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Asia First

China and the Making of Modern American Conservatism

After Japanese bombs hit Pearl Harbor, the American right stood at a crossroads. Generally isolationist, conservatives needed to forge their own foreign policy agenda if they wanted to remain politically viable. When Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949—with the Cold War just underway—they had a new object of foreign policy, and as Joyce Mao reveals in this fascinating new look at twentieth-century Pacific affairs, that change would provide vital ingredients for American conservatism as we know it today.

Mao explores the deep resonance American conservatives felt with the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek and his exile to Taiwan, which they lamented as the loss of China to communism and the corrosion of traditional values. In response, they fomented aggressive anti-communist positions that urged greater action in the Pacific, a policy known as “Asia First.” While this policy would do nothing to oust the communists from China, it was powerfully effective at home. Asia First provided American conservatives a set of ideals—American sovereignty, selective military intervention, strident anti-communism, and the promotion of a technological defense state—that would bring them into the global era with the positions that are now their hallmark.

232 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: American History, General History

Political Science: American Government and Politics


"Mao convincingly maintains that persuading Republicans to adopt the “Asia First” policy allowed conservatives to succeed in factional struggles within the GOP and then achieve electoral victory against Democrats. The strategy of “Asian First,” she explains, is too often only aligned with McCarthyism or the post-1949 debate over “who lost China,” but ran significantly deeper and longer as Cold War hot spots consistently emerged in Asia. Mao is very effective in her study of U.S. political figures, their perspectives on China, and how these contributed to their ability to achieve their own and their party’s ambitions. Asia First urges us to move beyond the accepted wisdom about theGMD, Chinese Americans, and the Republican Party to unpack the myriad variations and implications of political support for the Republic of China in the U.S. during the Cold War."

The American Historical Review



"Asia First is a welcome addition to the small (though slowly growing) historiography of how foreign policy shaped the American conservative movement. [It] is a book which sets itself apart from the historiography and makes the reader think about how and why American conservative foreign policy transitioned from isolationist to internationalist and interventionist....177 meticulously researched pages."


"Mao deftly chronicles the emergence of late twentieth-century conservative internationalism within the Republican party. As she explains, conservative internationalism evolved out of a zealous 'Asia First' variant of early Cold War–era anticommunism that put China at the heart of an activist foreign policy. Overall, Mao contributes a well-argued and new perspective on the rise of the Republican Right."

Journal of American History

"In this elegantly constructed volume, Mao shows how it was precisely by rearticulating the relationship between the United States and China that the conservative New Right emerged in the immediate postwar period and eventually developed into the most enduring political movement of the twentieth century. Asia First will be an enlightening read for anyone interested in twentieth-century US history, but it should also be read widely among scholars of Asia. In sum, Asia First offers illuminating insights into the role of China as a factor in global and domestic US politics but also into the way 'China' functioned as a blank sheet of paper where US (and Taiwanese) politicians, businessmen, and maybe even scholars, could write whatever suited their political needs."

Journal of Asian Studies

"Asia First contains important new insights into the development of the postwar Republican Party and its approach to foreign policy."

Pacific Historical Review

“With this exceptional book, Mao provides a nuanced, persuasive analysis of how foreign policy issues symbolically linked familiar conservative positions to new concerns during the post-World War II period. Presenting the ideology of the Asia First movement in an effective and compelling manner, Mao seamlessly combines the “cultural turn” approach to studying international relations together with traditional questions and issues to demonstrate how conservative leaders in the 1950s and 1960s forged a unified view on China that infused new energy and ideas into postwar conservatism.”

David F. Schmitz, Whitman College

Asia First is a terrific contribution to the literature on Sino-American relations, with its brilliant exploration of China’s centrality to conservative American politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao is not only original but rather ingenious in how she takes characters, such as Alfred Kohlberg, Robert Welch, and Barry Goldwater, and uses them as lenses through which to view the larger phenomenon of China in American political culture in the decades after World War II.”

Christopher Jespersen, University of North Georgia

"With Asia First, Mao has produced a vivid roadmap that demonstrates how politicians and pundits stoking fears of China and Communism promoted the rise of American conservatism from the era of McCarthy through Reagan. Along the way, she explores the crucial link between domestic and foreign policies.”

Michael Schaller, University of Arizona

“Mao offers an important new study of post-1945 American conservatism. Whereas most writers have characterized Cold War era conservatives as unilateralists or isolationists, Mao suggests that many of them were willing to embrace internationalism in Asia. The reason, she suggests, is because conservative politicians and publicists had embraced a vision of U.S.-China cooperation that appeared threatened by the rise of Communist China. China thus served as the key to the shift in conservatism from isolationism to internationalism (what the author calls "Asia First internationalism"). This is an intriguing thesis, which the author buttresses on the basis of massive research. Asia First is a critical contribution to the study of Cold-War era American opinion.”

Akira Iriye, Harvard University

“How did conservatives move from isolationism after World War II to militant anti-communist internationalism through the Cold War era? The “China Question” had lots to do with the shift, according to this original look at the underpinnings and politics of modern conservative foreign policy. Partisanship, ideology, geopolitical calculation, and personality all played roles.  Asia First is a valuable and long-overdue study of the rise of conservative internationalism.”

Gordon H. Chang, Stanford University

Table of Contents


1 Up from Isolationism: The Conservative Dilemma and the Chinese Solution
2 No Such Thing: The China Lobby
3 Firefights: China’s Meanings after the Korean War
4 Onward, Christian Soldiers: The John Birch Society
5 The New Normal: Asia First Realpolitik


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