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Bradley's 'China Mirage' Portrays A Long-Running U.S. Mistake In Asia


We now have a back story to one of the world's most important relationships - the United States and China. When communists led by Mao Zedong took over China in the 1940s, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations for decades. In that time, the U.S. fought wars in Korea and Vietnam partly to counter Chinese influence. Today, the countries remain rivals who manage to do a lot of business with each other. And the writer James Bradley thinks it's a relationship many people misunderstand, as he told Steve Inskeep.


Bradley's books include "Flags Of Our Fathers," about the men who raised a flag over Iwo Jima in World War II. His father was one of those who raised it. And Bradley has since spent two books arguing that the United States blundered needlessly into multiple wars in the Pacific. His new book "The China Mirage" portrays a long-running American mistake. He says the United States for generations has utterly misunderstood China. He traces this story back to the early 1800s to the grandfather of an American president. The president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, James Bradley, who was the grandfather?

JAMES BRADLEY: The grandfather was Warren Delano, the American opium king of China.

INSKEEP: Opium King? What are you talking about?

BRADLEY: Well, Franklin Delano Roosevelt never made a lot of money in his life. He always had public service jobs. He was supported by the Delano fortune. And the fortune came from Warren Delano's opium fortune. He was an opium smuggler - worked for the largest American opium company in China.

INSKEEP: I feel like you have to explain now the origins of American relations with China - the China trade, as it was called. What was it that Americans were doing in China? How far back? And where did opium come in?

BRADLEY: The China trade involved tea and silk. It's true. But the big killing was in opium. It was illegal in China, and just like any illegal drugs, it was hugely profitable. The British were the biggest players, but the Americans were big players, too.

INSKEEP: How did the Americans go about this?

BRADLEY: Samuel Russell of Middletown, Conn., sourced a supply in Turkey and ran it into China. He trained Warren Delano. You know, these were east coast sailor families, merchant families generally out of Massachusetts and Connecticut. And they knew somebody. And somebody said there's a fortune to be made very quickly and come to China. And you were trained in the teas and the silks and everything else, but you were also trained how to get contraband into Chinese criminal gangs into China and make a heck of a lot of money by the time you're 30.

INSKEEP: Did they have very much exposure to China while they were working in China?

BRADLEY: That's the key. They dealt with Chinese criminal gangs. Opium was illegal, so they didn't interact with the government. And they didn't penetrate into China. They didn't learn the language. But these original merchants came back and started this China mirage in America that they knew China and that old China was going to go away and a new China would arise that would be more like America, democratic and Christianized.

INSKEEP: So what did it matter then that they came back and put some Chinese art on their walls and posed as experts?

BRADLEY: It mattered because we just had a skewed view of China - that there was this new, Christianized China was going to arise. That's the China mirage from the time of George Washington until today. We're still waiting for Beijing's leadership to stumble, and some grassroots democracy will arise in China. It's a mirage that has no roots in China.

INSKEEP: You know, even when I was in high school, I remember being in a history class and learning that in the 1800s, the United States enjoyed a special relationship of some kind with China. Did the United States have a special relationship with China?

BRADLEY: In its mind, they did. It was called the Open Door. And we were the savior, the helpmate of China. You know, America's No. 1 author in the 1930s, Pearl Buck, the No. 1 publisher in the 1930s, Henry Luce of Time Magazine wrote about this new China. If we just give a little more money to China, it's going to be Christianized and democratized. The dream is coming. Mao Zedong popped the dream, and we didn't talk to China for 30 years.

INSKEEP: What were some of the things that were really happening then, on the ground in China in the 1920s and 1930s?

BRADLEY: Mao Zedong was rising, and Time Magazine and all American publications missed what is arguably the largest story of the 20th century - the rise of Mao in terms of number of people affected. Or the propaganda here was that a Christian China led by Chiang Kai-shek is the future. Mao is just this bandit.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned Chiang Kai-shek. He's a nationalist leader of China who attempts to lead the country for several decades. Much of that time, there's a civil war. We actually have an archival newsreel clip here that portrays Chiang Kai-shek. And just from listening to this newsreel from the 1930s, you get a sense of his image in the United States.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Symbol of the new China and Chinese determination is this 52-year-old generalissimo - lean, hard-bitten Chiang Kai-shek - today, the undisputed ruler and idol of China's 400 million.

BRADLEY: Chiang Kai-shek was a army guy, and he and Mao were tussling for the future of China.

INSKEEP: There's a civil war?

BRADLEY: Civil war - long, long civil war. Before Franklin Roosevelt was even president, Mao had beaten Chiang in three massive campaigns that America knew almost nothing about.

INSKEEP: What was it about Chiang Kai-shek that directly appealed to people, though, that made him a popular figure in the United States even if he wasn't as popular as he needed to be in China?

BRADLEY: Pictures of Chiang Kai-shek reading the Bible, stories of Chiang Kai-shek reading the Bible an hour a day, the promise of the China mirage. Chiang Kai-shek was the China mirage incarnate. He was going to lead China to become an Americanized, Christianized country - America's best friend in Asia.

INSKEEP: Are you angry about all this?

BRADLEY: I'm not angry. If I have any concern or frustration, it's that I went through the American school system. I'm a big reader. And I got a degree in East Asian history, and I'm not allowed to know any of these things. I didn't know that Mao Zedong reached out to FDR in 1945 - said I'll fly to Washington and explain I'm going to be the next Emperor, and you're supporting the wrong horse. I didn't know Mao reached out to every president after that. Finally, Nixon picked up the hint. But Mao was stretching his hand out for decades.

INSKEEP: The United States finally did restore relations with China after President Richard Nixon's visit in 1972. But James Bradley, author of "The China Mirage," contends the two countries still don't understand each other very well. Each, he says, is still grappling with an illusion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.