold War come implicitly to China.
Hoping to prevent the resumption of civil war, President Truman sent George Marshall to China in late 1945. Marshall wanted a coalition between the Communists and the Nationalists, a desire that was as sincere as it was unrealistic. Mao, whose postwar position seemed weaker than Chiang's, proved cooperative, agreeing to remove Communist fighters from southern China and accepting in principle Marshall's proposal for a unified Chinese army. Chiang balked at nearly every American suggestion, preferring to pursue his war against the Communists. When a discouraged Marshall left China in January 1947 he labeled Chiang "the leading obstacle to peace and reform" on the scene. Yet the Americans would not abandon Chiang. He was, the Truman administration judged, the only hope for a united, noncommunist China.
Mao may have hoped for a more genuinely balanced U.S. policy but he could not have been shocked when the Americans sided with Chiang. Never, despite his pretensions, a sophisticated political theorist, Mao soon proved his abilities as a battlefield strategist. He maintained high morale and fought relentlessly and without quarter. Within each new area seized from the Kuomintang, Mao instituted land reform, with the understanding that the beneficiaries in their gratitude would become eager recruits for the Communist army. Beginning in the fall of 1947 CCP forces won battle after battle against the Kuomintang. On 1 October 1949 Mao declared in Beijing the founding of the People's Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, taking with him the remnants of the Kuomintang government and vowing to reconquer the mainland.
China desperately needed help. There had been a flicker of hope of establishing a diplomatic relationship with the United States. Even after the failure of Marshall's mission, Mao had signaled that he would welcome American assistance, and Mao's compatriot Zhou Enlai, who would become premier of the People's Republic, had seemed even more willing to make overtures to Washington. But in June 1949 Mao had given a speech in which he declared the need for China to "lean to one side" in the Cold War, specifically toward the Soviet Union. Mao's pronouncement did not ensure that the Soviets would embrace the Chinese Communists. Stalin had all along treated the Chinese revolution as an odd and ominous strain of the species, and he remained ambivalent about its prospects even after the CCP had won. Mao came to resent the widely held perception that he was Stalin's junior partner in revolution, and he was not reassured by the treatment he received when he arrived in Moscow in December, seeking a new relationship with the Kremlin and a good deal of economic aid. He got far less than he had hoped for with the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship signed in February 1950.
Mao's most important goal was to consolidate the revolution at home, which required the establishment of Communist political legitimacy and economic policies that would eradicate poverty. He was also intent on liberating Taiwan from Chiang; without this step, the revolution would remain unfinished. Stalin promised no help, but when the Americans indicated their disinterest in defending the island, Mao began to concentrate his forces along China's southwest coast in preparation for an attack across the Formosa Strait. But Kim Il Sung moved faster. Having received Stalin's permission to go to war, Kim came to Beijing in May 1950, seeking Mao's blessing as well.
Mao was unenthusiastic about Kim's plans and asked him to reconsider. Kim refused. In the end Mao offered Kim a green light but promised nothing in the way of help, and Kim did not then pursue the matter, figuring he was likely to win quickly or that the Soviets would give him any assistance he needed. Mao was also surprised when the Americans intervened to halt the North Korean attack and placed their fleet in the Formosa Strait. The United States, Mao decided, was determined to destroy the People's Republic, and had taken its first step toward doing so in Korea. In response Mao began redeploying troops to northeast China near the Korean border. In September, following Douglas MacArthur's successful landing at Inchon and the subsequent rout of the North Korean army, Mao wrote to a Manchurian comrade: "Apparently, it won't do for us not to intervene in the war. You must accelerate preparations."
On 16 October Chinese units crossed the Yalu River in force. Mao professed confidence in their ultimate victory. Once the Chinese had bloodied U.S. forces in battle the American people would demand an end to the conflict. Privately Mao looked for additional help from the Soviet Union. Stalin was not at first forthcoming; he evidently wanted to test Chinese determination, and he remained wary of antagonizing the Americans. But as the Chinese routed UN forces and gave every indication that they intended to stay the course, Stalin relented, putting Soviet warplanes into action over Korea in mid-November.
Military stalemate came in Korea by the spring of 1951. The negotiations toward ending the war then dragged on for two frustrating years. During this time Mao used the war to rally people to the CCP. He mounted campaigns aimed at rooting out "counterrevolutionaries," crypto-capitalists, and Kuomintang sympathizers. His own power grew. By 1953 he was not only chairman of the Communist Party but also chairman of the People's Republic of China itself and in charge of its armed forces. Stalin's death in March left Mao unrivaled as a source of revolutionary wisdom and experience. He became the leading symbol of the communist Cold War, dispensing advice to would-be revolutionaries throughout the world, rattling sabers at the capitalist powers and their "running dog" allies, and threatening, as always, to absorb Taiwan.
The relationship between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, tense during the best of times, deteriorated rapidly following Stalin's death. Nikita Khrushchev, who ultimately succeeded Stalin and who exposed some of Stalin's crimes to the world, found Mao cruel and megalomaniacal. At a time when Khrushchev was seeking to coexist with the United States, Mao seemed always to be courting war. In Moscow in 1957 Mao, according to Khrushchev, told Communist Party delegates that they should not fear "atomic bombs and missiles." If the imperialists started a war China might "lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we'll get to work producing more babies than ever before." The Russians present were appalled. The following year Mao confronted the United States (for a second time) over the status of Quemoy and Matsu, two Nationalist-held islands in the Formosa Strait. Having precipitated a crisis Mao then backed down, which suggested to Khrushchev that the Chinese leader was better at creating confrontations than he was at resolving them. (Mao would say the same thing about Khrushchev following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.)
By then the breach between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union was total. The Russians found intolerable Chinese abuse of Soviet advisers sent to help China develop its oil and build an atomic bomb, and in 1960 the Soviets removed their people. Mao, meanwhile, was incredulous that the Soviets would sell advanced MIG jets to India in 1962, given the friction that existed on the border between China and India. For his sixty-ninth birthday that year, Mao wrote a poem that contained the defiant lines "Only the hero dares pursue the tiger,/Still less does any brave fellow fear the bear." It may be presumed that Mao himself was the "hero," even more contemptuous of the Russian bear than of the paper tiger of imperialism.
As ever Mao's Cold War abroad directly affected his domestic policies. In 1958 Mao inaugurated a program of economic acceleration called the Great Leap Forward, in which all farm cooperatives would be joined into twenty thousand enormous communes and in which the nation's steel production would be increased through the efforts of workers who would erect blast furnaces in their backyards. Mao also announced a campaign to "let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thoughts contend." This seemed encouragement to Chinese to write or say anything, even if it was critical of their government. Both policies proved catastrophic. The Great Leap Forward resulted in a famine that killed twenty million in 1960–1961. Intellectuals and journalists who took seriously Mao's invitation to let flowers bloom quickly found themselves branded as "poisonous weeds" by an orchestrated "anti-rightist" campaign. Mao grew increasingly dictatorial and unpredictable.
He also seemed to withdraw from the battlements of the Cold War. He continued to support revolution around the world, and he was helpful in particular to the North Vietnamese in their war with the United States after 1965. China, not the contemptibly revisionist Soviet Union, would summon what Mao called "the mighty revolutionary storm" in the Third World. But Mao had never been greatly interested in affairs beyond China's borders, or he was circumspect about China's ability to control them. He did not leave China for the last twenty years of his life. It is too much to say that he mellowed, but he nevertheless came to understand that the world was changing. Seeking to offset the emerging détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, Mao invited President Richard Nixon to China. The two men met on 17 February 1972, shaking hands in front of a thicket of cameras in Mao's study. Mao apologized for his slurred speech and waved away Nixon's compliments. The policy implications of the visit were left to men other than Mao to sort out. Still, Mao enabled the meeting to take place, and he, along with Nixon, could take credit for initiating the first improvement in Sino-American relations since the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
Like other cold warriors, Mao Zedong, who died on 9 September 1976, left a mixed legacy. He was one of those responsible for introducing ideology into the realm of foreign policy, for defining opponents as enemies, for menacing others with his rhetoric, for maintaining large military forces and authorizing construction of an atomic bomb. Yet like the others, in the end Mao granted pragmatism primacy over ideology in foreign affairs. That he regarded the Americans as imperialists would not stand in the way of cultivating them if that proved necessary to preserve China's security and well-being in an increasingly complicated world.