The Americans’ difficulties in dealing with de Gaulle … paled in comparison to those Khrushchev encountered in trying to manage Mao Zedong. The sources of Sino-Soviet tension lay, first, in the long history of hostility between Russia and China, which commitment to a common ideology had only partially overcome: Khrushchev and Mao had all the instincts and prejudices of nationalists, however much they might be communists. Stalin’s legacy also posed problems. Mao had defended the dead dictator when Khrushchev attacked him in 1956, but the Chinese leader also cultivated—and frequently displayed—his memory of each of Stalin’s slights, affronts, or insults. It was as if Stalin had become a tool for Mao, to be used when necessary to bolster his own authority, but also to be rejected when required to invoke the dangers of Soviet hegemony. At the same time, Mao treated Khrushchev as a superficial upstart, neglecting no opportunity to confound him with petty humiliations, cryptic pronouncements, and veiled provocations. Khrushchev could “never be sure what Mao meant…. I believed in him and he was playing with me.”
Mao did so, at least in part, because picking fights abroad—whether with adversaries or allies—was a way to maintain unity at home, a major priority as he launched the Great Leap Forward. That had been one of the reasons for the second offshore island crisis, which had brought China to the brink of war with the United States during the summer of 1958. But Mao had already by then picked a separate fight with the Soviet Union. The Russians had made the mistake of proposing the construction of a long-wave radio station on the China coast, together with the establishment of a joint Sino-Soviet submarine flotilla. Mao responded furiously. “You never trust the Chinese!” he complained to the Soviet ambassador. Moscow might as well be demanding joint ownership of “our army, navy, air force, industry, agriculture, culture, education…. With a few atomic bombs, you think you are in a position to control us.”
When Khrushchev hastened to Beijing to try to smooth things over, Mao accused him of having lost his revolutionary edge. “[W]e obviously have the advantage over our enemies,” Mao told him, having already put the imperfectly aquatic Khrushchev at a disadvantage by receiving him in a swimming pool. “All you have to do is provoke the Americans into military action, and I’ll give you as many divisions as you need to crush them.” Struggling to remain afloat, Khrushchev tried to explain “that one or two missiles could turn all the divisions in China to dust.” But Mao “wouldn’t even listen to my arguments and obviously regarded me as a coward.”
Defying the logic of balancing power within the international system, Mao sought a different kind of equilibrium: a world filled with danger, whether from the United States or the Soviet Union or both, could minimize the risk that rivals within China might challenge his rule. The strategy succeeded brilliantly. Despite a degree of mismanagement unparalleled in modern history—if such a euphemism can characterize policies that caused so many of his countrymen to starve to death during the Great Leap Forward—Mao survived as China’s “great helmsman.” What did not survive was the Sino-Soviet alliance, which had, as far as Mao was concerned, outlived its usefulness. Khrushchev, fearing the implications, tried desperately to reconstitute it right up to the moment he was deposed in 1964, despite repeated insults, rebuffs, and even instances of deliberate sabotage from Mao. But in the end even he had to admit—revealingly—that “it was getting harder and harder to view China through the eager and innocent eyes of a child.”
How was it, then, that de Gaulle and Mao, the leaders of medium powers, were able to treat the superpowers in this way? Why were the traditional forms of power itself—military strength, economic capacity, geographical reach—so useless in this situation? Part of the answer has to do with the new kind of power balancing that was taking place here: de Gaulle’s strategy of “defense in all directions” was not that different from Mao’s of giving offense in all directions. Both saw in the defiance of external authority a way to enhance their own internal legitimacy. Both sought to rebuild national self-esteem: that required, they believed, the thumbing of noses, even the biting of hands that had previously provided food and other forms of sustenance.