The Ides of September: Ebbing Mao, Flowing Mao

The visage of Chairman Mao Zedong has hovered over my own three-plus decades of studying, working in, living in, and writing about China, and I have found myself deeply conflicted in my interpretation of the man. Neither the lickspittle propaganda panegyrics of Edgar Snow nor the splenic vitriol of Jung Chang managed to sway me. There was always something missing in the simplistic interpretations of Mao as either national savior or monster tyrant.

As of this writing, it has been forty-two years since the death of Mao, and four decades since the “reforming and opening” of China that all but refuted his legacy. Yet Mao’s ghost haunts the nation. The generation most scarred by his caprices still lives, and as long as they do Mao will not fade into history. As such, his legacy and the nature of his real remain a matter of contention, and are likely to remain so for decades.

One aspect of his 37 odd years of rule that begs for re-examination is the exact nature of his power over the nation, and how it evolved over time. It is comforting, perhaps, to regard Mao as a static stone who perched himself atop the nation for four decades. It is easy to see Mao as always having been strong, and any of his fears to the contrary being aught more than the paranoid delusions of a man increasingly isolated from any healthy human relationship.

But after sitting through the late Richard Baum’s lectures on the making of modern China, reading the magisterial trilogy by Frank Dikotter, and delving into sheaves of old documents, it seems that reality is much more nuanced.

A truer picture is likely that Mao was never as secure in his role as he seemed. Indeed, Mao’s power ebbed and flowed throughout his tenure. Far from being paranoid musings, his stated and demonstrated insecurities were reactions to real changes in the Chinese polity. Those ebbs and flows became signposts written in gigantic characters across the history of the PRC’s first quarter-century. Indeed, if you want to understand the history of the PRC under Mao, the main events (the Korean intervention, the 100 Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightest Campaign, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) were nearly all precipitated by Mao’s reaction to how he perceived the current tidal status of his political power among the Party elite.

Mao knew Chinese history, knew the stories of imperial tyrants unseated by popular uprising, and as one if its craftsmen he also knew the byzantine politics of Communist Party leadership. When his power ebbed, he would incite a campaign or movement to undermine those who had begun to amass power and legitimacy of their own. When his power flowed, he would anoint a generation of underlings who would support him, and turn his attention to placing his stamp upon the nation.

Thus whatever else Mao may have been, he was a deeply insecure leader who pathologically elevated his own sinecure above the interests of the people and nation he led. He overcompensated for his own deep faults as a leader with the bluntest instruments of politics, paying for his failings in the blood or ordinary Chinese. Mao may or may not have been a monster. But anything positive he accomplished in his effort to raise China out of the vortex of neo-feudalism and into the modern world must be weighed against a character flaw that exacted a cost measured in millions of lives.


Adopted Californians: The Navy’s Smartest Man

The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance
Thomas B. Buell
Naval Institute Press
January 1987
518 pages

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”

This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?

Old “Electric Brain

Picture of from
Admiral Raymond Spruance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?

Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.

Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.

The Smartest Man in the Navy

Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.

And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.

Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.

N.B.: Ray Spruance spent his final years living in California, and passed away in Monterey in 1969.