Tag Archives: ROC

An American providing help to opponents of the Kuomintang White Terror



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 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).



The US role in carrying the Kuomintang to Taiwan and helping it to manufacture the image of a Leninist dictatorship there as “Free China”


Harvard University Press seems to have joined with the acutely anti-communist Hoover Institution (which is located in the middle of the Stanford University campus) to exculpate the Kuomintang government and army that was swept from mainland China after stockpiling weapons intended to fight against the Japanese invaders for use against the communists, whom Chiang Kai-Shek’s army had pressed north following his first white terror (in Shanghai in 1927). The story of Chiang’s evasion of US pressure (in the personal of military liaison Gen. Joe Stillwell) to fight Japan was brilliantly told by Barbara Tuchman in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1971 Stillwell and the American Experience of China, 1911-45.

Hoover Institution Chiang apologists Tse-Han Lai, Wou Wei, and Ramon Myers published an extraordinarily tendentious account of the KMT/ROC army and secret police descending on Taiwan with lists of community leaders in hands and guns blazing even as they disembarked in Keelung Harbor in A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, published by Stanford University Press in 1991.* Lai et al. attempted to exculpate Chiang and Chen Yi, Chief Executive and Garrison Commander of Taiwan Province, from responsibility for the slaughter, massively to underestimate the number of Taiwanese murdered by the regime the US had foisted on them (Japan has simply walked away from its colony of half a century, and the US Navy ferried ROC soldiers to Taiwan; the US conducted a plebiscite in which the people of Okinawa chose their government (Japan), but there has never been such a consultation of the people governed on Taiwan), and pretends that the systematic slaughter was a tragedy rather than a planned culling of intellectuals (etc.) who might oppose the massive KMT looting of infrastructure the Japanese had built up on Taiwan and the blatant corruption on Taiwan presided over by Chen Yi.

In 2011, Harvard’s Bellknap Press published a massive apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek written by Jay Taylor (1931-), Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.

In 2016 Harvard University Press published Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan, by Hoover Institution curator Hsia-Ting Lin, another extended apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek’s military incompetence in losing the civil war on the Chinese mainland (and then Hainan) as he warded off competitors for US aid —which had stopped flowing before North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. While being careful to avoid any military action to retake China, Chiang and his American advocates (“the China Lobby,” many of whom had been Christian missionaries in China; Chiang had nominally converted) presented their refuge as “Free China.” The dictatorship, ruling under martial law for nearly forty years, pretended to be a government of all of China, so that the few people it actually governed (on Taiwan) were allotted only a small share of the representatives of the “Chinese people” (Lin does not seem to have noticed that the ROC pretense considered there to be three provinces on Taiwan rather than one). Lin does not demur from the Potemkin legislature or its election, writing,

“To legitimize the Republic of China as the central government of all China, the Taipei-based Nationalist government needed elected representatives for all China. In 1947 more than one thousand mainlanders in Nanking were elected by the Chinese people [sic.] as members of the National Assembly, Legislative Yuan, and Control Yuan. After coming to Taiwan, these representative were permitted to hold their seats until the next election could be held on the mainland [i.e., never; as Lin documents, Chiang Kai-Shek had no serious plans or any serious intent to retake the mainland], thus legitimizing [!] the Republic of China’s control of the island.”

Although the ROC only ruled Taiwan and a few other islands, the claim to be the rightful government of China (a fantasy the US maintained until 1979) ensured it not being responsible to the people it governed. The consent of the governed seems as irrelevant to Chiang’s apologist(s) as it was to him. And only slightly more important to most American government officials making East Asia/West Pacific policy, though some of them did not think the ROC had sound claims to rule Taiwan (let alone China!). Far from being an “accidental state,” the ROC was a conscious confection that denied those governed by the ROC (under martial law) from self-government.

Lin repeatedly props up Chiang’s actions and reactions as “understandable” (in its adverb form). Taiwanese seeking to be governed by the US under a UN mandate preparing for independence rather than de facto Chinese colonialism (following half a century of Japanese colonialism, which was harsh but followed its laws and built up infrastructure, including an educated workforce). He chronicles dissensus both within the KMT and within its paymaster, most frequently between the US State Department and the military, particularly General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan until relieved of his command in April of 1951 in attempting to lead a war against the People’s Republic of China, that is a Third World War.

Chiang wanted a Third World War, which he hoped would include defeat of the PRC Red Army that had quickly and thoroughly defeated the ROC Army, but also did not want his troops to fight, either to retake Hainan or to open a second front for the PRC on the Asian mainland. As he had throughout the time of US engagement in fighting the Japanese, Chiang made sounds about fighting the communists. He declined actually to do either, instead concentrating on KMT infighting and suppressing dissidents in his satrapy pretending to be China. (Lin does quote Douglas MacArthur before the Korean War as judging that Chiang knew nothing of the art of war, the arts of palace intrigue and public doubletalk on the other hand, Chiang was even more accomplished than MacArthur.)

Lin barely mentions the long-running White Terror (aimed more at potential critics of Chiang than at communist sympathizers), putting that in scare quotes the only time he mentions it. That, the downplaying of Taiwanese killed by ROC occupiers, and classifying the mass murder as a “tragedy” rather than the result of conscious policy places Lin very much in the Lai and Taylor tradition of Chiang/KMT apologists. He exceeds them in blaming the observer George Kerr (Formosa Betrayed) for negligence “in the events surrounding the February 28 incident of 1947,” making me wonder which Taiwanese Kerr was responsible for slaughtering.

And Lin does not consider the extent to which the land reform (1) was aimed at breaking any power of Taiwanese elite, (2) targeted some small-holders, and (3) was not universally popular in Taiwan.

On a far less consequential level, I am sure that Lin make more mistakes in identification than two US legislators I noticed: the fervid ROC-backer (the prototypical former Christian missionary in China) Walter Judd was a US representative (from Minneapolis), not a US Senator, and the word order in the name Washington State US Representative and then US Senator is obviously “Warren Magnuson,” not “Magnuson Warren.”

Overly credulous of Chiang Kai-Shek’s diary and preoccupied by political maneuvering in both (ROC and US) governments to pay any attention to the views of the people living on Taiwan, Lin has done considerable archival research and manages to illuminate the fault line and conflicts within both governments (with the UK foreign office frequently very suspcious of Chiang and determined to avert a war across the Taiwan straits.)

*Keelung Hong and I criticized the KMT apologia at length in a review reprinted in our book Looking Through Taiwan, published by the University of Nebraska Press. Also see “Some American Witnesses of the KMT’s 1947 Reign of Terror on Taiwan, and the recent novels Green Island and 228 Legacy.

(There is also some material on maneuvering by Japan not to cede the colony it acquired China’s claims to (China had never pacified the interior of the island) to any state or international entity. Japan just renounced its claim to sovereignty of Taiwan in the 28 April 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.)


The book’s cover photo shows Chiang Kai-Shek shaking hands with US General William Chase, chief of the US Military Assistance Advisory  Group  in Taipei.


©2016, Stephen O.Murray