[with:] Bertram, James. Autograph letter signed, to Attlee, enclosing the letter from Mao, informing him that "I have the distinction (for what it is worth!) of being the first Englishman to visit the Chinese Communists on their home ground", giving his impressions of the 8th Route Army ("...experts at just the kind of fighting that can seriously worry the Japanese ... they are unquestionably the most effective force in China at the present time...") and describing his visit with keen journalistic detail, with a post-script ("You should keep the enclosed letter, if only as a curiosity. It is probably the first time that the signatures of Mao and Chu have ever been seen in England"), 4 pages, 4to, Yenanfu, North Shensi, 3 November 1937; punch holes, slight staining
A HIGHLY IMPORTANT LETTER CALLING FOR SOLIDARITY FOLLOWING THE FULL-SCALE JAPANESE INVASION OF CHINA. This letter, written by the Communist Party leader and brilliant guerrilla leader who would become one of the most significant historical figures of the century, whose actions and decisions would impact upon hundreds of millions of lives, was written to the British politician Clement Attlee (1883-1967), then leader of the Labour Party and now widely acknowledged as Britain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister of the twentieth century. This attempt to elicit British support against Japan is an extraordinarily early instance of Mao engaging in international diplomacy and is an exceptionally rare example of Mao’s signature. Only one letter signed by Mao has been sold at auction on the international auction market in recent decades.
The context of this letter was the full-scale invasion of China initiated by Japan on 7 July 1937 after many years of aggressive expansion. Faced with this existential threat, the Communists united with their Nationalist enemies to form the Second United Front. The Red Army was incorporated, at least in name, into the Nationalist military structure as the New Fourth Army and the Eighth Route Army. The latter was commanded by Zhu De (1886-1976), one of the principal founders of the People’s Liberation Army, who also signed the current letter. The Communists had reached Yan'an in north-west China at the end of the Long March in December 1936, and it now became the centre of their resistance to the Japanese. It was to be a campaign characterised by guerrilla warfare, although they won a morale-boosting victory in a set-piece battle at Pingxingguan on 25 September 1937.
James Munro Bertram (1910-1993) was an intrepid New Zealand-born journalist and writer who found his way to Yan'an, an exceptionally remote place rarely visited by Westerners. Bertram had been in China for over a year and had become acquainted with Edgar Snow, the American correspondent whose visit to the Chinese Red Army in 1936 was chronicled in the hugely influential Red Star Over China, as well as Song Qingling and several members of the Communist underground. After the invasion of Beijing, Bertram agreed to help Deng Yingchao, the wife of Zhou Enlai and herself a leading member of the Party, to cross Japanese lines. The small group joined a flood of refugees and managed to pass checkpoints to relative safety, then began a tough week-long journey along muddy roads to the remote north west. Bertram's bravery in crossing Japanese lines and the friendship and practical help he had extended to important Party members meant that he won the trust of Mao and other Communist leaders when he arrived in Yan'an. On 25 October Mao gave Bertram a long interview in which he explained the conduct of the war against Japan and the political structures of “democratic centralism” that would bring about final victory. The interview was included in the Works of Chairman Mao, and some quotations later found their way into the Little Red Book.
Bertram was not a Communist but he was deeply impressed by what he found in Yan'an. Like many other socialists in the 1930s he took an international perspective: he saw the struggle against Japanese imperialism as part of the same struggle that was going on in Spain and elsewhere in Europe against Fascism. Courage and curiosity had brought Bertram to an extraordinary place and, before he left the Communist base for the front line, he realised that he had a unique opportunity to foster the international solidarity to which he was deeply committed. He was personally acquainted with Clement Attlee, then leader of the British Labour Party; he begins his letter to Attlee with the reminder that they had met through Herbert Seddon, the resident surgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, to whom Bertram was also appealing for medical support for China. Bertram goes on to explain to Attlee why he had encouraged this letter to be written:
"...Before I left Yenan (and after I had been discussing the international situation with such legendary figures as Mao Tse-tung, former Chairman of the Chinese Soviets, who - if you believe the Japanese - is a fiend in human form), I asked these people if they would send some message to the British people, and especially to the British Labour Party, of which I hope I may still consider myself a member. They agreed; and the text of the letter, with an English translation, is enclosed with this. If I find myself performing the friendly action of an intermediary, this is purely accidental, I was only too glad to do it, because I believe so firmly that international cooperation, & what still survives of the principle of 'collective security', is at the last gasp of its latest hour. If it fails again - after Manchuria and Abyssinia, not to mention Spain - then I doubt if we shall be able to invoke it, even in fond reminiscence..."
Mao’s letter was originally written in Chinese (the Chinese version is not known to survive) then translated and typed. The typist – and presumably the translator – was Bertram. Mao places the United Front against the Japanese firmly in the context of the international struggle against Fascism, and puts his case in powerful terms:
“The Chinese people, like the people of Spain, stand now in the vanguard of the International Peace Front. Our Party and our Army are playing their part in that struggle. We are fighting with the whole Chinese people against an enemy that has deliberately turned against peace and the welfare of humanity. We are fighting for our national existence, for a free and democratic Chinese Republic, for international peace and justice.”
Mao shows a remarkable understanding of British politics that came in part from his conversations with Bertram. He praises Labour’s criticisms of Japanese aggression and the pressure that the party had applied on the government, and even quotes the Foreign Secretary’s declared policy of “steady and collective resistance to unprovoked acts of aggression”. Above all he claims to believe that “the great majority of the British people stand firmly for peace and democracy”, who will, he predicts “rise in support of the Chinese people .... and ... compel their own Government to adopt a policy of active resistance to a danger that threatens them no less than ourselves”.
These were stirring words from a man who had already attained near mythic status as a guerrilla leader The timing of the letter was propitious as Attlee was then leading his party away from its long-held pacifist position and thus emerging as a major critic of the Conservative government's policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany and her allies. The month after this letter was written Attlee visited war-torn Spain in support of the International Brigades, and he certainly understood the connections Mao was drawing between Spain and China. Surviving letters reveal that Attlee supported Dr Seddon's efforts to bring medical relief to China, but he was out of power and British practical support for China during the years of the Second United Front remained slight. Yet the memory of this gesture of goodwill from the guerrilla leader in 1937 may have lived on in Attlee’s memory. Clement Attlee was British Prime Minister when Mao proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, on 1 October 1949: on 6 January 1950 the United Kingdom became the first Western country to recognise the PRC. Attlee also played an important role in discouraging President Truman from initiating a full-scale war against China during the Korean War. Fours years later Attlee became the first ranking western politician to meet Mao after the founding of the PRC. The two men had a three-hour conversation over tea on 24 August 1954, during which they must surely have recalled this extraordinary missive from Yan’an of seventeen years earlier.
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