American interest in Taipei was relatively limited at the conclusion of World War II. Instead the US was preoccupied with mainland China where the communists, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, controlled one-fifth of the territory (over 105 million people).
The Truman administration supported the opposing Nationalist Chinese regime of Chiang Kai-shek and wanted it to stay in power to replace war-ravaged Japan as the stabilizing force in the region. Chiang, however, was steadily losing influence due, in large part, to corruption which led to the eventual squandering of over a billion dollars in US aid.
The erosion of support for Chiang was worrisome.
Truman and Roosevelt had long been concerned about the possible emergence of a communist China, and Stalin had been convinced to deal with Chiang in return for territorial concessions, a relationship that was formalized in a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance signed in 1945.
Problems arose over whether Mao’s or Chiang’s army would control Manchuria, and the crisis became even more complicated when Russian armies moved into the area to disarm the Japanese, lingering to carry out “‘scientific looting’ of industrial machinery for the rebuilding of Russian industry.”
Fifty thousand American soldiers were dispatched to assist Chiang, bringing the total number of Americans in China to 100,000.
The large number of troops was necessary because — as General of the Army George Marshall said:
the administration was determined to avert the tragic consequences of a divided China and of a probable Russian resumption of power in Manchuria, the combined effect of this resulting in the defeat or loss of the major purpose of our war in the Pacific.
Mao’s forces were increasingly successful and, by late 1946, American troops were being pressured to abandon China.
Leaving only a small aid program in place, Truman pulled out.
While many Americans felt that more support could save Chiang, the chief of the American advisory group on site reported in 1948 that the
military debacles in my opinion can all be attributed to the world’s worst leadership and many other morale destroying factors that lead to a complete loss of will to fight.
By February 1949 the Nationalists had lost nearly half their troops, mostly by defection.
Eighty percent of the American equipment given Chiang had fallen into communist hands.
The US ended all assistance, acknowledging that the outcome of civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States. Still, many disagreed with the Truman administration’s assessment.
Senator Taft of Ohio, for example
charged in the Senate that the State Department had ‘been guided by a left-wing group who obviously have wanted to get rid of Chiang and were willing at least to turn China over to the Communists for that purpose.’
Secretary of State Acheson responded to the accusation in a speech given on January 12, 1950, titled Crisis in China — An Examination of United States Policy. He observed that many charged American bungling since
No one in his right mind could believe that the Nationalist regime had been overthrown by superior military force. Chiang Kai-shek had emerged from the war as the leader of the Chinese people, opposed by only one faction, the ragged, ill-equipped, small Communist force in the hills. Chiang controlled the greatest military power of any ruler in Chinese history, supported and given economic backing by the United States.
He went on to say that, although Chiang had been forced to abandon his capital in Nanking in April 1949,
To attribute this to inadequate foreign support . . . was to miscalculate entirely what had been going on in China and the nature of the forces involved. The almost inexhaustible patience of the Chinese people had ended. They had not overthrown the government. There was nothing to overthrow. They had simply ignored it. The Communists were not the creators of this situation, this revolutionary spirit, but had mounted it and ridden to victory and power.