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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
"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.