Sidney Rittenberg died on August 24 of this year, ten days after his 98th birthday. He was probably the most famous American collaborator with the Chinese Communist regime of Mao Zedong (We are not counting Chinese government official, Israel Epstein, as American, although he had his book, The Unfinished Revolution in China, published during the crucial five years in which he lived in the United States). Like Epstein, Rittenberg got long obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post. They might not have been as glowing as Epstein’s, but they were far from being as negative as they might have been for this long-term leading turncoat and propagandist for the murderous Mao regime.
Although the Times seemed to treat him with some approval by headlining its obituary, “Sidney Rittenberg, Idealistic American Aide to Mao Who Evolved to Counsel Capitalists, Dies at 98,” from the perspective of any right-thinking anti-Communist, The Post’s article is much the worse of the two. One sentence in The Post’s obit says it all, “After Mao’s seizure of power in 1949 over the corrupt U.S.-backed Nationalist Party, which enjoyed little support among the population, Mr. Rittenberg was rewarded with appointments at Chinese news and propaganda agencies.”
John F. Kennedy would certainly have taken issue with The Post’s extremely simplistic, pro-Mao, if not to say, pro-Communist view of the loss of China. Alfred Kohlberg, an American businessman with many years of experience with China, would no doubt have said that The Post is just continuing to perpetuate the pro-Communist propaganda with which the American mainstream press was packed in the 1940s.
Soul Mate Rittenberg?
As surprising as it might seem in light of all the anti-Communist writing that I have done, I can easily identify with Rittenberg, although I make no excuses for his actions. We are both Carolinians and we both received some education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My time was spent there getting a Ph.D. in economics after service as an Army lieutenant. Rittenberg entered as a freshman and either attended only briefly before dropping out to become a labor organizer or graduated with a degree in philosophy, depending on whether you believe the Post or the Times obituary. The Times assertion seems to be more plausible, because Rittenberg got the sort of U.S. Army assignment, though a private and not a lieutenant, that would more likely go to a college graduate, as a language specialist, becoming fluent in Chinese and being sent by the Army to China at the close of World War II.
Oh, but Rittenberg was Jewish, you say, and a former member of the American Communist Party. On the latter point, I have certainly never been a Communist Party member, but I can attest to the truth of the old saying that if you’re not a socialist when you’re under thirty you have no heart, and if you are a socialist when you’re over thirty, you have no brain. Chapel Hill was certainly a place to feel right at home as a Leftist when I was there, and it was probably more so when Rittenberg was there at the tail end of the Great Depression. Consider the fact that when I was there the most powerful voices against the Vietnam War, which most of us despised, including virtually every fellow veteran that I encountered, were from the Jewish Left. We looked forward every two weeks to reading I.F. Stone’s newsletter, and Noam Chomsky’s anti-war treatises in the New York Review of Books seemed to be the most persuasive. The first verse of my poem, “A Chomsky Dissenter,” captures my attitude toward the man at the time, and well into the years that I taught economics in college:
When I trusted Noam Chomsky I had a cozy home. With my academic friends, I did not feel alone.
In 1970, the very pro-Mao article, “Maoist Economic Development: The New Man in the New China,” by respected mainstream economist, John W. Gurley, was all the rage among us graduate students, even though it was weak in analysis and practically devoid of facts, an ideological screed dressed up in economic jargon which has aged very poorly. About the same time, I also read Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World, and was very favorably impressed, as I see many more recent readers are, too, even years after the horrors inflicted by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution—admittedly well after the period that Belden reported on—have become known. It’s not at all hard for me to put myself in the young Rittenberg’s shoes and being won over by Mao and his fellow revolutionaries. It’s not like Rittenberg deserted from the Army and went over to the enemy like my very misguided fellow rural Eastern North Carolinian, Charles Robert Jenkins, did in Korea in 1965. Rittenberg stayed in China after his Army tour was over, worked for a time in United Nations famine relief, and then joined up with Mao, becoming a propagandist for him.
But, again, there’s the matter of Rittenberg’s Jewishness. Wouldn’t that have set him apart from me? To the contrary, for a number of reasons; when I was of the same age as he was when he went over to the Reds, it would have probably made me identify with him even more closely. In the first place, the stereotype of white Southerners generally as prejudiced against Jews and non-whites is simply not true. There are lots of relatively broad-minded liberals in the South, and my family liked to count themselves among them. If there is any group of fellow whites that the average Southerner is likely to have some prejudice against, it is Roman Catholics, for doctrinal reasons. That’s because most Southerners are Protestants—Southern Baptists more than any other group, as my family was—and many of them descend directly from religious sects in Europe who were on the Protestant side of the Reformation, when people took those religious differences very seriously. Sunday school instruction in Southern Baptist churches is steeped in Old Testament stories. So was the child’s story Bible from which our second-grade public school teacher read to us regularly, and I imagine that she was hardly unusual as a small-town Southern elementary school teacher.
Although the fundamentalist evangelist Oliver B. Greene was ubiquitous on the radio in the South when I was growing up, I can’t say that he had any influence on me or anyone I knew, but his influence in the region had to have been substantial. Many times, I heard him offer as a “gift” to anyone sending him money a copy of the Scofield Bible. I have never seen a Scofield Bible, and I was well into middle age before I was to learn that it is an annotated work with a very strong Zionist slant.
Harry Golden’s 1955 book is entitled, Jewish Roots in the Carolinas: A Pattern of American Philo-Semitism. I have not read it, but from my own education and experience I can say that the average rural to small-town Southerner, at least at the time that I was growing up, was much more likely to have a positive rather than a negative attitude toward Jews. Most are unlikely to have known any Jews; I know I didn’t. When I thought of Jews, I thought mainly of those Old Testament characters. I didn’t even think of the numerous comedians I saw on television like Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, or Phil Silvers as Jews or of my beloved Mad magazine as a Jewish publication or the popular Tin Pan Alley music composers as Jews. If I had, it would have only made me more philo-Semitic. I think the only person that I ever laid eyes on in person whom I knew to be a Jew was that self-same Harry Golden from Charlotte, who wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. He actually came and gave a talk at our church one Sunday evening. I recall that he was an entertaining and likable-seeming fellow, although I don’t recall what he had to say. Only in researching this article did I learn that Golden was actually originally a New Yorker who ended up making his career in Charlotte, settling in the Southeast probably because he had been sent to the Federal Penitentiary down the road in Atlanta for five years for mail fraud when he was living in New York City. He was a popular celebrity, though, by the time that he was invited to speak at our church.
South Carolina Versus North Carolina
As for the Jewish roots in the Carolinas, my impression is that they are much deeper and more important in South Carolina than in North Carolina. There is certainly no North Carolina Wikipedia page to compare to History of the Jews in Charleston, South Carolina. From that page we learn that in 1800 South Carolina had the largest Jewish population of any state in the nation. It would not surprise me if North Carolina had the smallest. Rittenberg was a fairly representative Charleston Jew. His father was the head of the Charleston City Council and his grandfather was a prominent state legislator. Up the road in Dillon County on the border with North Carolina, Alan Shafer was the long-term corrupt Jewish political boss. Judah Benjamin was born in Charleston, but he made his mark politically as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana and later became a powerful figure in the Confederacy as Secretary of State. I noticed recently from the coverage of Hurricane Dorian that the current mayor of Charleston is named John Tecklenburg.
I know of no even near-equivalent person to any of those people in North Carolina. In North Carolina, what few Jews there were at the time I was growing up followed the pattern described by sociologist John Dollard in his classic Caste and Class in a Southern Town. They might own clothing stores and other retail establishments, but they seldom got involved in politics. Their public profile was typically low. It never even occurred to me that Epstein’s and Rosenbloom-Levy, a couple of the clothing stores in the nearby city of Rocky Mount, were Jewish-owned. As Dollard observed, they might have been more liberal in their dealing with blacks than most, but they never felt that they were in any position to rock the boat socially. Though generally accepted on account of their money and skin color as social insiders, they usually felt a little bit like outsiders on account of their roots in the distinctive Jewish culture.
The role performed by Jews in South Carolina and much of the rest of the nation was performed in North Carolina during my early childhood by…Martins. One of my father’s older brothers was the chief lobbyist for Wachovia Bank in Raleigh and he was the liberal Democratic chairman of the state party during most of the 1940s. According to family lore, he was also the power behind the throne of alcoholic Governor R. Gregg Cherry, who physically prevented Cherry from taking the delegation out of the 1948 Democratic Convention and throwing in with Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats. The brother had been a football player at Wake Forest College.
The oldest Martin brother was the long-term editor of the liberal Winston-Salem Journal. At one of our last family reunions, his son, in an address to the group, told us that Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the very influential Raleigh News and Observer, told his father that he often looked west to his newspaper to get an idea what his position should be on a particular issue. He also told us that the Jews of Winston-Salem had praised his father for the solid support of his newspaper for the state of Israel.
By that time, I had learned enough to be a strong dissenter from such a position, but in my youth, there was another reason for me to be even more pro-Jewish than the other Martins. I was in a much better position to identify with those Jewish-fish-slightly-out-of-water in Dollard’s book than other family members. My father became the principal of a school 50 miles east of Raleigh when I was one year old, in Nash County, and I grew up there. He and my mother were from Yadkin County, the next county west of Winston-Salem’s Forsyth County.
People from Yadkin and Nash County have the Baptist Church and the English language in common, but that’s about the extent of it. Yadkin was settled largely by Scotch-Irish and Germans who moved down from Western Pennsylvania. Their forbears had largely come to the New World for religious reasons. Nash County was settled by English people who came largely for commercial reasons. Large tracts of land were devoted to commercial farming, requiring slaves, in Nash County. In the northern half of the county where we lived the population was more than half black. The land was largely owned by large landowners and worked by tenant farmers. (The “sharecropper” expression was not used where we lived.) The more enlightened and liberal-minded of the landowners had mainly white tenants who got enough of the share of their labor to be considered a part of the middle class. But there were plenty of the other type of landlords who took advantage of the ignorance of their tenants, either black or downtrodden white, many of whom lived in what one might call “vagabondage,” to coin a term. In my all-white elementary school, we had a number of very poor kids, both from an economic and educational standpoint, come through before moving to another farm out of the school district. The class size shrank rather drastically after the mandatory schooling age of 16 was passed.
Support for secession and the Confederacy had been, of course, total among the whites in Nash County. Such was not at all the case in my parents’ native Yadkin County, where land tenure was pretty much on a one-family-one-farm largely subsistence-farming basis and slaves were virtually absent. My father’s maternal grandfather hid out in the mountains during the war to avoid service, and later served in the carpetbag government in Raleigh as a legislator. His paternal grandfather fought with Lee and was captured twice, but his son—my father’s father—died before Daddy even knew him and was therefore unable to be much of an influence on him. His mother, the daughter of the carpetbag legislator outlived her husband by some forty years and was therefore a much greater influence on my father’s views.
At Davidson College, my experience gave me still more of a natural affinity for Jews. Once again, I was a fish out of water. Only fifteen percent of the student body was not in one of the 12 Greek letter social fraternities, and I was among that former group, which included the one Jew at the college whom I got to know. He was from Philadelphia, and I hit it off with him quite well. I knew of only one other Jewish student. Wouldn’t you know, he was from South Carolina and he belonged to one of the more prestigious social fraternities, no doubt befitting the social status of his family back in the Palmetto State.
I encountered no Jews at all during two years in the Army. There was a guy named Nussbaum from Miami in our platoon at ROTC summer camp, between my junior and senior years at Davidson, who was the most Jewish looking guy you have ever seen, but he took exception to people who, from off-hand comments, gave the impression that they thought he was Jewish. I never sat down and talked to him about that.
Graduate School Reinforcement
In graduate school, it was not just the Jewish anti-war writers who intensified my philo-Semitism. That was the first time I worked and interacted with quite a few Jews. I answered an advertisement and found myself living in the three-bedroom apartment with two Northern Jews right off the bat, sociology and political science graduate students. The sociology guy introduced me to the New York Review of Books and caught me up on a lot of the best pop culture that I had missed the year before while stationed in Korea. We both detested the political science guy, because he would do no household chores and because he was basically an arrogant jerk. The sociology guy told me that the difference between them was that he himself was a Russian Jew while the other guy was a German Jew. That sort of identity politics at that time was completely beyond my ken. To me the political science guy was simply a garden variety jackass.
In the first summer school session I took only one course, one on the history of China to get back into the academic flow and because my just-finished Army tour in Korea had given me an interest in China. It had surprised me that the South Koreans had a long-term positive view of China, in spite of that country having been their enemy in the Korean War. All of their animus still seemed to be reserved for their former colonial masters, the Japanese. I liked the young professor of Chinese history, who came across as about as sympathetic to the Communists as the author, Belden. Only in retrospect has it occurred to me that, with his German name, the professor was likely Jewish. The same can be said for one of the two guys with whom I shared a calculator the second summer session in my statistics course. He was from Alabama or Mississippi, with a matching accent, and though he had a name that is probably more typical for Jews than for an average Southerner and perhaps a bit of a Jewish appearance, it never occurred to me that he was. He only mentioned it much later when I encountered him working in Washington, DC, for a non-profit organization.
The first professor for whom I was a teaching assistant was Jewish. He was a technocratic Keynesian, and I never got into the subject of politics with him. Keynesianism is, of course, highly political, but like the typical technocratic economist, he seemed to be unaware of the fact. My office mate from the second year through the fourth was also Jewish, and we became good friends, as I was with the one other Jewish graduate school classmate whom I knew to be Jewish. The only time I recall discussing Israel with any of them was with the office mate, who brought it up with a question as to why Americans so heavily favored Israel over the native Palestinians. I responded that I thought it was mainly on account of the heavy propaganda we get. I don’t think he disagreed but said that he thought that it was mainly because we could much more easily identify with the Jews in Israel because they were Westerners like us. My impression was that he, by contrast, held Israel’s Jews at arm’s length.
My professor of comparative economic systems might well have been my favorite, and I think one of the two known Jewish classmates might have summed him up best as the “very epitome of the New York Jewish intellectual,” and he meant it in the best sense of the term.
Not counting that disagreeable house mate, the one exception to my overall favorable impression of Jews at Chapel Hill came in the person of the second professor for whom I was a teaching assistant, and it was a real eye-opener. The Vietnam War was still raging, and I gathered that he, like the rest of us, was strongly against it. Thinking I was talking to an ally, I made an offhand favorable comment to him about something the influential anti-war Senator J. William Fulbright, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had said. His response really took me aback. “Fulbright,” he sneered, “is a big enemy of Israel. I never listen to him.”
That was my first encounter with a died-in-the-wool Zionist. The war at that time could hardly have been a more immediate concern. To give a deserved failing grade to a male student could result in his flunking out of college, losing his draft deferment, and being sent to fight and possibly die in a war in which we did not believe, but the professor’s first concern, it would appear, was the well-being of the state of Israel. “This guy is living in the wrong country,” I thought, although he was a born-and-bred American. I was to learn later, in fact, at a house party he hosted, that his son, who was approaching college age, was planning to immigrate to Israel.
The negative stereotype of Jews as disloyal to the country in which they live could hardly have been more vividly displayed than it was by this professor, and he was quite open about it. He clearly cared more about the people of Israel, that is to say, the Jews who lived there, than he cared about the students he was teaching, at least if they were not Jewish. I must stress that he was the definite exception among the Jews I knew at Chapel Hill, insofar as I perceived them, but the impression he made was jarring and unsettling.
Rittenberg, the Traitor?
Did Sidney Rittenberg display the same sort of disloyalty to the United States when he threw in with Mao and the Communists in China? We had just finished fighting a major war in which the Communist Soviet Union had been our ally, and so were Mao’s fighters as long as they directed their efforts against the Japanese and not the forces of General Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of China whom we supported. Perhaps we can cut him some slack for his decision on that account. It would be an open-and-shut case against him if Rittenberg had fulfilled his role of China’s lead propagandist during the Korean War, when Mao’s China came in in force on the side of North Korea to oppose the U.S.-led United Nations forces on the side of the South. I would imagine that we would be thinking of Rittenberg now in the same way in which we think of Tokyo Rose. But from 1949 to 1955 he was locked away as a political prisoner, upon suspicions raised by Joseph Stalin that he was really a U.S. spy.
Before that time, though, he performed, in his own words, at least one very disloyal act on behalf of the new objects of his affection. This comes from a very favorable interview article published in 2013 in The Atlantic, entitled “The American Who Gave His Life to Chairman Mao”:
I was able to give them some important information about the American decision to allow Chiang Kai-Shek to wipe out Communist troops in that area. At the time, the local leaders, Li Xiannian and his colleagues, were in dispute about the intentions of General Marshall and the American role in the Chinese civil war. Some people, including the then-political commissar, felt that the Nationalists would not be allowed to attack them and wipe the Communists, who were outnumbered four or five to one in that area, out. Others believe that Marshall would let them be killed.
I got a very clear statement from General Marshall’s attaché, General Henry Byroade, that the Americans were definitely going to let the Nationalists attack and annihilate these 60-70,000 Communist troops in that area. I took that information to the local commanders, Li Xiannian and so on, it proved to be right, and they totally escaped from encirclement. And when they came back to Yan’an, they thanked me and told me how correct my information had been. And in his memoirs, Li recalls this story and my role, which he exaggerates—my role wasn’t probably the decisive factor, but it was helpful. And then, these two commanders, who were both Central Committee members, Li Xiannian and Wang Zhen, became my two sponsors in joining the Chinese Communist Party.
What he has just told us in, so many words, is that by one major act of disloyalty to the United States government, he was instrumental in the Communists coming to power in China. One can’t help but wonder what Alfred Kohlberg would have said about that had he known it when he testified before Congress in 1952. Interviewer Matt Schiavenza just let it pass, though, and the obituary writers for The Post and The Times made no mention of it.
My first thought upon reading the first sentence of Schiavenza’s piece was that he was in error: “From 1944, when the 23-year-old Sidney Rittenberg first arrived in China with the U.S. Army, to his departure 35 years later, no other foreign national played as important a role in the country.”
Surely that designation belongs to Israel Epstein, I thought, a man of whom Schiavenza seems to be unaware. Epstein became a high government official, after all, while Rittenberg was just a propagandist, and he spent 16 of those 35 years as a political prisoner. He would do another 10-year stint in the clink after having been denounced by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, during the Cultural Revolution. Epstein, too, spent five years in prison during the Cultural Revolution, but that early act by the young Rittenberg, if taken at face value, is what probably tips the balance in favor of Schiavenza’s opening observation. It makes Rittenberg, in fact, a very important player not just in Chinese but in world history.
I doubt very strongly that my professor of Chinese history knew anything about this episode, or perhaps anything about Rittenberg himself, when I took his course, or he would have told us about him, what with that Chapel Hill connection. Someone else who I suspect did not know about Rittenberg when he published his book, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History back in 2008, is the Roman Catholic writer, E. Michael Jones. Rittenberg’s career was the embodiment of the book’s title. The volume is 1,159 pages long, not counting the index, and neither Rittenberg nor Israel Epstein makes an appearance, although there are two other Epsteins in the book’s index (neither one of which is Jeffrey, either).
This revolutionary spirit thing is something of which I was largely unaware at the time that I was a graduate student and how deeply it runs in Jewish history and culture, which we learn from Jones’s book. Although my heritage, experience, and education made me lean to the left politically at the time, I do not come from a background of people with a strong tendency toward violent insurrection against the prevailing power. Such knowledge of Jewish heritage, in retrospect, certainly does make me tend to identify quite a bit less with the late Rittenberg.
The first knowledge I received of the man’s death, in fact, of the man himself, came to me in the form of an email from a person whom I do not know. He and a correspondent, also unknown to me, had some rather favorable pungent commentary on a linked article whose title will tell you that it was designed not just to make you not identify with the guy, but to hate and despise him, “Old Jew Who Helped Kill Millions of Chinks Dies.” To say that the article is less nuanced than mine is a considerable understatement. It comes from a supposed white nationalist site that calls itself The Daily Stormer.
By coincidence, shortly after getting the Daily Stormer article, I received an email from a long-time contact that linked to an article entitled, “Why Are Jews Leading the Alt-Right & ‘White’ Nationalist Movement?” It is on a web site that I had not heard of called Christians for Truth. Right off the bat, we find this statement in the article: “It is no secret that the Daily Stormer is run by Jews and not-exactly-Whites with a subversive agenda. This has been known for years.”
It would appear that what the Daily Stormer is up to with its Rittenberg article is something that I call “divisive mischief” in “The Charlottesville Operation,” but that’s a topic for another article.
After completing this essay, I established communication with my old professor of Chinese history at Chapel Hill. He’s still there. He tells me that in 1968 he had heard of Rittenberg, but only in a “sketchy fashion” from someone at a Vietnam Veterans against the War rally at Fort Bragg. I don’t know if that would have been before or after I had his course in that first summer session, but he would not have known enough to discuss the subject in class, at any rate. In a short Rittenberg biography that he has prepared, he also provided a lot of important information that isn’t in any of the articles to which I have linked.
Both The Times and The Post are wrong about Rittenberg’s UNC education. He dropped out after his junior year to do labor organizing work, but shortly afterward was drafted into the Army. When he first returned to the United States in 1979 for a four-month visit, at the invitation of my former professor, he came and gave an address on campus on U.S.-China relations, a gathering at which there were a number of protestors. During that visit, Rittenberg inquired about transferring the credits that he had earned at Stanford University while at the Army’s language school. Dean Frederic Vogler checked his Stanford transcript and then wrote Rittenberg informing him that, indeed, he had accumulated enough credits to be deemed a graduate of the University of North Carolina. Upon receipt of Vogler’s letter, Rittenberg wrote in reply, “it was difficult to articulate my pride and joy at your letter, and the feeling it gave me that my long, deep love for our school has been requited. . . How I wish Dr. Frank could know and see this all taking place.” (more about “Dr. Frank [Graham]” below)
I also learned from the professor’s Rittenberg biography that the two obituaries omit important academic work by the man upon his permanent return to his native country. In 1993 he was appointed the Frey Foundation Distinguished Visiting Professor at UNC and began teaching in 1994. From 1995 to 1998 he taught two courses a year at UNC, in Chinese history and Asian studies, usually in the spring semester, as the Edward M. Bernstein Professor of History. From 1997 on he was Visiting Professor of Chinese Studies and Senior Adviser at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
Upon graduation from high school, Rittenberg had scholarship offers not only from Princeton, as the obituaries have it, but also from the University of Virginia. He specifically chose UNC because of its president, the illustrious liberal and social activist, Frank Porter Graham. Ironically, it was Graham who encouraged the young Rittenberg to drop out after his junior year and pursue his passion as a labor organizer.
Graham is another point of intersection between Rittenberg and me. Graham was one of my father’s liberal political heroes. Another was Governor W. Kerr Scott, who appointed Graham as U.S. Senator to fill out the term of J. Melville Broughton, who died in 1949. The next year, at the end of the term, Graham was challenged in the Democratic primary by the conservative Willis Smith. One of my earliest political recollections was attending a rally at which Graham spoke in Rocky Mount. It made a big impression on me because they handed out Graham crackers. The runoff campaign, which Smith won after Graham narrowly failed to gain a 50% majority on the first vote, was marked by scurrilous red-baiting and race-baiting advertisements against Graham. I would learn many years later that future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms was behind those advertisements, and that he later became Smith’s top aide in Washington.
A correspondent from South Carolina has informed me that Mayor Tecklenburg of Charleston actually comes from an old German Catholic family. For what it is worth, politically prominent German Catholics, like politically prominent Jews, are also exceedingly rare in North Carolina.
The professor of Chinese history at UNC to whom I refer was Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Kessler. He died on August 10, 2020. His obituary is here. I have posted the short biography of Rittenberg that he wrote in 2012 here.