Nationalists vs. Communists and the Fall of Chiang Kai-shek


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

In the autumn of 1945, as the Nationalists continued their urban reconversion project, a new and deadly contest between the Nationalists and communists was taking shape in China’s northeast. At stake was the control over Manchuria, the heartland of Japan’s military-industrial empire in Asia.

An image of Chiang Kai-Shek with his army.
Chiang Kai-shek had no faith in the likelihood of a peaceful solution with the communists. (Image: 遼東半島/Public domain)

Nationalists and Communists: The Prize of Manchuria

Unlike China’s eastern seaboard, where the Nationalists enjoyed a strong numerical and logistical advantage in the race to reclaim urban centers from the surrendering Japanese, in Manchuria, the Communists held a distinct advantage.

They had been conducting guerrilla operations in the Manchurian countryside for years, while the Nationalists had no significant presence there at all. Though both sides coveted the prize of Manchuria, neither side was immediately able to claim it.

Under the terms of the Yalta Agreement of February 1945, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, the Soviet Union had promised to enter the war against Japan as soon as the European war ended. With Germany’s unconditional surrender in May of 1945, Soviet troops marched into Manchuria.

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

When Chennault and Biao Reoccupied Manchuria’s Cities

With a strong assist from the U.S. air transport service, now commanded by Chiang Kai-shek’s old friend Claire Chennault, Nationalist troops reoccupied Manchuria’s cities without a struggle. His confidence growing, Chiang now demanded, as a precondition for any power-sharing agreement with the Communists, that all of Manchuria should be recognized as belonging to the Guomindang, the Nationalist government.

Even as Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were reoccupying the major cities of the northeast, 100,000 PLA guerrilla fighters under the command of General Lin Biao were infiltrating the Manchurian countryside. Traveling on foot and horseback, they readied themselves for the forthcoming battle. It was a classic maneuver, straight out of Mao Zedong’s theory of people’s war.

Ambassador Hurley’s Unexpected Resignation

By November 1945, the two sides were in position for a showdown. At that point, with little or no progress having been made on a coalition government agreement, Ambassador Hurley, who had flown to Yan’an from the United States in the summer of 1945, unexpectedly submitted his resignation. Two weeks later, President Truman dispatched General George C. Marshall to replace Hurley as his special representative in China. Marshall’s primary task was to keep the two sides talking in an effort to head off a resumption of all-out civil war.

Marshall remained in China for 13 months. For most of this time, both Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist chief negotiator, Zhou Enlai, continued to pay lip service to the American mediation effort, despite the fact that neither of them had any faith whatsoever in the likelihood of a peaceful resolution of their differences.

Learn more about Chairman Mao.

A Showdown between Nationalists and Communists

An image of Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong once prophetically said, “We will give Yan’an to Chiang, but he will give China to us.” (Image: Materialscientist /Public domain)

In March 1946, with the icy Manchurian winter beginning to thaw out, Lin Biao’s PLA forces attacked a strategic railway junction in southern Manchuria, cutting off the Guomindang’s main supply lines to the northeast. With Communist troops in control of the rural countryside and Nationalist forces entrenched in the cities, the stage was set for a showdown.

Unfortunately for Chiang, he mistook the PLA’s tactic of avoiding large-scale, pitched battles as a sign of Communist military weakness. His confidence growing, he ordered one of his field commanders to attack and seize the Communist stronghold of Yan’an.

It was intended as a major coup, a bold stroke to convincingly demonstrate the Guomindang’s invincibility.

Unknown to the Generalissimo, however, the personal secretary of the general in charge of the Yan’an operation was a longtime Communist mole, and he was able to warn the Maoists in plenty of time to allow them to evacuate. By the time Nationalist forces reached the Communist headquarters, they found an empty nest.

Though Chiang boasted that he had delivered a decisive blow against the ‘Communist bandits’, his was a hollow victory at best. As Mao himself prophetically said, “We will give Yan’an to Chiang, but he will give China to us.”

Chiang and the Warlords During China’s Civil War

One of Chiang’s more successful strategies during the Northern Expedition of 1926–1927, the co-optation of regional warlords, now came back to haunt him. Several of Chiang’s top field commanders were, in fact, aging former warlords, whose allegiance to the Guomindang had never been particularly strong and who were now proving themselves to be rather inept when it came to the politics of urban warfare. 

Ignoring Chiang’s directives, they imposed their own form of political order, often brutal and predatory, on the urban populations they were supposed to be defending against the Communists.

Learn more about Mao’s last revolution, 1965–1966.

Fall of Nationalists in Communist Assault

An image of a Chinese book related to guerrilla warfare.
The communists conducted guerilla operations to occupy Manchuria. (Image: Cangminzho/Public domain)

When the PLA went on the offensive in mid-1947, the capital city of Shandong Province, Jinan, was among the first to fall. Over 100,000 Nationalist troops were killed or wounded in an eight-day Communist attack.

Further to the north, Lin Biao, adopting tactics of ‘sudden concentration and sudden dispersal’, amassed a force of 700,000 guerrilla fighters to completely encircle the industrial city of Changchun in Manchuria’s Jilin Province.

Lin’s army then launched a siege. Cut off from supplies and troop reinforcements, the Guomindang defenders of Changchun ran out of food and ammunition rather quickly; after five months, they defected en masse to the Communists.

Common Questions about Nationalists vs. Communists and the Fall of Chiang Kai-shek

Q: What was the Yalta agreement?

Under the Yalta agreement, the Soviet Union promised to invade Japan as soon as the war in Europe was over, and so in 1945, the Soviet army entered Manchuria.

Q: What was General Marshall’s primary objective?

General George C. Marshall’s primary task was to keep the Nationalist and Communist negotiators talking in an effort to avert the resumption of a full-scale civil war in China. For this to happen, Marshall remained in China for 13 months. However, neither side was willing to accept peace nor a coalition.

Q: What happened to the Nationalists during the Communist assault in mid-1947?

When the PLA went on the offensive in mid-1947, the capital city of Shandong Province, Jinan, was among the first to fall. Over 100,000 Nationalist troops were killed or wounded in an eight-day Communist attack.

Keep Reading
The Beginning of China’s Reform Movement
China: Failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement
The Self-Strengthening Movement: Initiatives and Opposition