One of Communist China’s most capable military commanders, Peng Dehuai was in direct command of her forces in Korea for most of the war.
Peng Dehuai was of peasant stock, born in Hunan province on 24 October 1898. After a rudimentary education he worked as a labourer between the ages of 10 and 16, before signing up as a foot soldier for a local warlord. Two years later he joined the newly established KMT (Kuomintang), campaigning in Wuhan and working his way up through the ranks. Peng was clearly a competent soldier, but he was also politically committed. In particular, his lifelong interest in improving the lot of the Chinese peasant positioned him to the left of the KMT movement and led him to abandon it for Mao’s Chinese Communist Party in 1928.
Initially Peng kept this switch of allegiance quiet, ensuring that his KMT regiment stayed in camp rather than hunting down Communist guerillas. But in November of that year he openly defected to Mao’s army with his entire command. Having personally saved Mao’s life, Peng gained prominence within the Communist movement and became one of its most senior commanders. In 1931 he was instrumental in the establishment of the Jiangxi Soviet and its subsequent defence against KMT forces. He also captured the capital of Hunan, now at the head of an army of 25,000. In 1934–5 Peng’s troops took part in the famous Long March, and by the time of Japanese intervention in 1937, he was second in command of Communist forces.
During the war against Japan, Peng commanded nearly half a million troops in the ‘Hundred Regiments Offensive’ (1940), the largest Communist offensive of the war. There had been political tensions with Mao, in particular over Peng’s view that the Communists should unite wholeheartedly with the KMT against the Japanese. In 1941 he fell out of favour, only rehabilitating himself by an almost slavish devotion to Mao’s position. Between 1942 and 1945 he held senior administrative roles in Mao’s command.
After the defeat of Japan, Peng was given a field command again, in northern China. His highly skilled generalship against superior forces was a major factor in the Communists’ eventual defeat of the KMT.
By the outbreak of the Korean War, Peng was in charge of all of China’s northern provinces. During high level discussions about the Korean situation he was one of the few in the leadership who backed Mao’s determination to intervene. As such, he was given full military command in October, reporting only to Mao and Zhou Enlai. During the war, Peng demonstrated an ability to capitalize on China’s advantages, though he quickly became disillusioned with the shortcomings of her armed forces. He retired from the frontline in April 1952, taking over from Zhou as head of the Central Military Commission.
Following the armistice Peng campaigned for the modernization of China’s armed forces along Russian lines. He was now Defence Minister, a post he was to hold until 1959. During this period he was to resist Mao’s efforts at building a personality cult. After the Lushan Conference in 1959 he was dismissed, leading a life of obscurity, isolated from his family. Although his conditions eased during the early 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution he was tried, humiliated and tortured. He was imprisoned in 1967 and died there in 1974.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping formally rehabilitated Peng. He is now regarded as one of Communist China’s most important early leaders.
Peng Dehuai died 29 November 1974, aged 76.