Share This Article

Experience gained fighting the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek helped a dynamic military leader take on the United States twice, to victory and a draw.

When Mao Zedong came to the attention of the West, it was as the political leader of a nation in transition. Yet had Mao not been an effective, inspiring military commander, he would never have become the venerated leader of Communist China. Without his military background and success, he would never have had the confidence to take on the world’s leading military power—twice.

Mao Zedong was born in December 1893 in Hunan, a province in central China. In 1911, when he was just 18, the Qing dynasty, better known in the West as the Manchu, was overthrown. In 1912 a new government, the Republic of China, formed. An American-educated English-speaking doctor, Sun Yat-sen, who had converted to Christianity, became the republic’s president. Yet the vast country had little stability. Political turmoil permeated every province and major city. In that turmoil, Mao would find himself.

At five feet ten, Mao was markedly taller than most Chinese males. Impressed by accounts of the rigorous physical regimen of Theodore Roosevelt, Mao had devised a similar program for himself. The result was a young man who was tall, muscular, and strong. Lacking the money to go to one of China’s few universities, he obtained a job as a library assistant at Beijing University. Mao arrived in Beijing with a typical student’s interests—books, poetry, politics, and girls. His fascination with politics would eventually turn him into a military commander.

Mao gained his military experience in three Chinese civil wars, the conquest of Tibet, two wars with India, a war against the United States in Korea, and finally a war against the French, the South Vietnamese, and the Americans in Vietnam. There have been few people in the twentieth century with greater experience of war than Mao—or who gave more thought to the subject.

When Mao was working in the university library, he not only joined the party that Sun had founded, the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, but he also enlisted in the Republican Army. During his brief military service he witnessed battles and skirmishes, but without ever being directly engaged in combat. Nevertheless, he became a soldier of the revolution.

Almost as soon as there was a Chinese Communist Party, Mao joined it. At the time, the CCP and the Kuomintang were cooperating to reestablish order and stability, but following the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925 that alliance unraveled, and in 1927 Sun’s successor, professional soldier Jiang Jieshi (aka Chiang Kai-shek), initiated civil war by attacking the still-minuscule CCP.

Returning to Hunan, Mao organized a peasant insurrection against the property owners, warlords, and Nationalists in his home province, but the better-armed, better-trained Nationalists quickly routed the Communists. Mao ever after claimed he had been taken prisoner but managed to escape before the Nationalists could execute him. He rounded up the survivors of this botched venture and led them into the mountains.

Mao’s failed insurrection convinced him that for the party to survive, it needed a trained army. Putting his ideas on how to wage and win a guerrilla struggle into a pamphlet titled “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire,” Mao produced the prototext of his most influential military idea, the doctrine of protracted war. He had also formed a partnership with an able professional soldier and Communist, Zhu De. Together they created the Red Army. He and Zhu devised a sixteen-character military guide that even an illiterate peasant could understand and not even Sun Tzu could have improved on:

Enemy advances, we retreat.

Enemy halts, we harass.

Enemy tires, we attack.

Enemy retreats, we pursue.

They would rely on the tactic of the guerrilla down through the ages—the ambush, which Mao called “the short attack.”

In 1931 Mao and Zhu moved themselves and their troops to Jiangxi province, where other CCP leaders were trying to establish a base, or “soviet.” Occupied by more than two million people and defended by an army of nearly one hundred thousand men, the Jiangxi Soviet became the largest and strongest base the Communists possessed, but it was already under attack by Jiang’s forces.

Mao argued for a strategy of luring the enemy deep into the base and then unleashing so many ambushes that it amounted to death by a thousand cuts. In the places where they employed this strategy, it was successful, but the CCP’s advisers from the USSR wanted to fight a more conventional war, and their preferred strategy, positional warfare, prevailed.

It was a formula for defeat. The Nationalist army numbered more than eight hundred thousand men, equipped with modern German small arms and artillery and a small combat air force. The Jiangxi Soviet seemed doomed until the Japanese army invaded China, seizing Manchuria.

Jiang knew his Nationalist army could never defeat the Japanese, but he intended to crush the Communists. When Mao called on Jiang to forge a united front to fight the Japanese, he refused. Jiang’s policy of acquiescing in the Japanese occupation provoked spontaneous protests and military mutinies in areas the Nationalists controlled, and for three years Jiang had to devote his energies to holding his party and army together. Not until 1934 was he able to turn his attention back to the Jiangxi Soviet.

Again the Communists reverted to positional warfare, and by October of that year they faced almost certain annihilation. In desperation, the Red Army broke through the Kuomintang’s lines, suffering heavy losses. Some eighty thousand soldiers and fifty thousand party functionaries and others trudged westward, with no clear destination.

In January 1935, the party leadership gathered around a large conference table in a well-known spa town, Zunyi, to discuss strategy. Mao vehemently denounced the static defense that Otto Braun, the chief adviser from the USSR, had prescribed for the Jiangxi Soviet. It had allowed Jiang to isolate a portion of the soviet, hammer its defenders from the air, then launch an overwhelming ground assault. This he repeated until he destroyed the soviet.

Mao had argued all along that standing and fighting in the face of overwhelming firepower was madness. As the discussion became heated, Zhou Enlai, the army’s political commissar, suddenly announced that Mao was right. With Zhu De, the army commander in chief, already supporting him, there was nothing much now to stop Mao from rising to the top. Repudiated by the CCP’s leadership, Braun returned to Russia.

The march resumed, but now it had a destination. Mao, Zhou, and Zhu De decided to go north and find a base where they could fight the Japanese. One year and more than four thousand miles later, the retreating Red Army reached Shaanxi province.

Of the roughly eighty thousand soldiers who had started from Jiangxi, fewer than one in ten reached Shaanxi. This epic journey, marked by costly battles and personal tragedies, became known as “the Long March,” the foundation myth of modern China. As with all myths, there were and are endless arguments about the details, furious scholarly disagreements over whether this story or that was true, some obviously exaggerated claims, and more than a little propaganda. Undeniably, it was on the Long March that Mao took over the premier leadership position, one he never relinquished until his death.

A year after arriving in the province, Mao moved to the caves and tunnels of Yan An, a hundred miles south of the Great Wall. Taking advantage of a chance for reflection, he produced some of the key texts on strategy and tactics for armies engaged in protracted war. In Yan An, Mao also devised the most famous of his military maxims: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

In July 1937, the Japanese launched a campaign to conquer the rest of China. That did not seem to trouble Jiang. Even after Japanese soldiers razed the Nationalist capital, Nanjing, while slaughtering up to three hundred thousand Chinese, Jiang declined to fight back. He merely moved his capital to Chongqing, in the remote southeast.

Soon afterward, however, and under intense pressure from Josef Stalin, Mao and Jiang finally forged a united front to fight the Japanese. The Japanese drove into Shaanxi province to crush the Red Army, and Mao’s forces found themselves facing an uncertain future once again. There might have been another Long March had the Japanese navy not attacked Pearl Harbor.

Helping to push a road over the mountains and through the jungles of Burma was the one notable success that Jiang’s troops could claim during World War II. Along this road, Lend-Lease weapons, ammunition, and vehicles worth billions of dollars were funneled into Chongqing.

Even as the CCP-GMD (Kuomintang) united front was fighting the Japanese, few on either side doubted that there would be a civil war, China’s third, once Japan was defeated. Hoping to preclude that, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had sent a special emissary, Patrick J. Hurley, to China in August 1944. His assignment was to try to get the Chinese to form a unity government. Hurley was a millionaire lawyer from Oklahoma and former secretary of war under Herbert Hoover. When Hurley flew to Yan An with a draft agreement for a coalition government, Mao accepted it with some minor amendments, but Jiang rejected it.

During the war a small group of American military officers and diplomats was sent to Yan An, over Jiang’s objections. Their mission in Yan An was to provide a window on the war being fought behind Japanese lines. For Mao, the arrival of American soldiers, journalists, and diplomats in far-off Yan An piqued his curiosity about the United States. When President Roosevelt died, Mao sent a message to his successor, Harry Truman, expressing his “profound sympathy.”

Mao spoke often and freely to the Americans at Yan An. Granting American journalists long interviews, Mao turned them into searching conversations about American politics and American history. To journalists such as Theodore White, Mao was undoubtedly a Communist, but primarily he was a nationalist. As Mao had told American writer Edgar Snow in 1936, “We are not fighting for an emancipated China to turn the country over to Moscow.”

The senior American diplomat at Yan An was John Stewart Service, born in China to missionary parents. Mao told Service that backward China was going to need American help once the war ended. That was why, as he said, “There must not and cannot be any conflict, estrangement, or misunderstanding between the Chinese people and America.”

Service’s reports on Mao were as favorable as those filed by the journalists who met him. However, Service filed scathing reports on the ineffectual Jiang and his corrupt court, which infuriated Hurley. In June 1945, Service was arrested on trumped-up charges of passing secret material to Communist sympathizers in the United States.

Mao’s attitude to the United States changed virtually overnight. He claimed for many years that the treatment of John Stewart Service was a watershed moment because, in his view, it revealed the hostility of the Truman administration to the new China. He still admired and liked Americans, but if Truman continued on his present course, Mao expected the United States would involve itself in the coming civil war with Jiang. Mao said he was ready: “Since I have been able to fight the Japanese with a few rusty rifles,” he declared, “I can fight the Americans, too.” As for Service, a grand jury cleared him by a unanimous verdict, and the U.S. Supreme Court exonerated him all over again ten years later by another unanimous verdict.

Following Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Hurley tried once again to bring the Nationalists and Communists to an agreement before China spiraled into a new civil war. Mao flew to Chongqing to meet face to face with Jiang and share a celebratory toast over the Japanese surrender, but they still reached no agreement.

At the Potsdam Conference in July, Truman had urged Stalin to recognize the GMD as the government of China. Stalin had agreed readily, mocking the CCP as “a bunch of fascists.” At other times he called Chinese Communists “radishes”—red only on the outside. Stalin disdained them for their refusal to take instructions from Moscow. The only good Communist in Stalin’s world was one who defended Soviet interests.

With the defeat of Japan, Stalin promptly concluded a treaty of friendship and alliance with Jiang. He advised Mao to abandon the revolutionary struggle, make the best deal he could with the Nationalists, and disband the Red Army.

While Stalin and Jiang were still negotiating their treaty, a furious three-sided scramble was underway for the military and economic riches of Manchuria. Russian troops rushed into Manchuria, ostensibly to take the surrender of Japanese troops, but dismantling Manchurian factories and hauling them back to Russia interested them most. Then, with the aid of the U.S. navy and air force, more than a hundred thousand Nationalist troops moved on Manchuria from their bases in southern China. Jiang’s forces seized Manchuria’s major ports, cities, and railroads.

Although Stalin was deeply suspicious of Mao, he was hedging his bets. He handed the mountain of materiel the Russians took from the disarmed Japanese—nearly three-quarters of a million rifles, eighteen thousand machine guns, four thousand artillery pieces, enormous ammunition dumps, and thousands of military vehicles—over to the Red Army. Mao finally had enough firepower and mobility to fight Jiang’s well-equipped soldiers on equal terms, which was not Stalin’s intention or expectation. With the Nationalists winning the race to take Manchurian cities, the Red Army took over the countryside.

Truman dispatched George Marshall to China to make yet another attempt at bringing the Communists and Nationalists together. Mao was willing to talk about a unity government, but not Jiang, who had been assured of Truman’s support even if the talks failed. Washington made it clear to Mao that it recognized Jiang’s Republic of China as the legal government, and the GMD was and would remain the sole agency that should unify the country.

Mao’s army now consisted of three hundred thousand soldiers; Jiang commanded roughly four times that number. All the same, after the talks with Jiang ended and Marshall returned home, Mao renamed the Red Army the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He was declaring, in effect, that what had been a guerrilla force would henceforth fight as a regular army—but it still knew how to set up ambushes.

As Jiang’s forces pushed into Communist-held territory, Mao lured them in deeper. In Shaanxi province, he offered himself as bait. Time and again the Nationalists were informed that Mao was to be found in such and such a town or village, and it was true. As GMD troops moved in, Mao waited until they were only half an hour away, then got on his pony and rode off to another town. This meant abandoning Yan An to the enemy. Don’t worry, Mao told his troops: “To hold Yan An we must leave Yan An.” Eventually he ambushed the overstretched Nationalists by day as well as by night.

The climactic battle came when the battle-hardened PLA prepared to launch an opposed crossing of the Yangtze, a great natural barrier to any army. Instead of making a stand, Jiang fled to Formosa (Taiwan), abandoning the war to other GMD commanders. Mao had outmaneuvered him, and in their contest of wills, Jiang had been bested.

The Mao legend that survives to this day is rooted in his brilliance as a military mastermind. Had there been no Mao Zedong, there would be no new China. Had not Mao been a successful military leader, he could never have emerged from obscurity or bested the substantial and supported armies of Jiang Jieshi.

Truman’s unstinting military, economic, and political support for Jiang’s Nationalist Chinese government was tantamount to intervention in the civil war. It also defied common sense, because once Mao’s armies crossed the Yangtze, it was inevitable that the Communist government would rule in Beijing.

In January 1949, the Communists took the capital city. The American ambassador to China, John Leighton Stuart, was about to travel there to discuss the future of American–Chinese relations when Mao announced that China was seeking a formal alliance with the Soviet Union.

The choice was either to go with the Soviets or with the capitalists, said Mao. “We must lean to one side….Sitting on the fence is not possible; nor is there a third road.” His anger at the United States was almost palpable. He denounced Stuart as “a symbol of the complete failure of the aggressive policy of the United States toward China.” The person he blamed most of all was Harry Truman. Chinese crowds attacked American diplomats, beating one of them to death.

Stalin agreed to provide economic assistance and sign a mutual security pact, but the assistance was a paltry $300 million interest-bearing loan, far less than the interest-free loan of $450 million that Stalin had recently granted to Poland.

On October 1, with most of Jiang’s remaining forces having fled to Formosa, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Truman refused to recognize the new Chinese government and blocked China from claiming the Security Council seat to which it was entitled.

With the new government in place, the Chinese Communists expected only two things from the United States: that China be accepted as a great power and that China’s traditional sphere of influence be respected. Instead of taking the PRC seriously, Truman was unable to see anything other than a country that was weak economically and militarily. The president was certain the Chinese could not respond to whatever the United States chose to do, not then or for many years to come. The risks of intervening in the civil war seemed temptingly small.

Truman was hoping to end aid to Jiang. First, though, he would have to stand up to a powerful China bloc in Congress and the China lobby besieging Capitol Hill.

Once installed in power, Mao’s generals amassed a junk fleet of more than twenty-five hundred vessels. On its face, Jiang had more than enough arms, ammunition, weapons, and troops to defend Formosa. What he lacked was commanders willing to fight and leaders able to lead. Besides, wooden junks are difficult to sink. Most of the invasion force was likely to survive the hundred-mile crossing from the mainland, much of which would take place at night.

The CIA concluded the only action that could prevent Formosa from falling to the PLA was American military intervention. Truman knew that the American public would recoil from overt military intervention to save Jiang, but by 1950 he had invested so much American and presidential prestige in him that the fall of Formosa would be seen as a defeat for the United States.

Truman was implicitly rejecting the advice of the military. At the end of World War II, the Joint Chiefs had written off Formosa. It contributed nothing to American security. The American strategy for East and Southeast Asia was to secure a strong military presence in Alaska, Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines. American air and naval power would then be dominant from the Bering Strait to Australia. The allure was an effective defense at minimal cost, requiring little involvement in local politics, and little likelihood that the United States would be drawn into wars on the Asian landmass.

In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson described what he called America’s “security perimeter” in a speech at Washington’s National Press Club. Formosa was not inside the perimeter. Neither was South Korea, he declared. Acheson’s speech did not mean that he agreed with the offshore strategy, because he did not. He wanted to include South Korea, and Truman wanted to include Formosa. In his memoirs, Present at the Creation, Acheson said that he and Truman alike were trying to force the Joint Chiefs to alter their strategy.

Even as Acheson delivered his speech, major events were unfolding on the other side of the world. Since 1948, when the 38th parallel became the agreed boundary between North and South Korea, the leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, had been pestering Stalin to sanction a war to unify the Korean Peninsula. Stalin turned him down not once but more than a dozen times.

Then Kim promised a lightning war and a lightning victory. South Koreans would greet the North Korean troops as liberators, he assured Stalin. This time Stalin agreed. The Soviet Union had recently exploded its first atomic device, bolstering Stalin’s standing and confidence. He imposed only one condition on Kim—he must first get Mao’s agreement. Moreover, he warned Kim, if his invasion backfired, he could not look to the USSR to bail him out.

Mao had no illusions about the risks involved in Kim’s project. Provoking the Americans, Mao liked to say, was “prodding the tiger’s buttocks.” That did not mean avoiding provocation at all costs, but it should not be done without preparing for the likely consequences.

The North Korean attack began the night of June 25, 1950. There were only a few hundred American military advisers in South Korea, and the Republic of Korea’s army was no match for Kim’s Soviet-trained and -equipped military.

Truman committed American forces to defend South Korea impulsively and emotionally, without first consulting the Joint Chiefs. Besides, he knew what they would say. Truman also accepted Acheson’s advice to put the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait. He claimed he had done so to prevent the Communists from launching their planned amphibious assault against Formosa and to keep the Nationalists from attacking the mainland, but his true intention was to stop the PLA.

Truman did nothing to stop Nationalist commanders from putting raiding parties ashore on the mainland, and Jiang’s medium bombers attacked coastal cities, unhampered by the Seventh Fleet. As far as Mao was concerned, the United States had just gone from a secondary role to the leading player in China’s civil war.

American and South Korean forces kept a toehold on the peninsula, in and around the port of Pusan, until September 15, when General of the Army Douglas MacArthur outflanked the overstretched North Koreans by landing the 1st Marine Division at the port of Inchon, on the western side of the peninsula. Mao had urged Kim not to leave Inchon essentially undefended, but Kim ignored his advice. The result was the virtual collapse of the North Korean army as it pulled back to the 38th parallel and kept retreating.

At this point Truman decided to do what Kim had attempted—unify the peninsula by force of arms. With MacArthur in command, American and South Korean troops advanced toward the Yalu, the river that separated Chinese Manchuria from North Korea.

As MacArthur was moving north, Kim Il-sung implored Stalin to intervene. Stalin’s chilly response was, “Go see Mao.” He backed up this advice with a telegram to Mao, telling him, “Move at least five or six divisions toward the 38th parallel.” Otherwise, he knew the war would be lost.

Mao responded that China would have to commit large forces if it was to stop the Americans. The result was likely to be a war between the United States and China, and such a conflict would inevitably draw in the Soviets. “The question would thus become extremely large,” Mao warned the Russian. “Therefore it is better to show patience now.”

Unlike Stalin, Hitler, and Kim Il-sung, Mao was not an absolute ruler. On matters of war and peace his unmatched prestige was usually enough for him to get his way, but not every time, and although Mao had thought Chinese intervention might prove necessary almost from the start of Kim’s invasion, war preparations had not begun. Yet he favored war.

Only two senior figures supported Mao in the September debate over intervention—Zhu De and another general, Peng Dehuai. Having an American army on its southern border would pose a permanent threat to the new China. If they did not intervene to save North Korea, Mao told his colleagues, they would live to regret it.

There were almost certainly other factors involved: above all, a desire to make Truman pay a price for intervening in their civil war, plus a determination to gain the world’s respect. In the end, Mao prevailed. The PLA moved divisions to the border with Korea. They would cross the Yalu River if the Americans crossed the 38th parallel.

As Mao’s resolve hardened, Stalin’s went wobbly. “We are not ready to fight,” he lamented. Within a few days, however, he regained his nerve, shrugging off Mao’s warning that Chinese intervention might ignite a global war. “Should we fear this?” Stalin asked in a message to Mao. “In my opinion we should not….If war is inevitable, let us wage it now.”

Everything was now in place for provoking the tiger. The Russians could not lose in Korea once China put an army over the Yalu, and the Americans could not use nuclear weapons against China so long as the Russians were involved.

As Chinese troops deployed to the Manchurian–Korean border, Zhou Enlai, the Chinese foreign minister, invited K.M. Pannikar, India’s ambassador to China, to his office. Zhou said he had a message he wanted Pannikar to convey to the Americans: If American troops crossed into North Korea, China would enter the war.

Acheson dismissed this warning out of hand. Who was this Zhou Enlai? Nobody. Truman in turn scorned Pannikar, considering him “a fellow traveler.”

Even so, when MacArthur met with Truman on Wake Island on October 15, Truman told him, “General, all of our intelligence sources indicate that the Chinese Communists are about to enter this war. What are the chances of Soviet or Chinese intervention?”

MacArthur assured him, “If the Chinese Communists cross the Yalu, I shall make of them the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind.” On October 25, nearly a hundred thousand Chinese struck the advance units of two South Korean divisions, inflicting more than a thousand casualties and forcing the survivors to flee. It was a rout. The Chinese then pulled back into the mountains.

Mao was waiting to see if Truman would take Zhou’s warning seriously and order MacArthur back to the 38th parallel. Truman, however, proved to be as bemused and complacent as MacArthur. There were only sixteen thousand Chinese troops in North Korea, MacArthur informed the Pentagon (one-sixth the actual number).

On November 24, MacArthur launched a win-the-war offensive. This was going to be the final push to the Yalu. Intensive bombing and strafing had isolated the battlefield. There was nothing now to hold him back, and once he reached the river, the war would be as good as over. All that would remain would be mopping up operations to destroy guerrillas and marauders in his rear.

That night an American air attack hit the rear echelon headquarters of Peng Dehuai, who was commanding the Chinese “volunteers” in Korea. The soldiers did not wear their PLA uniforms. One of the casualties of the bombing raid was Mao Anying, Mao’s Russian-educated son, who was serving Peng as a Russian translator.

When he was informed of his son’s death, Mao’s response was stoical: “In war there must be sacrifice. Without sacrifice there is no victory.” Yet General Peng, who personally broke the news to Mao, later said that the leader’s hands were shaking so violently he could not light a cigarette.

Less than twenty-four hours after MacArthur unleashed his attack, more than two hundred thousand Chinese and some fifty thousand North Korean troops launched their own win-the-war offensive. They had moved into the seventy-mile gap between the Eighth Army, on the western side of the peninsula, and the X Corps on the eastern side. The Chinese now hurled themselves, bugles blaring, on MacArthur’s leading elements.

What unfolded was a scaled-up version of Mao’s “short attack,” in effect a huge ambush that inflicted thousands of casualties. The onslaught sent both the Eighth Army and the X Corps reeling. MacArthur informed Truman, “We face a wholly new war.” Two American divisions and three of the Republic of Korea’s retreated to the 38th parallel, and the 1st Marine Division had to be evacuated by sea after suffering forty percent casualties.

The Chinese pressed on and captured Seoul, but proved unable to retain it in the face of American counterattacks. Even so, they had saved North Korea. Throughout, Mao was issuing orders, offering advice, and encouraging.

With his despotic regime secured, by the spring of 1951 Kim Il-sung wanted to end the war, but Mao would not permit it. The Korean conflict dragged on and might have lasted even longer had not Stalin died in March 1953. To Mao’s disgust, the new Soviet leaders, First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Georgy Malenkov, were looking for “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist West.

Of the four countries that had fought in Korea, only one achieved its most ambitious goals. Kim had failed to unite Korea by force. So had Truman and so had Syngman Rhee, the president of South Korea. China alone had secured what it fought for: to be taken seriously as a major power, to save North Korea, and to keep American troops away from its borders. Mao had prevailed on the Korean Peninsula, and on terms that were acceptable to China.

Even before representatives signed the armistice at Panmunjom, Mao was ready for another war. In the spring of 1953, he began redeploying some of his best officers from Korea to Indochina. As Mao pushed money and materiel into Vietnam, so did Dwight D. Eisenhower, the new United States president.

The French were constructing a base at Dien Bien Phu, intending to cut the roads Viet Minh guerrillas used in moving into northern Laos. If this plan worked, the French told themselves, the Soviet-backed leader of the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, would realize that he could never drive them out and would be ready to talk peace.

They had not reckoned with Mao, who had a copy of the French plan and knew exactly how to take Dien Bien Phu. He sent Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese commander in chief, not only the map but also twenty-four 105mm howitzers Chinese troops had captured from American units in Korea.

In January 1954, with the advice of two Chinese generals, Giap began situating his 105s on hilltops within range of Dien Bien Phu. Shortly afterward, diplomats from half a dozen nations, including the United States, agreed to meet in Geneva to talk about policing the armistice in Korea and to explore ways of bringing an end to the fighting in Indochina. China was invited to take part, an implied acknowledgment that its support was crucial to any agreement.

The bombardment of Dien Bien Phu began three weeks before the conference in Geneva opened. Mao pressed Giap hard to make a do-or-die effort to take it quickly. News that the Viet Minh had captured Dien Bien Phu reached Geneva the day the conference opened.

After that loss, France wanted one thing only from Indochina—a quick exit. It would partition Vietnam into two states, a Communist north and a nonCommunist south. Yet even as the French departed, nearly nine hundred Americans arrived in uniform, to serve as military advisers to the forces of the newly created South Vietnam.

Having achieved what he wanted in Vietnam, Mao temporarily lost interest, but in 1960 South Vietnamese insurgents began to fight against the rule of the American-backed and repressive Ngo Dinh Diem. At first North Vietnam gave Viet Cong guerrillas in the South little but verbal encouragement, wary of getting into a fight with the United States. As the insurgency grew, the number of American advisers rose to twenty-five hundred in the spring of 1962, with another twenty-five hundred scheduled to arrive later that year. The Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, became the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. It appeared the United States was creating a command infrastructure to deploy an American army in Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese protested, and Mao concluded that China’s southern border was under threat again. In a speech to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, Premier Zhou Enlai declared: “The center of the world revolution has moved from Moscow to Beijing. We must be brave and not shrink from our responsibilities.”

This amounted to a blank check for Hanoi, but Ho did not cash it right away. The North Vietnamese were reluctant to trust Mao, whom they blamed for not insisting on a united Vietnam at the conference in Geneva. What changed their minds about backing the Viet Cong in a fight to the death was the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution in August 1964. Ho Chi Minh read it as a signal that the United States would soon be waging a much bigger war. Hanoi suddenly welcomed China’s embrace.

Mao had no hesitation about fighting in Vietnam. The way that the United States was stumbling into a war convinced him that it was a nation in decline. That would explain why American presidents were so indecisive about what they wanted and so confused about how to achieve it. Prodding the tiger’s buttocks did not seem as risky as it used to be.

Within weeks of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Mao gave the North MiG fighters to help it defend against the major bombing offensive he expected to be unleashed. He began sending in thousands of engineer troops to improve and keep the railroads running under air attack and began building a major highway linking China with North Vietnam. He moved tens of thousands of tons of military supplies across the border into Vietnam.

October brought two other important developments: The Chinese set off their first nuclear explosion, and in Russia plotters ousted Nikita Khrushchev. The new Soviet leaders, Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Kosygin, rapidly abandoned Khrushchev’s ultra-cautious policy toward the war in Vietnam.

They promised to provide the North Vietnamese with heavy weapons, such as tanks and surface-to-air missiles. If American forces shut down the ports of Haiphong in North Vietnam and Sihanoukville in Cambodia, Soviet support would go overland, through China. One way or another, North Vietnam would not run out of arms or men so long as it had the will to endure.

Vo Nguyen Giap was convinced by this time that the United States, rather than admit failure, was about to escalate what was still a modest insurgency into one of the biggest wars of the century. He guessed that President Lyndon Johnson would put six hundred thousand men into South Vietnam and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam would reach a strength of half a million.

The maximum North Vietnamese troop level that could be supported in the South— combining both regulars from the People’s Army of North Vietnam and Viet Cong irregulars—would total three hundred thousand. They would therefore be outnumbered by roughly four to one. Given that ratio of forces on the battlefield, Giap concluded, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were certain of victory.

Why would any general be so optimistic, knowing he would be outnumbered four to one? The one-word answer: China. Mao assured the North Vietnamese that they had nothing to fear from aiding the insurgency in the South. To show his sincerity, he signed a pledge in December 1964 committing three hundred thousand Chinese troops to North Vietnam. He also moved hundreds of thousands more near the Vietnamese border, in case they too were needed. The strategy that Ho and Mao hammered out was that any American invasion above the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Vietnam would be met by a North Vietnamese counteroffensive. If the North Vietnamese army counteroffensive failed to drive the Americans out of the North, the Chinese would mount a counteroffensive of their own, with up to eight hundred thousand troops.

Between 1965 and 1971, half a million Chinese soldiers served in North Vietnam. These were not Korean-style “volunteers” but PLA regulars who wore their uniforms as American reconnaissance aircraft flew overhead. Mao wanted the Americans to know Chinese troops were there and take the hint—plenty more where they came from. Their presence in North Vietnam enabled Giap to send half a million North Vietnamese soldiers south between 1965 and 1973.

As America’s frustration mounted at its inability to win the war in Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson he was fighting the wrong war. The real enemy was China, they told him, and the United States should bomb China, starting with its nuclear plants. The president dared not risk it and gave the military a bombing campaign against North Vietnam instead. The bombing achieved nothing.

When LBJ did not run for reelection in 1968, peace talks finally began, but even there Mao’s presence was not hard to find. He had developed a strategy during the civil war of “fighting while talking, talking while fighting.” He carried that same negotiating strategy into Korea, hence the two years of talks and continued fighting before the sides could agree on armistice terms.

The North Vietnamese followed the same script, with Mao offering advice from the sidelines, ensuring the peace talks continued, as did the fighting. Whenever Hanoi appeared ready to settle, Mao urged the North’s leaders to think again, and they did.

Richard Nixon tried to win the war by increasing the bombing, but in the end had to recognize failure. He also began to withdraw American troops, only to discover that talking to Hanoi was not enough. Mao was putting the brakes on the talks. In February 1972, Nixon became the first American president to travel to Beijing, following National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s visit in July 1971.

By this time Mao had come to see himself as the last and the greatest of Chinese emperors. As if to confirm it, the president of the United States was coming to seek his help. In Mao’s presence, Nixon and Kissinger comported themselves like starstruck adolescents in the presence of a rock god. They were there, they said, because they wanted to continue withdrawing troops from Vietnam.

In courting Mao, they offered to help him get everything that Americans had denied him for the past 23 years, and more—diplomatic recognition, a seat on the United Nations Security Council, help with military technologies, and a guarantee of American support if the Soviet Union attacked China. They were essentially handing him victory over Harry Truman.

Nixon later complained that he got nothing in return. He was wrong. Unknown to Nixon and Kissinger, it was Mao who, through Zhou Enlai, persuaded the North to finally agree to negotiate an end to the presence of American troops in Vietnam, albeit on terms that doomed South Vietnam.

The war finally ended in April 1975, as Tank 390, flying a huge North Vietnamese flag, crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. On the bottom of Tank 390 was a metal plate that read, “Made in China.”


Geoffrey Perret, a frequent MHQ contributor, has written numerous military histories and biographies of American presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here