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How Chiang Kai-Shek lost a nation

("Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost"; By Jonathan Fenby; Carroll and Graf, 562 pp.; illustrated, $30.)

The question that roiled American political debate from the 1948 presidential election into the McCarthy era was "Who lost China?"

The thesis was that only subversion could have undermined a nation headed by the quintessential commander on a white horse (literally and figuratively), the wartime ally of Roosevelt and Churchill who led an army equipped with American guns, planes, and tanks -- and who was the toast of Henry Luce's publishing empire.

It had to be the doing, the argument ran, of those New Deal fellow-travelers, aided by that clique of expatriate "old China hands" and abetted by those equally suspect lefty journalists -- the Harry Dexter Whites, the Owen Lattimores, the Edgar Snows. But in Jonathan Fenby's probing and well-argued account, ultimately it was Chiang Kai-Shek who lost China -- and perhaps only he could have done so.

At the end, as Mao Zedong's forces swept across China, American Cold War strategy turned toward Greece and Turkey. Chiang, writes Fenby, "had squandered too many chances and disappointed too many hopes to be given another go."

Fenby is a former editor of the respected South China Morning Post, and "Chiang Kai-Shek" is as rich in detail as its sweep is broad, an absorbing tale of assassinations and poisonings, coups and plots, corruption and treachery.

The account is peopled with such characters as the Dogmeat General and the Christian General, the Young Marshal and the Old Marshal, who would be colorful if they were not, in the main, thugs. And there are the Soongs, banker T.V. and his three sisters, Ailing (who loved money), Qingling (who loved China and married Sun Yat-Sen), and the Wellesley-educated Meiling (who loved power and married Chiang -- and died last year at the age of 105). Of particular interest are Fenby's accounts of Chiang's career and China's history.The Northern Expedition of 1926-28, in which Chiang's National Revolutionary Army swept north from Canton to seize warlords' strongholds and converge on Beijing, was "the world's biggest military campaign between the two world wars." Its success, Fenby writes, "gave China back its status as a nation, buttressed by the quest for strong central authority to replace the anarchy of the warlord era."In Shanghai, Chiang had married a young woman, Ah Feng, known as "Jennie." As a rising political and military leader, he was "dazzled" by the possibility of marrying the sophisticated and accomplished Meiling Soong. When Jennie objected, Fenby says Chiang "upped the pressure by saying that if she did not agree, the Northern Expedition would be doomed. `If I can carry on, then China will be saved and I myself can live.' " She reluctantly agreed.

On Dec. 12, 1936, while Chiang was in Xian, preparing "the last five minutes" of a campaign against Communist strongholds, the Young Marshal, who favored an alliance with the Communists to defeat Japanese invaders, staged a coup. Mao, the leader of the Communist forces, sent the cosmopolitan Zhou Enlai to settle the crisis. Meiling had also flown to Xian and won Zhou's approval of "a verbal assurance of unity" against Japan.

While the agreement acknowledged Chiang's leadership in the war against Japan, Fenby writes, it also bought for the Communists "a vital breathing space when they were weak and vulnerable." It was, he writes, "a crucial moment of the twentieth century." For "had the Xian Incident not occurred, Mao might well not have survived" to rule China.

Fenby cuts through the tangle of American policy toward China during the 1940s -- the years in which Chiang appeared as a major world leader while his own world was crumbling beneath him.

America's dual policy of backing Chiang while supporting a coalition with Mao foundered as the civil war that had gone underground during the war against Japan broke out into the open. After some initial successes, a succession of Nationalist defeats exposed Chiang's weakness as a leader.

Hyperinflation destroyed the middle class. While urban protests were encouraged by the Communists, Fenby writes, they were "above all, a sign of war-weariness and alienation from a regime that had nothing more to offer."

Chiang fled in 1949 to Taiwan, where he led an exile regime until his death in 1975. Mao would die, in Beijing, the following year.

This long overdue study of Chiang and the China he lost ranks with the best works that have been written about his rival.

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