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Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Madame Chiang can talk about democracy, but she doesn’t quite know how to live it.’

Soong May-ling—a.k.a. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, China’s wartime first lady—was, says biographer Hannah Pakula, “China’s face to the world.” In 1943, she addressed the U.S. Congress to great acclaim. But she and her family were deeply entwined in the corruption within China’s Nationalist regime. Pakula, the acclaimed author (An Uncommon Woman) and widow of director Alan Pakula (All the President’s Men), spent 10 years researching The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, her rich portrait of China’s wartime power couple and the culture that shaped them.

What drew you to Madame Chiang?
Alan told me this story: when Madame Chiang stayed at the White House, she’d clap her hands for the servants to come. Imagine how that went over in the Roosevelt White House! I thought, “Why would an obviously intelligent woman educated in the United States and trying to get money do anything so counterproductive?” So I started reading. Her family was fascinating.

How so?
May-ling was sent to the States when she was 10. She went to Wesleyan in Macon, Georgia, then Wellesley. Her older sisters went to Wesleyan; her brother T. V. went to Harvard. When she graduated from Wellesley, she’d been here half her life. When she went back, she was so Americanized she had to study all things Chinese, including the language.

Why did she marry Chiang?
Marriage in China was about family position. Ai-ling, her oldest, most manipulative sister, married H. H. Kung, the 75th lineal descendent of Confucius. This carried immense weight in China. Kung was an aristocrat but not terribly bright. Ai-ling ran their financial empire. The second sister, Ching-ling, married Sun Yat-sen, who cofounded the Nationalist Party. Ai-ling arranged May-ling’s marriage to Chiang, who was a military hero, because the Soong family had Confucius and China’s George Washington already.

Was Chiang a good military leader?
He was a Chinese warlord. He manipulated people below him so nobody ever got too much power. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about them. This had terrible effects on how he ran the country and the war. He was not particularly efficient. He took care of people in favor whether or not they were talented, so promotions never had much to do with merit. And his generals followed the tradition of skimming off the top.

For example?
They would say, “I have 10,000 men,” and demand enough arms and money for them. But they never had as many men as they claimed, and pocketed the difference. That was a general’s prerogative.

Why didn’t Chiang change that?
He kept putting off the time when the people would be educated enough to take over the government; for him that explained why China couldn’t be democratic yet. China never had a civil society: there was the court, the mandarins, and the peasants. So there was a lot of preparatory work to do. But nobody ever seemed to be doing it.

What was May-ling doing?
Whenever the Chiangs needed money, she’d hop on a plane to America. Roosevelt was sympathetic: the Delano family traded in China. He gave her what he felt was necessary to keep his dream of a free, unified China alive. He felt very strongly that the Allies could not lose China; that was the one thing Chiang had to dangle. They started rumors about negotiating with the Japanese to keep the pressure up. So she got plenty of aid.

Where did the money go?
The Chinese army never had enough armaments, but there were warehouses full of ammunition Chiang was storing to use against the Communists. They had to blow it all up when the Japanese moved in. The aid stopped with Truman: he had no use for the Chiangs. But May-ling had many friends here, some quite powerful.

For instance?
Henry and Claire Boothe Luce. To them, the Chiangs were saints one and two, absolutely remarkable people devoted to democracy. I don’t know how many times they were on the cover of Time or Life. So their mythology grew in America.

How did she win Americans over?
She never demanded aid. She once described working for the Shanghai YWCA in the 1930s: “I put on my best hat and shoes and furs and go in and give the gentlemen the opportunity to give to a good cause.” She manipulated Congress and the media the same way. She handled herself brilliantly. Here was this tiny woman with a gorgeous body who was flirtatious and funny and spoke fluent American with a charming southern accent. She made congressmen feel big and important. She spoke with enormous feeling about China as the bastion of democracy, how the Chinese were waging the fight America should be waging against the Japanese.

Did she believe in democracy?
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Madame Chiang can talk about democracy, but she doesn’t quite know how to live it.” She could comparmentalize, say the appropriate thing to each audience to get what she wanted. But she was a genuine patriot. She was much more aware than Chiang of the threats in the world. She understood the “foreign devils.”

What does that mean?
Their culture said they were the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom, and everyone else was a barbarian. Chiang didn’t give a damn about anyone outside China; he just wanted to be treated as the most important person in China. He was furious when neither Roosevelt nor Churchill met him at the airport in Cairo in 1943, after he’d wangled his way into that conference; it was a big loss of face.  Remember, Chiang was a Confucian, a typical Chinese. The only thing that mattered was face—not what was actually going on, but how it looked to the world.

Wasn’t May-ling his translator at Cairo?
She “translated” most of his foreign correspondence and meetings. She never literally translated anything, though. Chiang had a huge temper and very little education. Nothing beyond his specific world interested him. So she had to make whatever he said sound thoughtful, soften it. She mediated everything. The one time she didn’t was with Gen. Joseph Stilwell.

What happened?
She was in the States when George Marshall had FDR send that telegram to Chiang threatening to cut off Lend-Lease aid unless Stilwell took over command of the Chinese army. Instead Chiang ejected Stilwell from China; that wouldn’t have happened if May-ling had been there. She would have worked something out. Remember face: that telegram made Chiang look like a recalcitrant fool. Stilwell had to go.

Solely because of face?
Stilwell knew how extensive the corruption was. He understood Chiang was far more interested in fighting the Chinese Communists than in fighting the Japanese. As far as Chiang was concerned, the United States or the Soviet Union would take care of the Japanese sooner or later.

Who benefited from Stilwell’s recall?
Roosevelt’s envoy Patrick Hurley, who thought he could reconcile the Nationalists and the Communists to fight the Japanese and create a unified China. General Chennault, who insisted all the Chinese army needed to win was American air support. And May-ling’s brother T. V. Most historians agree it appears T. V. used Lend-Lease aid to enrich himself and his family. I’ve never been able to get definitive proof, nor has anyone else. But there is a mountain of suggestive evidence.

How do you see Madame Chiang?
As a very powerful woman whose power had real limits. She told Stilwell, “I’ve practically killed my husband but I can’t move him two inches.” She was very frustrated she couldn’t get him to see anybody else’s point of view—or how they appeared to other countries.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of World War II magazine.