Mao Zedong, who led the Chinese people through a long revolution and then ruled the nation’s communist government from its establishment in 1949, dies. Along with V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, Mao was one of the most significant communist figures of the Cold War.
Mao was born in China in 1893. During the 1910s, he joined the nationalist movement against the decadent and ineffective royal government of China and the foreigners who used it to exploit China. By the 1920s, however, Mao began to lose faith in the leaders of the nationalist movement. He came to believe that only a revolutionary change of Chinese society could bring freedom from Western domination and subjugation. In 1921, he became one of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao’s early years as a communist were not easy. He was constantly in danger of arrest and execution by Chinese government forces. More importantly, he often split with his communist colleagues, many of whom favored slavishly copying the Bolshevik Revolution that brought communism to power in Russia. Mao insisted that revolution in China would come from the country peasants, not the urban workers. In 1935, Mao took control of the CCP. On the verge of defeat by Chinese Nationalist forces, the CCP came under scathing attack by Mao for its lack of revolutionary zeal and poor military strategy. Desperate, a majority of the CCP members relinquished control to Mao. Throughout the 1930s and into World War II, Mao’s forces continued their attacks on the Chinese government. They were ultimately victorious in 1949, and the communist People’s Republic of China was declared in that year.
Mao made clear his dedication to constant battle with the West when, in 1950, he sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops into North Korea to battle U.S. troops during the Korean War. For nearly three years the war raged, ending with a cease-fire in 1953. In the late 1950s, Mao began to withdraw from an active role in the Chinese government, but he returned with a vengeance in the mid-1960s when he led the “Cultural Revolution,” which was designed to reinvigorate what he saw as the nation’s flagging revolutionary spirit. The “revolution” amounted to frenzied calls from Mao and his supporters for greater dedication to the true ideals of communism and increasingly vociferous verbal assaults against both the Soviet Union (because of its “revisionist” tendencies) and the “imperialism aggression” of the United States. Thousands of Chinese were killed or imprisoned by Mao’s young supporters, called the Red Guards.
Internationally, forces were pushing Mao to seek a closer relationship with the United States. Since the early 1960s, relations between China and the Soviet Union deteriorated steadily, and there were frequent border clashes between their respective armed forces. By the late 1960s, Mao came to see the Soviet Union as a more dangerous threat to China than the United States. He therefore sought closer relations with the Americans, hoping to use them as allies in his battle with the Soviets. Mao’s efforts resulted in a dramatic change in relations between the U.S. and China, climaxing in President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.
The meeting with Nixon was one of Mao’s last great public successes. Nearing 80 years of age, Mao began to make less frequent appearances. He also began to suffer the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. Mao died in 1976, still holding the position of Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.