John Q. Bolton
We reached in China the exact opposite of what had been our object. – Barbara Tuchman
The chaotic 2021 American departure from Afghanistan inevitably invites comparisons to the 1975 fall of South Vietnam. Pictures of helicopters evacuating rooftops evoke feelings of helplessness of an erstwhile partner government collapsing. But before Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam, there was China. In terms of strategic calculation and failure of a supported partner, Afghanistan closely resembles the dilemma facing President Truman in 1947-48 China. Confronted by an ally who refused to make necessary economic and governmental reforms, who instead focused on punishing internal enemies even as doing so engendered centrifugal forces, Truman made the difficult choice to curtail aid to Chinese Nationalists even as the Cold War began. In doing so, Truman wisely spent American power where it would be most useful.
Of course, no historical comparison is perfect. But the China – Afghanistan linkages are more apparent and the strategic implications of US withdrawal more relevant than Vietnam. Whereas pressure on South Vietnam was exogenous, consisting of the North acting with Soviet/Chinese support, 1945-49 China collapsed due to internal factors. In Vietnam, American forces were ostensibly fighting against the global threat of communism. 1940s China was a strategic backwater, far from the main contest in Europe. Moreover, the Cold War blocs had not yet solidified as they had prior to Johnson’s 1965 decision to escalate in Vietnam. Last, in China the US did not assume the security burden of its failing KMT partner in China, as it would in South Vietnam.
Nevertheless, the parallels are strong. In Afghanistan, China, and Vietnam, American assistance contributed to corruption and an empowering of elites rather than improving governance. US military assistance tended to take over the problem from local forces and/or build a “mirror image” partner units using equipment, technology, and tactics ill-suited to local conditions and less well-developed forces. In both China and Vietnam, withdrawal proved to be less catastrophic than naysayers predicted – I believe Afghanistan will follow a similar track . In fact, despite the appearance of massive failure, leaving Vietnam set many of the conditions for America’s “Unipolar Moment” just 14 years later.
By 1945 China’s “Century of Humiliation” reached maximum entropy. Since the 1840s, centrifugal forces, including history’s worst civil war, western concessions, and Japanese invasion, had torn China apart. The country was split between Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) and Mao Tse Tung’s Chinese Communists, (CCP). The KMT governed much of China’s heartland either directly or through local warlords while the CCP had fled to the North. The war with Japan had displaced nearly 100 million Chinese and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Chinese infrastructure was woefully the rest of Asia – even the previously impressive Yellow River dikes had been destroyed by the KMT in a desperate attempt to slow the Japanese.
American entry into World War II made China a formal ally. Through the 1940s, the United States had relatively good standing among the Chinese due its missionary presence, charity, and Open Door policy. Even Mao had a broadly favorable view of the United States and would host US liaisons known as the “Dixie Mission.” President Roosevelt envisioned a post-war China as one of the “Big 4” world powers and earnestly furthered the KMT’s standing with military aid, equipment, and military trainers while basing more than 100,000 troops in China.
“We feel no program of US aid to China can possibly be effective if activated solely through [the KMT]” – John Stuart, US Ambassador to China, 1948
However, Chiang frustrated his American advisors, Generals Albert Wedemeyer and Joseph Stillwell, who found him obstinate and unwilling to make necessary reforms. While Chiang had a large army, his ability to wield it was limited by incompetence, corruption, and nepotism.
For example, the KMT could barely muster a quarter of its listed four million troops – a “ghost soldier” situation foreshadowing Afghanistan. Despite $700 million in Allied aid, by 1945 Wedemeyer reported: “China faces economic collapse…[Chiang] is losing support…[while] showing a loss of flexibility and a hardening of narrowly conservative views.” As in Afghanistan, weapons and money worsened corruption and inflation while hindering local governance.
Postwar China Policy
After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Roosevelt’s hopes for a post-war KMT-CCP coalition quickly ran aground. Not only was China devastated (requiring $9 billion just to get to prewar status) but departing US forces left Chiang with dwindling military capability dependent on American parts, ammunition, and expertise. Moreover, the Japanese departure enabled resumption of the KMT-CCP civil war. Early August skirmishes escalated – by December fighting flared across 11 provinces.
The Truman Administration faced an impasse: longtime State Department “China Hands” were skeptical about the KMT’s ability to utilize aid while the “China Lobby,” consisting of pro-KMT Congressmen and business leaders urged further assistance. Truman struck a middle course, agreeing to complete agreed-upon equipment transfers but nothing more. Truman emphasized American military assistance was not for “fratricidal warfare.” The President hoped for a CCP-KMT accord but was committed to demobilization.
To bring the parties together, Truman sent recently-retired General George Marshall to China. Truman instructed Marshall to achieve a cessation of hostilities by means of a “national conference of major political elements” and insisted Chiang’s one-party government be “broadened to include other elements.” Landing in China in January 1947, within weeks Marshall brokered a peace agreement to be monitored by American, KMT, and CCP observers. However, after a brief sojourn to Washington, Marshall returned to China to a ruptured peace. Chiang launched several assaults in Marshall’s absence and the CCP resumed guerilla attacks. Marshall spent the rest of 1946 unsuccessfully attempting to again negotiate another peace but an attempt at a National Assembly in November failed after a CCP boycott.
Meanwhile, support for the American presence eroded. In July 1946, CCP troops ambushed a convoy outside Tianjin, killing three Marines. Likewise, the rape of a Beijing girl by a US Marine incited anti-American resistance. Absent the Japanese menace, the Chinese resented foreign presence.
By winter of 1946, Marshall had adopted Stillwell and Wedemeyer’s assessment of Chiang, believing him duplicitous and far too willing to exploit gaps in American thinking for his own ends. At his final one-on-one meeting with Chiang, Marshall urged him to make peace with the CCP, believing the KMT had “overestimated their ability.” Chiang rebuffed Marshall, saying the CCP would be “brought to terms within 3 months.” However, Chiang’s advances into Manchuria instead devastated KMT forces, who found themselves isolated to railway garrisons and under constant attack from CCP guerrillas.
Marshall, now Secretary of State, returned home in January 1947 to a new strategic situation. Amid the collapse of the European economy and his growing mistrust of Soviet motives, Truman shunned further open-ended aid to the KMT. However, the administration was split on how to proceed. Wedemeyer believed American policy contradictory: “it was unreasonable to insist Chiang both institute democratic reforms and collaborate with the Communists” while denying aid. We said we wanted a strong and independent China but refused the [KMT] material and political aid and support without which it could not crush the Communists.” Others, mostly at State, believed American policy hoped for the impossible – supporting the sclerotic KMT because they were not communist made little sense as the neither the KMT or CCP reflected US ideals or interests.
I have tortured my brain, and I can’t now see the answer… the lasting solution of China’s problems must come from the Chinese themselves. – George Marshall
Ironically, while the Truman Administration was split on China, had it coalesced around an aggressive approach to the Soviets, whose support for communist partisans in Europe pushed Truman to abandon his pragmatism. The difference was stark. Truman denied Chiang’s request for aid, approving only a small advisory team and limited weapons. The next week, Truman asked Congress for aid to Greece and Turkey and committed to defending liberalism globally in what became known as the Truman Doctrine.
Assessment – Losing a Country?
In China, CCP successes accelerated throughout 1948, defeating the Nationalists in three campaigns, costing Chiang 1.5 million troops through “death, injury, or defection.” The collapse was staggering: Though in 1945 KMT forces outnumbered the CCP 1.6 million to 166,000, by mid-1948 the forces were roughly equal in number while the CCP had the momentum. Throughout the summer, the US officials attempted to facilitate economic aid while simultaneously evacuating Americans. A desperate Chiang dispatch his wife to Washington. It failed: Madame Chiang Madame Chiang departed the White House “wearing a grim smile.” By the end of 1949, the communists ruled Beijing and Chiang was ensconced in Taiwan.
Modern recriminations about the collapse in Afghanistan are timid compared to attacks levied after China “went red.” Senator McCarthy called multiple Truman officials Soviet stooges and even accused Marshall of treason. Coming on the heels of the Soviets obtaining the bomb and the Berlin Blockade, China’s red turn appeared was another failure in an already bad year. As in Afghanistan, Truman’s critics rarely offered solutions beyond “stay the course.” Nonetheless, “losing” a country prefigured in American strategic calculus and presidential perceptions of credibility. President Johnson cited China as he escalated the war in Vietnam saying, “I am not going to lose Vietnam! I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”
As they would in Afghanistan, American efforts in China focused on not losing rather than winning. Moreover, the mission shifted, from placing pressure on the Japanese to securing China’s place as a global power to prevent communist expansion. However, since the Administration did not see a feasible way to transform the KMT into an effective partner, Truman saw continuing marginal assistance as “demonstrating limited anti-communist resolve” without involving the United States in China’s Civil War. While Truman regretted failing to slow America’s rapid post-war demobilization, Marshall regarded China as a lost cause in which nothing could forestall KMT collapse, telling Congress: “A great deal must be done by the Chinese authorities themselves…nobody else can do it for them.” Wedemeyer attributed the collapse to lack of will, telling Congress in 1950, “It is not a question of equipment. [the KMT] could have defended the Yangtze with broomsticks if they had wanted.” George Kennan distrusted the KMT so much he recommended an international commission run Taiwan rather than Chiang.
Returning to the implications of the embarrassing American departure from Afghanistan, three issues come to mind: credibility, competence, and prioritization. First, saying American credibility is at stake in Afghanistan overestimates how states view credibility and underestimates what the US (and its allies and partners) did. Indeed, if 20 years, trillions in spending, and thousands of lives are not demonstrations of credibility, then what is? Moreover, calls that link Afghanistan with other US commitments not only exaggerate US commitments in degree but in kind. Afghanistan is not Taiwan or Korea or Japan; Afghanistan is a Central Asia backwater, neither a treaty ally, nor essential interest and certainly not vital to the USA.
If anything, American’s rivals will view abandoning a failing project as indicative of a renewed American willingness to prioritize by, finally, pivoting toward the Pacific. Indeed, setting reasonable priorities amid competing interests and limited power while eschewing trivial goals is what we should expect of American statecraft. As far as perceptions US reliability and credibility, that was quickly shown to be intact by the AUKUS agreement. China’s latent attempt to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, embrace of Han Nationalism, and aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy are not the traits of a erstwhile superpower but, as Hal Brands and Michael Beckley argue, a declining power.
American competence, however, cannot escape scathing review not only due to the embarrassing departure but 20+ years of poor strategy, worse policy implementation, and, at times, outright deceit. The abandonment of pending and approved special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants is a moral stain and culminates years of logjams within a program with well-known issues. Like so much in Washington, everyone agreed it was a problem but, save for a few individuals, no institution, party, or group was able to engender a solution . Within Afghanistan and the broader national security apparatus billions of dollars and years of military time was wasted building supposedly well-trained Afghan Security Forces, who collapsed against an enemy they outnumbered 10:1 and against whom they leveraged modern equipment. While some American military officers rightly deserve criticism for decades of demonstrably false “turning the corner” assessments and a flawed approach to equipping foreign forces (did the Afghan Army need UH-60 Blackhawks when their MI-17s worked well?) with US equipment, the fundamental failures lie with the National Security Establishment, Congress, and an American public – all of whom supported, or at least acquiesced, to a 20-year program with nebulous goals and indications of failure throughout.
Indeed, the American people were specifically asked to not sacrifice during the “Global War on Terror.” GWOT represents the culmination of a strand of American foreign policy that simultaneously sees Americans as leading but apart from the world. This may be geographically true, but as events over the last generation have shown, it is practically implausible. In Afghanistan (and the Middle East more broadly), America has suffered the same fate as every overstretched empire and often absolved itself of lives taken abroad as justified simply because doing so “protected the homeland.” Disregarding this innocent naivete, especially for foreign policy elites who subscribed to the notion of “American seeing further” will do the nation’s interests (and budget) well. As soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich has said, “the inverse of innocence is not guilt but awareness.”
Leaving Afghanistan will not cripple American power or credibility; America will remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, power gaps are closing, and American statecraft must improve, reaching an adroitness not seen for a generation. Our rivals’ interpretation of American credibility, competence, and willpower will be based on facts, most ably demonstrated by competent action. In the end, what matters is what Beijing and Moscow think, based on what American does, not what it says.
American foreign policy cannot presume preeminence; rather the country must use its power wisely in a manner Michael O’Hanlon calls “Resolute Restraint.” Preeminence is one thing while being able to guarantee rapid victory worldwide is another. The former is attainable, the latter is not. Doubling down on global pre-eminence and seeing risk everywhere risks unsustainable security spending and counterproductive responses as the US drone program has already done. In choosing and executing sound policy linked to realistic policy goals while working with allies and partners generally aligned with US values and interests, American statecraft can secure the homeland and our interests abroad. Doing so, however, requires an accurate assessment of what happened in Afghanistan, like China before it.
John Bolton is a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS. A graduate of the Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program, he holds degrees in military history and mechanical engineering. He has served in various command and staff assignments throughout his career and multiple combat deployments. During his 2017-18 deployment to Afghanistan, he helped write the quarterly NATO Afghanistan report and District Stability Assessments. He is an AH-64D/E aviator, Mandarin speaker, and Council on Foreign Relations Term Member. This piece is adapted from a forthcoming journal article and based off extensive archival research in the Foreign Relations of the United States as well as the Hoover institution and Marshall Libraries.