The Long March

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Harrison Salisbury retells the story of the Long March in fresh and illuminating detail and with many new insights. It is the fascinating story of one of the most astounding feats of all time, an epic on the grandest scale. The Red Army marched some six thousand miles across some of the most inhospitable and difficult terrain imaginable, while constantly being harassed by sizable enemy forces. In 1984, the fiftieth anniversary of the Long March, Salisbury was able to travel along most of the original routes. It was an enterprise that represented an impressive personal achievement for the author, a man well into his seventies. He had the opportunity to interview numerous men and women who were veterans of that march. Among these were the paramount leaders of China, as well as ordinary citizens. Salisbury was also afforded access to archives and documentary materials heretofore not open to any Westerner.

Surprisingly little was known of the conditions of the Long March outside China. They resulted from the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist movement founded by Sun Yat-sen. The CCP was formally established in 1921, ten years after the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty by the KMT. Still, conditions in China remained rather chaotic in the newly proclaimed republic. The central government was unable to assert control over vast areas ruled by rapacious warlords. As dedicated Nationalists, the Chinese Communists collaborated with the KMT and contributed to the latter’s gradual consolidation of power. By 1927, Sun’s successor, General Chiang Kai-shek, was able to unify most of China under the banner of the KMT. At this juncture, Chiang decided to eradicate the Communists, whom he perceived as a threat to his rule. Vicious death squads were unleashed on Communist functionaries in Shanghai, touching off the struggle between the CCP and the KMT, the elemental struggle over which version of the Chinese Nationalist Revolution would prevail.

The CCP was able to establish enclaves under its rule, notably in the southern area of Jiangxi province. Here the Communists captured the city of Nanchang on August 1, 1927. The date was designated as that of the founding of the Red Army. It was an event of great importance to the Chinese revolution, for it brought together the group of men who would assume the leading roles. One of the central figures—then and throughout—was Zhou Enlai, offspring of a “bankrupt Mandarin family.” Other key figures present were Lin Biao and Zhu De—and, of course, there was Mao Zedong. Mao was familiar with Jiangxi, a particularly backward and poor area of China, and he organized the so-called Autumn Harvest Uprising in September, 1927. Winning over the bandits of the region and setting up a fortress in the remote mountains, Mao was instrumental in carrying on the struggle. The initial base was expanded and transformed into a Soviet republic in 1932. Nevertheless, Chiang had huge numbers of troops at his disposal. He surrounded the Communist area and relentlessly intensified the pressure. In 1934, Chiang’s stranglehold over the CCP in Jiangxi was strong enough to threaten imminent collapse. These developments set the stage for the Long March. The Communists determined that in order to survive, they had to break through the encirclement and move westward to set up a new base.

The Red Army marched out of Jiangxi with more than eighty thousand men. Probably no one anticipated the enormity of the enterprise that lay ahead. Still, it must have been a most difficult step to take. For most of the men, Jiangxi was home. They must have been greatly troubled by the thought that they might never return. The decision was taken reluctantly. Within the CCP leadership, considerable disagreement over policy and strategy existed. There was also, at the time, strong opposition to Mao. Yet, the prospect of eventual annihilation at the hands of an enemy hundreds of thousands strong left few options.

The Red Army moved to the southwest corner of the Communist zone and from there slipped quietly into “white” territory. They were able to get out of the vicinity without military clashes through an arrangement with the Guangdong warlord. The Communists were further aided by their ability to intercept and read KMT wireless exchanges, with the KMT apparently unaware of this. By the time Chiang Kai-shek had fully realized what was afoot, the Red Army had extricated itself from the entrapment. Interestingly, both sides had a German as key military adviser: Chiang had the famed General Hans von Seeckt, who was credited with developing the stratagems that pressured the Communists ever more intensely, while the CCP had a German revolutionary named Otto Braun, who was at first virtually in overall command of the Communist forces. Later, many of Braun’s decisions proved damaging to the Red Army, and he was forced to the sidelines once Mao was able to assert his leadership.


(The entire section is 2033 words.)