W. Joseph Campbell

A thumbsucker commentary and the Zhou misinterpretation

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war on December 2, 2011 at 12:49 am

A thumbsucker is what some American journalists call a self-indulgent article or commentary that tends to go on and on, usually about an obscure or time-worn topic.

At its online site yesterday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper posted a thumbsucker that ruminated about the close of historical periods, offering observations such as this:

“Bloodied soldiers didn’t stand around on the battlefield at Bosworth and immediately reflect that, though it had been a hard-fought day, at least the later Middle Ages had now ended.”

Obscure, perhaps, but not altogether uninteresting.

But what caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the reference to the conventional but erroneous version of Zhou Enlai’s famous and often-quoted comment in 1972, that it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French Revolution.

That version is frequently offered as evidence of China’s sage, patient, and far-sighted ways. That’s rather how the Guardian thumbsucker-commentary referred to it, saying:

“If, as Zhou Enlai said, it is too soon to have a view of the French Revolution, then it is probably too soon to say if the [governing] coalition [in Britain] is a failed government.”

But Zhou was not referring to the French Revolution that began in 1789.

He was speaking about the political turmoil in France of 1968.

We know this from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during the historic, weeklong trip, offered the revised interpretation almost six months ago at a panel discussion in Washington.  The discussion’s moderator was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert who wrote about Freeman’s comments for the Financial Times of London.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman elaborated on his recollection about Zhou’s comment, saying it probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a conversation about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The discussion, Freeman said, touched on the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou was speaking about 1968.

Just how Zhou’s remark came to be so dramatically misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Stereotyping is but one hazard of dubious quotes like Zhou’s.

Dubious and misinterpreted quotes tend to are falsehoods masquerading as the truth — as suggested by the delicious but apocryphal tale about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Dubious quotes also dishonor their purported authors — as in the comment often attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon hearing newsman Walter Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war in Vietnam, Johnson supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever made such a comment.

Besides, he didn’t see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired in late February 1968.

So it’s very difficult to believe the president could have been much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Or that he would have uttered such a comment, if he had seen the program.


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