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  • Containing China? NSC-68 as Myth and Dogma
  • Odd Arne Westad (bio)

In late 1949, as foreign policy planners in Washington prepared the report which was to become NSC-68, the Chinese Communist leadership was deliberating the future position of China in international affairs. Newly installed in the old Qing imperial capital of Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime was deeply conscious of having resurrected China’s national integrity and of having defeated foreign attempts at dominating their country. For CCP Chairman Mao Zedong, his associates in government, and all party members, a century of national humiliation ended on October 1, 1949, when Mao in a shrill voice proclaimed the People’s Republic from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

For Mao and his associates, national resurrection was closely connected to the victory of socialism in China. It was only because the socialist objectives of the CCP were in line with the wishes of “the masses” that the party had ultimately triumphed in the civil war. Therefore, the foundations of Communist power in China were the party’s domestic policies and its ability to keep the Chinese away from the material and ideological lures of imperialism. Mao was particularly concerned about the potential of the United States to subvert the revolution from inside by attracting people away from socialism through the efforts of American missionaries, businessmen, journalists, and diplomats in China, and of Chinese agents of the United States. The chief imperialist strategy, the Chairman believed, was not to wage war from the outside, but to [End Page 85] undermine socialism from within. 1

In response to this perceived threat, the Maoist regime deliberately chose isolation from the imperialist world. Internal policy documents of the CCP that recently became available have swayed most historians away from an American “lost chance in China” thesis about the end of the 1940s. Far from being on the lookout for ways to improve relations with Washington, the Beijing leaders expected war with imperialism. They believed that China could prepare for that war only by allying closely with other socialist countries and by barring contamination from trade and diplomatic contact with the United States. The U.S. strategy in the Korean War, which brought military operations up to the Chinese border, proved to Mao that he had been right.

Mao was almost certainly more accurate in his evaluation of the relationship between his revolution and U.S. ideological purposes and power than the authors of NSC-68. NSC-68’s apocalyptic visions of the future of the United States—genuinely held, we now know, by the authors of the report, and not just spin for increased military budgets—contrasted with their enemies’ more realistic images of American purpose and power. Whereas Mao and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the late 1940s and early 1950s believed that American elites would be able to rally most Americans and the European middle classes around the dual causes of anti-Communism and containment, NSC-68 doubted their ability to do so. Although Mao and Stalin held a healthy respect for U.S. military power and, not least, the will of American elites to use that power for anti-revolutionary interventions, the 1950 National Security Council report predicted the rapid deterioration of both. Some would claim that, along with NSC-68, Stalin’s diplomatic bungling after World War II helped convince the United States to maintain military readiness and international presence. Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue that the United States would have relinquished its role as the dominant power in the international system had it not been for Stalin’s actions and NSC-68. 2

Much in contrast to predictions earlier in the text, the conclusion of NSC-68 hit upon Mao’s secret fear that the “strength of the free world” would be projected “into the Soviet world in such a way as to bring about an internal change.”This is also, of course, where the report conforms closely to what actually happened. First in China, and then in the Soviet Union, the attraction of market values defeated the revolutionary projects from within. Thus, the problem with the U.S. approach was that some of the trade...

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pp. 85-91
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