China and Soviet Union Alignment: Geopolitical and Ideological Causes


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

Mao turned to Stalin and the Soviet Union for economic, technical, and military assistance after Maoists’ victory in 1949. It is believed that the global bipolarity post the Cold War had left Mao with no other option but to “lean to one side”. Did the US Presidents play a role in Mao’s crucial decision?

Photograph of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin sitting and clapping with people behind them during a function in Moscow.
Pursuing goals of political consolidation and economic reconstruction, Mao had turned to Soviet Union for assistance. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Challenges after the Maoists’ Victory

The Maoists’ victory in 1949 brought with it two fundamentally new challenges for the Chinese Communist Party: first, to consolidate their political control (by eliminating opposition groups and erstwhile class enemies), and second, to get the economy moving again by distributing rural farmland to peasant families, and by welcoming patriotic urban businessmen, merchants, and entrepreneurs to cooperate with the new regime.

While pursuing these twin domestic goals of political consolidation and economic reconstruction, in foreign policy the Maoist regime cast its lot firmly with the socialist camp.

In dire need of economic, technical, and military assistance, Mao swallowed his pride and “leaned to one side”, turning to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union for help.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

President Truman and the Communists

By 1949, the Cold War was well underway. The Soviet Union had dropped an “iron curtain” over eastern and central Europe, extending its dictatorial grip, in Winston Churchill’s immortal words, “from the Baltic to the Adriatic”.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman intervened to prevent Communist insurgents from toppling pro-Western governments in Greece and Turkey. In proclaiming his Truman Doctrine, the president framed the conflict in southern Europe as a contest between free peoples and totalitarian regimes.

Still later in 1947, President Truman announced the birth of the Marshall Plan, designed to accelerate the economic recovery of Western Europe and thereby counteract rising Soviet power and influence in the East.

Learn more about the birth of Chinese communism.

Kennan’s Containment Policy

In that same year, an American career diplomat named George F. Kennan articulated a new strategic blueprint for the United States in its dealings with the Soviets:

The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.

Toward that end, Kennan now called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through what he termed “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

For the next 30 years, Kennan’s containment policy would remain the corner stone of U.S. policy toward the Communist Bloc.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Photograph of President Truman signing the North Atlantic Treaty in Oval Office, with men standing behind him.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created as a trans-Atlantic anti-Soviet alliance. (Image: Abbie Rowe/Public domain)

By 1949, Truman had taken the lead in creating a trans-Atlantic anti-Soviet alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

Thus, by the time Mao and the Chinese Communists assumed control of China, the lines of conflict in the Cold War were already clearly drawn. Given the intense hostility between Moscow and Washington, Mao in reality had little choice but to align himself with Stalin and the socialist camp.

Mao and United States: Possibility of Cordial Relations

Some historians, including Barbara Tuchman and Joseph Esherick, have argued that far from being committed to Stalin from the get-go, Mao was initially inclined to pursue cordial relations with the United States in the middle and late-1940s, and that it was American short-sightedness and intransigence that prevented this from happening.

In support of this contention, these revisionist historians point to two main pieces of evidence: first, toward the end of World War II, Mao openly expressed a wish to visit Washington DC to talk with President Roosevelt. In conveying this wish to members of the U.S. Dixie Mission in Yan’an, Mao said:

America need not fear that we will not be cooperative. We must cooperate and we must have American help. … We cannot risk crossing you—cannot risk any conflict with you.

This message never reached President Roosevelt as its transmission was blocked by U.S. Ambassador Patrick Hurley.

Second, those who support the squandered opportunity theory note that on the eve of the Chinese Communists’ victory in 1949, a high-level Maoist emissary held a series of secretive back channel meetings with the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Nationalist China, Leighton Stuart. Among the various subjects discussed at these meetings was the possibility of establishing, sometime in the future, diplomatic relations between the United States and the PRC.

Problems with Squandered Opportunity Hypothesis

The problem with the squandered opportunity hypothesis is that it neglects contextual factors.

Image of Mao Zedong.
Mao wanted to visit Washington to drive a sharp wedge between the Americans and Chiang K’ai-shek. (Image: Janusz Pienkowski/Shutterstock)

With respect to Mao’s wartime request to visit Washington, for example, there is little doubt that the chairman’s primary goal was not to befriend the world leader of the imperialist camp, but rather to drive a sharp wedge between the Americans and Chiang K’ai-shek.

It was a classic application of Mao’s patented “united front” tactics, where a less threatening adversary is wooed and cajoled in order to isolate (and ultimately to overcome in defeat) a more immediate and threatening enemy, in this case, the Nationalists.

As for the CCP’s 1949 cloak-and-dagger meetings with U.S. Ambassador Leighton Stuart, the chief Communist negotiator at those meetings made it clear that the establishment of cooperative relations between the U.S. and China after the revolution was contingent upon the severance of all U.S. ties to Chiang K’ai-shek.

This was clearly further than the United States government was prepared to go, especially in view of Washington’s increasingly tense Cold War relations with Moscow.

Finally, there is scant evidence to support the claim, made by some historians, that Mao was consciously trying to play off the Russians against the Americans, and that he was seeking to escape from a tightening Soviet bear hug by courting American support.

Learn more about Communist Party’s national campaigns of land reform.

Reason for Mao’s Decision to Align with the Soviets

On the contrary, however, we now know that throughout Ambassador Stuart’s meetings with his Chinese counterpart, the Chinese side kept Stalin fully informed about the contents of their discussions; and that it was Stalin, rather than Mao, who proposed that the CCP should keep the door open to possible cooperation with the Americans, even if the U.S. refused to sever its ties with Chiang K’ai-shek.

Ultimately, then, the bulk of the evidence points to the conclusion that Mao’s decision to “lean to one side” was almost certainly the product of prevailing geopolitical and ideological realities, including the deepening of Cold War global bipolarity, and was not primarily the result of American blundering and short-sightedness.

Common Questions about China and Soviet Union Alignment

Q: What were the two challenges for the Chinese Communist Party after the Maoists’ victory in 1949?

The two challenges for the Chinese Communist Party were: first, to consolidate their political control, and second, to get the economy moving again.

Q: What was the Marshall Plan?

In 1947, President Truman had announced the birth of the Marshall Plan. It was designed to accelerate the economic recovery of Western Europe and thereby counteract rising Soviet power and influence in the East.

Q: Why else did President Truman do to check the rising influence of Soviet Union in the world?

By 1949, Truman had taken the lead in creating a trans-Atlantic anti-Soviet alliance, NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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