John F. Kennedy on the Loss of China

Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire made these observations on the floor of the U.S. Senate on July 18, 1950:

When an Army officer loses a battalion, he is relieved of his command, in disgrace.  When a naval officer loses his ship or runs it aground, in the mud, he is court-martialed.  But when foreign policy advisers lose a whole continent they are applauded or even promoted.[1]

Okay, China isn’t exactly a whole continent, just a very large and estimable country, the most populous on earth.  And Bridges was a conservative Republican who one could expect to be critical of the Democratic administration of President Harry Truman.  Moreover, the usual glib response to such a charge is that China was not “ours” to lose.  Consider, though, what the young Democratic Representative, John F. Kennedy, had to say about that in a speech in Salem, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1949:[2]

The Communist Conquest of China

Over these past few days we have learned the extent of the disasters befalling China and the United States. Our relationship with China since the end of the Second World War has been a tragic one, and it is of the utmost importance that we search out and spotlight those who must bear the responsibility for our present predicament.

When we look at the ease with which the Communists have overthrown the National Government of Chiang Kai-shek, it comes as somewhat of a shock to remember that on November 22, 1941,* our Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, handed Ambassador Namuru an ultimatum to the effect that: (1) Government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and Indochina; (2) the United States and Japan will not support militarily, politically, economically, any government or regime in China other than the National Government of the Republic of China.

It was clearly enunciated that the independence of China and the stability of the National Government was the fundamental object of our Far Eastern policy.

That this and other statements of our policies in the Far East led directly to the attack on Pearl Harbor is well known. And it might be said that we almost knowingly entered into combat with Japan to preserve the independence of China and the countries to the south of it. Contrast this policy which reached its height in 1943, when the United States and Britain agreed at Cairo to liberate China and return to that country at the end of the war Manchuria and all Japanese-held areas, to the confused and vacillating policy which we have followed since that day.

In 1944 Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell presented a plan to arm 1,000,000 Chinese Communists, who had been carefully building their resources in preparation for a post-war seizure of power, and with them to capture Shanghai and clear the Yangtze. This plan was supported by some State Department officials, including Ambassador Clarence Gauss. Chiang Kai-shek refused to cooperate with this plan, which would have presented the Chinese Communists with an easy coup. Chiang requested that Stilwell be recalled, which caused such bitter comment in this country; and Gauss resigned. From this date our relations with the National Government declined.

At the Yalta Conference in 1945 a sick Roosevelt, with the advice of General Marshall and other Chiefs of Staff, gave the Kurile Islands as well as the control of various strategic Chinese ports, such as Port Arthur and Dairen, to the Soviet Union.

According to former Ambassador Bullitt, in Life magazine in 1948, "Whatever share of the responsibility was Roosevelt's and whatever share was Marshall's, the vital interest of the United States in the independent integrity of China was sacrificed, and the foundation was laid for the present tragic situation in the Far East."

When the armies of Soviet Russia withdrew from Manchuria they left Chinese Communists in control of this area and in possession of great masses of Japanese war material.

During this period began the great split in the minds of our diplomats over whether to support the government of Chiang Kai-shek, or force Chiang Kai-shek as the price of our assistance to bring Chinese Communists into his government to form a coalition.

When Ambassador Patrick Hurley resigned in 1945 he stated, "Professional diplomats continuously advised the Chinese Communists that my efforts in preventing the collapse of the National Government did not represent the policy of the United States.  The chief opposition to the accomplishment of our mission came from American career diplomats, the embassy at Chungking, and the Chinese and Far Eastern divisions of the State Department."

With the troubled situation in China beginning to loom large in the United States, General Marshall was sent at the request of President Truman as a special emissary to China to effect a compromise and to bring about a coalition government.

In Ambassador Bullitt's article in Life, he states and I quote:  "In early summer of 1946 in order to force Chiang Kai-shek to take Communists into the Chinese Government, General Marshall had the Department of State refuse to give licenses for export of ammunition to China. Thus from the summer of 1946 to February 1948 not a single shell or a single cartridge was delivered to China for use in its American armament. And in the aviation field Marshall likewise blundered, and as a result of his breaking the American Government's contract to deliver to China planes to maintain eight and one-third air groups, for 3 years** no combat or bombing planes were delivered to China from September 1946 to March 1948. As Marshall himself confessed in February 1948 to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, this "was in effect an embargo on military supplies."

In 1948 we appropriated $468,000,000 for China, only a fraction of what we were sending to Europe, and out of this $468,000,000 only $125,000,000 was for military purposes. The end was drawing near; the assistance was too little and too late; and the Nationalist Government was engaged in a death struggle with the on-rushing Communist armies.

On November 20, 1948, former Senator D. Worth Clark, who had been sent on a special mission to China by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, in his report to the committee said, "Piecemeal aid will no longer save failing China from communism. It is now an all-out program or none, a fish or cut bait proposition."

Clark said this conclusion was confirmed by Ambassador J. Leighton Stuart and top American Army officers in China.

On November 25, 1948, 3 years too late, the New York Times said: "Secretary of State George Marshall said today the United States Government was considering what assistance it could properly give to the Chinese Government in the present critical situation."

On December 21 a Times headline was "ECA Administrator Hoffman, after seeing Truman, discloses freezing of $70,000,000 program in China in view of uncertain war situation."

The indifference, if not the contempt, with which the State Department and the President treated the wife of the head of the Nationalist Government, who was then fighting for a free China—Madame Chiang Kai-shek—was as the final chapter in this tragic story.

Our policy in China has reaped the whirlwind. The continued insistence that aid would not be forthcoming unless a coalition government with the Communists was formed was a crippling blow to the National Government. So concerned were our diplomats and their advisers, the Lattimores and the Fairbanks, with the imperfections of the diplomatic system in China after 20 years of war, and the tales of corruption in high places, that they lost sight of our tremendous stake in a non-Communist China.

There are those who claimed, and still claim, that Chinese communism was not really communism at all but merely an advanced agrarian movement which did not take directions from Moscow.

Listen to the words of the Bolton report: "Its doctrines follow those of Lenin and Stalin. Its leaders are Moscow-trained (of 35 leading Chinese Communist political leaders listed in the report, over a half either spent some time or studied in Moscow).  Its policies and actions, its strategy and tactics are Communist.  The Chinese Communists have followed faithfully every zigzag of the Kremlin's line for a generation."

This is the tragic story of China whose freedom we once fought to preserve. What our young men had saved our diplomats and our President have frittered away.

*The correct date was November 26, 1941.

**The actual duration of the embargo was about a year and a half.


Was Rep. Kennedy correct to characterize what was happening a “disaster” for the United States and China?  First, for the United States, consider what happened the very next year, the outbreak of the Korean War.  Is it likely that the North would have attacked the South without its huge Communist ally behind it?  If Kim Il Sung had been so foolish as to have done so, would not the outcome have certainly been a united anti-Communist Korea?  So most, if not all, of the losses that the United States suffered in the Korean War, in addition to the unsatisfactory stalemate of an outcome, can be chalked up to our misguided China policy. 

And what about the consequences for the people of China?  This is from a recent book on the Cold War by former Air Force Secretary Thomas C. Reed:[3]

The Great Leap Forward went on for three years.  By 1961, China’s rural economy was near collapse.

Twenty-five years later the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that during the Great Leap Forward wheat yields had fallen by 41 percent, oil seed production by 64 percent, and textiles by 50 percent.  The pig population had dropped 49 percent, and the population of all draft animals seems to have fallen in half as well.

The Great Leap Forward was finally stopped in 1961 by Liu Shao-qi, president of the country and Mao's heir apparent.  By then, tens of millions of peasants had died.  In 1984, Dr. Judith Bannister [sic] estimated the casualties at "30 million excess deaths during 1958-61."  In 1988, Contemporary Chinese Population concluded that "out of a population of 500 million, there were 19.5 million deaths in the countryside," a quarter of whom appear to have been "useless" peasant girls who were allowed to starve or were killed by their parents.  Other recent books published in China lump deaths and reductions of births together at around forty million during this period.


The Black Book of Communism estimates total Chinese deaths due to Mao’s ideology, from his accession to power in 1949 to his death in 1976, at between 45 and 72 million people.

Not mentioned, of course, in Kennedy’s speech is the disaster that the consequent Korean War represented for the unfortunate people of that country. 

“It is of the utmost importance,” said Kennedy,” that we search out and spotlight those who must bear the responsibility for our present predicament.”  But when Senator Joe McCarthy, the future godfather of Kennedy’s niece, embarked upon that vitally important mission, unprecedented vilification rained down upon him that has hardly abated to the present day.  One must wonder why.


David Martin

December 7, 2011


[1]Joseph Keeley, The China Lobby Man: The Story of Alfred Kohlberg (Arlington House, 1969), p. 271.

[2] Ibid, Appendix O, pp. 406-410.

[3] At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War (Ballantine Books, 2004), pp. 15-16.  The respected demographer, Banister, elaborated upon her numbers that Reed cited with this Dec. 4, 2011 email:  “Yes, in 1984 I wrote and presented a paper called ‘Perspectives on China's 1982 Census’ (presented with Louis Kincannon at a conference in Beijing hosted by what was then called the State Statistical Bureau of China).  In the paper, I reconstructed China's annual death rates from the 1953 census to the 1982 census, including the four Great Leap Forward years 1958-61, which implied 30 million excess deaths above the expected trend line of the death rate (based on the 1953-57 and 1962-and-beyond death rate levels and trends).  I can tell you that my GLF mortality estimates were received with shock and disbelief by Chinese colleagues at the conference!  At that time, China had essentially no demographers who could do that kind of work.  Then the great Princeton demographer Ansley Coale did another analysis using different demographic techniques on the same data that I had used (China had released historical demographic data in 1983) and he estimated 29 million excess deaths in the Great Leap.  These estimates of 29-30 million excess deaths in 1958-61 are very robust.”


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