In Love With A Vision

For Mao Zedong, the summer of 1944 was a time of new openings. The war with Japan was raging across China. But at his revolutionary base in Yanan, Mao was busily wooing a group of American journalists and military observers. He told them he admired America's early leaders, especially Abraham Lincoln, as "revolutionary democrats." (The British, by contrast, were blatant "imperialists.") Mao spent hours urging John S. Service, a U.S. diplomat, to establish an official consulate in Yanan. The Chinese leader, says Liu Yu, a Yanan historian, "was out to win over the Americans."

Soon after that meeting, Franklin Roosevelt sent a special envoy to help unite the communists and the rival Nationalists against the Japanese. Mao and other communist leaders rushed to the airstrip in their only motor vehicle, a battle-scarred ambulance. The Chinese and Maj. Gen. Patrick Hurley shared warm talks and toasts of homemade pear wine. Mao confided he had once herded sheep; Hurley said he had once been a cowboy. Mao then gave Hurley a letter to Roosevelt, full of the sentimental hope that Chinese and Americans would "walk hand in hand forever" and build a "democratic China." Mao waited months for an answer. But Mao didn't give up; two months later, in a top-secret communication, he made an extraordinary proposal: the son of a peasant, who had never even left China, wanted to meet the American president in Washington face to face.

The Long March to Hyde Park never happened, and so a great might-have-been was lost to history. Hurley was a supporter of Mao's enemy Chiang Kai-shek; holding on to Mao's letter for months, Hurley warned Roosevelt against dealing with the communists. FDR died soon after, and the United States made its choice: Chiang. Betrayed, Mao recoiled in bitterness. For the rest of his career, he struggled with an elusive American dream, at times seeking a partnership with Washington, at others lashing out with venomous threats. His ambivalence--a mixture of admiration, paranoia and realpolitik--was colored by his own wounded pride and China's history of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialist powers. "I think the United States was his favorite foreign country," says Sidney Rittenberg, a former U.S. Army translator who met Mao in Yanan. "But... he had a love-hate relationship with America." Mao surpassed sentiment; after losing a son in the Korean War he still felt that working with America was in China's best interest.

It's a mood that's endured. Last Saturday Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin talked for an hour to patch up a romance that has been in tatters since the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. After the two leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in New Zealand, U.S. national-security adviser Sandy Berger insisted their latter-day "strategic partnership" is "back on track." At least until the next quarrel, that is. China's leaders inherited both Mao's fear of American bullying and his strategic desire for friends in Washington. Many Chinese are infatuated with American cultural icons, from McDonald's to Marilyn Monroe. And like Mao, perhaps, even today's leaders still see in America the seed of something they can admire.

Mao's American dream began in his youth, when he heard about American-style democracy and liberal values from foreign-educated teachers. "Mao studied Franklin and Jefferson before he'd ever heard about Marx and Lenin," says Rittenberg. But it was in Yanan that Mao first made friends with Americans. He granted interviews to Western correspondents (one lasted 12 hours) and made sure the Yanan press praised American presidents from Washington to Roosevelt. Mao even suggested that American military forces should land in China to battle the Japanese.

Despite the hubbub of war, those were easygoing times. During one interview with author Edgar Snow, Mao absent-mindedly unfastened his trousers to search for fleas. He occasionally watched American films shown by the U.S. officers, "mostly love stories," recalled Qi Jishu, one of his bodyguards. At weekend dances, Mao enjoyed stepping out with the Chinese wife of George Hatem, an American doctor who later took Chinese citizenship.

But even in friendship, Mao was a hardheaded strategist. "We must cooperate because we need America's aid," Mao concluded. "We will not run the risk of having conflicts with America." He told Service that the American and Chinese peoples were both "essentially democratic and individualistic," and claimed that the two sides would complement each other economically.

For Mao, the American decision to side with Chiang was devastating. Though Mao realized the Americans were planning to back the Nationalists in a civil war, he yielded to American pressure to meet his adversary in August 1945. But the "united front" Mao toasted with Chiang was ephemeral; the Americans sided fully with Chiang. It "was traumatic for Mao," says Rittenberg. "He physically went into a tailspin and was unable to function, rethinking many things. He felt we had slammed the door in his face. He began taking a more and more militant anti-American position." Mao called America's atomic bomb, which had hastened Tokyo's surrender in 1945, a "paper tiger that the American reactionaries use to scare people."

As the cold war turned hot, Mao's bravado turned to bitterness. With American and Chinese forces fighting each other in Korea, American bombers killed Mao's favorite son, Mao Anying, as he emerged from a bomb shelter to prepare lunch. "Everyone was frantic," says Zhang Hanzhi, later Mao's English teacher, whose husband was in the shelter. "It was Mao's biggest personal tragedy." The American "imperialist," Mao boasted, is "not so terrifying, just so-so." Still, Mao knew the bomb was a potent new weapon, and he extracted Moscow's promise to help him develop one. By 1957, Mao had complained that the Soviets were stonewalling. "I will definitely develop an atomic bomb," he vowed to his physician Li Zhisui. "Nobody should try to restrict us."

In the 1950s, as Sino-U.S. relations went into a deep freeze, Washington's intelligence-gathering machine shifted into hyperdrive. Mao's bombardment of the Nationalist-held island of Quemoy in 1958 had the Americans on edge. In 1959, a Sino-Soviet split erupted. The Americans wanted to ascertain if the rift was lasting--and if so, how it would affect Mao's pursuit of the nuclear bomb. In 1961, according to declassified documents, the State Department began working on "propaganda" that would reduce the international impact of a "Chicom" nuclear explosion. In September 1964 the CIA concluded that a Chinese nuclear test was imminent. Policymakers discussed the possibility of a limited non-nuclear air attack--either overt or covert--against China's two key weapons facilities. Such an attack, one National Security Council staffer said, could buy "three to five years." White House official Walt Rostow speculated that "a Chicom nuclear capability might actually operate to make the Chicoms more cautious." In the end the United States shied away from a pre-emptive strike, and on Oct. 16 China detonated a nuclear device at Lop Nor.

Yet here's the paradox: even during the darkest days of the enmity between China and the United States, Mao never entirely gave up his dream. He periodically insisted on being tutored in English. In 1963 he asked the daughter of Zhang Hanzhi, one of his old mentors, to be his English teacher. Mao, she says, always chose the reading material himself, and it was always political in content--gripping texts like translations of essays criticizing the Soviet Union. Mao studied the meaning of each word intently--and struggled to pronounce the letter "L," which is difficult for many Hunan- dialect speakers.

As the Cultural Revolution raged, Mao had America on his mind. A voracious reader, he tried to keep track of U.S. politics. He was intrigued by a 1967 article written by candidate Richard Nixon. Titled "Asia After the Vietnam War," it declared that America "cannot bear to let one billion of the world's most capable people live in an irritated and isolated state." Mao asked Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and other communist leaders to study the piece. Rapprochement with the United States was about to sprout.

It would not have flowered but for the Sino-Soviet split. After clashes between Chinese and Soviet troops on their common border in August 1969, Mao urged city dwellers to "dig tunnels deep" in preparation for aerial attack. China, he told his doctor, was surrounded by enemies: the Soviet Union, India, Japan. And then--remember, this was the height of the Vietnam War--Mao added something surprising. "Beyond Japan," said Mao, "is the United States... Didn't our ancestors counsel negotiating with faraway countries while fighting with those that are near?" So the communist leader prepared to reach out to Nixon, supposedly an unreconstructed cold warrior. "I like to deal with rightists," Mao claimed. "They say what they really think, not like leftists, who say one thing and mean another." According to Zhang, Mao "had decided to break the ice with the United States in order to contain the Soviet Union. Nobody else would have dared make such a decision at the time; he or she would have been condemned."

But how to wave an olive branch? China had no diplomatic relations with Washington, but in 1970 Mao invited his old American friend, the author Edgar Snow, to celebrate China's National Day. Mao was convinced Snow worked for the CIA, and later he called the invitation "an exploratory balloon to touch the nerves of America." Mao pointedly stood shoulder to shoulder with Snow on Tiananmen for the parade, and told the author that he was willing to invite Nixon to meet him in Beijing. "It doesn't matter if we agree or if we have to argue," Mao said. But Mao had "vastly overrated" Snow's clout in Washington, where he was seen as a "communist tool," according to Nixon adviser Henry Kissinger. "Mao's gesture of placing Snow next to him on the reviewing stand was lost on us," Kissinger wrote in "Diplomacy."

The irony, of course, was that Nixon, in the utmost secrecy, was also trying to reach out to Mao. Using Pakistani officials as a clandestine channel, in July 1971 Kissinger arranged a covert trip to Beijing to discuss rapprochement (box). An advance delegation, led by White House chief of staff Al Haig, was sent to China a month before Nixon. It was a near-disastrous trip. Haig offended Prime Minister Zhou Enlai by suggesting that the Soviet nuclear threat prompted U.S. concerns about China's viability. Zhou frowned and later called Haig in to stress that China could not accept his use of such a patronizing word. From behind the scenes, Mao took an in- tense interest in the visit. At around 3 o'clock that morning, Zhang was summoned to Zhongnanhai to brief Mao on Haig's talks with Zhou. Zhang told Mao about Haig's use of the word viability. "The Chinese were into their dignity," Zhang remembers. "Mao was very concerned about the whole matter, looking forward excitedly to Nixon's visit."

Still, it nearly didn't happen. At a banquet in Shanghai, which was dominated by political hard-liners, the Chinese offered a toast to Haig that mentioned U.S. "imperialism." The American did not return the toast. Snubbed, his hosts phoned ahead to Haig's next stop, the lakeside resort of Hangzhou, with instructions to "reduce the temperature." The American emissaries found themselves on a wintry boat trip with no snacks or drinks other than tea. Haig's Chinese minders--fearing the disaster could scuttle Nixon's trip--reported to Beijing. Mao and Zhou quickly stepped in and reprimanded Shanghai's recalcitrant apparatchiks. Upon returning to Shanghai, Haig's group was stunned by the mood shift. They were surrounded by fawning Chinese officials (including two Politburo members), sumptuous food and drink and bountiful flowers.

With his dream of meeting an American president so close, Mao took control. He personally ordered that each member of Haig's entourage be presented with a goodbye gift: several kilos of Chinese toffee and peanut candy, packaged in beautiful pink boxes so hastily assembled that the glue was still damp. By then Mao was 78 years old, plagued by a congestive heart condition and prone to joking that he was "going to meet Marx." Nearly three decades had passed since the days in Yanan when he had welcomed his wartime American guests. After all the hard words, all the wounded pride and paranoia, he was not going to let the chance to meet the American president slip away. On Feb. 21, 1972, Mao, bloated with edema, abandoned all protocol and met Nixon the very evening he arrived in Beijing. Through good times and bad, the two countries have learned since then that they are doomed to live with each other--a testimony to Mao's long muddled dream.