Chinese Civil War

1926-1949

From 1920 to 1926 military governors in China warred for control of the country. One prominent group of Chinese nationalists met at Canton in 1924 where they formed the Congress of the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang was meant to reinstall governance in a unified China under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925). International advisors poured into the country hoping to assist the Chinese nationalists, including many from the Soviet Union. Russian and German advisors were on hand to christen a military academy run by then young General Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975).1

In 1926 the Kuomintang declared itself the national government and dispatched Chiang Kai-shek on a Northern Offensive to seize territory from domineering warlords. The first warlord to fall was Wu Pei-fu (1874-1939), and the nationalist forces seized Hankow in September. Over the next few months Wuch’ang, Nanking, and all of the Lower Yangtze Valley was captured. In Shanghai a local communist revolt seized the city in the name of the nationalist government, however a significant portion of the city remained under the control of 40,000 Japanese soldiers who guarded the substantial international community. The city of Shanghai did not remain in communist hands for long. Chiang seized the city in April of 1927 causing a split in the Kuomintang that forced the rightist to relocate their capital to Nanking.2

Both the Nanking and Hankow government continued to fight the Chinese warlords of the north, and rogue General Feng Yu-hsiang’s (1882-1948) forces joined Chiang’s army in June of 1927. While Chiang’s army grew, the government in Hankow collapsed after an attempted communist coup. The nationalists in Hankow expelled the communists, including military attaches from the USSR, and quelled a mutiny meant to spark communist revolution at Nachang in August. Communist insurrection increased, and a peasant uprising in Hunan led by Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) was also crushed. Mao fled into the mountains where he joined other communists including Chu The (1886-1976). On the nationalist front, Chiang refused to accept political compromise with leftists in the Kuomintang, resigned his post, and left China. In his wake a unified government was formed between Hankow and Nanking in Nanking.3   

Amidst the confusion northern warlords invaded the south but were repelled at the Battle of Lungtan where they suffered 20,000 killed and 30,000 captured. This defeat ended their offensive. The nationalists were also able to quell a communist uprising in Canton. In January of 1928 Chiang returned from abroad and was given the position of commander-in-chief and chairman of the Kuomintang Central Executive Committee. Under his authority a force of 700,000 nationalist troops struck north where they defeated a half a million-man army of the northern warlords. The successful invasion led to the capture of Peking and its renaming Peiping (Northern Peace). However, attempts to invade further into Manchuria were thwarted by the Japanese who attacked the nationalists in May of 1928 at Shantung. Peace between the Japanese and nationalist Chinese was eventually declared and Chiang used the lull in violence to consolidate nationalist rule while the communists remained in the mountains. In July of 1930 the communists attempted another insurrection but were again repulsed. The Moscow-backed leader of the communist forces Li Li-san (1899-1967) returned to the Soviet Union after the coup. Mao Tse–tung used the power vacuum to position himself as head of the communist forces.4

For the next four years, Chiang made repeated attempts to exterminate the communist threat. His forces attacked yearly and very nearly defeated Mao’s forces, but repeated incursions by the Japanese into Chinese territory forced a divergence of resources. The fifth incursion from December 1933 to September 1934 successfully unseated the communists and forced their retreat. During this process the nationalist cause was constantly being interrupted by Japanese expansion, which took over Manchuria in September of 1931. The Chinese government boycotted all Japanese goods until Japan invaded Shanghai in January 1932 and forced Chinese capitulation. The Japanese then claimed Manchuria as a colonial state and imposed a puppet regime. Chiang spent the period from 1933 to 1937 battling communist warlords and preparing for what he saw as an inevitable Japanese invasion, all the while attempting to modernize his fledgling state. He was forced to capitulate to Japanese territorial invasions several times until Japan fully invaded on July 7, 1937.5

The communists suffered even more severe setbacks. From 1934 to 1935, 200,000 communist troops of Chu Teh’s army retreated across southwest China facing sporadic attacks from nationalist forces and local warlords. The longest march took thirteen months by Chu Teh’s First Front Army and was lead by Mao. This retreat is considered the longest and fastest of any army in combat. It lasted for 6,000 miles, and its length has only been exceeded by certain Mongol expeditions of the 13th century. Out of 200,000, over 100,000 men were lost and another 40,000 chose to remain behind in sporadic armed cadres, while 50,000 joined the retreat along the way. By the time the communists reached the relative safety of Shensi, only 100,000 men remained.6

The war between the Kuomintang and Chinese communists was interrupted, but never stopped by the Japanese invasion, although most energy was diverted to contesting the Imperial Japanese Army. After Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Allies, massive violence once again erupted between the two Chinese factions in August of 1945. Working with the Allies, and in a formal relationship with the USSR, Chiang hoped to achieve a state of relative peace. Communist forces used the vacuum of withdrawing Japanese troops to seize control of formerly occupied territory in violation of Allied peace terms. The United States responded by assisting the nationalist forces in transporting 500,000 men by sea and air to central and northern China. American-backed negotiations failed to unite the two governments.7

Chiang used his well-trained nationalist troops to invade the communist-held Chinchow in November of 1945. The communist responded by attacking and occupying Shantung. Negotiations only stemmed the violence for a short time, and as the Soviet Union withdrew from Manchuria communist troops requisitioned arms and equipment intentionally left behind for them. Nationalists in Manchuria struck northwest, but by the end of 1948 all of Manchuria was in communist hands and Chiang had redirected his forces to fight the communists in Northern China. Unfortunately, Chiang’s offensive failed to capture the north before the United States’ negotiation team, led by former Army Chief of Staff George Marshall (1880-1959), decided to withdraw military equipment aid. After this the nationalists continued to suffer repeated setbacks, and in 1949 Chiang resigned from the government only to see his successor Li Tsung-jen suffer similar defeats. Although several peace attempts were made Mao demanded all out surrender. On April 20, 1949, the communists crossed the Yangtze River and captured both Nanking and Canton.8

In the final months of the war, Chiang returned to his post as president of the failing government and withdrew the nationalist Chinese to Formosa in December of 1949. After the publishing of a damaging U.S. State Department report chastising the nationalists for a break down in negotiations, Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Formosa agreed to a number of social and political reforms. The United States responded by giving military aid to the fledgling state.

Although the retreat of the Nationalist Army to Formosa, now known as Taiwan, is typically considered the end of the Chinese Civil War, it is worth mentioning that violence between the two governments continued. American President Harry Truman (1884-1972) dispatched the Seventh Fleet to guard against a communist or nationalist attack in the early years of the Korean War. As the war dragged on and Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) replaced Truman, American policy on the two states also drastically changed in support of the nationalists. Eisenhower declared in 1953 that the Seventh Fleet was prepared to defend the nationalists on Formosa as the communists continued a policy of attacking Formosa’s outlying islands with artillery and air attacks. Sporadic attacks by the two countries continued well into the 1970s, and the only agreement that continues to prevent all out warfare is a cease-fire signed in 1955 over the nationalist controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu.9