Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War

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Uncertain partners tells for the first time the inside story of the creation of the Sino-Soviet alliance and the origins of the Korean War. Using major new documentary sources, including cables and letters between Mao Zedong and Stalin, and interviews with key Russian, Chinese, and Korean participants, the book focuses on the domestic and foreign policy decision-making in all three countries from 1945 through October 1950.

The authors examine the complex relations between Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao during the last year of the Chinese civil war and the emergence of the Cold War. They show how the interplay of perceptions, national security policies, and personalities shaped those relations and were used by the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to win backing for the invasion of South Korea. The authors also examine the Sino-Soviet alliance, drawing on hitherto unknown secret protocols and understandings and the records of high-level planning that led to the invasion and to the Chinese intervention in Korea.

The book is illustrated with 42 photographs and two maps and is the fourth volume in the series, Studies in International Security and Arms Control, sponsored by the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A remarkable tripartite collaboration. . . . A new and highly revealing account of how the Korean War began, based on a careful comparison of Chinese, Soviet, and even North Korean sources. The authors' achievement, from a historian's perspective, is roughly the equivalent of making a first flight around the hidden side of the moon. . . . An exemplary standard for the 'new' Cold War history."—Atlantic Monthly

"A fascinating and exciting book. Every expert on Soviet and Chinese foreign policy and every student of international relations and the Cold War will have to read it. I am awed by the materials that have been put together in this book; it is international collaboration at its very best."—Melvyn P. Leffler, University of Virginia

"This title, the first using newly available resources from China and Russia, represents the opening of a new era in the study of Sino-Soviet relations and their effect on international politics. The credentials of the authors are the highest." —Library Journal

"This magisterial work provides the missing dimension of the Korean war—how policy was made on the communist side. Making use of previously unavailable Chinese and Soviet sources . . . this is likely to become the standard work on the subject."—John Merrill, George Washington University.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This major scholarly study sheds important new light on the origins of the 1950-1953 Korean conflict and the Cold War in Asia. Featuring primary source material that includes cable communications between Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong and texts of secret agreements between their governments, the book reveals that in late 1949 Moscow and Beijing were confronted with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's determination to attack the South; that the June 1950 invasion was directly assisted by Stalin and reluctantly backed by Mao at the Soviet dictator's insistence; that Mao had his own forces deployed to intervene on behalf of the North Koreans weeks before the September 1950 Inchon landing. The authors conclude that the decision to declare war against South Korea and later against the U.S. cannot be ascribed soley to Kim's adventurism, pressure from Stalin, or a conspiratorial agreement among the three communist leaders. The armed conflict came about ``in bits and pieces,'' they argue. ``It was reckless warmaking of the worst kind,'' and much of the documentation is published here for the first time. Goncharov is a member of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs; Lewis is a professor of Chinese politics at Stanford; Xue Litai is a research associate at Stanford. Photos. (Jan.)
Library Journal
This title, the first using newly available resources from China and Russia, represents the opening of a new era in the study of Sino-Soviet relations and their effect on international politics. The credentials of the authors are of the highest: Goncharov is a member of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while John Lewis and Xue Litai (co-authors of China Builds the Bomb , Stanford Univ. Pr., 1988) are at Stanford University. Together they examine the delicate relations among Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao and their approval of Kim Il Sung's invasion of South Korea in 1950. The use of three different ways to transliterate the Chinese resources presents a problem, as does the mixture of footnotes and endnotes. These drawbacks are offset by several strong points, including the extensive references and the translations of primary documents, which appear in the appendix. Strongly recommended for any library supporting graduate programs in Sino-Soviet relations.-- John Sandstrom, Houston P.L.
From The Critics
If the history of great events is written for the present, not the past, then the quest for the influences and factors that sculpt these events becomes an unending endeavor subject to the vicissitudes of time. Though the Victorian philosopher Thomas Carlyle suggested the history of the world was illustrated by the biography of great men, E.H. Carr of our own era, maintained a more nuanced view that great men are at once the product and agent of the historical process. With an investigative spirit, Sergei Goncharov, a member of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, John Lewis, a Professor of Chinese Politics at Stanford University and Xue Litai, a Research Associate at Stanford University in their collaborative work, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, And The Korean War An Insider's Political History Of The Beginnings Of The Sino-Soviet Alliance And Its Influence On China's Entry Into The Korean War wittingly join the debate.

Using the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance (1950) as their point of departure, Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai revert to the idea that the history of the Sino-Soviet relationship was largely fashioned not by the socio-economic conditions or political milieu of the day, but "was above all dominated by the strategic designs and political acuity of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin."

The authors bring an arsenal of scholarly research to the debate. Structuring their argument around major new sources including cables and letters between Mao and Stalin, the personal archive of I.V. Kovalev, Stalin's personal representative to Mao, the memoirs of Shi Zhe, Mao's personal secretary, and interviews with key Russian, Chinese, and Korean participants, the authors cast new light on the Sino-Soviet security relationship established during the nascent first year of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the degree of influence this relationship enjoyed over China's decision to enter the Korean War.

The authors' main point is to show that the Sino-Soviet summit meeting in Moscow in late 1949-early 1950 and China's entry into the Korean War, events which fall within eight months of each other, can be understood as a causal relationship shaped by two illustrious personalities. Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai suggest the tense, ego-driven, and often rocky encounter, the first and only face-to-face meeting between these Communist dictators, set the stage for an equally turbulent debate over China's entry into the Korean War.

There is a good deal of fresh and often fascinating material here. Drawing heavily from the personal archives of those closest to Stalin and Mao we learn from Kovalev, in an account disputed by Shi Zhe, that Gao Gang, a member of the Chinese Politburo, floated Stalin a proposal to make Manchuria the seventeenth republic of the Soviet Union. "Stalin," however, "apparently realized that he was speaking without authority. Fixing his eyes on Gao for a few awkward moments of silence he waved aside the proposal as specious and prejudicial."

More significantly, the authors illuminate for a western audience Shi Zhe's long held supposition that it was rumors among the foreign press corps in Moscow that Mao was being spurned, or even put under house arrest by his Soviet hosts, which compelled Stalin to agree to let TASS publish an interview with the Chinese leader and initiate negotiations to rework the heavily lopsided 1945 treaty between the Soviets and the Chinese Nationalists.

Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai examine in detail secret additional protocols where Mao, in return for long term Soviet economic and military assistance, bowed to many of the embarrassing conditions found in the 1945 treaty. Stalin kept his railway and naval concessions in Manchuria, forbid all non-Soviet foreigners from establishing residencies in Manchuria and Xinjiang, and retained access to mining rights in Xinjiang.

The authors make a strong case that Mao was compelled to enter the Korean conflict as soon as U.S. forces crossed the 38th parallel because the American presence off the coast of Taiwan and Korea meant that China would bear the unacceptable cost of preparing for and fighting a two front war. In light of this, when Stalin reneged on his promise to provide air cover for the Chinese People's Volunteers' incursion across the Yalu River, Mao flinched, but only temporarily. Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai successfully convey Mao's mindset when the 7th Fleet began posturing in the straits of Taiwan and the Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel. Threatened by the seemingly imperialist desire to encircle China, the Chinese leader was left little choice but to fight the world's most powerful nation just a year after fighting his own civil war, with or without Soviet aid.

This is a serious and well-researched book. But is it good history? For all its scholarship, it feels driven by a relentless desire to prove that it was more the personality quirks and uniquely deep-seated nationalist bent of both Stalin and Mao than their environs which shaped the events leading to the Sino-Soviet Alliance of 1950 and China's subsequent entry into the Korean War. In writing a book highlighting the interactions between these two men the authors seem to have fallen victim to the very viewpoint they spend hundreds of pages disparaging. After detailing the interchange of personal imbroglios between Stalin and Mao leading up to the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of 1950, the authors conclude the emergence of the U.S. as a mutual adversary forced upon both nations, "the absolute requirement for a treaty." Regardless of personal strategic designs and political acuity, "the breakthrough in the early days of January," Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai ultimately concede, "was as foreordained as it was essential." Only in the conclusion do the authors face what for the historian must be the more important question: not so much the fact of great men making decisions under the weight of their own psychology but how these decisions are to be understood and interpreted within a framework of domestic and international events.

Part of the problem lies with a shortage of material. It is hard to gauge the complex interplay of political and psychological considerations that necessarily informed Stalin and Mao without the benefit of a recording of their meeting. To compensate, the authors rely heavily on the memoirs and recollections of Kovalev and Zhe. While the personality quirks and uniquely deep-seated nationalist bent of Kovalev and Zhe, not of Stalin and Mao as the authors intended, seem to write much of the history in "Uncertain Partners," their assertions, often contradictory, leave us unsure as to who made it. If Kovalev and Zhe truly detested one another as much as Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai tell us they did, one must wonder how, and using what methodology, did the authors sift through Kovalev's and Zhe's conflicting testimony. One walks away from the book feeling that the answer to the debate over whether or not the history of the world is but the biography of great men probably lies not in one or another of the warring theories but rather rests with the cloudy remembrances of secondary actors and third rate witnesses.

Despite these methodological shortcomings, the conclusions reached by Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai were supported by the Russian government's release in 1995 of a new batch of previously classified material related to the Sino-Soviet Alliance of 1950 and the events on the Korean peninsula from 1949 to 1953. These newly released documents help assure "Uncertain Partners'" place on the bookshelf as relevant scholarship concerning embryonic Sino-Soviet relations and the origins of China's entry into the Korean War. Photos. 393 pp.

Michael P. Madon Reviewer

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Sergei Goncharov, formerly with the Far Eastern Institute at the Academy of Sciences, Moscow, is now an advisor to Boris Yeltsin and a member of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. John W. Lewis is Haas Professor of Chinese Politics at Stanford University. Xue Litai is Research Associate at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford.

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