[Photo story] The Dixie Mission during WWII: First contact between the US and the CCP

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.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong and US ambassador to China Patrick J. Hurley (back row) in an American army jeep.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong and US ambassador to China Patrick J. Hurley (back row) in an American army jeep.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

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.

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Sixteen-year-old Sichuan youth Deng Xiaoping, in Paris to work and study in 1921, dressed in seldom-worn Western-style clothes. He joined the CCP in France, where he met Zhou Enlai. After he returned to China in 1927, he was given a key position in the CCP. Having been in Western society, Deng knew its developments.

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.

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The Socialist Youth League of China in Paris, 1924. After the success of the Soviet revolution, the Communist movement became even more active in Europe, with France becoming another centre of the movement. Many key CCP leaders joined the CCP in France, with the top two figures being Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who were both leaders of the CCP branch in France. Zhou Enlai later returned to China and became the head of the political department of the Whampoa Military Academy under the framework of KMT-CCP cooperation.
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In January 1924, the first Kuomintang congress was held in Guangzhou, marking the start of KMT-CCP cooperation and the policy of support for farmers and workers. The meeting was held with the assistance of Soviet representatives and gave new meaning to the revolution in China. Not only was socialism a formal objective, the party and army built a close relationship that became a strong combined force.
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In May 1924, KMT and CCP members gathered at Sun Yat-sen's residence at Xiangshan Road, Shanghai, to commemorate the third anniversary of his office as extraordinary president of the military government in Guangzhou. The arrow in the photo is pointing to Mao Zedong, who was acting head of the KMT's propaganda department.
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On 23 July 1924, Sun Yat-sen attended the memorial of Soviet general Dmitry Grigoryevich Pavlov at Guangdong Provincial People's Stadium. (From left) Military general Cheng Qian, politician Wu Tiecheng (back to camera), Sun's bodyguard Ma Kun, KMT leader and financier Liao Zhongkai (hat in hand), Sun, and Whampoa Military Academy instructor Deng Yanhua.
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Whampoa Military Academy political department head Zhou Enlai (front row, centre) with troops in Chaozhou, Guangdong, after unifying Guangdong and Guangxi, 1925.

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.

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A portrait of Chiang Kai-shek on being appointed commander of the Nationalist Revolutionary Army, full of energy and the imposing bearing of a military man.
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On 9 July 1926, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was installed as commander of the Nationalist Revolutionary Army. Speaking to the whole country from the Guangdong Provincial People's Stadium, he also announced the Northern Expedition and its aims. The broad, stirring speech was written in lines of four characters.
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On 6 July 1928, with the completion of the Northern Expedition, KMT leaders gathered to pay their respects to Sun Yat-sen at his resting place, the mausoleum at Biyun Temple in Mount Xi, Beijing. Third in the front row is Chiang Kai-shek.
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The snow-covered Sun Yat-sen mausoleum surrounded by trees, 1930s. Sun may have passed away, but his spirit and legacy live on in the people of China.

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.

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Shanghai was thriving in the 1930s, as China’s economic, cultural, and educational centre. This was where foreign businessmen gathered, and where there were many money-making opportunities. This was the golden period of the Nationalist government after uniting China.
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During the Nationalist period, Nanjing Road in Shanghai was one of the world’s most famous commercial streets, with all kinds of stores, advertisements, and fluttering banners announcing items on sale or going cheap.  Tobacconists, pharmacies, watch stores, metal factories all competed with one another.
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Double decker buses and electric rails on Nanjing Road during the Nationalist period. Nanjing Road was the first commercial street established after Shanghai opened up. With foreign investments, companies funded by overseas Chinese, and speciality shops, Nanjing Road became Shanghai’s busiest street, lined with Western-style houses, shop signs and advertising everywhere, and passers-by weaving their way through the sidewalks.

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.

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In December 1933, the Nationalist army attacked the CCP’s soviet area in Jiangxi. Following the rift between the KMT and CCP in 1927, the CCP built up its own armed forces and used southern Jiangxi as a base to build a strong Soviet revolution, and the KMT and CCP moved into their first civil war, which lasted ten years.
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In 1935, the Nationalist army launched a fifth attack on the CCP’s soviet area, and set up barricades at key transport routes to cut off supplies to CCP troops. This effectively blocked the movements of CCP troops and forced them to begin the Long March.

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.

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In May 1937, after the Xi'an Incident, Chiang Kai-shek stopped the offensives against the CCP, and the KMT and CCP discussed how to cooperate. The photo shows CCP leader Mao Zedong (second from right) receiving KMT representatives in Yan’an.
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In May 1937, to welcome the KMT central committee group, flags of the Soviet government and KMT government were put up in Yan’an.

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.

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Chiang Kai-shek speaking to the 201st Division of the China Youth Corps in Tongliang, Sichuan, reiterating his resolve to fight to the end. From 20 December 1943, young intellectuals from all over the country joined the army as they answered the call of “shedding blood for every inch of land, ten thousand youths as ten thousand soldiers” (一寸河山一寸血,十万青年十万军).
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These are activities the CCP engaged in for the people, mainly to understand what they needed and to serve the people. The photo shows CCP troops helping the elderly.
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From May 1937, to drive democratic politics in CCP-ruled areas, the CCP started to hold elections for local representatives and government members.
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As most people in CCP-ruled areas were illiterate, voting was carried out in various ways, including drawing circles or using beans.
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An elderly man encourages a young man leaving to join the CCP army, hoping he will come back in victory. Most of the CCP army was made up of farmers.

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.

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In 1939, the Sino-Soviet Friendship Association (SSFA) held a celebration of Soviet leader Stalin in Chongqing, hosted by SSFA chairman Feng Yuxiang (second from left) and Soviet ambassador to China Aleksandr Semyonovich Panyushkin.
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In September 1937, with an advantage of five divisions, the Japanese Northern China Area Army launched an attack. The Chinese army established defensive lines along the Great Wall, Xinkou, and Taiyuan, to wear down the Japanese and gain the advantage in a long-term war.
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The Zhabei area in Shanghai lit up in flames with smoke rising during the intense Battle of Shanghai, October 1937.
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In October 1937, after the Japanese seized Beiping and Tianjin, they continued to Xinkou and Niangzi Pass, then followed the Datong-Puzhou (Tongpu) railway and the Zhengtai (later Shitai) railway in a pincer attack on Taiyuan in Shanxi. The people of Taiyuan came to the station to send off the 179th brigade of the Chinese army as they left to fight on the front line, cheering on the troops as the whistle blew and the train slowly left amid a cloud of smoke.
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People give the victorious CCP army a warm welcome after they launched guerrilla attacks behind the enemy, May 1939.
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After 1940, the CCP dug tunnels in the vast plains in northern China and used them for guerrilla activities, which posed a serious threat to the Japanese.
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CCP troops launching a guerrilla ambush on the Japanese in a river area.
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Due to a shortage of supplies, the CCP launched a production drive in Yan’an. All cadres and their family members got down to work to produce daily necessities.
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Production activities were launched on the outskirts of Yan’an, with many CCP troops joining in to plant wheat in efforts towards self-sufficiency.
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Mao Zedong speaking to farmers of Yangjialing, May 1939. Yangjialing was a small mountain village about two kilometres northwest of Yan’an city. On 20 November 1938, after the Japanese bombed Yan’an, the CCP moved its branches here.
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Apart from the regular army, the CCP also trained civilians to use traditional weapons to fight the enemy. While civilian troops were of limited use in actual combat, this approach raised the people’s morale.
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The CCP launched an army recruitment drive in farming villages. Many farmers sent their sons to join the CCP army, considering it a top honour.
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In 1938, the first year of the war, the KMT and CCP worked together seamlessly to resist the enemy. Zhou Enlai became deputy head of the political department of the military committee of the Nationalist government, and helped to organise various resistance activities against the Japanese among the people. The photo shows Zhou in Hankou, at the first anniversary commemoration of the Marco Polo Bridge incident. In the background are photographs of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.
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On 7 July 1938, to commemorate the first anniversary of the war, three cities in Wuhan held a donation drive. The photo shows a CCP group hitting the streets to gather donations, which got a warm response from the public. In the first year of the war, the KMT and CCP worked closely together, and the resistance effort grew.
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A photo by CCP leader Liu Shaoqi of Zhou Enlai in August 1939, before Zhou went to the Soviet Union to have his arm treated after falling from a horse.
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Zhou Enlai with wife Deng Yingchao in Yan'an, 1942. Zhou lived in the West for a time and was familiar with Western culture. He often wore Western-style clothes and was respected and liked by Westerners in his interactions with them.
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Mao Zedong and wife Jiang Qing in Yan'an, with daughter Li Na in between them. Jiang Qing was an actress in Shanghai. When the war broke out, she moved to Yan'an and married Mao in 1938.

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.

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CCP Chongqing representative Zhou Enlai (second row, centre) speaking to friends at the CCP office in Hongyan, Chongqing, 1944. Zhou was an engaging speaker, and did a good job with publicity for the CCP.
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In 1943, many cultural activities were held in Yan’an, particularly Yangge opera from northern Shaanxi province. This local opera form also became a cultural symbol of the CCP revolution.

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.

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In November 1944, the year before the war was won, the US army sent the Dixie Mission to Yan’an to make contact with the CCP. The photo shows Dixie Mission head David D. Barrett with Mao Zedong and Zhu De. Near the end of the war, the US wanted to step up cooperation with the CCP, and was looking into providing troop support for the CCP to ramp up capabilities against Japan. Despite unhappiness from Chiang Kai-shek, on 22 July 1944, the Dixie Mission arrived in Yan’an. The delegation was led by Barrett and included the second secretary of the American Embassy John Stewart Service.
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The Dixie Mission in Yan’an, with US Flying Fortress pilots rescued by the CCP army, November 1944.
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Mao Zedong exchanging views on the war resistance with members of the Dixie Mission, 1944.
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Mao Zedong speaking with US journalist Harrison Forman, 1944. Forman was a photojournalist for United Press International and the London Times. In June 1944, he headed northwest to Yan’an with a group of journalists to do frontline reporting from the base of the CCP-led resistance against the Japanese, revealing to the world the real situation in Yan’an, and the toughness of the Eighth Route Army as it bravely resisted the Japanese at the Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia border. He subsequently wrote the bestselling book Report from Red China.
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Mao Zedong and Zhu De arriving at a decoration ceremony for Colonel David D. Barrett, autumn 1944.
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Mao Zedong shaking hands with Dixie Mission members at a decoration ceremony for Colonel David D. Barrett, October 1944.
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Mao Zedong receiving Dixie Mission head Colonel David D. Barrett and US army personnel at the airport in Yan’an, October 1944.
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In the second half of August 1945, US ambassador to China Patrick J. Hurley went to Yan’an and met Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong (second from left). Hurley urged Mao to go to Chongqing and engage in talks with chairman of the Nationalist government Chiang Kai-shek, and guaranteed the safety of Mao and other leaders in Chongqing. As the Dixie Mission was already stationed in Yan’an in 1944, and had worked with the CCP on military intelligence and built personal ties with CCP leaders, the US-coordinated talks between the Kuomintang and CCP went smoothly. Also present were CCP army commander Zhu De (first from left), CCP representative in Yan’an Zhou Enlai (first from right), and KMT representative General Zhang Zhizhong (second from right).
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In spring 1945, the CCP’s 7th National Congress established Mao Zedong Thought as the guidelines for the party. This congress set the post-war direction for the CCP.

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.

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In September 1945, the Chinese army met with the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in northern Vietnam. According to the plan of surrender in the China theatre, northern Vietnam was under the area to be surrendered to the Chinese army, and where the CPV-led Viet Minh troops were active. As the KMT and CCP were working together, the KMT troops and CPV were also allies.
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KMT army troops with Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) troops. As they were both against colonialism, the KMT army was sympathetic and supportive of the CPV, and gave the CPV the weapons gathered from the Japanese, and also hindered the French colonialists from returning to Vietnam and taking over again.
vietnam
In early October 1945, members of the French colonial government took a naval ship back to Vietnam. While hindered by Chinese troops for a time, there was a handover in the end. At this point, the Communist Party of Vietnam had accepted the support of the Chinese army, and was prepared for a long-term fight with the French colonial government.
surrender
On 12 September 1945, at the surrender ceremony of the Japanese army in Singapore, Allied troops held a victory parade, with the participation of the Malayan Communist Party-led Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. This red brigade, armed by the Allies, quickly went back to its underground revolution and continued fighting after the end of 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 Defence. All of these are important records of the Allies fighting shoulder to shoulder during World War II, and valuable historical research material.

Related: John Stuart and Edgar Snow: Two Americans in China | Tan Kah Kee, Aw Boon Haw and the Second Sino-Japanese War [Photo story] | Is China the old Soviet Union?