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1 Henry Luce and the Gordian Knot
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Henry Luce and the Gordian Knot

The single most influential journalist who wrote or edited about China in the 1940s was undoubtedly Henry Luce. As centers of power, prestige, and money, his Time-Life publications attracted top talent. About China and Chiang Kai-shek in particular, Luce was strongly opinionated and, when speaking through foreign editor Whittaker Chambers, avidly anti-Communist. Conflict between Luce and his talented reporters in the field was inevitable and well illustrates the overall problems the China journalist faced in getting the news published as he/she saw it. The forced departure from Time-Life in 1944–45 of T. H. White and John Hersey mirrored the confrontations that were occurring in the State Department at the same time between Foreign Service officers in the field like John Service and John Davies and Washington politicians-turned-diplomats such as Patrick Hurley. The result was a double tragedy, producing over the rest of the decade both an indecisive US China policy and uncertain coverage of the Chinese Civil War. For these reasons, the Luce story is essential background for an understanding of the increasingly politicized editorial environment in America that shaped press coverage of China in the 1940s. It also raises basic questions about


relationships between the US government and the American press in regard to China, which are pursued throughout the rest of the book.

There was probably no one who knew Henry Luce better in terms of his thoughts on China in the early 1940s than John Hersey, one-time Luce protégé and later Pulitzer Prize winning author. One of the high points of the Scottsdale meeting was Hersey's luncheon address on Henry Luce which follows.

Henry Luce underwent a profound change between 1937 and 1948. These were the years of his greatest involvement with China. I was his employee during all but the last three of those years.

When I first went to work for him at Time , at $35 a week, he seemed a walking wonder of possibilities to a mishkid like me—a missionary offspring, that is. He was a mishkid who had made good in a big way. He was exciting to be around. Emotions—feelings that had to do with a human touch—were enigmatic in him, but abstractions lit up his face, as if in a dazzling son et lumière at the Sphinx. His mind darted and jumped. He was astonished and delighted by whatever he had not previously known. He stammered because so many enthusiasms were trying to make simultaneous escape across his Calvinist tongue. Because I, too, was a China mishkid, he would in those earlier days call me up to the thirty-third floor, now and then, to discuss a China story. This was great. Together we would explore a dozen approaches. Then he would say, "Go and write it"—and it would be for me to choose which of the approaches to use.

By the end of the period, it was another and much more terrible case. A conference on a story would begin, "John, the way I see this thing is. . . ." Sometimes his


commands or correctives were in memo form, in prose hewn by a chilled axe. It got so bad that, on receiving one of Luce's lightning bolts, T. S. Matthews, as managing editor, wrote back: "No decent human being would answer your memo by accepting it. . . . You have written as if to dogs, not to human beings. And you have made a mistake. If you're really degenerating into a barking boss, you'll soon have behind you only the anxious, stupid, dishonest subservience that kind of boss can command."[1]

We all know in a general way how Henry Luce's views on China moved and hardened in those years. Early we find him urging resistance to China's enemy, Japan; deploring American sales of scrap steel to the Japanese; warmly praising progressive undertakings like the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives founded by the New Zealander Rewi Alley. Next he is an Asia-firster, with growing differences with Roosevelt on the conduct of the war. Then he writes a personal letter to every subscriber to Time asking for support of United China Relief. Next he is squarely in the pro-Chiang China Lobby. And finally, in 1948, he is the bitter author of a letter to Senator Arthur Vandenberg: "The measure of the degradation of American policy in the Pacific is the fact that a few guys like Representative Walter H. Judd and I have to go about peddling a vital interest of the United States and a historic article of US foreign policy as if it were some sort of bottled chop suey that we were trying to sneak through the Pure Food Laws."[2]

Now here is an intriguing question: Why did that particular missionary son reach a destination on the China question so very different from that reached by other sons of missionaries—notably, for a couple of examples, John Paton Davies and John Service? These two mishkids were hounded out of the Foreign Service by Senator Joseph McCarthy for the sin of seeing the China picture, as we know


now, far more accurately than Henry Luce was seeing it. Why the difference.?

First of all, there was the matter of Henry Robinson Luce's foremost model and mentor—his father, Henry Winters Luce, called, as his son was to be, Harry. I have been working for about four years on a fictional biography of a missionary in China. I have done a great deal of research, and I must say I have found no other missionary figure quite like Harry Luce the First. He was a wheeler and dealer. He thought big; the minute he saw a small missionary college, he wanted it to be a university. He had a life-long romance, sometimes stormy, with money. It was his fate to be, not a soulsaver, but a fundraiser. Sherwood Eddy, who roomed with Luce and Horace Pitkin at Union Theological Seminary before they went out, tells that one night the three of them talked so fervently about money that in bed later he dreamed he saw a hand up near the ceiling holding a fistful of cash; he leaped out of bed to reach for it and crashed to the floor. Of the senior Luce's thirty years as a missionary, he spent eleven back in the States raising money for Tengchow College, Cheeloo University, and Yenching University, for the last of which he attracted more than $2 million.

This money man instilled a hot ambition in his son. "Character is destiny," he kept telling him.[3] And his constant exhortation to young Henry was "Use your native Lucepower."[4] At about twelve years of age the son wrote home from Chefoo School: "I would like to be Alexander if I were not Socrates."[5] Early on, father Harry had made connections that would pay off in son Harry's career. The headmaster of the tiny Scranton private school he went to was Walter H. Buell, later to be headmaster of the Hotchkiss School, which the younger Harry would attend. The wealthy Scranton businessman who put up the entire sup-


port for the father's mission was James A. Linen, whose grandson would later show up as president of Time, Inc. Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, widow of the inventor of the harvester, built a house for the father in Weihsien and years later gave the son a thousand-dollar gift on his graduation from Yale, which made it possible for him to take a year of graduate study at Oxford.

Here is an interesting fact, for what it's worth: Harry Luce the elder went out to China before the Boxer uprising of 1900; the fathers of Davies and Service went out after it. Luce père escaped to Korea, but his close friend Horace Pitkin was killed in Paotingfu. I touch glancingly on this fact because the Boxer time appears to me to have been the watershed between two quite different breeds of missionaries—the dedicated evangelists before it, and the slightly more worldly social-gospel missionaries, who wanted to help improve the quality of life for the Chinese, after it. This difference may have been reflected in the out-looks of the sons.

At any rate, religion seems to have been more tenacious in Luce than in Service and Davies; he held on to his Presbyterianism, while they seem to have been in varying degree apostate. "An ample road to salvation was marked out for me in childhood," he once said.[6] He was baptized by one of the craggy giants of the Protestant church in China, Dr. Calvin Mateer; and that wet touch on his forehead left a kind of scald that stayed hot under his skin all his life long. His sister Beth has an early memory of his standing on a stool in the mission compound preaching a sermon to amahs and babies. Among the family papers there is a sermon he wrote, at age six, on 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear." His faith was not always easy. More than once he said in the presence of colleagues, "O Lord, I believe—help Thou


my unbelief." It was clearly understood by all of us that Luce should be allowed to ride alone in the elevator each day up to and down from his office, and he confided to a very few friends that he spent those few minutes of daily ascension and fall in prayer.

Luce's editorial associate John Jessup wrote some years ago:

John Courtney Murray made a curious point in reflecting on his Protestant friend's "astonishing and all but unclassifiable" mind. It was that many of the serious thinkers to whom Luce was most attracted—Hocking, Toynbee, Tillich, Haering, and later Teilhard de Chardin—were all what Murray called "gnostics." By this Murray did not mean that they were followers of the second-century heresy. He meant that they were all semi-mystic followers of personal paths to truth who put more of their puzzled faith in intuition than in revelation or authority. "Poor indeed is the unmystical philosophy," wrote Luce in college, and he never ceased to believe in the possibility of private visions of God. Yet he could not himself be called a gnostic. His own religion was less mystical than historical, rooted in time and place.

It was rooted in Palestine in the first three decades A.D. This historical event, as Luce saw it, was the high point of God's intervention in human affairs that began with the Creation, picked up speed with Abraham, left signs for the eye of faith in every century, and will make its purpose fully clear at the end of the world. Luce's providential view of history remained intact against the arguments of his more learned and less certain friends.[7]

Pressed once about his rigidity on some issue, Luce rather testily blurted out: "I am biased in favor of God, the Republican party, and free enterprise."[8] What is interesting here is the interconnection of those biases. For Henry Luce held to a Presbyterian interpretation of history. In a speech at the centennial of Lake Forest College in Illinois in 1957 he said: "[What] I want to emphasize tonight is that God is the ruler of human history. We


need not," he said, "exaggerate the dominance of Calvinist influence in the founding of the United States. Enough to say that Presbyterians played an immense part in it—and without the Calvinist influence, the American form of government and the American ethos are inconceivable." And he went on: "God moves in a mysterious way. Who would have thought that He would have dedicated the New World, the new hope of mankind, to freedom, by the means of such ornery people as us Presbyterians. But the record is there—facts are facts." He also said in that speech: "Presbyterians are credited with the invention of modern capitalism—and if we accept the credit, as we might as well, we are accountable for the horrible sins of capitalism as well as for the revolutionary advance of human productivity and physical well-being."[9]

Thus, he could account for his own fast-growing material well-being as God-sent—though he knew that some thought him in touch with Mammon. He was aware, and hurt, that certain clergymen considered his publications materialistic and unprincipled; his mother let him know she was worried about his immortal soul because, among other reasons, he presided over what was then the world's largest medium for the advertising of alcoholic beverages.

The younger Luce's connection with money was far closer than his father's. His father raised it; he made it. Of course this distinction sharply marks off Henry R. Luce from Davies and Service, and indeed from other mishkids in general. Lucepower, it turned out, was money power; such influence as the other two gained and later lost was manifestly not material. At Hotchkiss, where Luce waited on tables and swept out classrooms as a scholarship student, he thought of becoming a businessman in China—as he put it at the time, in "some big economic move-


ment—railroads, mining, wholesale farming, 5- and 10-cent stores, news syndicates."[10] He seemed to think of this opportunity as a kind of mission in itself, because, as he wrote, "before the [Chinese] people as a whole become alive to the 'higher things' they must get their noses off the economic grindstone."[11] Someone once called Luce "the very embodiment of Max Weber's Protestant ethic,"[12] one who must have agreed with Victorian divines that "God is in league with riches." Be that as it may, by the beginning of the period we are talking about, Luce held shares of Time, Inc., stock worth on paper more than $20 million, and not yet forty years old, he drew dividends from them, as the Depression dwindled away, of something like $800,000 a year. Nineteen-thirties dollars.

The money power was, of course, ancillary to his growing power as an editor. He became sure of himself. He had not always been. At Hotchkiss and Yale, the boy who had wanted to be an Alexander—you will remember that whoever untied the Gordian knot would rule all of Asia, and books said that Alexander had cut the knot with a single daring blow of his sword—this young dreamer suffered the humiliation of being second in magnetism, popularity, and power to his friend Britten Hadden, who was chosen over Luce to be editor first of the Hotchkiss Record and later of the Yale Daily News . At school and college, Luce had the hated nickname "Chink." College life was a bit heavy. Sardonic Hadden, meeting Luce one day on the campus, called to him, "Watch out, Harry, you'll drop the college." When the two founded Time , Hadden again got the top spot, as editor. At the height of prosperity in the late twenties, Luce wanted to start a magazine on business, to which he wanted to give the name Power . Hadden was opposed, but in 1929, at age thirty-one, he considerately died, and Luce at last became


top dog as editor of Time . He was now free to found Fortune ; and on the eve of the period we are considering, he had just started the fabulously successful Life .

In this period of change, there was one constant in Luce. At a dinner of Time editors he said: "I regard America as a special dispensation—under Providence. . . . My spiritual pastors shake their heads about this view of mine. They say it tends to idolatry—to idolatry of nation."[13] Luce's particular strain of patriotism was fixed in him early. Speaking to Time 's so-called Senior Group of executives on another occasion, he told of going, at age ten, to the Chefoo School, where only about a fifth of the students were American. "We were," he said, "a strong, conspicuous, successful minority [among which, by the way, was Thornton Wilder]. The British code—flogging and toadying—violated every American instinct. No wonder that hardly an hour passed that an American did not have to run up the flag. A master insists that Ohio is pronounced O-hee-ho. What are you going to do? Will you agree? The American can't agree; it would betray every other American. So first your knuckles are rapped, then you get your face slapped—by the master—then you are publicly caned. By this time you are crying, but still you can't say O-hee-ho."[14]

"In some ways," Luce said, in 1950, "that background endowed me with special qualifications to be editor-in-chief of great American publications. . . . In some ways, it disqualified me. I probably gained a too romantic, too idealistic view of America. The Americans I grew up with—all of them—were good people. Missionaries have their faults, but their faults are comparatively trivial. I had no experience of evil in terms of Americans. . . . Put along with that the idea that America was a wonderful country, with opportunity and freedom and justice for all,


and you got not only an idealistic, but a romantic view—a profoundly false romantic view."[15]

This insight may have come as hindsight, for it was uttered long after the public reaction to his famous essay "The American Century," published in 1941. Reading it now, one sees a distinctly pre-Boxer tension of opposites in it. First there is this: "We must now," he wrote, "undertake to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world. It is the manifest duty of this country to undertake to feed all the people of the world who . . . are hungry and destitute. . . . For every dollar we spend on armaments, we should spend at least a dime in a gigantic effort to feed the world. Every farmer in America should be encouraged to produce all the crops he can, and all that we cannot eat—and perhaps some of us could eat less—should forthwith be dispatched to the four quarters of the globe as a free gift, administered by a humanitarian army of Americans, to every man, woman, and child on this earth who is really hungry." On the other side of the coin there is this in the essay: "We have to decide whether or not we shall have for ourselves and our friends freedom of the seas—the right to go with our ships and our oceangoing airplanes where we wish, and when we wish, and as we wish. . . . Our thinking on world trade today is on ridiculously small terms. For example, we think of Asia as being worth only a few hundred million a year to us. Actually, in the decades to come, Asia will be worth to us exactly zero—or else it will be worth to us four, five, ten billion dollars a year. And the latter are the terms we must think in, or else confess a pitiful impotence."

Luce was right in saying that his romantic Americanism had been planted in him early. I have come across a fascinating preview of "The American Century." Partly,


no doubt, because of his stammer—or rather became when he spoke forensically he did not stammer—he set great store by oratory in his school and college years. Winning the DeForest Oration Prize at Yale in 1920, he pronounced these amazingly predictive words, which he very nearly plagiarized from himself word for word in "The American Century": "When we say 'America' twenty years from now may it be that the great name will signify throughout the world at least two things: first, that American interests shall be respected, American citizens entitled to trade and to live in every corner of the globe, American business ideals recognized wherever the trader goes; second, that America may be counted upon to do her share in every international difficulty, that she will be the great friend of the lame, the halt and the blind among nations, the comrade of all nations that struggle to rise to higher planes of social and political organization, and withal the implacable and immediate foe of whatever nation shall offer to disturb the peace of the world. If this shall be, then the America of this century shall have glory and honor to take into that City of God far outshining the glory and honor which the kings do bring."[16]

Three months after the publication of "The American Century," Luce went to China, and in Chungking he extended his idolatry of nation to embrace also the one—or the part of one—presided over by the Christian Chiang Kai-shek and the Christian Soong Mei-ling, Chiang's wife. During that visit he also encountered and was dazzled, charmed, and challenged by the brilliant young Time correspondent there, Theodore H. White. On his return to the States he took White with him, to make him an editor of the magazine—but, more important, to adopt him, to take possession of him. As he had done, in a different but


no less paternal way, over the years, with me. Four years later, both White and I had, not without pain, torn ourselves away from him.

At this point I should probably remind you of two people who had a great deal to do with the change in Luce during the years we are talking about. The first, of course, was Clare Boothe, whom he had married two years before this period began. Her diamond-hard mind and her religious journey toward Rome, which culminated in her conversion just at the height of White's and my struggles with Luce, certainly bore on his views on China. Her conversion to Catholicism could not have been easy for him, this faithful Presbyterian missionary's son, but he accepted it with Calvinist fortitude. Clare reinforced his bias in favor of God and against the Godless. In an interview with McCall's she said the experience of her conversion had given her increased moral ammunition against the Communists—because of their denial of personal sin.

The other person, who figured much more directly in the White and Hersey outcomes, was Whittaker Chambers. He had joined the Time staff in 1939, the year after his renunciation of the Communist party, and he had become the Foreign News Editor. By late 1944 the monotone of paranoia he imposed on Time 's foreign news had begun to alarm not only White in China and me in Moscow but also Walter Graebner in London, Charles Wertenbaker in Paris, John Osborne in Rome, and others. "Some recent copies of Time have just reached me," I cabled Tom Matthews one week. "In all honor I must report to you that I do not like the tone of many Foreign News stories. I need not itemize: You know what I mean . . . for this week, and until I cool off, I shall abstain from corresponding with Foreign News."


This was also the juncture at which Teddy White sent back from China a long and considered account of the firing of Stilwell, which he managed to have flown home on Stilwell's plane. When he read a Domei summary of the cover story Chambers wrote on Stilwell, White blew up, threatened to quit, and flew off to Yenan.

There were so many complaints like these that Luce ordered a survey of a number of correspondents' opinions of Chambers's editing. A query was sent to us in the field. The replies were unanimous. All cabled back essentially what I cabled back: Passages used from my dispatches were "torn from the context . . . and put into [the] new context of Time 's editorial bias," which, I said, "was grossly unfair" and "actually vicious."

In the very midst of all this, Luce, with his fits of charm and seduction, cabled me offering to bring me home and train me for the top job on the magazine, the managing editorship—just as he had taken Teddy White home to make him what he could never be, an editor. I declined, asserting that I was a writer and that I would anyway have been a prickly choice, in view of his bias in favor of the Republican party and the fact that I was a convinced Democrat.

Luce soon circularized the correspondents with his judgment of their replies to the survey, and there was no doubt where he came out. "The posture of events in January, 1945," he cabled, "seems to have confirmed Editor Chambers about as fully as a news-editor is ever confirmed. . . . I have just been told, in a highly confidential manner, that Stalin is, after all, a Communist. I am also somewhat less confidentially informed that the Pope is a Christian. Some will say: what does it matter in either case? And what does it matter that Hersey advises me that


he, John Hersey, is a Democrat? Well, I cannot say for sure just what these pieces of information signify, but one must respect the data in each case. A good Foreign News Editor, while guarding against the prejudices arising from his own convictions, will not ignore the circumstance that the Pope is a Christian and Stalin a Communist and Hersey, God bless him, a Democrat."[17]

Cryptic stuff—but the message was clear. So far as the boss was concerned, Chambers was right and the men in the field were wrong. Take it or leave it.

In February, Teddy White sent a cable about a new breakdown of negotiations between the Nationalists and Communists; Chambers used not a word of the dispatch. White quarrelled along until April. Luce was evidently shaken by Teddy's arguments, because he wrote a memo to his management executive committee advising them "of the possible serious error of my policy in Red China." He went on: "For myself, barring details of execution, I have not the slightest doubt that [Time 's] policy has been right. . . . Nevertheless, it is in some respects a dangerous policy to pursue and I shall be glad to receive from you advice and counsel thereon."[18] The committee did not ask for a change, and soon Luce sent White an extraordinary message through a third party: "After consultation with Luce," the cable said, "here's what he (and most emphatically he) would like you to do: stay in and near Chungking . . . to report not political China . . . [but] mainly small indigenous colorful yarns." As a sample of the kind of reportage Luce expected of him, the editor sent an excerpt of a London bureau cable on England's two-thousandth day of war: "Yellow crocuses bloomed, daffodils sold for dollar and a half per bunch, Commons passing bill making rear lights compulsory on bicycles."[19] Till the end of the war White limited himself to reporting on the fighting. In his


book In Search of History , he tells movingly of the final break on his return to the States, when Luce put to him, in effect, the question: "Will you do whatever I tell you to do as my employee?" Teddy said, "No," and that was that.

Just about then I left Time and went to China and Japan on contracts with strange bedfellows, Life and The New Yorker . The New Yorker asked me to do a story on the damage in Hiroshima; Life made no such suggestion. Several years later I saw Luce walking toward me on a sidewalk in New York. He saw me, and it was clear that he intended to cut me dead. I blocked his way and spoke to him, however, and I found that he was still furious at my disloyalty in not having given the Hiroshima story to Life . He and I came to quite different reasons for wishing there had never been an atom bomb. In an unpublished book he was working on at the time of his death he wrote:

If the bomb had not been dropped and if the well-laid plans for the MacArthur invasion had been carried out—then, almost certainly, the following would have occurred on the mainland of China. In September–October of 1945 there would have been a major Chinese offensive, with American-trained Chinese divisions, leading out of the mountain fastness and down to Canton. It would have been successful. Then, during the winter, having regrouped around Canton, the Generalissimo would have marched north and taken the Yangtze Valley as he had done twenty years before. If the Japanese had then surrendered in the spring of 1946, Chiang Kai-shek would have been in a position to move armies up to Peking and Manchuria. He would still have had to face the Mao Tse-tung trouble . . . but Chiang would have had a chance—and I think he deserved that chance.

And so Henry Robinson Luce had reached his final destination in a wish: That the sword could have done it. That Alexander, who cut the Gordian knot, could have made the dream come true. For it had all become a dream. He spoke to the Senior Group of Time, Inc., once about his


revisit in 1945 of Tsingtao, which he said was "the most beautiful of all places on this earth, where the mountains come down to the sea. Kaiser Wilhelm II called it the fairest jewel in his crown. It was the last grab of European imperialism in Asia. . . . All I wanted was to swim on the beaches of the bay. And I did. And I took with me the finest swimmer in the United States Marine Corps, Major General [Lemuel] Shepherd. I tell you very solemnly, if American affairs had been entrusted to Major General Shepherd and me, China would not now be Communist."[20]


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1 Henry Luce and the Gordian Knot
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