“An Especially Tricky People”: Duke Goes to China. (The Gonzo Chronicles, Part Four)

Possibly my favorite Doonesbury panel. 17 July 1971.

The French intellectual André Malraux enjoyed what was probably his sole mention in American newspaper comics in the July 17, 1971 Doonesbury strip. The strip is part of an arc in which Mark Slackmeyer, the ultimate bourgeois revolutionary, tries to burnish his working-class credentials by working at a construction site. Eager to convert his fellow working men to Marxist ideology, Mark expresses his frustration at what he sees as their lack of political enlightenment, noting that most of them had apparently not read Marx. Revealing the extent to which Mark is alienated from the people he believes he is fighting for, a fellow hardhat replies, in a less-than-subtle dig at Mark’s reason for taking a blue-collar job, that when it comes to revolutionary theory, he sides with Malraux: Marxism is less a doctrine than “a will to feel proletariat.”

Malraux provides an interesting lens through which to examine Sino-American diplomacy in the Cold-War era. During the interwar years, Malraux, who knew Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, wrote a series of novels about relationships between Europeans and Asians in China and French Indochina. While his writing reproduced the Orientalism and Eurocentrism that shaped relationships between colonizer and colonized, critics note that even as he was unable to shake key Orientalist tropes – the “coolies, bamboo shoots, opium smokers, destitutes, and prostitutes” – in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the First World War, Malraux abandoned the inherently colonialist idea that Europe had a critical role to play in the advancement of human culture, or that it had much to teach Asia. (This understanding that the West was unable to live up to its stated values was also a touchstone for colonial intellectuals in the development of global anticolonial movements.)

On the eve of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, Malraux met with Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to share his insights about Mao’s China. Malraux understood that the West approached China from a position of ignorance. Nixon, Malraux said, was like the European explorers of the sixteenth century: he might be “[setting] out for a specific objective” but he would end up “[arriving] at an entirely different discovery.

After the meeting with Malraux, Kissinger told Nixon that Mao preferred dealing with “hard-headed realists” who “can’t be bluffed and … won’t fall for pretty phrases.” That “hard-headed realist” came into the mix on 23 December 1975, when Duke, then serving as Governor of American Samoa, was nominated to be United States Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. (Technically, Duke was the first person to hold the title of “U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.” Before the formal establishment of diplomatic relationships between the two countries in 1979, American representation in Beijing was handled by the head of a U.S. Liaison Office: prior to Duke’s arrival in January 1976, that role was filled by future U.S. President George H.W. Bush.)

Malraux’s contradictory understanding of relationships between China and the West – Orientalism tempered by an acknowledgement that Westerners were ignorant of Asian realities and in no position to take any kind of moral leadership over the Chinese people – is a useful way to understand Duke’s tenure as America’s voice in China. Previously, I’ve argued that in Samoa, Duke evolved from a crude Hunter S. Thompson caricature into a stand-in for the ugly side of American political, social and cultural realities that came to the fore after the failed revolutions of the 1960s. In the words of Thompson’s “Wave Speech,” one of the most insightful analyses of the failures of the Sixties to remake America, Duke represented what was left after “the wave finally rolled and broke back.” Beginning in Samoa, and then in China, Trudeau inserted Duke into ongoing events in order to draw attention to America’s post-1960s decline into short-sighted greed, selfishness, racism, corruption, and a fundamental cynicism about politics.

There are, of course, numerous references to HST’s penchant for drugs, guns, and fast living in the China episode. Before he even leaves for Beijing, MacArthur, Duke’s Samoan aide-de-camp, describes Duke’s parties using Maoist saying: “there is great disorder under Heaven and the situation is excellent.Duke’s Beijing “shopping list” includes a “Marlin .300 Savage semi-automatic with 500 soft-nosed cartridges,” necessary because “these folks can turn on you,” a nod to HST’s love of firearms and the paranoid aspects of his journalistic persona. Upon arriving in Beijing, Duke informs the press that he will “keep ingesting recreational drugs” and that the embassy was prepared to “fill the pharmaceutical requirements” of diplomatic functions. When he arrives in Beijing, Duke stops to take a handful of pills and “[giggles] uncontrollably” as he gets into his car; he later tells Deng Xiaoping that he hopes to “fulfill a life-long ambition – dropping acid on the Great Wall.

While GBT’s references to Thompson’s larger-than-life Gonzo persona are always worth a chuckle, there is a deeper layer of commentary within the China arc, in which Trudeau lays bare the cynicism that pervaded American political culture in the post-Watergate era. Duke’s Senate confirmation hearings foreground his corruption, and by extension the corruption at the heart of the entire enterprise. There are “allegations of extortion and oil kick-backs … tax evasion, misappropriation of federal funds …use of martial law, and reports of personal drug trafficking.” Yet, even after MacArthur reveals that Duke has been hiding money in a Swiss bank account, the Senate committee approves his nomination because they simply don’t care: corruption is “all part of the game” when “public service … seems to breed contempt for integrity.”

“An especially tricky people.” Doonesbury, 24 December 1975.

Duke sees himself as one of the “hard-headed realists” whom Kissinger believed would gain China’s respect: to him, his selection is a sign that Gerald Ford was sending a “no-nonsense career diplomat” to “show that he’s not being duped by the Reds.” But what Duke sees as a “no-nonsense” approach to diplomacy is actually informed by the kind of Orientalism that pervades Malraux’s writing about Asia. Alongside his corruption, Duke brings to Beijing a profoundly racist ignorance of, and disdain for, the people to whom he would be representing America. He believes that his time working with “minorities” in Samoa has prepared him to deal with the Chinese, who are, above all, “an especially tricky people”; he claims his five years living in San Francisco make him “an old China hand”; when asked to memorize the faces of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, Duke replies that it “can’t be done,” only to have his State Department handler point out that the Chinese “only dress alike.” When, at his first press briefing, Duke is reminded that his “Chinese hosts frown on all forms of excess,” Duke replies that “[his] Chinese hosts can go suck eggs.

Beyond his corruption and racism, Duke’s approach to diplomacy is informed by good old-fashioned American militarism, a dynamic that we saw at play in the “Operation Frequent Manhood” episode, in which Duke manipulated the White House into attacking its own Pacific colony. Kissinger took the bait in large part because America needed to show the world that, in the wake of defeat in Vietnam, it was no longer “Mr. Nice Paper Tiger.” During the same media scrum in which Duke pledged to maintain his assorted drug habits, he laid out his basic approach to dealing with a foreign adversary: while detente was a possibility, he noted that “his Chinese hosts would be as saddened to see U.S. gunboats steaming up the Yangtze” as he would be. On 22 January 1976, in his first meeting with Deng Xiaoping, Duke tells the future paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China that while he “looks forward to a new spirit of cooperation with our new Chinese friends,” he “sincerely [hopes] it won’t be necessary to shell any pagodas.”

Introducing Honey. Also, probably Deng Xiaoping’s first appearance in an American comic strip Doonesbury, 22 January 1976.

The 22 January 1976 strip is significant in the development of Duke’s China episode and to the larger history of Doonesbury. In terms of the former, it marks Duke’s first real engagement with Chinese politics at a crucial time in the nation’s history: Mao was nearing the end of his life, and the uncertainty surrounding his impending demise played a key role in how Chinese politics was playing out. Not long after his comic-strip incarnation met Duke, the real-life Deng would find himself, not for the first time, purged by more hardcore elements within the Chinese Communist Party. Duke would be at the centre of that and other key moments as China emerged from Mao’s rule.

It also contains a great example of GBT’s incredibly subtle visual style. Look at that line indicating Honey’s head motion in panel three: It’s doing a lot of work.

In terms of the larger history of the strip, Duke’s first meeting with Deng introduced readers to a regular player: Honey Huan. Originally Duke’s translator, Honey became much more than that. Part obsessed paramour (though whether their romantic relationship exists other than in her own imagination is one of the enduring mysteries of the Doonesbury universe), part accomplice, part voice of reason, and eternal target of Duke’s scorn, Honey became the least likely life partner to Doonesbury’s most loathsome, and fascinating personality.

Next time in the Gonzo Chronicles, we’ll look at how Honey helped navigate Duke through some key moments in Chinese history and American-Chinese relationships. Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on ““An Especially Tricky People”: Duke Goes to China. (The Gonzo Chronicles, Part Four)

  1. I try to remember what I “got” when I read Doonesbury as a kid.

    We had the paperback collections, so if I read this when it came out, I would have been 12. But I certainly re-read them through my teens.

    The translator gag… I think even an early teen would get that.

    The complexity of Duke… I dunno.

    The humor works at a lot of different levels though.

    But Duke was more abstract than say Joanie Caucus, or Zonker.


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