Rich pickings for the hawks

Henry R. Luce, Time and the American Crusade in Asia
August 11, 2006

Out of Shandong province, the peninsula that juts out east of north China toward Korea, some remarkable things have emerged to shape the world. Confucius's birthplace is there. In 1900, the Boxers rose up in a famine-ravaged Shandong to wipe out Christianity before marching to Beijing to lay siege to the Foreign Legations. Just before these events, in 1898, Henry Luce, the founder of the magazines Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated , was born in Shandong to missionary parents. Luce lived the first 14 years of his life there, fleeing with his parents to Korea during the Boxer Uprising.

If he sneaked a beer at this early age, it may have been a Tsingtao, named after the brewery the Germans built in the magnificent harbour town of the same name after they occupied it in 1898 during the "scramble for concessions" of the European powers and Japan in China.

Robert Herzstein suggests that the circumstances of his childhood had little impact on the adult Luce. In February 1941, Luce published his famous essay "The American century" in Life , arguing that it was the duty of a benign and virtuous America to defend civilisation by spreading American values and norms, including capitalism, democracy and Christianity. The immediate purpose of the article was to suggest to a still isolationist American public wary of being drawn into the duplicitous intrigues of European empires that entry into the Second World War might not only be a strategic necessity but also be a positive act for the general good.

Luce may not have known Chinese or have had extensive knowledge of Chinese rural society but, nonetheless, the spread of Christianity in Shandong against the background of imperialist aggression and destruction are not difficult to see as shaping his world-view later, including the hope that the US could prove a force for good. As Herzstein notes repeatedly, the fate of China would always remain uppermost in Luce's mind. He notes that "the ultimate test of the American century remained China".

Luce was an Asia Firster during the Second World War. He railed against President Harry S. Truman, George Marshall, who mediated in China during the Nationalist-Communist Civil War, and Dean Acheson, Secretary of State during the Communist victory, for their refusal to intervene significantly in China.

It was Luce who raised the question "Who lost China?", which proved hugely divisive in US politics in the 1950s and which helped give rise to McCarthyism (which Luce denounced). Luce supported US intervention in Korea and Vietnam as preludes to the overthrow of Communism in China, in the hope that the promises of the American Century might yet be made good.

Herzstein denies a significant impact on Luce of his childhood years in China because he sides with those who criticised him as an anti-Communist ideologue who knew little about the real situation in China and used Time to sell a foreign policy that placed the US on the side of militarists and dictators. While his critics were right about many things, including the US intervention in Vietnam, and while it is no doubt true, as Herzstein argues, that Luce frequently ignored the information provided by his own reporters, it is also true that Luce was insightful about the ravages of Maoism, a reality about which his opponents, including China scholars, were often mute.

The problem is that this book does not transcend the polarised political debate in early Cold War Washington but takes sides. Nonetheless, Herzstein has unearthed a wealth of information about Luce and Time , which will interest historians of China as well as the US between the 1920s and 1960s.

This is Herzstein's second book on Luce. His first focused on China and Theodore White, who dramatically broke with Luce in 1946 after the latter had made him a star China journalist. This second book provides a summary of this story, but focuses on Luce and Time between the end of the Second World War and Luce's death in 1967.

Most thought-provoking is Herzstein's argument that Luce did not have the impact on US foreign policy that his critics believed he had. Luce was not able to convince successive US presidents to adopt his policy views.

According to Herzstein, "only when an issue gripped the public imagination, and the politicians failed to act, could Luce's network influence great political debates".

Now that US intervention abroad and media bias are again topics dividing America, Herzstein's book offers a case study from an earlier period. It illustrates the dangers of a debate that conceives the possibilities of US foreign policy in narrow and polarised terms.

Hans van de Ven is professor of modern Chinese history, Cambridge University.

Henry R. Luce, Time and the American Crusade in Asia

Author - Robert E. Herzstein
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 346
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 521 83577 1

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