[Photo story] The Dixie Mission during WWII: First contact between the US and the CCP
28 Aug 2020
The Dixie Mission was a short-lived but important effort by the US to work with the CCP during World War II. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao traces this initiative, as well as the beginnings and rise of the CCP.
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In July 1944, the year before the end of World War II, the US government sent the US Army Observation Group — the Dixie Mission — to Yan’an in northern Shaanxi, to establish first contact and official relations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Subsequently, the CCP established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and even sent volunteer troops to fight for three years against US troops in the Korean peninsula; after that war came 20 years of the Cold War. But while that initial contact was not continued, the Dixie Mission’s trip to Yan’an remains an important chapter in history.
In October 1917, the Soviet Union was galvanised by the Bolshevik Revolution and spread a wave of communism around the world, declaring that it would save the people of the world from the shackles of imperialism and colonialism. Then in 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, the world powers agreed for Japan to take over Germany’s interests in China, which immediately sparked student movements across China against imperialism and colonialism. Marxism and Leninism made its way into China, and young intellectuals from all over China flocked to set up communist groups.
In July 1921, these communist groups sent 12 representatives for a meeting in the Shanghai International Settlement, including a young delegate from Hunan called Mao Zedong. This first National Congress marked the official beginning of the CCP. The session was also attended by Vladimir Abramovich Neiman-Nikolsky, representing the Far Eastern Bureau of the Communist International (Comintern), which had been set up after the Soviet Union was established, to help establish communist groups around the world and provide support to drive a worldwide revolution.
During this period, China was in a mess and carved up by warlords, and unable to progress. Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen advocated a Western-style republic, but while Western powers were sympathetic to China’s revolutionary efforts, they had no intention of changing their own approach of seizing China’s land and stealing its resources.
China finds a model to follow in the Soviet Union
At this time, the success of the revolution in the Soviet Union gave China fresh hope for its own revolution, as well as a successful model to follow. In 1924, with the help of Soviet advisers, China’s Kuomintang (KMT) held its first national congress in Guangzhou, with CCP members joining the KMT in their personal capacity. That same year, the Whampoa Military Academy was set up, with the Soviet Union providing weapons and equipment. Simply put, with the Soviet Union’s help, the KMT managed to work with the communists to become a Lenin-esque party, with a focus on guided thinking and organisational discipline. It also set up a party military and installed party representatives, becoming an armed ideological force that was completely obedient to the party’s instructions.
1927-1937: China’s ‘golden decade’
The revamped KMT immediately showed strong fighting ability, gradually eliminating the Old Guangxi Clique and uniting the whole country through the military in just three years, and establishing a Nationalist government in Nanjing. However, the KMT and CCP saw growing differences in terms of power and methods. In 1927, the KMT’s military leader Chiang Kai-shek carried out a “purge”, arresting and executing many communists in the KMT. The CCP officially broke with the KMT and set up its own armed forces; over the next few years, it established soviets — political organisations and governmental bodies — in the hills and farming villages on the border areas of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Hunan.
Some Western historians have described 1927 to 1937 as China's "golden decade". After over ten years of fighting among warlords, China was finally united. It threw itself into developing its economy, society, culture, and education, and built a new army with modern equipment and training.
Although Japan took control of Manchuria in 1931, and deployed troops in Shanghai and along the Great Wall the following year, overall, China progressed rapidly by leaps and bounds, especially in the Yangtze River delta area, where industry, commerce, and culture and education thrived.
Greater Shanghai prospered in the 1930s — tall skyscrapers, modern roads, lush parks, and the crowds under the night lights of Nanjing Road, walking among swanky stores, hotels, cinemas, dance halls, and amusement venues, all coming together to weave a dreamlike golden era. Greater Shanghai's booming commerce, publishing, cinema, theatre, and education industries left good memories for the Chinese, and also left an impression on the international community.
The CCP gathers strength in Yan’an
As it thrived and grew in China’s coastal provinces, the CCP also expanded rapidly in Soviet-held areas in southern Jiangxi, and won against several punitive offensives by government troops. In preparation for resistance against Japan, Chiang Kai-shek proposed the policy of “resisting foreign aggression after stabilising the country” (攘外必先安内). In October 1933, he gathered millions of government troops to surround and attack central Suzhou via five different routes.
One year later, the CCP was forced to pull out and relocate, and began what it called the Long March. Over two years, the CCP’s Red Army crossed many provinces, reaching Yan’an in Shaanxi in northeast China in October 1936.
As it fought pursuing government troops along the way, with casualties, prisoners, and desertions, the Red Army reached Yan’an with barely 30,000 people. At this point, Chiang Kai-shek went personally to Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi, to orchestrate the final attack against the CCP.
At this key do-or-die moment for the CCP, Major General Zhang Xueliang, the leader of the Northeast Peace Preservation Forces (commonly known as "Northeast Army", 东北军) — who objected to civil war — launched a sudden rebellion and detained Chiang, stunning the international community. Following arbitration, a peaceful resolution was reached and the Nationalist government stopped its military attacks on the CCP, while the CCP gave up its Red Revolution and joined the government army. China’s main parties were politically united.
Six months later, with the outbreak of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, Chiang decided that it was time for China to engage in all-out resistance. CCP troops were quickly converted to become part of the national army, including the 18th Group Army, commonly known as the Eighth Route Army (八路军), which fought behind enemy lines in northern China, and the New Fourth Army (新四军) that fought in northern Jiangsu. CCP representative Zhou Enlai also became the deputy head of the political department of the military section of the CCP’s Guangdong Provincial Committee.
CCP members participated in political work in various places, drumming up support for the fight on the front line, and raising morale through the arts, such as theatre, music, and literature. Yan’an, where the CCP was, attracted many passionate young intellectuals with its clear message of war resistance. These young people later became important CCP cadres.
The CCP builds ties with the US
Due to its Soviet origins, the CCP was closely linked to Moscow but had almost no connection with the US. But in October 1937, American journalist Edgar Snow published his book Red Star Over China, describing his interviews with people like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in northwest China, and the Red Army troops that he met. The book was a bestseller, allowing American readers to see clearly and completely for the first time the CCP leaders, whom Snow portrayed as righteous heroes who were after reform and equality.
Given the wave of socialist revolution sweeping the world at the time, such romanticism was perhaps unsurprising, just as many prominent intellectuals around the world lauded Soviet society for a time. It represented the human pursuit of utopia, which moved many American intellectuals.
In the first year of China’s resistance fight, the KMT and CCP worked well together. The KMT engaged in large-scale direct fighting with the Japanese, while the CCP carried out guerrilla warfare behind the enemy, damaging Japanese transport lines and hindering their movement. However, as the war stretched on, differences between the KMT and CCP began to emerge.
On paper, CCP forces were also part of the Nationalist army setup, but in practice, they only took orders from the CCP’s central committee. In early 1941, the Nationalist government accused the CCP’s New Fourth Army of expanding its scope of military activities, and deployed troops to attack it. This was the first major military conflict between the KMT and CCP since the start of the resistance, and it deepened the mistrust between both sides.
Enter the Dixie Mission
After the war broke out in the Pacific theatre, the US appointed Chiang Kai-shek supreme commander of Allied forces in the China war zone, with General Joseph Stilwell as his military adviser. Stilwell was for providing weapons and equipment to the CCP to boost its armed capabilities against the Japanese, but met with strong objections from Chiang. Following talks, in July 1944, Colonel David Dean Barrett led the Dixie Mission to Yan’an, where they landed by plane and were warmly welcomed by CCP leader Mao Zedong and others.
With CCP troops and guerrilla groups and members deep in the farming areas of northern and eastern China and also Guangdong, it had built a wide intelligence network into Japanese movements. The main objective of the Dixie Mission was to obtain intelligence on the Japanese occupying troops, and for CCP members to rescue US pilots downed by the Japanese and send them to safety.
While in Yan’an, the Dixie Mission also made an assessment of the political and military resources and facilities, as well as the CCP troops there. Chairman Mao welcomed the Dixie Mission, and expressed his support for the Americans joining the war. He mainly looked forward to receiving military assistance from the US, but this was not to be. On the contrary, under strong requests from Chiang Kai-shek, Stilwell was recalled to the US by President Franklin Roosevelt, and was replaced by General Albert Coady Wedemeyer, who was more cooperative towards Chiang. The military cooperation between the US and CCP ended with Stilwell’s recall.
Rise of the communists in Asia
In the new world order, the CCP had the full support of the Soviet Union, while the US supported the Nationalist government. This meant the US and CCP were inherent opponents.
At the time, the Allies included the US and the Soviet Union with their opposing ideologies, and they supported each other against the Axis powers as the common enemy. The communists in various countries were also rapidly growing in armed power. In Asia, apart from China, armed communist guerilla groups came up in Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. The Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence League) became a significant armed force after the war. As for Malaysia, there was Force 136, which was armed by the Allies, and the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), trained by the Allies and led by the Malayan Communist Party. They joined in the victory parade after Japan's surrender, but quickly went back to their efforts towards communist armed revolution, becoming a major factor in the international situation after World War II.
In March 1947, the Nationalist army prepared for a large-scale attack on Yan'an, and the last of the Dixie Mission left in Yan'an were told to leave immediately. This officially ended the cooperation between the US Army and the CCP. During this time, the sporadic armed conflicts between the KMT and CCP rapidly escalated to full-blown civil war.
The members of the Dixie Mission who returned to the US also took with them many personal photos, notes, and writings from Yan'an, as well as Dixie Mission reports, which joined the archives of the US Department of Defense. All of these are important records of the Allies fighting shoulder to shoulder during World War II, and valuable historical research material.