Tales From the China Lobby

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Chiang Kai-Shek (Library of Congress)

Chiang Kai-Shek (Library of Congress)

For several decades around the middle of the twentieth century, US policy toward China was heavily influenced by the “China lobby,” an amalgamation of evangelicals interested in Chinese missionary work, businessmen interested in the Chinese market, members of the Kuomintang political elite, and Cold War ultra-hawks who pushed the United States toward heavy alignment with the KMT and policies of brinksmanship with Communist China.

Robert Farley takes a look back at their heyday:

The language that the China Lobby used to preclude US rapproachment with China will be familiar to contemporary readers; China was a rogue state that could use its nuclear weapons randomly at any given time, and as such wasn’t fit for diplomacy. At one point, Chiang Kai Shek claimed knowledge of the location of the most important Chinese nuclear facilities, and suggested that he could take them out, if only the US would loosen the leash a bit. The PRC, it seemed, was full of atheist maniacs who didn’t believe that 72 virgins would be waiting for them when they died, and consequently could do ANYTHING. Lousy atheists. Anyway, strategic considerations (and sanity) precluded any meaningful unleashing of Chiang, but the influence of the Lobby in the executive branch and in Congress helped prevent a Sino-American dialogue over Vietnam, the final status of Korea, the role of the PRC at the UN, and the potential for collaboration with the Soviet Union. When any President hinted at acknowledging the PRC, the Lobby could arm Congressional opponents with money and righteous rhetoric about the dangers of appeasing Beijing. Nixon was able to break the cycle, in part because the most vocal China advocates came from within his own party, but also because of the shifting strategic situation of the early 1970s. Concern about increasing Soviet power and the need for a way out of Vietnam eventually overwhelmed the story that the Lobby was trying to sell.

At any rate, I don’t like arguments purely by analogy, but one point I try to make in my book is that while neoconservatism is a relatively new phenomenon, the basic ideas that undergirded the neocon foreign policy approach in the early 21st century have a long lineage in twentieth century American foreign policy. And it’s a lineage of pretty consistent wrongness. The main difference is that in the 20th century these impulses were usually either checked (no engagement with the PRC, but no “unleashing” of Chiang either) or else channeled into relatively unimportant developing world sideshows (Arbenz coup, assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the contra war). Under Bush, however, this approach came to be applied to the central areas of strategic concern for the United States with catastrophic results.

Relatedly, if you want to understand the intellectual decline of the Bush family, this weird anecdote about unleashing Chiang is priceless.