Peng Dehuai

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Peng Dehuai

Born October 24, 1898
Shixiang, Hunan, China
Died November 29, 1974

Chinese military leader and minister of defense

Although he was in charge of the Chinese forces in Korea, Peng Dehuai was barely known to Westerners, who for years assumed another general led China in the Korean War (1950–53). Peng had been with Communist Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong (Mao Tsu-tung; 1893–1976; see entry) as a commander in the Red Army since the early days in the 1920s. His skill and integrity as the commander of the Chinese forces in Korea led to tremendous successes in the first Chinese offensives, and his troops were responsible for some of the worst U.S. defeats in combat yet known.

An impoverished childhood

Peng Dehuai (P'eng Teh-huai) was born in the village of Shixiang in the southern province of Hunan. His home was not far from the birthplace of Mao Zedong. Peng's early years were marked by poverty. After the death of his mother in 1904 and the failure of the family's business, Peng and one of his brothers were forced to beg for food in their neighborhood. The times were difficult in China, after years of the unsteady leadership of the ruling family of China, the Manchu–Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty. In 1911, the Manchus were overthrown by the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) and his Kuomintang party (pronounced KWOE-min-TANG). Sun briefly established a republic, but it did not hold together, and soon the country was under military rule. Several provinces declared their independence, and separate rulers, or warlords, took over. The country was falling apart in many ways.

In 1913, there was a large demonstration in Shixiang, the result of hardships due to a bad drought. Peng took part in breaking into a grain storehouse and giving the grain to the demonstrators. After the demonstration, he was forced to flee in order to avoid arrest for his part. After working at a number of jobs, in 1915 he joined the Hunan warlord army, one of several regional military forces controlling sections of China. Peng distinguished himself as an excellent soldier and chose to further his military career by entering the Hunan Military Academy in September 1922. After his graduation, Peng served in several armies fighting to unify China. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and was succeeded by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry), in whose Nationalist army Peng rose to the rank of major. During all the years of his military service, Peng's interest in politics and political philosophy grew stronger and he found himself deeply drawn to the ideals of communism. Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property; it is a system in which goods, owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals, are available to all as needed. Impressed especially with the communists' sympathy for the common man, Peng began to align himself with the communist faction within the Nationalist forces.

Joining the communists

In 1927, Chiang accepted the help of the communists to take over the city of Shanghai in an offensive. When the mission was accomplished, Chiang set his army against the communists who had just helped him, slaughtering them in the streets and having them arrested and executed. The few communists who survived the incident had to flee to the countryside. A small group formed in remote mountains on the border of Hunan. One of the leaders that emerged in the mountains was the revolutionary Mao Zedong.

Peng joined the Chinese Communist Party in February 1928, although he remained in Chiang's Nationalist army. That summer, his regiment was sent to hunt down commu nists in Hunan. Under his leadership, his troops revolted. Rather than going after the communists as they were ordered, they arrested and executed the Hunan landowners, establish ing the Hunan Provincial Soviet Government. Peng's unit became the Fifth Corps of the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Army. When the Nationalist army came after them, they fled to join Mao in the mountains.

The Long March

The group of communists in the mountains grew steadily and by 1930 had become such a threat to Chiang that he continually sent his troops on missions to annihilate them. Peng had become a leader in the Red Army, commanding a unit of eighteen thousand men, when Chiang's troops totally surrounded the communist base, forcing the whole group to embark on what became known as the Long March. The march began with eighty thousand communist troops heading westward in October 1934. One year later only ten thousand men were left, and they had traveled eight thousand miles, fighting in fierce combat all the while. Only three thousand of Peng's men survived the one-year trek, but Peng, a burly man with a flair for the dramatic, emerged from the Long March a hero of the Red Army. At this time, Mao Zedong took his place as leader of the Communists, with Peng serving as commander of the First Front Army.

From this time, the Communist Party and army grew and took over more and more of China. By 1938, the Red Army had 156,000 men and at the close of World War II (1939–45) it was estimated at 800,000. The Communists had fourteen bases and controlled about one-fifth of the population of China. Peng, as commander of the army, wished to bring his troops up to date in military procedures and technology. Mao, on the other hand, wanted to promote political idealism in his soldiers and preferred to use guerrilla tactics such as ambushes and surprise attacks.

A united front

In 1937, with the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists involved in utter conflict with each other, they barely noticed that their country was being invaded by Japan. Chiang was in the middle of preparing his army for the final extermination of the Communists when Japan invaded China in July. Although Chiang would have preferred to go after the Communists, the public demanded that he create a united front of Communists and Nationalists against the invading Japanese. Chiang and Mao agreed to form a united front army comprised of both Nationalists and Communists to the common enemy. They called a very reluctant truce to their own hostilities as World War II ignited worldwide and they began to receive help from the Allies against Japan.

As desperate as the situation was, with Japan occupying large parts of China, Mao wanted to save the Red Army for the fight against Chiang's Nationalist army after the war. But he deployed three divisions in the war against the Japanese and Peng became a general in one of them. Peng also occasionally led guerrilla forces on surprise attacks on the Japanese. Peng disagreed with Mao on the overall use of the armed forces. Peng believed that the Japanese were such a potent enemy that all the forces of the Communist troops should be used against them. In the end, it was the atomic bombs dropped on mainland Japan by the United States that forced the Japanese to surrender and end World War II.

Chinese Civil War

As soon as the Japanese surrendered, the Communists and the Nationalists rushed in to accept the Japanese surrender in various parts of China, both wanting to claim as much of the formerly occupied territory as possible. This led to resumed fighting between the two groups, which became a civil war. During the Chinese Civil War (1946–49), Peng commanded the 175,000-man Northwest Field Army. He was given the difficult task of protecting the Communist capital of Yenan. The opposing general, Hu Tsungnan, was one of Chiang Kai-shek's best strategists. In March 1947, Hu launched a 260,000-man offensive that pushed Peng's forces back toward the Inner Mongolian border in northwest China. Peng's troops were able to save Mao from being captured in one of the battles, and Mao honored his general's courage and skill by dedicating a poem to him. Peng's troops recaptured Yenan in April 1948. Hu evacuated his troops to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa) in the fall of 1949, signaling a Communist victory. On October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed by the Chinese Communist Party, of which Mao Zedong was chairman.

Korean War

After winning the civil war, the new Chinese Communist government faced a ruined economy and an urgent need to get control over the fragmented country. They were also fighting nationalist guerrillas in the south and trying to reunite Taiwan with the rest of China and eliminate Chiang Kai-shek's hold there. After years of war, China was in need of a period of restoration, not involvement in the Korean War. But for a variety of reasons, when United Nations (UN) troops crushed the North Korean Army and drove up to China's border in October 1950, Mao argued fiercely that China must help out their neighbor. (The UN was founded right after World War II by the Allied Powers—the United States, the British Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, and other European nations— as an international body devoted to maintaining worldwide peace.) Most of the generals and top officials argued against intervention. Peng Dehuai was almost alone in his support of Mao in this. When Mao coaxed the skeptical PRC leadership to agree to enter the war, it was Peng who was named commander in chief of the Chinese forces assigned to save North Korea. Peng commanded the 380,000-man Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV), who were actually taken from the regular army.

At the time of this appointment, Peng Dehaui was fifty-three years old and had been with Mao and the Red Army for twenty-two years. On October 8, he flew to Shenyang to take command of the CPV. Then he went on to the town of Andong, where he brought together five field armies near the border of North Korea. On October 14, he started sending trainloads of advance units across the Yalu River to various strategic destinations in North Korea. On October 19, the rest of the troops began their journey, but the going was slow. Supplies had been transported across the border beginning October 11.

On October 21, Peng met with the North Korean premier Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) to form a joint plan of action. He determined that his best course was to stop the UN forces' advances by surrounding the widely scattered units with hidden troops, and then to kill as many of them as possible. That same morning, Peng's advance units first met with the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korean) troops advancing toward the border. "On the morning of October 21, a division of our 40th Army encountered Syngman Rhee's puppet troops," he wrote in his memoirs of meeting the South Korean troops, whose government was headed by Syngman Rhee (1875–1965; see entries). "Our troops displayed characteristic flexibility and mobility and wiped out some Syngman Rhee units, forcing the pursuing U.S. and puppet troops to retreat." This initial offensive was brief and scattered, mostly hitting the ROKs but also some Eighth Army troops, and lasted until November 6. On that day, although the Chinese were winning the battles, Peng ordered all units to cease combat and withdraw. The Chinese troops did not reappear to the UN forces for three weeks, giving the United Nations plenty of time to reconsider the invasion of North Korea. In the meantime, Mao was sending more armies and Peng's troops had a chance to resupply.

The attack at the Chosin Reservoir

On November 8, 1950, Peng and his generals began planning their next offensive. They were more optimistic about the outcome than when they decided to enter the war one month previously. There were by November about 380,000 men available in the area, and they had found the UN forces weak and unprepared in combat. Still, Peng was realistic about the ends that could be achieved, hoping only to push the enemy back to the 39th parallel. They planned to wait for the UN to attack northward into the mountainous areas in the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir, and then attack. The greatest effort would be against the First U.S. Marine Division, which the Chinese understood to be the most challenging opponent they would face. Mao sent Peng extra divisions for this encounter. Surprise would be a great asset. The United States still believed that the Chinese force in Korea was small, about 60,000 men.

Peng's military strategy was to lure unsuspecting UN forces into a huge and well-laid trap. He was very skillful in moving hundreds of thousands of troops into North Korea without alarming the UN command. His troops marched at night to avoid being seen by air or on land. They marched in the mountains, brushing the snow over their tracks as they went. With great discipline, they hid while UN units marched past them, waiting for the trap to be laid. To form a trap, they often formed a giant V shape in front of the enemy troops. When the enemy was inside the V, the Chinese would close up the back opening, and attack at very close range. The trapped UN units were cut off from help and outnumbered. Their military training was for organized combat rather than hand-to-hand

fighting. Peng's attacks were usually short and fierce, with many deaths on both sides.

From November 25 until December 6, the Chinese struck full force against the UN forces, which were divided in half and separated by mountains. Peng described the attack in his memoirs: "Our main force swept into the enemy ranks with the strength of an avalanche and engaged the enemy at close quarters with grenades and bayonets. The superior firepower of the enemy became useless." The Eighth Army was forced into retreat on November 28. The X Corps in Chosin were trapped, surrounded by massive Chinese forces in the bitterly cold reservoir: there were twelve Chinese divisions facing three U.S. and two ROK divisions. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Although the Chinese did not annihilate the First Marines, Chosin was the worst marine defeat in history. In the first days of December, the surviving marines fought their way to the fortified town of Hagaru; from there they would begin their journey to the coast, where they were evacuated by ship from North Korea. On December 2, Peng ordered a halt to the combat for a few days. China had suffered grave losses, with whole divisions so battered they could no longer operate. Reserves were moving in, but the freezing weather and UN air attacks were killing many soldiers before they ever saw combat. Several days later, the Chinese forces advanced to the south.

The Eighth Army was quickly retreating south, not realizing that the Chinese forces had been so badly damaged. They stopped at a line roughly along the 38th parallel, the original dividing line between North and South Korea. Slowly, over the next few weeks, the Chinese built up their troops on the other side of the line, with a concentration just north of Seoul. The Chinese struck again on New Year's Eve, sending the Eighth Army into a disorderly retreat. They quickly recaptured the city of Seoul.

Reaching a stalemate

The recapture of Seoul was a great victory for Peng, but he was deeply concerned, as he wrote in his memoirs of the winter of 1951: "By now the Chinese People's Volunteers had fought three major campaigns… . They had neither an airforce nor sufficient antiaircraft guns to protect them from enemy bombers. Bombed by aircraft and shelled by long-range guns day and night, our troops could not move about in daytime. And they had not had a single day's good rest in three months." Mao and Kim Il Sung both urged that the Chinese offensives continue until the UN troops could be driven from Korea altogether. The next offensive failed, and Seoul was lost to the UN forces a second time, on March 14. A large offensive in April was successful in killing many of the enemy, but failed to gain much ground. Another massive attack in May began favorably for the Chinese and North Koreans, but this time the UN forces, now under the command of General Matthew B. Ridgway (1895–1993; see entry), held their ground firmly. Peng reported the heaviest losses yet in the war. After that the Chinese forces dug into a defensive position, creating tunnels and bunkers that were nearly impenetrable. In the next two years of warfare, neither the U.S. nor the Chinese forces made great advances. They fell to positions near the 38th parallel and held their own in a stalemate that cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

By the summer of 1953, Peng had amassed a huge and powerful army in North Korea. But after two years of negotiating, the UN and the communists finally arranged a truce. Peng personally signed the armistice agreement at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. "This is a happy day for our people," read Peng's public statement upon the signing, as quoted in his memoirs. "Through three years of fighting together, the Volunteers had forged a comradeship in blood with the North Korean people and their army—a friendship which further deepened and strengthened our international feelings." North Korean premier Kim Il Sung hailed him as a Korean national hero.

Although Peng exhibited deep concern about his troops consistently throughout the war, he was also known to throw them into short, fierce battles in which huge numbers would be killed. Peng's strategy during the Korean War was to use the CPV's advantage—numerical superiority—to over-whelm UN forces. Swarms of soldiers using bayonets advanced, with little to no artillery, tank, or air support, into the teeth of concentrated UN fire. Chinese losses during the war were appallingly high. Western estimates place the losses at a minimum of 450,000, although the exact figure is not known.

Minister of Defense

In the spring of 1954, Peng was named China's minister of defense, becoming, in effect, the supreme commander of China's army, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). On January 18, 1955, Peng used his new position to lead twelve thousand soldiers on an attack of the Dachen Islands. Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader who escaped to Taiwan in December 1949, was in possession of the islands and had been using them as a base from which he could launch commando raids into mainland China. The United States persuaded Chiang to evacuate his ten thousand soldiers from the Dachens by promising U.S. congressional approval of the Taiwan Straits Resolution, which gave the U.S. president authority to use force to protect Taiwan. In addition to the Dachens assault, the Communist Chinese were shelling two other strategic islands, Quemoy and Matsu, just off the mainland. Quemoy received the brunt of the assault. Hostilities mounted between China and the United States and at one point U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888–1959) made a nuclear threat against China. In the summer of 1955, the PLA stopped its shelling.

Peng's forces shelled Quemoy again in August 1958, using as many as sixty thousand artillery shells a day. Peng's navy blockaded the island, hoping to "starve" Quemoy into a surrender. The United States intervened, protecting Chiang's supply lines from Taiwan to Quemoy with its Seventh Fleet. Peng's air force sustained heavy losses while engaging Taiwan's fighter planes. Thirty-seven of Peng's planes were shot down. The Chinese eventually ended the blockade and shelling in October 1958 after more threats from the United States. Peng's mission was a failure.

A warning to Mao

In the late 1950s, Peng tried to use his influence to upgrade the PLA. His objective was to rebuild the military with modern weapons and disciplined training. This effort did not get far. Mao was more interested in his new economic program, the Great Leap Forward, in which he wanted to promote rapid agricultural and industrial growth by developing "people's communes" that combined farming and industry. Many Chinese leaders believed Mao's plan was dangerous to the economy, but few dared to say anything. In 1959, at Communist Party meetings at Lushan, a mountain resort in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) province, Peng Dehuai spoke out bluntly against the plan, warning Mao that a terrible famine loomed in China and that his idea could cause disaster. Mao did not listen to the warning, and his program collapsed by 1960. Mao was by this time becoming paranoid (thinking people wanted to do him harm) and relentless in his revolutionary idealism. He launched an even more radical plan; more than twenty-five million people died in the Great Leap famines of 1959 to 1961.

In the meantime, for voicing disagreement with Mao, Peng Dehuai lost his position, was banished from the Communist Party, and was soon arrested and imprisoned in 1959. He remained in prison for fifteen years. In 1974, Peng became ill but was denied medical treatment. He died in prison on November 29. After Mao's death, Peng's memory was openly honored again in China. He is now regarded as a hero in China.

Where to Learn More

Deane, Hugh. The Korean War: 1945–1953. San Francisco: China Books, 1999.

Domes, Jurgen. Peng Te-huai: The Man and the Image. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Peng Dehuai. Memoirs of a Chinese Marshal: The Autobiographical Notes of Peng Dehuai (1898–1924). Translated by Zheng Longpu and edited by Sara Grimes. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984.

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

Spurr, Russell. Enter the Dragon. New York: Newmarket, 1988.

Whiting, Allen. China Crosses the Yalu. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Words to Know

armistice: talks between opposing forces in which they agree to a truce or suspension of hostilities.

bayonet: a steel blade attached to the end of a rifle or other firearm, used as a sword or knife in hand-to-hand combat.

bunker: a reinforced underground room dug into a battle area for protection against enemy gunfire and bombs.

Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.

grenade: a small explosive weapon that can be thrown, usually with a pin that is pulled to activate it and a spring-loaded safety lever that is held down until the user wants to throw the grenade; once the safety lever is released, the grenade will explode in seconds.

guerrilla tactics: an irregular form of combat, in which warriors generally rely on ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.

intervention: the act of a third party who steps into an ongoing conflict in the attempt to interfere in its outcome or stop it altogether.

Nationalists (Chinese): the ruling party led by Chiang Kai-shek in China from the 1920s until 1949, when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and forced to withdraw to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa).

stalemate: deadlock; the state in which the efforts of each party in a conflict cancels out the efforts of the other party so that no one makes any headway.

warlord: a leader with his own military whose powers are usually limited to a small area that, in most cases, he took by force.