World Enough, and Time

Some days I fantasize about giving up on this dissertation. Mostly I want my free time back. I want to walk into a library and choose a book that has nothing to do with Cold War history or American literature. I want to get up on Saturday mornings, watch a film, and lose a few hours writing up a no-pressure response to it. I want to spend an evening with my wife and not be distracted by the structure of my first chapter, which has been dismantled and rebuilt each morning this week.

I fantasize about reading for pure pleasure again. If I had the time, I might start with a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, who died today at the age of 105. Can you imagine how the world changed before her eyes?

For many Americans, Madame Chiang’s finest moment came in 1943, when she barnstormed the United States in search of support for the Nationalist cause against Japan, winning donations from countless Americans who were mesmerized by her passion, determination and striking good looks. Her address to a joint meeting of Congress electrified Washington, winning billions of dollars in aid.

Madame Chiang helped craft American policy toward China during the war years, running the Nationalist Government’s propaganda operation and emerging as its most important diplomat. Yet she was also deeply involved in the endless maneuverings of her husband, Chiang Kai-shek, who was uneasily at the helm of several shifting alliances with Chinese warlords vying for control of what was then a badly fractured nation.

A devout Christian, Madame Chiang spoke fluent English tinted with the Southern accent she acquired as a school girl in Georgia, and presented a civilized and humane image of a courageous China battling a Japanese invasion and Communist subversion. Yet historians have documented the murderous path that Chiang Kai-shek led in his efforts to win, then keep, and ultimately lose power. It also became clear in later years that the Chiang family had pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid intended for the war.