Uncertain Partners is the impressive result of an outstanding collaborative effort by a Russian, an American, and a Chinese researcher. Sergei Goncharov, John Lewis, and Xue Litai each bring special knowledge and cultural understanding to their fascinating story of how Stalin and Mao forged an alliance of their two Communist countries in the winter of 1950, the so-called Sino-Soviet Treaty. One of the major revelations of their book is its well-documented demonstration of how both Stalin and Mao were manipulated by a third player, North Korea’s dictator Kim Il Sung. By playing one Communist leader against the other, Kim maneuvered both into permitting him to invade South Korea. Thus, only a few months after they had signed it, Stalin and Mao suddenly found that they had committed themselves to subjecting their Sino- Soviet Treaty to a trial by fire.
Throughout their well-written and generally accessible book, the three authors focus their examination on the diplomatic processes that lead to the treaty, and soon after, to the outbreak of the Korean War, at the height of the Cold War. Here, their narrative reveals how negotiations between the Soviet Union and China, and the two nations’ handling of the Korean crisis, are not driven by historical laws and forces, such as Communist history and theory would have it. Instead, what emerges from the informative pages of Uncertain Partners is a picture of two charismatic leaders, Stalin and Mao, who personally shape the fate of their two countries, and are tricked by wily Kim.
Quite surprisingly to a reader who may have thought that two Communist leaders should automatically forge a close alliance, Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue show that in the summer of 1945, which is the time when Uncertain Partners begins, the relationship between Stalin and Mao was rather troubled. Then, during the last days of World War II, Mao was ready for a restart of the Chinese Civil War between his Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. This internal conflict had been interrupted by Japan’s invasion of China; after Japan’s defeat, the civil war appeared ready to flare up again, as it had never been resolved.
Rather than tightly allying himself with the Communist rebels under Mao, however, Stalin pursued a foreign policy towards China that, in the eminently believable and well-supported opinion of the three authors, resembled more that of Imperial, nineteenth century Russia, than that of one Communist potentate toward another struggling comrade. Utilizing China’s division and weakness in 1945, Stalin thus imposed on both Nationalists and Communists a treaty that gave the Soviets great advantages.
The authors reveal further that initially, Stalin even ordered Mao to sign a peace treaty with the Nationalists; the three researchers suggest that Stalin feared a global conflict with the United States and sought to contain the Chinese Civil War in order to minimize potential flash points that could trigger World War III. Yet events in China quickly developed contrary to Stalin’s wishes, and the old antagonists crashed into each other again from June, 1946, onward. The authors show nicely how Stalin only commits himself to Mao’s cause once the Chinese Communists appear victorious on the battlefield. When only U.S. arms could have saved the Nationalists’ position, Uncertain Partners demonstrates, Stalin decides to throw his full support behind Mao’s Communist side in China.
Yet again, the relationship between the new Communist allies was not one of immediate and easy mutual acceptance. All the way from the eventual Communist victory in 1949 to the final Sino-Soviet Treaty concluded in 1950, the authors show that Mao and Stalin develop their relationship very cautiously. Again, reality as revealed by these meticulous researchers is a perfect antidote to any Marxist theory of history: Mao and Stalin do not deal with each other as the theories of class warfare would prescribe. Instead, first through many intermediaries, and then finally face-to-face in Moscow, the two Communist players act according to their countries’ long-standing national interests, and their personality traits, ambitions, rivalries, and animosities. Thus, behind the official rhetoric of Communist fraternal assistance and common class interests, there exists a more complex world of high-stakes political gambles, personal intrigue, and finally outright trickery and double-crossing.
In their endeavor to take the reader behind the scenes of diplomatic high-wire acts, the authors have been aided...
(The entire section is 1865 words.)