Nuclear Weapons Are Paper Tigers

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Mao Zedong

"Nuclear Weapons Are Paper Tigers" from "Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong"

Interview held in August 1946; text published in Beijing in 1961 and in the United States in 1969

In 1927, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) started a military offensive in an attempt to reunite the country under his rule. At that time, China was fragmented and in the hands of hundreds of warlords, local military governors who wrested control of parts of the country since no central government was in power. In Chiang's offensive to take control, he allied with the communists, a rapidly growing movement in China at the time. (Communists believe that private property should be eliminated, that goods and the means of their production should be owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and should be available to all as needed.) After the communists helped Chiang's troops to capture Shanghai, the troops turned around and massacred the communists, killing as many as three quarters of the group. After that, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces worked for decades to eliminate communists in China.

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976), one of the survivors, helped to assemble a small group of communists in central China that rapidly grew into a formidable force. Also in the Red Army, as the communist forces were called, from these

early days were Peng Dehuai (P'eng Teh-huai; 1898–1974), the future leader of Communist Chinese forces in the Korean War (1950–53), and Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai; 1898–1976), the future premier and foreign minister of Communist China. In 1934, a successful offensive by Chiang's army forced the communists to flee, resulting in the one-year, eight-thousand-mile, combat-ridden Long March. At the end of it, a communist force of about ten thousand men settled in a new base. Mao Zedong was the clear leader. Chiang continued to make unsuccessful efforts to eliminate the communists, but in the 1930s Japan began to occupy more and more of China, and for a time the communists actually allied with Chiang's Nationalist army to fight the mutual enemy.

When World War II drew to a close in 1945, the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists resumed the conflict for rule. The United States backed Chiang Kai-shek. When he made his "paper tiger" statement in 1946, Mao Zedong was facing an opponent (the United States) that had recently dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

After decades of occupation and civil war, China did not have the technology or resources that other large nations had. Instead, Mao is saying in the paper tiger statement that a Communist China would have the true source of power: the will of the people. Another more grisly aspect of Mao's tough stance toward the possible atomic bombing of China is his attitude that the huge death toll would not hurt China. China, with its great population, could endure.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from "Nuclear Weapons Are Paper Tigers":

  • Mao Zedong wrote many books about politics and on warfare. In On Protracted War he theorized that a weak army could conquer a strong one if the people who were fighting believed in their cause.

Excerpt from "Nuclear Weapons Are Paper Tigers," in "Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong"

The atom bomb is a paper tiger which the U.S. reactionaries use to scare people. It looks terrible, but in fact it isn't. Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass slaughter, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two new types of weapon.

All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful. From a longterm point of view, it is not the reactionaries but the people who are really powerful. In Russia, before the February Revolution in 1917, which side was really strong? On the surface the tsar was strong but he was swept away by a single gust of wind in the February Revolution. In the final analysis, the strength in Russia was on the side of the Soviets of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers. The tsar was just a papertiger. Wasn't Hitler once considered very strong? But history proved that he was a paper tiger. So was Mussolini, so was Japanese imperialism. On the contrary, the strength of the Soviet Union and of the people in all countries who loved democracy and freedom proved much greater than had been foreseen.

Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters, the U.S. reactionaries, are all paper tigers too. Speaking of the U.S. imperialism, people seem to feel that it is terrifically strong. Chinese reactionaries are using the "strength" of the United States to frighten the Chinese people. But it will be proved that the U.S. reactionaries, like all the reactionaries in history, do not have much strength. In the United States there are others who are really strong—the American people.

Take the case of China. We have only millet plus rifles to rely on, but history will finally prove that our millet plus rifles is more powerful than Chiang Kai-shek's aeroplanes plus tanks. Although the Chinese people still face many difficulties and will long suffer hardships from the joint attacks of U.S. imperialism and the Chinese reactionaries, the day will come when these reactionaries are defeated and we are victorious. The reason is simply this: the reactionaries represent reaction, we represent progress. (Mao, pp. 100–01)

What happened next…

Mao Zedong and the Communists drove the Nationalists to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa) off of mainland China in 1949 and proclaimed the People's Republic of China. When the war broke out in Korea less than a year later, Mao watched with concern. Although China was terribly depleted from years of war, he believed that the North Koreans should be supported in their efforts. As the United Nations forces, supporting South Korea, raced north after the successful Inchon landing in September 1950, Communist China gave repeated warnings to the Western powers that they would not sit by while American troops approached their border with North Korea. Along with trying to negotiate through the United

Nations, which did not recognize Communist China as a nation (they still recognized Chiang's Nationalists, though defeated in the Chinese Civil War), Mao was preparing his troops to enter the Korean War. In October 1950, the Chinese launched their first offensive.

Did you know…

  • Many of the top generals of the Chinese army did not wish to enter the Korean War, fearing that U.S. technology and the atomic bomb would overpower their already weakened forces.
  • The casualties for the Chinese army in the Korean War were estimated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the president's and the secretary of defense's war advisors) in 1953 to be 909,607: 401,401 killed, 486,995 wounded, and 21,211 missing. Some modern historians believe these figures are too high.

Where to Learn More

Hoyt, Edwin P. The Day the Chinese Attacked: Korea, 1950. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Mao Zedong. "Nuclear Weapons Are Paper Tigers." In "Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong" in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. IV. Peking, China: Foreign Language Press, 1961. Reprinted in Mao, edited by Jerome Ch'en. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 114–15.

Roe, Patrick C. The Dragon Strikes: China and the Korean War: June-December 1950. Novato, CA: Presidio, 2000.