In my post today about Richard Nixon’s Leaders , I will discuss things that Richard Nixon says about Chiang Kaishek. Chiang was the leader of mainland China before it became a Communist country under Mao Tse-Tung. Chiang would then go on to lead the country of Formosa, or Taiwan.
What I often heard in junior high school and high school history classes was that Chiang Kaishek was a crook. We were told that Chiang took the aid that the U.S. gave him to fight the Communists and lined his own pockets and the pockets of his generals. My junior high school social studies teacher said that, when the Japanese were coming after China, Chiang did not lift a finger to fight them, whereas Mao did. This teacher also said that the popular designation of Taiwan as “Free China” was not entirely accurate, for there are many rights that people do not have in Taiwan. In the right-wing literature that I read, I encountered at least two perspectives. The first essentially acknowledged that Chiang was far from perfect, but it said that he was better than the bloodthirsty Communists (for both the Chinese and also for the rest of the world), and so the U.S. should have supported him more. The second portrayed Chiang as a great guy. Robert Welch of the John Birch Society, in his book Again, May God Forgive Us!, depicted Chiang as a devout Christian.
In my reading of Leaders, I didn’t see anything about Chiang Kaishek’s alleged corruption, but Nixon did have his share of criticisms of Chiang, or he mentioned criticisms that other people had. First, Nixon says on page 245 that Chiang was very “by the book” and rigid, and that this hindered him from coming up with innovative strategies. Nixon states that “history is made by those whose innovations exploited the opportunities of the moment”, and that “It was Chiang’s misfortune that Mao was among the latter.” Nixon strikes me as someone who likes boldness in a leader. I wonder if he was a fan of Captain James T. Kirk!
Second, Nixon on pages 115-116 speculates that Chiang might have hindered the Communists from taking over mainland China had he pursued a policy of land reform. Chiang did precisely that as leader of Taiwan, as he “paid the landlords for their land and distributed it to their peasantry”, and the “former landlords invested much of their money in industry while the government encouraged foreign investment” (pages 244-245). According to Nixon, that led to an economic boom in Taiwan. Had Chiang done that sort of thing as leader of mainland China, Nixon speculates, “Mao might not have been able to exploit the rural discontent that contributed to the success of the Chinese Communist revolution” (page 116).
And third, Nixon on pages 125-126 refers to the thoughts of Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida about Chiang. Yoshida had his doubts that Chiang could still play a role in mainland China, for “Yoshida argued that although Chiang was himself a Confucian scholar, he had irreparably alienated the intellectuals, and…this was politically fatal.” While this was a negative on Chiang’s part, it interested me to learn that he was a Confucian scholar. He wasn’t some unsophisticated despot.
I’d like to turn now to three issues that pertain to Chiang Kaishek: his revolutionary beliefs, his authoritarianism, and his Christian devotion.
Let’s start with his revolutionary beliefs. Nixon says on page 241 that “Chiang revolted against the domestic corruption and international weakness of the Manchu dynasty…” Chiang was also against widespread opium addiction and foot-binding. In the 1920’s, Chiang was with “Sun-Yatsen’s revolutionary Kuomintang party”, and he even fought alongside Communists. This was the case in World War II, as both factions united against the Japanese. But Chiang turned on the Communists in 1927, as he feared their increasing strength. Another consideration that Nixon raises is that Chiang and Mao had two approaches: that “Mao sought to erase the past while Chiang sought to build upon it” (page 241). According to Nixon on page 242, the Communists hated Chiang, yet they still “respected and even admired him”; Chiang, however, did not respect the Communists.
On Chiang’s authoritarianism, Nixon says on page 244 that Chiang “was not a democrat, even though he did introduce constitutional government.” Chiang thought that the Chinese had too much freedom and needed discipline. Nixon may have agreed with my junior high school teacher that Taiwan was not exactly “Free China.” At the same time, I question whether Nixon would have seen that as necessarily a bad thing, for Nixon in more than one place says that democracy is not the best system for everyone. Nixon does laud Taiwan’s free-market policies, though.
On Chiang’s Christian devotion, Nixon tells the story of how this came to be on page 243. Chiang wanted to marry a woman named Mei-ling, whose father manufactured and distributed Bibles. But Mei-ling’s family was hesitant to let this marriage happen, since Chiang was not a Christian. Chiang offered to become a Christian, but he also decided to do a serious study of the Bible, for he did not take his religion lightly. During Chiang’s marriage to Mei-ling, the two of them would “often pray together for an hour in the morning.”
I wonder how Chiang could have been the crook that my teachers and history books say he was, when he appeared to have so much substance. He opposed injustice in China. He cared about his country. He was a scholar. On many mornings, he and his wife would pray to God. Was he a mixture of good and bad? Did selfishness get in the way of his ideals?