Here is an extraordinary moment in twentieth century. The image depicts Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt with Madame Chiang Kai-shek at George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon on February 22, 1943, seventy-six years ago today. As early as 1943–more than fifteen months before the invasion of Normandy, five months before the Allied offensive on Sicily, with North Africa hanging in the balance and the Japanese still largely in control of the Pacific–President Roosevelt was already thinking of what a post-Second World War world might look like. Roosevelt believed that China would become one of the world’s Great Powers in the years immediately after the war. This was not an unreasonably assumption; then and now China was the world’s most populous nation. That alone made that nation a potent force. Roosevelt had nonetheless convinced himself that he was something of a China expert, basing his belief on the Delano family’s ties to the country dating back nearly a century. His grandfather had been active in what was euphemistically called the China Trade, which in addition to legitimate business activity essentially meant the sale of opium.
Roosevelt’s naïveté led to some unfortunate policy choices but one might forgive the president for his views on China, whose internal and external politics were exceedingly complicated. For one thing the Japanese had committed human rights violations there on an unprecedented scale. The Rape of Nanking, human experiments, and the imposition of slave labor were just some of their depredations. It is no wonder that President Roosevelt extended Lend-Lease aid to China to the extent that he did. Complicating it all however was the internal struggle between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. That was the real struggle playing out there. And that is the reason Madame Chiang Kai-shek visited the United States in early 1943. On February 18 she addressed a joint session of Congress, becoming the first Chinese person and first-ever woman ever to do so. Four days later this photo was taken on George Washington’s birthday at his Mount Vernon tomb, where she placed a wreath at Washington’s tomb.
Six years after this photo was taken Mao’s forces won the Civil War against Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Roosevelt by that time had been gone for almost five years. Chiang Kai-shek lived until 1975 and his widow lived to be 106. She died in New York City in 2003.