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Thunder out of China

January 28, 2010

Annalee Jacoby and Theodore H. White. Thunder out of China. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1946.

Dahpon D. Ho (2005)

No one says better than Theodore White himself why this provocative book was conceived: “My immediate task was clear: to write a book that explained what was happening in China. The book must say it not only first and best, but quickly. My information was important. It was news, not history. Over the years, I was to learn how much more dangerous news is than history. All of us in those days entertained the illusion that we could make events march in the direction we pointed, if we pointed clearly enough” (White, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure, Warner Books, 1981 [1978], p. 319).

What White ended up writing, in collaboration with fellow Time correspondent Annalee Jacoby, was a scathing indictment of American China policy in World War II and its immediate aftermath, as well as an all too prescient narrative of the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek. It was a book that made waves in the United States, sold over a half million copies at its first printing in 1946, and was reportedly banned in China. It did not, however, become the effective clarion call to American policymakers that the authors hoped it would, despite their passionate appeal that “we ourselves must become the sponsors of revolution,” and notwithstanding their prophetic warning that “what will be happening in the rest of Asia tomorrow is being worked out in blood in China today” (p. 324, 320). “Don’t confuse me with facts” is, of course, a close response of the human kind.

The book began in the wartime Guomindang capital of Chongqing and weaved its way through a largely chronological account of the conduct of the war of resistance against Japan, peppered throughout with commentary on the historical backdrop and contemporary fate of the Chinese revolution. Jacoby and White described the brief moment of patriotic glory after the Guomindang retreat to Chongqing in 1938, a time of hope and national resistance that inspired admiration around the globe. What followed, as the authors told it, was a Guomindang mudslide into the quagmire of demoralization, frustration, impotence and defeat. Meanwhile, the Communists gained ground and set about winning the hearts and minds of the rural masses.

White was well equipped to report on the execution of the war from the battlefront. After studying at Harvard with John King Fairbank, he had gone on to cover the South Seas front, the Indian uprisings of 1942, the Henan famine of 1943, and the return of Xinjiang to China. He flew over the “Hump” with the 14th Air Force to see the relief of General Stilwell and the last battles of the Burma Road, and he was standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri to watch the Japanese surrender, which he eloquently described as “an obsolete rite performed with primitive ceremony for a peace that had not come and a war that had not ended” (p. xi). He and Jacoby clearly stated their view that peace was little more than a hopeless dream unless someone or something could alleviate the misery of the masses in China. Nothing short of a revolution would suffice, and no real change could ever happen with such a corrupt, despotic government as Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime. Furthermore, the United States, by supporting Chiang, was complicit in the suppression of the hopes and dreams of the suffering masses: “Americans must realize now one of the hard facts of Chinese politics: that in the eyes of millions of the Chinese their civil war was made in America” (p. 318). Jacoby and White argued that American policy, by propping up the rotten old order, was blindly seeking stability, not peace. In short, violence was inescapable in China not because of some nefarious Communist conspiracy, but because of American hypocrisy in speaking words of freedom while aligning itself with a dictatorial and intransigent status quo.

Clearly, the authors (especially White) were angry. Very angry. One reviewer, John Ridley, criticized Thunder out of China for its “indignant, and at times hasty, judgments,” but he admits that such colored verdicts “do not destroy the validity and the interest of the book, which is easily the best of its kind to have been written since the war” (Pacific Affairs 20:4, Dec. 1947, pp. 437-438). Critics will no doubt feel inclined to dismiss the book because the authors’ passion contaminates their objectivity, because their command of Chinese was functional but not fluent, or because their language is antiquated to our ears and contains essentialized notions of “the peasant” and “the Chinese people.” Granted. The authors were unabashedly favorable in their impression of General Stilwell and ready to passionately excoriate brutal and corrupt members of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime or even Chiang himself. They were undeniably sympathetic to the plight of an impoverished peasantry caught between total war and unrelenting taxation. What else could have inspired White to travel so far in search of answers, and how else are we to learn about the atrocious conditions of soldiers slogging away at the front, the incompetently handled counteroffensives, and the terrible Henan famine of 1943, all of which were strictly censored in contemporary Chinese sources?

Years after the Communist victory in the civil war, it was fashionable in the memoirs of Nationalist officials to claim that one knew the defeat was imminent, that one had predicted it and privately despaired. Finger-pointing and “I saw it coming” or “I told you so” accounts bubbled up out of left field. Time and defeat had made it more acceptable to recall and lament events like the Henan famine as signs of approaching doom. Those sorts of memoirs or ex post facto accounts are certainly valid source materials, though distortions of memory and self-justification require special attention. Still, to get a fresh perspective from the time, when Chinese reports were censored in the Nationalist press, the accounts of foreign correspondents are an invaluable resource. The urgency, the interviews, and visceral eyewitness impressions are there intact, however problematic or filtered for foreign audiences.

It is also noteworthy that the authors were willing to lay their careers on the line and state their case against contemporary American policy and public opinion. In 1946, a time of uneasy ceasefire and positional jockeying, it seemed like Chiang Kai-shek had it all: China’s major cities, international recognition as the only legitimate government, military hardware, and American air and naval support. But even before the nation erupted into full-blown civil war, Jacoby and White were advocating that the United States cease propping up Chiang and instead seek a new government that could effect real social change in China. They compared China’s historical experience with that of the Western world, which went through its own paroxysms and murderous wars that culminated in the French Revolution: “We revere the memory of that revolution, but we regard such uprisings in our own time with horror and loathing” (p. 20). As they saw it, the only way to avert such a bloody firestorm in Asia was to stop stifling radical change and instead sponsor it as real champions of justice and democracy.

Thunder out of China has earned its place in a memorable line of very blunt, very frank reports from China that include Harold Isaacs’ The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938), Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China (1938), Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World (1949), and the reports of Chongqing Embassy members like John S. Service and John Paton Davies. Reviewer Donald G. Tewksbury criticized the book for its unbalanced portrait of Chiang Kai-shek and for not giving due credit to the Guomindang’s positive contributions towards Chinese nationalism. Tewksbury also argued that the authors’ proposal for America to be the sponsor of revolution in Asia was “more deeply in conflict with certain trends in American life than is revealed in the book.” However, he did not withhold praise for this “angry and prescient book,” which he called “a masterpiece of reporting [that] rises at times to literary heights” (Far Eastern Survey 16:5, March 1947, 58-59). Jacoby and White admitted at the outset that “this book is a partial story of the China war; only a Chinese can write the true history of his people” (xv). Partial though it may be, it is a book that stands the test of time in the remarkable way that only classics can.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

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