Where Chiang Kai-shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948

Where Chiang Kai-shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948

by Harold M. Tanner


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The civil war in China that ended in the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong's Communist forces was a major blow to US interests in the Far East and led to heated recriminations about how China was "lost." Despite their significance, there have been few studies in English of the war's major campaigns. The Liao-Shen Campaign was the final act in the struggle for control of China's northeast. After the Soviet defeat of Japan in Manchuria, Communist Chinese and then Nationalist troops moved into this strategically important area. China's largest industrial base and a major source of coal, Manchuria had extensive railways and key ports (both still under Soviet control). When American mediation over control of Manchuria failed, full-scale civil war broke out. By spring of 1946, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist armies had occupied most of the southern, economically developed part of Manchuria, pushing Communist forces north of the Songhua (Sungari) River. But over the next two years, the tide would turn. The Communists isolated the Nationalist armies and mounted a major campaign aimed at destroying the Kuomintang forces. This is the story of that campaign and its outcome, which were to have such far-reaching consequences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253016928
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/10/2015
Series: Twentieth-Century Battles
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 800,797
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Harold Tanner is Professor of History and Fellow of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. A specialist in twentieth-century and contemporary China and Chinese military history, he is the author of The Battle for Manchuria and the Fate of China: Siping, 1946 (IUP, 2012) and China: A History.

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Where Chiang Kai-Shek Lost China

The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948

By Harold M. Tanner

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Harold M. Tanner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01699-7



* * *

Lost or Won?

On 2 October 1948, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China's ruling Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT), president of the Republic of China and generalissimo ofthe National Revolutionary Army, flew from Beiping (as Beijing was then known) to the city of Shenyang in Manchuria. The staff of the Shenyang branch of the army's Officers' Moral Endeavor Society (responsible for local arrangements) regarded these visits with some trepidation. Chiang lived an austere and highly disciplined life, and he expected others to do the same. He demanded cleanliness and order, rose early, took an hour's nap after lunch, wrote a page in his diary every day, did his prayers and Bible-reading at night, and generally retired around 10:00 PM. Chiang's discipline did not allow him to show emotion easily. This time, as he proceeded from the airport to his usual quarters, his staff noticed the signs of tension in his face — very unusual for the famously stoic Generalissimo.

Chiang had every reason to be tense. Manchuria was the key theater in the civil war that had been raging between Chiang's government and the insurgent forces of the Chinese Communist Party ever since the end of the war against Japan in August 1945. Unfortunately for Chiang, the war had been going very badly for the Nationalist forces. The Communists had been first on the ground, thanks to the help of the Soviet Union, which had invaded Manchuria in the final week of World War II. True, the Nationalists had recovered most of southern Manchuria in operations mounted between November 1945 and October 1946. But the Communist armies, commanded by General Lin Biao, had stymied further Nationalist offensives in the winter of 1946–1947 and then shifted to the offensive themselves.

By March 1948, Lin had compressed the Nationalist armies into three isolated positions: the First Army Corps (six divisions and local units totaling 100,000 men) under General Zheng Dongguo was under siege in the city of Changchun; the Sixth Army Corps (four armies and local troops totaling 150,000 men) under General Fan Hanjie was defending the key railway junction city of Jinzhou and a few nearby positions along the Bei-Ning line (the rail line between Beiping and Shenyang); in Shenyang itself were the Eighth and Ninth Army Corps (eight armies and miscellaneous units totaling 300,000 men) under General Wei Lihuang, commander of the Northeast theater.

On 12 September 1948, Lin Biao initiated a major offensive designed to trap and then annihilate all the remaining Nationalist armies in Manchuria. When Chiang Kai-shek came to Shenyang on 2 October 1948 to meet with his generals, Lin's campaign focusing on western Liaoning and Shenyang (thus known as the Liao-Shen Campaign) was well under way. In the north, the siege was tightening around Changchun. Communist forces had blockaded the city, starving the civilian population in order to put pressure on the Nationalist garrison forces. In the south, Communist troops had cut the Bei-Ning line in several places and had isolated Jinzhou, which they were now poised to attack. Chiang and other observers, including the American diplomats in Shenyang and Nanjing, could clearly see the possibility that Lin Biao would eliminate his armies in Manchuria and that this would leave North China virtually undefended.

At this point, Chiang's only hope was to trap Lin Biao's Communist forces before they could capture Jinzhou, deal them a harsh blow to slow their advance, and then extricate his armies from Manchuria and focus on defending North China. Chiang believed that he could do this: Lin's forces were far from their base area at the end of a fragile line of supply. But for Chiang's plan to work, General Wei Lihuang would need to send his main forces out of Shenyang to cut off, trap, and wipe out the Communist armies then poised to attack the city of Jinzhou. Wei, for his part, believed that Chiang's plan would lead to nothing but disaster — his best armies would be trapped in the contorted landscape of mountains and rivers between Shenyang and Jinzhou, where they would be sitting ducks, waiting for the Communists to wipe them out.

Chiang spent the afternoon of 2 October meeting with his generals, going over the maps and analyzing the situation, trying, as he had been for months, to get Wei Lihuang to move. That evening, he is said to have told Wei and the other generals: "My purpose in coming this time is to get you all out safely. With the battle having reached this point, if we can't achieve victory now, the future is unthinkable. I will become a war criminal, and you will all be captured. This is the moment of victory or defeat."

Perhaps Chiang's dire warning was meant to inspire his generals to fight harder and win an unlikely victory. If so, it failed. Chiang continued to direct operations himself from Beiping, visiting Shenyang again on 10 and 15 October, as matters went from bad to worse. On his final visit, on 18 October, Chiang did not even enter the city — he stayed at the airport, spending most of his time on the airplane itself. Only his top generals, Wei Lihuang and Du Yuming, boarded the airplane to meet him face to face. The air force ran a telephone line across the tarmac to the airplane so that Chiang could talk to the other generals in the city. Despite Chiang's best efforts, the Liao-Shen Campaign ended with a spectacular Communist victory. Elements of Lin Biao's Northeast Field Army entered Shenyang virtually unopposed on 2 November. A few Nationalist units managed to escape from the ports of Yingkou and Huludao before they fell on 2 and 11 November; farther north, the Nationalist forces defending Changchun had already given the city up to the Communists on 19 October.

The Liao-Shen Campaign was a significant defeat for the Nationalists. Chiang had lost 472,000 of his best troops. Lin Biao had captured China's largest industrial base and had a clear road through the passes of the Great Wall to North China. In the meantime, Communist armies in North China trapped and eliminated Nationalist forces in the Huai-Hai Campaign (6 November 1948-10 January 1949). Lin Biao's forces, now known as the People's Liberation Army's Fourth Field Army, came through the Great Wall passes in November and quickly took the key cities of Beiping and Tianjin in the Ping-Jin Campaign (29 November 1948–31 January 1949). The Fourth Field Army then continued to advance to the Yangzi River and beyond. On 1 October 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, stood atop the rostrum of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) in Beijing to declare the founding of the People's Republic of China. In December, Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his American-equipped armies fled to the island of Taiwan, where they awaited a likely Communist invasion and a final defeat.


On 25 January 1949, the representative from Massachusetts took the floor of the House: "Mr. Speaker, over this weekend we have learned the extent of the disaster that has befallen China and the United States. The responsibility for the failure of our foreign policy in the Far East rests squarely with the White House and the Department of State." Continuing in his distinctive Boston accent, the young John F. Kennedy excoriated President Truman and, by implication, three secretaries of state — James Byrne, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson: "The continued insistence that aid would not be forthcoming, unless a coalition government with the Communists were formed, was a crippling blow to the National Government [of Chiang Kai-shek]. ... This is a tragic story of China, whose freedom we fought to preserve. What our young men had saved, our diplomats and president have frittered away."

With this speech, the future Democratic president joined an increasingly strident chorus of critics who blamed President Truman and his diplomats — particularly George Marshall — for the fact that the Chinese Communist Party and its People's Liberation Army had defeated Chiang Kai-shek and driven him from the mainland. Time magazine, whose publisher Henry Luce was an enthusiastic supporter of Chiang Kai-shek, posed the question "Who Lost China" in 1949. In the coming months and years members of the informal "China Lobby" — business people, missionaries, and other supporters of the Nationalist regime — and a number of congressmen would conduct a witch hunt in order to identify and punish those diplomats and academic advisors to the State Department who were said to be responsible for "losing China" to Communism.

The critics ranged from Democrats like John Kennedy to anti-Communist ideologues like Senators Styles Bridges (a New Hampshire Republican) and Patrick McCarran (Democrat from Nevada) to the despicable and probably delusional Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. While Kennedy's position may have been purely opportunist (he had to play to a fairly conservative anti-Communist Democratic constituency in Massachusetts), there is no reason to doubt that most of the criticism was rooted in deeply felt principles. But at the same time, the senators and representatives, most of them from the Republican Party, were clearly using the "who lost China" debate as a weapon with which to attack an already weakened Democratic president.

Harry Truman did not allow the criticisms and accusations to go unanswered. In August 1949, the State Department issued the administration's defense: a lengthy review of China policy entitled United States Relations with China with Special Reference to the Period 1944–1949. In this China White Paper, as it is commonly known, the State Department made the case that if anyone had "lost China," it was Chiang Kai-shek. In the State Department's view, Chiang had presided over a corrupt, dictatorial regime, he had repeatedly ignored American political, economic, and military advice, and he had put incompetent commanders (including himself) in charge of his armies. The Truman administration had sent George Marshall to mediate between the Nationalist and Communist Parties, while simultaneously sending generous amounts of economic and military aid. Chiang and the Kuomintang had failed to cooperate with Marshall and had misused the American assistance. There was nothing more that the United States could or should have done. As Secretary of State Acheson saw it: "The unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of civil war in China was beyond the control of this government of the United States. Nothing that this country did or could have done within the limits of its capabilities could have changed that result; nothing that was left undone by this country has contributed to it. It was the product of internal Chinese forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not."

For the next fifty years or more, American attempts to understand the Chinese Civil War were largely conducted within the framework established by the Truman administration's critics and the State Department's response. Both sides of the American debate focused on the issue of loss or defeat. The critics argued that the responsibility lay with the United States: the Truman administration had given Chiang Kai-shek bad advice, George Marshall's mediation mission (December 1945 to January 1947) had played into the Communists' hands, an American arms embargo (which Marshall initiated) had fatally weakened Chiang's armies, and State Department naivete (or, according to McCarthy, treason) had prevented the United States from giving Chiang the full-throated American economic, diplomatic, and particularly military assistance that would have saved him.

On the other side of the argument, the need to explain loss while defending the Truman administration and the victims of Joseph McCarthy's hunt for American Communists drove American historians of China to devote their attention to social and economic issues: Chiang's mismanagement of the economy had contributed to crushing inflation, his political cronyism made it impossible for him to address social issues such as poverty and concentration of land ownership in rural areas, and political repression alienated Chinese intellectuals, students, and workers. It became common to conclude that the fundamental cause of Chiang's downfall was that he had lost the support of the people. Over time, even the American military adopted this point of view. As the United States Department of the Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual put it in 2007: "The Chinese Civil War illustrates the importance of pursuing and linking multiple logical lines of operations. Chiang Kai-shek's defeat in 1949 resulted from his failure to properly establish security, good governance, the rule of law, essential services, and economic stability. Failures in each undermined his government's position in others" The Field Manual goes on to explain that the regime's ethical failures, corruption, and economic collapse made the Communist victory "inevitable."

Both sides of the American debate have sought to explain the outcome of the Chinese Civil War without giving any serious consideration to war itself. Critics on the right focus their eyes on Washington, D.C. The defenders of the Truman administration on the left and (ironically) military professionals who seek to make the case for a regime-building approach to counterinsurgency fix their sights on Nanjing and Shanghai. Although all seek to explain why a ragtag army of Communist guerrilla fighters defeated professional armies trained and equipped by Americans, all studiously avert their gaze from the battlefield. Secretary of State Dean Acheson himself set the tone. Observing events in China from a vast physical, cultural, and ideological distance, Acheson opined that "the Nationalist armies did not have to be defeated; they disintegrated."

The fixation on Chiang's defeat and the idea that the reasons for that defeat were overwhelmingly political, economic, and societal has allowed Americans to forget that the result of China's Civil War was not only Chiang Kai-shek's loss: it was also the Chinese Communist Party's victory. Social, economic, and political factors certainly played important roles in that victory. And there were many cases in which Nationalist armies gave up without a fight, surrendering or even switching sides. But student demonstrations and workers' strikes did not decimate Chiang Kai-shek's armies or force them to retreat from the mainland to Taiwan. Urban alienation and the impassioned essays and speeches of intellectuals cannot explain campaigns involving hundreds of thousands of troops on each side and a war that led to millions of casualties. To understand why Chiang Kai-shek lost, we need to understand how the People's Liberation Army won. To do that, we need to turn our attention away from Washington and Nanjing, to look through the fog of war onto the battlefields of China's Northeast and to ask again: how did Lin Biao's Communist forces, which were poorly trained, poorly armed, and outnumbered in November 1945, manage to defeat Chiang Kai-shek's best armies in such a spectacular fashion in the Liao-Shen Campaign only three years later?

The simple answer is that Lin Biao and his armies learned new ways of fighting as they conducted a series of operations in the Northeast from the autumn of 1945 up through the Liao-Shen Campaign. As a result, the Northeast Field Army's operations in the Liao-Shen Campaign do not conform to the two most common stereotypes about the way Chinese fight — what military historians have called the "Chinese way of war." One of those stereotypes is drawn from the popular classical text known as Sunzi's Art of War, which is thought to epitomize a Chinese way of war that is characterized by the desire to avoid battle. The second stereotype is drawn from a reading of Mao Zedong's writings on guerrilla warfare, in which Mao describes guerrilla warfare in terms reminiscent of Sunzi's Art of War: an emphasis on "alertness, mobility and attack," adjustment to the situation, the use of deception and misdirection, attack on weak points, and the choice not to fight when the conditions are not favorable.


On the surface, it would appear that Mao Zedong's conduct of the Chinese Civil War and Lin Biao's strategy and operations in Manchuria stand in violation of the key principles outlined in Sunzi's Art of War. In the west, Sunzi is best known for having written, "Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting," "the Skillful Strategist defeats the enemy without doing battle," and "to be victorious in battle and to be acclaimed for one's skill is no true skill." One of the many Chinese commentaries on the Art of War explains that true skill "involves subtle planning, secret movements, targeting the enemy's mind, attacking strategy — a bloodless victory."

In practice, bloodless victory was very rare, and most of the Art of War is concerned not with telling generals how to achieve the ideal of "winning without fighting," but with teaching the techniques of achieving victory in the most economical way possible. As military historian Arthur Waldron explains, "the attempt was to transform war so as to make it less costly and more rapidly decisive." Sunzi's approach suggests that war should be a last resort and that in making war, the general should aim to achieve a rapid victory while expending as few lives and resources as possible. Accordingly, Sunzi suggests that the general avoid the enemy when and where he is strong, and attack him at his points of weakness, to avoid protracted campaigns, to attack heavily defended walled cities only as a last resort, and, when possible, to use deception, stratagem, and psychological techniques to attack his enemy's "mind and morale."


Excerpted from Where Chiang Kai-Shek Lost China by Harold M. Tanner. Copyright © 2015 Harold M. Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Chinese Names
1. China: Lost or Won?
2. The Struggle for Manchuria Begins: August 1945-June 1946
3. Nationalist Offensive, Communist Reaction: South Manchuria, July-November 1946
4. Breaking the Nationalist Offensive: The Three Expeditions/Four Defenses Campaign, December 1946-March 1947
5. The Summer Offensive and the Wedemeyer Mission, May-August 1947
6. Encircling the Cities: the Autumn and Winter Offensives, September 1947-March 1948
7. The Battle Behind the Lines: Building the North Manchuria Base Area
Chapter 8. Army of Learning: the Transition From Guerrilla to Conventional Warfighting Capability
9. Contention Within: Summer, 1948
10. Preparing to Annihilate the Enemy: September 1948
11. Close the Door and Beat the Dog: the Battles of Tashan and Jinzhou, October 1948
12. Putting Changchun Under Siege: March-June 1948
13. Death, Treason and Surrender in the Garden City: June-October 1948
14. Avalanche of Defeat: October-November 1948
15. Assessing and Remembering

What People are Saying About This

Priscilla Roberts

Not just a military history of the campaign, but a consideration of its broad diplomatic significance and its place in historical memory. Will add significantly to our existing knowledge of the Chinese Civil War.

Priscilla Roberts]]>

Not just a military history of the campaign, but a consideration of its broad diplomatic significance and its place in historical memory. Will add significantly to our existing knowledge of the Chinese Civil War.

Steven I. Levine]]>

A masterful contribution not simply to the history of the civil war, but also to the history of 20th century China. A compelling narrative that grips one's attention from outset and doesn't let go until the last paragraph.

Mark Wilkinson

The Liao-Shen campaign is very important and well-deserving of the book's title.

Steven I. Levine

A masterful contribution not simply to the history of the civil war, but also to the history of 20th century China. A compelling narrative that grips one's attention from outset and doesn't let go until the last paragraph.

Mark Wilkinson]]>

The Liao-Shen campaign is very important and well-deserving of the book's title.

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