The Dragon Lady Conquers America, Part 1


Cornell Newton Shelton, known as C.N., stood freezing in the pre-dawn darkness of Chengtu, China. Shelton, an American bush pilot, preferred jockeying planes around the warmer climes of Latin America, but this China job was too good to pass up: a chance to fly Boeing’s new 307 Stratoliner with its four engines and pressurized cabin. On this cold morning of November 24, 1942, the Stratoliner named Apache, sat on the tarmac awaiting the secret passenger it had been sent half way around the world to fetch.

Suddenly, headlights pierced the darkness as a stream of cars drove on to the runway; the procession braked to a stop next to the stratoliner. Out of the first car stepped the leader of war ravaged China — Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Right behind the Generalissimo was Brigadier General Clayton Bissell, commander of the United States Tenth Air Force. The two men were accompanied by numerous high-ranking American and Chinese officers. An ambulance drove past the high brass and maneuvered close to the Stratoliner. As the ambulance slowed to a stop, the side doors flew open and attendants ran to the rear door; reaching into the darkened interior, they gently lifted out the Apache’s mysterious VIP passenger. On a stretcher, bundled with blankets, lay the wife of China’s leader — the beautiful, raven haired, forty-five-year old Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

The Madame suffered from nervous exhaustion and a recurring lower-back pain suffered in a car wreck while visiting the Chinese battle front five years before. Worse, the Generalissimo, known as the Gissimo, feared that his Missimo. had cancer. Top notch medical care at a major hospital of his American ally would soothe her pain and ease his mind. But there was another reason for this secret trip, a political reason that would end the secrecy and splash Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s name across America’s front pages.

She was born Mai-ling Soong in Shanghai, China in March, 1897. Her mother and father were both Christians and her father, Charles Soong, grew wealthy selling the Bible in both English and Chinese. While a student at Wesleyan College for Woman in Macon Georgia, Mai-ling learned to speak English with a slight Georgia accent. May-ling then went to one of America’s most prestigious woman’s schools, Wellesley College, where she majored in English Literature, minored in Philosophy and upon her graduation in 1917, was named a Durant Scholar, Wellesley’s highest academic honor. Writer Carl Crow noted, “Madame’s body was born in China but her mind was born in America.”

Mai-ling returned to China in 1917, where she married Chiang Kai-shek, Nationalist China’s president, on December 1, 1927. When the undeclared Sino-Japanese war began in 1937 Madame Chiang, as Mai-Ling became known, threw herself into the cause.

China’s most pressing war need was allies. The United States condemned the Japanese invasion from the outset and the Roosevelt Administration tried to aid the beleaguered Chinese. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, China gained a full-fledged ally against Japan. But the United states was fighting a two front war: Europe and the Pacific. The American Joint Chiefs-of-Staff decided on a strategy to defeat Hitler first. Chiang wanted the United States to switch the order of precedence and defeat Japan first.

To accomplish his goal, Chiang looked for a chance to play his American card — Madame Chiang. “Madame Chiang enchanted Americans from many backgrounds. They were impressed by her power, awed by her beauty, reassured by her Wellesley diploma, and charmed by her southern drawl,” wrote Fitigers Ford. The Generalissimo’s Queen of Hearts would be a formidable card indeed.

The Generalissimo’s opportunity came in October 1942, when FDR sent his 1940 Republican presidential opponent, Wendell Willkie, on a bi-partisan goodwill trip to allies around the world. Willkie suggested that the Madame should make a similar trip to the United States. Willkie said, “Madame would be the perfect ambassador. Her great ability…her great devotion to China, are well known in the United States. She would find herself not only beloved, but immensely effective.”

That she was known in the United States was no understatement. Henry Luce the founder, publisher, and editor of Time and Life magazines, and distributor of The March of Time newsreel used his media power to promote the two Christian leaders of “the New China.” Time declared Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang as 1937’s Man and Wife of the Year; The March of Time refered to her as China’s Joan of Arc. The madame could not have had a better public relations agent in the United States.

Even the mass culture was aware of Madame Chiang. One of the most popular American comic strips was Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates. Terry Lee, the strips young American-pilot protagonist was a composite character based on flyers of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) known worldwide as the Flying Tigers. Whenever Terry’s future looked grim he was often saved by a beautiful, dark-haired, English-speaking oriental vamp, who smoked cigarettes in a long holder and wore slinky-black dresses slit up the side — the Dragon Lady. Of course the caricature was overdone, but there was no doubt that Madame Chiang inspired Caniff’s Dragon Lady.

Shelton eased the controls back, lifting the giant stratoliner off the field. He then flew west over “The Hump,” the famous Himalaya Mountains, across India, Africa, and the Atlantic before landing in Palm Beach, Florida, on November 26, 1942. Madame Chiang stayed overnight and the next day Shelton flew her to Mitchell Field, New York, where she was met by FDR’s aide and right-hand man Harry Hopkins.

On the ride to the hospital, Hopkins said “She told me that she wanted to make it clear to the President she was here for no other purpose than medical treatment and rest. However, in the same breath she proceeded to raise many questions relating to China and the United States.” Hopkins told Madame Chiang he would announce her arrival to the press and that Mrs. Roosevelt would visit the hospital the next day. The press was told that the Madame was in the United States for medical care and a visit to the White House.

The Madame made her first conquest the next day when Eleanor Roosevelt arrived at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. The president’s wife later wrote that the Madame seemed “small and delicate”; Mrs. Roosevelt “had a desire to help her and take care of her as if she had been my own daughter.” Unfortunately for Madame Chiang her charm failed to impress a fellow Washington visitor.

Winston Churchill’s third White House visit coincided with Madame Chiang’s hospital stay . Churchill later wrote that he received a message from the Madame intimating “…that she would be glad to receive me there.” President Roosevelt, possibly seeing through the Madame’s divide and conquer strategy, asked the Madame to join the President and Prime Minister at a White House luncheon. “The invitation” Churchill reported, “was refused with some hauteur.” According to Churchill, he and FDR, “lunched alone in his room and made the best of things.” The Madame was undaunted by this setback. In early February the newspapers announced that she would visit the White House, address Congress, and embark on a nationwide tour.

Following release from the hospital Madame Chiang spent a week at the Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home and then arrived at the White House on February 17. For the White House staff the Madame’s arrival brought new meaning to the term difficult house guest. Butler Alonzo Field reported that the Madame brought her own silk sheets from China and had them changed numerous times a day, sometimes because she had taken a nap or sometimes because she had merely sat on the bed.

Grace Tully, FDR’s secretary, recounted a conversation with White House usher Wilson Searles. Tully was chatting with him on the second floor of the mansion when she heard “imperative clapping of hands from the Madame’s room.” Tully asked, “Wilson, what goes on here?” Searles answerd, “This goes on all day. That Chinese crowd has run us ragged. They think they’re in China calling the coolies.”

The madame’s less than democratic ideas were not reserved solely for society’s lower rungs, as President and Mrs Roosevelt learned during a dinner for the Madame. When FDR asked how she would handle labor leader John L. Lewis, who was giving the President fits at this time, China’s first lady drew a long-nailed finger across her throat. FDR said, “Eleanor, did you see that?” The First Lady, later said privately “She can talk beautifully about democracy, but does not know how to live democracy.”

Madame Chiang Kai-shek was about to show the world how to charm a democracy.