Dastardly Poltroons

Jonathan Fenby

  • The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China by Hannah Pakula
    Weidenfeld, 787 pp, £25.00, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 297 85975 8

Madame Chiang was an unexpected presence at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, the only World War Two summit at which China was represented. Sitting at the conference table in a black satin dress with a chrysanthemum pattern and split skirt, black tulle bows in her hair and shoes decorated with big brass nails, she made a considerable impact. Nobody knew quite what her role was, but she made the most of the occasion. Her perfect English, learned during ten years at school in America, enabled her to correct the interpreters’ translations of what her husband was saying – he didn’t speak any foreign languages. Her interventions were so frequent and wide-ranging that the Western delegations wondered who was really setting Chinese policy. As Generalissimo Chiang obfuscated and his generals refused to present their war plans, the British chief of staff, Alan Brooke, thought her ‘the leading spirit of the two’, while adding: ‘I would not trust her very far.’

Roosevelt, determined to reach an understanding with Stalin at the Big Three summit in Tehran immediately after the Cairo conference, had invited Chiang Kai-shek to attend. By spending time with Chiang rather than Churchill, he hoped to play down any notion of a US-British special relationship that might alienate the Soviet dictator. He didn’t consult the British before asking Chiang, and Churchill was grumpy about the attention devoted to China. After a series of chaotic discussions between the military leaders, which Brooke and George Marshall, the US army chief of staff, regarded as ‘a ghastly waste of time’, Roosevelt made the Chinese an airy promise of an offensive across the Andaman Sea to try to end the Japanese occupation of Burma. The promise was soon withdrawn: in Tehran, Stalin pressured Churchill and Roosevelt into committing themselves to opening a second front in France, to which all available landing craft had to be diverted.

Still, Roosevelt had anointed China as one of the ‘Four Policemen’ of the postwar world. This meant overlooking Chiang’s ‘Confucian fascism’, and no notice was taken in Washington when, on his return to the wartime capital of Chongqing, he executed a group of progressive young officers who had approached the Americans with a plan to kidnap him in a bid to get him to drop his more reactionary and corrupt associates. Churchill regarded China and its army as a joke, referring to them as ‘400 million pigtails’. Roosevelt simply wanted to tie down a million Japanese troops on mainland China (where the Japanese controlled the puppet state of Manchukuo as well as much of the rest of the country) without committing any American ground troops. The Nationalists did more fighting than they’re credited with in subsequent Communist mythology, but Chiang was mostly content to sit out the conflict in his temporary capital beyond the Yangtze gorges until America defeated Japan and enabled him to resume his civil war with Mao.

The scratchy alliance with the Allied powers provided a wonderful stage for China’s star figure of the Second World War. The daughter of a rich Shanghai businessman, mysterious yet fluent enough in Western culture, Soong Meiling was perfectly cast for the role of alluring Eastern Dragon Lady. At the Cairo summit, Alan Brooke wrote in his diary that she had ‘a good figure which she knew how to display at its best’, and that he’d heard ‘a suppressed neigh’ from the younger participants as she crossed ‘the most shapely of legs’. When Marshall remarked that he hoped America and China could get together to discuss their differences over Chiang’s demand for a $1 billion loan, she put a hand on his knee and replied: ‘General, you and I can get together any time.’ After meeting Madame Chiang and her husband when he and Auden were visiting China to report on the war with Japan, Christopher Isherwood wrote that

she can become at will the cultivated, Westernised woman with a knowledge of literature and art; the technical expert, discussing aeroplane engines and machine-guns; the inspector of hospitals; the president of a mothers’ union; or the simple, affectionate, clinging Chinese wife. She could be terrible, she could be gracious, she could be businesslike, she could be ruthless; it is said she sometimes signs death warrants with her own hand … Strangely enough, I have never heard anybody comment on her perfume. It is the most delicious either of us has ever smelled.

She had what appears to have been a one-night stand with Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1940 presidential election, when he toured China as Roosevelt’s emissary in 1942. A year later, she proposed to buy Willkie the presidency, using US aid funds: he would lead the West while she would rule the Orient, she told one of Willkie’s aides. When she made a high-profile visit to Washington, Roosevelt didn’t invite her to sit on the sofa beside him but placed her in a chair across the room with a card table between them so that he wouldn’t be ‘vamped’.

Madame Chiang’s exotic appeal was reinforced by considerable mental agility and apparently boundless self-confidence. Eleanor Roosevelt found her ‘hard as steel’, and she wasn’t wrong: asked at a White House dinner in 1942 how strikers were dealt with in China, Meiling drew a fingernail across her throat. Her superior attitude flowed naturally from her birth in 1898 into the influential Soong family of Shanghai. Her eldest sister, Ailing, married the banker H.H. Kong (or Kung), who became finance minister, then prime minister; her other sister, Qingling, married the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, veered to the left and ended up as a vice-president of Communist China. Their brother T.V. Soong, who had learned about finance in America, had a turn as China’s prime minister but also enjoyed a career as a fabulously rich banker – he was said at one time to be the richest man in the world.

After her American education – she went to various schools in the US and then to Wellesley – she returned to Shanghai, where she bridled at the restrictions imposed by her highly conservative mother. She ingratiated herself with a number of key players on the political scene, such as Zhang Xueliang, the ‘Young Marshal’ warlord of Manchuria. She also appears to have exercised her charms on Mikhail Borodin, the Soviet adviser, who was said to have scrawled ‘Meiling Darling, Darling Meiling’ repeatedly on sheets of paper after they met in the left-wing stronghold of Wuhan. She clearly beguiled the Australian W.H. Donald, a veteran adviser to Chinese leaders who spoke no Chinese and never ate Chinese food but named his yacht after her.

It was said of the Soong sisters that Ailing loved money, Qingling loved China and Meiling loved power. Her marriage to Chiang in 1927 (his third, her first) was her path to the top. It came after the Kuomintang forces he led had fought their way from the south to the Yangtze in 1926-27 and were about to march on to defeat – or enter into an alliance with – the great warlords of northern China, thus establishing a semblance of national unity after the decade of anarchy that followed the empire’s collapse in 1912. The couple insisted they married for love; she claimed to find in him a soldier and poet, while his diaries contain lovelorn passages written when they were apart. He also described the marriage as ‘a symbol of the reconstruction of Chinese society’, whatever that meant. But the generally accepted story (told, it’s true, by Chiang’s second wife, known as Jennie, whom he had discarded) suggests a different set of motives. The matchmaker was Ailing, the most astute and crafty of the sisters. She had identified Chiang as the coming ruler and was overheard remarking that he needed a new wife: she dismissed Jennie as ‘only a middle-class housewife’ unsuited to be the spouse of a national leader.

At the time, Chiang was an unsophisticated military martinet with a provincial accent. But after the death in 1925 of the revolutionary patriarch Sun Yat-sen, he had shown great political skill and ruthlessness in imposing himself as the leader of the Kuomintang Nationalists, and edging out the party’s left and its Communist allies. In April 1927, he proved his credentials to the Shanghai business community with the purge of Communists known as the ‘White Terror’, launched in collaboration with the city’s underworld Green Gang. Showing the self-interested flexibility that marked his long career, Chiang then allowed his hoodlum associates to turn on the businessmen in a wave of extortion and kidnapping that provided a flow of funds to the government he established in Nanjing.

Qingling denounced Chiang as a ‘Bluebeard’, but the rest of her family weren’t put off by his gangsterism. As Ailing told Chiang at a meeting on a Yangtze river steamer, there was a natural fit between his military power and the economic and political clout of the Soongs. Chiang packed Jennie off to the United States, denied they had ever been married, then married Meiling in a lavish ceremony at a Shanghai hotel. Among the guests was the Green Gang boss, ‘Big Ears’ Du Yuesheng, who was reported to have arranged the bride’s temporary abduction a month later when his protection money was not forthcoming.

The Chiangs stayed together for the rest of their long lives. (Meiling died in 2003, in New York.) Her husband gave Meiling access to the power she craved. She was useful to him as a spokesperson. Their personal life remains largely a mystery: Chiang’s second wife claimed that he had contracted venereal disease before they got married and that treatment for it made them both sterile, but there is also a rumour that Meiling suffered a miscarriage eight months after her marriage. During her courtship of Willkie, she told his aide Gardner Cowles that she and her husband never had sex since Chiang thought it was only for procreation and already had a son by his first marriage. This seems unlikely.

After war broke out with Japan in the summer of 1937, Meiling made the most of her international celebrity. In editorials in the leading US newspapers and in regular radio broadcasts, she deplored the lack of concern in the West about Tokyo’s aggression. On her 1943 visit to Washington, she stayed at the White House, bringing her own silk sheets with her. She got a standing ovation when she addressed a joint session of Congress, and Henry Luce’s magazine empire promoted her: she made the cover of Time magazine, which encouraged readers to give money to the Nationalist cause. In New York, Willkie introduced her to an audience of 17,000 at Madison Square Garden as ‘the most fascinating’ war leader he had met, ‘a leader of 450,000,000 people’. ‘We speak of her wit and charm, and her beauty,’ he went on, ‘but you miss the point of her if you think of her only as an angel – although she is one, an avenging angel.’ Rita Hayworth, Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman and Mary Pickford joined a committee to welcome her to Hollywood, where David O. Selznick sponsored an evening in her honour during which the Los Angeles Philharmonic played ‘The Madame Chiang Kai-shek March’. (As she was travelling west, the inhabitants of one small town lined up to see her when her train stopped to take on water in the middle of the night; Meiling sent her maid out to greet the crowd, figuring that they couldn’t tell one Chinese from another.)

Madame Chiang’s charisma may have been dazzling – especially to Americans unfamiliar with the way her husband ran his regime – but she was not an ‘empress’, despite the title of Hannah Pakula’s book. Her authority was minimal compared to the true last empress, the Dowager Cixi, who was the pivotal figure of the late Qing dynasty for half a century before her death in 1908. Meiling’s successor, Madame Mao, had greater influence as a leading figure in the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution. Chiang kept his wife well away from his two power bases, the Kuomintang and the army. It is hard to identify a policy issue or a historic moment where she changed things significantly.

She did have a flair for political theatre, however. When her husband was kidnapped at Xi’an in 1936 by her one-time acquaintance Zhang Xueliang, who wanted him to stop fighting the Communists and lead a united front against the Japanese, she immediately flew there. As the plane was about to land she handed W.H. Donald a pistol and asked him to shoot her if the rebels seized her. But she didn’t resolve the stand-off: it ended following a meeting between Chiang and Zhou Enlai, who was sent in by the Communists after Stalin ordered them to get the Generalissimo freed. Her advocacy of the New Life movement, which urged Chinese to behave in a more civil fashion (stop spitting, smoking and drinking, eat smaller meals etc), led nowhere, and was somewhat undermined by her own smoking habit, not to mention her husband’s collaboration with Du and the drug lords of Shanghai, who had helped him crush the left in 1927.

Her lobbying of General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell for more aid merely reflected the demands formulated by her husband and his cohorts; in any case, it is now clear that Stilwell was a less significant figure than suggested by Barbara Tuchman’s biography, which depicted him as an honest Yankee in a nest of Chinese vipers. Though Meiling was the nominal head of the air force, the real work of organising the aircraft and pilots and plotting the air war strategy was supervised by Claire Chennault, a craggy-faced Texan whose ‘good ole boy’ approach to life and war included laying on a brothel for his pilots and tolerating their black market trading. This was the antithesis of Stilwell’s rigid Yankee style. Chennault was an early believer that wars could be won from the air if only one had enough planes, while Stilwell put his faith in the infantry, though he thought China’s army sadly deficient.

These were the two principal advisers from America with whom the Nationalists were stuck, and Meiling navigated between them as they engaged in endless fights that resulted in ever more Chinese deaths. One notable disaster occurred when Stilwell refused to issue the fuel needed to enable arms and supplies to be dropped to Nationalist troops fighting in the epic battle of Hengyang in the last major Japanese offensive in 1944. He applied what was known as his ‘pocket veto’, putting the air force’s written request into a pocket of his tunic and ignoring it; he did so because saying yes to Chennault would ‘set a precedent for further demands that could not be met’. The Chinese were overwhelmed and the Japanese advanced south, threatening the key air base at Guilin. Chiang wanted to hold it, but Stilwell ordered that it be abandoned; as the American fliers left, local prostitutes hung out banners reading: ‘So long, buddies, and good luck.’

As for her supposed seduction of America, her prewar jeremiads against the US for failing to come to China’s aid against Japan did nothing to shake Washington’s isolationism. Despite the applause from Congress, Roosevelt always gave priority to winning the war in Europe before finishing off Japan. Willkie’s death from a heart attack ended her dreams of ruling the world with him. Her imperious manner during her 1943 US tour (including clapping her hands to summon staff at the White House), together with her Sarah Palinesque insistence on being provided with lavish perks, left a bad taste, as did the disappearance of cash donated by the American public.

When she got back to China, Chiang was fuming with jealousy: why had she met Roosevelt at the White House? There were rumours that he was having an affair with his nurse, that Meiling found a pair of high-heeled shoes under his bed, that she threw a vase at him. Stilwell recorded in his diary that she had confided in him that she had ‘a hell of a life with the Peanut’ – as he called the Generalissimo. Her health suffered and she became involved in a hare-brained scheme to make herself China’s defence minister. To this end, she enlisted Stilwell, who thought the plot would enable him to get rid of China’s notoriously corrupt chief of staff, He Yingqin. What he didn’t realise was that the scheme was designed not only to enhance Meiling’s status but also to help Ailing to prise the Lend Lease aid money away from their brother T.V.

Though she continued to lobby in Washington, her efforts brought diminishing returns. Harry Truman, outraged by the diversion of American funds into the pockets of the Soong family, gave her the cold shoulder when she tried to raise support against the Communist advance in 1948-49. The Chiang regime’s links with the right wing of the Republican Party further jeopardised its standing in Washington when Truman was re-elected in 1948. Then came Mao’s revolution, which caused an outcry in Washington over ‘who lost China’ – a witchhunt that helped Eisenhower win the 1952 election. The emergence of ‘Red China’, and its entry into the Korean War, ensured American protection for the Kuomintang exiles in Taiwan, who continued to claim that they were China’s legitimate government.

As the wife of the supreme leader of the Republic of China – Taiwan, in other words – Meiling was an honoured figure both in Taipei and among a faction in Washington led by Joe McCarthy and right-wing Republicans such as Senator William Jenner of Indiana, egged on in their pursuit of those who ‘lost China’ by Luce’s magazines. But her poor relations with Chiang’s son, Ching-kuo, counted against her when he succeeded to the leadership after his father’s death in 1975. As the Taiwanese economy developed and the regime on the island began to liberalise, she was increasingly seen as a relic. Her use of English became a parody of itself as she sought to prove her erudition; one speech in the mid-1970s quoted by Pakula deploys such words as ‘fugacious’, ‘quodlibet’ and ‘supererogatory’. The Chinese Communists were ‘dastardly poltroons’ and Washington needed to consider ‘some of the current endogenous socio-economic problems as well as some of the exogenous international political problems that beset and ineffectuate the United States’.

The growing force of Taiwanese identity politics that led the original inhabitants of the island to reject dictatorship from China further marginalised her. After Ching-kuo’s death in 1988, the KMT leadership named a native Taiwanese, Lee Teng-hui, as his successor, despite Meiling’s objections. Twelve years later, Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election, and the new rulers began to remove Chiang’s image from banknotes and his statue from public places.

From the 1960s, Meiling spent more and more time in the US, and she made it her home after Chiang died. Her last years were spent on an estate on Long Island, then in Gracie Square in New York City. When I was writing my biography of her husband, I repeatedly sought a meeting with her. There was no reply. A letter finally arrived in autumn 2003 saying she was ill and would receive me when she recovered, but on 23 October she died, aged 106. Beijing reacted with a statement which, while critical of the Chiang regime, noted her role in opposing the Japanese and her belief in the reunification of China across the Strait; the fact that her vision of One China was radically different from that held on the mainland was glossed over. At her memorial service in the Episcopalian Church on Park Avenue, there were more than 75 bouquets of white roses, lilies, hydrangeas and scarlet orchids, and the minister described her as ‘God’s masterpiece’. As Pakula remarks, she would have loved the show.