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Pearl S. Buck's Critique of the Cold War

Written by son of rambow on Friday, July 23, 2010

Women and International Relations

When Pearl S. Buck addressed an alumnae gathering of her alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, in June 1933, she began somewhat wistfully that she would have liked to discuss "Women and International Relations." She lamented, however, that she knew too little about this topic, and so the author of The Good Earth, for which she won the 1931 Pulitzer Prize, proceeded to talk about "the writing of novels."(1) Over the course of the next thirty-five years, Buck pursued the theme of women and international relations in her fiction, speeches, articles, and organizational work. She became a prominent activist on global issues, and she identified and analyzed the gendered nature of world affairs. An exploration of Buck's opposition beginning in the 1940s to the Cold War illuminates an issue that historians have only recently begun to examine from the perspective of women's attitudes and the importance of gender.(2) This exploration also gives depth to arguments that feminist political scientists have advanced in their pleas for consideration of women's voices and interests in studies of international relations.(3)

That Buck's best-selling novels from the 1930s through the 1950s played an important role in shaping a sympathetic American perception of the Chinese has long been recognized. As Harold R. Isaacs wrote in 1958: "It can almost be said that for a whole generation of Americans she `created' the Chinese, in the same sense that Dickens `created' for so many of us the people who lived in the slums of Victorian England." While The Good Earth was Buck's most significant contribution to Americans' images of the Chinese, she wrote fifteen other books on Asia that made the bestseller lists from 1933 to 1968. These included Dragon Seed, on China's war of resistance to Japan; Kinfolk, which discussed conditions in post-World War II China; Come, My Beloved, on American missionaries in India; The Living Reed, an epic novel of Korean history; and her 1954 autobiography, My Several Worlds.(4)

Buck--who was raised in China by missionary parents--did more than get Americans to see the Chinese as hardworking but long-suffering farmers. She participated from a left-wing but noncommunist perspective in the debate about U.S. policy toward China, opposing U.S. aid to the Nationalist government during the civil war, and urging recognition of the new communist-led government. Buck's concerns also reached beyond China; she spoke out strongly opposing American Cold War policy in general. Buck believed that the fundamental global divisions at the end of World War II were between the Western imperialist nations and the colonized and recently decolonized Asian countries, rather than between "communism" and "democracy." The United States, she feared, placed itself on the side of the Western imperialists. As a result, the United States could not hope to win the friendship or loyalty of the people of what later became known as the Third World.

Buck grounded her ideas about China and her opposition to the Cold War in her rejection of imperialism and racism. Her outlook had been formed by looking at Western society with the sensibility of a people who were the victims of these ideologic twin evils. As the Times Literary Supplement (London) put it in 1942: "In a strange way Miss Buck has been fitted by the architecture of her life to be a critic of her own race; brought up in a typically American home in China she got an insight into two worlds, and it was not until she reached adult life that she lived in America, bringing to it that sense of wonder and discovery which is the finest basis for criticism." Thus, in "walking the borders" between the United States and China, Buck elaborated a worldview that was quite different from the dominant views in American society.(5)

At the same time, Buck provided a gendered critique of Cold War policy. She decried the glorification of militarism as a masculine value the Cold War required and which itself became a major source of conflict between Americans and Asians. She also opposed the Cold War because her analysis of the problems and oppression of women in the United States prevented her from adopting an ideology of national unity against a supposed foreign threat. Thus, Buck shared many aspects of the ideology of the women's peace movement, which, according to historian Harriet Hyman Alonso, emphasized the links between institutionalized violence and violence against women, the added burdens war placed upon women, the special interest in peace that women have as a result of their role as child bearers, and the necessity for women to become active in public affairs. Buck's self-defined focus on furthering "people-to-people" relations, involving ordinary people in foreign affairs rather than leaving diplomacy to government officials, exemplified what scholar Emily Rosenberg has called "women's work" in foreign relations.(6)

Nonetheless, Buck at times challenged the idea, central to women's peace activism, that women were more opposed to war than were men, either by nature or social role. She identified and tried to explain a pattern of women's thinking that some recent feminist analysts of women and war have also examined.(7) Thus, Buck's efforts to categorize women's relations to militarism and U.S. foreign policy indicated a nuanced picture of these relationships.

While she continually referred to herself as nonpolitical, Buck engaged in a dizzying array of political activities from the 1930s to the early 1950s. She first gained widespread attention for her social views, apart from the success of her novels, in her caustic critique of American missionary work overseas.(8) Buck worked closely with her second husband, Richard J. Walsh, to publish numerous books and articles on Asia through the John Day Company, which Walsh headed, and Asia magazine, which he edited from 1933 to 1946. Buck founded and led the East and West Association from 1940 to 1950 to educate Americans about the heritage and aspirations of Asians and to encourage people-to-people relations. During this decade, she was also the major spokesperson for the Citizen's Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion, the American Civil Liberties Union's Committee against Racial Discrimination, and the India League of America, which championed the nationalist cause. Always in great demand as a speaker, Buck also expressed her political views in a wide range of journals, from Foreign Affairs to Better Homes and Gardens, from the New York Times Magazine to the Christian Century.(9)

Until the 1996 publication of literary critic Peter Conn's biography, historians tended to neglect or dismiss Buck's political work.(10) Feminist scholar Jane Rabb has noted that in literary criticism sexism has led to an undervaluing of Buck's work, similar to the process in the historical field.(11) It is true that Buck's later writing, after the mid-1950s, often included Cold War phrasing and romanticized Confucian conceptions, so that historians who knew her writings from the 1960s until her death in 1973 may not have realized the importance and radicalism of her earlier work, from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. Chinese communists' attacks on her work in the 1960s--one article was entitled "Pearl Buck: A Vanguard of United States Imperialist Cultural Aggression"--perhaps led scholars influenced by the New Left to downgrade her work. Buck's later writing, some of it opposing premarital sex and abortion, may also have led feminist historians to ignore her earlier feminist activities.(12)

Buck's opposition to the Cold War developed from her firsthand analyses of Chinese politics in the 1920s and 1930s, but especially from her outspoken criticisms of the failure of the Allied powers during World War II to wage a principled war that rejected imperialist and racist ideologies. As she prophetically wrote soon after the war ended: "Peace is shaped by war. The leaders in the war, and these were Churchill and Roosevelt more than any others, early planned a war which, while it would be successful in a military sense, would ignore every other aspect.... The war ends, then, with mankind holding the atomic bomb in one hand and in the other imperialism, domination over colonial peoples and the colored races, prejudice and distrust. We cannot believe in a long peace ahead."(13)

Buck hoped to bring people of different backgrounds and cultures together, and to pierce American parochialism so that U.S. citizens could see others as equal human beings with worthy cultures and desires. Such an understanding would provide the only basis for a lasting peace. To that end, Buck's East and West Association during and after World War II produced an array of popular literature on other societies, especially China, India, and the Soviet Union, and prepared book lists, study guides, and exhibits for libraries and schools. Six hundred librarians at the 1945 conference of the association heard, among other speakers, activist Eslanda Goode Robeson, wife of singer Paul Robeson, describe her trip to Africa; and writer Richard Lauterbach criticize recent anti-Soviet books.(14) The association held classes, lectures, and cultural events in over 150 cities in 1947-1948, with speakers and performers from China, Korea, India, and Haiti.(15)

Mobilizing public opinion was not limited in appeal only to women, and it did not necessarily represent a gendered approach to foreign relations. But it was one of the few means in the postwar years of bringing women's voices to bear on foreign policy issues. Buck at times contrasted a "women's" approach to foreign relations, based on understanding among people, with the traditional "male" approach based on the nation-state and threats of violence. For example, at a 1946 East and West Association event billed as "Women Face World Issues," Buck urged the American people to force the U.S. government to approve a large-scale program of people-to-people visits between the Soviet Union and the United States. The purpose of these visits would be to convince ordinary Russian citizens who feared U.S. threats about using the atomic bomb that we were just as war weary as they were. As Buck said: "`Only those Americans who have no understanding of psychological forces applaud our State Department's present big-stick policy toward Russia.'"(16) Buck's approach here confirms the pattern historian Joan Hoff-Wilson identified in her analysis of women foreign policy activists; they "stressed cultural values, rhetoric, and persuasion through candid negotiation ... in preference to the use of military or economic force in foreign relations."(17)

As a novelist who made her reputation by interpreting for Americans the everyday thoughts and feelings of people from another culture, Buck had a certain legitimacy in the U.S. public eye in claiming that she knew

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