When China's Red Army asked the U.S. for a favor

Psst. Can you spare twenty million dollars to bribe some treasonous puppets?

Published May 9, 2007 9:29PM (EDT)

Only two items have been uploaded to the "library" at the Frog In a Well collaborative Chinese history blog so far, but the most recent, a five-page letter dated January 1945 from the Chinese Communist Red Army general Zhu De asking for a "favor" of 20 million dollars from U.S. General Alfred Wedemeyer, makes one lust for more. Every historian digging through archives -- in this case the "Confidential Records of the Department of State" -- should be armed with a portable scanner and should, as a matter of principle, upload to the Internet whatever of interest he or she finds.

Why? Because it pleases me.

My dear General Wedemeyer:

I have a favor that I wish to ask you. In order to destroy the puppet forces and obtain victory over the enemy, we now wish to suggest that your army lend us twenty million dollars in United States currency. This army will assume full responsibility for the repayment of this sum following the victorious conclusion of the war against Japan."

The puppet forces to which Zhu De refers were Chinese soldiers more-or-less aligned with the Japanese invaders. Konrad Lawson, the doctoral student in history who discovered the letter describes them as "treasonous troops" who "sometimes worked closely with the Japanese, sometimes launched campaigns to suppress Communist and other insurgency forces, sometimes engaged in wild banditry, but more often than not, tried to stay alive and carefully monitor which way the wind was blowing in the war."

According to Zhu De's letter, in January 1945 there were about 900,000 puppet troops, comprising "a very powerful force assisting the Japanese." But with a little financial help from the Americans, Zhu De was convinced these fickle foes could be bribed to cause all kinds of trouble for their ostensible Japanese overlords. The money could pay for "using puppets for destruction of such things as hangars, airfields, aircraft, military depots, arsenals, and military factories, mines, railway stations, bridges, wharves, ships, trucks, tunnels, blockhouses and various other military installations," as well "to assassinate Japanese officers of the Army, Navy and Air forces."

Lawson could find no evidence that Wedemeyer, the commanding general of United States forces in the China theater, ever responded to Zhu De's entreaty. History informs us that the U.S. ended up backing the losing side in the Chinese Civil War that immediately followed the "victorious conclusion of the war against Japan." But fans of alternate history could well wonder, what might have happened if the U.S. had agreed to help out? Could a loan have fostered closer relations with the Chinese Communists? Could the whole course of modern Chinese history have shifted? What if the U.S. had jettisoned Chiang Kai-shek? Would an alliance between the U.S. and the Chinese Communists have mitigated or avoided the disasters that followed, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?

That way lies madness, of course. Instead all we are left with is the historical irony of comparing the cordial words of General Zhu De -- "I have a favor that I wish to ask of you" -- with the far more challenging rhetoric, delivered in July 2005, by another General Zhu, Zhu Chenghu, variously identified as either the nephew or grandson of Zhu De. This General Zhu sent shockwaves across the world when he told the Wall Street Journal that "if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons," and that "we [...] will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds ... of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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