CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 11 . . . . January 25, 2008
I grew up a child of the 60's, a victim of the anti-Communist propaganda of the Cold War. Home, school and church went out of their way to present Communism as truly the world's greatest evil. The years since then have managed to grey over much of that black and white view of the world. However, I must admit that I was still very surprised as I watched They Chose China. What is presented here did not reflect the world as I thought I knew it.
Filmmaker Shuibo Wang comments that he remembers seeing a western man bicycling through his town when he was young. This was in the '60's, the Cold War was well underway, and he had never seen a westerner before. At the time, this sight was "as odd as a creature from outer space." He had never expected to see one so at home. His film looks at the lives of several captured soldiers of the Korean War who decided, after the war, to go to China rather than back home.
Due to time constraints and the volume of information covered in a 20th Century Canada course, the Korean War often gets tacked on to that time after World War II. The complexity of the situation is reduced to North Korea bad; South Korea good and needed help, and, thanks to our help, Communism was stopped. The ideological aspects of the war seem to have been lost. The film looks at that angle and tells a story that will be a complete surprise to many.
Many enlisted to fight in the Korean War because there was no work in peace-time America. When China entered the war to support its neighbour, North Korea, the Chinese soldiers were surprised by how many of the foreign soldiers they were able to capture. They were not prepared for such a number, and many prisoners died due to the cold and malnutrition. As one POW reports, "Of 500 in one camp, maybe 50 survived." The POWs interviewed admit that they were surprised by the treatment they received at the hands of their captors. Their time in captivity was better than they expected. The POWs were addressed as "students" and had to listen to daily lectures about how the war was unnecessary; it was dirty; the U.S. should not have gotten involved. Communism, once explained, made sense. The camps held inter-camp Olympics. The men were allowed to have a club house and were given sports equipment when they asked.
After "1 million and a half dead and 2 million wounded" the war stopped on 27 July, 1953. The POWs who debated returning home were placed in a neutral zone and were given 90 days to decide if they wanted to return to home or not. Twenty-three American and one British soldier chose to go to China. The reasons they give make up the bulk of this film.
These men are featured in a Chinese documentary dated 23 January, 1954. Here they sing a freedom song at the end of which someone shouts, "Does anyone want to go home?" and the men respond, "No!" A number of them explain why they have chosen to remain. Some state that they wish to be free from McCarthyism. Lewis Griggs states that he "never intended to be in an unjust war like Korea." His mother is interviewed, and she feels that he has been the victim of brainwashing. Two Americans who decided to return to the U.S. after all were court-martialed and sentenced to 10 and 20 years in prison. The men still in China are outraged when they hear this.
David Hawkins returned to the U.S. in 1957. He felt that he had been in China long enough and things were starting to change. In an interview with Mike Wallace, he is referred to as the "youngest U.S. Army turncoat." Hawkins joined the army in 1949, one month after his 16th birthday. He was wounded in battle and woke up in a Chinese field hospital where the attending doctor told him, "We are friends."
The Chinese Republic was new, and everyone wanted to make it successful. In China, the men were treated as dignitaries and were invited to participate in the 1954 May Day Parade in Tiananmen Square. Hawkins asked for and received a job as a truck driver. He was referred to as a "peace fighter" at the People's University where he studied language and history. In 1955, The New York Times wrote that these men were not converts to Communism, but rather accused the men of being guilty of crimes against their fellow soldiers and afraid to return home. Hawkins denies this in the Wallace interview. When asked if he was a spy, Hawkins states that "we have an aggressive government-always hungry for war," and the Korean War was wrong. "We had no business getting involved in a civil war."
Hawkins returns to China 47 years later and describes it as a "kind of homecoming." He is amazed by the changes. He reconnects with former friends, and his return is quite touching.
Clarence Adams, an Afro-American, was asked by a drunken white man where he could find a black woman. Overly insistent, the man was pushed by one of Adams' group. When the police came to Adams' house, he fled out the back door to the recruiting office and enlisted. In Korea, he was wounded in action and captured. Opposed to the treatment of blacks in the U.S., he stayed in China and married. His wife was the first to marry a black American. When she was expecting their first child, many of their friends wondered if the child would be striped, checkered or one side white, the other black. Upon Adams' return to the U.S., old friends were afraid of him, and he had difficulty finding work: "The news media ruined me...."
Most of the men returned to the U.S. by 1966. Once back, they found that no one would hire them, and two wound up in mental institutions. Life in China was too difficult for some in that it was too lonely. Attitudes also changed, and the early welcome they had received began to get chilled. As Adams explains, they were first referred to as "comrades and peace fighters," then "mister." With Mao's Cultural Revolution, China was no longer an attractive place to be.
The American on the bicycle was James Veneris who stated that he would only return to the U.S. when there was peace. Veneris worked for 20 years in a paper mill, a job that he enjoyed and did well. His co-workers thought so highly of him that, when Mao's Red Guard came to arrest him, they protected him. Veneris married into Chinese society and never returned to the U.S. He is shown on Chinese television describing his life. He does not have any regrets about his decision. When his son decides to move to the U.S., he asks him never to join the military. During his trip back to China, Hawkins goes to Veneris' grave site. He is clearly saddened that he was unable to have seen him before he died, and he offers himself to Veneris' family as a grandfather.
They Chose China is an excellent film. For people of my generation, it is something that we would never have been allowed to see during the Cold War years. For today's students, it shows what happens when one relies on personal morality in the face of national dictates. The film would work well with History, Ethics, Law, Politics. Given the relationship between China and the West today, this time of our histories should not be ignored.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.