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For: [Letter] 1949 June 11 [to] Francis E. Walter, Washington, D.C. / C.L. Chennault.

General Claire Lee Chennault and CAT

by Gary Carlotta

Imagine a world where all the countries of Eastern Asia are under the control of communist regimes, where even the close American allies of South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines are communist nations. This is the world General Claire Lee Chennault feared during the years after the Second World War when he wrote to Congressman Walter about the threat the communization of China posed to the United States and also with the submission of his "domino theory" to the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 3, 1949, while he watched the Nationalist forces lose to communist forces under Mao Tse-tung in the Chinese Civil War. Chennault's theory stated that with the fall of China to communism other Asian nations would soon fall to communism with the support of communist governments in China and Russia, thus bringing about the world he feared. This was a world Chennault would do anything to stop, including the use of his commercial airline Civil Air Transport in an effort to stop the communist forces.

Chennault was born in Louisiana, where he graduated college and joined the Army Air Force. Quickly rising through the ranks, he soon came into disagreement with the Army's tactics for the Air Force and retired from the service. Chennault's concern over the future of China began in 1937. During this time both Communist and Nationalist forces coexisted in an uneasy peace with one another due to the threat an expansionist Japan posed to the security of both their governments. Therefore, Chennault was asked by the Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to survey the Chinese Air Force in preparation for the impending war with Japan. Coming to the conclusion the Chinese Air Force was in an abysmal condition; Chennault began training China's Air Force to a Western standard. However, upon seeing that Chinese pilots were still ineffectual in their fight against Japan, Chennault returned to America and gained the support of the American government to form the American Volunteer Group, an organization made entirely of American volunteers from the United States Army Air Force and Naval Air Force, and which came to be known as the "Flying Tigers." With this organization Chennault fought the Japanese Air Force with great success in support of the Chinese forces. Throughout World War II Chennault fought the Japanese, eventually working with the United States after Pearl Harbor.

After the war Chennault returned to China in 1946 and started the Civil Air Transport or CAT, which prospered in cooperation with the Nationalist government during the Chinese Civil War, often ferrying troops and supplies to the separated Nationalist strongholds still remaining on mainland China which were beginning to fall to Communist forces. By 1949 "the declining fortunes of the Nationalist government convinced Chennault that something had to be done at once to stem the surging Communist tide." (Diplomatic History 349) The success of the Communists in the Civil War and the resulting economic decline of CAT caused Chennault and his partner Whiting Willauer to approach several branches of the United States government. While unsuccessful in his negotiations with the State Department, Chennault eventually found the support he wanted in the CIA through connections he had in Washington. While the CIA was eager to slow the rise of communism in China and the rest of Asia, the organization was unwilling to openly support the Nationalist forces due to political reasons. Therefore, in 1949 Chennault was able to receive much needed financial aid from the CIA for his floundering airline. In this way Chennault was able to continue his support of the Nationalist forces by flying in supplies and ferrying troops for Chiang Kai-shek

As time progressed Chennault was even able to garner the formal support of the United States government, when they officially used diplomatic pressure to support Chennault's airline. In 1949 when China's two other major airlines, the China National Aviation Corporation and the Central Air Transport Corporation, abandoned their air fleet in Hong Kong, it was feared by Chennault and the rest of the Nationalist government that Communist forces would commandeer the planes and possibly use them for an air invasion of Taiwan, the new refuge of the Nationalist government. Due to the plane's location in Hong Kong, they were under the jurisdiction of the British government who originally decided the planes did belong to the Communists. However, due to the new formal support of the United States government, Chennault was able to change this decision and gain further financial support from the CIA, thereby acquiring the planes for CAT, neutralizing the threat to Taiwan.

Even with the support of Chennault and CAT, Nationalist strongholds on mainland China continued to fall to Communist forces, causing the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek to retreat to Taiwan and making the fall of mainland China to communism a foregone conclusion. While the fall of China to communism was unstoppable Chennault wanted to stop the spread of communism to the rest of Southeast Asia and help in the clandestine fight against other communist governments such as the Soviet Union. To support this fight, in 1950, Chennault sold CAT to the CIA, who used CAT as the start of a worldwide airline the organization would use for clandestine operations against communist regimes around the world. With his airline sold to the CIA, Chennault returned to the States and began an effort to warn America of a communist threat and suggested ways to turn back the tide, eventually dying of lung cancer on July 27, 1958.

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