The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In going through my husband’s files, books and papers after his death, I’ve been forcibly struck by two things. First, contrary to what many of his obituaries said, his writings and thoughts were remarkably consistent throughout his life. In other words, he was not a right-winger who became more liberal and outspoken as he got older. More than most people suspected, he was a radical all along, whose intellectual impulses were tempered only by his birth in the Depression year of 1931 and his determination to make a decent living without “joining the establishment.” Second—and it was an unavoidable recollection—he worked with manic energy and maniacally hard all his life.
When we met in the fall of 1956, I was a 19-year-old junior at the University of California, Berkeley, “shacked up” with a boyfriend. Chal, by contrast, was six years older, and just returned from two years with the Navy in Korea, where the ship on which he was the communications officer, LST 883, had been tasked with ferrying Chinese prisoners of war from South Korea back to North Korean ports. He was living at home with his parents in Alameda to save money, and had only recently finished his master’s thesis on “thought reform” in Communist China in the period just before and after Mao Zedong took over in 1949.
When his LST was docked in Yokosuka, he started to study Japanese. As an undergraduate at Berkeley he’d majored in economics, but he was now a graduate student in political science and teaching assistant for Robert Scalapino, whose course on “America’s Role in the Far East” I took. I had invited Chal to a Christmas party at my apartment (and even fixed him up with a date). In return, in January 1957 he decided to deliver my final grade in Scalapino’s course in person. I wasn’t home, but my boyfriend was and informed Chal that I was leaving him. (Even in those early days of “free love,” I’d concluded that for women the price was too high.)
Several weeks later, I bumped into Chal on campus and he said, “I hear you’re a free woman. Can I invite you to do something interesting one of these days?” And so our brief but intensive courtship began. We were married in May 1957 in Reno, Nevada, having left the car in a fifteen-minute parking zone. We returned to Berkeley the next day because we both had final exams to take.
Peasant Uprisings and Japanese Spies
Robert Scalapino was then best known as a Japan scholar. (He only later became influential in the China field.) On a trip to Japan, he had microfilmed the archives of a World War II era bureaucrat, Hatano Ken’ichi, who had taken home his papers for safekeeping in advance of the American firebombing of Tokyo and simply kept them. Scalapino asked Chal to index this microfilmed collection, offering him the opportunity to use it for his PhD dissertation.
Thus was born Chal’s first book, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. Hatano’s archives included reports from the Japanese Army trying to conquer and pacify northern China. These focused on the stiff resistance being encountered among the peasants in that region then being organized by communist leader Mao Zedong. It seemed to Chal that these peasants weren’t simply being seduced by Communism. They were joining Mao’s movement for nationalistic reasons, thanks to the terrible “burn all, loot all, kill all” operations launched by the Japanese army, and so, in a sense, the Japanese military was propelling Mao toward future victory in a post–World War II civil war in China.