The Unknown Knowns

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By Sanjay Saigal

A high point in the remarkable string of guest blog posts has been Xujun Eberlein's investigation (top five items here) into the true nature of something called the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, or SACO. Chinese school-kids, she writes, know of SACO as a WWII-era anti-communist concentration camp. Bob, her husband (to be) had not heard of SACO when they first met:

Bob was the first person I know to counter the mainland Chinese notion of SACO's history, albeit intuitively (and with an American bias). He did later speculate that, if there were actually such a graphic concentration camp in China operated by Americans, the ubiquitous US journalists wouldn't have foregone a Pulitzer-winning opportunity to expose it, ergo SACO would already have been public knowledge in the US.

Xujun sets up the dichotomy starkly: In the American telling, SACO was a Nationalist-FDR effort to fight a common enemy -- Imperial Japan. The lay (mainland) Chinese belief, influenced by popular and historical material, is darker: SACO was the scene of American-led torture and communist martyrdom. They can even point to a brick-and-mortar museum displaying "Made in USA" torture artifacts.


Who is right?
SACOpennant.JPG

Xujun paintakingly tracks down Chinese research showing that SACO was, in fact, an anti-Japanese military operation. The truth that it was not a prison, much less a concentration camp, has begun to slowly trickle out. I think of the story of SACO as a fault-line of history. 

(SACO's "What the Hell" flag, this one displayed at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredricksburg, TX, surely lacks the gravitas a concentration camp pennant would seem to require.)

The other night I was riffling through the March issue of Flying. It featured a column by the prolific Lane Wallace, recently seen here. Titled "Forgotten Adventures in Real Time," the column opens as a meditation on the ineffability of adventure. But it pivots into something else entirely when Lane takes up a missing persons' case dating to the immediate aftermath of WWII:

Until I read Fiedler's book [303 Squadron -- SS] I wasn't even aware there were Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain. So imagine my surprise at discovering that in the critical month of September alone, the 303 Squadron shot down 108 of the 967 enemy planes destroyed by the RAF and its allies. And that, over the course of the Battle of Britain, its pilots shot down three times as many aircraft, with one-third the losses, of any other RAF squadron.

Yet another fault-line! Lane attributes the erasure of 303 Squadron from historical record to Poland's eclipse by the Iron Curtain, and the West's concomitant depreciation of Polish wartime contribution. A supposedly accountable Western democracy, not an oppressive autocracy, "disappeared" the Polish fighters for political reasons. (Perhaps the story is better known in Eastern Europe?)

Lane's column reminded me of another historical obfuscation from that part of the world. "The Worst of the Madness" is a chilling survey of the blood-soaked history of Poland and points east -- Belarus, the Baltics, Ukraine, and the western periphery of Russia. Last year, Ann Applebaum wrote in The New York Review of Books that this region:

... experienced the worst of both Stalin's and Hitler's ideological madness. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of two totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes...

Between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million people died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them...

Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian... argues that we still lack any real knowledge of what happened in the eastern half of Europe in the twentieth century. And he is right: if we are American, we think "the war" was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940... and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story. 

Amid our frequent and heartfelt invocations of the Holocaust and its lessons, how often do we -- here in the West -- speak of those 14 million victims? Shouldn't cultural literacy include knowing about Polish heroism in the defense of Britain? Will the truth about SACO leaven Chinese views of America? Finally, and most troublingly, how much of the history that we "know" is as incomplete and incorrect as these examples?

What lies beneath.JPG

Today the U.S. remains mired in two seemingly endless overseas campaigns. Even sanguine observers suspect that the Bomb Iran confederacy is only in temporary abeyance until developments in North Africa and Arabia can be repackaged into a digestible McNarrative. In such  fraught times, the recurrent faults in  history should induce severe modesty in our pundits and policy-makers. Truth can be obscured by innocent solipsism as easily as venal disregard. Facts once known can be easily lost or banished. Santayana surely doesn't imply that even if we embrace it, we ever actually know the past. History is as much minefield as map.

I view Jim's blog posts -- and those of his office-mates -- as outlines for a first draft of history. With all the world's data-gathering tools at our disposal, we can attempt to understand the present, even if "to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle". 

In this quick turn on Jim's podium, I am covering my own peculiar interests: analytic decision-making, management and entrepreneurship, South Asia, and flying. I confess to an additional, covert, agenda: to imbue issues not usually mentioned here with the possibility of history.

Sanjay Saigal is founder and CEO of Mudrika Education, Inc., with offices in Silicon Valley, CA and Delhi, India.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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