James Bradley. The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia.
New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2015.
As reviewed by Ted Odenwald
American diploma John Service is among the few heroes in Bradley’s evaluation of the United States’ relationship with China. Born in China, fluent in several dialects of the language, having a realistic understanding of the mind of the Chinese peasant, as well as that of Mao Zedong, Service attempted to correct the mirages that the American government had “sold” to its citizenry: that the Chinese peasantry wanted to be Westernized, Americanized, and Christianized; that Chiang Kai-Shek was a trustworthy leader and loyal ally; that Mao was a pawn of Russia, desiring to extend communism throughout Asia. For his efforts, Service was ridiculed and humiliated by legislative committees and eventually removed from his position.
In truth, Service never had a chance—until it was too late—for his knowledge to be accepted. America’s blind hopes and impressions, which Bradley calls “mirages,” had prevailed for more than a century, leading to our participation in three costly and, according to Bradley, avoidable wars in Asia. The condescension of the American public to Chinese immigrant workers in the nineteenth century illustrates some of the background story: the workers were welcomed because they provided excellent work for low wages; once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, however, our government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, in effect banning a Chinese person from entering the country. In the twentieth century, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt close ties to Asia because his grandfather, Warren Delano, had made the family fortune by trafficking opium into China. Buoyed by the strong influence of magazine publisher Henry Luce, who saw in Chiang and his wife Mayling the promise of a westernized, Christianized China, FDR “loaned “ enormous amounts of money to these “allies.” The widely read works of Pearl Buck, particularly The Good Earth, idealized the western values which she believed were inherent in the hard-working Chinese peasants. Little did Americans— even the top government officials—realize that the Chinese peasant viewed westerners as devils, hadn’t the slightest interest in missionaries’ preaching, viewed Mao as the true leader of the common people, and regarded Chiang as a corrupt dictator.
America’s views of China were complicated by our impressions of Japan. President Theodore Roosevelt was impressed with that Japan’s strong showing in wars against China and Russia. He believed that Japan’s victories were proof of that country’s cultural superiority, and that Japan should be our partner in the East, establishing its own version of the Monroe Doctrine and establishing a hegemony in Asia. He basically gave Japan free rein to take over and civilize Korea, and control China.
U.S. Pacific policy in the 1930”s was complicated. Throughout that period, we sold petroleum and steel in support of Japan’s war efforts against a divided China. FDR and his advisors believed that by sending Japan these resources, the U.S. could remain out of the war. If the flow of supplies were disrupted, Japan would likely have invaded the Dutch East Indies—thus cutting off many raw materials that America was importing from that area. However, we were also funneling large amounts of money to support Chiang’s alleged attempts to defend his country.
Believing that cutting off supplies would lead to peace, FDR’s key officers — Ickes, Morganthau, Stimson, and Acheson created major roadblocks through bureaucratic maneuvers, all without the approval of the President, who was meeting with world leaders. To save face rather than withdraw and admit defeat, the Japanese launched a preemptive strike against the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor, thus enabling their forces to expand their reach into the southern Pacific islands.
Ironically, our supposed allies, Chiang and the Soong family, were not using our funds to fight Japan. They were more interested in subduing the “outlaw,” Mao, while ceding land to the Japanese invaders. Apparently large sums of aid wound up in the pockets of the Chiang/Soong regime. In the 40’s, Americans such as Service, John Davies, and General Joseph Stilwell realized what was happening to the Chinese people and government, but few would listen. And the U.S. was not earning any favors from Mao, who was gaining power.
Disastrous policies continued after World War II, as the U.S. refused to deal with Mao, believing that he intended to spread communism throughout Asia. When Chiang was forced to flee to Taiwan, McCarthyites sought out conspirators, who had allegedly sold out our ally. The truth is that Chiang and the Soongs had lost China on their own, having cheated, abused, or disregarded the country’s greatest resource—its massive population.
America’s “soft” treatment of Japan after the war led Koreans to fear that the U.S. was shoring up Japan to retake Korea, as an extension of western power (just as Theodore Roosevelt had done). When North and South Korea became involved in a civil war, American politicians decided that we had to intervene, as they believed the fighting to be “a challenge to their global containment policy….” Americans feared that “Moscow—working through Beijing and Pyongyang—had ordered the crossing (of the 38th Parallel) when it was only a North Korean action.” When American forces pushed back across the 38th Parallel, Mao, fearing U.S. aggression, unleashed his army, driving the Americans back. This was a war that might never have happened if the U.S. had been willing to communicate with Mao’s government.
Bradley concludes: “Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt were neither the first nor the last to imagine New [Westernized] China. There are still among us many…who feel the urge to Americanize Asia. After all, the dream is as old as the Republic, a myth that took root when the United States…was newly born. From those early days until now, America has dispatched its hopeful sons and daughters to faraway Asia in search of a mirage that never was. And never will be.”
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 45 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.