How Washington and Beijing Learned to Live With Each Other

A 1958 Atlantic article argued that the United States could not have relations with Communist China. How did that change?
Chinese leader Mao Zedong meets American president Richard Nixon in Beijing on February 29, 1972. (Wikimedia Commons)

In October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop Beijing's Tiananmen, China's most important national monument, and proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China. The moment—still replayed on Chinese television—marked the culmination of China's "century of humiliation," a period of near-constant chaos, instability, and foreign meddling. 

For the United States, the Communist takeover in China meant that suddenly, the world's largest country by population was suddenly an ally of the U.S. enemy, the Soviet Union. This alliance proved especially costly to Washington during the Korean War, when Chairman Mao's troops came to the aid of the North Koreans, repelling American-led forces back to the 38th parallel.

In a 1958 article in The Atlantic, the Sinologist George E. Taylor considered this Moscow-Beijing alliance in an article entitled "Why We Do Not Recognize Red China."  Aside from the era-appropriate use of the term "red"—scholars then distinguished between the Communist-led Chinese government on the mainland and the Nationalist-led one in Taiwan—Taylor's essay argues that the United States shouldn't recognize the Communist government ruling Beijing. Here's an excerpt from the piece:

Without the Soviet Union, Red China would be of much less consequence, but so long as the alliance remains firm, Red China is a great power. While there are areas of friction between the two countries, the fact that they share a common view of the world, have similar objectives, and have complementary strategy positions means that the alliance is here to stay for a very long time. Red China has tied up its economy and its political and cultural life with those of the Soviet Union, which is serious enough, but it is most strongly tied through the sharing of a common myth, a common body of doctrines which is the very source of political power at home and abroad.

Taylor's argument seems jarringly archaic now, but in the context of 1958 his point of view resonated with the conventional wisdom of the era. In Washington, Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union were at an apex. Worries about superior Soviet technology—Moscow had launched the Sputnik space shuttle the year before—consumed Washington policy-makers, and ordinary Americans constructed nuclear fall-out shelters in their basements and back yards. Two years later, a Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy campaigned for president arguing that a "missile gap" existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—and that the gap was not in the American's favor.

Meanwhile, China was nearing the end of its first decade under Communist rule, a period of great challenges—but optimism—in the country. Years of war had destroyed China's infrastructure and what little industry the economy had, but the country had finally achieved its treasured independence. As a Communist country, China was within the Soviet Union's orbit—and Moscow provided Beijing with technical and financial assistance throughout the 1950s. For Taylor and many other observers at the time - China and the Soviet Union were natural allies.

Less than two years later, the two countries completely severed ties. And in 1972, the United States and the People's Republic China established relations for the first time in decades, initiating an uneasy relationship that persists today.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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