In The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster (2015), James Bradley criticized American foreign policy toward China during much of the twentieth century. He contends that a “China Lobby” influenced both public opinion and government policy. His account of the origin and operation of that lobby is the most interesting part of his book.
In the mid-nineteenth century, American merchants engaged in the profitable business of selling opium to China. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ s grandfather, Warren Delano, was among those businessmen. At the same time, American missionaries sought to convert the Chinese to Christianity. They sent optimistic letters home about their progress and their hopes for the future. Some of their children, notably Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth, and Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine, continued those efforts. The China Lobby supported the Chinese Nationalist Party and Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and guided American foreign policy in that direction.
Bradley argues that the businessmen, the missionaries, and the government officials they influenced did not understand China. As a result, their advice and actions set the U.S. on a path to disaster. Americans believed wrongly that Chiang would be able to unite China and resist effectively the Japanese. Our efforts to force the Japanese to halt their invasion of China led to us fighting World War II in both Asia and Europe. We also failed to assess properly the potential for Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists to defeat Chiang and seize control of China. Had we been on better terms with Mao, perhaps we could have avoided the Korean and Vietnamese wars.
Specialists in Japanese and Chinese history might question Bradley’s understanding of Japan and China. The Japanese had expanded in Asia since the 1890’s, and America probably would have confronted Japan sooner or later. Whether good relations with Mao in the 1930s and 1940s was a realistic goal is also questionable. The U.S. had opposed communism at home and abroad since the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Nevertheless, this book serves as a reminder and a warning. The world is a complicated place, and it is extremely risky to lunge precipitously into unknown regions and cultures across the world. Experts and lobbyists eager to give advice must be examined about their expertise and their motives. The public should be wary of simple and simplistic solutions to complicated issues.