- 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
Lea was in close touch with General Chaffee, who had recently retired as chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Chaffee was soon persuaded to put his influence within the U.S. government behind Sun. To prove his friendship, Sun offered Lea the purloined secret plans of the Japanese general staff, in thirty thick volumes. Even then, Sun, who had spent considerable time in Japan, had no illusions about the Japanese. They had helped torpedo his 1900 rebellion and were committed to a policy of keeping China weak and divided. Sun was hoping that the United States would see the value of backing him in the mounting power struggle in the Far East, but the U.S. State Department, with a wooden-headedness that characterized its dealings with China for a century, ignored these overtures.
Lea and O’Banion continued to train cadets at their academy, and O’Banion smuggled into the United States 250 sons of Chinese officials who were secretly supporting Sun. However, the crucial need was not men but money. One of Sun’s memorandums to Lea called for a budget of $3,630,000. Sun had never acquired K’ang’s skill at raising funds. Many overseas Chinese still clung to the hope that the country could be reformed without a violent revolution. Inside China, meanwhile, one revolt after another flared and was crushed. Some were begun by Sun’s followers; others, by adherents of more violent and anarchistic doctrines.
In August 1910, Sun wrote Lea from Penang, Malaya, giving him detailed information on the military situation in China. The Manchu government was tottering. The army was losing its nerve, and the revolutionary forces were adding recruits daily. Timing now was crucial, along with money. Sun had exerted all his influence to prevent a premature revolt in the Yangtze Valley. Three months later Sun was begging Lea to raise even a tenth of the money they needed. The revolutionists inside China were growing very impatient.
In another memorandum, Sun designated Lea his chief of staff and gave him full powers to negotiate an “Anglo-Saxon alliance” with the American and British governments. In return for their assistance he promised them most-favored-nation status in China. He agreed to place the Chinese navy temporarily under the command of British officers and to accept a British political officer in his entourage.
Unfortunately Lea’s health was deteriorating. Bouts of blindness made it almost impossible for him to continue work on his book, The Day of the Saxon. An acquaintance recommended a consultation with a specialist in Wiesbaden, Germany. From there Lea went to London, where he was cordially received by his admirer Lord Roberts. But Roberts was as unpopular as Lea among liberal politicians of the day. They scoffed at his repeated calls for preparedness for war with Germany. The general could not persuade either British bankers or Foreign Office diplomats to back Sun Yat-sen. The most Lea could obtain was a promise of nonintervention.
In China, meanwhile, the revolutionists could no longer be restrained. A series of uprisings exploded on October 10, 1911. Lea cabled Sun, who was traveling in the United States, and urged him to come to London for intense negotiations. Sun did but found that he could do no more than Lea to remove British prejudices against his movement. The “George Washington of China,” as Sun is sometimes called, decided instead to sail for home and take command of the revolution. Shanghai, Suchow, and Hankow had fallen to the rebel armies. An urgent telegram from Shanghai begged Sun to return and “unite us.” He asked Lea to accompany him.
Lea’s doctors warned him that the journey would cost him his life. He ignored them and sailed for Shanghai with Sun. On the voyage he completed The Day of the Saxon. In Penang and Singapore he received at least as much publicity as Sun Yat-sen. The editor of the Singapore Free Press called him the “‘Von Moltke’ of the revolution” and predicted that his presence at Sun’s side would do much to persuade Western bankers to back the revolutionary regime. This statement was not an exaggeration in light of the celebrity Lea had become in Japan. The Valor of Ignorance had been published in a translation entitled The Valor of Those Who Venture to Kill a Tiger with a Single Hand and Who Dare to Wade a Fathomless River. The book had sold eighty-four thousand copies in a single month.
In Hong Kong Lea conferred with the American consul and worked out a cable that was sent to the U.S. State Department with Sun’s approval. It described Sun’s plan to form a “consolidated provisional government.” Homer Lea was to handle negotiations with the Manchus, who would be offered protection and pensions if they agreed to abandon power. Sun would then call a constitutional convention to draft a “modified American plan” republic. The consul reported that Lea’s influence with Sun was great and “controlling … in matters of relations with other powers.” There is no record of Washington’s replying to this unique opportunity to create a democratic China.