Odd Arne Westad. Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. xii + 413 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-4484-3; $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-4478-2.
Reviewed by Jill S. Russell (Ph.D. Program, Department of History, George Washington University)
Published on H-War (December, 2003)
Finding Decision: Redefining the Key Moments in the Communist Victory in China
Finding Decision: Redefining the Key Moments in the Communist Victory in China
Often relegated to the interesting but not determinative category, the Chinese Civil War is given new attention in Odd Arne Westad's Decisive Encounters. Rather than seeing the writing on the wall at the close of World War II, Westad argues that the outcome of the struggle for control of China was not settled until the Civil War ended. That is, "[t]he story of the Chinese civil war is ... not just a tale of the Guomingdang's [GMD] terminal decline and the CCP's (Chinese Communist Party) irresistible rise ... the civil war is first of all the story of how the GMD leaders, by their decisions, squandered most of the relative advantages they had in 1945, while Mao Zedong and his colleagues gained the minimum support needed first to survive Jiang's offensives against them and then, as the GMD weakened, to launch military strikes of their own" (p. 8). Furthermore, he cautions against seeing decision too early in the Civil War itself: "the history of the civil war is much more than just a unilinear timeline setting out the stages of the GMD debacle and the construction of the new CCP state." By Westad's reckoning the GMD's final political defeat did not come until its loss in the HuaiHai campaign in late 1948 (p. 10).
Of course, although the author does not see the pre-Civil War events as determinative, he does not ignore the importance of prior history in setting the scene for the start and conduct of that war. The first two chapters cover the impact of that history, especially that of World War II and its immediate aftermath. For each of the three important players in the drama, the people, the GMD, and the CCP, WWII "prepared and conditioned the culmination" of the Civil War (p. 28). Whereas the GMD suffered from an inability to synthesize the anti-Japanese war effort with other political ambitions, often to its detriment in the public eye, the CCP was far more adept at working at the multiple objectives simultaneously. The CCP was also better at tactical alliance building (the United Front policies), a skill and strength enhancement that would later be vitally important during the Civil War. Finally, the increasingly complex and hostile international setting that followed WWII, caused by the nascent conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, was played out in smaller terms in post-WWII China. The once and former Allies made decisions in and about China that had more to do with their superpower conflict than with what would work best for China.
Taken together or in parts, the narrative that follows gives substance to Westad's objective "to look at the rather neglected history of the 1946-50 civil war and attempt to understand why the CCP came out victorious" (p. 7). His argument, that it was the content of the Civil War that determined the CCP's victory, is first framed by establishing particular mistakes and gains during its course that were crucial to its outcome. On the GMD side, the errors selected were in the areas of domestic and international alliance building, the relationship with local and urban elites, and military operations and strategy. As for the CCP, the gains came from the cohesion enjoyed by the party and the army, the skillful use of propaganda, and an avoidance of linkage between the party's future plans and current practices. However, even correlated these gains and losses were not enough, and in the end the war would indeed need to be won on the fields of battle during the HuaiHai campaign.
To develop his argument, the author takes us on a combined chronological and thematic narrative of the course of the Civil War, highlighting examples that support the general assessment regarding the GMD's errors and the People's Republic of China's [PRC] successes. In chapter 3, "Takeovers," the early reassertion of control by the GMD in late 1945 and throughout the Civil War period establishes the key problem facing the GMD in its struggle, its inability to establish itself as an effective and (relatively) corruption-free governing body. Demythologizing CCP successes amongst the peasants and across the vast countryside is the task for chapter 4, "Adjusting Heaven," where the author shows that it was the hard work of party officials, to fit in with local needs and desires and to cultivate support in the urban centers, that brought enough people and military strength to the CCP side. "Into the Cauldron," the fifth chapter, stresses the importance of the military and supporting activities of the war, as each side sought to adjust operational and political efforts in response to the conduct of the opening stages of the war. With the military, and hence political, situation hanging in the balance in the spring of 1948, chapter 6, "The Turn," chronicles the pivotal HuaiHai Campaign that precipitated the GMD collapse in North China and made CCP victory inevitable. The narrative of the war's closing scenes in chapter 7, "The Chase," details the last-ditch efforts at negotiated settlement and Jiang's strategic retreat to Taiwan. Incorporating the events and course of the Civil War, Mao and the CCP's arrival in Beijing becomes the metaphor used to discuss the founding and development of the PRC and the CCP's early policies in chapter 8, "To Tian'anmen." Finally, in "To the Yalu," chapter 9, the character of the PRC's radical--and radically different from that espoused in the years leading up to the party's victory--domestic and international profile is established via the example of the PLA intervention in the Korean War.
In certain ways Westad's study parallels James Martin and Mark Lender's A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789. Both are works about the wars that founded the two most potentially powerful societies of the modern era. And both works address the validity of deeply held conclusions about what the war meant to each new country. Martin and Lender's is a study of the role played by the various military forces in the services of the Colonials during the War for Independence. In the course of their analysis, the authors ask and answer the key question of that war's history: citizen soldier or regular? Standing counter to years of conventional wisdom and national myth the authors are convincing in their argument that it was the regular forces--absent the emotion and revolutionary fervor of legend--that allowed the Colonials to prevail in the war. Similarly, Westad enters upon the historiographical scene to counter a standard of Chinese history, that the outcome of the Civil War was writ in the years before the war's outbreak in 1945 (p. 2). Perhaps, however, the most striking nexus between the two lays in their contribution to the "new" military history, in that each seeks to place the war in its larger societal and political context.
A standout style issue of the work is the use of source excerpt inserts, stand-alone boxes with text from supporting primary and secondary texts. They add texture to the narrative of the story by providing analytical substance without disrupting its flow. Given the use of endnotes, the provision of supplementing and supporting material within the text is helpful.
This is just one aspect of what is generally a pleasing book to read. The author writes with clarity and a style that encourages close reading and confounds efforts to skim. However, the book does provide the tools for scholarly extraction, with a solid introduction and descriptive chapter titles and subheadings. One weakness might be the thin concluding remarks, to be found in the postscript. After such a strong introduction, one finds it disappointing not to end with similar strength.
The bibliographical information requires a certain sorting out. For the student of Chinese history, the author provides a rather extensive bibliographical essay, with works arranged by thematic category (e.g., "Historiography"). There are also endnotes with source citations for references within the text. The difference between the two is that the author's sources extend beyond those in the essay, which he categorized as "readily available in the West." In general, however, the author makes good use of both primary source materials as well as the wealth of secondary sources.
Decisive Engagements is a strong entry to the literature of the Communist rise to power in China. It forces us to question previous assumptions, such as those about an inevitable outcome or an unyielding continuity of trends from 1937 to 1950. In the case of the Civil War such an urging is important, as it is too tempting to read the later outcome into the history itself. By its focus, Westad has also made this book an important work for military history generally, as it places the Civil War and its conduct firmly in the central position for the course of history in China and the world.
. James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789 (Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1982), p. xi.
Jill S. Russell. Review of Westad, Odd Arne, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950.
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