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Mao and Then: The Cold War and Effective Military Leadership

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By Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D.
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

Too often, U.S. military strategy gets lost in the news reports, idealism, theories, and doctrines conceptualized and practiced in a vacuum. But such errors can be fatal for any nation that does not understand its enemies and then does not posture one’s forces accordingly.Mao

No, we should not study Mao Zedong as a model of character among great military leaders. His ruthlessness against his own forces and people disqualify him from consideration. But he was a formidable and implacable foe of the United States and the Free World.

In fact, great military leaders are determined not just by character, but character forged and used against the most deadly opponents like Mao.  How did this Marxist chief challenge his opponents, both American and foreign?  And what character was necessary to defeat him?

Provocation versus dynamic self-control.  Mao repeatedly provoked his opponents with slanders, taunts, lies, and challenges, causing them to become angry, off balance, scared, retaliatory, or even conciliatory.

Let us not deceive ourselves, it takes much self-control and more to deal with the Mao(s) of the world: It takes composure and calculated action.

Military Deception (MILDEC) versus strategic awareness.  Mao’s feigned diplomacy, ceasefires, propaganda, and political oratory claimed as many victims as his political purges, with the two issues going hand in hand (deception and victimization).

Great military leaders understand aggressors, remain blind to their feints and fine-tuned to their actions, and fearlessly read the difficult truths that emerge from such a studied approach.

Real threats versus courageous response.  Mao not only “rattled sabers,” he thrust them at his opponents. Rising to his challenge was necessary to secure Western interests, and peace and prosperity globally.

President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, met the challenge.  “Ike” noted that the U.S. would seize a large Chinese island (like Hainan) if “Peking’s Red forces” attacked Taiwan.  Dulles threatened worse, calling for “massive retaliation” against the Chinese by using nuclear weapons.  All these declarations were not rhetoric, it was articulated doctrine.  Declassified documents from the era indicate that America’s resolve had its effect: Mao realized that aggressive actions would generate catastrophic consequences.  So he thought twice.

Reconciliation versus understanding and diplomacy.  Great military leaders are also able to exploit opportunity and embrace diplomacy with adversaries.  This approach seems like a contradiction to the above but it is not.Mao and Nixon

President Richard Nixon realized that the Soviets had so threatened the Communist Chinese that Mao and his leaders were willing to compromise with the United States.  [The USSR had actually approached the US and asked its opinion on a possible Soviet nuclear strike on China.] A major opportunity had bloomed in the icy strategic landscapes of the Cold War.

Nixon’s engagement of China, the so-called Triangulation where the U.S. partnered with China against the greater threat, the Soviet Union, was nothing short of brilliance, and contributed to the latter’s defeat.

America’s future military leaders will be called upon to make and support decisions in relationship to fierce challengers who again threaten American and allied security.  Then the quality of great military leaders will be measured by the unique character demonstrated not in public debate but in the presence of one’s enemies.

About the Author:
Dr. Scott Catino is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, Adjunct Professor of Graduate Military Studies at American Military University, and serves full time as an Associate Dean of Doctoral and Strategic Studies. He served in the United States, Iraq, and Afghanistan in various supervisory, intelligence, and research posts for the U.S. Army.

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