...an Oral History!
by Marcus Willensky
Rhoads Murphey is a man of many titles, in a different age we might have called him a "jack of all trades," and I use the term with the utmost respect.
55 years ago he traveled to China to work for the "Friends Ambulance Unit." Driving old Chevrolet trucks, which had been converted to burn charcoal, this international group of young men braved bandits, bureaucratic red tape and, of course, the Japanese to bring much needed medical supplies to various far flung sights in southwest China. Although Rhoads was in China for only four years, 1942 to 1946, he packed a lifetime of experiences into them...seeing sights that most of us can only dream of and meeting people that we of a younger generation can only read about in history books.
Currently, Rhoads is, first and foremost, a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Michigan, and although the title "Emeritus" might lead one to believe that Rhoads is "retired," he is in fact anything but retired.
He continues to teach a number of classes and was, until its reorganization last fall, the Director of the university's Asian Studies Program. But this is the University of Michigan, where research and publishing are king, and so Rhoads also counts among his many kudos the title "author" having written a number of books, most recently a text book entitled East Asia: A New History, published by Longman Press. As if this wasn't enough, he also acts as an academic advisor to undergraduate students, and it was in this latter capacity that I first met him in 1984.
I had just transferred to the University of Michigan from the New School for Social Research, in New York City, and thought it best to get some advice about what classes I should be taking as a "transfer student." As luck would have it, Rhoads was assigned to me as an academic advisor...and what luck it was! I introduced myself and explained my problem. Rhoads, who never seems to get flustered, asked me a few questions and then calmly guided me through my class selection...making phone calls where necessary, to ensure that I would get overrides for classes that were already filled, and "pooh pahing" my various apprehensions. He seemed to know everyone and everything...at least in the small world of Asian Studies, and why not...he was the Director.
It was through him that I went on to meet Roger Hackett and Victor Lieberman, who along with Rhoads, continually challenged me to "think harder, work harder, and try harder" than I ever had before. Ultimately it would be the recommendations which they would write which would help me to land my first jobs in Japan and then, 10 years later, take me back to the university's Center for Japanese Studies, where I am currently working on a Graduate Degree.
I enjoyed class with Rhoads because his lectures were always about a "living history." He had known the people, visited the places, and read the books...I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, in rapt attention, as he let drop small snippets of valuable insight into the topics that we discussed. I fell in love with his easy going approach to everything, and it would be no lie to say that he changed my life.
I had always wanted to confront him and say "Tell me everything you know!" But, in the end, it proved much harder than I imagined... Luckily, this assignment has given me the chance to realize my dream, and thankfully Rhoads agreed to give me a couple hours of his time to photograph and record him so that others might enjoy him as much as I do...enjoy!
Ann Arbor, 1997
(For more Oral Histories visit Film and Video 455's website)
Prof. Rhoads Murphey in his office in Lane Hall, 1997.
Why don't we start by talking about how you came to travel to China and work with the "Friends Ambulance Unit." What year are we talking about?
And where were you?
RM: Where was I? I was in, sitting there minding my own business, in Philadelphia. Which is my home town, and uhm, I was filling in, teaching, in my old school, because so many people were being drafted, and what not, that they had a problem finding enough teachers.
And you were a Conscientious Objector?
Tell me about that.
RM: Well that seemed to me, at that time, a perfectly reasonable thing to do given the experience of the first war, which I wasn't in, of course, but which I read all about, and which we were very much under the shadow of...
I can understand that...
RM: ...and I thought it was a useless waste of life and that it wouldn't accomplish anything in the end. Besides, killing people wasn't going to solve any problems! Now there was a dilemma, with that second war, the so called good war, because Nazism was pretty awful and all of us people that took the "C.O." position felt that, but we also felt that killing wouldn't solve anything.
(Long Pause)...if they had wanted to try "another way" we could have told them before, in the first place, not to slap the Germans with that terrible treaty of Versailles...and then do everything they could to build up the German's resentment, and then they might have stopped Hitler long before, blah blah blah, but they didn't do it, so, anyway, this was a matter of moral conviction on our part. So, that's how we got to be that way...
Now you say "our part," are you talking about Quakers? Are you a Quaker?
RM: No, but I went... No, I'm not. But, I went to a Quaker School and that's where I picked up a lot of these ideas...but I wonder if I might not have picked them up anyway...as many people did...
So, this was one of the "Friends Schools?"
RM: Yes, one of the Friends Schools in Philadelphia.
Well, I would like to go back to a conversation that we had the other day and ask you about your reactions to the Spanish Civil War....now at that time you said that you were too young to have considered going, but I did my math and...
RM: Well I was still...
...the war didn't end until 1939 so you must have been about 18 when it started...
RM: No, no, not quite so old, I was still in school.
RM: Yes, ah, and I was 16 I guess, or something like that, and I would have gone, I think... I was tempted. But, I thought it was kind of dumb, to quit school to go, and then, go though all this procedure, that you go through at that age, of trying to decide what you are going to do with your life. You know, when you apply to colleges and so forth... So, I thought I'd get all that taken care of first... So, I didn't go...
You say that you were "tempted to go," in what capacity? Were you already a Conscientious Objector?
RM: No, no, no. But, I guess that I was going to go, as I did in China during the war, and be an "Ambulance Man."
So you just wanted to help in any manner that you could?
RM: Yup, yup, yup... but I... I felt very strongly about the Spanish Civil War.
Well, my impression is that for young idealists of the time the Spanish Civil War was a tremendous issue...I think I've told you that I took a course at the "New School for Social Research" which was taught by a Lincoln Brigader, and he couldn't have been much older than you at the time, and he felt strongly enough about it that he dropped out of college and put his life on hold in order to go over there and confront what he perceived as a great threat to mankind...fascism as a kind of "pure evil."
RM: Certainly. You know we have one around here, an ex-Lincoln Brigade person named Leslie Kish.
At the University?
RM: Yup, a retired Sociologist, but still very much on the ball...
I might have to look him up...
RM: Well, you should...
Hmmm, so you're in Philadelphia, it's 1942... and how did you find out about the Friends Ambulance Service?
RM: Weeellllll, being in a Quaker School, as I was... Well, not in '42, I'd finished by then, but I guess I was still in touch with those people and I heard about it...
Now, my understanding is that this group was predominately British, not American, how did you get involved?
RM: That's right. It was founded in England at the time of the First World War and then it started up again in the Second War...and, uhm...so, it was overwhelmingly British. But, there were a few of us Americans, I think altogether ten or eleven and a similar number of Canadians, and then a somewhat smaller number of New Zealanders, and then we picked up, in China, various people who had been stranded there, ah, one American, one Norwegian, one Czech, one Russian, (Laughs) lot of people there at the wrong time, so to speak...
So, you were in China from 1942 to '46?
And what was your relation with the American soldiers that came later...I mean to say...I know that you were over there driving 1 1/2 ton trucks that had been salvaged from the retreat out of Burma --- trucks that had been converted to burn charcoal --- and then along come these Americans who are driving brand new 6-by-6s which were running on high octane imported gasoline...what did that feel like? How did you get along?
RM: Well we didn't have much to do with them...we passed them on the road, or rather, they passed us. They had a huge base just outside Kunming and we would occasionally crash that place to see the movies that they showed and I seem to remember having one or two meals there, on a casual basis, but, we didn't know any of these people...
Did you sense any curiosity on their part about what another American was doing over there driving an ambulance with a bunch of Brits?
RM: No, not really...no, I don't think so...but then our connection with them was so slight that there wasn't much chance for that...
Now, I must admit that I don't know anything about the "nuts and bolts" of conscription during World War II, did you have to notify anybody that you were going to China?
RM: Oh Heavens Yes! You couldn't get out of the country unless you appeared before a Draft Board and they gave you permission. You had to be classified first, ah, you could be classified, ah, what was it...4-E "Conscientious Objector," or 4-F, meaning, "Physically Unfit" or you could get one of the other categories like, what did they call it... Ah! "Work of National Importance" I don't remember the category..."2-C" or something...so, that's what they did for me...
So, you went in there and requested 4-E?
RM: No, no, not 4-E...they didn't like to have that on their record, I think...the Draft Board that is, so they gave me this 2-C, or whatever the hell it was...
So you were involved in "Work of National Importance"
RM: Yeah, yeah, yeah...
And, how long between that interview and when you went overseas?
RM: Well, everybody was called up to appear before a Draft Board within...ah, a few months of Pearl Harbor...but, I don't remember what month it was...but, it was fairly early in '42.
And, had you ever been overseas before that?
RM: No, no, no...never been anywhere except Canada...and that doesn't really count (Laughs).
Well, tell me something about your memories of being in a foreign country for the first time, does anything in particular stand out?
RM: Well...ahhhh (sigh of exasperation) ...it was all brand new, therefore it was all fascinating. I suppose one could say no, no particular thing stands out, I would say.... (Laughs)
RM: Well, I described that in my little Yellow book... (Fifty Years of China to Me: Personal Recollections of 1942-1992).
I don't care about your "Little Yellow Book"...this is an oral history interview!?
RM: Well, when we landed in...well, I won't count Australia...it's so like this place...but, then, ah, we landed in Karachi and I was fascinated to see a grand piano moving down the street on the heads of 6 or 8 coolies and camels pulling carts around the city and all that good stuff...
Well now Rhoads you've told that story a thousand times...and I've been warned to avoid the stories that have been told and retold...so tell me something I don't know...what about your first eating experience overseas?
RM: Nah, I don't think that I have any memories of that because we were put up for the short time that we were there...just a few days...at an American military camp and we just ate the slop, if I may say so, that the American Military gave out to their own people. Nothing remarkable about that...
Okay, let's talk about people... When I was taking class with you as an undergraduate I remember you assigning readings in books and then, in the course of the lesson, when students regurgitated what they had read about Chiang Kai-Shek, or Mao Tse-Tung, or...whoever, that you would then say..."That's not how I remember them..." or other such comments that made me sit up and pay attention...tell me about some of the "movers and shakers" that you knew in China.
RM: Well, unfortunately, in China, Chiang Kai-Shek was a Dictator...totally... so there weren't no "movers and shakers." There were, however, people on the side lines...
Well, you can skip "movers and shakers" those are my words...how about people that would have been footnotes to history?
RM: Yeah well... Boy, you don't see them much in books...Bobby Lin. Who was the head of the Chinese Red Cross.
Tell me about Bobby Lin.
RM: Well, his name tells you right away that he's Cantonese, but that's neither here nor there I guess... Ah, he was a good soul...one of many, in those years who still kept to the... "social gospel" you might say, that Sun Yat Sen had started out...but who were gradually pushed to the wall --- and then they were simply eliminated before the war was over --- by Chiang. What else... Who else? No large number of people stick out except my own pals, in this unit that I was in...of course I remember them well and still see them, in England and here...
I know that the Friends Ambulance Unit had a reunion last summer in China, the purpose of which was to retrace the routes that you had driven during the war, how was that?
RM: That was fun! To go over those roads again, that we used to drive...
How different were they?
RM: The roads? Terrible, they were starting to rebuild them. Tear'em up and put something better in their place, at least some of them... Finished "divided" highways, expressways...but mostly they were awful...being torn up and all that...
Unchanged since the war?
RM: Well, they were worse than they were then, because, they were reasonably well maintained then...but they went the same route, yup, and you could see the same mountains, and all that stuff...
Rhoads, turning back to the war period, I know that you had occasion to travel to Yenan and so had a unique chance to see both the Nationalist's and the Communist's spheres of influence...what was your feeling about the people...did they seem happier when you went up to Yenan?
RM: Oh, no question!
Don't give me "NO QUESTION" tell me a little bit about it...
RM: Well, I think I've told you the story of how depressing Chunking was... Most of the people were so... money grubbing and corrupt and all that stuff... "Living on the fat of the land" is how most people describe it... But once you got up into the Communist areas everybody was cheerful, hardworking...ah..."getting on with the job." Living austerely, because that was all they had... No corruption that one could see...no "Fat Cats" and a very cheerful peasant based group that was, as I say, was "getting on with the job." The war was over by that time...but we all knew about what the Communists had been doing during the war, in the North.
And was the next war gearing up? Did you have any sense of that?
RM: We didn't see...well, we always saw it on the Kuomintang side... where we could see all along the road, here and there, depots where Chiang had collected stuff...stockpiled his best weapons: tanks, artillery, blah, blah, blah, and when you went up across the no man's land, that divided the two, you had to go through a mine field...Oh God! (Feigns fear)
That the Kuomintang had put there?
RM: ...that the Kuomintang had put there, sure! I didn't trust those guys to punch their way out of a wet paper bag so I was most uneasy following the trail that they indicated...but, then when you got to the other side...and of course you would see pillboxes and tough looking soldiers with machine guns and all that garbage...but we didn't see anything like that on the Communist side...(Laughs)
I'd like to come back to this, but side tracking for a minute, you've told me about the strange feelings that you had when you saw the contrast between the poverty that you witnessed in the countryside and the "sumptuous meals" that you had at road side fan tien (restaurants). How were you having sumptuous meals?
RM: Well, these places were set up along the road, even in tiny little towns, to take care of the truck traffic...I mean, truck drivers had to eat too...
Of course --- but what I want to know is were these set up by the Friends Ambulance Unit, or had they paid in advance? Or...
RM: No, no, no...we were given a wad of cash to pay our expenses along the way, including food and charcoal.
Where did this money come from?
RM: The money came jointly from England and from this place (the United States). Through an outfit called "United China Relief" which was a consolidation of the...well, it was run by an old missionary who knew the country well and was a good organizer...Dwight Edwards..."Uncle Dwight" (laughs).
And you operated out of Kunming?
And was there a common route, one that you took more often than not?
RM: Yes. The big traffic thing, from our point of view, was Kunming to Kweiyang and up north to Chungking then we would go on, sometimes, to Chengdu, Szechuan, and then sometimes we did side trips "here there and the other place..."
RM: Yes, and in addition to that I hauled stuff north from our base in Honan, at Chengchou, up into Communist controlled areas in Honan and Hupeh. I went up there several times...
And was the Communist's reaction to you any different than that of the Kuomintang?
RM: Oh sure, of course they were very glad to get that stuff. On the Kuomintang side this was more routine. We were hauling both to hospitals, of course they were glad to get it, but more often to the "National Health Administration," for their warehouses, and there it was just more bureaucratic.
How about your supplies? Was the Friends Ambulance Unit essentially an independent operation, or did you have access to the wealth of goods that the Americans were flying in "over the hump?"
RM: Nah. We bought spare parts and what not, sometimes, on the Black Market...or we would order them from India...but, freight space over the hump, by airplane, was dominated by Kuomintang requests and American Military needs...but, we might sometimes get something squeezed in... So, we had to improvise a great deal.
Tell me about leaving China.
RM: Leaving? Well, I was really reluctant to go, to leave. But, uhm, it was time...the war was over...not quite a year yet... When I got back, as I remember, it was May or June 1946.
Were you under pressure to leave?
RM: Only from family...
Did many of your fellow ambulance drivers stay on after you?
RM: Very few. Most had gone by the time I left...and so, I went back with a group of British and Americans to England and then crossed from there to New York with a bunch of Americans.
And what was your sensation at that time?
RM: Well, I thought it was probably not a bad idea to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life, and get at it...
How old were you at that time? Ball park figure?
Okay, let's skip back in time...I've heard snippets of this story many times, but now I've got you on tape...tell me about traveling to Hanoi in 1942, after the war had started, this was something that could still be done?
RM: Yes, oh yes! The Japanese were already there of course, but you could still go down there by train from Kunming. I never made it down there at that time...I was afraid I would get zapped...I didn't get to Hanoi until after the war...but some of my buddies had gone down there from Kunming.
So you saw Hanoi after the war? What was the sequence of events that took you there?
RM: Well, this was part of the job of the unit --- you went wherever you were needed.
Were you needed in Hanoi?
RM: No, not really. I just went down there for the fun of it...out of curiosity. It was really quite pleasant.
Rhoads, I remember some story about a woman of "notorious ill repute," in Hong Kong, and the story was that she had slept with every foreigner of any note...or something like that and...
RM: (Roaring Laughter) I know exactly who you're talking about...
Well, you don't have to go into any detail about her, but tell me about your first memories of Hong Kong.
RM: Oh, well, you've seen Hong Kong...it's a beautiful setting...and it wasn't anything like the huge "boom town" that it is now...uhm, it was an outpost of colonialism, as it still is for another few months...
And what year was this?
And first impressions?
RM: Well, that it was a western colonial outpost, predominantly Chinese in population...but with a lot more "symbols" of western rule...than you would find even in Shanghai, although there were plenty there too...
So you also traveled to Shanghai?
RM: Oh sure. I went down to Shanghai, just about a week after the war was over to figure out whether they needed any help from us in the way of medical supplies. Stayed there for a couple of weeks, I guess, went around to the various internment camps, and here, there, and the other place...and in fact, they were in reasonable shape. There was a quite decent Japanese Commandant of the big Allied Internment Camp and people had been reasonably well treated, reasonably well fed, so they, and others, didn't really need help... The people who needed help the most were the people in the Jewish Community in Shanghai. They were stateless, people who, for the most part, were refugees from Nazi Germany...the Japanese didn't know what the hell to do with them...so they had just left them alone...pretty much...but they were not in such great shape...
I've read conflicting statements about that...sometimes the Japanese are portrayed as having saved European Jews and in other sources it is made to seem like a "loop-hole" unintentionally allowed this Jewish Community to remain in Shanghai...What do you think?
RM: Well, I think it's probably as much one as the other...ah, the Japanese didn't have a very clear position on the Germans...they didn't know quite how to treat'em... They were allies, yeah, yeah... But THEY WERE NOT JAPANESE! (Feigned Japanese accent) So, I, (Laughs) I knew some of those Germans who had spent the war in China, Jews, and some non-Jews and they told me, from time to time, how the Japanese had treated them quite ambiguously.
Well, you know it's quite interesting, speaking of Germans, to see photos of Kuomintang troops from the 1930's when they're all dressed up in what we, as Americans, see as "Nazi Uniforms." Because, even though the Japanese were technically already allied to the Germans, Hitler was concerned enough by the threat of Communism that he thought it was worth his while to supply Chiang Kai-Shek with munitions so that he might act as a bulwark against Soviet expansion.
RM: Oh, yes. It was quite real...but the... Von Falkenhausen, I think was his name, the German commander of this mission to China, took his job seriously...and whatever else you may say about the Germans, they knew how to fight. They were good at war!
So, he felt it was part of his job to, in the first place, help Chiang Kai-Shek rout the Communists out and then to give advice, which was rarely taken, about the defense of Shanghai...which was the worst mistake that Chiang ever made, I think....
He didn't have the means to withstand the Japanese...and he lost most of his good troops, most of his German equipment...all that good stuff...and for what? For nothing!
Well, Rhoads, you're the Professor, but...I think that Shanghai was to Chiang Kai-Shek what the Tet Offensive was to Ho Chi Minh, he thought that maybe, if a stand was made, it would awaken international interest in the war in China...
RM: Oh it did.
Yeah, images like the one of that Chinese baby crying at the railroad station suddenly found their way into American homes...that had to have had an effect on how we saw the Japanese.
RM: Yes, but the Western governments, like the United States, were still selling scrap iron and oil to the Japanese...they didn't want to antagonize, they didn't want to lose the business...
Tell me more about Shanghai.
RM: I didn't like Shanghai, never did...ah, it was highly westernized, of course, and I saw things like trolley cars and...
This sounds like the typical Chinese anti-Shanghai bias...
RM: Well, I suppose it is...but it wasn't really a part of China, it was soooo western and unlike anything that I had seen before, certainly in terms of its scale...and it was, it has the reputation of being, a "sin-city" where there were, you know, truck loads, bus loads, of prostitutes...everywhere. Lots of dope. Drugs. Lots of opium dens, and all that garbage...this is all quite true, and the foreigners who lived there, ah, lived a very...protected, luxurious life... waited on by Chinese servants hand and foot...I didn't like it...
I want to go back to the Allied Internment Camp...when you got there people were still "interned?"
RM: Yes, yes. Behind barbed wire, and all that stuff.
But, the war was over?
RM: Well, they didn't take care of all that stuff overnight!
Well, I'm reminded of J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun where he says that...
RM: It's full of crap!
You think so?
RM: Oh yeah!
(Laughing) Without my making any comments, why is it "Full of Crap?"
RM: Because, in the first place, it shows American military personnel in the camp...that's not true! It was a civilian internment camp. What else? Ah...it shows them scrambling for grains of rice thrown on the floor, that's not true...they weren't short of food!
Really? Why do you say that "they weren't short of food?"
RM: Because I talked to them...saw them...
And this was the multi-national Allied Internment Camp...that contained...ah, well, anybody that had been there at the time?
What about Indians? I know that the English used Sikhs as Policemen in the International Settlement, had they been culled out for use in Chandra Bose's Indian National Army?
RM: I can't answer that...but there were no...as far as I know... I didn't see everyone in the camp, but, it didn't seem to me that there were any Indians there...it was mostly English and Americans.
A kind of caucasian internment camp?
RM: Yeah, yeah.
But your impression was that conditions were pretty good and that they had food?
And you've read the book or seen the movie?
RM: Oh yeah.
Because the movie does make a big thing of that...you know they're eating weevils and such...
RM: Arrrghh...now, that may have been so in other camps...I mean the Japanese don't exactly have a good record for Prison Camps.
My High School Librarian was interned, as a young women, in the Philippines and she, apparently, had a horrendous experience. But certainly, I won't question what you saw...I think that probably as many people as there are in the world, that's how many experiences there were...
RM: Well, elsewhere, they were mostly bad. We knew people who had been in the Japanese camp in Hong Kong, "Stanley Camp." Terrible! ...and we heard about the Japanese prison camps in Indonesia and Java, did you see that film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence?
Yeah, I didn't like that one...
RM: Didn't like it?
Nah, did you like it?
RM: No, I didn't think it was the greatest film, but it did show that things weren't so great in the camps...
Certainly...but I thought that the relationship between David Bowie and the Japanese camp commander was implausible...and that their fight: Japanese Katana -vs- British Bayonet, was pretty ridiculous...I saw the movie a long time ago but I guess I felt that the movie was a vehicle for the actors rather than a historically accurate portrayal of anything, one way or the other... But back to our interview... There was a lot of "power restructuring" going on immediately following the end of the war...how did you see that?
RM: What do you mean?
Well, I think that a lot of lip service was paid to Roosevelt's theory of "independence for all indigenous people" but that, with him dead, it became obvious that Vietnam would return to the French and that Hong Kong would remain a British Colony, etc., etc... And then of course, you had the Japanese turning over large piles of weapons to groups like the Viet Mihn who wished to continue the fight for independence... Anyway, what I want to know is "how did all of this look to you at the time?"
RM: Well, I used to pass myself off as an American, which I am (Laughs), during the war, because the British were the big power over there...and hence the most resented. But, once the bomb was dropped it seemed like, within five minutes, that it was best to pass yourself off as British. Which I did...THAT was certainly a restructuring of power...
So it was suddenly a bad thing to be an American, because of the bomb?
RM: Oh yes! OH YES! Definitely!
RM: Amongst the people that I interacted with, sure!
I'm a little bit surprised to hear this...everything that I've ever read has lead me to believe that the Chinese, then and now, hate the Japanese...are you saying that they resented the American use of the Atomic Bomb on the Japanese because they were fellow Asians?
RM: It was never articulated...but, I think the thing was that the Americans had replaced the British as the "Big Noises" and everybody hates the guy at the top...the guy with power and money...
Isn't one white man as bad as the next...
RM: Well, no, I don't think that it was a racist thing...it was a reaction to what that creep Henry Luce calls the "American Century."
Okay Rhoads, you skirted my previous question about "movers and shakers," but before I am willing to let you go, I would like to return to the question of what notable personages you knew in China...I'm sure that I remember you mentioning Madame Chiang Kai-Shek...tell me about her.
RM: Well, she had great power for obvious reasons...and she was a "charmer"...and she would turn that on for the foreigners...
But, did you meet her?
RM: Oh sure!
Tell me about that.
RM: Well...she was...as I described, highly Americanized, she went to Wellesley and became a Christian and all that good stuff... She was one of the famous, infamous, "Soong Sisters." Her Father "Charlie," that was his name, was an early immigrant to California and apparently made enough money, running a laundry and cooking and all that stuff, that the Chinese did in those days, that he was able to go back to Shanghai and give his three daughters, and one son, a Western/American education.
And how did you meet her?
RM: Well, because, she took it on herself, I guess, to act as "hostess" for foreigners who were in town. Ahhh, particularly, I guess, people who weren't in the Army...because they were well taken care of...
This was in Chungking?
RM: Yes, in Chungking. So, we used to go over there, on more than one occasion, for some sort of reception or "tea" with the Chiangs, and all that stuff....
So the Generalissimo was there?
RM: He showed up. He never stayed long. In the first place he really was hopeless at English...so, she did most of, not all of, the talking...well, probably all of the talking, and she passed the tea and cakes around, and so on...
I've seen footage of her making a presentation to Congress, her English really was perfect.
RM: Yup, yup...she spoke well...and she was very "slick" and very successful at pushing this image of "gallant China" and that gallant husband of hers...the so called "Generalissimo."
What did it feel like to be in your early twenties having tea and cakes at the home of the leader of the... "Middle Kingdom?"
RM: We knew too much about these people...we knew they were "thugs" (Laughs) ...and we weren't that impressed with her. She didn't succeed in her mission with us, but, it was interesting to see, none the less (mumbles something). Something that you can think about for the rest of your life...
And when you went to Yenan, did you meet anyone on the Communist side?
RM: Oh sure! They all turned out! That was one of the differences between that side and the Kuomintang side...when we arrived there, the whole gang showed up...and they gave a feast for us one night and Chou En-lai, who was a "charmer," a wonderful man and Chu Teh and even Mao showed up, at this party, and then we had a big celebration afterwards and all that good stuff...
So you came away with a "positive" impression?
RM: Oh, totally! ...totally...and in those days we, like everybody else, I guess I could say that we were naive, but then so was everybody else, ah, in, ah, taking the Communists at face value...on the basis of what they had done up to that point...which was pretty good, pretty positive. We had no notion of what a nightmare they were going to create...
For example the "Great Leap Forward?"
RM: Oh, God, yeah...that was hopeless...yeah, we didn't have any idea...
Have you seen the film Yellow Earth? I think it is one of Zhang Yimou's first films...early 1980s I guess.
RM: I don't think so...what is it about?
It's about a lone Communist soldier who visits a non-Han Chinese ethnic village and teaches them about the joys of Communism...a very beautiful film...and one that stresses the message that the Communists were humanitarians. Which I guess was your first impression?
RM: Oh, yeah...they treated the people well...they paid for the food that they took, and all that stuff...and they had the great masses of the people behind them...it's true!
I see where the title of the film comes from "Yellow Earth" is an English translation for the name that is given to the upper reaches of the Yangtze "(Speaks Chinese)" or "Golden Sand."
Tell me more about Chou En-Lai...you say that he was a real "charmer," tell me about that.
RM: Oh, yes, he was! He was a delightful guy... Well, there was no real language barrier because his French was excellent and most of us knew French...and we were quite at home with Chinese so we would talk both languages with him...and he used to have "open house" in Chungking...he lived in Chungking for much of the war because he was the go-between...he was a diplomat...
He had a fourth floor walk up "cold water" flat...in the back of one of those buildings in Chungking...and we used to go up there for tea and peanuts, and whatnot, on Thursday afternoons...when he was in town. He was great...just great. I know why we used to go! ...not just because he was great, but because we had already been planning to send medical supplies up to them, which we knew they desperately needed... But, we had been prevented from doing so by the stupid Kuomintang, and so, we finally "sicked" the Americans, the American Embassy, on them... To make them, grudgingly, agree to let us go up there.
The "Americans?" Was that because they were the "powers that be?"
RM: That's right! I wish they would use their power a little bit more heavily than they do now...the Chinese can get away with anything...and they know it! They don't give a damn for the United States...because they know that they're (the United States) "low key."
You are referring to our policy of sometimes "linking" and other times "not linking" trade to human rights abuses?
RM: Well....yes...we want the money, we want to get at that market and we don't care if they're rotten to their own people and God knows what Tibetans and other such people....(Mumbles) I think it stinks...because, I think that it's morally rotten...
Well Rhoads, what was it like to come back to the States and then, pretty much right away, in 1947, Churchill makes his speech about the Iron Curtain and then the Chinese Revolution takes place and the Cold War...how did it feel to you, at that time, to have known and liked people like Mao Tse-Tung?
RM: Well, I don't know that I thought about it too much at the time...
Well, did you know about the Great Leap Forward while it was happening?
RM: Oh we knew about it...
Have you seen Zhang Yimou's film To Live?
What did you think about that film?
RM: Well, it's all...kind of...depressing.
Well let's go back to my previous question... Did you have any sense that things were that bad? And, how did you reconcile your positive recollections of these people with the great suffering that they were putting the Chinese population through?
RM: We knew about the Great Leap Forward mostly because we had access to a whole bunch of refugee accounts from Hong Kong...that was the big "listening post" and they had a lot of refugees coming through there...and these refugees had a lot of stories... and then we heard about the anti-rightist campaigns...before that...and we heard about some of the "excesses," shall we say, of the Land Reform System...mob violence and all that...so we knew, pretty much, what was going on.
And what were you thinking...in terms of "I've met Mao, and Chou is a great guy...and how can this be happening?"
RM: I don't know that it did occur to me. I think that Chou En-Lai tried desperately to keep some sort of balance...to keep Mao from getting too, weirdly, radical...and of course he failed...really... I was too absorbed, I guess, with the terrible things that were happening to the Chinese to really know what Chou En-Lai thought about it...he wasn't that kind of guy...and yet he was, when necessary, quite ruthless...sure, I knew that then....
Have you ever been to Taiwan?
RM: Sure, I spent half of the academic year there in 1958.
I'm sure that it was a very Nationalistic place at that time....
RM: Oh, tremendously...this was the time of the Quemoy and Matsu incidents.
What did that feel like?
RM: Well, it's a police state...and it was even more so then than it is now...
But Americans were "King" back then in Taiwan, no?
RM: Well, if you wanted to make common cause with those "thugs" who at that time, Chiang himself, were running the place..uuurgghhhh! (grimaces) Well, I've really got to go, my class is starting...
That's fine...thank you so much Rhoads... I'm sorry I had to "grill" you so unmercifully, I really appreciated your letting me monopolize your time.
RM: No problem...no problem, it was my pleasure.