Kevin Peraino: A Force So Swift

A gripping narrative of the Truman Administration’s response to the fall of Nationalist China and the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949–an extraordinary political revolution that continues to shape East Asian politics to this day.

In the opening months of 1949, U.S. President Harry S. Truman found himself faced with a looming diplomatic catastrophe–“perhaps the greatest that this country has ever suffered,” as the journalist Walter Lippmann put it. Throughout the spring and summer, Mao Zedong’s Communist armies fanned out across mainland China, annihilating the rival troops of America’s one-time ally Chiang Kai-shek and taking control of Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. As Truman and his aides–including his shrewd, ruthless secretary of state, Dean Acheson–scrambled to formulate a response, they were forced to contend not only with Mao, but also with unrelenting political enemies at home, in Congress and even within the administration. Over the course of this tumultuous year, Mao fashioned a new revolutionary government in Beijing, laying the foundation for the creation of modern China, while Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island sanctuary of Taiwan. These events transformed American foreign policy–leading, ultimately, to decades of friction with Communist China, a long-standing U.S. commitment to Taiwan, and the subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam. 

Drawing on Chinese and Russian sources, as well as recently declassified CIA documents, Kevin Peraino tells the story of this remarkable year through the eyes of the key players, including Mao Zedong, President Truman, Secretary of State Acheson, Minnesota congressman Walter Judd, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the influential first lady of the Republic of China. Truman and his administration struggled to navigate a disorienting new political landscape that was being reshaped daily by the emerging technology of television, the rising tensions of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and growing fears of spying, infiltration, and Russia’s acquisition of the atomic bomb. 

Today, the legacy of 1949 is more relevant than ever to the relationships between China, the United States, and the rest of the world, as Beijing asserts its claims in the South China Sea and tensions endure between Taiwan and the mainland. Yet at the heart of the book is a story for any season–a thoughtful and moving examination of the fierce determination of the human will.

The entire time I was reading this, I was thinking “Man, good thing I pulled this book on Chinese history so I could learn all about the Truman Administration.” I felt like I was back in high school history, reading World History:  The Americanized Version.

Not only that, the title personality–Mao–wasn’t even the main “character” at all, even when the book DID feature China. We spent more time revolving around Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife than we ever did learning about Mao himself. Madame Chiang’s legs were apparently extremely sexy and super important to the political climate of the 40s.

I am partially to blame for my lack of interest–I totally based my pick of this book on its cover, and only scanned the blurb. But the subtitle really should have been “Truman, Acheson, and the United States Interest in Chinese Communism.” I suppose that wouldn’t sell quite as many copies.

Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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