Military history

44.

THE RISE OF THE RED EMPEROR

Mao Zedong’s Long March to Power, 1921–1949

THE STORY BEGINS in Shanghai. This is where the Chinese Communist Party was born—an appropriate birthplace because communism was a Western import and Shanghai was, and still is, the most Western of mainland Chinese cities. In the 1920s much of the metropolis was ruled by “foreign devils”: Britons and Americans in the International Settlement, the French in their Concession next door, and the Japanese with an informal concession of their own. They had made Shanghai what it was—the “Paris of the East” or the “Whore of the Orient,” take your pick—a modern, bustling metropolis of palatial hotels and department stores, exclusive clubs, sleazy opium dens, louche cabarets and anything-goes brothels, broad boulevards jammed with cars and carts, rickshaws and electric trams. It was a major center of commerce, journalism, and the arts and a draw for hucksters, merchants, bankers, prostitutes, gangsters, intellectuals, missionaries, and refugees from across China and, indeed, the world.14

This Westernized city depended on countless Chinese laborers who lived in slums where disease was rampant and opportunities for advancement minimal. And even their existence was luxurious compared with that of the peasants, the vast majority of the Chinese population, who led lives that had changed little for millennia, toiling the jade green earth, always a flood or drought away from starvation. The average income of China’s 460 million people was just $12 a year, and 10 percent of the population owned more than 50 percent of the land. In retrospect historians can discern considerable evidence of positive evolution during this period, with rising standards of living, a vibrant intellectual scene, and the first stirrings of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. But that was not how it looked at the time. Mao Zedong aptly summarized the contemporary consensus when he said that China was “semi-colonial and semi-feudal.”15

Its humiliating backwardness had already sparked two unsuccessful uprisings that had undermined the imperial system: the Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 1864 and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Manchu dynasty was finally toppled by a military mutiny in 1911. Yet no durable government emerged after the last emperor’s abdication. China was divided among regional warlords, many of them corrupt and predatory. A rising young generation hungered for an alternative, a regime that would make life better for all and restore the Celestial Empire’s long-lost greatness.

It was in these conditions that in July 1921 thirteen delegates gathered in a girls’ school, closed for the summer, on Rue Bourgeat in Shanghai’s French Concession. They were joined by two European representatives of the Comintern, the Russian-run Communist International, which was responsible for convening the meeting. The First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party ended ingloriously a few days later when the delegates had to flee just ahead of a police raid. At the time the entire party had just fifty-seven members.

Although he was present at the First Congress, twenty-seven-year-old Mao Zedong was not one of its leaders. The first secretary-general was a prominent university professor from Peking. Mao, by contrast, was, in the words of a fellow attendee, “a pale-faced . . . youth” who “had not yet shaken off his rough Hunanese ways”; “in his long gown of native cloth [he] looked rather like a Taoist priest out of some village.”16

Far from trying to hide his country bumpkin origins, Mao reveled in them, using his “rough” habits to shock his more cosmopolitan colleagues. Years later, when he was already on the cusp of power, a visitor “saw him absent-mindedly turn down the belt of his trousers and search for some guests”—lice. Like many peasants, he never learned to brush his teeth, preferring to rinse out his mouth with tea, and refused to visit a dentist. By the time he was China’s “chairman,” after a lifetime of chain smoking, his teeth were “covered with a heavy greenish film”; later they would turn black and fall out. He also refused to bathe, preferring to be rubbed down with a hot, wet towel. Likewise he resisted Western flush toilets; he would travel everywhere with a “squat-style privy.” And he never lost his affinity for the oily, spicy cuisine of his native Hunan, which was to make him portly in middle age. He often joked that a “love of pepper” was necessary for any true revolutionary.17

It goes without saying, however, that Mao was no ordinary peasant. For a start, his family was more wealthy than most; his father would have qualified as one of the “rich peasants” he would later “liquidate.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mao loathed his father. Born in 1893, he was, like many other guerrilla leaders, a rebel from childhood on, arguing with his “harsh and severe”18 father in public, running away from home, even threatening to commit suicide if he didn’t get his way. He firmly resisted his father’s imprecations to prepare for a life on the farm. He was the “family scholar,” always reading, always dreaming. His favorite books were tales of bandits and peasant rebels—the Chinese version of Robin Hood.19 He also studied Chinese imperial history. Later in life, one of Mao’s intimates was to write that he “identified with China’s emperors” and “that his greatest admiration was reserved for the most ruthless and cruel.”20 No doubt he was drawn to strong leaders because the China of his youth conspicuously lacked them; from the ages of eighteen (1911) to thirty-five (1928) he lived in a country where warlords held sway and disorder reigned, even if it also saw rapid economic and intellectual progress, with the founding of great universities and the rudiments of parliamentary government.

Much as he hated his father, Mao benefited from his generosity in funding his education. He attended expensive schools at an age when most of his contemporaries were working the fields. Mao became politically aware while studying in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province. He was attracted to “liberalism, democratic reformism, and utopian socialism,” and bemoaned the “ignorance and darkness” of his country. In 1911 he and his friends cut off their pigtails in defiance of the tottering Manchu dynasty. In an early indication of his dictatorial personality, this eighteen-year-old radical also “assaulted” friends and “forcibly removed their queues.”

That year Mao joined a revolutionary army as a private but did not see battle. His arrogance was already becoming evident: as a student, Mao thought he was too good to fetch his own water from a well as the other soldiers did. He was not attracted to a military career and left after six months. He spent the next five years in a teacher training school. Upon graduation in 1918, he briefly followed one of his teachers to Peking, where he got a job as an assistant in the library of Peking University—the closest he ever got to a higher education. Here Mao met many of China’s leading intellectuals, “but to most of them,” he later recalled, “I didn’t exist as a human being” because “my office was so low.” He would amply repay such disdain decades later when he would consign millions of intellectuals to death, imprisonment, and hard labor.

Returning to Changsha in 1919, he became more active in politics. He founded a radical student newspaper and also a radical bookstore that turned a profit, showing his talents for propaganda and organization. Both skills—so essential for modern insurgency—would come in handy once he joined the nascent Communist Party as secretary of the Hunan branch, where his first job was organizing labor unions.21

THE COMMUNIST PARTY was so weak in those days that its Russian sponsors forced it into a marriage of convenience with the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party founded in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen, which claimed more than 100,000 members.22 Following Sun’s death in 1925, leadership was assumed by his brother-in-law, an idealistic young army officer of socialist leanings and Methodist faith who had studied in both Japan and Russia. His name was Chiang Kai-shek, and he had much in common with Mao. A biographer’s description of Chiang—“Although often introverted, he could be a bully, self-righteous, and arrogant”23—applies equally well to Mao.

Chiang’s initial power base was the Whampoa Military Academy, near Canton, where his political commissar was Zhou Enlai, already a dedicated Communist, later Mao’s right-hand man. Mao, too, served the Kuomintang between 1923 and 1927; at one time, he was head of its Propaganda Department. The Communists eagerly cooperated with Chiang when he set out on his Northern Expedition in 1926 to defeat the warlords and unify the country—a task in which he was only partially successful.

Both Communists and Nationalists were prepared, however, to betray the other when the time was right. Chiang struck first. On April 12, 1927, his men, acting in cooperation with secret-society hoodlums, started killing and jailing Communists in Shanghai. Thus began China’s protracted civil war, which was to last, on and off, for twenty-two years. The Communists were caught unprepared and suffered heavy losses. A pivotal role in their counteroffensive was played by Zhu De, a former warlord general with a “pock-marked complexion and bull-dog figure”24 who was Kuomintang security chief in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province. Zhu was among the renegade officers who led 20,000 troops in an uprising against the Nationalists on August 1, 1927. The revolt was quelled quickly, but it was to mark the birth of the People’s Liberation Army. Some of the defeated troops under Zhu wound up joining a guerrilla force being organized by Mao Zedong in rural Jiangxi.25

By this time, Mao had already shown considerable interest in employing China’s numerous peasants, rather than its tiny proletariat, as the instigators of revolution. “All imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, and bad gentry will meet their doom at the hands of the peasants,” Mao wrote in early 1927, predicting the country folk would rise “with the fury of a hurricane.”26 He did not know exactly how long it would take (“Marxists are not fortune-tellers”),27 but he knew that a peasant revolution could not be carried out as quickly as an urban uprising like the one that had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. The task of organizing a peasant army was essential to the process because, in Mao’s view, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”28 This ran contrary to Marxist orthodoxy, which favored political organizing among urban workers, and Mao was for many years in disfavor with the Russian-dominated party apparatus. He was even expelled from the Politburo at one point for “rightism.”29

His doubters found vindication when Mao’s Workers and Peasants Revolutionary Army, organized from among Kuomintang defectors, peasants, and miners, failed miserably in its September 1927 assault on Changsha, known as the Autumn Harvest uprising. Mao himself was captured and barely escaped. Much as Osama bin Laden would do in the fall of 2001 when he eluded an American manhunt by escaping across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan, he retreated with the battered remnants of his force into the inaccessible Jinggang Mountains on the Hunan–Jiangxi border. Here he supplemented his army by recruiting local bandits who hid out in the pine and bamboo forests among the “wolves, boars, even leopards and tigers.”30 In January 1929, under attack by the Kuomintang, they were forced to move to a new base on the Jiangxi–Fujian border. There were a few other Red bases scattered around China, but this became the biggest—the Central Soviet Area. Leadership was shared by Mao and Zhu De, who was older and had the military experience Mao lacked.

Working together so closely that many peasants assumed they were one man—“Zhu Mao”31—they began to formulate the guerrilla-warfare strategy that eventually, thanks to his cult of personality, would become associated with Mao alone. The heart of their approach was summarized in a sixteen-character formula that echoed Sun Tzu: “the enemy advances, we withdraw; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” In carrying out these classic guerrilla-warfare precepts, the Communists were always conscious of the need to win peasant support. In Mao’s famous formulation, “The people are like water and the army is like fish.” So as not to “dry up the water” as “undisciplined armies” did, Red soldiers were instructed to “replace all doors when you leave a house” (doors were often detached and used as beds), “be courteous and polite,” “pay for all articles,” and “establish latrines a safe distance from people’s houses.”32 Mao always stressed the need to “keep the closest possible relations with the common people.”33

To broaden their appeal, the Communists embarked on a massive land redistribution campaign, taking property from the “evil gentry,” “lawless landlords,” and “rich peasants” and giving it to the poor.34 Although he would be seen by credulous foreign sympathizers as someone carrying out a “moderate program of agrarian reform”—not “Communism as it is understood anywhere else in the world”35—Mao had not the “slightest compunction” about demanding, in his own words, the “massacre” of “the landlords and despotic gentry as well as their running dogs.”36 Like Stalin, he also lashed out ruthlessly against enemies, real or imagined, within the party in a prelude to the terrifying purges that would sweep China in the 1950s and 1960s.

Anyone who questioned Mao’s strategy was accused of membership in a Nationalist conspiracy called the AB (Anti-Bolshevik) League. Mao formed “committees for eliminating counter-revolutionaries” and told them to use “the most merciless torture” to ferret out supposed AB members. “Leniency toward the enemy is a crime against the revolution,” he proclaimed in words that echoed the fervor of French revolutionaries of the 1790s. One accused party official recalled how his interrogators “burned my body with incense sticks” and then broke his two thumbs; they were “just barely hanging together by the skin.” By such methods were phony confessions extracted that were used to round up more “traitors.” One security man explained the technique: “You force him to confess, then he confesses, you believe him and you kill him; or, he does not confess and you kill him.”

Thousands of cadres and soldiers perished in this internal bloodletting in 1930–31, which sparked a Red Army mutiny. The Nationalists, who, it should be noted, committed numerous massacres of their own, later claimed that 186,000 people had been killed altogether in the Jiangxi Soviet. Even if this figure was exaggerated, the reality was bad enough. Mao was not troubled in the least. He was, a confidant later wrote, “devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship or warmth.” The only thing that mattered to him, another colleague said, was “the moving of people through the motions of carrying out his own grand designs.” All he would say about those who perished in the process was that “lives have to be sacrificed in the cause of the revolution.”37

CHIANG’S NATIONALISTS MOUNTED four unsuccessful “encirclement” campaigns against the Jiangxi Soviet with hundreds of thousands of troops. The Mao-Zhu strategy of “luring the enemy in deep” worked repeatedly. The Red Army would allow the better-armed Kuomintang forces to become overextended before counterattacking with devastating results. Yet Chiang did not give up. He mustered more than half a million troops for his fifth and final encirclement campaign beginning in August 1933.

This time the Nationalists adopted a new strategy at the urging of their German military advisers. Instead of blundering deep into Red territory, they advanced slowly, building thousands of blockhouses (“turtle-shells”) connected by new roads, telephone, and telegraph lines.38 This tactic, which had been employed by the British in the Boer War, strangled the Soviet base, reducing its defenders to starvation. Counterattacks against the well-entrenched Kuomintang troops were futile. The Communists were also hurt by a popular backlash against the terror they had inflicted on Jiangxi. This was one of the “methodological and technical errors” that caused the Politburo to strip Mao temporarily of most of his party posts.39

IN OCTOBER 1934 the senior Communist leadership—which did not include Mao, who was out of favor and suffering from malaria—decided to leave Jiangxi and find a new base that could be better defended and supplied. The result was the storied Long March. Leaving behind a doomed rear guard of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers to wage guerrilla war behind enemy lines, 86,000 Red Army troops and Communist cadres set out from Jiangxi, in southeast China, lugging their documents, printing presses, treasury, radios, even an X-ray machine. Four thousand miles and twelve months later, in October 1935, 4,000 bedraggled survivors, along with a few thousand more recruited en route, arrived in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, across the border from Soviet-controlled Mongolia, after a long, circuitous trek that took them first west, then north. Along the way they had abandoned most of their equipment and experienced unimaginable trials and hardships not only from enemy pursuit by Nationalist and warlord troops but, even more so, from numerous natural obstacles such as mountains and swamps.40

The Long March has become so encrusted in legend that it is difficult to figure out what actually happened. Communist historiography has depicted “an army of heroes” happily risking death out of love for Marx and Mao.41 The recent debunkers Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, authors of a best-selling Mao biography, on the other hand, have gone so far as to claim that the most storied battle of the march, at Luding Bridge, was a “complete invention” and that the march succeeded only because Chiang Kai-shek wanted it to. (Letting the Communists go was supposedly the price he had to pay to get his son back from the Soviet Union.)42

The available evidence hardly proves this conspiracy theory; Chiang surely wanted to eradicate the Communists, who threatened his rule. In fact he massacred many of them even while his son was studying in the USSR. It was true, however, that the marchers’ survival was due partly to the willingness of many of their pursuers—warlord armies loosely allied with the Kuomintang—to let them go. The warlords feared that if the Communists were defeated, Chiang would come after them next. The march could never have started if Zhou Enlai had not negotiated an accord with the warlord of neighboring Guangdong Province to let them go. “The Red Army,” wrote the journalist and historian Harrison Salisbury, “walked through Guangdong and the adjacent territory almost like tourists on a stroll.”43

There was a similar lack of fortitude among the defenders of the Luding Bridge, a narrow, swaying, three-hundred-foot span that crossed the swirling Dadu River in Sichuan Province. By the time the Communist vanguard arrived on May 29, 1935, the defenders had removed most of the planks laid over the nine heavy chains, “each big link as thick as a rice bowl,” which formed the bridge’s base thirty feet above the swirling water (not five hundred feet as later claimed by Zhu De). In Communist lore, twenty-two Red soldiers had to crawl a hundred yards along the chains stretched precariously over the “deafening . . . roar of the rushing torrent” while the defenders shot at them and set fire to the other planks. Eighteen of the attackers made it to the other side, and with Mausers and hand grenades cleared a path for the rest of the army to follow.

What this hagiography leaves out is that the defenders’ guns were so old and their cartridges so moldy that most of their bullets couldn’t reach across the river. This was no accident. One of Sichuan’s warlords had made a deal to let “the Red Army through without much of a fight.” Moreover, one witness claimed many years later that Communist casualties would have been higher if they had not forced local peasants, all of whom were killed, to lead the way across the bridge. The battle really happened, contra Chang-Halliday, but it was not as heroic as later claimed.44

Other parts of the Long March hardly fit Communist mythology. Conscription was supposed to be reserved for “feudal” armies; Mao always denied that his forces were “compulsorily impressing the people.”45 In reality families that refused to provide sons for the Red Army were denounced as “traitors and deserters,” which meant the loss of land, food, even their lives. One Long March veteran recalled, “The Party secretary in our village forced everyone with a dick to sign up.” Many of these unwilling enlistees picked the first opportunity to slip away. In the first forty-six days, from October 16 to December 1, 1934, the marchers lost two-thirds of their strength. Only one major battle occurred during that period: Chiang’s aircraft and troops caught part of the column while it was crossing the Xiang River. But it is estimated that only 15,000 marchers died here. Most of the other 30,000 must have deserted.46

Beyond desertion and defeat, the marchers suffered from the elements and lack of supplies. The Long March traversed twenty-four rivers and eighteen mountain ranges. Particularly difficult were the Great Snowy Mountains in western China, with their 14,000-foot peaks, which the marchers reached on June 12, 1935. The thin mountain air was tough on the wounded and ill; many expired en route.

Just as bad were the grasslands, an enormous stretch of water-logged tundra at an elevation of over 9,000 feet in northern Sichuan Province, where the marchers arrived three months later, on August 22, 1935. The few inhabitants of the grasslands were Tibetans who were hostile to these Han Chinese intruders trying to appropriate their meager food supplies. Employing guerrilla tactics of their own, the Tibetans would pick off isolated parties of Reds, “like vultures on a corpse.” (The Communists would exact a terrible revenge with their massacres of Tibetans in the 1950s and 1960s and an animosity that continues to the present.) The ground itself was so marshy that men or animals could disappear after taking a wrong step. The survivors were so hungry that they took to eating boiled animal hides, leather belts, even horses’ reins. Many drank the “bitter, black” swamp water even though there was “no wood to purify it by boiling.” Dysentery and typhus spread through the ranks. When the marchers finally emerged from the grasslands after a harrowing week, they found fields of unripened corn and eagerly consumed the crops. A few minutes later they collapsed, holding their stomachs, their bodies shaking, screaming in agony, because “their stomachs could not digest the sudden intake after starving for so long.”47

The Reds were lucky that even four thousand of them reached Shaanxi Province in the northwest, where another Communist group had already established a redoubt. They were luckier still that Mao had the wit to turn a catastrophic defeat into a public-relations victory. Mao and his crack team of propagandists created the myth of the “Long March,” a term coined, ironically, by Chiang Kai-shek,48 as a triumph of the spirit—“a new world record for military marches” by “brave heroes” intent on “going north to resist Japan.” Mao even had the gall to claim that the “Red Army has already become an invincible force.”49

In reality Mao was totally preoccupied with fighting the Nationalists, not the Japanese,50 and the Red Army was still weak in 1935. The Long March did not win China for the Communists. It did, however, win the Communist Party for Mao.

During the march, he painted his opponents, a clique of Moscow-trained cadres, as “opportunists,” “flightists,” and “deviationists” who had lost Jiangxi because of their “erroneous military leadership.”51 A shooting war almost broke out en route against the Fourth Front Army, a larger Communist formation commanded by one of Mao’s rivals, which linked up with his First Front Army in June 1935. But in September 1935 Mao was able to escape with his followers and consolidate power in his own hands with the assistance of the handsome and malleable Zhou Enlai, who had previously outranked Mao in the party hierarchy.

In Shaanxi he staged another reign of terror (the Rectification Campaign) to impose the “correct Marxist-Leninist line,” a.k.a. “Mao Zedong Thought,” and root out “spies” and “subjectivists.” In other words, to crush any possible opposition. Mao was well on his way to becoming the Red Emperor.52

FROM THE DAYS of America’s War of Independence to Ireland’s, public opinion had been growing in importance as a factor in guerrilla warfare. Twentieth-century insurgents could not undertake apolitical raids, like the nomads of old, and expect to be successful. A smart guerrilla leader, or for that matter a smart counterinsurgent, now had to harness the press for his own ends. Mao Zedong grasped that lesson from an early age when, as a twenty-six-year-old agitator, he had founded a radical newspaper and bookstore. Now as the unquestioned leader of the Communist Party of China, he unleashed a potent new weapon in his propaganda war against the Nationalist regime: an adventurous young reporter from the American Midwest named Edgar Snow.

Snow had been living in China since 1928 and, although not a party member, he was known to be sympathetic to the Communists—a “reliable” if “bourgeois” writer who could be counted on to recount the Communists’ story as they wanted it recounted.53 So in 1936 Snow was smuggled by the party underground past the Kuomintang blockade into the Red northwest. He traveled with George Hatem, a Lebanese-American doctor who was a committed communist, carrying what his wife described as “his sleeping bag, his Camel cigarettes, his Gillette razor blades, and a can of Maxwell House coffee—his indispensable artifacts of Western civilization.”54 Four months later, after meeting virtually the entire Communist hierarchy, Snow returned to Peking with a sensational scoop—a book that would garner widespread attention not only in Britain and America, where it was first published in 1937, but in China itself, where it came out in translation.

Red Star over China, in fact, would do more than any volume other than Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth to shape Western impressions of China. It gave most Westerners, and for that matter most Chinese, their first account of the Long March and of the men behind it. Mao, with whom Snow formed a lifelong friendship, was painted in heroic hues as “a gaunt, rather Lincolnesque figure . . . with a head of thick black hair grown very long . . . an intellectual face of great shrewdness . . . [and] a lively sense of humor.” Snow actually thought Mao, who would become one of history’s worst mass murderers, was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.”55 Thanks in part to Red Star’s publication, fresh recruits were soon flocking from China’s cities to the Communist headquarters in Yan’an in Shaanxi Province.

The newcomers included Lan Ping (Blue Apple), the stage name of a twenty-four-year-old actress from Shanghai, Jiang Qing, who was “much better looking and more chic” than most of the other women in Yan’an. Mao had already been married three times. The first had been arranged for him at age fourteen by his parents but rejected by him. The second was to the daughter of one of his professors; he abandoned her in Changsha when he went to the mountains, and she was executed by Nationalist troops in 1930. His third wife, He Zizhen, accompanied him on the Long March even though she was pregnant and had to leave their toddler behind. (He was never heard from again.) She was wounded en route and gave birth to another baby, who was left with a peasant family and died. Mao lost interest in her after the march, and she left for Russia to receive medical treatment. While she was gone, Mao divorced her and married the alluring Blue Apple. She would become the notorious Madame Mao, who helped instigate the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and tried to seize power after Mao’s death in 1976. But she could not hold his attention for long.

As China’s “chairman,” he would live apart from her, enjoying sex with a rotating bevy of young women, sometimes several at a time, supplied for him by the party apparatus. The girls, apparently not dissuaded by his questionable hygiene, were proud to serve the Great Helmsman; even to contract venereal disease from him was regarded as an honor. As in other communist countries such as the Soviet Union, where Stalin and his cronies enjoyed the high life, so in China: the puritanism preached by the Communists did not apply at the top.56 The Communists were also hypocritical in their condemnation of the drug trade. In Yan’an they supported themselves in part through opium production, much as the Taliban would later do.57 But it was really in the sexual arena that Mao came into his own: his exploits made other womanizing guerrilla chieftains, such as Garibaldi and Tito, seem chaste by comparison.

HIS DECADELONG SOJOURN in Yan’an (1937–47) gave Mao the leisure not only to womanize but also to philosophize. During this period he expounded his major theories of warfare and class struggle. The most famous product of this period was the essay On Protracted War, which he wrote in 1938 over nine days, working in a cave by candlelight with little sleep or food, so absorbed that he did not notice a fire burning a hole in his shoe “until his toes felt the pain.”58 A similar but not identical document, whose Chinese-language original has never been found, was translated as On Guerrilla Warfare by the U.S. Marine officer Samuel B. Griffith II, who in 1942 was to set up a Marine Raider Battalion inspired by Mao’s teachings.59

Mao’s name is closely associated with “people’s war,” but he disavowed the “right tendency” of “guerrilla-ism”—the assumption that hit-and-run raids by lightly armed fighters could by themselves defeat a determined foe. In On Protracted War, he wrote that “the outcome of the war depends mainly on regular warfare” and “that guerrilla warfare cannot shoulder the main responsibility.” “It does not follow, however,” he added, “that the role of guerrilla warfare is unimportant.”

He posited a three-stage model of insurgency. First, “the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive.” Second, “the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counter-offensive.” Third, “our strategic counter-offensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat.” He explained that in the first stage “the form of fighting we should adopt is primarily mobile warfare, supplemented by guerrilla and positional warfare.” In the second stage “our form of fighting will be primarily guerrilla warfare, supplemented by mobile warfare.” In the third and culminating stage, “mobile warfare” will be the primary form of fighting while “positional warfare” rises in importance. Throughout the first two stages, Mao saw political considerations as paramount—“that is, the policy of establishing base areas; of systematically setting up political power; of deepening the agrarian revolution; of expanding the people’s armed forces.” He cautioned that without secure bases that had been cleansed of “class enemies” the guerrillas could not win: “History knows many peasant wars of the ‘roving rebel’ type, but none of them ever succeeded.”

In this revolutionary struggle, Mao posited the need for forces of differing level of ability, starting with a militia known as the “township Red Guards, then the district Red Guards, then the county Red Guards, then the local Red Army troops, all the way up to regular Red Army troops.” Only the highest-level forces could undertake maneuver warfare; lower-level Red Guards would have to limit themselves to guerrilla attacks or to providing intelligence and logistical help. “The principle for the Red Army is concentration, and that for the Red Guards dispersion.” He added that in the third, decisive stage much of the fighting “will be undertaken by forces which were originally guerrillas but which will have progressed from guerrilla to mobile warfare.”

While the most commonly cited influence on Mao’s work was the ancient sage Sun Tzu, considerable elements were also anticipated by Giuseppe Mazzini, the nineteenth-century champion of Italian nationalism who inspired Garibaldi and many other revolutionaries. In his Rules for the Conduct of Guerrilla Bands (1832), Mazzini, like Mao, posited a multistage struggle beginning with hit-and-run raids and culminating in “the formation of a national army.” Like Mao, Mazzini called for a far-flung struggle run from the center—not by a politburo, a term that did not yet exist, but by a “Centre of Action” that sounds suspiciously similar. And, like Mao, he demanded that guerrillas be scrupulous in their dealings with the people whose support they sought: “Every band should be a living program of the morality of the party. The most rigorous discipline is at once a duty and a necessity among them. . . . Respect for women, for property, for the rights of individuals, and for crops should be their motto.” Even Mazzini’s tactical instructions were proto-Maoist. “The band must be ready to assault when the enemy believe them to be retiring,” he wrote, “and to retire when the enemy are prepared to resist their attack.”60

These similarities, which have seldom if ever been noted before, underline the fact that Mao’s essential theories were not original, although he developed them much more elaborately than Mazzini or any other predecessor. Mao’s theories derived credibility from the fact that, like T. E. Lawrence but unlike Mazzini, he actually led a storied guerrilla force—he was not just a theorist but a practitioner. In subsequent years Mao was to have another advantage in disseminating his work: his unquestioned control of the government of the world’s most populous state. This was a book-promotion tool denied to most other authors, who, however much they would have liked to, could not threaten potential readers with torture and imprisonment for not buying their books. Mao unapologetically and egotistically employed his absolute power to help make his “laws of revolutionary warfare,” bound in Little Red Books, by far the most widely distributed and influential manuals for insurgency ever published. Even Al Qaeda, while rejecting Mao’s atheism, would later cite his military maxims approvingly.

It has been said that “nearly all contemporary insurgency theory” stems from On Protracted War. Mao’s writing was particularly important in putting the stress on politics rather than on simple hit-and-run tactics of the kind that primitive rebels had employed since the dawn of time. But few other revolutions would pass through all three stages prescribed by Mao; like most insurgent manuals, On Protracted War was more a description of what happened in one place than a formula replicable elsewhere. Even in China, the Reds would never have triumphed had it not been for the intentional assistance provided by their Russian “comrades” and the inadvertent assistance of the “dwarf bandits,” as the Chinese rudely referred to the Japanese.

Indeed the ultimate Communist triumph in China would serve less to vindicate Mao’s theories than to show the importance of outside assistance for an insurgency to succeed. No other factor has been as important in the outcome of low-intensity conflicts. Some insurgents, such as Toussaint Louverture in Haiti and Michael Collins in Ireland and later Fidel Castro in Cuba, prevailed without substantial external support, but they were the exception, not the norm. More common was the case of the American patriots, Spanishguerrilleros, Greek klephts, Cuban and Philippineinsurrectos, Arab irregulars in World War I, Yugoslav Partisans, French maquis, and other rebels who received copious outside aid—as did the Chinese Communists.61

IRONICALLY JAPAN DID as much as any power to aid the Communist takeover even though its leaders had no sympathy for communism. (Japan’s own Communist Party, founded in 1922, was outlawed and had to operate underground until 1945.) Yet Japan’s invasion of China, which began in 1931 with the occupation of Manchuria and accelerated in 1937 with the occupation of most of the major cities and the coastline, dealt a near-fatal blow to Mao’s enemies in the Nationalist regime. To meet this threat Mao and Chiang, the chairman and the generalissimo, were forced to reach an uneasy truce. In Mao’s case the pressure was applied by Stalin, who wanted a united front to confront the fascists; in Chiang’s case by a patriotic warlord who kidnapped him and only released him after he agreed to a deal. In 1937, the year of the terrible “Rape of Nanking,” most of the Red Army was renamed the Eighth Route Army and ostensibly subordinated to Kuomintang control.

The truce gave the Communists breathing space while Chiang diverted most of his forces to fight the Japanese. At least three million Chinese soldiers were killed battling the invaders between 1931 and 1945 along with eighteen million civilians. More than 90 percent of the military dead were Nationalists.62 It was not that the Communists refused to fight altogether, but, with one costly exception that was said to have been undertaken without Mao’s approval (the 1940 Hundred Regiments Offensive), they generally eschewed large-scale attacks on the better-equipped, -trained, and -disciplined Imperial Japanese Army. They preferred to build up Red areas in the countryside where the occupiers were thin on the ground while staging occasional raids on Japanese lines. Communist strength soared even as Nationalist armies were being decimated.

All the while Mao was cynically accusing Chiang of neglecting the “War of Resistance” and husbanding his troops for a resumption of the civil war. This was widely believed, especially in the West, and cost Chiang considerable support. Ironically Mao’s charges were more nearly a description of his own strategy, which, as one historian notes, “put self-preservation and expansion above fighting the Japanese.”63

The Communist Party emerged from the war stronger than ever. The People’s Liberation Army, as the Red Army was renamed in 1947, had numbered just 40,000 men in 1937. Now it was nearly a million strong. It was still outnumbered by the Kuomintang, however, whose army had 3.5 million men and American-supplied tanks and airplanes.64 Chiang’s forces were moved with U.S. help to take charge of areas that had been under Japanese occupation. By 1946, when the civil war resumed, they controlled 80 percent of China’s territory and almost all its major cities.65 Even Yan’an, the Communist capital, fell in 1947. Mao and other senior leaders had to flee the Nationalist advance.

The one major area that remained outside Chiang’s grasp was Manchuria, which had been invaded by the Soviet army. When the Russians left in 1946, they turned over copious stocks of captured weaponry to their Chinese comrades. More supplies arrived by train from the Soviet Union, helping to balance out the aid that Chiang received from the United States and speeding the Communists’ transition to conventional operations complete with artillery and armored cars.

In 1946 Chiang sent half a million of his best troops to conquer Manchuria. Their armored blitzkrieg made impressive progress at first but stopped just short of the Communist capital, Harbin, due in part to a cease-fire forced on Chiang by the American envoy George Marshall, who hoped to create a coalition government between Nationalists and Communists.66 In their initial offensive the Nationalists overextended their supply lines, creating an opening for a devastating Communist counterattack in 1947 under the brilliant generalship of Lin Biao, a graduate of Whampoa Military Academy and a veteran of both the Northern Expedition and the Long March. Elsewhere in China, Mao pursued a rural “people’s war” strategy, slowly gathering his forces to encircle the Nationalist-held cities, which were undermined from within by Communist fifth columns. However, contrary to Mao’s expectations, it was high-intensity conventional military operations that proved decisive, not the efforts of his guerrillas.

Kuomintang mismanagement and especially the devastation left by the Sino-Japanese war made the insurgents’ job easier. Increasing unemployment, tax hikes, and runaway inflation all eroded Chiang’s popularity. Unable to survive on their salaries, many KMT officials turned to bribes, which further eroded their popularity—a problem later familiar in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where pervasive corruption did much to undermine American-led counterinsurgency campaigns. Chiang recognized the issues but seemed powerless to address them. He never enjoyed the kind of absolute control over his own forces that Mao did. Chiang was an autocrat, too, but a less vicious, less organized autocrat who could not instill lockstep conformity even on his own army. Chiang himself complained that his commanders failed to obey his orders or cooperate with one another. He admitted that his whole regime was “decrepit and degenerate.”67

Although more open societies such as the Republic of China, in both its mainland and Taiwanese incarnations, or the post-1979 People’s Republic of China have proven better able to generate economic growth, there is little question that absolute dictatorships such as Maoist China have often been more adept at the type of mobilization and synchronization needed to prevail in wartime, if only because anyone who did not follow orders could expect a harsh retribution. Chiang could instill no such discipline on his own side, with parlous consequences for the future of his regime.

Once the Nationalist armies had suffered defeat in Manchuria in 1947–48, the entire edifice of Kuomintang power crumbled with stupefying rapidity that caught even Mao by surprise.68 Some Nationalist troops fought hard to the end, but many others surrendered or defected en masse. As the Red triumph became more likely, hordes of waverers joined their ranks. In 1949 the Communists marched into Peking, and Chiang fled to Taiwan.

The war was over. China’s agony was only beginning. At least fifty million people would die over the next quarter century because of Mao’s deranged policies—far more than had been killed by the Nationalists and Japanese combined.69

DESPITE THE MALIGN consequences of Maoism, China’s self-proclaimed Great Helmsman maintained a potent appeal as a source of inspiration and support for other revolutionaries, especially in Asia.

In North Korea, Kim Il-sung won Mao’s and Stalin’s reluctant support for a conventional offensive against South Korea in 1950 that backfired—as had earlier North Korean attempts to wage guerrilla warfare against the South. It would take direct Chinese intervention, including the dispatch of a million armed “volunteers,” to save the Pyongyang regime.

The Vietnamese comrades were cannier or perhaps simply weaker. They resolved to use guerrilla-style tactics to weaken the French. But all the while they firmly expected that, in accordance with Mao’s teaching, someday they would field regular armies to win their “people’s war.” That day was to arrive sooner than anyone could have expected.

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