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Yesterday's good intentions

Lately I've been thinking about a person who impressed millions of Americans with a combination of oratorical skills, personal charisma, and shrewd political maneuvering. JFK would be a good guess, since we just passed the 40th anniversary of his assassination.

But let's turn the clock back even further.

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In 1943, a foreign-born woman traveled across the US making impassioned speeches in fluent English, dazzling audiences with her intelligence and determination. Her appearance before a joint session of Congress resulted in massive financial aid to her cause. It was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who died in October at the age of 105 (or 106 if you observe the Chinese tradition that considers everyone to be one year old at birth).

I was amazed by the news of her passing, mainly because I hadn't heard her name mentioned in a long time and assumed she had died years ago.

The era in which she gained respect and admiration from coast to coast seems to have dropped off the edge of our collective memory like water over Niagara Falls.

World War II still resonated in popular culture during my childhood in the '50s and '60s. Personalities, places, and events were embedded in movies, school books, and periodicals. In the comfort of my bedroom, reading "Our Army at War" comics, I envisioned the Far East as a land of ongoing human struggle and intrigue. The names associated with it evoked feelings of adventure, mystery, and sadness: Terry and the Pirates, the Flying Tigers, the Burma Road, and Pearl Buck (do any publishers still include "The Frill" in their short-story anthologies?).

National confidence was on the upswing in 1943. Axis expansion had been blunted. Allied forces were gaining the upper hand. A better world was coming, and American- educated Madame Chiang must have seemed like the embodiment of our cultural good intentions as she barnstormed the country promoting her husband as the true leader of 20th-century China.

My favorite anecdote about her involves a visit to the White House. As recounted in "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "To the Secret Service and the White House staff, she was an insufferable prima donna with an unfortunate habit of clapping her hands whenever she wanted something."

Average citizens didn't see this imperious attitude. They saw a brave, dynamic fighter who needed money and military aid to drive the Japanese Army from her homeland. Who would have thought this courageous role model would spend the final years of her life living quietly in a New York City apartment? Looking back, it seems incredible that even after fleeing to Taiwan in 1949, Madame Chiang and her husband still had enough political clout to keep the US isolated from the mainland and Mao for decades.

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But nobody could foresee any of those outcomes in 1943. It was more satisfying to imagine a postwar world of peaceful nations sharing American values and goals. Stable democracies would emerge in every region, headed by wise leaders dedicated to respecting the rights of all citizens.

It was a compelling concept. I wonder if we'll get any closer to it during the next 60 years?


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