- Historic Sites
Homer Lea & The Decline Of The West
Early in the century a young American accurately predicted Japan’s imperialism and China’s and Russia’s rise. Then he set out to become China’s soldier leader.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Who was Homer Lea? In 1942 a spate of articles, including one by Mrs. Luce, attempted to answer this question with only moderate success. Forty-six years later the question is again worth asking and answering more carefully. Although history has once more attenuated the memory of this strange genius, his greatest contribution to his country is still being played out, not in the Philippines, which was never more than a sideshow in Lea’s geopolitical thinking, but in the heartland of Asia, China.
When he was barely twenty years old, Homer Lea perceived what Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon saw plainly seventy-five years later. A strong China friendly to the United States was the key to balance of power in Asia and in the world, the best hope of blocking Japan’s and Russia’s expansionism. But the China Homer Lea saw from the California of his youth was a pathetic victimized nation, the prey of every plundering power, from Britain to Germany to Russia to Japan. It was his study of China that convinced Lea of the folly of pacifism. Throughout China’s long history the founder of every dynasty had been a soldier, and the man who overthrew every dynasty had been a soldier. China’s prostrate condition in the twilight of the Manchu dynasty cried out for another soldier to renew its national vigor by re-creating its martial spirit.
With a confidence verging on mystical faith, Homer Lea decided to be that soldier.
Lea, born in Denver in 1876, had been a normal baby. But he was dropped when he was only a few days old, and his spine and his brain were badly damaged. The spinal injury left him a hunchback, and the brain injury subjected him to terrific headaches and periodic bouts of blindness. His entire physique suffered. He looked—and was—extremely frail.
In spite of these limitations, or perhaps because of them, Lea evinced a passionate interest in military matters. By the time he entered Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1894, he could discourse for hours on the campaigns of Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon. With this predilection he combined an equally intense interest in China. He told one friend this fascination began with a dream in which he saw himself as the “Martial Monk,” a historic figure who defended China at the head of a great army.
It was not so surprising for a Californian to be interested in China. The state still seethed with debates about the “yellow peril” and the need to limit Chinese and Japanese immigration. The capture of the Philippines in 1898 made the United States a major player in the Far Eastern balance-of-power game. But it was unusual for a young white man to seek friendships among the Chinese in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Lea did, and when he transferred to Stanford University, he used San Francisco’s larger Chinatown to increase his network of friends and admirers.
Lea could talk brilliantly about military matters—and add a touch of moonshine. His paternal grandfather had fought for the Confederates. Lea expanded his exploits (for which he had been murdered by Union supporters) into high rank and glory. Some say he hinted that he was a descendant of Robert E. Lee.
Forced to abandon his college career because of smallpox and eye trouble, Lea devoted even more time to his Chinese friendships. China was much in the news. The young emperor, Kuang-hsü, had launched a “Hundred Days of Reform” program in late 1898 and had been deposed by the reactionary dowager empress, Tz’u-hsi, and a junta of court nobles who felt their privileges were being threatened. The emperor’s advisers, the Confucian scholar K’ang Yu-wei and his disciple Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, had been forced to flee for their lives, and many of their followers had been beheaded.
Young Chinese-Americans had responded by organizing the Chinese Empire Reform Association, which raised money to finance a rebellion against the dowager empress and restore Kuang-hsü as a constitutional monarch. Lea was initiated into this society and into the Chih-kung-tang, the Chinese branch of the Freemasons, one of the most powerful secret societies in the Orient. His Chinese admirers encouraged Lea to recruit a small group of Americans, including some veteran soldiers, to assist the uprising. In the spring of 1900, K’ang Yu-wei sent an urgent cable from Singapore for funds; Lea was reportedly entrusted with sixty thousand dollars and sent to Canton.
While he was at sea, a series of rebellions gathered force in China. The rebels who struck first and got the most publicity (in fact, all the publicity in the West) were the Boxers, who veered between hatred of the ruling Manchus and hatred of “foreign devils.” With some guidance from the dowager empress, the Boxers finally settled on the latter, assassinating missionaries and businessmen and besieging Western diplomats and their families in their compound in Peking. Western nations swiftly organized a relief expedition that fought its way to the Heavenly City and dispersed the Boxers.