What if the U.S. had backed Mao during World War II? It almost happened

Society & Culture

Taking its name from an American Civil War reference, operation "Dixie Mission" sent Americans into China's "rebel" territory in 1944 — where they were enthusiastically greeted by Mao Zedong and Chinese Communists.

This Week in China’s History: July 22, 1944

Shortly before noon on July 22, 1944, the top Chinese Communist leaders — Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来, Zhū Dé 朱德, and Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 among them — made their way to a seldom-used runway near Yan’an, Shaanxi province.

Yan’an had been the Communists’ base since the Long March of 1934-35, and an essential part of its success was its remote location: at the edge of the Gobi Desert nearly a thousand miles from the closest coastal city. A plane arriving there was rare enough, but what made the occasion truly exceptional were the passengers on board the American DC-3: nine members of the United States Army Observation Group, including diplomats, spies, and soldiers, who had come to Yan’an to figure out whether and how the United States might forge an alliance with Mao’s Communists. The American group took its name from a flawed analogy to the American Civil War: working behind rebel lines, it was codenamed the “Dixie Mission.”

The Dixie Mission almost collapsed before it began: the American plane’s landing gear dropped into a ditch — in some accounts an unmarked grave — causing the fuselage to twist and one propeller to tear into the cockpit, narrowly missing its occupants. But, tragedy averted, the Americans, led by state department analyst John Service and military intelligence officer David Barrett, left the aircraft and were greeted by Zhou Enlai and a military band.

The summer of 1944 was a moment of intense change and profound uncertainty as visions of the future began coming into focus even in the midst of world war. In Europe, the Allied landing at Normandy enabled an advance toward Nazi Germany from the west. The Soviet army approached Germany from the other direction, laying the foundation of the Cold War to follow. In Asia, the Allied advance toward Japan had been slow but consistent for more than two years, and for the first time American bombers were reaching Japan for sustained air raids. An end to the war wasn’t imminent, but at least it seemed possible.

While Allied momentum in Europe and the Pacific was building, there was frustration in China. Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) Nationalist armies had met with defeat after defeat that summer, including losing major cities like Luoyang and Changsha to the Japanese. American aid was essential to supporting China’s war effort, and American leaders — many of whom had grave reservations about Chiang’s administration — worried that American money and materiel were being diverted from offensives that could end the war. As historian Rana Mitter put it in his book Forgotten Ally, “American confidence in the Nationalists was fast dissipating as the Japanese smashed into central China.”

But of course Chiang’s Nationalists were not the only Chinese army fighting against the Japanese. After barely surviving the Long March, Communist forces had recovered in Yan’an, and in 1936 made a tense alliance with Chiang against the Japanese. Employing guerrilla tactics, the Communists scored impressive wins against the Japanese, and they did so with a fraction of the support that the Nationalists had. The remote Communist base was the subject of mystery and rumor, with little direct information.

By 1944, analysts in the United States government were increasingly confident that the Pacific War would end with Japan’s defeat, but what fate would befall China when that happened? Although Chiang remained America’s ally, voices in the state department worried that the Nationalist government, long cut off from its base in the Yangtze Delta and perilously corrupt, might be unable to govern the country after the war, if it could even last that long. Moreover, if the Soviet Union entered the Pacific war, as it seemed poised to do when fighting in Europe ended, Soviet troops and aid would flow to the Chinese Communists, making a fragile ally suddenly a potent adversary.

Facing these two possibilities, the “China Hands” in the U.S. government persuaded Army officials to send a mission to make contact with and assess the Chinese communists in Yan’an. This turned into the Dixie Mission.

The Americans who landed on July 22 were the first half of a task force that would evaluate, interview, and train Communist soldiers. The group also obtained assistance with the war effort, including weather reports that could be passed on to Chongqing and American military commanders and help rescue downed pilots behind Japanese lines. Although an American presence would remain in Yan’an until 1947, it was the first six months — from July 1944 through January 1945 — that were the core of the Dixie Mission.

John Service is perhaps the American most associated with the Dixie Mission. Born in Chengdu to missionary parents, Service was raised in China and, after education in the United States, returned there as a foreign service officer in 1937. An early critic of the Nationalist government, Service’s reports to his superiors were instrumental in sending the mission to Yan’an. Service framed his first impressions of the Communist base by writing of his “conscious determination not to be swept off one’s feet…there must be a catch somewhere.” Yet his assessment was wildly positive. In contrast to the corruption, cynicism, and detachment of Chongqing, Service writes of Yan’an that, “Morale is very high. The war seems close and real. There is no defeatism, but rather confidence. There is no war-weariness.”

Contributing to this morale, the possibility of American cooperation with the Communists seemed strong. American demolition experts gave demonstrations of new explosives the communists could employ in their fight against the Japanese. Promises of American soldiers — to be parachuted into Shaanxi — suggested that a new front might be opened up. Mao proposed that an American consulate be established in Yan’an.

Service concluded his July 28 report with a bold endorsement (using the Wade-Giles romanization for Yan’an): “I think that further study and observation will confirm that what is seen at Yenan is a well integrated movement, with a political and economic program, which it is successfully carrying out under competent leaders. One cannot help coming to feel that this movement is strong and successful, and that it has such drive behind it and has tied itself so closely to the people that it will not easily be killed.”

Service’s prediction that the Communists were likely to prevail proved to be correct, of course, though that did not change American support for the Kuomintang. The Dixie Mission remains a tantalizing “what if” moment. Did politics and personalities lead to a tremendous missed opportunity? Might an American alliance with the Chinese Communists have fundamentally reshaped the 20th century, with implications for not only China and the United States, but for global conflicts like the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War?

Or was Service duped? Land Reform, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution suggest that his vision of a moderate, inclusive movement was naive, and his hopes for a U.S.-CCP alliance was just as unpalatable to the Chinese leaders as the American ones.

Mitter’s assessment is that while Service’s praise of the Communists, and criticism of the Nationalists, had many truths, the Dixie Mission was “not comparing like with like: their long years and inside knowledge of the Nationalist areas were being contrasted with a short and selective visit to Yan’an.”

Just over a year after the Americans landed at Yan’an, the Japanese surrendered. Four years after that, with Chiang’s forces defeated and escaping to Taiwan, Mao was the leader of China. John Service’s reward for predicting this outcome was to be decried as a traitor and blamed for the “loss of China” as a wave of ideological intolerance swept America.

It would be almost 30 years before Communist officials would again welcome an official American delegation.

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