by Sophia Maroulis
The Nationalist government (Kuomintang or KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were engaged in armed conflict from 1927 until 1937, when the parties had to temporarily unite* against Japan's invasion of China in the Second-Sino Japanese War (1937-1945). When Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, it could have marked the end of eight years of brutal warfare in China, but instead, the war-torn country immediately experienced another four years of war. As soon as the Chinese repelled the foreign threat, the KMT and its rival, the CCP, resumed fighting each other for control of China. The Chinese Civil War (phase 1: 1927-1937, phase 2: 1945-1949) began with everyone but the CCP believing that the KMT would win and ended with the international community staring in disbelief as the CCP established the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, while KMT members fled to Taiwan. This post focuses on the second phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). The billion-dollar question—for the U.S. had spent over 1 billion dollars on military aid for the KMT from 1945 to 1948 in an attempt to stop the spread of communism—was how did the reigning Nationalist government with more power, more men, more arms, and more military aid fall to the smaller Chinese Communist Party in four years? (Tanner 277).
Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Nationalist government's armies bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan, while the CCP engaged in small skirmishes and largely took the time to recruit party members. It was easy to point to the KMT's inability to expel Japan and lack of regard for the civilian population. Under KMT rule, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) committed atrocities on civilians in occupied areas, while the KMT allowed inflation to run rampant as it printed more and more money to fund its military spending. In addition, Chiang Kai Shek had adopted a policy to use space to trade time. In the 1938 Yellow River flood, the KMT deliberately flooded farmlands in an attempt to slow the IJA, killing hundreds of thousands of its own civilians and displacing millions more in the process. By the war's end, civilians had suffered so greatly that many people were ready to believe that life under any other government would be preferable to what they had just endured. The combined weakening of the KMT from warfare and the civilians' anger created ideal conditions for the CCP to challenge the government.
At the start of the Chinese Civil War, the KMT held a clear advantage. However, when the Second Sino-Japanese War ended, the Nationalist government was weakened, but the Nationalist soldiers still numbered 3 million to the Communist's 1 million (Griffin 95). Additionally, the KMT had the aid of the United States (Cheng 39). The U.S. sent General Marshall to help the KMT and CCP reach a peace agreement. On January 10, 1946, a ceasefire was declared, and it looked like Marshall's Peace plan might be pulled off (Griffin 96). An agreement was reached in February outlining how the CCP armies would be incorporated under the KMT's control (Griffin 96). But before these plans could be implemented, the Soviet Union suddenly began withdrawing its occupation of Manchuria in March, causing the KMT and CCP to immediately scramble to occupy resource-rich Manchuria first (Westad 36). There in Manchuria, they resumed fighting.
The differences in the KMT and CCP's resources transformed their military strategy. In 1946 the CCP sustained heavy losses and the KMT was still winning. By the summer of 1947, the CCP began to fight on the offensive and the KMT on the defensive (Lary 109). While the KMT prioritized defending cities, the CCP prioritized growing in the countryside (Britannica, 4). The CCP benefited from the KMT's desire to control cities because cities could easily be isolated by destroying railways. Railways at the time were the only means of transport since there was no highway system, laying them under siege. While the city-based middle and upper-class KMT supporters suffered greatly from inflation and sieges, CCP peasants in the countryside were less adversely affected because they could grow their own food and rely on a barter system outside of currency to survive (Lary 49). The KMT's armies' mobility was severely limited by the desire to control cities and prevent U.S. weapons from falling into CCP hands (Cheng 40). Unfortunately for the KMT, because China lacked infrastructure and the KMT lacked the means to transport U.S. weapons quickly, advanced weaponry like tanks often proved to be more of a liability than an asset, and much of the lighter goods like firearms and ammunition were stolen by the CCP (Hooton 68). Thus in arming the KMT to fight against communism, the U.S. inadvertently immobilized the KMT and armed the CCP.
The KMT and CCP's differences in leadership and ideology also significantly impacted the war's outcome. The KMT suffered from poor leadership, with Chiang Kei-Shek often paralyzed by indecision and failing to strike when the KMT had opportunities (Lary 80). KMT soldiers suffered from low morale because, unlike many CCP soldiers, they were fighting without a clear cause. The CCP, by contrast, was led by the charismatic Mao Zedong and benefitted from the military strategy of Lin Biao (Westad 37). Unlike the KMT, the CCP was incredibly effective in growing its armies to offset its casualties. In 1945 the CCP had about 1 million soldiers. By June 1946, CCP's People's Liberation Army (PLA) had grown to 1,278,000 people, even as they were sustaining casualties in battle. By June 1948, the PLA grew to 2.8 million soldiers (Hooton 65; Larry 115). While the KMT and CCP used press gangs to forcibly recruit soldiers, the CCP was extremely effective in gaining soldiers through propaganda and KMT defection. When a KMT soldier who had endured terrible conditions defected to the CCP, the KMT lost a soldier as its enemy gained a soldier. Then multiply that effect by hundreds of thousands of soldiers defecting. As the CCP grew, it was able to switch from guerrilla warfare tactics to conventional warfare and gain territory (Hooton 58). By the end of 1948, the CCP occupied a third of China ("Chinese Civil War" 6). It was beginning to be clear that the KMT would lose. In January 1949, the desperate KMT telegrammed Mao, calling for an end to the Civil War because "the people have suffered badly" (Lary 169). That fall, the CCP took over.
The course of the Chinese Civil War challenged common conceptions about power and illustrated how unquantifiable factors like belief, morale, creative tactics, and inspiring leadership can rival quantifiable factors like the number of soldiers, money, and weapons.
*The Second United Front, in theory, meant that the KMT and CCP stopped fighting each other and worked together during the Second-Sino Japanese War. In practice, they often continued to have skirmishes during this time. Read more here
Lary, Diana. China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print. New Approaches to Asian History.
"The Social Background to the Civil War." China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945–1949, by Diana Lary, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 22–37. New Approaches to Asian History.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. "Chinese Civil War." Encyclopedia Britannica, February 18, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/Chinese-Civil-War. Accessed 4
Griffin, Patricia E. "Civil War, 1945-1949." In The Chinese Communist Treatment of Counterrevolutionaries, 1924-1949, 95–108. Princeton University Press, 1976. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x14m8.9.
Pepper, Suzanne. "The Student Movement and the Chinese Civil War, 1945-49." The China Quarterly, no. 48, 1971, pp. 698–735. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/652350. Accessed July 4, 2022.
Cheng, Victor Shiu Chiang. "Modern War on an Ancient Battlefield: The Diffusion of American Military Technology and Ideas in the Chinese Civil War, 1946-1949." Modern China, vol. 35, no. 1, 2009, pp. 38–64. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27746905. Accessed July 4, 2022.
By The Associated Press. "REDS WARN CHIANG TO AVERT CIVIL WAR: COMMUNIST GENERAL ASKS END OF 'ONE-PARTY DICTATORSHIP' CENTERED IN CHUNGKING REDS WARN CHIANG TO AVERT CIVIL WAR CIVIL WAR SEEN THREATENING CHINESE REDS REPORT NEW GAINS." New York Times (1923-), August 20, 1945, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. July 4, 2022 .
By TILLMAN DURDIN By Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES. "2 KUNMING KILLERS DIE AT CRIME SPOT: MEN EXECUTED FOR THROWING GRENADES AT DEMONSTRATION OF STUDENTS AGAINST CHINA WAR." New York Times (1923-), December 13, 1945, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. July 4, 2022.