Dean Acheson’s ‘White Paper’ on China (1949)




Dean Acheson (1893-1971) was an American lawyer who served as the United States Secretary of State between 1949 and 1953. In 1948 and 1949, Acheson and Harry Truman were subjected to stinging criticism for allowing Mao Zedong and the Communists to gain the upper-hand in China. Acheson responded by publishing a 1,054-page ‘white paper’ titled United States relations with China, with special reference to the period 1944-49. Published in early August 1949, it outlined the situation in China, detailed American involvement and assistance to the Chinese and suggested reasons for the failure of the Chinese Nationalist government:



“I have compiled a record of our relations with China, special emphasis being placed on the last five years. This record is being published and will be available to the Congress and the people of the United States… This is a frank record of an extremely complicated and most unhappy period in the life of a great country to which the United States has long been attached by ties of closest friendship…

By the beginning of the 20th century, the combined force of overpopulation and new ideas set in motion that chain of events which can be called the Chinese Revolution. It is one of the most imposing revolutions in recorded history and its outcome and consequences are yet to be foreseen…

Representatives of our government, military and civilian, who were sent to assist the Chinese on prosecuting [World War II] soon discovered that the long struggle had seriously weakened the Chinese government, not only militarily and economically but also politically and in morale… It was evident to us that only a rejuvenated and progressive Chinese government which could recapture the enthusiastic loyalty of the people could and would wage and effective war against Japan…

When peace came, the United States was confronted with three possible alternatives in China: it could have pulled out lock, stock and barrel; it could have intervened militarily on a major scale to assist the Nationalists to destroy the Communists; [or] it could, while assisting the Nationalists to assert their authority over as much as China as possible, endeavour to avoid a civil war by working for a compromise between the two sides…

The second objective, of assisting the Nationalist government, we pursued vigorously from 1945 to 1949. The National government was the recognised government of a friendly power. Our friendship, and our right under international law alike, called for our aid to the government instead of to the Communists, who were seeking to subvert and overthrow it…

The reasons for the failure of the Chinese National government… do not stem from any inadequacy of American aid… The fact was that the decay which our observers had detected… early in the war had fatally sapped the powers of resistance of the Guomindang. Its leaders had proved incapable of meeting the crisis confronting them, its troops had lost the will to fight, and its government had lost popular support.

The Communists, on the other hand, through a ruthless discipline and fanatical zeal, attempted to sell themselves as guardians and liberators of the people. The Nationalist armies did not have to be defeated, they disintegrated. History has proved again and again that a regime without faith in itself and an army without morale cannot survive the test of battle…

The unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States. Nothing that this country did or could have done, within the reasonable 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…”

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