Dan Bloom: What does the title of your memoir mean?
Milo Thornberry: On March 9, 1971, the country director for the Republic of China at the US State Department wrote in a communique about our arrest: “There is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries ... with both ardent views on Taiwanese independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths.”
A ‘fireproof moth’ is a moth that gets close to the fire without being burned. It seemed to be an apt title for my book because, as US citizens, my wife and I did not suffer the same fates as our Taiwanese colleagues.
Bloom: When you became convinced that the secret police were going to arrange an “accident” to kill your friend, Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), you and your wife decided you had no choice but to help him escape from Taiwan. What role did you play?
Thornberry: We had read a story in Time magazine about the way East Germans were being smuggled out to the West. Someone from the West crossed into East Germany, gave their passport to the person to come out and after the person was out, they reported to their embassy that their passport had been stolen. In short, that is what we did in Taiwan. Peng flew out of the country on a Saturday night — Jan. 3, 1971 — and the next day he was safe in Sweden.
Bloom: You write in your book that Peng’s getaway was so successful that when then-US president Richard Nixon and then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) met in Beijing in 1973 and wanted to know how Peng got out, neither of their vast intelligence systems could tell them. Even Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) went to his grave without knowing that a group of non-government novices managed to get Peng out undetected. Can you elaborate on this?
Thornberry: I am reasonably sure that the authorities in Taiwan, China and the US never knew. I’ll tell you why: First, in a declassified verbatim account of the meeting between Nixon, Zhou Enlai, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Zhou clearly suspects that the US government got Peng out.
Nixon and Kissinger protest that they had no idea how he got out, a claim that is consistent with declassified State Department correspondence about our arrest. They had a lot of items on their list of real or imagined offences, but Peng’s escape was not among them.
The account of the interrogation and torture of our colleague Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏) at the same time as our arrest indicates that while the authorities suspected Hsieh of being involved in the escape, they never linked me or my wife to the escape. He was not. He and Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝) had not been out of prison long when we got Peng out. We knew they would be suspected and so never involved them in the escape at all. His torturers did their best to get him to link us to crimes they suspected we might have committed, but Peng’s escape was not one of them. None of the list of unofficially released charges against us by the Republic of China [ROC)]when we were arrested a year later ever mentioned a connection with Peng’s escape.
Bloom: Your book tells of how you had to live a kind of double life in Taiwan.
Thornberry: It’s a long story, but here it is: A Presbyterian missionary in Taiwan had known Peng before his arrest in 1964 [for publishing the Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation] and dared to visit his family while he was in prison.