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Chinese Mirrors

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We all know how this story turns out: By the late 1960s, China and the Soviet Union were almost at nuclear war. Why couldn't our Wise Men imagine that eventuality? Why were they so stupid?

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Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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It sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history.

The mainstream and liberal press’s quixotic search for a ‘good’ conservative merely reinforces the soft bigotry of low expectations.

For Peck, their strange rationales followed a logic that helps explain our determinately myopic China watchers today. The explanation is, fundamentally, materialist. Its raw materials are the secret words sent by diplomatic cable and NSC strategic assessments. As George Kennan wrote in 1948: "We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population.... Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern for relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming.... We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction."

Of course, illusion-stripping smoking guns like this are rare in any archive. But they are rare, Peck stresses, not merely because mandarins have wanted to hide the mercenary foundations of our foreign policy from everyone else. They have also deceived themselves. It's fascinating to see texts meant for no one's eyes but top officials marked by sentimentality and daydreaming, luxuriating in fantasies of altruism and world benefaction. For instance, Kennan in PPS/51 stresses "the heritage and philosophical concepts which are the inner reasons that we are... not only great but good, and therefore a dynamic force in the mind of the world." And the preamble to NSC 5602/1: "The genius, strength and promise of America are founded in the dedication of its people and government to the dignity, equality and freedom of the human being under God. These concepts and our institutions which nourish and maintain them with justice are the bulwark of our free society, and are the basis of the respect and leadership which have been accorded our nation by the peoples of the world."

"Where conviction stops and propaganda starts is all but impossible to sort out in NSC documents of these years," Peck observes. They propagandized themselves, the better to propagandize the world. "The Achesons, McCloys, Lovetts, and Harrimans were anything but moderates," Peck points out. "Their triumph, to themselves and others, was the claim [my emphasis] that they actually embodied the [his emphasis] national interest for the presidents they served." You see the architects of those ideas struggling to make this seem natural and self-evident. Like America's world-shaping elites today, they resembled a "Community of Faith." Their attitude was "fervently visionary."

The vision was of "state power ordering the structures of the global economic order." That was a tricky faith to proselytize, certainly to the rest of the world--"It is of course clear that we could not expect the support of any other major Western nation for a program of economic warfare against China"--but first and foremost to an American populace that tended to isolationism. Explains Peck: "Anticommunism supplied the mobilizing passion and sense of direction that the economic dimension, on its own, could not." So did the notion that, in Beijing, there lived yet more horrifying monsters than in Russia.

Peck has a precise set of claims about the economic story. China had to be isolated to hold together an emerging "multilateral global capitalist system in Asia." In Europe, the crucial geostrategic toehold was West Germany--which could enjoy economic health trading with the free states with which it was contiguous, free from the temptation to make peace with Moscow. Japan could not serve the same role in China: Its prosperity was traditionally built on trade with China. The temptation to form a modus vivendi with Mao was natural. So China had to be quarantined as an international pariah to render that temptation moot. What's more, the China that provided a role model to nations that wished to make a go of it outside the American-run international order of "free trade" threatened that entire order.

The materialism is a bit overblown. And Peck admits that the bifurcation between "peaceful coexistence" with Russians and the almost comically stringent walling off of China (there really were debates over whether an egg laid in Taiwan by a chicken raised in Beijing could be sold in Hong Kong) had other, less rationalist sources. "No matter what differences in culture and tradition, values or language," he quotes Eisenhower writing in his memoirs, "the Russian leaders were human beings, and they wanted to remain alive." He gave a rather different assessment of the Chinese at an NSC meeting: "We are always wrong when we believe that Orientals think logically as we do." Peck even drills down to materialist bedrock to explain the racism: "Such denigration served to sustain and promote key American global and regional Asian strategic objectives; it was never simply a misperception that distorted American strategy."

But history works in mysterious ways. Stripping Japan of its traditional trading relationship, our Wise Men balanced this with extraordinary concessions: They were allowed, as nowhere else, to pursue protectionist policies, given special access to US patents and licenses. "Some Washington officials--and none more caustically than Dulles--argued that the Japanese could not produce goods in enough quantity to be of interest to the United States."

By the turn of the 1970s, Japan's exports to the rest of the world had more than quadrupled; in the same decade America's increased by a mere two-thirds. Japan's trade with the United States doubled from 1965 to 1967 alone. And, of course, the original cold war hawk, Richard Nixon, cobbled together the diplomatic hinge by which China's role in the survival of the global capitalist order swung around exactly 180 degrees, our commitment to Taiwan a matter of relative indifference. China? Isn't that where everyone smiles?

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