W. Joseph Campbell

That’s not what Zhou meant

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on August 17, 2011 at 7:52 am

Nixon and Zhou, 1972

In 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai told President Richard M. Nixon that it was “too early to say” what would be the implications of political upheaval in France.

It’s long been thought that Zhou was referring to the French Revolution that began in 1789 — that Zhou was taking a decidedly wise, sagacious, and patient view of history.

But in reality, according to a former U.S. diplomat who was present at the discussion in China, Zhou was referring to the more recent turmoil that had shaken France in 1968.

Still, the conventional interpretation — the Zhou was thinking in centuries, not in mere years — is so appealing that it lives on, as was suggested by a commentary posted yesterday by the English-language Moscow Times newspaper.

The commentary, which considered the significance of the attempted coup in the former Soviet Union in August 1991, began this way:

“Chinese leader Zhou Enlai may have been correct when he told U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 that it was too early to determine the impact of the French Revolution, but 20 years is usually enough to assess the importance of most historical events.”

The commentary may be quite correct about a 20-year interval being sufficient for assessing historical events.

But the characterization about Zhou’s comment is off-target, in light of recollections offered in June by Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., a retired diplomat who was interpreter for Nixon on his famous 1972 trip to China.

The Financial Times of London was first to report about the revised interpretation of Zhou’s comment. The newspaper quoted Freeman’s remarks at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., that the Chinese leader was referring to the events of 1968.

Freeman, in a subsequent interview with me, described Zhou’s comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected,” noting that “it conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.  And is not infrequently repeated.

Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou’s “too early to say” remark was in reference to upheaval of 1968, not the years of turmoil that began in 1789.

Freeman described Zhou’s remark as “a classic of the genre of a constantly repeated misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own.”

In that way, it’s akin to other deliciously irresistible quotations that are just too neat and too tidy to be true — a topic I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

One of the too-perfect-to-be-true quotations I discuss is the vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst, who purportedly pledged to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

The Hearstian vow suggests the depths to which journalists can stoop — to agitate for a war the country otherwise would not fight. That’s a reason for the tenacity of the purported Hearst quote. It reveals journalists at their most depraved.

But the purported vow, however well-known, is surely apocryphal.

Hearst denied having sent such a message, and the artifact — the telegram conveying the vow — has never turned up.

What’s more, pledging to “furnish the war” would have made no sense, given the context. Hearst’s telegram was supposedly sent to an artist, Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba to draw sketches of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

It’s illogical that Hearst would have vowed to “furnish the war” when war — the Cuban rebellion — was the reason he sent Remington to the island in the first place.


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