Postscript Manchuria – The Cold War Heats Up September 1954 – September 1955
Postscript Manchuria – The Cold War Heats Up September 1954 – September 1955The formal establishment of the new Republic of China (ROC) of China in 1947 was obviously not a moment of celebration for Mao Zedong. He was far from the centres of power in China, ensconced in Harbin, the de facto capital of the Chinese Communists in Manchuria. He was not mollified by the Soviet decision that rather than create a Manchurian SSR it would be declared Manchuria was Chinese territory, which allowed for the formation of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) at the beginning of 1948. The official line from Moscow and Harbin was that the ROC was a fascist puppet state, with China being once again subjugated by the colonialist USA and the Communists constituted a government in exile. Such sentiments were not entirely inaccurate given the degree of American influence in China, but the reality was that Manchuria had been offered up as a consolation prize for the Chinese Communists as it was clear the ROC was destined to be an American client state and there was little to be done about it. To Mao this was nothing more than the USSR capitulating to the capitalists and abandoning China in favour of securing their interest in Europe. That Mao was hardly discrete about voicing his opinions did nothing to improve relations between Mao and Stalin.
However fraught the relationship between the two Communist leaders may have been the USSR did provide plenty of equipment to arm the newly created People’s Liberation Army (PLA), though it was notable that until 1952 this was largely surplus WW2 vintage tanks, artillery and small arms. The ROC Army was doing rather better in terms of receiving modern equipment from the Americans, though there were still grave concerns in Washington about the quality of many of the officers commanding the ROC armed forces, with memories of wartime inadequacies still lingering. This must be set against Mao’s insistence on indoctrination and ideological commitment being the primary consideration in advancement within the PLA, indeed he toyed with the idea of scrapping conventional ranks altogether. The PRC armed forces therefore began to take on the worst characteristics of the Red Army circa 1942, with political commissars looking over the shoulder of men with military experience, and woe betide anyone who dared question the strategic doctrine or organizational plans emanating from Harbin. This led to a large degree of ‘groupthink’ that afflicted the decision making of the PLA and meant that Mao only heard what he wanted to hear when hie put forward his plans for reclaiming China. Chiang Kia Shek and his subordinates were not immune to this, but the Americans had slowly managed to impose some measure of professionalism among the junior and middle ranking officers and Chiang was at least able to understand that he needed an effective army to maintain control over China. In addition to equipment the Red Army also provided their share of advisors and trainers to the PLA, unfortunately any PLA officer who was seen to be too enthusiastic about learning from their Soviets comrades was apt to be removed from command if they were lucky and arrested if they were not.
If relations with Moscow improved somewhat after the death of Stalin, they were still hardly cordial and indeed Mao became more determined to pursue an independent policy regarding the ROC. Molotov and the fellow members of the inner circle in Moscow were willing to tolerate more aggressive rhetoric about the ROC, at least while they were more focused on Europe and the internal issues of the USSR than exporting global revolution to China. The problem was that Mao mistook this tolerance for tacit support of his plans, both for reorganizing Manchuria and for reclaiming China from the Kuomintang fascists. The plans for military action were formulated across 1953 and into 1954 with little or no consultation with the USSR and if the Politburo in Moscow were aware of these plans, they regarded them as nothing more than contingencies, being prepared to pre-empt any aggressive acts by the ROC.
Even as the PLA was preparing to launch their ambitious invasion plan the ROC remained ignorant of their intentions and despite later scathing assessments of the performance of the ROC before and during the conflict in Washington this cannot be entirely blamed on failures in intelligence gathering. There had been periodic alarms raised about PLA exercises since 1949 and when it seemed the Communists were preparing for another round of wargames the ROC had simply become used to them. It must also be borne in mind that despite the level of militarization in Manchuria the PLA was still considerably outnumbered by the ROC army, who could also count on swift support from the USAF, which had bases in Korea and Formosa as well as on the Chinese mainland. Some in Beijing even expressed the wish that Mao would provide them with an excuse to invade Manchuria, though they were aware that it was unlikely that the ROC would be allowed to occupy the country, they might at least see Mao replaced with a more reasonable Communist leader. Thus, it was that the only person who was not taken by surprise when the PLA forces crossed the border on the 12th of September 1954 was Mao himself.
The first weeks of the attack went as well as Mao could have hoped, with the ROC forces driven back in disarray and the PLA making considerable territorial gains. A closer scrutiny however revealed that not everything was going as Mao had envisioned. To maintain the speed of their advance the PLA had isolated and bypassed a number of ROC positions. When the follow up forces turned their attention to reducing these positions it proved far harder than expected. Not only did the ROC troops prove unexpectedly stubborn but they began to receive air support both from ROC aircraft and the USAF. This took the form of not only airstrikes against the PLA but attempts to resupply the ground troops. The results of these efforts were mixed but they did help to stiffen the resolve of the isolated troops. At the same while some of the ROC forces were completely routed and ceased to exist as fighting units most maintained their cohesion and made a fighting retreat. A key assumption of the PLA battleplan was that ROC armed forces would disintegrate in the face of a determined assault and that many would desert to the Communist cause given the opportunity, bringing both manpower to support the Communist cause. This assumption was based on the assurance from Communists sympathisers inside the ROC, which proved to be a case of ideological zeal overriding sound judgment. There were plenty of ROC soldiers willing to appear enthusiastic and nod along while some Communist sympathiser regaled with rhetoric about how much better their lives would be once Chiang’s fascists were overthrown, at least so long as the Communist was buying the drinks. For every one agent of Mao spreading the gospel of a communist utopia there were two or three refugees from Manchuria recounting the brutal reality of conditions under Communist rule, where Mao’s schemes for agricultural and industrial reorganization had brought hunger and brutal punishment as the real world failed to match up to his vision. Many factors would contribute to the ultimate failure of the PLA offensive, underpinning them all was the fact that the ROC army remained in the field and slowly pulled itself together after the shock of the initial assault.
By the beginning of December, the increased resistance by the ROC army, dwindling supplies, and the miserable weather conspired to bring the PLA advance to a final halt, though not before a last futile attack ordered by Mao towards Beijing. The ROC would now begin planning their own counteroffensive, but this would take time and the weather was just as much of an impediment to them as it was to the PLA. Between the 7th of December 1954 and the 17th of April 1955 all the manoeuvring in the region would be of the diplomatic variety.
The leadership in Moscow had been torn between a few different reactions to the PLA invasion of China, anger at being taken by surprise, anxiety at the prospect it might go disastrously badly, and then cool consideration of the potential benefits of the collapse of the ROC in the face of the early PLA successes. Thus, the Politburo was uncertain about whether to support Mao, effectively rewarding him for his reckless actions, or to try and remove him and rein in the PLA, which could lead to a massive political humiliation for the USSR and create the impression that they were weak, something that could prove personally fatal for members of the Politburo. What Molotov and his colleagues were not going to do was what Mao was beseeching them to do and ‘seize the moment’ to strike at the capitalist lackies themselves. The Soviets were well aware that whatever advantages the Red Army enjoyed over the NATO forces in conventional terms when it came to nuclear forces the west enjoyed an overwhelming advantage. In the end Moscow decided to adopt a wait and see strategy, providing additional supplies to the PLA for the promised spring offensive that Mao assured them would see final victory. At the same time while publicly Moscow characterized the invasion as an inevitable response to capitalist aggression and a necessary act to free the people of China from the yoke of fascist capitalism, privately they sent diplomatic signals to the west assuring the Americans in particular that this was a purely Asian matter and that they had no intention of expanding the conflict into any other sphere, for the time being.
In Washington while publicly President Kefauver denounced the Soviet role in this ‘shameful act of aggression’ there was great relief that this was not the beginning of a larger global plan by the Soviets, with the assurances from Moscow confirmed by the lack of mobilization by Soviet forces in Europe. There was also considerable relief, and some surprise, that the ROC had not simply collapsed in the face of the offensive. This begged the question of how exactly was the US going to respond? One thing that was ruled out was the deployment of American or other western troops on the ground beyond the existing commitment of advisors. Given the current state of the US Army that would require a significant draw down of forces in Europe and that might tempt the Soviets to change their minds about escalation. There was equally no prospect of any of the other western powers offering to assist, even when Washington floated the idea of this being done under the banner of the United Nations. The British politely declined the suggestion, while the French didn’t even bother being polite. That left the option of having the UN take the lead in trying to find a diplomatic solution. While this was certainly discussed there was zero enthusiasm for the idea. No one in Washington thought that Mao could be talked into a Munich style agreement, that is concessions being offered by the ROC simply to buy time for them regroup and rearm. Chiang was certainly not going to go along with any genuine concessions to the Communists and nor was anyone in Washington, the Kefauver administration had enough issues to deal with without being seen as weak on Communism. What was done was to substantially increase the USAF presence in the region, with Korea acting as a major staging ground for air operations, which proved to be a considerable boost to the Korean economy. Among the air assets dispatched to Korea was a squadron equipped to deliver nuclear bombs, and the weapons to carry out such a mission if the order came from Washington. Given the situation on the ground the deployment of such weapons was not unreasonable, but there was a sense that some Generals were looking for any excuse to conduct a field test of their superbomb.
On the 17th of April 1955 the PLA launched its ‘Final Liberation Offensive’ which was supposed to shatter the morale of the ROC Army and clear the way to Beijing to finally bring the glorious Communist revolt to the whole of the Chinese people. To say the offensive failed to live up to its billing is an understatement. This time there was no element of surprise when the PLA attacked. The ROC and the Americans didn’t know the exact date but courtesy of deserters, aerial reconnaissance, and poor communications security on the part of the PLA they knew the broad outlines of the plan, including the main axis of attack and that it was likely to be launched in the latter half of April. The PLA forces had barely started moving forward when their lines of communications were bombed and several divisions were decapitated as their rear area HQs were destroyed, though given the politicized nature of the officers in those HQs this was not the crippling blow it might have been.
The ROC troops defending on the ground one again proved resilient in the face of the renewed offensive. Unlike their PLA counterparts they had not had to deal with shortages of rations and clothing, and they had been able to focus on military preparations rather than lectures on the proper nature of the communist revolution and its inevitable victory. The fighting grew in intensity across the last two weeks of April and it was inevitable that there would be some places where the PLA found weak point in the lines where a breakthrough seemed possible, but on each occasion concerted air attacks and the rapid deployment of reserves broke up the attacks and restored the line. Around the 20th of May the PLA was finally forced to accept that the Final Offensive had failed. The immediate effect of this was the removal of several senior PLA commanders and their arrest on a variety of charges that would guarantee a death sentence just as soon as they were found guilty.
Although the Final Offensive had been brought to a halt there was still dissatisfaction with the performance of the ROC Army, especially in Washington. It was suggested that it had given ground too easily and had failed to exploit opportunities to conduct counterattacks. Modern analysis of the conduct of the battle suggests this criticism was unfair and the most generous interpretation of this reaction is that it reflected the jaundiced view of the Chinese nationalist forces that had built up during World War II. An altogether more cynical assessment is that certain parties in Washington wanted to portray the situation on the ground as being far more dangerous for the ROC than it actually was so they could persuade the President to permit the use of an atomic bomb in combat, in a tactical or battlefield role.
The idea of using an atomic bomb against the PLA’s rear areas to destroy their supply lines and reserves was first mooted at the beginning of May, with General Curtis LeMay strongly advocating the use of one or more bombs in support of a future ROC offensive. The discussions in Washington in the spring and summer of 1955 would seem rather glib and callous to the modern reader, but even after multiple nuclear tests atomic weapons were still seen as little more than the ultimate in bombs, and ones whose effectiveness in combat remained unproven. Tests after all could be constructed to produce favourable results and until a weapon had been tested in the field no one could really be certain of its effectiveness. There was also the question of the deterrent power of the atomic bomb, the prospect of utter destruction made the prospect of a third world war far less likely, but deterrence rested on the belief that one or both sides would actually use atomic weapons, a clear demonstration that the USA possessed that will might well spare untold lives by discouraging a global war, or so the rationale went. Besides these larger strategic concerns there was also the desire to finish the war in China as soon as possible in favour of the ROC. The use of an atomic bomb could completely disorganize the PLA and allow the ROC to sweep them aside. This prospect ironically worked against the plan to use nuclear weapons, if the ROC swept into Manchuria would the Soviets respond in kind with their nuclear arsenal?
The most immediate effect of the discussions was that Kefauver’s representatives to Chiang made it very clear that in the event of a successful advance by the ROC they must not cross into Manchuria. This was deeply frustrating to the ROC leadership, but they were dependent on the US for support, and they did recognize that pushing into Manchuria might draw the USSR directly into the conflict. The ROC leaders were also unhappy that even as the US was demanding they show restraint Washington also wanted the ROC army to launch their own counteroffensive as soon as possible and the result was an operation that was hastily planned and poorly executed, being launched on the 19th of June 1955, barely a month after the end of the PLA operation. The ROC assault was somewhat more successful than the Final Offensive, but it still fell short of its goals, in no small part because the ROC commanders fell into the classic strategic mistake of constantly shifting priorities based on where they saw some success along the line of battle, regardless of whether these advances were strategically valuable of not. This inevitably led to disorganization and confusion and by the 17th of July the ROC had no choice but to call a halt, though this was intended to be purely temporary, with the expectation that operations would resume in August.
To those advocating the nuclear option in Washington the alleged failure of the ROC operation simply affirmed their worst fears about the Chinese forces and they now raised the spectre of Mao enlarging the conflict by launching an attack on Korea. This latter idea had its origins in the fact that there had been some skirmishes between Korean and PLA troops along the Korean border. The PLA was equally concerned about the possibility of attack from Korea and with both sides engaging in aggressive reconnaissance some clashes were inevitable, without pointing any larger strategic plans. This nonetheless helped tip the balance and President Kefauver approved the plan to use a nuclear weapon against the main forward base of the PLA in Manchuria, Dulu'er.
The B-49 ‘Flying Wing’ bomber was the most advanced aircraft in the inventory of the USAF, though perhaps too advanced as it proved a challenging aircraft to fly and it had a short active career, being withdrawn from frontline service in 1957. Carrying out Operation Felspar was the operational ‘highlight’ of its entire service career and a mission that was executed flawlessly from a purely military perspective. The B-49 Spirit of Montana flew over Dulu'er at 0845 Hours on the 10th of August, encountering no aerial opposition. The air defences around Dulu'er were sparse and there were few fighter planes that could have been deployed, assuming the PLA had possessed proper co-ordination with its air assets. The Type III Plutonium bomb performed as exactly as intended, detonating in an airburst that laid waste to Dulu'er. The blast destroyed, men, supplies, vehicles and a large part of the command and control for the PLA as well as making it impossible for any further forces to pass through the area. The awful consequences of the bombing for the surviving PLA soldiers and civilian population would only become apparent in the weeks and months afterwards, though anyone who had studied the aftermath of the Auschwitz nuclear accident could have predicted them with a high degree of certainty.
In August 1955 the focus was purely on the military impact of the bombing and the rapid advance made by the ROC forces when they renewed their attacks on the 11th of August was taken by President Kefauver and General LeMay as a vindication of the decision to use the atomic bomb. The one question was how would the USSR react to the US action? The use of the atomic bomb brought a surprisingly mild condemnation from Moscow, the Politburo was just as blasé about the atomic bomb as their counterparts in Washington and it would only be after Operation Felspar that nuclear warfare would come to be seen as an existential threat and a weapon only to be used in the last resort. Without that perspective the private calculation in Moscow was that the bombing and the success of the ROC offensive was not a disastrous outcome for the Communist Bloc. It had been obvious for months that a victory over the ROC was all but impossible and if that could not be achieved then a humiliating failure that undermined Mao’s position would be an acceptable outcome for Moscow, with all the blame being firmly placed on the impatience of the Chinese communists. This perverse form victory for Moscow was contingent on the ROC not crossing into Manchuria, and Molotov made it very clear through diplomatic channels that if the Americans permitted the ROC to try and seize Manchuria then there would be an escalation in some other potential theatre of war. Whether the Politburo really was willing to start World War III over Manchuria was far from certain, but the USA was not inclined to test them and as discussed had already warned the ROC against any attempt to chase the PLA into Manchuria.
A few small ROC spearheads did nonetheless penetrate into Manchuria, but this was to force the withdrawal or surrender of the last PLA element still inside China and all of ROC forces had withdrawn by the 19th of September, whereupon the ROC declared an end to their current military operations. This halt would not become a formal ceasefire until 1956 and attempts to reach a peace treaty over the following decades repeatedly failed. For the ROC the war ended in political as well as military victory. The Communist threat had been vanquished and the survival of the ROC guaranteed, though its explosive economic growth and political evolution would have to wait for the 1960s and 1970s.
The outcome of the war was also acceptable to the USSR and the USA, though in the latter case not for President Kefauver personally. The Soviets saw Mao not only weakened but ousted completely. In the aftermath of the defeat of the PLA Mao threatened a purge of the Communist party that even Stalin would have baulked at. This was a mistake as many senior party members became more afraid of the consequences of doing nothing than they were of Mao’s retaliation and Mao Zedong found himself removed from power with the usual excuses about exhaustion and ill-health. He spent his later years being shuffled about among distant outposts of the USSR, still plotting both his return to power and the conquest of China to his dying day. President Kefauver’s days in office were also numbered. The Soviet and Manchurian propaganda about the aftermath of the Dulu'er bombing didn’t gain much traction in the US where the line that the town had been a purely military target held sway. Instead, the problem for President Kefauver was that his opponents pointed out that if the atomic bomb had been so decisive in ending the conflicted why had he hesitated so long before deploying it? This attack with its implication that the President was weak and indecisive, combined with a lacklustre domestic record saw Kefauver lose the 1956 election.