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.

So, what happened?

To get a better sense of why the Sino-Soviet relationship soured so quickly, I spoke to Odd Arne Westad, an expert in modern Chinese history at the London School of Economics. As I expected, Taylor's view was more or less in line with mainstream beliefs of the era: China and Russia were very much allied. But beneath the surface of ideological comity, strains existed.

"The Chinese wanted to move toward a more extreme form of communism than what was practiced in the Soviet Union; the 3 to 5 percent GDP growth that China exhibited in the 1950s was not fast enough for the government, which wanted to modernize overnight," said Westad.

In fact, strains between China and the U.S.S.R. appeared even sooner. Chairman Mao bitterly opposed Nikita Khrushchev's policy of "de-Stalinization", which the Soviet premier introduced in a 1956 "secret speech" three years after Stalin's death. Mao and Khrushchev did not enjoy a friendly relationship. Famously, the Chinese leader once insisted on holding a meeting with his Soviet counterpart at his private swimming pool - despite (or because of) Khrushchev's inability to swim.

These differences—as well as political convulsions within China—brought about the sudden end of ties between the two Communist giants. Following a brief border war, Moscow withdrew its advisers and severed diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1960.

Most analysts in the American government expected the break-up to be temporary. "The best officials could hope for, realistically, was continued strife between the two. A permanent split seemed completely unlikely," Westad said. "And this was a view that persisted well into the 1960s."

Some voices within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations favored reaching out to China in order to forge a strategic balance against the Soviet Union—but they were a minority. And when President Lyndon Johnson decided to escalate the war in Vietnam, compromising with China became out of the question."In terms of the Vietnam conflict, Washington perceived China as more of a threat, even, than the Soviet Union," Westad said.

But by 1969, the American public had tired of the war and Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a promise to wind down the conflict, was in the White House. Three years later, the president led a historic American delegation to Beijing, thawing a relationship that had been completely frozen for a quarter-centurt. By 1979 the United States diplomatically recognized China—and even supported Beijing when it decided to invade ... Vietnam.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know Taylor's assessment of U.S.-China relations did not hold for long. This in itself isn't interesting—for every historical event in memory, prominent voices argued that it wouldn't happen—until it did.

But Taylor's argument does provide an interesting glimpse of the American conventional wisdom of the time: that the ideological similarity between Communist countries would supersede other national interests. This line of thinking informed President Johnson's belief in the "domino theory," then used to justify further U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

How will Western analysis of contemporary China look to us 55 years from now, in 2068? That we'll just have to wait and see.