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China 1945
Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice
By Richard Bernstein. 464 pages. Knopf, 2014. $30.

Reviewed by David Silbey

There is a fad now among authors covering a single period to get at larger truths by focusing on the kaleidoscope of a moment. Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America is the modern prototype of this, and Richard Bernstein’s China 1945 fits nicely into the genre. Bernstein sees 1945 as a crucial turning point for China, when the old regime fell away, replaced by the overwhelming momentum of Mao Zedong’s Communists. It was the start of the endgame for American hopes in China and the death of the visions of American statesmen from John Hay to Franklin Roosevelt.

Bernstein paints a picture of fascinating figures, ranging from Gong Peng, the female Communist spokesperson who entranced a generation of Western newsmen, to Patrick Hurley, the in-over-his-head American envoy who, a bit too enamored of his cowboy background, greeted a confused Mao with his version of a Choctaw war whoop. The war with Japan, entering its eighth year for the Chinese, becomes background, an ongoing catastrophe that sets the stage for the maneuverings between the Communists and the Nationalists, the horrific sufferings of ordinary Chinese, and the hapless American attempts to mediate.

Bernstein starts by leading up to 1945 and describing the intricate backgrounds of the main actors. Then comes a detailed trawl through that year, when, Bernstein argues, the fate of China was determined. He tells his story deftly and has a nice eye for detail. His long experience with China—both scholarly and professional—gives him a strong sense for that country’s tortured experience.

This is largely top-down history, focusing on the leaders and their representatives, the intellectuals and the power cliques fighting for dominance in China. The ordinary Chinese are there, but mostly as an undifferentiated chorus of misery. The Japanese, despite ruling large swaths of China in 1945, are almost entirely absent from this book, and Bernstein is not particularly insightful about Franklin Roosevelt. He accuses Roosevelt of trusting Josef Stalin far too much and, at the 1945 Yalta meeting, of handing over Manchuria (among other things) to the Soviets—an act that, Bernstein asserts, underpinned the eventual Communist triumph in China. This is unfair to Roosevelt, who was less trusting and more devious than people understood. Roosevelt’s generals were telling him they needed Soviet manpower to fight the Japanese, and the only practical invasion route for the Soviet army lay directly through Manchuria. Roosevelt was handing Stalin something the Soviet leader was going to steal anyway, as Bern-stein finally admits.

Nonetheless, this is a rich, compelling book told with subtlety and grace. For those interested in understanding how China went Communist in the middle of the 20th century, it is well worth the read.

David Silbey is a military historian who writes often about modern wars. His most recent book is The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, 1900.