I haven’t seen the “American Footsteps in Taiwan, 1950-1980” exhibition currently on display at the National 228 Memorial Museum. According to a Central News Agency report: “The exhibition, organized by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), shows the influence the US has had in the development of Taiwan’s economy, education, military forces and public health.” (“Exhibition shows the US’ influence in martial-law Taiwan,” Nov. 27, page 2).
Nothing I read in the article suggests acknowledgement by the sponsors of the US’ role in a “conspiracy of silence” about White Terror in the period being celebrated by the display. If that is true, it would be a mockery to house it at the National 228 Memorial Museum.
Since martial law ended in 1987, many have documented in horrifying detail the corruption and brutality of the one-party state. At the time, Americans seemed to know much more about the atrocities of “Red Terror” in China and almost nothing about “White Terror” in Taiwan. How could that be?
China was closed to the US and many other countries. Taiwan, on the other hand, was awash in Americans: missionaries, students, teachers, US Department of State personnel, businesspeople and tourists. How could so many of these not have known? How was it that Americans in general knew so much about atrocities in China and so little about them in Taiwan?
Many people didn’t know what was happening in Taiwan because of what I call “a conspiracy of silence” between Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) administration and the US government. And it was not difficult to pull off. After World War II when Chiang and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the civil war to Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Chinese Communist Party in China, Americans were incredulous. How could it have happened? There were a few voices who reported the corruption and brutality of Chiang and the KMT, but their voices were lost in the deafening crescendo of anti-communism in the US.
Years later in Taiwan, mission boards and their missionaries were reluctant to talk about what they knew because to do so would threaten their mission. Some US universities tried to silence their postgraduate students because if they got into political trouble, it would threaten their being able to send more students to Taiwan, at the time the best place to study Mandarin Chinese. The conspiracy wasn’t centrally directed; it didn’t have to be.
Anti-communism justified the US’ decision to look the other way when it came to White Terror. The myth of Taiwan as “Free China” legitimized the partnership. And most Americans bought the myth; few understood that in the eyes of most Taiwanese, Taiwan was neither “free” nor was it “China.”
The sheer number of cases of arrest without trial, torture, secret trials and executions are mind-numbing. What happened to friends, even after 40 years, is painful to recall. Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏) and Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝) were friends arrested on Feb. 23, 1971, a week before my former wife and I were. The difference between their punishment and ours was that, as US citizens, we were put under house arrest and then expelled, while Hsieh and Wei were tortured and given long prison sentences.
During the time of his imprisonment, Hsieh managed to smuggle a letter out of prison. This one got as far as the US Navy Post at the American Navy Medical Study Center behind the hospital at National Taiwan University. US Naval security intercepted Hsieh’s letter and saw that it was from a political prisoner. They turned the letter over to the chief of the general staff, which resulted in torture so severe that Hsieh almost didn’t survive. Years later, in his paper on “White Terror,” Hsieh told this story to remind his readers “that the US Navy not only patrolled the Taiwan Strait for Taiwanese security, but also defended Chiang Kai-shek’s martial law rule.”
I wonder if Hsieh’s or others’ stories of US complicity in the White Terror are told in the display. It should be because celebrating the good things done in Taiwan by the US without mentioning the dark underside of the US-Republic of China relationship is a little like celebrating all of the good things US university Penn State has done over the years without mentioning the role played by the university’s leadership in protecting an alleged child molester for a decade or more. This university has apparently decided that the only way it can regain the trust it once enjoyed is by full disclosure of all that it failed to do and be. I would like to think that is what the US government will do to regain the trust of the Taiwanese people.
Milo Thornberry is author of Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror.
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