Saturday, July 09, 2005

Hurley's Arrival in Yan'an

To me, the Yan'an period is surely one of the most interesting in recent Chinese history. Far more complex than the golden age of revolutionary idealism that is often portrayed, Yan'an was where Mao tested out techniques that would serve him well as Chairman of the Peoples Republic - the Yan'an Rectification campaign was a small scale Cultural Revolution, with its attendant purges, terrors and insistence on absolute loyalty to Mao's line.

Still, there are always turning points, places where things might have gone differently. I've always felt that the United States' utter rejection and demonizing of "Red" China, the hysterical "Red Scare" in the era of McCarthy, contributed to the worst aspects of Mao's regime, reinforcing xenophobia and paranoia and isolating those elements in the leadership that might have encouraged a more rational sort of government.

Certainly there were some compelling reasons to engage with the Chinese Communist movement, before 1949. After all, the Nationalists had proven their incompetence time and time again, and if the CCP was ruthless and brutal, so were the Nationalists. Add the corruption endemic to the Nationalist government, and many Americans in China during the "Anti-Japanese War" became convinced that the US was backing the wrong horse. The Communists had popular support; they seemed better organized and free of the blatant corruption that had sent untold dollars of American aid into the pockets of Guomindang officials, rather than to equipping the frontline soldiers of the ragged Nationalist Army.

In 1944, the US Army sent an observer group to Yenan to evaluate the Communist rebel government's war-making capability against Japan. The commander, Colonel David Barrett, also would take part in the negotiations between Mao and Chiang Kaishek, trying to persuade the two contending factions that a political settlement would be best for China. The negotiations, of course, were not successful, and Barrett's career became one of the many casualties of McCarthyist accusations over who "lost" China.

It's entirely possible that things could not have happened any differently, that the historical forces were simply too strong to allow for a more positive outcome.

On the other hand, at times there are tipping points, where a little push one way or the other has an entirely out of proportion effect on subsequent events.

Maybe the following isn't one of them. Or maybe...

(Again, a disclaimer: I wrote this many years ago, and it is rather rough)


So, you can think of history as a dialectical progression of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: a grand, implacable process along the lines of some majestic, natural phenomena – mighty rivers sweeping towards the sea, that kind of thing. You can personalize the conflict, as we Americans tend to do: reduce it to a clash of Titans, a battle between Great Individuals – Mao struggles with Chiang Kaishek, the Chairman versus the Generalissimo, winner to be determined in the final round.

Neither of these approaches accounts for the influence, usually malign, of not-so-Great individuals. People who, in an unfortunate confluence of personality and circumstance, have far more effect on the Mighty River of History than they should, in a more elegant, logical, serious kind of reality. These people are examples that History has a twisted sense of humor.

Call them individuals as chaos attractors. The particular human butterfly flapping its wings that causes some horrific catastrophe, the proverbial shit-storm, as opposed most other butterflies, who sit on their individual leaves and flap equally hard but only cause local disturbances.

One early November afternoon, the Wounded Duck’s replacement, another U.S. Army air force C-47, made an unannounced landing at Yan'an’s airfield. “The arrival of the plane from Chongqing was always a big event in Yan'an,” recalls Colonel Barrett, “and on the afternoon of the 7th of November, Zhou Enlai and I were among a large crowd of Chinese and Americans there to greet it.”

Also on hand were John Davies and Teddy White, who had been in Yan'an a little over two weeks, still riding high, undoubtedly, on the exhilarating Yan'an buzz of revolutionary purity and chats with living legends: Teddy White, his wildest journalistic fantasies fulfilled, having, in his words, “a reporter’s dream, to insert himself unobserved into the presence of great men as they talk history,” (and probably already imagining the next chapter, getting to write about it); John Davies, fresh from the wreckage of Stillwell’s recall, hoping that an honest, on-the-spot evaluation of the Communist command might somehow influence the decision-makers in Washington towards a more rational China policy. He was making the professional’s leap of faith, that rational policy based on accurate information would somehow override political imperatives.

The plane landed without incident, this time avoiding any hidden graves. Out onto the gangplank stepped a six-foot, three-inch vision in the uniform of an American major general, impeccably tailored, every crease knife-sharp, silver hair and mustache and rows of medals glinting in the afternoon sun.

“Visibly startled by this picture of soldierly bearing and sartorial splendor,” says Barrett, “was Zhou Enlai, who at once asked who the distinguished visitor was.”

The picture-perfect soldier was Major General Patrick Hurley, Roosevelt’s special envoy to the Chongqing government, soon to be United States Ambassador to China.

Leaving Barrett to deal with this unexpected visitation, Zhou made haste to fetch the Chairman.

Hurley, a Republican from Oklahoma, had been Hoover’s Secretary of War and was appointed by Roosevelt to a succession of diplomatic posts, perhaps primarily as an example of the non-partisan nature of America’s war effort. Hurley was not exactly a China hand. He pronounced Mao Zedong “Moose dung,” and once called Chiang Kaishek “General Shek.”

But one thing could be said for Hurley. He knew this was History with a big “H” being made here, and he was dressed for the occasion, suffused to the point of bursting with his own sense of destiny. “Today I am going into territory held by Communist troops,” he had cabled Roosevelt, voluntarily placing himself in the hands of Red Bandits to accomplish his mandate: make peace between China’s warring factions, who would then unite the country and defeat the Japanese, finally. After all, as he hastened to inform Barrett, practically upon arrival, Hurley had handled negotiations between Sinclair Oil and the Mexican government when the Mexicans seized the company’s holdings there, and he’d gotten a million dollars from Sinclair for his efforts (the dollar amount presumably evidence of the quality of his diplomacy). This China tangle was a mess, but the situation wasn’t completely unfamiliar; it reminded Hurley somewhat of politics in his native Oklahoma, the Nationalists being the Democrats and the Communists being the Republicans, and if the Republicans and Democrats could work together to win the war, goddammit, Chiang Kaishek and the Reds could too.

A snapshot: the members of the Dixie Mission dressed in Yan'an homespun, Chinese-style Zhongshan suits, presented to the delegation as evidence of the CCP’s successful production drive, and maybe to make the Americans slightly less conspicuous, so close to the Japanese lines – these were Barrett’s opinions. And maybe like so many foreigners in China, Barrett and the delegation wanted to dress the part, to try and blend in, even just a little.

For his date with destiny, Barrett wore a Chinese Army blue padded overcoat. This, in Teddy White’s view, was an instant strike against him: as far as Hurley was concerned, Barrett was out of uniform.

Barrett also possessed a sly sense of humor – Strike Two. Looking Hurley up and down, taking in his chest-full of decorations, Barrett remarked, “General, it looks as if you have a medal there for every campaign except Shay’s Rebellion.”

Hurley, whom Roosevelt once called, “one of my many make-believe generals,” was not amused.

Luckily Zhou Enlai was a master of emergency protocol, and the Red Army could mobilize with uncanny speed. In the space of five minutes, he returned with Mao in the converted ambulance that was the Chairman’s personal command vehicle, and a battalion of soldiers, who quickly assembled on the Gobi-dusted airstrip to give Roosevelt’s personal emissary a proper welcome.

Here it was: the first meeting between the Chairman of the CCP and a genuine Ambassador of the United States government. Hurley acknowledged Mao’s greetings, reviewed the honor guard, returned the commanding officer’s salute.

Then, in Barrett’s words, Hurley “drew himself up to his full impressive height, swelled up like a poisoned pup,” and let out a bellowed “Yahoo!” that echoed through the canyon – Hurley’s version of a Choctaw war-whoop.

It was probably one of the very few diplomatic encounters that left Zhou Enlai speechless.

His Nationalist allies in Chongqing nicknamed Hurley “the Second Big Wind.” Hurley loved to talk, could speechify for hours, in fact, sprinkling his monologues with sweeping invocations of the Magna Carta and the Gettysburg Address and numerous folksy Oklahoma aphorisms. Things like: “back in Oklahoma, small town had a barbershop attached to a saloon. Customer’s getting himself a shave, when a fight breaks out at the bar. Bullets are flying, the customer gets a little anxious. But the barber says, ‘lean back, brother – no one’s shooting at you.” Or, “That will knock the persimmons off the tree!” Or, “Why do the leaves turn red in the fall? Because they were so green in the spring.”

Hurley not only liked to talk, he didn’t much like listening, particularly to the China experts serving under him. They probably didn’t seem quite like proper Americans to Hurley, men like Barrett and Davies speaking all that Chinese, Service born and raised here; they lacked Hurley’s clear perspective, and if that perspective was labeled “hysterical, messianic globaloney” by certain State Department officials, everyone knew that the State Department was riddled with Communists and Zionists anyway.

The problem, as Barrett put it, was that Hurley’s “discourse…was by no means connected by any readily discernable pattern of thought.”

For example: Barrett tries to interpret as Hurley, White, Davies and the Chinese High Command cram into Mao’s personal ambulance and bounce down the rutted trail to Dixie HQ. The truck startles a farmer with a balky mule. “Hit him again!” Hurley leans out the window and shouts over the unmuffled engine, “Hit him on the other side, Charley!” (“These and other spontaneous remarks required quick thinking and free translation on my part,” Barrett deadpanned) Hurley knows about mules, he informs the Chairman, as he was a cowboy in his Oklahoma youth. Ah, responds Mao, I was a shepherd when I was a boy. Mao proceeds to a discussion of the local topography, pointing out the dry bed of the Yan River. In an Oklahoma summer, Hurley replies, you can tell when a school of fish is swimming upriver by the cloud of dust they raise. Barrett translates, in his Beijing-inflected Mandarin. Everyone laughs.

Just a couple of Great Men of the People, sitting around talking…

That evening, the Reds held a banquet to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. “We were all invited,” White wrote, some thirty years later. “Of that banquet, I remember little, except that when Hurley was called on to speak, he rose, paused, and then yelled again, at the top of his lungs, ‘Yahoo!”

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