Editor’s note: this is part 3 in an ongoing series exploring the history of dictators and their evil ideologies. See the previous installments: Part 1:”Why It’s OK to Be Intrigued by Evil Dictators” and Part 2: “Does Everybody Want Freedom?” Have ideas for who you’d like to see Robert explore next? Get in touch on Twitter: @RobertWargas and @DaveSwindle
Celebrating its centennial, The New Republic recently mined its archive and republished an intriguing piece from its February 27, 1965, issue: an exclusive interview with Mao Zedong by the American journalist Edgar Snow. As TNR correctly notes, as far as interviews go this would be analogous to a Western journalist today being granted exclusive access to Kim Jong Un. The sit-down took place almost seven years before Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger arrived in Peking to re-establish relations with China.
Though the interview has value as a journalistic artifact, it isn’t the most satisfying piece of reportage when it comes to Mao the man. Snow, who was not exactly Red China’s greatest critic, wasn’t allowed to quote the Great Helmsman directly, and most of the discussion concerns issues of policy and military strategy. These are big subjects, and big subjects always make for big answers laden with propaganda.
Mao comes across as intensely theoretical; he seems genuinely infatuated with Marxist theory and its rigorous application to world affairs. When asked about the Vietnam War, for instance, Snow writes that Mao “repeatedly thanked foreign invaders for speeding up the Chinese revolution and for bestowing similar favors in Southeast Asia today.” He “observed that the more American weapons and troops brought into Saigon, the faster the South Vietnamese liberation forces would become armed and educated to win victory.”
This is an extraordinary answer. Consider: Western peaceniks demanded complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal from South Vietnam, viewing American military action there as nothing but murderous imperialism with no possible benefit for the Vietnamese. Though Mao despised U.S. foreign policy, he believed that American intervention would actually help Vietnam in the long run by radicalizing the south. This is similar to the way very old-fashioned Marxists think about capitalism, seeing it as a necessary stage in achieving socialism and communism.
Still, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether extremists actually believe what they say, or whether much of it is affectation. It could possibly be both, depending on the time and circumstances: Consistency is not a common feature of human beings, and hypocrisy is always the most obvious in the orthodox. There is one such moment when Snow says, again referencing Chinese foreign policy and the conflict in Vietnam, that “I do not believe that the makers and administrators of United States policy understand you.” He paraphrases Mao’s answer thus:
Why not? China’s armies would not go beyond her borders to fight. That was clear enough. Only if the United States attacked China would the Chinese fight. Wasn’t that clear? The Chinese were very busy with their internal affairs. Fighting beyond one’s own borders was criminal.
Of course, this was not even remotely true. Mao supplied and trained North Vietnamese “liberation” forces, as well as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Supplying and training are always counted as “intervention” in the Marxist-Leninist calculus, at least when Western countries do it.
We also know that Mao, together with Stalin, played an important role in fomenting the Korean War, specifically in giving approval to Kim Il-sung to invade the south. Many Chinese fought in the Korean War—Mao’s own son died in the conflict—though they fought as part of the Chinese “People’s Volunteer Army,” a separate force conceived to keep China’s involvement somewhat fuzzy and unofficial. At that time, Mao was also seriously considering an invasion of Taiwan. It isn’t so surprising that the bellicose hide behind the language of peace. Nor should it be surprising that, for the Communists, all the talk of equality, sacrifice, and camaraderie was just another ingenious way to conceal man’s lust for power.
The first biography of Mao I ever read was titled The People’s Emperor. The title captures perfectly the way Mao blended certain traditional elements of imperial rule with modern totalitarianism and egalitarianism. It is tyrants’ personal lives, not their arcane views on strategy or “theory,” that are the most revealing for outsiders. One important source of information about Mao himself is Li Zhisui, who was the dictator’s personal physician for over two decades. In a 1994 memoir, soberly called The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Li recalls his time spent in service to Mao, a position that gave him intimate access to the leader that few others enjoyed. Historians have quibbled over the accuracy of certain details, but in my estimation Li is unimpeachable as an inside source of information on Mao’s life behind the rhetoric.
Li emphasized the peculiar monarchical aspects of his patient’s life and rule. Mao spent most of his time in seclusion; there were days when he didn’t leave his bedroom, and he often worked from his bed. He practiced horrendous personal hygiene. The closest he came to proper bathing was regular swimming sessions in polluted Chinese rivers. He refused to brush his teeth, which acquired a greenish film from the neglect. “A tiger never brushes his teeth,” Li reports Mao as saying.
Mao’s isolation meant that this self-image as an untouchable warrior only grew more potent. Apparently undeterred by his rancid body, Mao satisfied his huge libido with revolving harems of young women. With subtle charisma, acquired from his position as absolute ruler but also from the legend of his civil war exploits, he manipulated everyone around him. Li wrote that Mao “had no friends and was isolated from normal human contact,” treating everyone he knew as an inferior subject or slave. “So far as I could tell, despite his initial friendliness at first meetings, Mao was devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship or warmth.”
Reading this, one is reminded of the way serial killers draw in their prey, affecting a charming and alluring personality, which only conceals their desire to use and dominate others. They care nothing for anyone and are concerned only with their immediate needs; the sole purpose of interacting with others is to manipulate them. Even Mao’s swimming was intended to show his power and dominance, specifically his ability to conquer nature in the form of the rivers’ currents. People are drawn to these kinds of primal displays, and unfortunately this attraction is always behind history’s most brutal moments.