Category Archives: biography

Interpreting Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, 1969

From: The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen (Mariner Books, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1202-26:

It remained unclear whether Beijing was simply using the Soviet border threat to galvanize internal party unity, or whether genuine geopolitical realignment was in the making.

The answer came in the spring of 1969, on a tiny, uninhabited fragment of land about 250 miles down the Ussuri River from the Soviet city of Vladivostok. Called Damansky by the Russians and Zhen Bao by the Chinese, the island appeared to be of only symbolic worth. Little over a mile in length and a half mile in breadth, Zhen Bao and its environs were mostly swampland and under water for much of the year. The island is closer to the Chinese side of the river, but both countries had long claimed it. According to Soviet press reports from March 2, 1969, that morning 300 Chinese troops on the island opened machine-gun fire on a Soviet patrol of frontier guards, killing 31 and wounding 14. The Soviets sent reinforcements, but these too were ambushed. Chinese accounts of the encounter, predictably, blamed the aggression on the Soviets (counting 70 Soviet dead), and although at first most Western observers jumped at a chance to blame the Chinese, the reality of that cold morning remained foggy. Both sides had withdrawn from the island by the afternoon, but Zhen Bao marked only the beginning of the conflict. As spring turned to summer, violence erupted again on Zhen Bao as well as thousands of miles to the southwest, on the border between Soviet Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang province, and along the Amur River. These skirmishes were more prolonged and bloody than the first brief encounter in March. Both sides issued conflicting accounts of the hostilities, but the geography of the battle sites in Xinjiang—easily accessible from nearby Soviet installations, and hundreds of miles from the nearest Chinese railhead at Ürümqi—suggested that the Soviets started the trouble there.

It was Hill’s job to report on the border conflicts in daily cables to Washington. His commentary was circumscribed by lack of trustworthy eyewitness accounts, and as always he relied heavily on careful reading of the rhetoric coming out of Beijing and Moscow. But by 1969, these had become well-worn limitations for Hill. He was used to sorting through fighting versions of the same story and extracting some shadow of the truth. The responsibility was thrilling. The cables required him to draw on all his experience as a China watcher and to write cogently under extreme pressure—a skill that is learned only by necessity.

Once Nixon and his staff had time to reflect on Hill’s anonymous cables, the significance of intensifying conflict between the world’s two Communist giants was clear. As then national security adviser Henry Kissinger reflected in his memoirs, a Soviet invasion of China would capsize “not only the geopolitical but also the psychological equilibrium of the world; it would create a momentum of irresistible ruthlessness.” Moscow’s periodic threats to attack Chinese nuclear installations or employ nuclear weapons to push People’s Liberation Army forces back from the border were particularly disturbing to Washington. On the other hand, an opportunity suddenly existed to soften China’s raving isolation and cultivate a triangular balance among the world’s three great powers. The situation was delicate. Beijing’s propaganda still accused America of colluding with the Soviets in a renewed attempt at “imperialist encirclement.”

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Benefits of Strong, Silent Diplomacy (and Ego)

From: The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen (Mariner Books, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1227-47:

In the months that followed, Kissinger became a prime mover behind a series of symbolic gestures and guarded diplomatic advances toward China. On a late summer world tour, Nixon remarked cautiously about opening channels with the Chinese to intermediaries in Romania and Pakistan, who, it was assumed, would relay the message to Beijing. As the Soviets grew increasingly nervous that autumn, Kissinger authorized the end of the U.S. destroyer patrol in the Taiwan Strait—a signal whose military significance was dwarfed by its symbolic value. What followed, Kissinger wrote, was “an intricate minuet between us and the Chinese so delicately arranged that both sides could always maintain that they were not in contact, so stylized that neither side needed to bear the onus of an initiative, so elliptical that existing relationships on both sides were not jeopardized.”

Those brief clashes in the desolate reaches of southeastern Siberia set off a geopolitical chain reaction that would culminate in President Nixon’s much-vaunted trip to China in 1972. His visit, to those who had been watching most vigilantly, was less a diplomatic coup than an inescapable executive act confirming several years of geopolitical transformation. The shift in the balance among the Soviet Union, China, and the United States was, for those who knew what to look for, well marked along the way—in official editorials’ compromised turns of phrase, in remote clashes over an inhospitable bit of land, and, sometimes, in what was not said at all.

Hill was never bothered that Kissinger, for whom he would be a top speechwriter in a scant few years, had no idea who had written the cables he read with such interest. Although no reasonable junior officer expected to see his name attached to most of his work, Hill was distinct in his attitude. “Others said, ‘We’re working like dogs, but the time will come when we’ll be ambassadors and we’ll cash in,'” he recalled. “I didn’t. I thought this was great—way beyond anything I’d been asked to do before.” Hill’s self-confidence was more valuable for its noiselessness. It was unusual in a profession that attracted ambitious men and women intent on achieving power and making names for themselves. That breed of officer was often frustrated in the Foreign Service—a highly constrained job, bounded by meddlesome supervisors and a lethargic bureaucracy that shuttled its officers around the globe, granting them little notice or say in their futures. Hill was better suited to it than most. Although every telegram he drafted was revised and chewed up by his superiors, his ideas still confined by a system that offered no guarantee that those on high would listen, he felt that the months spent covering the Sino-Soviet border dispute were the apex of his career thus far. He loved the chance to shape information, to tell the story of the border clashes as he saw it. His was a silent ego, not a meek one.

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Zhao Ziyang’s Secret Journal

Today’s Wall Street Journal offers a few glimpses of what Zhao Ziyang’s posthumously published secret journal reveals about the evolution of his thinking. Both the English and Chinese editions are due to appear just in time for the 20th anniversary of the violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

Zhao’s memoirs provide a rare insider’s view of debates among Chinese leaders, and they indict the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and the statist economic model. Zhao was initially a supporter of “soft authoritarianism.” But he understood the importance of economic reforms, which he implemented as a leader in Guangdong and then Sichuan province. His policies, which included giving land rights to farmers and lifting state production quotas, were so immediately successful that a popular description became, “If you want to eat, look for [Zhao] Ziyang.” Zhao also opened up the eastern coastal region to trade and development.

Only after his house arrest did Zhao conclude that a truly free economy also requires political liberalization, particularly a free press and independent judiciary. “If a country wishes to modernize, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system,” he wrote in his memoirs.

This represented a shift in his thinking. “I once believed that people were masters of their own affairs,” he wrote, “not in the parliamentary democracies of the developed nations in the West, but only in the Soviet and socialist nations’ systems with a people’s congress … This, in fact, is not the case. The democratic systems of our socialist nations are all just superficial; they are not systems in which the people are in charge, but rather are ruled by a few or even a single person.”

The WSJ’s Sky Canaves reports on how the book came about.

“Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang,” to be officially released this month in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster, is based on 30 hours of tapes recorded by Mr. Zhao before his death in 2005 and smuggled out of China. Mr. Zhao recorded over existing music cassettes while living under heavy surveillance and distributed them among various friends for safekeeping. The tapes were only recently collected, transcribed and translated for publication in book form. (Hear the audio excerpts and read the translations.)

The Malaysian Insider adds more perspective about the book’s authenticity from the Straits Times:

Analysts said that there is no doubt that the recordings are genuine — a major coup since previous “insider” accounts of the Tiananmen incident suffered from doubts on their authenticity.

“It was very prudent to record his memoirs on audio tapes. Even if you write it down, people can dispute if it was really his words. But when you hear his voice, it is definitely genuine,” said China elite politics watcher Bo Zhiyue of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, who had heard parts of the recordings uploaded online.

Hong Kong-based analyst Ong Yew Kim was struck by Zhao’s revelations that former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was not truly interested in democratisation.

Zhao presses the case that he advocated the opening of China’s economy to the world and Deng did not always fully support such moves.

“Many people had termed Deng a reformist. But now we know that his talk about democracy was just empty slogans,” he added.

But Dr Bo cautioned that it is premature to dismiss Deng’s role in China’s reform policies.

“Zhao Ziyang said he started the agriculture reform in Sichuan province. That is fair. But Wan Li did likewise in Anhui province and Deng brought both of them to Beijing,” he said, referring to a former vice-premier.

“This is Zhao Ziyang’s story. It may not be the whole story.” — Straits Times

And one of the translators and editors of the English edition, Bao Pu, describes the lead-up to Tiananmen.

The tragic turning point toward violence came when Mr. Li [Peng] maneuvered to publish Deng’s harsh comments about the protestors in a People’s Daily editorial on April 26. At this point, Mr. Li may only have boosted the antiliberalization agenda, and not foreseen the scale of the tragedy to come. When Zhao first heard of Deng’s remarks while on a state visit to North Korea, he wrote, “my first thought was that another campaign against liberalism might begin.”

But much to the government’s surprise, the students were shocked and insulted by the defamation of their motives and responded with the April 27 demonstrations, the biggest spontaneous student protest ever in modern China’s history. Zhao observed at this time “even the symbol of the paramount leader had lost its effectiveness.”

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Begam Samrū: A Most Unusual Ruler

My historian brother has been doing a lot of research on Mercenaries and Military Manpower in world history. He’s started a blog on the topic, but has been too busy with other projects (and too fond of footnotes) to post much yet. When I stumble across new sources that might interest him (like my previous two blogposts), I let him know. Here’s one I came across in an unlikely source, the venerable Archives of Asian Art, which has finally made its debut in JSTOR. Of course, he had already heard of the central figure, but the Wikipedia entry for her is so long-winded, poorly written, and poorly documented that I thought I would post her biography as presented by UC Berkeley art historian Alka Hingorani, in her article entitled “Artful Agency: Imagining and Imaging Begam Samrū” in Archives of Asian Art LIII(2002-2003):54-70.

Begam Samrū was born Farzānā, in 1750/51 C.E., to an impoverished Arab nobleman who died when she was still very young. Events and circumstances led her and her mother to Delhi, battle-weary in the mid-eighteenth century. They arrived about 1760 C.E., and from all accounts her early years in Delhi were spent at a courtesan’s home, where she reputedly grew into an exceptionally beautiful and talented woman. The second half of the eighteenth century in Delhi has been referred to as “gardi ka waqt,” or the “time of troubles.” Nādir Shāh of Persia and Ahmad Shah Abdālī of Afghanistan had mauled the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Confederacy, and by the 1760s Delhi was licking its wounds. A substantial indigenous resurgence seemed unlikely. The Jats were baiting the Marathas, and the British were trying to keep both in check. Several smaller powers were beginning to elbow for space as the larger ones lost control of the north Indian region. Increasingly, the Mughals, Marathas, and British were finding it necessary to share power with chiefdoms. In this widening field the smaller contestants whose military means were inadequate to their ambitions often had to resort to foreign military adventurers.

General Walter Reinhardt, Austrian mercenary and free lance, was one such adventurer. Having variously served the British, the French, and the Jats, he was desperately seeking employment in the Mughal court, since his last service to the French had left the British hot in his pursuit. With four battalions and a few cannons at his disposal, he was offering his services to the nearest employer of ample purse and sufficient political clout to afford protection against the British: a fairly typical scenario for the time. While in Delhi he apparently took a fancy to Farzānā, who became his concubine, or begam, as she chose to style herself. Their association appears to have been intense, both personally and politically, and lasted until his death in 1778. By this time “Le Sombre,” the sobriquet conferred upon the saturnine Reinhardt by earlier associates, had become Indianized to “Samrū.” Upon his death Samrū ki begam, “the wife of Samrū,” took his sobriquet as her name and began to be called Begam Samrū. This slippage of identity, made possible by her intimate association with Reinhardt, was facilitated by their obvious close military and political partnership. At the court of the Mughal emperor, Shāh Ālam, she had taken active part—directly and indirectly—in the maneuvering for power, in order to benefit her “husband.” They had shared years in camp as he led his forces against the Marathas and other powers, and she was his ally—a brave soldier and a crafty strategist—as much as his mate. Begam Samrū also enjoyed enormous favor at Shāh Ālam’s court for another critical reason: on several occasions in the 1780s she had acted to save his life, often at some risk to her own. On one occasion she secured his release from Ghulām Qādir, the Rohilla chief, who had gained control of the palace and had imprisoned and tortured the old emperor. Another rescue took place when the blind and enfeebled emperor, who had joined the battlefield himself to bring a rebellious vassal to heel, was almost defeated due to indiscipline amongst his own forces. General laxity and indiscipline in the imperial army had endangered the emperor’s life more than once, and Begam Samrū had repeatedly brought her troops and artillery to his rescue. Considering these heroic benefactions, even though Walter Reinhardt had left a grown son—Zafaryāb Khan—by another Muslim woman, Begam Samrū’s position as heir to his authority was never in serious jeopardy.

Her ascendancy was aided by Zafaryāb Khan s own reputation as a man of weak intellect. He was so little regard ed that his father s troops did not recognize him even as a nominal chief, pledging their allegiance to Begam Samrū instead. The Begam came into her own at this point. She swore continued allegiance to the Mughal emperor, who conferred upon her in return the principality of Sardhanā, slightly northeast of Delhi. This was a jāgīr (“principality”) of small villages, which yielded substantial revenue. It was, from all accounts, very tightly controlled by the Begam, whose presence enhanced its political importance. William Francklin (1763–1839) paid handsome tribute to the Begam’s administrative acumen in his writings in the 1790s, when she had held her jāgīr for about fifteen years:

An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the lands, a mild and upright administration, and care for the welfare of the inhabitants, has enabled this small tract to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of rupees per annum (up from six)…. A fort near the town contains a good arsenal and foundry for cannon. Five battalions of disciplined sepoys, commanded by Europeans of different countries…and about 40 pieces of cannon of various calibres, constitute the force kept up by the Begam Samrū. With these and about 200 Europeans, principally employed in the service of artillery, she is enabled to maintain a respectable position among the neighbouring powers.

As John Lall also asserts, “It was a remarkable achievement for a single woman, more than ten years after Najāf Khān’s (her protector’s) death when Shāh Ālam was being blown like a weathercock with every change in the precarious balance of factional power. To be useful to him, she had to be capable not just of maintaining herself in power but also of intervening effectively in the affairs of the time.” In her long career she overcame many adversities, including a near-revolt among her troops brought about by her second, secret marriage to a Frenchman, an insurrection provoked by her stepson, imprisonment from which she was rescued by an old lover, and the vicissitudes of endlessly shifting political alliances with their attendant suspicion and deceits. Along the way she converted to Roman Catholicism, joined hands with the Marathas, then with the French, and finally in 1805 forged an alliance with the British, a little after it became clear that the Sikhs under Ranjīt Singh would not prevail against English might. Her reliance on the Sikhs for longer than politically warranted was one of her few miscalculations, but even from that she recovered quickly enough. Fortuitous and timely changes in power hierarchies often worked to her advantage, but largely it was her personal charisma, military prowess, administrative and political acumen, her generosity and her loyalty no less than her reputed ruthlessness, her guile and cunning, that allowed Begam Samrū to rule more or less absolutely and “brilliantly” (a word that all her biographers have used) over her small principality.Yet her life was altogether more interesting, I think, than even the events of history that made it possible. She died in 1836, at the age of eighty-five. She left behind no personal chronicles: neither auto biography nor personal correspondence to augment and correct a history told by others. But a few paintings remain, as windows into a life lived fully by any account.

They certainly don’t make them like that anymore, male or female.

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The Korean War as Mao’s Triumph

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 634, 636, 638:

Because the Chinese viewed Korea as a great success, Mao became more than ever the dominant figure in Chinese politics. He had shrewdly understood the domestic political benefits of having his country at war with the Americans. As he had predicted, the war had been a defining moment between the old China and the new one, and it had helped isolate those supporters of the old China—those Chinese who had been connected to Westerners—and turned them into enemies of the state. Many were destroyed—either murdered or ruined economically—in the purges that accompanied and then followed the war. From then on there was no alternative political force to check Mao; he had been the great, all-powerful Mao before the war began, and now, more than ever, his greatness was assured in the eyes of his peers on the Central Committee, who were no longer, of course, his peers. Before the war he had been the dominant figure of the Central Committee, a man without equals; afterward he was the equivalent of a new kind of Chinese leader, a people’s emperor. He stood alone. No one had more houses, more privileges, more young women thrown at him, eager to pay him homage, more people to taste his food lest he be poisoned at one of his different residences. No one could have been contradicted less frequently. The cult of personality, which he had once been so critical of, soon came to please him, and in China his cult matched that of Stalin.

There was in all this a scenario not just for political miscalculation but for something darker, for potential madness with so much power vested in one man, a man to whom so much damage had been done earlier in his life. That was always a critical element of what happened next: Mao as a young man, not unlike Stalin, had been hunted too long and too relentlessly, as it were, by so many enemies; the deepest, most unwavering kind of paranoia grew out of that past and was the most natural part of his emotional and political makeup. At the same time he had become the principal architect of an entirely new political economic-social system. He existed and operated in a nation without any personal limits on him and yet where everyone could be an enemy. Both his power and his paranoia were without limits. He who had been for so long the ultimate outsider now lived a life of imperial grandiosity. He no longer needed to listen to others; if the others differed from him on issues, it was because they did not hold China’s welfare as close to their hearts as he did, and were perhaps enemies of his and of China as well—the two he judged to be the same.

He was sure that he was right on all issues—his words as they escaped his mouth were worthy of being codified as laws. China, he had decided, his China, was ready to rush into modernity—the Great Leap Forward, it was called, and the burden of turning a poor agricultural society into a modern industrial state virtually overnight fell on the peasants. If he had once been uniquely sensitive to their needs, more tuned to them as a political force than anyone else in the leadership, he now seemed prepared to put the entire burden of modernization, brutal though it would be, on them for his larger purpose. His new China would, if need be, be built on their backs. It was their job to make his dreams, no matter how unlikely, come true. The Great Leap Forward was probably the first example of a turn toward madness: as it went on, the peasants suffered more and more, under growing pressure to produce more agriculturally than ever before, even as there were conflicting pressures—for them to convert to a kind of primitive industrial base, as if there were to be a small foundry in every Chinese backyard. The Great Leap Forward was always more vision than reality. Figures on agricultural production were severely doctored to make the program look like a success. Almost everyone in the bureaucracy knew that it was largely a failure—the phrase that the distinguished Yale historian Jonathan Spence used was “catastrophic hardship”—but for a long time no one dared challenge Mao. The genuine independence of the rest of the Central Committee seemed in decline; the power and authority of Mao in a constant ascent. His will had become the national will; his truths were everyone’s truths. He was never wrong. If he said that night was day, then night had become day.

Because his hold over the government was so complete, because his need to dominate every decision was so total, he forced anyone who was a potential critic or dissenter, no matter how essentially loyal, into the most dangerous role. Those who challenged him were not merely wrong, they could become, if the issue were serious enough, enemies of the people. Those who thought they were his friends and peers and old colleagues were, it turned out, badly mistaken; they were his friends and allies only as long as they agreed with him on all issues all the time. No one suffered more than one of his oldest allies, Marshal Peng. He was a simple man who had always known his limits and thus his place, a true Communist, a man who always deferred to Mao on politics. But Peng was also a proud man, every bit as confident of his sense of the peasants’ welfare. Peng became a dissenter almost involuntarily—almost, it seemed, as if Mao wanted a break with him, wanted to turn on him and make him an enemy. By 1959, the early results of the Great Leap Forward were in and China was in the midst of a terrible famine. Yet ever higher agricultural yields were being reported. Almost , every senior official understood this—that the chairman’s Great Leap was buttressed by lies and falsified statistics, but no one dared take him on.

Finally Peng did. He was by then the minister of defense …

By the time he died from his beatings, he had been interrogated 130 times. As Mao destroyed Peng, he destroyed much of what had been the best and most idealistic part of the Chinese revolution, turning his government in the process into one where only his own monomania could flourish.

This book has been a good read in parts, but I’m more impressed by Halberstam’s storytelling than by his scholarship. The major strengths, as far as I can see, are (1) his many gripping accounts of the fighting, based on interviews with survivors; (2) helpful maps; and (3) his incorporation of much new research, especially that based on recent access to Chinese archives. Otherwise, he just seems to be digesting a lot of secondary sources. Moreover, much of his very extended political spin (all Democrats, good; all Republicans, bad; anticommunism, worse than communism) is both tedious and tendentious, and his handling of sources often seems rather sloppy, as does his handling of lesser-known Sinitic names (like Han Liqin). The 669 pages of text contain no source citations whatsoever. Instead, endnotes list page numbers, quoted passages, and short reference citations.

However, in the passage cited above and elsewhere in the chapter, Halberstam quotes the words of Jonathan Spence, whose name appears neither in the bibliography nor in any endnote. In fact, there are no notes at all for pages 631–647, which includes the entirety of Chapter 53, Section 11, “The Consequences.” Readers who do a little extra research on their own are thus left to assume that Halberstam’s insights into the consequences for Mao perhaps come from somewhere in the 208 pages of Spence’s 1999 Mao Zedong, leavened with who-knows-what.

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Mao as MacArthur, Peng as Ridgway

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 506-509, 512-513:

If politics, as Mao believed, had its special truths that they knew better than anyone else, then military men like Peng Dehuai, political though they also were, knew that the battlefield had its truths as well. The political and military truths had dovetailed perfectly during the Chinese civil war, but they would separate in Korea, where Chinese troops in the eyes of most Koreans would be simply another foreign army and where the appearance of Chinese soldiers would have its own colonial implications.

After the battles along the Chongchon, Mao was ever more confident; Marshal Peng on the other hand was aware that much of his success had stemmed from the fact that the Americans had stupidly stumbled into a trap. He was concerned as his troops headed south; he had no air cover, and his logistical limitations were clear to him from the start. In Mao’s mind, however, the Americans had behaved as he had predicted, as capitalist pawns pressed reluctantly into an unwanted war. There were times now, as the Chinese moved south and Mao pressed for a more aggressive strategy, that Peng would shake his head, turn to his aide, Major Han Liquin [sic (prob. Liqin); “Major Liquin” (rather than Han), p. 515], and complain about Mao becoming drunk with success. In Peng’s much more conservative view, there had already been serious signs of the difficulties ahead. Just feeding his vast army was a problem—in much of December they had gotten by subsisting largely on rations that the Americans had left behind, but their troops were now, he felt, half-starved….

But as the Americans retreated down the long, thin peninsula, the Chinese began to experience some of the very problems that had frustrated their enemies—most particularly the problem of extended supply lines in a country with primitive roads and rail systems. Because they lacked air and sea power, this was a significantly more serious problem for them. When the Americans had moved north, they had been able to use trucks and trains without fear of being attacked from the air. They could, if necessary, transport badly needed ammo and food by air and sea. Not only did the Chinese have far fewer motorized vehicles to supply a vast army, but the trucks and trains were a perfect target for the ever stronger American air wing. It was Mao’s turn now to be distanced from the battlefield, and to see it, as MacArthur had, not as it actually was, but as he wanted it to be in his mind. Mao had misread the easy early victory up north, even as some of his commanders understood why it might not happen so readily again. As the historian Bin Yu noted, Mao now “encouraged by China’s initial gains began to pursue goals that were beyond [his] force’s capabilities.” That placed the burden of dealing with reality squarely on Peng’s shoulders.

In away Peng was an almost perfect counterpart to Ridgway—they could not have been more similar in what drove them and the way they saw and handled their own men. It would not be hard to imagine some switch in ancestry and an American version of Peng commanding the UN forces, and Ridgway, in a Chinese incarnation, the Chinese. Like Ridgway, Peng was a soldier’s soldier, unusually popular with his men, because he was sensitive to their needs….

He was straightforward and no less blunt than Ridgway. It amused him when some of his former colleagues in what had been in the beginning a peasant army began to take on airs once they defeated the Nationalists. Peng still preferred to bathe in cold water, even when hot water was available, because he had always done so, and because this was what peasants did. In his lifestyle he preferred an almost monastic simplicity, and was uneasy with unwanted creature comforts….

Peng was a good deal shrewder than some of the other people in the politburo gave him credit for. He had never been fooled by his early success up along the Chongchon. Even before the war began, he had believed that, given the unusual nature of the Korean peninsula, the opposing armies would have a terrible time getting supplies to either end of the country. “Korea,” he had told his staff before the war began, “will be a battle of supply.” That was why he argued successfully with Mao that when they hit the Americans all-out for the first time, they should do it from positions as far north as possible….

He was furious when both the Russians and North Koreans argued strongly in December that his troops should pursue the Americans more aggressively. The Russians were not putting their men into the field, and as for the North Koreans, he was bailing them out from their own incredible mistakes and poor leadership. He hated the pressure they put not so much on him, but on Mao, to move more rashly, the implication being that the Chinese were showing the world that they were not as good Communists, or as brave as Russians might have been in the same circumstances….

The idea that the Russians might think the Chinese timid appalled Mao. The balance between the two countries might change significantly in the next decade—as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev started a de-Stalinization campaign and the Chinese claimed the mantle of Communist purists—but at that point, China was still the untested junior partner, and the Russians still had the right to judge the Chinese. Thus, it was easy for the Russians to goad Mao. Russian representatives in Beijing kept pressuring Mao to pursue the enemy. So too did Kim Il Sung. He met with Peng at his headquarters and asked him to pursue the Americans more audaciously.

Peng controlled his temper. The Americans were not actually defeated, he said. They had held their army together better than Kim realized. They might simply be trying to lure the Chinese too far south, so that they could strike back with another amphibious landing (a not so subtle reminder of mistakes made in the past). Still, the retaking of Seoul seemed like a significant propaganda victory, and there were huge rallies in China celebrating its recapture. In late January, Mao cabled Peng with his directives for the next campaign. In the process, Mao suggested, Peng’s forces would wipe out twenty to thirty thousand enemy soldiers. It was as if the chairman had not heard a word Peng had said in the last few weeks, caught up as he was in his own dreams of glory.

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Where Gandhi Learned His Methods

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 24-26:

ON 2 OCTOBER 1869, A SON WAS BORN INTO A MIDDLE-CLASS family in Gujarat, a collection of princely states under British authority on the western coast of India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an ordinary childhood, culminating, as ordinary childhoods often do, in a teenage rebellion. This revealed a boy whose desire to experiment was usually halted by an immobilizing timidity in the actual act of defiance. He tried smoking and stole gold from his family to finance it; but this upset him morally, and so he stopped. Though from a strictly vegetarian family, he tried eating meat; but this upset him physically, and then morally as well, and then he dreamed of a live goat trapped in his stomach, bleating, so he stopped that too. Once he was egged on to visit a prostitute, but stood in the brothel having a crisis of confidence until the woman shouted at him to go away. On another occasion, he and a cousin ventured into the jungle to kill themselves by overdosing on datura, the narcotic seeds of the thorn apple; but, once they found the plant, they lost their nerve.

This boy’s family was reasonably well-off and of a middling but respectable caste. Hindu society had been divided for over seventeen hundred years into four main castes, reflecting second-century social groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Sudras (farmers). Within each of these were hundreds of minute subdivisions, and below them a mass of outcastes, or “Untouchables”—those unfortunates who, condemned by the bad karma of previous incarnations, were destined to spend their lives sweeping, begging, scrubbing latrines and cleaning up corpses. The Gandhi family were Vaishyas, and within that were of the Bania subdivision. Banias were notorious for being hard-bargaining salesmen, a trait which young Mohan evidently inherited and would one day apply to spiritual and political ends with unprecedented effect.

Mohan’s rebellion was perhaps more unusual because the supposed cure for youthful misbehavior had already been administered. Karamchand and Putliba Gandhi had already married their thirteen-year-old son to a girl from a staunchly religious family. The girl who had been chosen, Kasturbai Makanji (known according to local tradition as Kasturba later in life, when she became matriarch of the household), was also just thirteen.

During daylight hours, etiquette decreed that Mohan and Kasturbai should ignore each other completely. Even an affectionate word between husband and wife was considered taboo. As darkness fell, they were left to their own devices, though neither had much idea what those should be. Mohan went to the bazaar to buy pamphlets, hoping to learn about his conjugal rights and duties. He was taken with the concept of fidelity and decided it should be his task to extract this from Kasturbai. He told her that she could no longer leave the house without his consent.

But, despite her youth, Kasturbai had already mastered the most effective technique available to women who live in extremely restrictive societies: that of passive resistance. She was a devout Hindu from a very traditional background and would not openly disobey her husband. Instead, she found a loophole.

Mohan’s mother asked Kasturbai to accompany her to the temple every day. Because this request was made in the daytime, when the young spouses were not supposed to communicate, Kasturbai was unable to ask Mohan’s permission. To disobey the command of the matriarch, on the other hand, would have been a terrible sin. So Kasturbai went with Putliba to the temple and returned to have her first fight with her husband, which she won by the sheer power of logic. Mohan was forced to remove the restrictions he had placed on Kasturbai.

This small incident would hardly be worthy of note, except for the fact that it formed the basis for Gandhi’s entire political method. In later years, when he found that he was at a disadvantage being an Indian in a white world, he would remember and develop the tactic of a woman in a man’s world. All Gandhi’s most famous tactics—passive resistance, civil disobedience, logical argument, nonviolence in the face of violence, emotional blackmail—had come from Kasturbai’s influence. He freely admitted this: “I learned the lesson of nonviolence from my wife.”

This, I regret to say, is my last excerpt from one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Von Tunzelmann is both a wonderful storyteller and a diligent researcher. (In that she is the equal, in my estimation, of Barbara Tuchman, one of my all-time favorite narrators of history; and I hope she already has another manuscript in the works.) In my many excerpts, I have excised all the endnote references, leaving no indication that supporting notes, maps, and glossaries consume almost 20% of a book nearly 500 pages long.

My historian brother has done a lot of research on Gandhi and is very critical of him, as are many revisionist historians. Von Tunzelmann also dishes plenty of dirt on Gandhi (and the other principal actors), while crediting him with two outstanding achievements: launching an effective campaign of nonviolence with the Salt March in 1930 and dampening communal violence in Bengal during the partition in 1947, a partition that he fervently opposed but unwittingly abetted. Between those two events, many of his efforts were irrelevant, at best, and counterproductive, at worst.

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