The unmaking of T.H. White

Barbara Amiel October 24 1983

The unmaking of T.H. White

Barbara Amiel October 24 1983

The unmaking of T.H. White


Barbara Amiel

Perhaps, one day, in the fullness of time, history will record its verdict on the role 20th-century journalists played in the destruction of free and open societies. Perhaps.

An intriguing case in point is the astonishing cover article on China by Theodore H. White which appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Time magazine.

The article is called China: Burnout of a Revolution. It occupies 13 pages of the magazine which indicates immediately in the snappy, punchy world of newsmag prose how much importance the editors place on both the article and its author. For Theodore H. White is a substantial figure in political and historical journalism indeed.

He majored in history at Harvard, was a war correspondent in China for Time and, after the war, co-authored a book Thunder out of China. His best known work is probably The Making of the President series which won him the Pulitzer prize. For this article on China he spent two months crisscrossing the People’s Republic.

What does White say? This is the article of a man who describes, in the way of the objective Western journalist, all the horrors of communism and what he calls an “insane” Mao Tse-tung and his “bitch killer” wife. He then makes the following two statements.

First, that there was no way Western China watchers could know all about the brutality, the madness and the horror of Mao’s China. “Of all this we knew nothing in 1972,” writes White.

The second statement is made by the entire article itself: namely, everything has changed in China. Mao Tse-tung and the horrid Gang of Four have been eliminated and a different China is finding its feet. Of course, warns White, this is very difficult and China is full of paradoxes. “But no one can understand the paradoxes unless one keeps in mind the history behind them,” he explains. “The men who dominate China were, long ago, students and idealists. They became cruel as they fought and, as they governed, the logic of communism drove them to further cruelty—until they learned that absolute cruelty has its limits in absolute madness. What they are doing now is trying to untangle their old dreams from the madness those dreams begot.”

To put it mildly, those two statements are extraordinary. How is it possible to claim total political naïveté about

China in 1972? Not 1949, not even 1959, but 19721

The Chinese Gulag was documented in literature by Lai Ying’s book The Thirty-Sixth Way in 1969. The West even had its first released prisoner from the Gulag in the person of Bao Ruowang who, though Chinese, had French citizenship, which the French used in 1964 to get him out of prison after seven years of “thought reform through labor.” But any China watcher, not to mention the diplomats and foreigners in China, could see the nature of China’s totalitarian society. It was one that worshipped Stalin and that stated publicly, as did Chou En-lai in 1959, that “the present of the Soviet Union is the future of China.” The very writings of Mao required little effort to extrapolate a verdict of insanity.

And how could anyone calling themselves China watchers miss such palpably evident moments in history as:

One is forced to conclude that White and similar China experts are unñt to write about human affairs

1949-52: Liquidation of counterrevolutionaries, land reform and an estimated five million executions (documented in 1972 by J. Guillermaz in Le Parti Communiste Chinois au pouvoir).

The occupation of Tibet in 1950, the self-exile of the Dalai Lama in 1959 and the escape of 100,000 Tibetans with their pathetic stories of genocide and terror.

1957: Anti-rightist campaign to unmask “counterrevolutionaries” and “bad elements.”

1966-69: Cultural Revolution.

If one accepts as true White’s statement that he knew nothing of these events and the bloodshed they caused, one is forced to conclude that he and similar great China experts are unfit to write about human affairs. It is inexcusable for people of such total political naïveté to set themselves up as pundits and to have the temerity after their error has been brought to light, officially, by the Chinese themselves to continue with their punditry. What engineer or doctor who made such a fundamental error would be allowed to continue in his line of work? What lawyer

would not be disbarred for negligence and error on that scale—however honest?

But it is White’s second statement that requires even more deep breathing. Everything, he believes, is now changing in China.

What can one say? Having discovered a regime that according to White’s own judgment was murderous and barbaric, driven to terrible deeds “by the logic of communism,” White continues endorsing that regime now that it preaches and enforces with an equal claim to infallibility a slightly different party line.

It is as if Hitler had not been defeated in war, but, after the murder of six million Jews, he had died of old age and the Nazi party of Germany had officially acknowledged some of its errors (quibbling over just how many million were murdered, which is what the Chinese Communists do in White’s article). Then, what if, far from relinquishing power or bringing in liberty, party members under the same Swastika banner continue to preach and enforce a more up-to-date Nazism?

At the conclusion of his article, White talks to Qiao Guanhua, the man who was Mao’s foreign minister. Qiao, just released from house arrest, had stayed with Mao to the end. White tells how he pressed Qiao to explain what had all “gone wrong in China.” Qiao is evasive and in what White describes as an “elegant” reply will only say: “You must remember what Hegel said, that a man reaches an understanding of the history of his own time step by step—only step by step.”

This “elegant” reply is one that a police sergeant would not accept from a third-rate crook. Would Theodore H. White, if Göbbels had been imprisoned after Hitler’s death and then released under a new Nazi regime, have interviewed him about the death camps and called such an evasion “elegant”?

Since White is obviously an Orientalist, and as such admires things in the Oriental tradition, it does not seem too harsh to suggest that the only honorable thing for him to do after having confessed to an error of judgment of such monumental import is to take a leaf out of Oriental tradition. He should, metaphorically speaking, go behind a curtain and let his career as a China-pundit end with the same dignity and in the same way as the dishonored Madame Butterfly. Hara-kiri makes for an honorable exit.