The China Mirage

The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia


By James Bradley

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From the bestselling author of Flags of our Fathers, Flyboys, and The Imperial Cruise, a spellbinding history of turbulent U.S.-China relations from the 19th century to World War II and Mao’s ascent.

In each of his books, James Bradley has exposed the hidden truths behind America’s engagement in Asia. Now comes his most engrossing work yet. Beginning in the 1850s, Bradley introduces us to the prominent Americans who made their fortunes in the China opium trade. As they — -good Christians all — -profitably addicted millions, American missionaries arrived, promising salvation for those who adopted Western ways.

And that was just the beginning.

From drug dealer Warren Delano to his grandson Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from the port of Hong Kong to the towers of Princeton University, from the era of Appomattox to the age of the A-Bomb, The China Mirage explores a difficult century that defines U.S.-Chinese relations to this day.


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The future policy of Japan towards Asiatic countries should be similar to that of the United States towards their neighbors.… A "Japanese Monroe Doctrine" in Asia will remove the temptation to European encroachment, and Japan will be recognized as the leader of the Asiatic nations.

—President Theodore Roosevelt1

The people of China well over a century have been, in thought and in objective, closer to us Americans than almost any other peoples in the world—the same great ideals. China, in the last—less than half a century has become one of the great democracies of the world.

—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt2

Two American presidents from the first half of the twentieth century blazed the path into Asia still followed by the United States today. These two presidents were cousins, and, although they lived a generation apart, both followed similar paths to power: from New York State legislator to assistant secretary of the Navy to New York governor and, finally, to president of the United States.

Both Presidents Roosevelt conducted their Asian diplomacy in similar style, personally taking the reins to deal directly and secretly with Asian affairs, often circumventing their own State Departments. Neither Roosevelt traveled to Asia or knew many Asians, but both were supremely confident that they had special insights. The parallels are not exact. Theodore was enamored of Japan and allowed himself to be taken in by a propaganda campaign directed from Tokyo and led by a Harvard-educated Japanese friend. In contrast, Franklin favored China and was influenced by his own Harvard-educated Chinese friend.

Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the combatants in the Russo-Japanese War to the peace table. Almost unknown in the United States, though, are the president's backdoor negotiations with Emperor Meiji of Japan over the fate of an independent country, the empire of Korea. During these secret talks, brokered by Meiji's Harvard-educated envoy, Roosevelt agreed to stand aside and allow Japan to subjugate Korea as a colony, becoming the first world leader to sanction Japan's expansion onto the Asian continent.

Sumner Welles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's friend and the assistant secretary of state, observed, "No one close to the President could have failed to recognize the deep feeling of friendship for China that he had inherited from his mother's side of his family."3 After a meeting to discuss China policy with FDR, one administration official recalled, "We might as well have saved our breath. Roosevelt put an end to the discussion by looking up and recalling that his ancestors used to trade with China."4

Indeed they had. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's grandfather Warren Delano was one of the first Americans to travel to what was seen by Americans as "Old China," where he made a dynastic fortune in the illegal opium trade. As a U.S. consul, Delano oversaw the first American military incursion into China. It was from his Delano line that Roosevelt inherited his love of the sea, his princely fortune, and his confidence that he knew how to handle China. Roosevelt later observed, "What vitality I have is not inherited from Roosevelts… mine, such as it is, comes from the Delanos."5

Dealing drugs was only part of Warren Delano's mission. Much as his European ancestors had carved "New England" territory from Indian lands on America's Atlantic coast, he helped carve "New China" enclaves—westernized and Christianized areas—like Hong Kong on China's Pacific coast. Delano, like many Americans, believed that this was only the beginning, that just as they were sweeping across North America, someday Christian and American values would change China.

Warren Delano, Hong Kong, 1860 (CPA Media / Pictures from History)

Like most Americans, the Roosevelts had only a meager understanding of Asia. Waves of immigration had brought people from all over the world to the United States, but after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it illegal for a Chinese person to enter the country. True, some westernized Chinese were exempted and allowed in as students, businessmen, and diplomats, but they were few and far between. Almost no Chinese could be found in the halls of the White House or the offices of Wall Street.

Likewise, very few Americans had ever traveled to China. Yes, some American missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats made it across the Pacific, but they clung mostly to the westernized New China settlements on the coast. These Americans wrote home about a cultural and spiritual blossoming of the Chinese under their care, decades of hopeful hogwash foisted on unknowing readers. Both Presidents Roosevelt were thus constantly well informed about New China, that place that was always going to be.

This book examines the American perception of Asia and the gap between that perception and reality. The wide gulf of the Pacific Ocean has prevented Americans and Chinese from knowing each other. Generations of accumulated misunderstanding between these two continental giants has so far led to three major Asian wars that have left millions dead and has distorted U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy.

My father, John Bradley, was one of the six men photographed raising the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II. When I was forty-six years old I published Flags of Our Fathers, a book about my dad's experiences. Now I am sixty years old and I continue to honor the young men who fought in that horrible war, but I increasingly doubt my father's elders, the men in power who allowed Americans to be sucked into a world war at a time when the U.S. military was preparing for war in Europe and was not ready to fight in distant Asia.

Japan surprised the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On December 8, the U.S. Congress declared war against Japan, but not well remembered is what Americans on that day thought they were fighting for. One of the millions who served in America's Asian war was John F. Kennedy, who later recalled,

It was clearly enunciated that the independence of China… was the fundamental object of our Far Eastern policy… that this and other statements of our policies on the Far East led directly to the attack on Pearl Harbor is well known. And it might be said that we almost knowingly entered into combat with Japan to preserve the independence of China.6

For generations, American hearts had been warmed by the missionary dream of a New China peopled by Americanized Christians. Then, beginning slowly in the early 1930s, a foreign-funded China Lobby sprouted in the United States and gained powerful adherents in the U.S. government, in the media, and in pulpits across the country. By 1941, nearly a decade of China Lobby propaganda had been pumped into American churches, homes, and heads, convincing the vast majority of Americans that a Christianized and Americanized New China would blossom as their best friend in Asia if the United States drove the Japanese military out of China.

The China Lobby's premise was that the Japanese military would be forced to withdraw from China if the United States embargoed Japan's oil. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought the opposite. Japan—with little domestic production—had only two major sources of oil: California and the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia). Roosevelt had a "Europe first" policy in case of war: the United States would defeat Hitler, and then, if necessary, confront the Japanese. Since the United States was supplying over 80 percent of Japan's oil, FDR thought that if he cut off the California pump, the Japanese military would thrust south toward the Dutch East Indies, and the United States would be drawn into an unwanted Asian war.

Many administration officials were outraged by what they considered to be Roosevelt's appeasement of Japan. They—like the majority of Americans—had swallowed the China Lobby line that an oil embargo would force Japan out of China and that there would be no danger of the United States getting involved militarily. And with the Japanese no longer a threat, the great Chiang Kai-shek would ascend to undiluted command—and a Christian and democratic China would follow. (British prime minister Winston Churchill called the New China dream the "Great American illusion.")

This is the story of how a few of these officials surreptitiously outmaneuvered and undermined the president of the United States and thrust America into an unwanted Asian war. My father and millions of others fought in a conflict that didn't have to happen, a war that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was trying to avoid, one that could have been prevented or delayed if some overconfident administration officials had heeded their president instead of the China Lobby.

Today, seventy years after World War II, many imagine America went to war against Hitler to save England. History books and a recent television series on the Roosevelts recall the fierce tussle between American isolationists and internationalists in the lead-up to World War II, showing a fiery Charles Lindbergh and other public figures debating what the United States should do across the Atlantic. These stories feature a bold FDR reaching out to Winston Churchill via secret private emissaries like Harry Hopkins, Averell Harriman, and Wild Bill Donovan.

Little noted is that the debate about America's helping Britain was never decided. The U.S. did not enter World War II to defend Britain or oppose Hitler. On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan and only Japan. Three long days passed, and the United States did not declare war on Germany to defend England. It was only when Adolf Hitler rashly declared war on the U.S. that Americans went to war in Europe.

World War II burst upon America from Asia. Charles Lindbergh's Atlantic focus is better remembered, but it was the China Lobby's arguments about peoples across the Pacific that changed American history.

When Mao Zedong rose to power in 1949, the U.S. government and media portrayed him as an angry, anti-American Soviet pawn, going so far as to paint Mao as not a "real Chinese," an idea believable because Americans had for decades been propagandized by the China Lobby that authentic Chinese yearned to be Christianized and Americanized. The American public did not realize that five years earlier, Mao had repeatedly extended his hand in friendship, enthusiastically describing to his State Department interlocutors a symbiotic relationship combining U.S. industrial know-how with China's limitless workforce. Mao—who had never flown in an airplane—reached out to President Roosevelt in 1945, saying he was eager to fly to the United States to discuss his vision, a historic opportunity that New China–believing Americans tragically nipped in the bud.

When the U.S.-spurned Mao turned to the USSR, Americans imagined they had lost China, and the United States replanted its New China dream on the island of Taiwan. Senator Joseph McCarthy asked, "Who lost China?" and launched a witch hunt—supported by the China Lobby—that drove the State Department specialists who had dealt with Mao out of the government. Having made itself blind on Asia, Washington then stumbled into the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The who-lost-China hysteria helped topple the administration of President Harry Truman, distorted U.S. domestic politics, and haunted Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon as these presidents tried not to lose again in Asia.

The China Lobby also warped U.S. foreign policy. From 1949 to 1979, the world's most powerful country refused to have official state-to-state relations with the world's most populous country. But consider your smartphone, which was probably manufactured in China, and you can see that Mao's vision of the relationship—not America's New China dream—is the one that triumphed. Like World War II in the Pacific, the destructive thirty years of estrangement between Mao's China and the United States did not have to happen.

The Roosevelts' actions in Asia are relatively unknown to Americans, even though the results are clear.

Go to New York City's Chinatown and you'll see the only two statues that Chinese Americans have erected there: one for the revered Confucius and the other for the Chinese government official who asked Warren Delano to stop smuggling opium into China.

Stroll through Seoul, South Korea, and you will come across a memorial honoring an American civilian, the only such statue in downtown Seoul. In 1905, the emperor of Korea had felt the Japanese military's hands tightening around his country's neck. He dispatched an American friend from Seoul to Washington to plead with President Theodore Roosevelt for Korea's continued independence. Roosevelt refused to help. Korea then fell under Japan's control for forty years. Today Koreans honor the American who begged Theodore Roosevelt for Korea's freedom.

Go to South Asia today, look up at the Pakistani sky, and you might see an American drone. The American president controls this lethal program within the executive branch; it's a private air force that's operated with little congressional oversight. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created this secret executive air force one year before Pearl Harbor in an attempt to keep the New China dream alive.

Today the United States is the world's largest developed country and China is the largest developing country. Like two huge balloons in a closed room, they will inevitably bump up against each other. The reactions will depend on each side's understanding of and empathy for the other. This is a book about the American disaster in Asia as a result of a mirage in the American mind. The stakes in understanding these past missteps are enormous and, to me, personal. My father was severely wounded in 1945, and in 1968 my brother almost died, both fighting in Asian wars that didn't have to happen. I don't want my son in boot camp like his grandfather and uncle simply because of more misunderstandings between the Pacific's two great powers.

Today, the United States and China—while cooperating to build wealth—are once again massively uninformed about each other. There was a time when everyone in the United States knew that Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were China's top leaders and everyone in China recognized President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. A measure of the current relationship is that almost no Americans can name the top two Chinese leaders today and ninety-year-old Henry Kissinger remains China's most recognizable American friend.

With only a narrow, rickety bridge of fellowship crossing the Pacific, misunderstandings are flourishing and both countries employ heated rhetoric. On the American side, generations of missionary dreams about New China created an assumption in the United States about a reality that never existed in Asia. The China mirage took hold in the nineteenth century, affected U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics in the twentieth century, and continues to misguide America. Perhaps the cautionary tale revealed in this book will motivate people in both countries to strengthen that bridge across the Pacific before it's too late. Again.

Chapter 1


China can never be reformed from within. The manifold needs of China… will be met permanently, completely, only by Christian civilization.

—Reverend Arthur Henderson Smith1

The written histories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Delano ancestors chronicle their childhoods, schooling, marriages, careers, children, deaths, and legacies. Curiously, the source of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's dynastic wealth is little commented upon by the chroniclers. As the esteemed Roosevelt historian Geoffrey Ward wrote, "The full story of Warren Delano's career in the China trade has not been written."2

Warren Delano was a blueblood. His forebears had left Europe and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, just two ships after the Mayflower brought the first colonists to New England. The Delanos were among the earliest settlers of the area of southern Massachusetts—New Bedford, Buzzards Bay, and Fairhaven—that produced so many of America's original whalers and sea merchants.

Warren's father—also named Warren—made a substantial income ferrying corn, salt, and potatoes to New Orleans, England, and the Canary Islands. The first Warren helped found a Fairhaven church—the Washington Street Christian meeting place on Walnut Street—and his former residence is today the Delano Homestead Bed-and-Breakfast. Warren Junior graduated from Fairhaven Academy—a local trade school—in 1842, and he apprenticed with the Boston importer Hathaway and Company and then with one of New York's premier importers, Goodhue and Company.

Great Britain had decided many years earlier that the Chinese frontier was much more lucrative than America's. By sailing halfway around the world, Delano could participate in the single largest commodity trade of the nineteenth century: smuggling opium into China. Such an enterprise promised him a quick killing and world-class wealth before the age of thirty. Delano grabbed his big chance.

For centuries, China was the richest country on earth, and its people thought it natural that outsiders would come to China to learn from their superior culture. The Chinese saw these visitors as barbarians—more specifically, as fan kuei, "foreign devils": second-class vassals, pitiful in their desperation for Chinese knowledge and goods.

In the late seventeenth century, the English began to import enormous quantities of Chinese tea to satisfy and stimulate its new factory-worker class. British silver flowed in increasingly alarming amounts from London's vaults to the Middle Kingdom, but the money went only one way; the Chinese wanted few English products. The constant importation of Chinese tea to the West caused a gargantuan drain of silver from Europe to Asia. China was a rich country in the 1700s, its population tripling over the course of the century from about one hundred million to over three hundred million.

The imbalance in trade quickly decimated the coffers of many European nations, hitting Britain particularly hard. Deeply concerned, London hit upon a corrective that took advantage of England's colonial holding of India, its naval might, and its disdain for the Chinese. The Brits' dependence on tea made them subject to the Chinese, but they saw a way to reverse the situation, and the flow of silver.

In the Confucian value system, merchants—consumed by thoughts of profit—were near the bottom of the social scale. Those concerned with the people's welfare—the mandarins who studied the classics and served the emperor—were at the top of the heap. "Barbarian" merchants could access China's market only by making clear they knew their place in the pecking order and following the tribute system. This required foreign missions to travel to Beijing to pay tribute to the emperor and acknowledge their inferiority by kowtowing—kneeling in front of the Son of Heaven (as he was known) and touching their foreheads to the floor. After the foreign devils acknowledged China's superiority and offered valuable tribute, the Son of Heaven benevolently allowed them to purchase the riches of the Middle Kingdom.

Over millennia, barbarians had traveled to China from Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, and many other countries. In the Middle Ages, Europeans ventured in their tiny ships out into the world's oceans, and a new type of foreign devil arrived in China: the sea barbarians, funny-looking, long-nosed cow-eaters in tight trousers and high hats.

In the course of becoming a world power, Great Britain grew accustomed to imposing its trade terms on people around the globe. But China's restrictive tribute system was slow, cumbersome, and devoid of any respect for the British. In 1793, King George III of England sent emissaries to Beijing with impertinent demands. Among these was the unthinkable call for the emperor to cede a piece of land—an island or a coastal strip—where England could establish a permanent trading post.

King George also insulted the Son of Heaven by suggesting peer-to-peer diplomatic relations. The English did not comprehend that the Son of Heaven could never comply with this. China had no foreign affairs office because it shunned official relationships with barbarian countries. Instead, the emperor managed trading relations with foreign devils through his Barbarian Management Bureau, whose mandarins forwarded this response from the Son of Heaven to the English sovereign:

Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk, and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favor, that foreign hongs [private businessmen who paid the government for the right to trade with barbarians] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.3

The Barbarian Management Bureau's mandarins designed the Canton system above all to protect ordinary Chinese from infection by the low character and animal nature of foreign devils like Warren Delano. To begin with, the port of Canton, in China's hot and humid south, was about as far away as possible from the Son of Heaven's home in Beijing. The system required the sea barbarians to live and work in whitewashed warehouses located outside Canton's city wall.4 When the roughly four-month trading season was over, the foreign-devil traders had to leave Canton immediately.

If sea barbarians wanted to trade with the Middle Kingdom, they could humble themselves and submit to the Canton system. But the English—and, later, the Americans—were not used to humbling themselves. Quite the contrary.

Like grapes and ginseng, the product that would make Warren Delano a wealthy man grows best in certain parts of the world. The prime opium-producing area was a vast swath stretching five hundred miles across the Bengal region of India. Arab merchants dominated the India-to-China opium trade for hundreds of years, until Portuguese sailors took it over in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese also brought tobacco from their Brazilian colony, and the Chinese especially enjoyed smoking tobacco mixed with opium. Sensing the potential harm to his people, the emperor outlawed the sale and use of opium.

Opium was big business for the British, one of the critical economic engines of the era. Britain controlled India and oversaw one million Indian opium farmers. By 1850, the drug accounted for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire's revenue, and the India-to-China opium business became, in the words of Frederic Wakeman, a leading historian of the period, the "world's most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century."5 Notes Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, "The entire commercial infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium."6

The Chinese emperor had outlawed opium, so some back in England judged that this illegal business had to be immoral. To evade criticism, the British government employed the ruse of selling the opium in Calcutta to a private Crown-chartered enterprise—the East India Company—and pretended that London wasn't involved with what happened next. East India Company ships sailed the contraband up the Chinese coast and, with the protection of British naval might and expertise, used both offshore islands and anchored ships to stash the drugs. Chinese criminals would row out to the offshore drug warehouses to get the English opium. Massive bribery of local officials made the trade possible.

The British were breaking Chinese law and pushing back against the restrictive Canton system. Exploiting coves and islands along China's rocky coast, the sea barbarians opened more areas for their illegal trade, while partnerships with local gangsters allowed further circumvention. One English merchant reflected on his work in Asia:

No doubt your anticipations of future evil have a certain foundation.… But it is my business to make a fortune with the least possible loss of time.… In two or three years at farthest, I hope to realize a fortune and get away and what can it matter to me, if all Shanghai disappear afterwards, in fire or flood? You must not expect men in my situation to condemn themselves to years of prolonged exile in an unhealthy climate for the benefit of posterity. We are moneymaking, practical men. Our business is to make money, as much and as fast as we can.7

The India-to-China opium trade was exclusively the domain of the East India Company; no private English merchants were allowed in. The British Parliament forbade America's colonial merchants to trade directly with China, forcing them to buy tea from British sources and thus generating substantial tax revenue for London. (The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a protest by American colonists against this British tax on a Chinese product.) In 1784, with the ink barely dry on the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War, Robert Morris—a wealthy Philadelphian known as "the financier of the Revolution"—dispatched a ship called the Empress of China to Canton. Morris had done his research well and sent off an attractive cargo of ginseng (which grew wild on the shores of the Hudson River), a valuable herb esteemed by the Chinese, along with a variety of other wares. The goods sold quickly in Canton, and with the proceeds, the American sailors bought Chinese tea, which they sold profitably back in the United States. Morris's venture—the first successful American round-trip trade voyage to China—turned a whopping profit of 35 percent, which spurred more American interest in the China trade.


On Sale
Apr 21, 2015
Page Count
432 pages

James Bradley

About the Author

James Bradley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Imperial Cruise, Flyboys, and Flags of Our Fathers, and a son of one of the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.

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