Milton Miles and Dai Li. Via Osprey Publishing

REVIEW: The Rice Paddy Navy

Osprey Publishing; November 2012; 316 pp.

Before Navy SEALs stormed mansions in Pakistan, the notion of sailors waging war on land sounded ludicrous to many. So when Gen. George C. Marshall learned that Navy captain Milton Miles intended to train an army of Chinese guerillas to disrupt Japanese army operations in China and create a massive intelligence and weather monitoring network to assist naval operations in the Pacific, he thought Miles was insane.

In The Rice Paddy Navy: U.S. Sailors Undercover in China, freelance reporter Linda Kush tells the story of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO), a covert partnership between the Navy and the Nationalist Chinese Secret Service under Gen. Dai Li. It’s a tale of espionage, gadgetry, treachery and backroom dealing starring a colorful cast of characters including Chinese gangsters and pirates, a Vietnamese princess, secret societies and assassins.

It began after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Americans had been caught off guard in no small part because the Japanese had used the weather to hide their fleet. The Japanese had weather stations all over the Pacific and China. In comparison the allies were fighting blind.

To rectify this the Navy dispatched Miles to China to set up a network of weather and signals-intercept stations. They would be the Navy’s eyes and ears. But many of them would have to be behind enemy lines. To make this possible, they would need the support of the Chinese. Specifically, they would need the support of Gen. Dai Li.

Dai remains a mysterious and controversial figure. Nicknamed the “Himmler of China,” Dai had strong ties to the fascist Blue Shirt Society and the Green Gang, the powerful crime syndicate that ruled Shanghai and aided the Kuomintang in the 1927 Shanghai Massacre.

Miles had read this and more in State Department reports, and approached Dai with caution. In spite of his misgivings, Miles quickly came to respect Dai for his straightforwardness and intelligence and his apparent respect for his subordinates. Dai in turn appreciated Miles’ fondness for China and his support for its sovereignty. Miles was possibly the only foreigner Dai ever truly trusted and the only one to ever enter the Chinese general’s inner circle.

Together the two officers set up a camp that would become SACO headquarters near one of Dai’s luxurious estates, known henceforth as “Happy Valley.”

Using a range of published and unpublished sources, Kush brings to life the adventures of this unlikely band of American sailors and Marines and Chinese spies and guerillas. She shows how the Americans and Chinese SACOs clashed and often misunderstood each other but still managed to work together. She contrasts this to many other U.S. and British officials — the “Old China Hands” — who tried to direct the Chinese rather than work with and among them, as SACO did.

Miles is the star of this tale. His battles with military bureaucrats occupied a large part of his time. He fought off constant accusations that he’d gone native. Miles consistently argued for keeping faith with the Chinese and respecting their sovereignty. Other notable SACO members included Phil Bucknew, one of the founders of the Navy SEALs and the first commander of SEAL Team One, and Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of the famous lifesaving maneuver.

Kush also takes some time to delve into Dai’s psyche — and like many historians is not sure what to make of the general. She doesn’t try to fight off all the charges against Dai, including the executions he carried out and his ruthless punishment of dissent. But she suggests that many of the stories about his brutality are embellished, perhaps even spread by himself to inspire fear in his enemies.

The book is not flawless. At times it can feel repetitive. There’s also a lack of citations where you’d really like them, especially in the latter half of the book where there are suggestions that the Chinese Communists and the Japanese — otherwise natural enemies — were directly cooperating to kill Dai and disrupt SACO. In particular, Kush’s cites no sources in her description of a July 1945 incident in which three Japanese and one Communist Chinese agent all allegedly participated in a raid to kill Dai and Miles.

There is also a point were Kush asserts that Douglas MacArthur banned the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the CIA — from working in his battlespace because he saw little use for espionage. In truth it’s well documented that MacArthur made extensive use of friendly guerillas and agents on Pacific islands. He simply preferred to rely on his own Allied Intelligence Bureau rather than the OSS.

Still,The Rice Paddy Navy is a fascinating and valuable study of espionage and unconventional warfare.

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Keith Ellison takes his oath of office in 2007. Photo via Wikipedia

Islamic State’s Latest Magazine Includes an Apostate Hit-List

‘Dabiq’ calls for the deaths of Western Muslim leaders


The latest issue of Islamic State’s slick propaganda magazine Dabiq reaffirms the group’s desire to take on, well, pretty much the entire world in apocalyptic warfare.

The issue opens by praising the attacks in Belgium … and promising worse. “Paris was a warning,” the rag proclaims. “Brussels was a reminder. What is yet to come will be more devastating and more bitter, by the permission of Allah.”

While many have latched onto these chilling — if vague — words, less has been made of the specific threat that Islamic State made in the same issue. This issue of Dabiq contains a hit list. The names on the list include prominent Islamic scholars and Muslim politicians in the United States and Europe.

Islamic State has long made clear its disdain for Muslims who don’t submit to its hardline brand of Islam. While the group has killed countless Christians and Yazidis, ISIS still kills far more Muslims than it does people from any other religious group.

And in the ground war against ISIS, Muslim soldiers and militiamen of various factions still make up the vast majority of those fighting and dying.

ISIS has denounced refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq as cowards and openly expressed its goal to turn Westerners against refugees and longtime immigrants in a strategy it calls “destroying the gray zone.”

“The immigrants sought comfort in this worldly life by residing peacefully in the lands of Islam’s oldest enemies,” the latest Dabiq states. “As a result of their negligence towards their obligations and their exposure to Western kufr, their identity was altered.”

“[Western Muslims] became even more ardent and blatant defenders of the crusaders after the [caliphate] was reestablished, uniting with their cross-bearing allies in the global war against the Islamic State, the only true bastion of Sharī’ah rule on Earth.”

Islamic State categorically despises multiculturalism as well as any Muslim who associates with non-Muslims. But this singling out of individual Muslims is new.

“How can Muslims living in the West who claim to have surrendered themselves to Allah, completely accepting his rule alone, stand idly as these imams of kufr continue to spread their poison from atop their pulpits?” the magazine’s writers ask hypothetically in their call for a campaign of killings. “Make an example of them, as all of them are valid — rather, obligatory — targets according to the Sharī’ah.”

Number one on the hit list is Hamza Yusuf, an American-born Islamic scholar whom Dabiq called “perhaps the pinnacle of apostasy.” Yusuf is the founder of Zaytuna College — a small Muslim liberal arts college in Berkley, California — and an outspoken critic of Islamist terror groups.

Nihad Awad. Dabiq art

In particular, Dabiq cites Yusuf’s praise of the U.S. constitution and his belief in free speech as reasons he should die. “It is not surprising then that he was invited to the White House after the September 11th attacks, becoming an advisor to Bush on the war against Muslims, thus becoming a crusader himself.”

Yusuf is just one of several American and European scholars and imams on the list. Some of the targets are controversial among both Muslims and Western critics.

Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is depicted in cross-hairs in this issue of Dabiq.

ISIS is also calling for the death of “politically active” Muslims who’ve held office or worked in Western governments. Among those the group names is Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Congressman who took his oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran.

“As millions of faithful Muslims flee Daesh’s imposed nightmare they call a ‘caliphate,’ Daesh takes the time to threaten Muslim public servants in the West,” Ellison wrote in a press release. “Daesh is a collection of liars, murderers, torturers and rapists. The fact that I’m on Daesh’s bad side means I am fighting for things like justice, tolerance and a more inclusive world.”

In addition, the hit list includes Arif Alikhan, a senior U.S. Department of Homeland Security official who was formerly a counterterrorism professor at National Defense University. Also on the list — Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin, British Conservative Party ministers Sajid Javid and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Bangladesh-born British physicist Muhammad Abdul Bari.

Later in the issue, there’s a feature condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as a “cancer” and an enemy of Islam. “Its religion was a hodgepodge of deviance bequeathed by the Ottomans combined with the various tenets and rites of democracy, liberalism, pacifism and socialism borrowed from the pagans of the West and the East.”

As Islamic State tries to rally supporters to its cause, it further demonstrates how narrow it considers its pool of true believers to be — as well as how long its list of enemies is.

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A War With China Would Be Bloody — and Stupid

Mao’s translator left the Communist Party, now he warns about a return to the Cold War


Sidney Rittenberg knows a thing or two about China. During World War II, he learned fluent Mandarin as a U.S. Army linguist, worked in China, left the Army and joined the Chinese Communist Party. He became friends with Mao Zedong and spent 16 years in solitary confinement — as Mao’s prisoner.

We recently spoke to Rittenberg about his experiences in Maoist China, his imprisonment and why he became disillusioned with the party. In his 93 years, he’s seen China and America at their best … and their worst.

Now as tensions between Washington and Beijing grow, Rittenberg worries that American officials are returning to old habits of seeing China as a mysterious and hostile power. The former apparatchik thinks this is a grave mistake.

On July 9, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the officer next in line to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China — and Russia, too — present the greatest threat to American security.

“They present the greatest existential threat,” Dunford said. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

China is rapidly upgrading its military and expanding its navy. The United States is undergoing a “Pacific pivot,” shifting military forces to the region and its strategic waterways. To be sure, Rittenberg blames both Washington and Beijing for the veritable arms race between the two countries.

But in the second part of our extensive interview, Rittenberg warned that a potential conflict with China would be disastrous … and bloody. He doesn’t believe it would be a war America could win. “We’re not very good at learning,” he said.

In any case, he believes the United States and China have far more — and better — reasons to work together than to fight. He argues that this has been the case historically, even when Washington and Beijing didn’t have diplomatic relations at all.

Above — Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tours Beijing’s Forbidden City during in 2007. Department of Defense photo. At top — Sidney Rittenberg sits in his living room in Bellevue, Washington. Kevin Knodell photo

Complicated ties

Rittenberg derives his views from his relationships and experiences. He’s a retired academic and ran a consulting business for American firms seeking to do business in China. He also twice translated for Mao during the communist leader’s interactions with the U.S. government during the 1940s.

Back then, Mao made several overtures to the Harry Truman administration, even as his rebels fought the U.S.-backed regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Mao’s reasons were pragmatic — he wanted normal diplomatic relations with the United States so he wouldn’t have to depend on Joseph Stalin.

As Rittenberg sees it, Washington missed a golden opportunity to exploit a growing rift between the Soviet Union and China’s future communist leaders — and perhaps avoid future wars in Korea and Vietnam. Or at least, make those conflicts far less costly.

Besides, the Soviets were stingy. Following the Chinese civil war, the communists requested a $300 million loan from Moscow. Instead, Stalin gave them $4.4 million. Another time, Mao told Rittenberg of an attempt to buy smelting equipment from the Soviet Union. Stalin slapped a condition on the sale — the Chinese had to buy Russian rocks to go with the equipment.

“Mao told Stalin that there were plenty of rocks in China, but Stalin said they came as a set,” Rittenberg recalled with a laugh. “He said China couldn’t have one without the other.”

China’s communist leadership soon locked Rittenberg away at Stalin’s insistence — the Soviet dictator thought he was a Western spy. Mao didn’t release Rittenberg until 1955, after Stalin’s death.

Sino-Soviet relations didn’t improve when Nikita Khrushchev took power, either. The new leader continued Stalin’s propensity to condescend to the Chinese, which offended them. “I remember once seeing Khrushchev come out of that room purple faced, madder than you can hardly imagine,” Rittenberg recalled of a meeting between the Khrushchev and Mao.

During one visit, the Soviet leader told Mao he expected the Chinese to invite Soviet technical advisers to sit in during all committee meetings. When the Chinese leader told him they would instead brief the Russians on whatever decisions they made, Khrushchev protested.

“Khrushchev told [Mao] ‘all our comrades in Eastern Europe do it this way,’” Rittenberg recalled. “Mao told him, ‘I know what happens in Eastern Europe, that’s why we’re not going to do that.’”

By the 1960s, Khrushchev had recalled most Soviet advisers.

Pres. Richard Nixon — who ironically rose to prominence as an ardent anti-communist — finally pushed the United States to recognize that communist governments weren’t in lockstep with each other.

He made China a priority, arguing that “there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” His 1973 visit led to a historic thaw in relations between the two powers.

Richard Nixon’s toast to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during his historic visit in 1972. Via

Best frenemies

“We’ve taken a strategic position with every president since Nixon, that a strong China is good for America,” Rittenberg said. “Despite what you hear, relations on the ground are actually very good.”

He said that post-Nixon, American leaders have generally welcomed Chinese prosperity as an opportunity for mutual growth and healthy competition. He’s not wrong. Dozens of U.S. government agencies regularly hold high and mid-level talks with their Chinese counterparts — a level of engagement Rittenberg argued America has with few world governments.

In 2007, Gen. Peter Pace — one of Dunford’s predecessors — accepted a Chinese invitation to tour the country. He became the highest ranking American military officer to visit China since the 1980s.

It was an important visit. Six years earlier, a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 spy plane, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan island. It was a significant international incident that chilled relations.

But in the years since Pace’s visit, the U.S. and Chinese navies have teamed up for disaster relief exercises and port visits. Both navies have sent warships to patrol for Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. During the summer of 2014, Chinese ships attended the U.S.-led RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii for the first time — although Beijing brought an uninvited spy ship along for the trip.

Later that year, a handful of American, Chinese and Australian troops participated in a survival skills in an Australian jungle for weeks during Exercise Kowari 2014.

“There’s a lot of talk about rethinking our China strategy today,” Rittenberg said. But he said he’s wary of a “containment” strategy in regards to Chinese power. He’s also skeptical of increased U.S. security talks with China’s neighbors such as India and Vietnam. “We seem to be trying to form a sort of anti-China alliance.”

His major point — a war with China would be a tragedy for everyone involved, and that the U.S. military’s technological superiority may prove less decisive in a war with China than many Americans might expect.

“The last war we truly, decisively won was Grenada,” Rittenberg asserted. He argued that the Persian Gulf War’s bloody aftermath and the U.S. military’s continuing entanglements in Iraq calls into question the effectiveness of Operation Desert Storm. “And now you want to fight China?”

Ultimately, Rittenberg thinks that most of the tough talk is just that — talk. As he sees it, Beijing and the Washington have too many shared strategic interests. Both fear political instability and terrorism. Both benefit from a globalized economy. Chinese and American companies have ties that are too deep — and profitable — for either side to want to act on their harsh rhetoric.

But he thinks business may also drive anti-China fears in America. Specifically the arms business. “I think a lot of this is about selling weapons,” he said. “I think we’re trying to have China be a friend and an enemy at the same time.”

He asserts that fear of Chinese power is good for the American defense lobby, keeps military spending high and justifies the acquisition of high priced systems like the hot — but controversial — F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The Chinese destroyer Qingdao arrives in Hawaii on Nov. 6, 2013. U.S. Navy photo

Assertive China

Rittenberg readily admits that China is far from blameless for the buildup of tensions. The United States has been able to increase security ties and arms sales to China’s neighbors in part because of Beijing’s own increasing arms buildup and willingness to flex its military muscles.

“I think the ‘assertive’ is the word people use today when we talk about China,” Rittenberg said. “And China has been quite assertive.”

In May 2014, China moved an oil rig to an area of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam. The Vietnamese coast guard ordered the rig to leave, and the two sides got into a scuffle — which escalated to a Chinese coast guard ship ramming a Vietnamese vessel. Back in Vietnam, angry protesters attacked Chinese citizens and businesses.

Beijing ultimately agreed to move the rig, but then moved it back in June 2015. Such brazen moves have made several Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines, understandably wary.

In June 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that Hanoi would purchase new American patrol boats for its coast guard. Vietnam has also strengthened ties with the Philippines — a key U.S. ally in the region.

“We might get back some bases in the Philippines and maybe some naval docking in Vietnam,” Rittenberg said. “But the Southeast Asian countries are never going to be true allies to us or China.”

He added that smaller countries in Asia have been caught between empires for generations, and will ultimately look after themselves first. “They’ll never fully go to one side or the other, they’re just too smart for that.”

Of greater concern to Rittenberg is Japan. Tokyo and Beijing have been locked in a bitter debate over disputed islands near Taiwan called the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, respectively. Rittenberg believes Beijing’s forceful power displays have had unintended consequences in Japan.

In particular, he believes that Japanese fear of Chinese expansionism has inadvertently lead to a revival of radical ultra-nationalist groups in Japan. These groups romanticize Japan’s militarist leaders of the 1930s and ’40s. Rittenberg is especially critical of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who he accused of intentionally inflaming nationalist tensions on both sides.

“Abe doesn’t have to go to that shrine,” Rittenberg asserted, referring to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead — including several infamous war criminals — are memorialized. “He does it to fling his nose at China.”

But much like the Sino-American relationship, Chinese and Japanese companies have formed close business partnerships. Conflict over access to Pacific islands and waterways disrupt these ties. “The Chinese need to be much more conciliatory with Japan,” Rittenberg said. “And I think they already know that.”

Chinese, Japanese and American troops during a joint exercise in Mongolia in June 2015. Photos via

Rittenberg explained that China — like America — must weigh aspirations with international realities. China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It’s also a country that rose from a playground for empires into a veritable superpower in less than a century.

As a result, China’s leaders have a deep sense of history and national pride. The same leaders can get very defensive when they feel outsiders are insulting that sense of pride, and are zealous in demonstrating their power in the 21st century.

“Nationalism sometimes blinds even the most rational leaders,” Rittenberg said, speaking specifically of China and its leadership’s desire to appear strong on the international stage.

He hopes that Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping will dial back on some of Beijing’s tough talk to focus on domestic issues — chiefly corruption. Xi has overseen an unprecedented campaign against corruption in China targeting party leaders and officials — even military leaders — that many Chinese previously thought untouchable.

“They gave people the opportunity to come forward and fess up, but hardly anyone took advantage,” Rittenberg said.

When asked if perhaps many officials simply didn’t believe they could be arrested, the former Maoist replied that that was almost definitely the case. “Some of these guys have been at it so long, they probably thought it would never end.”

China has even asked the United States for help with the anti-corruption campaign — as Chinese authorities believe several corrupt party officials have gone into hiding in America. U.S. and Chinese agencies have already cooperated in at least one bust and are seeking other fugitives.

There’s room for this grow. For instance, the U.S. and China could cooperate on slowing the steady beat of violent crime at sea in the Pacific and Indian oceans — which disrupts commerce and poses danger for everyone passing through.

The former revolutionary said he hopes that an informed populace in both countries — as well as continued business, educational and cultural exchange — can help prevent conflict. “It’s extremely important for both sides to have accurate information about the other.”

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Hanging Out With an Armed Militia at the Local Recruiting Post

The U.S. military isn’t thrilled about men with weapons showing up to its offices


A motley group of men wearing khaki and camouflage stood guard outside a U.S. Army recruiting office. They toted shotguns, pistols and assault rifles. Pizza boxes and takeout food bags piled up on a few chairs.

No, these guys weren’t soldiers … but an impromptu militia.

I traveled to Spanaway, Washington, and interviewed men who volunteered to guard a recruiting center — on their own — following attacks on a recruiting post and a Navy training center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On July 16, 2015, 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor before police officers fatally shot him.

Citizen guards have since popped up around the country … and have quickly become a source of controversy. Some observers hailed them as heroes. Others — including top military officials—have called them a security risk.

At least one armed citizen in Ohio was arrested for accidentally firing his rifle outside a strip mall.

But outside this office, the scene was positively sedated. Spanaway is a small, military-friendly town adjacent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a combined Army and Air Force base and one of the largest military installations in America.

A young veteran named Bill said he arrived immediately after wrapping up a night shift at work. He carried a shotgun and a holstered pistol as he stood guard on July 22. As a veteran, the killings in Chattanooga hit him hard, he said.

“With the base here, this is a very military part of the state,” he said. “I know a lot of veterans and military family members who were just scared and heartbroken that something like this could happen at home.”

Several of the armed men in Spanaway said they preferred not to have their faces photographed or to give their last names. They insisted they were not looking for personal recognition or attention, but rather to show support for soldiers and veterans.

Most were former service members themselves.

Bill stands guard in front of the Army recruiting center in Spanaway, Washington. Kevin Knodell photo

The volunteers weren’t part of an organization, and many of them didn’t even know each other until they arrived outside the recruiting office. They came and went as work and other obligations came up.

“These guys put their lives on the line and gave Uncle Sam a blank check,” said Mike, a disabled veteran with a pistol tucked in the waistband of his shorts. “It’s a shame that they can’t protect themselves here.”

Mike served 10 years in the Air Force, and told me his daughter recently concluded a stint in the flying branch. He said he felt a sense of duty to help fellow service members — active duty and veterans alike. “If you have some free time, I can’t think of a better way to spend it,” he said.

Most of the volunteers admitted that an attack is unlikely, but they said that’s not the point. “We’re here mostly as a deterrent and to show moral support,” Mike said. “I certainly don’t expect a van full of jihadis to roll up.”

Most military personnel cannot carry weapons while on non-deployment duty unless engaged in training or specialized guard duty, according to official Pentagon policy. Recruiters do not typically carry weapons, and the Pentagon doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to let them.

“I think we need to take a look at it, but I have some concerns of second- and third-order effects of that,” Lt. Gen. Robert Neller told the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 23.

“I’m not going to discount it but I think in the end, it is the most extreme measure to do what we need to do, which is protect those Marines who are serving out there,” Neller added during his confirmation hearing to become the Marine Corps’ next commandant.

Fundamentally, the problem is that guns put an obstacle between the recruiter and a potential recruit. Firearms are intimidating — hence why armed guards serve as a deterrent.

If recruiters routinely carried guns, it would likely make their jobs harder, especially at high schools which prohibit guns. “They need to recruit — they need to stay connected to the American people, so whatever we do, we need to ensure that we can continue to go to schools [to recruit],” Neller added.

Bill said he didn’t expect a fight. “Since we are by one of the county’s largest military installations, it would be pretty idiotic [for jihadists] to try something.”

But he made clear that if something did happen, he was prepared to act.

At left — Mike’s pistol. At right — Bill’s shotgun. Kevin Knodell photos

Though the Spanaway volunteers I talked to eschewed getting too political or hamming it up for the cameras, this hasn’t been true elsewhere. In other states, citizen guards have openly flaunted their ties to right-wing militia groups and the sovereign citizen movement.

Many law enforcement professionals and terrorism experts consider these groups to be deadlier than jihadist groups. The day before the armed citizens appeared in front of the Spanaway recruiting office, the Army warned recruiting personnel to regard armed citizens as a security risk.

But if the soldiers here had read the warning, many seemed unfazed. Uniformed personnel came and went, and some of them exchanged pleasantries with the impromptu militia outside. The soldiers even brought a few chairs out of the office so the volunteers could sit.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department received calls from concerned citizens about the weapons when the volunteers first arrived on July 21, but the cops didn’t initially step in.

Washington is an open carry state — at that point everything the men had done was perfectly legal.

But police requested an 18-year-old man outside a recruiting center in Silverdale, Washington, to put away his weapons because he was scaring the locals. The man had a rifle and a shotgun and “was sitting in a beach chair and displaying an American flag,” according to the Kitsap Sun.

On July 23, police in Lancaster, Ohio, ordered an armed group to leave a recruiting center at a strip mall after 28-year-old Christopher Reed accidentally fired his AR-15 rifle. No one was hurt, but police seized Reed’s weapon and charged him with a misdemeanor. It was Reed’s second charge for the same offense — the first for an incident in 2013.

On July 17, a Navy recruiter came into work armed in Gainesville, Georgia, and accidentally shot himself in the leg.

But the armed men in Spanaway had their weapons slung or holstered — and nobody had their fingers anywhere near a trigger. Bill, the young veteran, had his hands clasped around the stock of his shotgun.

At left — food given to the group by community members. At right — a volunteer with a PS90, a semi-automatic variant of the FN P90 sub-machine gun. Kevin Knodell photos

An intermittent stream of Spanaway residents — some of them veterans and military family members — stopped by the center to shake hands with the volunteers. Several others drove by in their cars and shouted thank-you’s.

Several passersbys brought food and drinks from neighboring restaurants. Pizzas, donuts and burgers piled up on the chairs. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with all this,” Mike remarked as he looked at the ever-growing stack of food.

As time passed, another pair of armed citizens came to join the group. A veteran named Leonard — who served 18 years in the Army — carried a PS90 semi-automatic weapon slung around his chest and a sidearm. “If I can protect my country in the Middle East, I can protect it here,” Leonard said.

He nearly walked into the recruiting office with his guns when Bill stopped him, reminding him that weapons aren’t allowed inside federal offices. Leonard returned to his truck, stowed his weapons and walked inside to briefly chat with the troops. After a few minutes, he came back out and retrieved his weapons.

Leonard wore a “peace by popular demand” t-shirt above a pair of chocolate-chip desert fatigues. When asked about the seeming contradiction, he replied, “It’s what all people want at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

A man driving a van pulled up. “I just heard about you guys on the radio,” he shouted. “You guys haven’t been getting any flack have you?” The group replied that they hadn’t. “Good,” the man responded. “You guys are doing a good thing.”

However, the next day, property owners grew wary of the growing group of armed men and called the Sheriff’s office. The police asked the citizen guards to pack it up.

“We contacted them and came to mutual agreement that today would be the last day,” Ed Troyer, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman told the Tacoma News Tribune. “We appreciate their energy and willingness to do what they did. Sends a strong message.”

Troyer said that any armed people unaware of the order would be asked to leave.

Update 7/24/2015 — Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook released a statement requesting that “individuals not stand guard at recruiting offices as it could adversely impact our mission, and potentially create unintended security risks.”

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Meet the American Who Joined Mao’s Revolution

To China and back again — the extraordinary life of an American communist


Sidney Rittenberg greets me with a faint, friendly voice in the lobby of his condo building in Bellevue, Washington. Ninety three years old, wearing a striped blue polo shirt and khaki cargo pants, he walks slowly but appears remarkably healthy for his age.

If you didn’t know his background, Rittenberg would come across as just another nonagenarian retiree in the Pacific Northwest. But he was the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party.

Once a U.S. Army linguist serving in China in the 1940s, he stayed behind after his enlistment ended, married twice, became a leader in the Cultural Revolution and spent 16 years in solitary confinement — and was once imprisoned because Joseph Stalin thought he was a spy.

The former apparatchik translated several of Mao Zedong’s writings, knew the Chinese leader personally and survived the purges and internecine political bloodshed that later swept through the country.

Disillusioned and returning to America with his family, he started a new life and became a respected academic.

In a sweeping interview, Rittenberg talked about his life, what drew him to the revolutionary movement and why he became disillusioned with it. Thanks to his unique experiences, he probably knows China better than any American alive today.

Rittenberg and his wife, Yulin, recently sold their home on Fox Island in Pugent Sound and moved into this condo. They’ve had a little time to decorate, and the home is packed with boxes. Chinese artwork and photos fill the hallways.

“We’re trying to downsize right now,” Rittenberg says.

Sunlight shines through large windows overlooking a scenic view of downtown Bellevue, with a glimpse of Lake Washington glistening in the distance.

“The view is what sold us on this place.” He introduces me to Yulin, who is unpacking a box. She offers us both tea. “Sit wherever you’ll be comfortable,” Rittenberg tells me. I take a seat on the couch in the living room. He gets comfortable in his rocking chair across from me.

As we sit and drink tea, his iPad sits on the coffee table between us, which he uses to keep up with current events. The years may have slowed him down physically, but not mentally. I tell him his experience with Chinese history is particularly unique.

“I wouldn’t recommend most of it,” he replies.

At top — Mao Zedong signs Sidney Rittenberg’s copy of The Little Red Book. Above — Rittenberg as a G.I. in uniform at Stanford University. Sidney Rittenberg photos

Into the East

Rittenberg was born to a middle class Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina. His involvement in political activism began there — in the Jim Crow South. “When I was 13 or 14, I witnessed some terrible police brutality against a young black guy,” he recalls.

One night he witnessed a drunk white man attacking a black man, and ran to get the police. When the cops arrived on the scene, they attacked the black man on the ground instead of his white attacker. Later, the young Rittenberg asked his aunt about it, wanting to know how the justice system could allow what he’d seen.

“She told me there was no such thing as justice, that you only get as much justice as you can pay for,” he says, which shocked him. “I’d grown up on stories where good always triumphed … I believed there had to be justice.”

Rittenberg turned down a scholarship to Princeton and studied philosophy at the University of North Carolina. Moved by the conditions of local mill workers, he spent much of his early adulthood as a Southern labor and civil rights activist.

But after the outbreak of World War II, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Stanford’s Army Far Eastern Language and Area School to learn Japanese. When he arrived, he chose to learn Chinese instead — believing that learning Japanese would mean serving in the lengthy post-war occupation.

He wanted to return to the United States — and his labor activism — as soon as he possibly could. He thought China would be a nice short adventure. He wouldn’t return to America for more than three decades.

After his training and a journey across the Pacific, he and several linguists flew over “the Hump” from India to Kunming, China. Their assignment — work with the American-allied Kuomintang government and assist with the post-war civil administration.

China was indeed a beautiful country and a new adventure. But the stench of hunger, poverty and corruption dampened the young southerner’s enthusiasm. Soon after he and his fellow troops arrived, they met a band of Kuomintang troops who offered to get them some female companionship.

“They told us that for a dollar, they would go to a nearby village and bring back Chinese girls that they could guarantee would be virgins,” Rittenberg says. “For one U.S. dollar, they would just grab some girl — everyone knew about it but nobody did anything to stop it.”

Officials hoarded food, money and supplies while peasants starved and toiled. It was common to see corpses rotting along the roadside. Officials casually joked to him and the other Americans about robbing and torturing people.

“There was no incentive not to be corrupt — you almost had to be,” he reflects. Government employees demanded bribes and kickbacks from common people f0r the most basic services. “It was routine, people expected it.”

One of the worst experiences was his investigation into the death of a 12-year-old Chinese girl named Li Muxian. A drunk American sergeant ran her down after a night of partying.

The G.I. had picked up a dancing girl at a club the night before, and woke up to find himself AWOL with a splitting headache. He took a few shots of whiskey and drove back to base. He saw Li by the road and thought it would be funny to scare her.

“I said to myself I’m going to see how close I can get to that little slopey girl and goddamn if I didn’t run her over,” the sergeant said in his deposition.

Investigators sent Rittenberg to interview witnesses, including the girl’s father. “Our life is nothing,” the father said. “It is nothing but eating bitterness. She was all we had. We were hoping she would have something better.”

In his report, Rittenberg recommended the Army provide the highest possible compensation, but the assistant claims officer reduced it to $26. Rittenberg was mortified. He told the officer that the Army had reimbursed a villager $150 for a horse not long before.

The officer told him that the estimate was based on burial costs and what a person added to family income. A small child earned no income and needed a just a small coffin, the officer reasoned. A horse has a price tag — a human life doesn’t.

Rittenberg delivered the $26 to the girl’s father, feeling disgusted. Later that day, the man arrived in his office. The peasant had brought $6 back. The American was confused.

The American linguist realized the man saw him as part of the corrupt Chinese bureaucracy. The peasant felt obligated to give a kickback to every official who helped him receive the meager compensation. Rittenberg refused to take the money, and sent the man on his way.

The experience haunted him for years.

Nanking Road in Shanghai, circa 1945. Cities in Old Days/Flickr photo

Exploring China

It was in Southwest China that Rittenberg began reading local newspapers — including underground newspapers glorifying the exploits of communist guerrillas in the north.

Many newsstands carried these papers secretly, and the locals treated the guerrillas like folk heroes. “They seemed to be practicing honest government, and government that was somewhat democratic,” he says.

Around the same time, Rittenberg befriended several communists. They shared meals, drank together and listened to music. They told him stories about underground revolutionary activities in Shanghai. He requested a transfer to Shanghai for the remainder of his enlistment. His superior officers pulled some strings … and he was on his way.

Shanghai was a bustling international hub. “It was a chamber of horrors to me,” Rittenberg says. It was a decadent town — everything frightening about the corruption in Southwest China was amplified in this port city.

“Nanking Road, which was the main stretch, was always crowded with people,” he says. “Most of them were hookers and their pimps.”

The opulence of the nightclubs clashed with the abject poverty and starvation on the streets. “You could hardly go anywhere without running into at least one body on the street.”

One morning, he opened the front door of his military lodging and found a corpse. “He was just sitting there, he’d frozen to death the night before,” he recalls.

He asked a Chinese policeman why nobody did anything about the bodies. The cop explained to him that anyone who touched them would become responsible for the burial costs — so everyone would ignore it.

He took on a freelance assignment for an American press outlet investigating Shanghai’s prostitution rackets. He learned that most of the prostitutes were sold to brothels from struggling rural families.

“A lot of them were just children,” he reflected with a hint of sadness.

Shanghai was bad. But it wasn’t all bad. Rittenberg met Soong Qingling, widow of the revolutionary Sun Yatsen. Both communists and nationalists revere Sun as the father of modern China, and Madame Soong was a power in her own right.

“She was a very handsome lady with a lot of poise and presence,” Rittenberg recalls. She introduced him to pro-democracy activists and artists in the city. Soong herself was a leftist sympathizer, and joined the communists after they took power a few years later.

Following his discharge from the Army, she became one of Rittenberg’s mentors and helped him stay in China. He went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where he accounted for aid meant to alleviate famine.

But as he traveled through the country, he witnessed more corruption and more abuse — even by fellow U.N. employees.

“We had flour coming in donated by the English speaking countries,” he says. “[But] the rule was all relief went to the local Kuomintang benevolence association and they would give it out.”

Unsurprisingly, these associations were often corrupt. “They would put it in their back pocket,” he explains. “They’d sell it for profit, exporting to places like Manila or Singapore. We would often end up buying back our own relief agency’s flour.”

The scale of corruption, in Rittenberg’s view, had a lot to do with driving people into the communist movement. The nationalists hoarded American aid and centralized their power in the cities, while the communists won popular support in the countryside.

At one point, he visited a town called Fresh Flower Village, where communists and nationalists were negotiating under the eyes of American officers. The nationalists had blocked aid to the communist-held village.

U.S. Gen. George C. Marshall — America’s top Army officer during World War II — was in China brokering the negotiations. He ordered the nationalists to end the blockade.

However, an American general told Rittenberg that when the Americans left, the nationalists would return and wipe out the village. It flew in the face of the stated U.S. policy of working to form a coalition government between the two factions.

The general’s attitude disturbed him. A U.S. Army colonel took over the negotiations, and Rittenberg didn’t believe he knew of the scheme. But the American aid worker became increasingly distrustful of official statements.

He believed the U.S. government was lying to both the American and Chinese people — and acted in a way he considered un-American.

Mao Zedong, at center, and Zhou Enlai at left, in the communist stronghold city of Yan’an. Public domain photo

Meeting Mao

Unable to handle the corruption, Rittenberg left his job at UNRRA in the fall of 1946. He wasn’t the only one. The Kuomintang’s excesses led increasing numbers of Americans in China to sympathize with the communists. “But probably not to the extent that I did.”

Frustrated that he didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything, he considered returning to South Carolina. But Soong and other Chinese friends urged him to stay. Eventually, he journeyed north to Yan’an, the communists’ mountainous stronghold.

The communists had been entrenched in Yan’an since the mid-1930s. Several years before, nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek purged communists from the Kuomintang, beginning a long and slow-burning civil war. The communists’ Long March — a lengthy northward trek to escape the nationalist army — ended in Yan’an, where they established a de facto capital.

Yan’an was a very small town. The communists lived in caves and simple dwellings — which made it easy to mingle. If someone wanted to talk to Mao, all they had to do was knock on a door and request a meeting.

“That’s what changed drastically when they took power and went to the cities,” Rittenberg says.

He met Mao on his first day in the town. Mao was as a charismatic leader, always quick with a joke — and his jokes were funny.

“He was a big, slow moving guy with a lot of dignity,” he recalls. “He had this way of being able to explain complex ideas in ways that common people could relate to. I don’t think any leader in China today, at least no one I’ve met, can do that the way he did.”

More importantly, Mao had a knack for making everyone around him feel like they brought something important to the table. “He was one of the best listeners I’ve ever met,” Rittenberg adds.

One day, Mao asked him if he’d be willing to stop by his home and talk to him about America. Rittenberg asked the revolutionary what he wanted to know. “Everything,” Mao replied.

“[America] was the only foreign country he was interested in,” Rittenberg says.

Mao was also suspicious of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin — and he hoped the communists could seek a relationship with the United States so they wouldn’t have to rely on the Soviets.

The Soviets were fellow communists, to be sure. But they typically condescended to the Chinese — and expected them to comply with their instructions without argument. Mao, who had nationalist sensibilities, found these attitudes insulting.

Rittenberg became enamored with the communists’ simple lifestyles. They valued discipline and thriftiness — a stark contrast to the opulence among Kuomintang elites in Shanghai.

Curious enough, there was a U.S. Military Mission in Yan’an which frequently screened American movies — he often went there with his new friends. The communists still weren’t officially regarded as enemies by the United States, and the soldiers were to act as liaisons.

Most of the officers at the mission took a quick liking to the South Carolinian. But the colonel in charge of the mission despised reds — and especially hated Rittenberg. When the officer invited all the Americans in Yan’an to a Thanksgiving dinner, he made a point of excluding Rittenberg, calling him a traitor.

The colonel’s subordinates protested, particularly a Texan oilman turned major who frequently socialized with Rittenberg. The Chinese communist leadership intervened, telling the colonel that he was using one of their buildings to host the dinner.

It would be all the Americans or none of them.

Mao gives a tour of Yan’an to a delegation of American and Kuomintang officials led by diplomat Patrick Hurley. China Daily photo

Picking a side

In the summer of 1946, tensions between the nationalists and the communists reignited into open war. Rittenberg stayed, produced English language propaganda broadcasts for the communists’ radio service and even married a fellow party member.

On two occasions, he acted as Mao’s interpreter in dealings with the U.S. government. His message to the Americans was simple — that the nationalists were going to lose the war.

But Mao and Rittenberg stressed that they wanted to have normal diplomatic ties with the United States. “We told them China did not want to be unilaterally dependent on the Soviet Union,” he says.

Rittenberg explains that Mao wanted to rebuild China with American loans rather than Soviet ones. He believed America could offer more — and he didn’t want China to become beholden to Stalin. But American officials thought it was a ruse.

“As far as they were concerned, a communist is a communist is a communist.”

Rittenberg believes that American officials’ perception of communism as monolithic led to major miscalculations throughout the Cold War. The United States had a golden opportunity to exploit the factionalization of communist governments and movements — and failed to take it.

“Mao had in fact opposed Stalin and the Russians during the thirties and it almost cost him his life,” he explains. He notes that several Americans who spent time in China were aware of the divisions, but senior U.S. officials either doubted or ignored them.

Instead, the Americans’ refusal to negotiate sent the Chinese communists down the path of not just closer ties with Stalin’s Russia, but toward Stalinist ideas and governance. “History could have been very, very different.”

Ultimately, the People’s Liberation Army was victorious, and in 1949, Mao proclaimed the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. “I didn’t think they would win that fast,” Rittenberg says. “I just didn’t believe it.”

Though he admired the courage of the guerrillas, he doubted that the ragtag fighters could crush the nationalists by military means. “I’d spent time with Chiang Kai-shek’s elite troops,” he says. “This army is going to beat that army?”

But the Kuomintang’s poor leadership and corruption hampered their effectiveness. The elite troops only made up a small portion of an army that largely consisted of half-starved conscripts. Nationalist officers — essentially warlords — hoarded equipment and aid. It was common for critical supplies to never make it into the field.

Disillusioned nationalist troops deserted or defected to the communists, who rallied the peasantry and tore down the nationalist government in one of the most successful insurgencies in history. But it was also bloody — both sides killed civilians and millions died.

Not long after the victory, Soviet intelligence identified Rittenberg and other Westerners as spies. He long believed that it was a Soviet attempt to root out people Stalin saw as a threat. In 2015 — just a few months ago — he received information that confirmed it. Rittenberg says a Russian academic going through Soviet archives found communications related to his arrest.

Stalin, suspicious of the Chinese communists, tasked Russian doctors volunteering in Yan’an to report anything suspicious — he believed there were spies among them leaking information to the Allied governments. The doctors mentioned Rittenberg and insisted he had to be a spy.

Their sole evidence was that his Chinese was too good for a man who’d spent just one year studying it at Stanford. “They said it was impossible for me to speak Chinese so well after just one year,” Rittenberg says.

The Russian doctors were also suspicious of Lebanese-American physician George Hatem — a communist sympathizer living in Yan’an since the 1930s. Stalin sent Mao a cable accusing the Americans of spying.

Mao expressed doubts, telling Stalin that Hatem and Rittenberg had been loyal for years. Stalin responded with a cable insisting that the Soviet intelligence had no doubt of Rittenberg’s guilt, and demanded his arrest. “I actually have a copy of that cable now,” he chuckles. “Imagine him scared of little old me.”

Mao relented and ordered the American’s arrest. Rittenberg’s friends denounced him. The authorities attacked his moral character — bringing up a one night stand he’d had with a young Chinese woman early into his stay at Yan’an.

His wife left him, and Rittenberg ended up in solitary confinement and languished there for six years. He was released in 1955, just after Stalin’s death. But the imprisonment did little to dampen his commitment to the cause. If anything, he was more zealous.

“I was so happy to be welcomed back,” he says. “I wanted to prove to them that I was a loyal communist.”

Rittenberg went back to work as a propagandist. What helped is that the country improved since his time in prison — and that poverty seemed to be on the decline. “I believed that we were making a better world, that this was the future.”

Rittenberg speaks to a crowd in Tiananmen Square during the Cultural Revolution. Sidney Rittenberg photo

The new revolution

The revolution and its leaders had changed, too. Mao was no longer the mountain guerrilla of Yan’an. The Communist Party had transformed into an urban leadership overseeing the whole country.

Those leaders tasked Rittenberg with documenting government projects … as well as scrutinizing those the party deemed counter-revolutionary. “Party discipline was everything,” he explains. “If you understood the rules, you obeyed them. If you didn’t, you still obeyed them. You’d learn by doing.”

Rittenberg investigated “rightists” and people with “bad” backgrounds. If the party labeled an individual as counter-revolutionary, the government often sent that person to Manchuria for “reeducation” by way of hard labor.

“At the time I thought it was totally right,” Rittenberg recalls. “I’d just gotten out of prison and … I was 120 percent loyal to the party,”

He reasoned that he’d endured imprisonment for the good of the party, so anyone else going to prison should be grateful for the opportunity to reform themselves for the greater good. “I truly felt we were building a better world, and those people were getting in the way,” he says.

“But of course, it was terribly wrong.”

It was during this period that he met and married Yulin, the love of his life. They had several children together and began to build a family. It seemed as though the better world he had long dreamed of was forming in front of his eyes.

Mao pressed ahead with his ambitious Great Leap Forward modernization campaign. Intending to radically transform China into an industrial superpower, the regime prohibited peasants from owning land and redirected millions of people into steel production.

The state requisitioned grain and funneled it into the cities, leaving the peasants who stayed behind to starve as a historic drought choked the fields. Thirty-six million people died in the ensuing famine. This was the deadliest mass famine in the 20th century.

By the early 1960s, the Chinese government was investigating the Great Leap Forward’s failures. Several senior party leaders openly criticized Mao, who responded by purging and arresting many of his harshest critics.

Embattled and increasingly criticized, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He reached out to the youth, telling them that party officials were exploiting them — and that the bourgeoisie had hijacked the revolution.

These youths later formed the militant Red Guards — a paramilitary social movement of students, farmers and soldiers. Mao and his followers called on them to destroy the “four olds” — old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.

“Young people [had] subordinated their desires to the party,” Rittenberg explains. Mao’s message was that the youth of China had to reclaim their country from the corrupt elders who oppressed them.

“There were young people in the streets sounding like Patrick Henry,” Rittenberg recalls. Mao encouraged the youth to express their hopes and thoughts freely. The American was enthusiastic. “I thought ‘this was what it was supposed to be about,’” he says. “We should have been moving toward a model that was more — not less — democratic.”

Mao ordered the police and army not to interfere. Rittenberg and other revolutionaries believed they were going to finally bring China equality and democracy. “There was celebrating every night, it was like a constant holiday.”

Rittenberg used his platform at China Radio International to stoke the revolution. As an American who spoke fluent Chinese and as a member of the Yan’an generation of revolutionaries, he became an overnight celebrity. But unlike many other Yan’an veterans, he remained a zealot for the cause — without fully understanding the role he played.

“I didn’t pay close attention to Mao’s words,” Rittenberg reflects. Ultimately, the revolution had ulterior motives which he didn’t recognize at the time. Particularly, he ignored the part of Mao’s proclamation that the final goal was “the total dictatorship of proletariat.”

“Mao used the Cultural Revolution to go after the bureaucrats and anyone else he saw as his enemy, even though most of them weren’t really his enemies to begin with,” Rittenberg says. “He became paranoid.”

The Red Guards ransacked and vandalized ancient temples and destroyed thousand-year-old works of art. In response, Zhou ordered the army to protect historic sites in Beijing — but many others around the country remained undefended.

The Red Guards’ campaign expanded. The movement denounced civil war and World War II veterans in the press and on the street. Targets included close friends of Rittenberg such as Madame Soong and war hero Zhu De. Students accused teachers and other authority figures of being counter-revolutionaries. Members of the movement accused each other.

Rittenberg recounted a high school Red Guards unit that would kidnap rival students and record their screams as they tortured them. “They would play it to harden their troops for the class struggle,” he explains.

He added that this faction was particularly sadistic and that most Red Guards didn’t sink to those depths. Nevertheless, the movement subjected thousands of intellectuals and average people to humiliation and abuse. “There was great cruelty and suffering,” Rittenberg says.

By September 1967, targets of the revolution expanded to include foreigners. He even participated in condemning some of his fellow foreigners. But then members of the Red Guards turned on him — putting up a pamphlet titled, “How an American seized Red Power at Radio China International,” at the radio station.

Authorities arrested him in February 1968 along with several other foreigners. He returned to prison. “I’d been through it once before,” he muses. “So I knew what I was in for.”

Soldiers took him from Yulin and his children for 10 years. During this second imprisonment, he penned a new Confucian saying, “Man who climbs out on limb should listen carefully for sound of saw.”

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wears a cowboy hat during a trip to a rodeo during his first visit to America in 1979. Photo via Sun Yatsen University

A free man

The Chinese government released Rittenberg in 1978, and he reunited with his family. China was now under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, a reformist leader who began the country’s transition to a partially state-controlled market economy.

The American hardly recognized the new China. His first big shock was learning that his daughter was studying Esperanto — and was paying a tutor to help her. “Paying someone for services? Something like that would have been unheard of before,” Rittenberg says.

But to get anything done in the new China, it wasn’t enough to pay — one needed “trusted friends.” Corruption was creeping back in a big way.

In 1979, Rittenberg returned to America for a short visit — and took his family with him. Now that America and China were no longer enemies, he could return home as a native son rather than as a traitor.

Shortly after arriving, he visited the State Department at the invitation of Richard Holbrooke — then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs serving under the Jimmy Carter administration.

Holbrooke said that a lot of of his predecessors probably wouldn’t have invited someone like him to the State Department. “If most of your predecessors had invited me, I would have refused,” Rittenberg replied.

He recalls that their chat was cordial, even friendly. Holbrooke just wanted to learn about China. “He wasn’t digging for secrets or anything like that — not that I had anything to hide anyway,” Rittenberg says.

Rittenberg wrote an essay for the New York Times for its Fourth of July edition. “They told I’d been been gone longer than Rip Van Winkle, and they wanted to know how I saw America,” he says.

To be sure, the country had gone through rapid changes, politically and culturally. But his views were mixed. The positive developments were that Americans — by and large — seemed more interested in the world. The country seemed like a far less isolationist place than he remembered.

He was also impressed by advances in civil rights and economic growth. But he was shocked by the high divorce rate, the street crime of the late ’70s — the U.S. violent crime rate had roughly tripled since the 1950s — as well as how disempowered many Americans he talked to seemed to feel.

He hadn’t intended to truly intended to leave China. But after returning from his trip to America, he and his family became disillusioned with Deng’s policies. “I started to get a good look at the new China,” he says.

In particular, Deng shut down the “Democracy Wall” near the Forbidden City where people could post political pamphlets. Deng arrested several activists who protested its removal.

“That’s when we decided to move to America, and it’s been happily ever after since,” he says with a chuckle.

Sidney Rittenberg at his condo in Bellevue, Washington. Kevin Knodell photo

Coming home

The Cultural Revolution ate a generation, and then it ate itself. The years spent denouncing intellectuals, purging schoolteachers and fighting other communists meant little time for learning. “An entire generation missed out on their education,” Rittenberg says.

Before he left China, he came across a young Chinese officer reading a copy of Mein Kampf. Rittenberg was horrified and asked the man why he would read such a thing. The officer replied that he wanted to know everything that had been kept from him.

“Before, you had the party telling you who was a good person and who was a bad person,” Rittenberg says. “That’s a form of corruption worse than any monetary corruption. You gave up your morals and your thoughts for the institution.”

He doubts China will ever see anything like that again. “After the Cultural Revolution, people became critical,” he explains. “There will never be another infallible doctrine in China.”

“I had been a true Leninist,” he says, which meant he believed that to establish a perfect democracy one had to first create a perfect dictatorship. But his years in China led him to believe that dictatorship only leads to dictatorship, and that Mao’s ascendance to power is more than enough evidence for it.

Rittenberg says that Mao’s power drove him to madness, making him believe he was above accountability. “Never let one man be in total command,” he says. “Mao once said ‘a true communist should never follow blindly.’ He should have followed his own advice.”

He learned a great deal about himself. As someone born to a middle-class background — not the working class — and as a white man, he overcompensated to prove his commitment to social justice even if that meant casting aside reason. “I usually decided that it was better to be left than to be right,” he says with a smirk.

“Some of my Chinese friends told me ‘You forgot you were a foreigner,’ and they’re right — I did,” Rittenberg says. “I should have never allowed myself to have power.”

But his experiences didn’t turn him away from China. Since returning to America, Rittenberg has been a vocal advocate for Sino-American friendship through business, education and cultural exchanges. For many years, he and Yulin ran a consultancy firm for people looking to do business in China.

Their clients included Microsoft, Intel, Hughes Aircraft, Levi Stauss, CBS News and evangelical leader Billy Graham. He’s adamant that the two countries have far more interests in common than otherwise.

Rittenberg continues to write in both Chinese and English, and is published in both countries. He has frequently split his time between the United States and China, sometimes returning as often as eight times per year. But in his old age — and after a recent hospital visit — his family has strongly discouraged him from traveling away from his doctors.

“They’ve got me under house arrest,” he jokes. “But hopefully I’ll get to bust out soon.”

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