- 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
Sun and Lea sailed on to Shanghai, where they discovered the harsh realities of revolutionary turmoil. Most Chinese greeted them with cheers, but many leaders of the Revolutionary Alliance (which would soon become the Kuomintang, or National People’s Party of China) growled with disappointment when they learned their George Washington and his American Lafayette had brought no money with them. One American on the scene reported that Lea was resented by officers who had been involved in recent fighting. Lea sensibly did not try to assert command of the revolutionary cadres; he said his function as chief of staff was to pass on Sun’s orders to the army. Sun took care to give very few of these, although he urged his followers to expel prominent Manchus who had joined the party at the last moment.
The reformer K’ang Yu-wei remained outside China, still playing Hamlet— or Confucius. No other Chinese leader had Sun’s prestige. At a conference of representatives from the southern provinces who had declared their independence, Sun was named provisional president of China. With Homer Lea still at his side, he journeyed to Nanking on New Year’s Day 1912. While cannon roared and fireworks popped, he took the oath of office as China’s first provisional president. Lea was the only white person present at the ceremony.
As president Sun faced formidable problems. He still had no money. The Manchus, backed by a powerful army under Gen. Yüan Shih-k’ai, still controlled northern China. Sun offered Yuan a deal. If he would join in expelling the Manchus, Sun would step aside as president and back him for the job. There is considerable evidence that Homer Lea thought this policy was a mistake. His early connections to the reform movement had convinced him that China, a nation where change was accepted slowly, if at all, required the continuity of the monarchy to keep the country unified. But he remained Sun’s loyal lieutenant and made no public objection to the maneuver.
Yüan Shih-k’ai was one of the most devious politicians in Chinese history. He trumped Sun’s offer by persuading the dowager empress that the country demanded the Manchus’ abdication. On February 12, 1912, in an elaborate ceremony in the great palace hall, the empress mounted the dragon throne, and the abdication edict was presented for her imperial seal. As she wept bitterly, the members of the imperial cabinet signed it and conferred on Yüan Shih-k’ai full power to organize a republican government.
It was the beginning of the end of Sun’s hopes for a united China. Yüan Shih-k’ai and his army instantly became the dominant force in the nation. Trapped by his promise, Sun had no choice but to step aside as president in Yüan’s favor. Yuan soon revealed that power, not republican government, was his only goal, and China’s social and moral confusion only whetted his ambition. The abrupt end of the Manchus’ 268-year reign left the country stunned and bewildered. Westerners told tales of seeing cultured, wealthy Chinese burst into tears when they heard the news of the abdication, turn their faces to the north, and knock their heads on the floor.
On the day before the abdication, in an uncanny symbiosis that may have been brought on by prophetic foreboding, Homer Lea collapsed with a stroke in Nanking. It left him paralyzed and blind—a mirror image of China. A grief-stricken Sun spent the night after his resignation from the presidency at the bedside of his friend and counselor. In April 1912 Lea returned to California. He died there on November 1, 1912, two weeks before his thirty-sixth birthday.
Five days after Lea’s death Sun paid him mournful tribute in an article in the China Press: “Mr. Lea was physically deformed but he possessed a wonderful brain. Although not a military man, he was a great military philosopher. He was a thoroughly sincere man and devoted his whole energy to the Chinese Revolution.”
Pacifists condemned Lea, but he didn’t glorify force. He just considered wars inevitable.
Since Homer Lea’s days of prophecy and valor, China has been united in the way he predicted it must—by military force. It has become a crucial factor in the struggle for world domination that Lea foresaw so eerily in 1909. Perhaps his chief legacy to his adopted country—and to his own country—is the words Lea spoke to the republican leaders of China on the day Sun Yat-sen began his brief tenure as president: “It is an unfortunate truism that peace is but a fleeting respite between wars. … I therefore charge you not to rest upon the laurels of your victory. … You will face many enemies from without but you will face your worst enemy from within your own borders and ranks. … I refer to those insidious scourges of mankind, public ignorance, indifference and apathy which—acting singly or collectively—have always bred that moral corruption that precedes the destruction of great nations.”