Victor Davis Hanson on China
By Hillsdale College June 7, 2019
HUGH HEWITT: Morning glory, bonjour, hi to America and Canada. Greetings to the rest of the people listening on hughhewitt.com. That music means it's the last radio hour of the week. The Hillsdale Dialogue, we call it, when I always sit down with either Dr. Larry Arnn, the President of Hillsdale College, or one of his wonderful colleagues at Hillsdale College. This week, historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson joins us.
Dr. Hanson, welcome back. Always a pleasure to talk to you.
HANSON: Thanks for having me, Hugh.
HEWITT: Well, you came to mind because of an extraordinary speech that was given on May 21 by President Xi Jinping of China. And he went to the geographic location of where the long march began 80-plus years ago, Jiangxi Province, and he told a cheering crowd, “now there is a new long march and we should make a new start.” That's significant, I think, Dr. Hanson, and I wanted to go through with you today what the long march was, what happened in China during World War II, and where we are now as a result of both of those things.
Let's start with the Long March.
HANSON: Well, Mao was pretty desperate, so the United States had finally, at least some people had decided that he wasn't the Abraham Lincoln that dissidents in the State Department were claiming. So we started to give massive aid to Chiang Kai-shek in a way we hadn't before the war.
And Chiang Kai-shek was actually, I guess you could say the Nationals were winning. You should remember, though, in that context that by 1944, earlier, before the Long March, half of China was occupied by Japan. At least maybe 60%. And the Japanese would go on to kill 15 or 16 million people, and there was a feeling in China that the United States either couldn't or had not done enough or had given it to the wrong person.
And what I'm getting at is that when the aid came late but got to over the hump, flying over Burma when Burma was lost to the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek had plenty of material resources. But Stilwell and other advisors had said he was incompetent, whatever their truth was, there was a feeling in China that even with all of his resources, he wasn't going to be able to defeat the Japanese quickly and unite the country.
And when the war was over, Japan was still in occupation of most all of Korea and half of China. And then Chiang Kai-shek thought that he would just absorb that. He got more U.S. aid, and he almost wiped out Mao. Mao in the so-called Long March, marched out when he was surrounded, and of course rallied the peasants to his side.
And I would say one thing's really important in this whole dialectic, Hugh, is that Mao had the superior propaganda, because what he was arguing was that the revolution on the liberation of World War II continued, and that the United States had flipped. In other words, we had to rebuild Japan, we had to rebuild Italy, we had to rebuild Germany. The Soviet Union, then, was fueling the national liberation movements from Burma to Mao all the way in Eastern Europe. And its argument was, we're fighting the war time governments. The United States is in collusion. But the truth was, we were trying to democratize them and rebuild them.
But it was a bad propaganda for us, and Mao unfortunately was the more romantic character to a lot of Western watching.
HEWITT: Let me fill in. You dropped a little bit on your phone there, Victor, so I want the audience to get the basic. The Long March begins, and really the Chinese Civil War begins before that. But in 1934, the Long March begins, and Mao has to retreat. China is invaded by Japan. Japan crushes them, and the Civil War began before Second World War II, and it ended after Second World War II, with the loss of China to Mao by Chiang Kai-shek.
The second part that people need to understand is what happened there during World War II. You just finished the new book The Second World Wars. And I think you covered flying over the hump pretty extensively. My uncle was one of those pilots who flew over the hump. We tried very hard not to kill Mao. We tried very hard to win the war and keep anybody in the field against Japan.
HANSON: We did. Remember that when the Japanese government took Burma, then we were completely cut off from China by land until we got the Burma Road open again. So we had to fly over the Himalayas with DC3s or C47s or whatever we call them. And we kept the wartime government alive.
But the problem that we had was, the resistance to the Japanese was broken down into three parts. There was Mao's communist rural peasant insurrection, that had been going on, like you said, for eight or nine years. And then there was the official government in Chongqing of Chiang Kai-shek, and then there was a puppet government in Manchuria that worked with the Japanese. And the result of all that was the Japanese army killed about 15 or 16 million people, 80% of whom were civilians.
And if you look at any army in World War II of losses and deaths inflicted, the Japanese were the most effective killers of any army, even more than the Nazis. So they pretty much had a free hand in China, and they nearly destroyed the country.
HEWITT: So what people, I think from The Second World War, your new book, people will get the impression that this was a hugely important theater, and they won't know anything about it. We don't know much about the Eastern Front in Russia as Americans. We knew about the Pacific War, and we knew about the war for Europe, the liberation of Europe, but we really don't know about China and Burma.
How significant was that to the ultimate defeat of imperial Japan?
HANSON: Well, it was very important. One of the reasons we don't know it is that Burma and Southeast Asia had been European colonies, and Burma had been a British colony. So Britain, once the invasion of Normandy had taken place, it was able to pour resources. So from mid 1944 to the end of the war, they had over a million people that were eventually deployed in Burma, and we bifurcated.
We said that we would supply troops to help the British by '44, and we would do the logistical support to supply the Chinese. But Britain was worried about India, protecting India. And the result was that our huge Pacific fleet, which at this time was bigger than all the fleets in the world put together, was going to island hop. MacArthur was going to go on Operation Cartwheel. Nimitz was going to island hop.
We were going to head right toward Japan, and there was sort of a tension between us and the British. But we claimed that we were out to get rid of Japan as quickly as possible, and we accused them of worrying more about getting the Japanese out of their colonial territories.
And the result was that China was important, but it wasn't in a direct trajectory. We didn't even go into Formosa. But we went in through the Pacific, and Britain went first to recapture Burma. And it was a pretty nasty fight. Japanese almost got to India in late 1944, though.
HEWITT: When we come back from break, I'm going to have you describe Joe Stilwell to people. Because I don't think many people know about our other great general and I don't think people quite understand how deeply invested we were in China.
But that Long March rhetoric, let's close this segment on that. Mao was always aware of propaganda. I mean, he was a master propagandist.
HANSON: Yeah I mean, the whole point was that he posed as an oppressed man of the people and that he was against this corrupt, Western trained Chiang Kai-shek dynasty, and that he was authentic, he was genuine, and he would create a peasant republic. And there were people who bought it in the U.S. State Department.
And Chiang Kai-shek had really alienated Stilwell. So Stilwell was a great general, but in the long view of things, he hated Chiang Kai-shek, and that animus was translated through the military and into the State Department as if Chiang Kai-shek was less preferable than Mao. Not that we backed Mao, but we were really naive of what he was all about. Because after all, by the end of the 20th century, he had killed more of his own people, 60 million, than either Stalin or Hitler.
HEWITT: Why did Stilwell dislike Chiang Kai-shek so much?
HANSON: Because once we started the airlift and then once we got the Burma Road, the United States sent millions, billions of aid to the Chinese Nationalist government. They had a huge army. But Stilwell was trying to be holistic in the sense that he said, if you're going to match the popularity of Mao and you're going to really fight the Chinese, you've got to make some land reform. You've got to make some reform on the way of human rights, and you've got to compete with the ideas of Mao.
And he felt that Chiang Kai-shek was more interested in using American supplies to eliminate Mao first and then the Japanese second. And Chiang Kai-shek kept lecturing Stilwell that you don't know the true nature of Mao. These were mass murderers and won't do any good to defeat the Japanese if they're still viable. So it was a three-way fight, and of course, Japan was fueling that animus between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao, and then they had their own, as I said earlier, puppet.
HEWITT: I'll be right back with Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, author of The Second World Wars. One short segment on who fighting Joe Stilwell was, and then we go to what did President Xi mean when he invoked the Long War?
Stay tuned, America.
Welcome back, America. It's the last radio hour of the week here on The Hugh Hewitt Show from the ReliefFactor.com studio inside the Beltway. And that always means the Hillsdale Dialogue. All things Hillsdale are found at Hillsdale.edu, including online courses by lecturers such as Victor Davis Hanson, a fellow at Hillsdale College for many years. His series on the Second World Wars, plural, is based on his book by the same name. And it's really an extraordinary book, and people should go and get it.
Dr. Hanson, a lot of Americans, even those who've had terrible history teachers, know who Eisenhower is, and they know who MacArthur is. They may not know who George Marshall is, or Nimitz, but they know the big two.
I don't think anybody knows Joe Stilwell at all. What is his great gift, and what is his great flaw as a general responsible for the Allied effort in China?
HANSON: Well, his theory was, or what he was trying to convince people was that the majority— we've got to remember that— the majority of the three million man Japanese army was tied down in China. It wasn't in the Pacific. It was about 40%, 30% was in the Pacific. And so what he was trying to argue is that China is— I mean, sort of like the modern day, a latter day Vietnam was to us, and that he could tie this huge army down that had been there in Manchuria, at least since '31 and '32 and in China itself in '36 and '37.
And he needed more supplies, and so he was very— they called him Vinegar Joe, because he was various acerbic in criticizing the allotment of resources. And he wasn't convinced that the strategy of going into the Philippines, for example, even though that happened after he was relieved, and he wasn't really convinced that the Chindits or Merrill's Marauders, or all of these counterinsurgency forces that were trying to work in Burma to get back the province for the British and open up supply lines with China would work.
What he really wanted to do was to get massive amounts of U.S. materiel, and then arm a huge Chinese conventional army and join in an alliance with Mao and Chiang Kai-shek, and then crush the Japanese, or at least divert so many more of their resources that it would be much easier for us to go on the southern route through the Pacific.
But the problem was he was a very poor diplomat. So naturally, he knew Chiang Kai-shek much better than Mao. Chiang Kai-shek's wife was Western. She was fluent in English. I think she died at 103 in the United States recently. But the point I'm making is that he got caught up in an obsession with not liking Chiang Kai-shek, and he didn't fully appreciate how well the Chiang Kai-shek family was integrated within the American State Department in the Roosevelt Administration. And so he was relieved of command, and China never really became a place where the United States could launch the defeat of Japan from.
As I said, we didn't go to Formosa. We tried putting some B29s in the Chinese bases and Indian bases. It was too hard to supply them, and so we just concluded by early 1944 that the way to get to Tokyo was not through China, but it was going to— and even not through the Philippines, the way MacArthur had envisioned— But it was going into the Mariana Islands, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and getting bases for heavy bombing of Japan.
HEWITT: It's unfair to ask a historian, but I'm doing it anyway. If China had not stayed in the war and those millions of Japanese troops had not been tied down in China, how would the Pacific War have differed?
HANSON: Well, we wouldn't have been able to win as quickly as we did. We've got to remember that the worst loss the United States suffered in the Pacific didn't come until April to July of 1945, just weeks before the end of the war at Okinawa. We'd suffered 55,000 casualties and 12,000 dead in Okinawa, and that was to get rid of 100,000 Japanese troops and 100,000 Okinawan auxiliaries.
If they had had another 300,000 or 400,000, which would have been very possible, given they probably had about a million and a half people or more in China stationed, than it would have been a nightmare. But China was a big drain on the Japanese empire, and to occupy such a large country— it had about 600 million people at the time. And 350 million were under occupation.
So you can see that it was a big contention in the Japanese military. The Navy was very angry about it. They thought too many resources went to the army in China.
HEWITT: When we come back, we go to post-war China. After that trauma, so many millions of people dying, a civil war erupts. Mao wins, and now Mao is back in the speeches of Xi Jinping. What does it mean? We'll talk with Victor Davis Hanson about it after the break. Stay tuned.
Welcome back, America. It's Hugh Hewitt in the ReliefFactor.com studio in Washington, joined by Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, historian and classicist from Hillsdale College's deep bench of scholars. His most recent book about the war is The Second World Wars. And I have taken it with me on trips to Israel and Turkey, and other journalists have looked at it longingly, and I didn't share.
But it does end at the end of the war, and that is the point where I pick up next. After the war, there was a re-eruption of the Chinese civil war, which had really begun I think in the '20s. And it just went on and on and on until 1949. Why did Chiang Kai-shek lose that to Mao, do you think, Dr. Hansen?
HANSON: Well, I think he was never able to communicate, as much as you could in rural China, that he could bring a radical change in property ownership and land redistribution, because it was still a feudal society. And then as I said earlier, Mao was a brilliant propagandist. And as Stalin did, they made this worldwide message that the United States had flipped and had abandoned its democratic principles and now was trying to, in line with militarists in Japan and Italy and Germany, becoming anti-communist but furthering the same pre-war ideology.
It was a lie. But at certain points in 1946, '47, '48, we still, in places like Korea and Burma, there were still organizations from the Japanese occupation that we used, especially right after the war. And when Xi says that, I think one thing to remember is that when he mentions the Long March where he was almost exterminated, Mao, and then subsequent we have a war that took 16 million, and then subsequently the Civil War, which took another 7 or 8 million, Xi is saying that we're victimized, we've all been counted out during the Long March, the war, the civil war second phase, and we're going to fight to the end.
And so I think that's the message. We should also remember it suggests to us that this myth that the Chinese Communist apparatus somehow liberalizing as it becomes wealthier and as trade becomes freer is not true. They still see themselves as hard Stalinists that have been picked on and victimized and will prevail against overwhelming odds.
HEWITT: From 1949— and the Chinese Civil War, I don't know what the best single volume on it is. It's very complicated for a Westerner. There are scores of battles between the nationalists and Chiang Kai-shek versus Mao and the communists. But eventually, they're forced to Taiwan, the nationalists are, and Mao establishes a party of one, in essence. He becomes the dictator of all of China, a reversion to the norm of emperors, really.
And from '49 to '72, he has nothing to do with the United States. Then Nixon— and now I've become the new Director, new CEO and President of the Nixon Foundation. We focus on this a lot. Nixon went there in the stunning Nixon to China move. And from '72 until maybe four years ago, the relationship between China and the PRC and the United States was excellent.
But it's all gone south, Victor Davis Hanson. Why, and do we need to arrest that or do we have to confront it?
HANSON: Well, it's gone south because people for the last 30 years said that infringement on copyrights or technological appropriation is the cost of doing business, or patent violations, or dumping, or currency manipulation, that was all tolerable because two things were going to happen. China was going to westernize or collapse, the Communist Party would collapse as it had in Russia, and therefore it would be a citizen of the world.
And as it got wealthier, it would start to obey the World Trade Organization, GATT, all of these international norms. And it would not translate that largess into a military colonial neo-imperial project. That has not happened. And so we've created, and we've called normal a very abnormal situation where they run up $400 billion, they own 50 ports of strategic— owned in the sense of long-term leases— 50 ports all over the world.
And their ideology is, as they say at the party Congresses, that they're destined to world hegemony. And nobody has figured out how to counter that. A lot of people have extensive business interests in China. A lot of economists have said, you know what, we're free market people. It makes us leaner and leaner when they cheat.
When they cheat, it's not going to be sustainable. When they cheat, it gives us cheap goods for a stagnant wage middle class. They have all sorts of rationales. But the problem is that nobody wants to bell the cat. We all say, well, this is a bad situation. We should put a bell around this marauding cat, but nobody wants to do it. Because to do it, you have to resort to a Neanderthal confrontational tariff mindset, and we thought we'd gone beyond that in the 21st century.
HEWITT: Now, this is where I'm getting to, the mindset one needs. What Xi said is we need the mindset of the Long March, which is so evocative for the ordinary Chinese.
You also, at the same time you've just finished this book, The Second World Wars, you've just put out a bestseller, The Case for Trump. Victor Davis Hanson, do you think that President Trump's policies on China are actually part of his appeal to the average American? Do you think that is front of mind for the average voter, that he is willing to bell the cat?
HANSON: Well, I think the polls show that people support what he's doing, because it's an affront to the entire Council on Foreign Relations establishment, and it's affront to the entire elite economic mindset, if I could use that word again. Because what he's saying is that deficits count, trade treaties count, China is never going to liberalize. China is going to use this money that it's accruing, and it's largely through unfair trade, for other purposes that are contrary to world stability.
And I think people in the Midwest appreciate that. And they're saying to themselves, wait a minute. Now we have the cheapest electricity and energy costs in the world. We've got a great location, we've got a stable government, and we've got good workers. And we can't produce things, because other countries, but particularly China, have targeted our industries to destroy them. And that's Trump's message.
And whether it's accurate, and 100% or not doesn't matter, it's appealing to a lot of people. And notice that the criticism comes from the elite, not from the rank and file. The elite say, as I said before, that there's benefits actually in China running up a huge deficit with us, a surplus on our deficit, because they feel that it will make us more competitive or, as I said, we'd get affordable things that we otherwise would not be able to purchase, or it weakens China in the long run.
But that just hasn't happened. We haven't seen China weaken.
HEWITT: Now, do you think that this is propaganda by China, that they're attempting to wage diplomacy by invoking war? Or are we really into a confrontation that will be a decade long, two decades long? Because President Trump thought he could use tariffs. And in fact, our economy is a lot stronger and bigger than their economy. And they sell a lot more to us than we sell to them. Is he wrong about this?
HANSON: No, he's not. And I think the experts— we have Sandra Thornton, our next State Department official go over there and tell the Chinese last week, if you just hang on or wait for another administration, you'll win. But because they're not winning— remember that we have 1/3 the population of China, and we produced 2 and 1/2 times the GDP that China does.
Our universities dominate all world rankings of research institutions. Not one of China's does. Our military is about four times larger than theirs. We're the largest food exporter. We're the largest energy exporter and producer. So we have all of the cards, and they don't, and they know that. But what we don't have, and thank God we don't, is an authoritarian dictatorial narrative as they do.
So they're telling their people that we're going to win, and the United States is weakening. But a disinterested observer looks at this and says, wow, China needs the United States market much more than we need the Chinese market. America's got all the economic, cultural, social advantages. China does not.
And China overshot. China preempted. Had China been careful, they might have reached parity with the United States. But they were greedy and they were too overt. We have 350,000 students in the United States, and if 1% of them— and there's more than 1% are actively engaged in espionage— you could have 3,500, 4,000 Chinese operatives. And we know that.
Two high ranking, Hugh, CIA agents, just this month of May, Mr. Mallory and Mr. Lee, were arrested in the DC area, and their sentencings went down this week for espionage with China. And so when you have a head of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, Dianne Feinstein, who admits that her chauffeur for 20 years was passing on information to Chinese interests, that's pretty scary.
HEWITT: That penetration operation of the PRC is so underestimated. I used to do this in the '80s, prepare warrants for the signature of two attorneys general to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to follow the bad guys in our country. And the bad guys and the bad girls came from all different countries.
My guess, though, it's a guess. I haven't had clearances since '88. My guess is that if you were to compare the relative number of warrants against non-Chinese actors versus Chinese actors then to today, it would have completely flipped. That's my guess.
HANSON: No, I think you're right. And I think the thing, also, if you remember what Henry Kissinger once said, among his many brilliant things, we want to be no worse friend to China than it is to Russia. Or flipped, we want to be just as friendly with Russia as Russia thinks China is, and just as friendly as China as China thinks Russia is.
And we've lost that Russian card. And I know that Russia's sunk in its strategic importance. But this whole collusion hoax has really eliminated one card that we used to play, because China has a lot of vulnerabilities with Russia. Russia still has 7,000 nuclear weapons that are deployable. So we've lost that, and we've lost a lot of traditional ways of hampering China.
And during the last eight years of the Obama administration, fairly or not, people like Taiwan, the Taiwanese, the South Koreans, the Japanese were unsure whether they were still or if they were at all under the American nuclear umbrella. They were unsure if the United States would support them if they pushed back on air and sea territorial violations.
So this is a very dangerous time, Hugh, because any time you're transitioning from appeasement to deterrence, what was abnormal had been considered normal, and now what's normal is being considered provocative and abnormal.
HEWITT: Yeah, it's weird.
HANSON: Yeah, it is. Trump is trying to destroy the status quo.
HEWITT: When I come back, we will talk about the so-called Thucydides Trap, with a man who's actually written quite a lot about the Peloponnesian War, Dr. Victor Davis Hanson. Is the United States actually in the Thucydides Trap with the People's Republic of China? We'll find out in the next segment. Stay tuned.
Welcome back, America. It's Hugh Hewitt with Victor Davis Hanson. He's the author most recently of The Second World Wars and the best-selling The Case for Trump.
We're talking right now about China and the United States. And of course from the position of someone who runs the Nixon Foundation, I've always hoped that that relationship would get stronger and stronger and more transparent and more like the relationship we have with our Western allies.
That has not happened. But what has happened is a lot of talk from Graham Allison, very noted political scientist, and others, about the so-called Thucydides Trap. What does he mean by that, Dr. Hanson, and, do you agree with him?
HANSON: What he's saying is throughout history, starting with the Athenian Empire in 431, that when an established power like Sparta—that's the point he makes—sees a rising rival like the Athenian empire, then it preempts, or it has to. It gets nervous, because the geostrategic equilibrium is disrupted.
So what Allison is saying is that the United States is the world's superpower and has been for about 20 years, since the end of the Cold War, and even before that, 30 years. And now, a rising China will create such tension that that relationship is going to be inherently unstable, and there is going to be a war, because the existing superpower, the United States, will preempt or do things because of the fear of a rising dash Athens. We'll play the role of Sparta and China will play the role of Athens.
But the problem, Hugh, is if you look at the Peloponnesian War, they didn't go— there's a word one time, Phobos, in the text of Thucydides that the rising fear of Athens. That was it. If you look at the totality of Thucydides' exegesis, it's they went to war, as they had in the first Peloponnesian War, and as they had fallen out after the Persian War, because their systems were antithetical.
They had democracy in Athens, you had Ionian culture, you had a cosmopolitan society, you had a naval power, and in Sparta you had a Parochial Doric conservative land-based power. The two systems were antithetical. So what I'm saying is that when countries go to war, it's usually because their systems are so antithetical.
If China was Japan right now, and we had the same so-called Thucydides Trap when Japan— remember Japan Incorporated of the 1980s that we thought was going to take over the world? Nobody talked of a war, because they were a democratic parliamentary system that was an ally of the United States.
So the problem with China isn't that it's a rising power that will create a paranoid response or will make us have to confront it. But the problem is that it's a dictatorial authoritarian communist country with a history of mass murder that 70 million people have now killed, 60 to 70, and it's antithetical to the open, cosmopolitan, transparent society of the United States.
And that's the problem. Not the disequilibrium in relative power. It's a contributing factor, but it's not going to make us go to war or not go to war.
HEWITT: Now, I've always believed— Victor Davis Hanson, I'd love your comments on this to close out this conversation— that the Soviet Union fell apart because the people who ran it had too much to lose in terms of money, influence, power, and authority. And rather than go to a confrontation with the West, they held on to their money.
I think in China there are a lot of billionaires. There's an upper class that is genuinely enormously wealthy, people like Jack Ma, et cetera, and they have no incentive in a wealth destroying confrontation with the United States. Therefore, I'm not as concerned about the Thucydides Trap, provided that we're firm now. What do you think?
HANSON: I agree somewhat, but there's a chief difference. And that is, during the Cold War, the 50-year Cold War, there were not a heavily invested Russian elite overseas. And by that I mean they didn't have an escape hatch. So you're right, absolutely right. They had a lot to lose.
But in the case of China, there's hundreds of billions of dollars that are invested everywhere from Beverly Hills to Lucerne, Switzerland. And the ideology of the Chinese elite is, at some point, this thing is going to blow up because of the wealth inequality and instability of the Chinese government trying to square the circle of democracy and capitalism and authoritarian communism. It's not going to work.
And they've put their offshore money. And gosh, if you go to Vancouver or Seattle or you go to Paris, the Chinese are what the Arab nations were magnified or squared 100 times in the '70s. And so what I'm worried about is that the Chinese government has already factored into the idea that if they got tense— there's a lot of people who would just leave the country, and if they were critics or they were opposed, rather than have a coup or rather than the system break down.
You have two Chinas now. You have the mass of 1.3 billion people, but you also have about 200 million or 100 million, the elites that run the country that are invested globally all over the world and are really not going to lose if China has internal problems.
HEWITT: They have bullet holes all over. Interesting. More on that the next time VDH comes back. Go get his books, The Case for Trump and The Second World Wars.
This completes this week's Hillsdale Dialogue. Thank you all. Thank you, Ben, thank you, Adam, thank you, Duane. See you Monday on the next Hugh Hewitt show.