'The China Mirage' explores the delusions behind US foreign policy in East Asia

James Bradley traces the history of America’s perception of Asia and the gap between that perception and reality.

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia By James Bradley Little, Brown and Company 432 pp.

Behind so many things that have gone bad, there are the usual suspects: zealotry, Wall Street, drug dealing, Harvard graduates. It is also painfully true that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Therein we will discover the wellsprings and guiding hands of America’s ruinous foreign policy in East Asia over the past century and a half, suggests James Bradley in The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia. Bradley explores America’s perception of Asia – as it was shaped by callow policymakers and self-appointed sachems – and the gap between that perception and reality: the received wisdom, hopeful hogwash, and accumulated misunderstandings that led to three major Asian wars (and a few minor ones). A degree from Yale isn’t necessary to nod your head in sorry agreement.

Missionary dreams: “Where the Chinese would pray to Jesus in white-washed churches and debate Jeffersonian principles in town-hall meetings.” The Chinese – all of East Asia – would be Westernized, Christianized: “The educated Chinaman, who speaks English, becomes a new man; he commences to think,” shamelessly wrote Charles Denby, US minister to China to US Secretary of State Richard Olney in 1895. Bradley (of bestsellers "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Flyboys") argues that those dreams were the foundation upon which America played favorites, and that mindset continues to exert a significant role in misguiding our conduct toward Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and the Koreas today. Couple that hallucination with America’s globocop superiority complex, half-baked ideological cover stories, and money lust, and what policy child from such a marriage wouldn’t suffer profound emotional issues?

Although parts of East Asia traded with the Middle East as early as the seventh century, Western relationships with the area took off in the 19th century after some gunboat diplomacy, writes Bradley. China had silk and porcelain, as well as tea, the Western equivalent of qat and coca leaves, a stimulant to keep the toiling masses from sagging in the afternoon. Great Britain, which spearheaded this trade, wasn’t happy with the outflow of silver to pay for these imports; China, it appeared, had no reciprocal interest in Western goods. China did have, however, a serious jones for opium, so much so that emperors had outlawed the substance. Not much imagination was necessary for the Crown-chartered East India Company to set up an offshore trafficking operation. By 1850, up to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue came from opium smuggling to China. A great crime, but where there are profits to be made, said one English merchant, “You must not expect men in my situation to condemn themselves … for the benefit of posterity. We are moneymaking, practical men. Our business is to make money, as much and as fast as we can.” No wonder missionaries were fast on their heels; nothing in this arrangement didn’t need salvation.

But salvation was administered as a full-body cleanse. Missionaries would seek to introduce new ideas that would fundamentally change industrial, social, and political life and institutions. Most Chinese smiled and ignored them. That same US minister to China quoted above wrote in the late 19th century that, “Missionaries are the pioneers of trade and commerce. Civilization, learning, instruction breed new wants which commerce supplies.” At home, the 1882 Chinese Exclusionary Act hadn’t helped Americans of any stripe learn more about the Chinese way in the world. Later, Pearl Buck would introduce us to the noble Chinese peasant, the embodiment of American values – a hymn to piety and the salt of the earth – which Henry Luce would later fill with enough hot air through Time, Life, and Fortune magazines to morph a two-bit, corrupt fascist like Chiang Kai-shek into an icon of democratic virtue.

Back to the 19th century. American business interests were not about to let Britain hog the drug trade. Warren Delano, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather, made that family’s fortune running opium into China. Warren’s daughter and Franklin’s mother, Sara, conjured a China of magical thinking in Franklin’s young head, despite never having left the European compound. It was a vision that would stay with Franklin, Bradley convincingly maintains, affecting his decisions regarding the wartime politics of the country.

Nor would Franklin’s cousin Theodore’s obsession with Japan come by way of actual intimacy with the island and its people. “[Theodore] Roosevelt’s Japanese Monroe Doctrine for Asia assumed the Japanese would push back the Russians, respect the Anglo-American Open Door policy, help Christianize and Americanize China, as the Anglo-American’s naval channel.” Roosevelt played directly into this pipedream being peddled by Baron Kaneko, a specialist in Japanese political chicanery. Kaneko shared Harvard’s embossment with Teddy – a cronyism that could and would, for instance, obligingly sell Korea down the tube if it were to Japan’s advantage.

FDR’s East Asia policy is a story as complex as a Fabergé egg, that Bradley handles with aplomb. His salient point is that illusions and delusions lead to catastrophes in the public sphere, and that there are always people with vested interests, ideological to filthy lucre, who will nurture those illusions/delusions in the minds of decision makers. Such was the case with FDR. John Davies, an old China hand at the State Department, born in China and fluent in Chinese, wrote that Roosevelt was “essentially ignorant and opinionated about China. He had a concept of China’s place in the scheme of things which overrode Chinese realities.” It was his mother’s image of a great Christianized land.

Yet, as Japanese occupation forces were crushing their opposition, Roosevelt refused to cut off the steel and oil supply to the invaders, worried that Japan would turn against the Dutch in Indonesia and ignite a Pacific war. He would throw his support behind Generalissimo Chiang, a good Southern Methodist, rather than Mao – a pagan with enormous popular support at the time and who made more than one gesture to work with the United States – particularly since Chiang pretended to be allied with Mao.

The struggle for FDR’s ear amidst the various administrative offices was cacophonous and bitter. In addition to Roosevelt, there was China lobbyist T. V. Soong, Felix Frankfurter, Lauchlin Currie, Henry Stimson, Tommy Corcoran, Theodore White (then working for the Soong-Chiang propaganda syndicate) – Harvard all – and a pack of young hotdogs (Harvard, too) scattered throughout the administration. It was Chiang versus diplomacy, and the Chiang faction in the administration won, buying into the whole Potemkin Village universe peddled by the China Lobby.

“FDR’s point man in China” – Lauchlin Currie, the first economic advisor to a president – “had no idea that Chiang’s war was not against the Japanese but against Mao…. Chiang’s power rested on his ability to funnel barbarian aid to warlord allies.”

The story of Dean Acheson, then with the Foreign Funds Control Committee, pulling the rug out from under FDR and starting a war all on his very own is alone worth the price of the book. Postwar military personnel had a clearer picture, namely because they were on the ground and listened to voices of experience. General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China theater (and a man who spoke Chinese), summed up the picture: “China, our ally, was being run by a one-party government and supported by a Gestapo and headed by an unbalanced man with little education.” He wasn’t talking about Mao.

United States foreign policy in the region would take on an aggressive for-us-or-against-us stance, writes Bradley, cheer-led by influential luminaries such as Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Communists and queers have sold 400 million Asiatic people into atheistic slavery.” (History doesn’t tell us if he had all their names on a list.) Makers of our homicidal Cold War containment policy, such as Acheson, Charles Bohlen, and John McCloy (Harvard, Harvard, Harvard), continued to write policy from FDR’s vantage of opinionated ignorance. Today, deep in Chinese banking pockets, we seem to have little more perspective than FDR’s mother. Bradley doesn’t take smug pleasure in any of this, despite his withering critique. He is sharp and rueful, and a voice for a more seasoned, constructive vision of our international relations with East Asia.

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