A Force So Swift by Kevin Peraino

A Force So Swift

Kevin Peraino

A compelling yearlong narrative of America's response to the 1949 fall of Chiang Kai-shek and Nationalist China and to Mao Zedong and the Communist Party's rise to power, forever altering the world's geopolitical map.

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New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice • Winner of the 2018 Truman Book Award

A gripping narrative of the Truman Administration's response to the fall of Nationalist China and the triumph of Mao Zedong's Communist forces in 1949--an extraordinary political revolution that continues to shape East Asian politics to this day.

In the opening months of 1949, U.S. President Harry S. Truman found himself faced with a looming diplomatic catastrophe--"perhaps the greatest that this country has ever suffered," as the journalist Walter Lippmann put it. Throughout the spring and summer, Mao Zedong's Communist armies fanned out across mainland China, annihilating the rival troops of America's one-time ally Chiang Kai-shek and taking control of Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. As Truman and his aides--including his shrewd, ruthless secretary of state, Dean Acheson--scrambled to formulate a response, they were forced to contend not only with Mao, but also with unrelenting political enemies at home. Over the course of this tumultuous year, Mao would fashion a new revolutionary government in Beijing, laying the foundation for the creation of modern China, while Chiang Kai-shek would flee to the island sanctuary of Taiwan. These events transformed American foreign policy--leading, ultimately, to decades of friction with Communist China, a long-standing U.S. commitment to Taiwan, and the subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Drawing on Chinese and Russian sources, as well as recently declassified CIA documents, Kevin Peraino tells the story of this remarkable year through the eyes of the key players, including Mao Zedong, President Truman, Secretary of State Acheson, Minnesota congressman Walter Judd, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the influential first lady of the Republic of China. 

Today, the legacy of 1949 is more relevant than ever to the relationships between China, the United States, and the rest of the world, as Beijing asserts its claims in the South China Sea and tensions endure between Taiwan and the mainland.

Advance Galley Reviews

Great book about a historical time. I love books based on actual historical events. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read this early.

I started this but was unable to finish before my galley expired. What I was able to read, however, was quite interesting and I'll be checking out the book again to try to finish it.

It was a little too Western-centric for my taste, but still a lively and engaging history. The key characters involved really come to life here through the author's attention to detail and motives.

It's a very interesting book about a country that I always find intriguing and controversial. Perlaino gives a clear description of Mao's Communist China and how Mao shaped China throughout his political life. Sometimes the book is packed with information and therefore not so easily to follow on a Galley version.

Easy to read, very basic summaries with easy to understand branches to multiple bodies.

When I saw that there was an opportunity to read about what went on during the Mao regime, I was ecstatic. I had always heard my family's views but never really had a well rounded idea of what went on. I appreciated that Kevin Peraino used different sources to tell a different story that links the different countries and the people during this time.

I had been looking for some books about modern Chinese history, but was overwhelmed by information. I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to pick up this book. It was readable, and informative. It was vast, but I didn't have to trudge through chapters. It's helped me get over a historical non-fiction reading slump, and inspired me to find books about related topics.

A well-written and interesting book about a portion of history that is frequently overlooked. I enjoyed getting additional background on Mao, Truman, and the build-up for the wars in Vietnam and Korea. It's especially prescient given the U.S. current relations with China, Taiwan, and communist nations like North Korea.

Although I think this is an amazing book, and I appreciated the opportunity to read it since I work with a company headquartered in China, I think it is a tough book to read in galley form and something I need in my hands in a print copy to truly absorb the material. Because it was so dense with information it was hard to read on a Kindle .

Periano's book focuses on the United States government's response to Mao's success in the Chinese civil war. One faction argued against supporting communists and for backing the Nationalists, even though they were losing and were accused of being corrupt. Others argued for facing reality and recognizing Mao's government. Still others argued for a wait and see policy, notably Truman and Acheson. Finally the US did not recognize China until Nixon's historic visit. This history is important for understanding the current relations between the US, China and Taiwan.

I began 'A Force so Swift' while also reading Chung and Halliday's 'Mao:The Unknown Story'. While there is some controversy surrounding the latter's portrayal of Mao as 'a monster', I was pleased to see that Peraino included the 'The Unknown Story' in his bibliography. However I was a little bit put off by the author's brief background on Mao (a little too sympathetic I thought) and his use of outdated journalistic references (Edgar Snow in particular). However, as the book is more about how Truman and Acheson formulated U.S policy concerning Mao and the Communists vs. Chiang and the the Nationalists. I would characterize the book as 'History Lite'. Peraino is by profession a journalist rather than an historian and he structures the narrative of the book to be lively and interesting (mostly by including anecdotes about Madame Chiang). The narrative flows easily enough however when I finished the book I was left wondering 'Why?': Why this particular topic and why now? Why not more analysis (the long term effect of not backing the Nationalists and allowing Mao to take power and devastate China through the 'Great Leap Forward' and the so called 'Cultural Revolution'). Even without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, did Truman and Acheson make the best decision possible at that time? I guess I was left wanting more than just a retro Foreign Policy article. I'd give the book 3 stars.

We’ve all watched with fascination those arrangements where hundreds or thousands of dominoes tumble one after the other to form an elaborate illustration. And who hasn't somewhat envied the person who got to tip the first domino? Such concepts aren’t limited to fun or entertainment. Images of dominoes falling were crucial to U.S. foreign policy following World War II. In fact, tipping dominoes became a political question, phrased as “Who lost China?” The fears that a communist China meant other Asian nations would, like dominoes, fall under communist control would, in fact, eventually lead America into the Vietnam War. A number of books have been written about China becoming “Red.” Kevin Peraino, though, makes this a highly readable excursion in A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949. Peraino's approach to drawing and keeping the reader in the story of American-Chinese relations in 1949 is by “slipping into the participants’ skins and looking at the dilemmas of 1949 through their eyes.” Part of America’s problem was that Mao had one objective -- to complete the efforts to make China “Red.” As A Force So Swift details, America couldn’t decide on its objective. While a communist China was unanimously seen as detrimental, the well-intentioned but indecisive Harry Truman and U.S. foreign policy was caught up in a variety of factions. Some wanted to continue to support General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists but even they differed on the nature of that support. Others viewed the Nationalist regime as corrupt and saw supporting it as throwing good money (or military equipment) after bad. Additionally, the government was divided on whether it should attempt to work out accommodations with Mao and whether it should diplomatically recognize a Red China. One of the larger personalities in Peraino's view is Madame Chiang Kai-shek. In fact, the first chapter opens with her arriving in Washington, D.C., in December 1948. The extent of her clout is evidenced by the fact that she not only visited then-Secretary of State George Marshall on the day she arrived but also a few days later -- and both times he was hospitalized for kidney disease. While her husband would withdraw from public view for a lengthy period (by coincidence, the same day Dean Acheson succeeded Marshall as secretary of state in late January 1949), she would remain in the U.S. throughout the year, ultimately unsuccessful in generating support for a continued battle against Mao. Acheson believed any further U.S. role in supporting the Nationalists was doomed to failure. On the other hand, Louis Johnson, appointed Secretary of Defense in March 1949, argued for continued support for the Nationalists. In addition, Minnesota Congressman Walter Judd, who’d spent approximately 10 years as a missionary in China, argued, like many others, that if Mao was victorious, other Asian countries would fall to the communists. Such thinking would continue through more than the next two decades. Truman, like Acheson, thought a wait-and-see attitude toward China was the best. Part of the State Department’s thinking was that by waiting China and the Soviet Union would come into conflict. “To court Mao or to confront him? Truman did not want to do either,” Peraino writes. Ultimately, events outpaced the administration. Not only did Mao take over China and find support from the Soviet Union, Great Britain would recognize Mao’s China. With an established Red China, Congress wanted to know who, particularly in the State Department, “lost” China to the commies. In the eyes of many policymakers, the first domino had fallen. And in formulating foreign policy no one wanted to be the one who lost the next country.

A very well written account of world events that would resonate throughout history. The inability of Truman administration to decide on what to do with Mao and communism eventually resulted in the Korean & Vietnam Wars. The background of 1949 with Mao, Truman and the emerging of modern China is an essential read to understand better the history that flowed from that year.


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