Bear’s Teeth, Dragon’s Claws:
A 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Manchurian War
by Chris Oakley
(based on the "Venceremos!" series by the same author)
Summary: In the first nine chapters of this series we recalled the runup to the Manchurian War; the course of the war itself; and the aftereffects of the war on human history. In this latest segment we’ll look at how scholars and historians in Russia and around the world sought to come to terms with the Manchurian War’s legacy as the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of that war approached.
Searching For Answers: 2005-present
In February of 2005 a group of 150 historians, scholars, and military analysts from all corners of the globe assembled in St. Petersburg, Russia for the beginning of a four-day seminar at one of the city’s most prestigious universities. The topic: how the Manchurian War had affected human history as a whole, and whether the war had made Russia’s global position better or worse in the post-war world. The seminar’s opening question-- "Would Russia be better off today if she’d never fought China?" --wasn’t unusual given the social and political turmoil the country was enduring at the time.
What was unusual was that one of those who answered the question in the affirmative was a retired colonel and a hero of the Manchurian War who’d been decorated several times for his distinguished service both in that conflict and his later tour of duty in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan just before the USSR collapsed. His controversial view, which created headlines all around the world and a scandal inside Russia, was that the Kremlin would have been better off simply conceding the disputed Ussuri River territories to China back in 1966; he argued that the tremendous casualties Soviet forces had endured in their four-year-long struggle with the PLA had put a drain on Soviet defense resources elsewhere and weakened the Red Army’s ability to guard Soviet interests in Europe.
Worse, he said, by going to war with China Brezhnev had ruined all hopes of a rapprochement with the Mao Zedong government and validated Western assertions that the Soviet Union was a warlike state. Even Vladimir Putin, a former KGB, was stunned by the ex- colonel’s arguments, and said as much in a letter he drafted for a Moscow newspaper on the third day of the seminar. Putin, for one, had never questioned that opposing Mao Zedong was the right thing to do, and in his letter he stated that had he been in Leonid Brezhnev’s shoes on that fateful March day thirty-nine years earlier he too would have gone to war with the Mao Zedong regime.
The questions being debated at the St. Petersburg seminar were also being grappled with in popular culture all around the world. A March 2005 international book dealers’ survey found that in Europe and North America alone, there’d been some 340 works of fiction and 172 non-fiction titles published that had the war as a major or even central them of their narrative; at least one famous science fiction author, in fact, had embarked on a series of books set in a timeline where China had won the war and gone on to dominate most of the postwar world. There were also eight major motion pictures in production at the time, including two documentaries, which dealt with the war and its consequences; they ranged from contemplative experimental pieces like the Belgian-produced Midnight in Beijing to the bombastic Michael Bay-directed action drama TCB-12.
In China there was a vigorous(if hidden) debate over how much space national scholastic history texts should devote to the war. Some believed it should be taught as little as possible, since the People’s Republic had lost that war and defeat was at odds with China’s image of itself as a strong, thriving 21st century global power; a dissenting faction, on the other hand, argued that the war should be dealt with at length precisely because China was a 21st-century power-- the lessons of that conflict, these dissidents asserted, should not be forgotten if China were to fulfill its rightful destiny as a major player on the global stage.
The change in Sino-Russian diplomatic relations since the end of the Manchurian War was highlighted by an event that took place in the spring of 2006 to mark the 40th anniversary of the start of that war. In the Siberian industrial city of Magadan, Chinese and Russian war veterans held a joint reunion its organizers dubbed a "day of reconciliation"; such an event would have been impossible 20 or 30 years earlier, and even in more recent times it would have raised an eyebrow or two. This reunion, however, had been put together with the full encouragement of both nations’ foreign ministries and with very little civilian protest-- at least from the Chinese.
Some Russian citizens, on the other hand, saw the gathering as an insult to the memory of Soviet civilians who’d been killed by Chinese occupation forces in the early days of the Manchurian War, and they vented their disapproval with an outdoor rally held just a few yards away from the hotel where the reunion was being staged. Police had their hands full trying to keep the protestors from storming the reunion, and though he made no comment about the demonstrations publicly Vladimir Putin griped to a friend in private that the incident was an embarrassment for Russia as a whole and for him personally as well.
Seeking to prevent the demonstrations from casting a pall over Sino-Russian relations as whole, Putin sent his foreign minister to Beijing to assure Chinese ruler Jiang Zemin that the Magadan demonstrators were a minority and did not represent mainstream Russian attitudes toward China. To the Kremlin’s relief, Jiang accepted these assurances and the protests were soon for the most part forgotten in both countries and the outside world.
In the United States, the faculty at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Manchurian War by holding a series of wargaming exercises in which they re-fought all the war’s major battles to see if it were possible to duplicate their original outcomes. To their surprise, they found that half the time their simulations of the battles had far different conclusions from those of the real battles, leading the Naval War College staffers to deduce that human error might have played a greater part in Soviet success against the Chinese-- and vice versa --than the Brezhnev or Mao regimes were willing to admit at the time.
Not surprisingly, China experienced a major influx of foreign tourists between 2006 and 2010; in addition to the crowds that were flocking to Beijing to see the 2008 Summer Olympics, there were many people who wanted to visit the battlefields where the PLA and the Red Army had once fought to decide the future of the Communist block. Russia also received a surge in tourist business around this time, particularly from relatives of ex-Manchurian War vets who’d emigrated to the United States or western Europe.
Another big tourist draw was Shanghai’s Remembrance Museum, built as a memorial to the civilians killed in the March 1968 chemical missile strike. Rarely if ever in the years since it opened has anyone failed to be moved by the pathetic photos of those who died in the chemical attack or the survivors who looked frantically for friends or loved ones in the rubble afterwards. Jiang Zemin could barely manage to finish his dedication speech when the museum was opened in late February of 2008. Many of his fellow countrymen, including some too young to have known anyone who fought or died in the Manchurian War, had similar reactions when they walked through its halls.
In the summer of 2008, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Red Army’s campaign to liberate Kazakhstan, the editors of a popular military history magazine published an anthology book titled The Bear & The Dragon: The Manchurian War Remembered. It quickly became an international bestseller, spending six weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list; in the United States both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates kept the book close at hand on their respective beside tables, and in Britain it became required reading at the Sandhurst Military Academy.
Despite being highly critical of the PLA’s handling of the war, the book even managed to find an audience inside China. The Beijing government, rather than ban the book outright, opted to issue what it called "corrective notes" responding to its less- than-flattering assessment of the Chinese fighting man; having been stung in the past by foreign accusations that it was too harsh in its treatment of dissenters, Beijing sought to avoid giving its accusers too much fresh ammunition on that score. In addition to that, some of the post-Deng era generals in the PLA found themselves agreeing with the book’s criticisms and wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes it had pointed out.
To Be Continued