The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, January 09, 2006

The American romance with China

Where we are with thinking on the Diem question is roughly this:

Books like Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and Hallin's Uncensored War - where the main discussion starts with the inauguration of John Kennedy - and the relative volume of attention that VN under the JFK and later presidencies, compared to Eisenhower's, gets generally, might lead one to the conclusion that, no later than January 1961, all bets were still on.

My hypothesis is that that is not true. That, on the contrary, there was never any possibility of an outcome favourable to the US according to the criteria then shaping US foreign policy.

Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7 1954; the Geneva Conference started on April 26; Ngo Dinh Diem arrived in VN on June 26 to form a government as Bao Dai's prime minister.

I've looked at the process whereby Diem got an influential following in the US. What I haven't got is anything official from within USG on the process whereby he got picked for the job. The 1954 volumes on the UW FRUS online archive don't include any covering Indochina. (Yet - it's a work in progress, apparently.)

I'm looking for background on the mindset of the US political class on Far East affairs.

The gravitational pull of China was irresistible. Feeding the loss of China nonsense.

So I go to look more carefully at the China Reporting etext (mentioned before).

In the section on Thomas Millard, a journo who knocked around China for years, starting around the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and was highly influential on subsequent generations of American reporters who came to cover the country.

It addresses the question of the (one-way?) Sino-American romance (emphasis mine):
From 1900 to 1930, Millard wrote seven books and reported for the New York Times, New York World, New York Herald, New York Herald Tribune, Scribner's, Nation, and others. Because it was a time of political transition in China characterized by disorder and lack of authority, Millard and those associated with him were able to engage effectively in advocacy journalism. But he quickly realized that the American public was not very interested in China, that editors stood in the way of getting the word out and educating the public. So he sought to influence the foreign policy elite, and in this task he was helped by friends with influence and money, such as Charles Crane, an influential Chicagoan who, after making a great deal of money, devoted his life to pushing the concept of a special US relationship with China and Asia. Millard was often subsidized by Crane to the tune of $500 a month, and at times by various Chinese governments. Besides writing, Millard went to Washington to try to influence the State Department and constituent groups such as missionaries and businessmen, relentlessly propounding the idea of a special relationship with China.

Millard failed in part because China was not a central concern to American interests. But in terms of influence on other journalists, Millard was more successful. It is interesting to see how many journalists from the Midwest in later periods developed similar motivations. Many had that same sense of mission, a willingness to advocate a particular view and a particular role for the United States and China. Not really understanding China very deeply, Millard used China as an instrument, as an object for achieving what he believed to be American goals.

So, if the American public wasn't interested in China in 1900, when did the romance begin?

I've mentioned Pearl Buck before, whose Good Earth appeared in 1931 and pulled down a Pulitzer for her [1]; which she followed up with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Of course, 1931 was also the year of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria - which I imagine (evidence?) got a fair amount of press. The newsreels were talkies by then (I'm assuming), which must have had some effect (evidence?).

There is a thesis right on point - Americans and the issue of China : the passion and dispassion of American opinions about China, 1930 to 1944 - but it's not available to the public.

A GB book, Fdr's Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos by Frederick Pike, suggests a Depression angle:
Americans in quest of renewal...found primitives in virtually all parts of the world to fulfill their psychic needs and longings. For some questers, Chinese peasants afforded the proper models.

The Good Earth fed their appetite, he says. It's a theory.

However the whole thing started, the American romance with China had reached absurd proportions by December 7 1941. I happen to have to hand a dead-tree One World by Wendell Willkie, which is pretty much ga-ga on the subject. Willkie scarcely comes within anyone's definition of best and brightest. But I have a feeling that few were calling him on his other-worldly faith in Chiang Kai-shek and his band of venal cutthroats.

From there, there's a connection with FDR emissary, Oklahoman Patrick Hurley, and hence to our lost leaders at State, John Service and John Paton Davies; Hurley, I've read, was at the bottom of the witchhunt that winkled them out. From Hurley, one can also draw a line to the China Lobby, who terrorised Truman, and made him a fellow-traveller of the McCarran/McCarthy roadshow; and, as a bonus, kept JFK and LBJ in need of a regular supply of macho stances.

That's a whole lot of connecting-the-dots, and almost nothing in the way of actual evidence.

Of course, immediately before the events listed above, USG had, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, arrived at a good decision on Indochina: not to intervene militarily on the side of the French.

A decision arrived at despite the loss of China, the threat of the commie-lover tag, the relatively early stage of the Eisenhower presidency.

The gilt is rather scraped off the gingerbread if one imagines that, at the moment Ike's boys were giving the Frogs the finger, they were preening themselves over their cunning plan to put Diem in as leader of the South.

The research continues.

  1. According to this bio,
    On March 2, 1931, John Day published Buck's second novel, The Good Earth. The book became an overnight sensation after Will Rogers lauded it on the front page of the New York Times as "not only the greatest book about a people ever written but the best book of our generation."
    The Japanese attack on Manchuria came on September 18 1931.

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