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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
When K’ang Yu-wei visited America in 1905, Lea accompanied him to Washington for an interview with President Theodore Roosevelt. They frankly described the military training that the C.I.A. was giving Chinese-Americans. Roosevelt’s attorney general was trying to shut down the whole operation, but “Teddy” nodded his approval and said it was “bully.” The government’s investigations faded away.
Lea gradually became disillusioned with K’ang and Liang. They were too Confucian for his martial spirit. K’ang spent most of his time during these years writing his extraordinary Book of the Great Community, which envisioned an era when nation-states and wars would vanish. Liang made brilliant speeches but could not bring himself to recommend a violent revolution to rescue China. The last straw was K’ang’s appropriation of several hundred thousand dollars raised by Chinese reformers. The money mysteriously vanished into Mexico in 1905.
Lea now committed himself openly to Sun Yat-sen, whom he had met in Japan after the failure of the 1900 uprising. Sun was determined to repudiate China’s Confucian past. His hero was Abraham Lincoln, and his credo was government of the people, by the people, for the people, which he rendered in Chinese as “the people are to have, the people are to rule, the people are to enjoy.” O’Banion smuggled Sun into America for another meeting with Lea in 1905. In 1907 Lea journeyed to French Indochina and served as Sun’s English secretary in an invasion of South China from Annam. After some hard fighting the town of Chen-nan-kwan, which contained an important imperial arsenal, was captured. But the arsenal’s shelves were bare. Once more the revolutionists ran out of ammunition, and they were forced to retreat with Manchu forces in pursuit. The Peking government protested to France, and Sun and Lea were promptly expelled from Annam.
Returned to the United States, Lea began writing The Valor of Ignorance. By the time he met Sun again in 1909, the book was ready for publication. Although it did not sell widely in the United States, it was praised and attacked with remarkable vigor. In essence Lea maintained that the history of the world was the history of warfare. He asserted there had been only 234 years of peace in the previous 3,000 years. Only a state of maximum military preparedness could guarantee a nation’s survival. It was suicide to rely on the valor of ignorance, as the United States was doing in 1909.
The book had a warmly approving introduction by Lt. Gen. Adna Chaffee, the commander of the American relief expedition to Peking. Field Marshal Lord Roberts, chief of the British imperial general staff, praised the book extravagantly. There were other, even more surprising admirers. Lenin kept it on his desk during his exile in Zurich and told one visitor, “This book will someday be studied by thousands of readers.” Lenin said Lea “understood more about world politics than all the cabinet ministers now in office.”
Lenin kept Lea’s book on his desk and said it would “someday be studied by thousands.”
Gen. Hans von Seeckt, who rebuilt the German army after World War I and later fought in China, said: “This Lea is astounding. I have rarely encountered a writer who made one feel so strongly that he carried the burden of a whole continent on his shoulders.” Other admirers ranked him with Thucydides, Caesar, and Karl von Clausewitz for the way he revealed the “inner essence of war.”
Pacifists in England and America, a formidable intellectual phalanx in 1910, were not impressed. David Starr Jordan, the president of Lea’s alma mater, Stanford, denounced him in a furious essay, “The Impudence of Charlatanism.” He described Lea as an “ambitious little romancer trying to make the most of his short life, limited physique and boundless imagination.” Others took him seriously. William James challenged some of Lea’s assertions in what many consider his finest essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Most literary critics were apathetic. Only the Literary Digest admired Valor, calling it “a daring and startling book … which every American would do well to ponder.” Hearst papers, which liked to inflate the bogey of the “yellow peril,” took up the book and made it sound as if Lea had said the Japanese would attack the day after tomorrow. The net effect was a deflation of Lea’s reputation.
While he was being praised and damned in public, Lea was committing himself heart and soul to Sun Yat-sen’s revolution. The Chinese leader met with Lea in California in 1909 and for several months sent him a stream of memorandums about his revolutionary plans. To help raise money, Lea signed over the copyright of The Valor of Ignorance to Sun and arranged for the book to be translated in Japan, all profits to go to the cause. Lea was not a wealthy man, and Japanese interest in the book was intense. This was a genuine sacrifice and proof of his seriousness.