Milo L. Thornberry, who recently died in Bend, Oregon at the age of 80, was a remarkable man, and one who wrote a remarkable memoir, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror (2011), focused on the time (1966-71) he spent in Taiwan, two decades into the White Terror by what the US touted as “free China.” Posted to Taiwan by the United Methodist church, he quickly realized that Taiwan was neither “free” nor China, though a minority ferried from its disastrous misrule and failed war against the Chinese communists ruled Taiwan in ways similar to the Boer minority in South Africa. Not at all coincidentally, the apartheid regime in South Africa continued to recognize the so-called “Republic of China” after most countries acceded to the reality that China (and Taiwan and Tibet) were ruled by the communists from Beijing.
Thornberry was instructed to avoid “politics,” (“We don’t talk about such things. We are guests in this country, and guests don’t offend their hosts by getting involved in politics”), but he was quick to realize that acquiescing to the Chinese dictatorship (the Kuomintang [KMT] of the so-called “generalissimo” Chiang Kaishek [1887-1975], who had been converted to nominal Methodist Christianity by his wife, who was raised Methodist, Soong Mei-ling [1898-2003]) was no less “political” than opposing it. He quoted Elie Wiesel for one of his chapter epigrams: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Another guide, via Reinhold Neibhur, was Richard Briffault, who wrote in Rational Evolution: “No resistance to power is possible while the sanctioning lies, which justify the power, are accepted as valid. While the first and chief line of defense is unbroken, there can be no revolt. Before any injustice, any abuse, or oppression can be resisted, the lie upon which it is founded must be unmasked, must be clearly recognized for what it is.” (This is the epigram heading another chapter.)
Thornberry and some other Americans collated some material on the ongoing White Terror (and widespread corruption) of the KMT and distributed it to newcomers not totally gone on backing anything any regime professing anti-communism did.
A few months after arrival in Taiwan (with his wife Judith), Thornberry was introduced to the leading voice for Taiwanese independence, Dr. Peng Mingmin (born in 1923), who had been convicted of sedition for advocating democracy in “free China” in 1964 and had been imprisoned for 14 months before international pressure convinced President Chiang to place Peng under house arrest with tight surveillance. Peng’s former students, coauthors of the pamphlet advocating democracy, Hsieh Tsongmin and Wei Tingchao continued to be tortured in prison. (Thornberry would meet them later.)
Thornberry and Peng met most every week. After Peng was threatened with being disappeared/killed, the Thornberrys and some missionary friends (mostly not Methodists; it was Presbyterians who refused to stop using the majority language (Hoklo) for the Beijing language (Mandarin) mandated by the KMT government) decided Peng had to leave.
The central part of the book details how they managed to get Peng on a plane to Hong Kong (3 January 1970), from where he proceeded to Stockholm, where he was granted asylum, and later on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had a job offer. Both the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT) and the Chinese communists suspected that the US government had arranged the escape. Peng would not endanger those who had helped him by telling how his escape had been arranged, but stated unequivocally that no government had been involved (until Sweden gave him asylum).
In 1972, when Richard Nixon went to China, Zhou Enlai, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon discussed the mystery (to all three of them) of Peng’s departure from house arrest in Taipei. Decades later, the transcript of that discussion was released, and provided considerable amusement to Thornberry (and, presumably, to Peng). Hsieh and Wei who had been kept out of the loop were imprisoned and tortured a lot more.
The Thornberrys, with the assent and cooperation of the US State department officials in Taipei, were deported in March of 1971. For decades, they did not know why the KMT deported them then. Their role in spiriting the most prominent dissident on Taiwan out remained unknown to the KMT.
Milo Thornberry had been wrestling with moral questions about violence for some time (and some space in his memoir). He never engaged in any, though involvement in a bomb-making plot is what the KMT told the US representatives was the reason to expelling the Thornberrys.
Their passports were revoked and it was decades before they learned what had happened. This makes for a second thriller plot within the story of the Thornberrys in Taiwan, one with twists that surprise not only them, but Peng Mingmin.
Only with the pressure from three US senators (from both parties) was he allowed to leave the country three decades after being expelled from the ROC.
IT was a US Department of State official who commented in 1971 that ““there is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries… with both ardent views on Taiwanese Independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths,” inadvertently supplying the title to Thornberry’s memoir. The sarcastic statement was not true, but there were some daring Americans who were sympathetic to the oppressed majority population on Taiwan. Fireproof Moth recounts the very real-life adventures of one small bandwho were outraged by the collusion of their country (the USA) with KMT torture, murder, and corruption.
BTW, corruption was useful in Peng’s escape. Those charged with monitoring his movements continued to submit reports of movements he could not have made and to collect reimbursement for weeks after he had left, further confusing the not-so-“secret police” headed by Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Chingkuo. There is some mordant humor along with justifiable horror at the conduct of KMT torture.
In addition to detailing the evolution of Thornberry’s thoughts about what his moral obligations as a Methodist minister and as an Amercan were in a state where both his church and his government were colluding with torture (as elsewhere, some of the torturers received training from US institutions, as well as official US refusal to acknowledge torture and corruption by an anti-communist regime), Fireproof Moth is a first-rate thriller.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray
I have also written about two recent fictional accounts of the KMT White Terror, Green Island and The 2-28 Legacy, as well as about American witnessed to the launching of the White Terror in 1947 here and US promotion of KMT dictatorship here.
Taiwan was a colony of Japan from the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki until 1945 and the Peace Treaty between the Allies and Japan, signed in San Francisco on 8 September 1951, included Japan renouncing sovereignty without assigning any particular recipient of what neither the KMT nor the CCP had considered part of China before WWII. The Q’ing Dynasty negotiators were quite happy to be rid of any responsibility (in the view of other nations) of the pirate- and cannibal-ridden island that had never entirely been governed by any Chinese dynasty (until the US Navy transported KMT military forces in 1945).