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Reviewed by:
  • Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950
  • Steven I. Levine
Odd Arne Westad . Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. 413 pp. $65.00 hardcover; $24.95 paper.

This book is of fundamental importance to understanding twentieth-century Chinese history, comparative revolution, and early Cold War history. Weaving together strands of military, social, political, and international history, Westad provides by far the best empirically grounded, multi-archival, and comprehensive nationwide analysis of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieved victory in the Chinese civil war of 1946-1950. Most earlier scholars, both outside and inside China, have slighted the significance of the civil war years, tending to view the Chinese Communist victory and the Chinese Nationalist [End Page 162] defeat as the almost inevitable outcome of major historical, socioeconomic, and political trends in modern Chinese history. Westad's most significant contribution is to emphasize the contingent nature of the CCP's victory in the civil war. It is not far-fetched to suppose that quite plausible alterations in Nationalist military strategy, urban policy, or monetary policy might have tilted the domestic balance of power and produced one or another of several very different outcomes to the civil war, including a Nationalist victory, a regional division of China, or even a genuine coalition government. The last of these, incidentally, was the option the United States preferred during General George C. Marshall's unsuccessful mediation effort in 1945-1947 as a way to "domesticate" the Chinese Communists and render them harmless.

One of the enduring claims regarding the Chinese Communist revolution, originating in the CCP's self-interested understanding of its own history, is that victory in the civil war was a kind of open-ended popular referendum on the CCP's revolutionary program, demonstrating that the party enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of people by the time the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Westad demonstrates that although Communist policies achieved some successes in both rural and urban China, relatively few peasants or workers voluntarily supported the CCP. As long as the outcome of the civil war remained in doubt, most people—aside from the many millions who were induced or pressured into military service as well as non-combatant logistical support roles—tried to stay on the sidelines. In the context of Chinese history, Mao Zedong, like so many rulers before him, came to power through warfare. The civil war provided no permanent mandate to rule. Moreover, Westad's case study of China strongly suggests that the concept of a popular, mass-based socialist revolution may be little more than a myth of twentieth- century history. Political and military elites, not the masses, are the agents in this story.

Westad views the civil war as a multi-actor game in which the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists were certainly the main, but by no means the only, actors. To be sure, at the national level Chinese "third-party" elements, who were lacking in military power and were fragmented politically, had limited ability to affect the outcome of the civil war. At the local level, however, the CCP had to negotiate and compromise with a multitude of forces, and no single template served the needs of creating local power structures. With respect to international actors, although Westad notes the military and logistical contribution that the Soviet Union made to the CCP, particularly in Manchuria, he minimizes the role that foreign powers—the USSR and the United States—played in the outcome of the conflict. That sound judgment accords with the historiographical trend of "discovering history in China," in Paul Cohen's well-known phrase.

A central theme in Westad's study is the complexity and diversity of the politico-military conflict both within and between geographical regions and on both the Communist and the Nationalist sides. Although Mao Zedong's thought had been elevated to doctrine in 1945, Mao himself was still no more than primus inter pares during the civil war. The CCP central leadership was often deeply divided on questions of military and political strategy, and Mao and his lieutenants, being strong-willed and...