Roy Rowan

Chasing the Dragon

VTR Date: December 3, 2004

Roy Rowan discusses discusses the emergence of modern China after World War II.


GUEST: Roy Rowan
VTR: 12/03/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I’ve titled this program “Chasing The Dragon”, for that’s the name of the wonderfully evocative new book about the emergence of modern China from the bloody revolution covered there after World War II by my guest today, Time/Life/Fortune journalist Roy Rowan.

Now, Tom Brokaw notes that “Roy Rowan’s spellbinding account of China’s earth-rattling communist revolution is high drama and great journalism … all that I’d expect from one of the best.”

And former TIME and CNN Chieftain Walter Isaacson writes “This colorful eyewitness account of the Communists’ 1949 takeover of China is the perfect blend of journalism and history. He’s right. Roy Rowan tells this amazing tale with the firsthand excitement of a young reporter and the wisdom of a veteran China watcher. In a very personal and readable way,” he goes on, “this book explores war, historic forces, colorful characters and the thrill of journalism.”

And for me, of course, my guest evokes the most vivid memories of long distance “dragon watching”… largely courtesy of his and others’ Henry Luce-inspired reporting. And – like you, I suspect – I want to ask him first what role he expects “the dragon” to play in our lives now and in the future.

ROWAN: Well, Dick, I think it’s either going to be our most … China’s going to be our most valuable ally, or our most dangerous enemy. And I think only time will tell.

HEFFNER: It you had to make a bet?

ROWAN: Our, our most valuable ally.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

ROWAN: I’m very optimistic.

HEFFNER: Why? Because of a natural optimism?

ROWAN: Because they are … their creeping capitalism, as some people call it, or market socialism as they call it, is getting very close to our own kind of economic operation. And I think the closer we get economically, the closer we’re going to get as friends.

HEFFNER: Do you see them as threatening at all the American empire?

ROWAN: Well, at the moment, there seems to be some thought that they are threatening our economy because they are actually flooding our stores with their, with their goods. I believe that … I think that 12% of all the China exports go to Wal-mart. I mean that’s a tremendous statistic. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And, what’s … do you see this as a … it’s a serious question … do you see this as a deliberate means of undermining our economy?

ROWAN: I don’t think so. I think it’s a deliberate means of, of building up their own economy.

HEFFNER: How much like us are they?

ROWAN: Well, they aren’t … I don’t, I don’t see … they have … I’ll tell you … I think they have a great sense of humor, unlike the Japanese. I think they’re like us in that respect. And they, they kind of roll with the punch pretty well. Otherwise I don’t … you know, their whole traditions, their whole way of life is pretty different from ours, as you know.

HEFFNER: Yes, but is … does that … is that good for us, or bad for us?

ROWAN: Well, I think it’s good for us and the more contact we have with them, and the more contact they have with us, the closer we get together, and the more alike we become.

HEFFNER: Do you find that that contact is expanding, ever-expanding … growing?

ROWAN: Oh, yes. It’s expanding very, very rapidly. I mean look at all the American firms that are going into China now, with plants and all kinds of services.

The big problem I think … in dealing with them in business maybe the intellectual property. They don’t seem to respect our intellectual property laws. They pirate a lot of our stuff.


ROWAN: I expect they’ll pirate this book.

HEFFNER: Now … well, you, you consider that something negative?

ROWAN: No. I’ll be happy to have them do it. I think it’s a book that they would consider very favorable to the Communist regime. I mean I was … when I was covering the Civil War there in the forties, I thought the Nationalist regime, Chang Kai Shek’s regime was very corrupt. And I, and I predicted that it would fall. So …

HEFFNER: Now, let’s go back to this question … or let’s develop this question of corruption. As I read the book, I realized how large that theme seemed for you to be a most important element. You expressed your, your disdain and disgust for the corruption. Only on the part of the Nationalists?

ROWAN: No, there was … I wouldn’t say that, but mainly … when I was a young … I had just finished my military service in the Philippines and I landed in China at the start as a relief worker for the United Nations. And we were, we were getting all of this farm equipment, clothing, medical supplies, everything from the US to distribute to the villages and towns in central China, that’s where I was working. And I saw an awful lot of it ending up in the black market and that really disturbed me.

Not that I was such a do-gooder, I was there for two reasons … one because that was the one job I could get in China … I tried to get a job as a reporter, and I couldn’t, there were too many war correspondents coming back. And I was hoping that while I was working as a relief worker for the UN that I would be able to take some pictures and write some stories and, and become a journalist … that route.

HEFFNER: How did you finally come to work for the proprietor?

ROWAN: Well, it’s a funny story. I finally got so upset with the corruption and the distribution of these relief supplies and also the danger … I was right in the middle of the Civil War up there, delivering supplies both to the Communist and the Nationalist villages, and this other American and I, we were getting shot at occasionally, not so different than the UN workers in Iraq today.

But I finally just decided to quit and go home. And I took a slow boat down the Yangtze to Shanghi and ended up walking into the Palace Hotel bar, have a drink and kind of drown my sorrows because I had no job. And standing next to me was the Time/Life Bureau Chief who introduced himself and offered me a drink and we got talking and that conversation, within a couple of weeks, evolved into my being hired by Time Incorporated, Life magazine particularly to cover the revolution in China.

HEFFNER: How did Henry Luce’s fix on China, and he had a tremendous personal interest in it … how did that impact upon you reporting?

ROWAN: Well, it didn’t impact on mine because I was working for Life. It did impact a lot on the Time correspondents. At that moment I was really almost entirely involved in Life’s coverage. And Luce had a … he made a big distinction … I mean I think he, he had an agenda with Time; that was his flagship magazine. Life was a picture magazine, and of course, because he, you know, thought that these pictures, will have to tell the truth and, and the truth was pretty dismal so he didn’t argue much with our coverage, with my coverage.

HEFFNER: What did you think as a journalist was his power, or the power you distinguished between Life and its pictures …


HEFFNER: … but I remember the text of Life and I remember it being very, very important to me.

ROWAN: It was, and you know, actually there were more words in Life every week than there were in Time. But, the main thrust of Life …

HEFFNER: Seriously?

ROWAN: Seriously. Of course, the pictures told the real story in Life … Luce always, he had, he had a wonderful expression … he said “It’s Time’s mission to make enemies and Life’s mission to make friends.”

HEFFNER: Did it?

ROWAN: I think it did.

HEFFNER: What about the influence, then, in terms of our China policy of Time? And Luce.

ROWAN: Well, I’m not sure I understand that. You mean the, the impact of Luce’s opinions on our foreign policy?

HEFFNER: Yes, precisely.

ROWAN: Well, I think it, it weighed pretty heavily at that time. There was a big China lobby in the United States. Luce was a very important member of that China lobby, did a lot personally with Madame Chang Kai Shek to raise funds to come to the rescue of Nationalist China. So in that way I think he had a great affect on … I don’t think his … I don’t think the magazines, particularly Time magazine, had a great impact on our foreign policy.

HEFFNER: But, the magazine’s were Luce’s …

ROWAN: They were.

HEFFNER: … and Luce, Luce did. Why, why did Chang Kai Shek ultimately not prevail?

ROWAN: Well, Chang … there are a number of reasons why Chang didn’t prevail, I think. One, he wasn’t the charismatic figure that Mao was. Mao was … Mao had a lot of charisma … I never met him. I met … I spent some time with Zhou Enlai, but never Mao. And Mao affected the people that in a way they felt a great loyalty to him. Chang was backed by corrupt people. I mean, you know, his brother-in-laws, T. V. Sung and H. H. Kung were pretty corrupt individuals. And Madame Chang Kai Shek, I don’t know where she … how you would grade her in that respect. But certainly she was known to have come to the United States with suitcases full of American currency and gold and things that she was stashing away here. So I’d, I’d have to put her in that class, too.

HEFFNER: Listen, there’s a wonderful photograph in your book of you sitting there with gold bars. What was that all about?

ROWAN: (Laughter) Well, that was a … it was taken in Makow. And there was a lot … at the end of the Civil War, right before Changi and then the rest of China fell to the Communists, the paper currency in China was virtually valueless, it had no value at all. And there was a lot of gold being smuggled in. And that picture of Jack Burns, the Life photographer and me hefting two big gold ingots each, was taken in Makow. That gold was being melted down into small, 10 ounce bars and then smuggled into the mainland aboard junks and even some of it in, in very, very small pieces of gold being flown into China on carrier pigeons. Mmmm.

HEFFNER: Literally?

ROWAN: Literally.

HEFFNER: Very heavy duty carrier pigeons.

ROWAN: Well, very small pieces of gold.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) You know at the end when you write about the fact that you went on to Vietnam … how do you relate … that episode and it seems so strange to call it an “episode” it went on so long, and was so destructive, it took so many lives with our involvements abroad now, our warlike involvements.

ROWAN: Well, to go back a little bit. Harry Truman was very smart in keeping us out of the war in China despite all of the, all of the very … pleas from Chang Kai Shek, strong pleas. I never thought after that happened that we would get involved in Vietnam. And I started covering Vietnam in 1948. I was coming down from China from time to time, so I was covering Vietnam when the French were there, before Dien Bien Phu. I never thought we would get hooked in that war, but of course we did.

Lyndon Johnson, particularly, I think, went there as Vice President and came back and said, “We’re going to nail the coonskin to the wall” and I think he thought he could, he could … that we could win that war.

HEFFNER: Why did he want to?

ROWAN: Why did …

HEFFNER: Why did he want to? Was it the domino theory, were there other factors?

ROWAN: I think the domino theory … which proved to be wrong. That was mainly Kissinger’s theory. But, now today in Iraq I, I, I think we’re involved in a very, very similar situation to that that we were involved in Vietnam. I don’t see, I don’t see us winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis, no matter what tribe you’re talking about. I see chaos coming out of that. I can’t see a, a real honest election. I may be wrong. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You hope you’re wrong, I’m sure. But you know you say at the end of the book, and it’s so interesting … you say … taking what you have just said to me, you say you don’t know of any journalist who covered China or Vietnam …

ROWAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … who doesn’t feel … well you say, “Well, I don’t know of one foreign correspondent that covered China’s Civil War, who would have recommended our getting into that morass, trying to win the hearts and minds of Ho Chi Min’s countrymen. The miscalculation that cost 58,000 American lives. As a journalist, however, I willingly covered that war, on and off during the sixties and seventies before being evacuated on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon.”

When I read that, particularly this statement, “I don’t know of one foreign correspondent who would have recommended our getting into that morass”, is that in the nature of being a foreign correspondent? Of seeing so much of the negative aspect of involvements in wars of any kind?
ROWAN: Well, I think it is an aspect because these are people that we didn’t understand very well. And we didn’t know how to win … we didn’t know how to win their hearts. What … we weren’t offering them … we were offering them a regime that … in Vietnam … that was corrupt, too. Just as Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalists were corrupt. We weren’t holding out much of a future for the Vietnamese in, in that war.

And I, I think … I never did know a correspondent that felt that we were in the right place, that this was a war at the right time in the right place … to use George W. Bush’s way of expressing himself on Iraq.

HEFFNER: Since the Ernie Pyle days in World War II, has there been any real encounter that we’ve been involved in, in which your fellow foreign correspondents have felt that way … have felt positively about our involvements, whether in the minor skirmishes …

ROWAN: I don’t know. I mean in Bosnia, I don’t know … I think we had a lot of sympathy for going into Bosnia. I wasn’t a part of that, I don’t know, I’m really just speculating. Maybe in Haiti or some of these lesser places, where little brushfire skirmishes … I don’t know. But certainly no major conflict … I can’t think of one.

HEFFNER: What does it take to be a foreign correspondent?

ROWAN: (Laughter) Luck.

HEFFNER: You mean to survive.

ROWAN: Yeah. I think it takes … there’s a lot of luck. You know when I was first hired by Time and Life back in … well just the end of 47, the beginning of 48, a friend of mine who knew Harry Luce … Henry Luce … said, “I can tell you one thing about Roy Rowan, he’s lucky”. So I think my luck’s been wonderful.

HEFFNER: The … our mutual friend … Chuck Champlin has told me how wonderful you are, more than just lucky. And clearly you’re a damn good reporter. But it must have taken a great deal to report in a balanced way from China, while that revolution was going on.

ROWAN: Yes. I think it did. And I, I’m not sure that I was so balanced. I was, I was influenced a lot by my experiences working for the United Nations, delivering the relief supplies, I saw so much black marketing going on and, and that did affect my coverage.

But I, I have a feeling that there is no such thing in the world as objective covering. I think, I think it’s impossible … we’re all human beings. So when we report on something our eyes see it in one way that is, is very personal. I think the best thing you can say is a good journalist tries to be fair. And I think I was fair.

HEFFNER: But if it is so important to know what one can know from overseas …to get a perspective so that our private opinions make the right kind of public opinion, what can you do to train people who then represent the press overseas?

ROWAN: That’s a very difficult question I think. Ahhh, I think it’s in a … teaching them to be fair. Not to … you know … to see both sides, you may, you may have a very strong feeling for one side or the other, but to express your feelings fairly and, and not just load it up from one perspective or another.

HEFFNER: Were there those who didn’t do that?

ROWAN: Oh, yeah, there always are. And you see it today, particularly in … look at the, look at the networks. I mean the difference between Fox and CNN, I think, is, is very distinct.

HEFFNER: Which way?

ROWAN: Well I think Fox is a very conservative cable channel. I think CNN is much more, much more liberal and much more … much fairer.

HEFFNER: Which then … well, now wait a minute, you said “Much more Liberal, much fairer”.

ROWAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Do you equate those things?

ROWAN: I think, partly. I do. I mean I, I … that maybe, maybe is a misstatement. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

HEFFNER: Just more liberal.

ROWAN: Yeah, more liberal. I do. And it’s closer to my views. I’m not, I’m not a flaming Liberal … I consider myself an Independent voter. I’ve voted for Republicans, I’ve voted for Democrats. I tend to … I suppose I’ve voted for more Democrats, but I like to think of myself as neutral; ready to endorse, vote for any candidate.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, what I’m really thinking of is the life you’ve lead as a foreign correspondent. Reporting from abroad and what an incredible burden it must be to be as balanced … and that’s what you’re talking about … fairness and balance …

ROWAN: Right.

HEFFNER: … when you do have sympathies, as I gather you did have sympathies in China.

ROWAN: Yes, I did. But I think you have to be responsible. I, I was always trying to be responsible. And not … and give … give some space and words …some pictures from the other side and show the other side.

HEFFNER: And you think you … I had a sense before … in something you said … that perhaps you were saying the equivalent of “If I had to do it over again, there are some things I would have reported differently”.

ROWAN: Well, probably. I can’t think specifically. I’m not going to sit here and say that everything I ever wrote was perfectly fair or objective. I’m sure it wasn’t. But I … at the time I think I did try hard to be fair. And, and not load it up from one perspective or another.

HEFFNER: What did you think of in … in Iraq … of the “embedding” of news correspondents?

ROWAN: Well, it has … there’s two sides to that. It’s a wonderful … one, you get terrific exposure. You get to see the war, you go right in with the troops, you don’t have any trouble gaining access. That’s, that’s wonderful. We always had in China, Vietnam … you had to win the kind of the affection or the friendship of a commander so that he trusts you and you get to go with the troops.

In, in Iraq you were assigned to a unit. On the other hand, it may, of course, I’ve never been embedded, but you may see it more from the side of the people you’re in bed with … and I don’t mean embedded, but “in bed with” …

HEFFNER: Right. Right. What’s your obligation, though? Again …

ROWAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Fairness and balance?

ROWAN: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: How can it be?

ROWAN: Well, it’s difficult. I think, I think it’s very difficult, you just, you have to be aware of the fact … I think it’s something you have to remind yourself of from time to time. You just, you know …”Am I being fair?” When you read your copy, well you know you write something and then you read it over and you take a look at it, a hard look at it from more the editor’s side than the writer’s side … and think, “Am I being fair?”

HEFFNER: What do you think, using that level of judgment of coverage of Iraq and, and I don’t mean the “embedding” during the battles. I mean the general commentary that we’ve read ever since.

ROWAN: Well, I think we’re getting a very, very accurate picture of what’s going on there. That’s my feeling. I, I’ve never been in Iraq so I don’t know. I’ve never worked, really worked in the Middle East; I’ve worked in Europe and I’ve worked in Asia and even a little bit in South America, but … so I don’t … I’m not an expert on that. But, from the stand point of a reader, newspaper reader and television watcher, it seems to me you’re getting a very, very accurate picture of what’s going on. Too accurate, sometimes.

HEFFNER: What do you mean? “Too accurate?”

ROWAN: Well, I mean I think it’s disheartening … it’s terribly disheartening to see that country being destroyed. I mean I … when I see what’s happened in Fallujah and I think of this, this … I think it was a Captain, I forget the name of the town in Vietnam saying, “You know, we had to destroy it to save it.” Peter Arnet repeated that for the AP, wrote that for the AP. I mean I think we’re destroying a lot of Iraq with the intention of saving it and I don’t think that’s going to work.

HEFFNER: I undoubtedly share with you your feelings about Iraq, but as I read the reportage, I’m concerned sometimes, often, indeed, that the reportage is so negative that, that there must be some kind of balance, a different kind of balance than the fairness we were talking about before that may be needed.

ROWAN: Well, that could be true. I mean who … I can’t say, but I, I see a lot of Iraqi civilians getting killed. I see a lot of their homes being destroyed. I see all of the economic structure there being wrecked. I can’t see a very positive view coming out of that.

HEFFNER: In the short time that we have left, do you think that foreign correspondence-y has gotten better?

ROWAN: Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER: Since the first time you reported?

ROWAN: Oh, yeah. Correspondents, I think, are much more skilled today. One, they … a lot of them have learned the language of the country their covering. We didn’t, I don’t think many correspondents back in my day, particularly covering China or Korea or Vietnam knew the language. Today it would be impossible, I think, to get a job covering China, if you didn’t know Chinese. And, and that is a tremendous help. I spoke a little Chinese, I never learned to read or write it and I didn’t speak it enough to carry on an interview, just to, to work.

HEFFNER: Now this is a judgment, obviously of the, of the media masters, that they won’t send people who don’t know the language. Is that correct?

ROWAN: Yeah. I think they’re demanding much more proficiency in many things that they … skills … a lot of other skills, too … writing skills, I think the writing is probably better today. That may not be … but certainly you, you better know Chinese if you’re going to go to China today as a correspondent.

HEFFNER: I think there are many people who feel you’d better know Chinese whether you’re going as a correspondent or not.

ROWAN: (Laughter) Yes.

HEFFNER: Which, of course, is a function, too of your book and as we close, Roy Rowan, I can’t help but think that “Chasing The Dragon” will educate an awful lot of people about the nature of that revolution and maybe the nature of China today.

ROWAN: Well, I hope so. That was my intention, Dick.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

ROWAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER:: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.