“A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949” by Kevin Peraino, Crown Publishing Group, 379 pages, $28.
Reading history requires spending extended time in the company of dead people. The magic of successful writers who chronicle history is making these people come alive. Kevin Peraino in his latest book, “A Force So Swift,” demonstrates that he is one of the writers who has this gift.
In this book Peraino has chosen to highlight 1949 as the critical year during which political decisions were made that shaped the later policies involving the United States and China resulting in today’s headlines. Not only were the wars in Korea and Vietnam related to President Truman and Chairman Mao’s alienation but also China’s present status as our modern economic rival.
Despite the historical lessons involved, most readers would find the book slow going except for the charismatic personalities who were involved in the international machinations. President Truman is shown to be conflicted between his idealistic desire for permanent multinational cooperation and an underlying prejudice against Asians.
Both the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his American-educated wife pressed vigorously for our government’s support. Madame Chiang, who lived to be 106 and was beloved by many Americans, became a shrewd lobbyist for her husband.
Chiang’s strongest supporter in Congress was a Minnesota Representative, Walter Judd, who was born in Rising City, Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska School of Medicine. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, was an Ivy League product of the Eastern establishment who favored a more laissez-faire attitude toward Mao Zedong, believing that Mao’s attempt to govern China would eventually be unsuccessful.
Like the prequels to “Star Wars” this book provides useful clues about how the future is the inevitable product of the past. Peraino carefully documents this with his extensive bibliography and access to appropriate American and Chinese archives.
On Aug. 29, 1949, the Soviet Union successfully exploded its first atomic bomb and Washington’s Communist paranoia began. The reader can only ponder how our world would have differed if a more conciliatory stance toward Mao had initially been adopted.