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Through the Open Gate: The Communist Takeover of Nanking

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, starting an era of Communist rule in China that continues to this day. One of the most significant events on his road to victory occurred six months earlier on April 23.  On that day, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) captured the city of Nanking, now known as Nanjing, then capital of China and headquarters of the Nationalist Party (also known as the Kuomintang or KMT).

Though fighting would continue for the rest of the year as the KMT retreated to southern China, and ultimately Taiwan, this victory signaled the inevitability of Nationalist defeat and the end of the Chinese Civil War.

American diplomats stationed in Nanking at the time contended with sudden restrictions, threats and demands as the new government took power and relations with the region changed dramatically.

This historic event is described by American diplomat Leonard L. Bacon, who was stationed in Hangzhou in 1948 and transferred to Nanking (now called Nanjing) just prior to its occupation by Communist forces. During this interview, conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1990, Bacon recounts life within the city as the PLA marched in, and the struggles of trying to exit China.

Read a shortened version of this Moment on Huffington Post. More information on the events leading up to the fall of Nanking can be found in The Civil War in China. Additionally, the American reaction to the Communist rise to power can be seen John S. Service – The Man Who Lost China, and you may also link to another view of the departure from China.


“Things were going slowly worse, and worse, and worse…”

Leonard L. Bacon, Consular Officer, Nanking, 1948-1950

BACON: [In early 1948] we had stories from missionaries. Some missionaries had been murdered, not entirely clear by whom but probably by communists, and their bodies sent to Hangzhou for transshipment.

The general impression though was not so much of fear, or support for communists, but a general feeling that things were going slowly worse, and worse, and worse under the Kuomintang.

On everybody’s mind, of course, was inflation. It was enormous. The Consulate [in Hangzhou] had difficulty getting the money out to pay the staff every week. It would come in–these yuan notes tied in bundles.

Nobody ever counted the notes in the bundles, it would take too long for what they were worth. As soon as we paid the staff each one would run out on the street and buy salt, which was simply something that had some stable value.

At one time the plane from Shanghai which carried the money, failed to arrive and the Hangzhou police didn’t get paid. What they did was to take direct action which didn’t get them any money either, but they went to the branch of the Bank of China and demolished it. They simply tore it down, leveled it to the ground.

There was almost no support for the Kuomintang except something that might stave off the Communists for a while. But in the course of the year even that changed where people looked forward to the arrival of Communists as putting an end to an almost impossible life that they were leading.

I went [to Nanking] in July of ’48, and I had several titles–the Chief of Chancellery, and Head of the Consular Section, and also suddenly Chief of Protocol. The Consular Section was very small because there were few Americans in Nanking outside the diplomatic corps, and those attached to the University of Nanking.

It did have some business preparing diplomatic visas for the diplomatic corps wishing to go to the United States. Most of the consular business, of course, was concentrated in Shanghai, and Canton. There was no recognizable American business in Nanking.

However, there were quite a few [missionaries], and some of them were on the faculty of the University, which was a Christian university. Also there was a women’s college, Ginling (shown here), which was an affiliate of Smith College. The head of the school was a Chinese woman, and it was a very good school.

After the Communists came they had to adopt rather anti-American pose and put on a skit showing Uncle Sam in a stars and stripes hat, and a big nose, and doing some pretty ridiculous things but everybody recognized their heart wasn’t in it. They had nothing against Uncle Sam, certainly not against Smith College.

Telling American Missionaries “It’s Time to Go”

We were concerned about, of course, the missionaries scattered around northern China, and wanted to get messages out to them saying, “It’s probably time to pack up and get out.”

This, however, would have created a certain amount of panic, and also greatly offended the Nationalist government which was maintaining that there was no danger, everything was secure.

So there was a great problem of getting out a message which would indicate that while the situation is unsettled, and so forth, anybody who is planning shortly to leave for the United States on leave or whatever should do so promptly and trust that the situation will otherwise clear up.

Well, w

e’d already done this a year before in Hangzhou, and I’d sent out a similar message there to the northern part of the Hangzhou area which was gigantic. Almost everything between Sian and Hangzhou and half way to Nanking in the northern part–there’s somewhat over a hundred million people in the consular district.

And finally when I got leave to do so I notified missionaries in certain places that it was probably time to move, and I got one or two hot replies that said, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner? We’ve been waiting to hear from you. We expected to be warned.”

But our position had been just reversed; we didn’t want to warn too much because that would result in collapse of morale of the Americans there and consequently of Chinese too.

“City after city kept falling”

Our attitude officially was that nothing much to worry about–no cause for alarm —  don’t get panicky. The time came, of course, just before the capture of Nanking, when the government itself moved to Canton [now Guangzhou]. Our Minister Counselor, Lewis Clark, moved there with a small staff. The Ambassador and the rest of the Embassy stayed in Nanking mainly because, I think, we wanted to be in touch with the Communists if they came right in.

[People] constantly were hoping that the Chinese military, the Nationalists, would have some successes, but city after city kept falling; first in Manchuria–that was the second big one there. Then cities around Peking, and finally Peking (shown here) and it was felt that, “Well, they’d be stopped at some places between Peking and Nanking. We can hold them for a while.”

But the Nationalist army had the idea that if they could hold the cities they could eventually tire out the Communists. But this had been a failing policy for years, and years, and frequently instead of holding the cities, they would abandon them at the approach of the Communists.

“The gates were left open; the Communists walked in”

This happened, of course, at Nanking. It was generally supposed that the Yangtze River, being a mile wide, would be an absolutely impossible barrier if there were any kind of defense at all. Well there wasn’t any defense, and I recall very well as I guess most of the people Embassy do, the morning when we discovered that the Communists were already in town.

This was in April 1949. The walls of Nanking are over 20 miles in circumference, 30 to 40 feet high–of course, they’re made of bricks so they could have been blown up but there was no need to do that. The gates were left open; the Communists walked in.

The Chinese government, and the police, had left town the night before knowing what was going to happen. There was a certain amount of looting that went on, some rather comical. I remember seeing some poor Chinese coming away from the Chief of Police’s house with a water closet on his shoulders–absolutely no use to him, he had no water supply but it was a pretty impressive object.

What was really comical was that a few weeks later in the fall, the communist government decided to make a historical event out of the capture of Nanking. We could see the cameras being placed on the top of the walls, the army approaching with scaling ladders, soldiers climbing up and getting on top of the wall, waving the flag, and everything else–something like the Berlin wall thing. And none of which, of course, had ever happened. They just walked in.

“It became apparent that before long they’d have the whole country”

We wouldn’t, of course, treat them as the government of China until Washington decided, but that was considered to be pretty much a foregone conclusion, and…Ambassador Stuart felt that he would be in a very strong position to inform Washington as to what the Communists were thinking, what their plans were.

At this time it seemed possible apparently that a kind of a modus vivendi could be reached between the Nationalists and the Communists. There might be a national congress composed partly of communists and partly of Kuomintang. After all, that’s what the elections had been supposed to anticipate.

But, of course, with increasing successes the Communists were less and less interested in that, and it became apparent to them if to nobody else, that before long they’d have the whole country. So Ambassador Stuart…eventually decided that he would have to go to Washington on consultation…

“Sometimes they would write ‘Bogus Ambassador’”

We had almost no direct contact with Communist officials for weeks and weeks. They opened their “Office for Aliens’ Affairs,” they wouldn’t call it a foreign office. People had to go, when the railroad was reopened, to Shanghai (seen here) for medical attention or something like that.

It wasn’t just us, but all the embassies there. Almost all of them remained with their personnel in Nanking. To get an exit permit you would firmly assert that you were the Ambassador of Jutland, or whatever. The clerk would take it and insert, “Former Ambassador of Jutland,” because they didn’t recognize us, but we insisted that our diplomatic status, of course, continue.

Sometimes they would write, “Bogus Ambassador.” This happened to the Dutch Ambassador, Van Aerssen, he was a Baron Van Aerssen. So they inserted, “Former Ambassador Van Aerssen, and the Former Baroness Van Aerssen.” We all congratulated her that it wasn’t “Bogus Baroness.”

Recognition of China

The actual recognition of China began in October of ’49… The Chinese government announced that it had been established as the sole government of China, and the following day the local papers announced that the Soviet Union had now recognized it.

And then over the next few days different allied countries–Soviet allies–came with their recognitions. One of the early ones, Yugoslavia, announced it in the Chinese press– that had to be recalled as a mistake. Yugoslavia was not in good order, of course.

This also produced an interesting event. We were having labor troubles, of course, especially the USIA staff, who, I believe not really voluntarily, but anyhow they were used as a front, were demanding tremendous settlements in lieu, or in anticipation of, their retirement allowances.

And since everybody was likely to have some claims outstanding, possible claims by Chinese employees, personal employees, and possible debts to local suppliers, everybody of course, paid up–it didn’t amount to much.

But the Communists demanded that a guarantor be provided for each person departing who could be held liable for any claims that might arise after the member departed. And I was chosen to be the guarantor probably because I had already been assigned to Dairen [now Dalian]. Our Consulate there was in terrible trouble.

This [trip] had been undertaken several months before, but I could never get a visa to pass through Vladivostok, which was then the only way to get to Dairen–the Russians didn’t reply.

After the Communists came in we thought we’d try to renew this effort since it wouldn’t involve the Russians anymore. You could go directly from Manchuria to Dairen. That didn’t work out either.

And in the meantime I’d been signing all these guarantees even though likely to be out of the country myself…. This was pointed out to me at once by the Chinese Communists that “Aren’t you the man who signed all these guarantees?” And I said, “Yes, but I’m not leaving China. I’m only going to Dairen. That’s in China, isn’t it?” They said, “Well, yes, but it’s a little far.” Actually it was still occupied by the Soviets.

Anyway, I signed altogether upwards of 30 such, but when they finally wanted us all out, bingo. Nothing more was said about these things. They were very anxious to get the whole kit-and-caboodle out of Nanking.

“They wanted all foreigners out of the interior of China”

In fact, it was quite clear in the beginning of 1950 that they wanted all foreigners out of the interior of China. A few, necessarily, in Shanghai and Canton for trade, but otherwise the whole of China was going to be a closed box, with no foreigners except Soviets admitted.

We were in the midst of these enormous labor negotiations with our employees and the settlement there. It became apparent that the Communists wanted partly to demonstrate to the population that they were in charge, they could make the Americans jump over hoops, and call them to account for whatever they’d been doing.

Also, they wanted hard currency any way they could get it, trying to levy fines on us for this and that, and so on. We had long negotiations with the USIA employees union, first before a mediation board…

“If we don’t break for lunch in five minutes, I shall consider myself under arrest.”

It went on day after day, obviously not getting any place, or going to get any place. And one morning instead of breaking at the usual time around 12:00 for lunch, the discussion continued and I pointed out that it was after the usual lunch break, and they said, “Things are going pretty well, maybe in another half hour we’ll all reach an agreement.”

And I said, “That’s not the way I look at it. Everybody is entitled to eat lunch. I have a chauffeur downstairs and he’s entitled to his lunch hour, and it’s already past it.”

This sort of set them back but they said, “He’s not a party to the dispute, so his opinion doesn’t count.” This really got me, and I said, “If we don’t break for lunch in five minutes, I shall consider myself under arrest.” And, of course, you’re not supposed to lose your temper and make foolish statements but this created almost a panic.

At that time William Olive had been arrested in Shanghai in connection with a traffic accident.  [He] had been jailed by the Chinese for several days until he was released. This, of course, was a tremendous sensation–a consular officer jailed for a traffic accident which wasn’t serious, and wasn’t his fault.

Anyway, what I said created a certain consternation and shortly after that they said, “All right, we’ll break and come back at 1:15.”

What had upset them was that if I maintained that I’d been arrested, even although there was nobody else to support that claim, still a report would have to be made as to what happened, and a number of people would be involved–all the people on the mediation board.

And whatever the outcome, the reports and the decisions would all go into their personnel folders, and could be brought out years later and say, “Why did you do this at this time? And let the man out, or whatever?”

“Bunches of school children would be brought in to see how the Communists were bearing down on the Americans”

So they decided apparently the best thing to do was to remove the cause for my displeasure and we broke off. Nothing ever came of it anyway because we went on to arbitration, which was the last stage before a trial, and we weren’t permitted to go to trial because that really would have been a waiver of immunity.

Arbitration was considered not exactly binding on the U.S. government. Those proceedings were even more public in a big room in a government building. I was on one side with my interpreter, and on the other side were all the complainants, and from time to time bunches of school children would be brought in to watch the proceedings, and to see how the local authorities–the Communists–were bearing down on the Americans…

As soon as the payments were made, the Americans were excused and we know, of course, the dollars were immediately confiscated and probably local currency substituted. But this was again an example of the extreme shortage of foreign exchange in the hands of the Communists. They would do almost anything, no matter how petty, to get their hands on U.S. currency.

Wheels Up from Nanking

This was in March of 1950. By that time the Consulate General in Peking had been closed. All the Consulates in the interior of China had been closed. Our staff, what was left of it in Nanking, had proceeded one by one to Shanghai awaiting shipment and as it turned out I was evidently the last one to leave Nanking.

We had some Thermite… [a chemical that] can burn through metal. We used the Thermite to destroy our coding machines and other equipment of that nature–a big black cloud of smoke which resulted in some agitated inquiries from outside as to what was going on, but it was too late to do anything about anything.

I had shipped most of the documents we had — put them in the hands of the British to hold in safe keeping until we could get them again. Also, our currency, both paper money and gold, turned over to the British who gave us receipts–at least, a receipt for boxes said to contain so many gold dollars.

The Afghans wanted to know if they could store some of their furniture in one of our buildings, and we said, “Delighted”, feeling that if another Asian country were occupying them they might somehow be helpful. Afterwards the property was seized and the Afghans asked us to reimburse them.

So finally we were all in Shanghai and waiting for transport out. The Kuomintang had said they’d mined the mouth of the Yangtze and the harbor of Shanghai. It was probably not true; I don’t think they were capable of doing it, but they said they had.

And as a result no commercial vessel would venture in, no matter what. So finally it was arranged that the General Gordon, which had been a troop carrier, would pick us up at Tientsin… which [then] went to Hong Kong, and at Hong Kong the President Wilson, I think was the ship that carried us back home.

“Anything that could be pinned on the Democrats for having lost China was hunted down”

Q: Could you describe what your reception back in Washington was? Here you’d been through this at a time when our China policy was under great scrutiny. 

BACON: This was a very nervous time in Washington. I think there must have been more than one Congressional committee that was interviewing people right and left trying to find as much as possible to lay against the Democratic administration.

[Harry S] Truman (at left) was reelected in ’48… so he was still in office until ’52, and this was still 1950. So anything that could be pinned on the Democrats for having lost China was hunted down, and people who had just come out of China especially so. And almost everybody in the Office of Far Eastern Affairs seemed to be concerned with meeting in Congressional committees, and defending what had been done, and trying to enlighten the committees on what could be done.

My own experiences were not of any very high political level. And as I mentioned, I was not debriefed by anybody….