Courtesy Reuters

If Mao Had Come to Washington: An Essay in Alternatives


One of the great "ifs" and harsh ironies of history hangs on the fact that in January 1945, four and a half years before they achieved national power in China, Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, in an effort to establish a working relationship with the United States, offered to come to Washington to talk in person with President Roosevelt. What became of the offer has been a mystery until, with the declassification of new material, we now know for the first time that the United States made no response to the overture. Twenty-seven years, two wars and x million lives later, after immeasurable harm wrought by the mutual suspicion and phobia of two great powers not on speaking terms, an American president, reversing the unmade journey of 1945, has traveled to Peking to treat with the same two Chinese leaders. Might the interim have been otherwise?

The original proposal, transmitted on January 9 by Major Ray Cromley, Acting Chief of the American Military Observers Mission then in Yenan, to the Headquarters of General Wedemeyer in Chungking, stated that Mao and Chou wanted their request to be sent to the "highest United States officials." The text (published here for the first time)[i] was as follows:

"Yenan Government wants [to] dispatch to America an unofficial rpt unofficial group to interpret and explain to American civilians and officials interested the present situation and problems of China. Next is strictly off record suggestion by same: Mao and Chou will be immediately available either singly or together for exploratory conference at Washington should President Roosevelt express desire to receive them at White House as leaders of a primary Chinese party."

Chou requested air travel to the United States if the invitation from Roosevelt were forthcoming. In case it was not, Mao and Chou wanted their request to remain secret in order to protect their relationship with Chiang Kai-shek, which was then in the throes of negotiation.

The message, received in Chungking on January 10, was

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