The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad

By Walter Lafeber | Go to book overview

15
The Big Turn: The Era of the
Korean War (1949-1952)

TWO SHOCKS AND A NEW WORLD

In early summer 1949, Americans could believe that victory in the cold war was within their grasp. They like their wars, hot or cold, the same way they like their baseball: easily understood, brief, and with a definite score at the end so that it is clear who won. By the end of 1949, however, two events—the conquest of China by Communist forces and the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb—so shocked Americans that they were still dealing with the results decades later.

Truman and Acheson had long known that China was lost. "We picked a bad horse," the president wrote privately in 1949. Chiang Kai-shek's ( Jiang Jieshi's) Nationalist ( Kuomintang or KMT) government "was one of the most corrupt and inefficient that ever made an attempt to govern a country." 1 Acheson and the president tried to prove that point by publishing a State Department white paper with vast numbers of diplomatic documents from 1844 to 1949. The white paper argued that the KMT was rotten and—more importantly—that nothing more the United States might have done could have saved Chiang. Republicans attacked Acheson for letting Chiang be driven back to the island of Taiwan by Mao Zedong's ( Mao Tse-tung's) Communist armies. No serious critic, however, ever urged the only policy that might have saved the KMT: dispatching a mammoth U.S. force to China.

Giving up on Chiang as he fled to Taiwan did not mean embracing

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