“Independence, Self-Reliance and Millet. Plus Rifles”: Duke and China’s Foreign Policy. (The Gonzo Chronicles, Part Six)

Last time out, we looked at how Duke’s time as ambassador to China provided a window into the inner workings of Chinese domestic politics as the country came to terms with the passing of the first generation of Chinese Communist Party leadership, culminating in the political rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping. As Duke stumbled through the complexities of CCP political manoeuvrings, he also brought his brand of Gonzo politics to bear on China’s foreign policy issues, in particular its relationship with the Soviet Union and their Cuban allies.

Say what you will about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and the subsequent normalization of relationships between the U.S. and China was one of the most significant diplomatic accomplishments of the twentieth century. While this singular achievement is sometimes undersold in Western circles because of Nixon’s subsequent political disgrace, Chinese voices are sometimes less likely to let Watergate define their take on Nixon’s political legacy. The year Nixon resigned, Deng asked Kissinger:

“Why is there still such a big noise being made about Watergate? Such an issue is really incomprehensible to us.

A banquet table conversation between Duke and Honey illustrates China’s more positive framing of Nixon’s legacy. Honey tells Duke she “can’t understand why your people continue to plague this man,” when “Mr. Nixon was not the aberration from the system – rather, he was the very epitome of it.”

Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to normalization with China grew from the principle of the enemy of my enemy being my friend. In this case, the common enemy was the USSR, or, as China framed the issue, “Soviet hegemony.”

Today, Russia and China increasingly find themselves on the same side of geopolitical issues: most recently, the two countries put out a joint statement in which, among other mutual expressions of cooperation, China expressed support for Russia’s ongoing aggressive posture towards Ukraine.

This marks a major shift in Sino-Russian relations from the 1970s, when China saw the Soviets, as much as the running dogs of American imperialism, as threatening its sovereignty. Nixon and Kissinger used Chinese fears of encirclement by unfriendly powers to open the door to rapprochement.

China’s anxiety about Soviet power was foregrounded from the moment Duke was appointed: reflecting on the challenges in front of him, he tells MacArthur that China’s “primary concern is USSR hegemony.” Deng’s comics-page speech welcoming Duke to China is taken verbatim from a toast Deng gave during President Gerald Ford’s 1975 visit to China. The speech focuses on Chinese defiance in the face of Soviet aggression:

Today, it is the country which most zealously preaches peace that is the most dangerous source of war. Rhetoric about detente cannot cover up the stark reality of the growing danger of war.

The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountains. The wind is blowing harder and harder, and nothing can prevent the storm. In the face of this international situation, the crucial point is what line and policy to pursue.

We consider that it is in the interest of the people of the world to point out the source and danger of the war, dispel illusions of peace, fully arouse the people, make all preparations, unite with all the forces that can be united with, and wage a tit-for-tat struggle.

Deng goes on to underline how China would no longer tolerate threats to its sovereignty: Chinese resistance was built on “independence, self-reliance and millet.” He adds another element to that list: “plus rifles.” As Honey, in one of her typically loose-but-effective acts of translation puts it, China’s “basic goal is peace,” but they’re “nobody’s fools.”

Honey calls it as it is. Doonesbury, 19 February 1976.

China had good historical reason to fear foreign encroachment. In the nineteenth century, there was a paradigm shift in China’s relationship with the rest of the world. For most of its history, China was the “Middle Kingdom,” the most civilized and advanced society on the planet: as such, China defined the terms of its engagements with other nations. Thinking that they had little to learn or gain from Western “barbarians,” China actively discouraged the presence of European traders and missionaries, limiting Western access to valuable Chinese goods and markets.

But China failed to adjust as Western powers developed advanced weapons and seafaring technology, and by the end of the 1800s, the West forced China to sign a series of “unequal treaties” that seriously curtailed its sovereignty, dealing a profound blow to national pride. Any analysis of China’s foreign relations should start from the understanding that its principle goal throughout the twentieth century was to counter any similar threat to its sovereignty.

Doonesbury artfully brought China’s historical sense of vulnerability to the funny pages in an arc in which Duke and Honey visit the Summer Palace. Zhang, the pair’s tour guide describes how the Hall of Happiness and Longevity was “burnt to the ground by allied expeditionary forces in 1860,” and rebuilt only to be “razed again by the Westerners in 1900.” Another hall was “burnt to the ground in by the allied powers in 1899.

During Duke’s time as ambassador, a new threat to China’s independence emerged: not “allied expeditionary forces,” but soldiers from a fellow communist regime.

On 5 April 1976, Honey brought Duke to an outpost on the Sino-Soviet border to show him that it was being patrolled by Cubans – “ringers, fresh from Africa.” The subsequent arc, deeply rooted in both international and American domestic politics, reveals some key dynamics at play during Duke’s tenure in Beijing: his disregard for doing even the most basic elements of his job, his desire to unleash violence at the slightest provocation, and Honey’s uncanny ability to manipulate him to China’s advantage and away from political disaster.

Duke was characteristically lax about performing even the most basic of his diplomatic duties and was thus clueless about crucial political developments. Honey uses Duke’s ignorance to manoeuvre the U.S. into positions advantageous to China. Knowing that Duke hadn’t been reading State Department policy papers and hoping she can provoke a favourable American response to the developments on the border, she tells Duke that Kissinger had recently asserted that “the U.S. will NOT accept any further Cuban intervention abroad.

This position was rooted in Kissinger’s “Dual Policy” of supporting resistance to Soviet aggression while pursuing more friendly relations with Moscow. Specifically, Kissinger’s dictum about “Cuban intervention abroad” was a reference to Soviet ally Fidel Castro sending troops to Angola to support the MPLA, one of three anti-colonial movements fighting for control of post-independence Angola. The MPLA were Marxists who enjoyed strong Soviet support, while the U.S. armed and funded two other Angolan independence movements, the FNLA and UNITA, which they saw as counterweights to expanding Soviet influence in Africa.

Duke might have been be clueless about Kissinger’s statement, but once Honey shows him what’s happening at the border, he becomes concerned that Cuba will “overrun the whole planet,” especially given “what they did in Miami.” It doesn’t take long for him to begin advocating for a response rooted in his preferred approach to delicate situations: violence. Once he realizes the extent of Cuba’s presence on China’s frontiers, Duke calls the State Department and proposes a variety of responses including “[invading] Cuba,” “[imposing] an air blockade” and “[calling] in air strikes.”

This was not the first time that Duke saw military force as the preferred response to diplomatic tensions. As governor of American Samoa, Duke provoked a U.S. invasion and retaliatory bombing to resolve a conflict with his own State Department. This time, however, Duke undermines his argument for an armed American response by raising the spectre of “the largest country in the world” being “completely overrun by communists,” an irony that eventually catches even his attention. Honey, who drew Duke’s attention to the Cubans in the first place, is taken aback by the ambassador’s ravings and suggests a cooling-off period “before we all go jumping into bed together.”

Duke logic. Doonesbury, 9 April 1976.

Both in D.C. and on the comics page, American reactions to Cuba’s overseas adventurism were shaped by domestic politics, as an unelected President headed into the first election since the twin disasters of Watergate and defeat in Vietnam. To Gerald Ford, facing a disputed primary campaign, a solid response to communist aggression would be a valuable counter to conservative charges that America had lost credibility in the world’s eyes. On 23 March 1976, Ford lost the North Carolina primary to Ronald Reagan, a sign that he was vulnerable to an attack from his right on foreign policy questions.

Duke immediately understands that the border situation has ramifications for American electoral politics. When Honey advises him of Kissinger’s hardline position on Cuban intervention, Duke sees the statement as a reflection of Ford’s struggle to maintain the support of GOP hawks: “Damn – that must mean Jerry punted North Carolina.” A few days later, the State Department assures Duke that a move against the Cubans was possible, depending on the results of the Texas primary: “If Reagan KO’s the prez again, then maybe we’ll move against the Cubans.

Kissinger eventually tells Duke that the U.S. would not take action against the Cubans: the Dual Policy justified countering communist aggression, but it “[didn’t] apply to disputes between two nations of communistic persuasion.” Duke tells Honey that, like Ford’s fight with Reagan, China’s “problems with the Cubans” are “intramural.” Duke’s inability to marshal political support for an aggressive response to Cuba’s moves reflected real-world political dynamics. In January 1976, in a sharp blow to the Ford Administration, Congress voted to end American military support to Angolan fighters – a move that reportedly had Kissinger considering resignation.


P.J. O’Rourke died a few days ago, and with his passing I’ve been thinking about the history of Gonzo journalism.

Doonesbury does not fit squarely in the Gonzo tradition: it’s missing a key element of the genre, specifically the subjective presence of the author in the text.

That said, the China arc shows how Doonesbury borrowed freely from Gonzo journalism by blurring the line between reporting/analysis and fiction. Transplanting verbatim a speech by Deng and a Kissinger quote into a fantastic story about a potential Cuban invasion of China is a Gonzo move.

From its origins, Doonesbury rooted itself in ongoing events, rendered in varying degrees of fact and fancy. The China arc stands out as a step forward in Garry Trudeau’s work as a social commentator, both by going deeper into contemporary source material and by depicting current affairs in terms of their deeper historical roots.

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