The Dragon Lady Conquers America, Part 2

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On Thursday morning, February 18, 1943, crowds of curious onlookers huddled together near Capitol Hill. Every ten feet on the road leading to the Capitol a police officer’s cold breath punctuated the air. Soldiers with fixed bayonets stood at attention around the famous doomed building. Inside the House of Representatives, a large sign at the House Doorkeeper’s office warned “No Seats.” The doorkeeper was allotted 673 gallery seats; the night before he had received 6,000 requests. Capitol Hill was where everyone in Washington wanted to be on this frigid February morning.

At 12:15 PM the presidential sedan pulled up at the Senate entrance. Madame Chiang Kai-shek stepped from the black car wearing an equally black gown slit on the side but closed at the throat. She strode quickly and confidently into the building. In the Senate chambers Vice President Wallace introduced her and she gave an extemporaneous speech that ended with a standing ovation. The Madame was just warming up.

Wearing her Chinese Air Force pin, she stood next to the House Doorkeeper as he intoned “Madame Chiang Kai-shek!” Flash bulbs exploded and newsreel cameras whirred during four minutes of applause. Speaker Sam Rayburn yelled at the photographers and the klieg lights went out. Madame Chiang then stepped up to the same rostrum where President Roosevelt had asked Congress for a declaration of war against her country’s tormentor. In a “cultured English tinged with a Georgia accent,” China’s First Lady spoke into the radio network microphones.

“In speaking to Congress I am literally speaking to the American people,” she said. With her right fist holding a silken hanky she raised it again and again to drive home her main point: Japan posed a greater threat to America than did Hitler and American aid to China failed to match the threat. The Madame also slipped in an old Chinese proverb: “It takes little effort to watch the other fellow carry the load.”

Henry Luce’s Life magazine gushed, “Mme. Chiang’s three hours at the Washington Capitol on February 18 are inevitably a part of U.S. history. What she said and did there was up to the level of world events. Not only were Congressman completely captivated by her but also hard-boiled reporters confessed they had never seen anything like it.” Time magazine, another Luce publication, reported “The Senate is not in the habit of rising to its feet to applaud; for Madame Chiang, it rose and thundered.”

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her column “My Day,” “When I saw her little, slim figure in her straight Chinese gown coming down the aisle, she seemed overshadowed by the men around her. I could not help a great feeling of pride in her achievements as a woman, but when she spoke it was no longer as a woman that one thought of her.” Yet the next day at the President’s press conference, Mrs. Roosevelt said the Madame took the role of ingenue; or as columnist Raymond Clapper noted, she deferred to the President as the “big man who could make things happen.”

As the reporters filed into the Oval Office they saw three chairs arranged near the window away from the President’s desk. Madame Chiang sat in the middle chair; the President, puffing a cigarette through his famous holder, sat to her left; on her right sat Mrs. Roosevelt. Time described the Madame as sitting “expectantly…like a young girl at her first matinee. Only when she leaned forward did the tips of her tiny open-toed pumps touch the floor….On her right, Eleanor Roosevelt sat stiffly erect, one hand on Madame Chiang’s chair in a protective gesture.”

When all the reporters had crowded in the President said, “May I take this opportunity, not to introduce Madame Chiang to you, but introduce all of you to her.” After some small talk a reporter asked whether the Madame was on an official visit or just a personal visit. The Madame answered that the visit was for her health. “At the same time,” the reporter continued, “you made quite an impression with your speech yesterday, which might percolate into official mentality?” Everyone laughed. The Madame drew a bigger laugh when she answered “That is for you to judge.”

Midway through the press conference, the ingenue got the better of the hero. The President ended a long monologue about aid to China by saying the American government would get that aid to the Chinese “Just as fast as the Lord will let us.” A few minutes later a reporter asked the Madame how she thought the aid could be accelerated. Repeating the President’s call on the Lord she added, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Amidst the laughter a red-faced President answered “Right.”

A week later, on March 1, Madame Chiang arrived in New York City and was cheered by crowds at Pennsylvania Station, City Hall, and Chinatown. The following night the Madame was scheduled to speak at a mass rally in Madison Square Garden. Prior to the Garden appearance, the Citizens Committee to Welcome Madame Chiang Kai-shek, chaired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. held a dinner at her hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria. As the dinner progressed the guest of honor failed to appear, so Henry Luce sent an emissary to her suite. The message from the Madame — she was indisposed. Eventually she was prevailed upon to make a brief appearance at the dinner.

The Garden crowd of 17,000 included Army Air Force chief, General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, Wendell Willkie, nine state governors, and many other notables. Escorted to the stage by nine former Flying Tigers, the Madame took the podium and told the crowd and a nationwide radio audience, “We in China have bled for the last six long years.” She promised that China would “hold firm,” but left no doubt that the United States must do more.

On Saturday, March 6, Madame Chiang traveled to Wellesley, Massachusetts for a weekend reunion of her class of 1917. During the visit she recognized the house she lived in as a freshman and when she saw an old friend she shouted “Hello, Dotty!” Dotty and the other former classmates called her “Meiling.” Apparently Meiling slipped back into her college days so easily that she forgot her diplomacy and said to one old friend, “Why you’ve put on pounds since I saw you last.”

The next stop was Chicago where the imperious Madame Chiang reappeared. The local committee for United China Relief(UCR) secured a half-floor at the famous Palmer House at no charge. But the Madame wanted only the best, so the UCR had to pay for a floor at the Drake Hotel. Then against the UCR’s suggestion, the Madame wore a different fur coat everyday. Her opulence failed to help UCR’s fund raising efforts.

At Madame Chiang’s next stop ostentatious behavior was normal even expected — Hollywood. None other than Gone with Winds David O. Selznick arranged and supervised her Hollywood stay. The Madame was feted at a huge Ambassador Hotel banquet attended by Hollywood’s elite. (She showed up for this one.) At the banquet recent Academy Award winners James Cagney and Greer Garson read a script written for the occasion, “A letter from a Flying Tiger.”

On April 4, the Madame gave her final public speech of the tour to a crowd of 30,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. China’s First Lady walked to the podium to the strains of “The Madame Chiang Kai-shek March” written especially for the occasion by William Stothart and played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Pearl Buck wrote in Life Magazine’s May 10 issue that Americans saw in Madame Chiang Kai-shek “someone whom they were able to understand — not a remote and esoteric creature who might have stepped from a Chinese fan, but a … modern woman, a woman who is at home in any country; and through her China has for millions of Americans suddenly become a modern nation.”

But the Madame’s triumph was personal and fleeting. China’s first lady left the United States on July 4, 1943; she had charmed an entire nation for a few months and her trip succeeded in temporarily expanding aid to China. Nevertheless, she failed to charm the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of their sensible “Hitler first” strategy.

On the return trip the Madame’s pilot was C.N. Shelton; he would remain her pilot whenever she flew out of China. After the war, when the Madame found out Shelton wanted to start his own business in Latin America, she lent him a quarter of a million dollars to start a company making removable airplane seats; she kept a 50% share for herself.

This month Madame Chiang Kai-shek celebrates her 106 birthday at her home in New York City.