The last meeting of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek

Society & Culture

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek held nine private meetings in Chongqing, brokered by an American diplomat, following the conclusion of the Second World War. The two were civil to one another, even as each likely knew that a resumption of fighting was inevitable.

This Week in China’s History: August 28, 1945

For one passenger, it was his first airplane flight. He’d been so nervous that before boarding the plane he paused to kiss his wife — the first and last time he would ever do so in public. His traveling companion — making his second flight in as many days — could not have reassured the jittery traveler when he leaned out the open window of the plane and let out a yell that observers described as “a weird, loud scream as if a predator has gotten its prey.”

Awaiting the first-time flyer at the end of a several-hour flight was his sworn enemy, a man who had been trying to kill him for decades.

What could go wrong?

The nervous flyer was Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. His whooping companion was American diplomat Patrick Hurley, and the waiting nemesis, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí). In This Week in China’s History, we look back to the meeting of these three men on August 28, 1945, to begin talks aimed at resolving China’s leadership crisis in the wake of the Second World War. Mao and Chiang, once formal allies but long mortal enemies, spent weeks together discussing and negotiating China’s future and the relationship between the two parties they led. Under duress and with everything at stake, it was the last time the two would meet.

Described by journalist Richard Bernstein in his 2014 book China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice, China in 1945 was a place where many things happened as predicted, but at a pace and in a manner that left experts befuddled. It was also, as Bernstein’s title suggests, a time when choices were being made, none more fateful than those surrounding China’s leadership.

That Chiang and Mao were negotiating over China’s fate was less of a surprise than the timing and circumstances of the negotiation. When 1945 began, there was little doubt about Allied victory in World War II. The defeat of Nazi Germany looked imminent, although the Battle of the Bulge slowed the process for a time. In Asia, the tide of war had been steadily against Japan for years. Japan would be defeated, it seemed clear, but how, and when, was controversial.

The Civil War between Mao’s Communists and Chiang’s Nationalists had been paused during the fight against Japan, but the two sides remained untrusting and antagonistic. Events like the New Fourth Army Incident of January 1942 showed just how easy it was for conflict to re-emerge.

Allied leaders had contemplated these problems for years at meetings from Cairo to Tehran to Yalta to Potsdam, the last of these taking place after Germany’s fall. They considered the post-war world in great detail, beginning with the defeat of Japan — presumably after an American landing there — and a Soviet invasion of China.

But these plans changed with lightning speed. On August 6, just four days after the Potsdam conference concluded, the first of two American atomic bombs fell on Japan. The existence of the highly-secret weapons had not been revealed even as the Allies planned the war’s endgame. On August 9, more than a million Soviet soldiers invaded Manchukuo, and just hours later the United States dropped the second bomb. On August 15, Japan surrendered.

All the plans for the end of the war now accelerated, or were trashed entirely. In China, the resolution of the national government had been on the minds of diplomats, generals, and politicians for many years, but now events moved fast. Communist armies raced to Manchuria even before Japan had surrendered. Meanwhile, American commanders ordered the Japanese to surrender only to American or Nationalist Chinese forces.

The conflict over China’s politics was playing out on the ground in China, but also in the ranks of America’s diplomatic corps. During the war, American diplomats who had long experience and deep knowledge of China — dubbed the “China Hands” — felt that the Communists were more popular, more competent, and better positioned to lead China post-war. One of the China Hands, John S. Service, put it bluntly: “The Communists are in China to stay and China’s destiny is not Chiang’s but theirs.” Moreover, Service and his colleagues like John Paton Davies and O. Edmund Clubb felt that it was possible for the United States to build a constructive relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, and advised their government to do so.

Patrick Hurley — the larger-than-life ambassador hollering at this column’s start — felt differently. His view was that the China Hands overrated both the Communists’ popularity and their prospects. Hurley’s goal, and expectation, was a united China led by Chiang Kai-shek, and he expected that the Communists could be persuaded to join in that alliance. When he found that the China Hands opposed his view, Hurley worked to marginalize their influence, dismissing many of them from China altogether. (The careers of many of these men were ruined in the McCarthy era, blamed as either communist sympathizers or outright traitors for the “loss of China” to Mao’s Communists.)

So it was with the goal of a Nationalist-Communist coalition, led by Chiang Kai-shek, that Hurley brought Mao to the wartime capital of Chongqing in August 1945.

Despite the history of conflict between Mao and Chiang, the meetings were couched in optimism. Mao famously addressed Chiang as “President” — a sharp contrast with earlier Communist rhetoric — and toasted his counterpart with, “Long Live Chiang Kai-shek!”

The two men had nine private meetings in Chongqing. “They walked side by side in Chiang’s private garden,” Bernstein writes, each wearing “the high-collared tunic popularized years earlier by Sun Yat-sen. Chiang’s was crisp and sleek, Mao’s had a more homespun quality to it.” By the end of their meetings in mid-October, Mao proclaimed that the negotiations had succeeded in avoiding Civil War. Radio Moscow declared “Unity in China.”

The unity that the two sides achieved was spelled out in a “Double Tenth Agreement,” under which the CCP would recognize the KMT as China’s legitimate ruling party, with provisions for elections and multi-party democracy vaguely assured.

In Bernstein’s view, Mao’s meeting with Chiang was a charade, one he had no intention of making good on. The agreement, Mao said, to his allies back in Yan’an, was “only words on paper.” “[Mao’s] visit to Chungking had served its purpose…he conveyed the image of a reasonable man seeking peace.”

What the Chinese Communists gained from the meetings in Chongqing was time. They used it to consolidate their forces in Manchuria, where Soviet occupation enabled them to do so. Harbin, China’s northernmost metropolis (with Russian roots for good measure), became the first CCP stronghold.

Chiang Kai-shek was not foolish, and saw what was happening. Nationalist armies moved into Manchuria to stop the Communist buildup, and fighting resumed in November, even as the Americans tried desperately to broker a peace. Both sides achieved victories before a truce was enacted in January 1946. It lasted a few months before the war resumed in earnest, ending in Communist victory and the founding of the People’s Republic.

If Bernstein is right, there was never much chance that Mao and Chiang’s meeting would result in a real coalition, but it is a tempting counterfactual to consider these two mortal enemies walking in a private garden with a chance to remake China’s future.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.