Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So in the fall of 1950, China once again faced the presence of a large foreign army right across its border along the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. This was not a friendly army. The United States was deepening its commitment to Chiang Kai-Shek, the great enemy of Mao Tse Tung and the communists who had escaped to Taiwan but still hoped to lead a great invasion that would reconquer China for the Nationalist party. And America’s doubts about Chiang Kai-Shek, which had been longstanding, were weakening now that the Cold War was heating up.
Skip to 0 minutes and 41 seconds And in terms of domestic politics in the United States, you had someone like Senator Joe McCarthy, who famously launched a campaign, a kind of witch hunt, against secret communists who had infiltrated the United States government and society. This, of course, became the movement of McCarthyism. McCarthyism was already gaining steam even before the Korean War started and was another factor making this a very hostile US force across the border. Then, of course, there was the great US Commander Douglas MacArthur, who swept in to lead the Korean campaign from his sort of semi-Imperial perch as the real ruler in postwar Japan.
Skip to 1 minute and 27 seconds MacArthur was not satisfied with the end of World War II, and was prepared even to use nuclear weapons if it was necessary, the full arsenal of American might, to finish the unsettled business of 1945 and to win the Chinese civil war back for the Nationalists. Meanwhile you had something like the National Security Council Document 68. This is a famous document in which, again, predating the Korean War, some of the leading thinkers in the US foreign policy establishment argued internally within the government that the United States needed to start reinvesting massively in military spending to strengthen its defence postures globally, to prepare for a long Cold War in order to contain the Soviet menace.
Skip to 2 minutes and 21 seconds So all of these factors were behind US troops. One of the restraints on them was the American President. Harry Truman was a good politician and knew the American public didn’t want another war. So for example, soon after the conflict started in Korea, when Chiang Kai-Shek made a friendly offer to Truman and said, I’ll help, I’ll send troops, we’ll send Chinese troops to help you in Korea, Truman was smart enough to see a trap and declined the offer, realising that Chiang Kai-Shek was basically trying to bait Truman and the United States into restarting the Chinese civil war, precisely what MacArthur wished would end up happening with the Korean War.
Skip to 3 minutes and 7 seconds So this was the threat that the Chinese were facing along their border in the fall of 1950. So Mao Tse Tung and his foreign policy czar, Zhou Enlai, were worried from the start that the Koreans would not be able to hold off the full force of American military strength. And it started mobilising and massing Chinese troops on their side of the border near North Korea. But then they made the offer to Kim Il-sung, after the Americans had pushed all the way up to the Yalu River, that they were prepared to send massive reinforcements. Kim Il-sung actually delayed and waited for approval from Stalin, who was the ultimate arbiter of communist military politics in this period.
Skip to 3 minutes and 56 seconds Stalin delayed, but finally on October 1 sent a message giving the green light that it was OK for Kim Il-sung to accept Mao Tse Tung’s offer to start sending in Chinese troops. With that approval from Stalin, Mao now needed to convince his senior leadership, both party leaders and military leaders, that China really should get involved on a massive scale in a new war. Remember, they’ve just finally come out of a four-year civil war on the back of decades of fighting against Japanese Imperialist aggression all across the country. So this is a war-weary, exhausted populace, including the leaders themselves. And it took some convincing. But Mao, especially in this period, was a persuasive leader. His power was preeminent.
Skip to 4 minutes and 48 seconds And he was eventually able to convince the key general, Pang Dehuai, who was on the fence for a couple days, but eventually convinced by Mao that this was the right choice for China. And so the decision was made at the highest level with the approval of the other leaders around Mao to commit to the war. On October 19, Chinese troops march across the frozen Yalu River and, in our course’s view of history, for the third time prepared to fight a massive war in defence of Korea. This time and they’d be taking on what was seen as the emerging superpower of the Cold War, the United States of America.
China’s decision whether or not to join the Korean War was inordinately complex, but Chairman Mao eventually persuaded his comrades to go all in.
© John Delury