Hoover's new archival acquisitions shed light on Chinese history

Personal diaries of Chiang Kai-shek and his son detail historical and personal events that led to eventual presidency of Taiwan


A June 1948 entry from a diary of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled mainland China after the nationalist forces he led lost the civil war to the Communists.


The exhibit "Unlocking Chinese History: New Initiatives of the Hoover Archives" is on view through April 9 at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion and includes facsimiles of some of the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.

The Hoover Institution's recent loan acquisition of the personal diaries of the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, is expected to shed new light on key turning points in 20th-century history that continue to affect political tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

"This is one of the leftover issues from World War II," said Elena Danielson, associate director at Hoover and head of the library and archives. "Taiwan is still being disputed. Beijing still hasn't given up claims to it, and American policy is divided and always has been. This is still a burning issue."

Scores of diaries, handwritten in flowing cao shu, or grasswriting, cover historical and personal events in Generalissimo Chiang's life in mainland China from 1919 until 1949, when the nationalist forces he led lost the civil war to the Communists. After fleeing to the island of Taiwan, Chiang served as president for the rest of his life. He kept a journal until three years before his death in 1975. The diaries of his eldest son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, cover the period from 1941 to 1979.

Danielson said the diaries' contents may help clarify longstanding questions about Chinese history. "For closed societies like China's was, there are big gaps in our knowledge," she said. "Those gaps get filled in with bizarre stories. We want to start a process of unlocking China's history, and the first step is to preserve the primary sources."

According to Danielson, answers to some longstanding speculation recently have been found in the private papers of T. V. Soong, finance minister of China and its foreign minister during World War II. Soong's family began depositing the papers at Hoover in the 1970s, but much of the collection was restricted during the lifetime of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the leader's widow and Soong's sister, out of respect for her privacy. After her death, the family permitted Hoover to open 19 file boxes last April that included information about the family's finances. "Not only in the Chinese press, but in American textbooks, [there was] all kinds of mythology about T. V. Soong's stolen billions; that he was the richest man in the world since Genghis Khan … [all] because there was no documentation," Danielson said. "Now there are documents. He was not a poor man, but he wasn't fabulously wealthy either."

The papers also illustrate Soong's close relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, his role in marshaling U.S. support for China during World War II and his family's efforts to gain American support for the Taiwanese government during the Cold War. "It shows how Chiang and T. V. Soong worked so hard to get the support of the Americans for China," Danielson said. "Americans [were] very Euro-centric, and they wanted to make sure that China wasn't forgotten in the war. You can see how all of that was done."

Stanford has a long history of collecting documents from China. In 1907, alumnus Herbert Hoover, who founded the Hoover War Collection in 1919, gave a Stanford history instructor, Payson Treat, $1,000—then a huge sum—to buy books on the Far East. In 1913, Hoover, who had worked in China at the turn of the century, donated his personal collection of 600 Chinese books to Stanford.

"So the Modern China Archives is not something new; it's building on a grand tradition," Danielson said. "We're trying to energize it now because it has huge current value."

Descendents of Chiang Kai-shek and his son have loaned the diaries to Hoover for 50 years for preservation purposes and to make them available to scholars. As early as 1950, Danielson explained, Chiang Kai-shek said he wanted his diaries preserved for posterity. Ramon Myers, a Hoover senior fellow and curator who helped arrange for the journals to be deposited at the think tank, said the earliest diaries could be opened to researchers later this year. Eventually, he said, when political circumstances permit, the family wants to move the collection to a permanent site on Chinese territory.

On Feb. 16, a public announcement that Hoover had obtained the valuable diaries made headlines in the Chinese press at home and abroad. Danielson said critics questioned whether the Chiang family had the right to deposit such historic documents outside China. "My interpretation is that a diary is something private," she replied. "Hoover is temporarily taking care of them. Eventually, these belong on Chinese territory."

Although Hoover retains no rights to the diaries, it has agreed to preserve them because they are so valuable, Danielson said. "Diaries are wonderful because they are written day by day," she said. "They get the sequence of events right. They're written before you know how the story ends—there's an element of honesty." In contrast, she added, memoirs written late in life invariably involve self-justification.

Facsimiles of some of the diaries, on display in Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion through April 9, reveal Chiang Kai-shek's frustrations during key points in China's history. For example, on Sept. 21, 1931, three days after the Japanese occupied Manchuria, Chiang expressed his sorrow for the loss of the territory and his bitterness toward colleagues who doubted he had the will to oppose Japanese aggression: "I am so sad and overcome with pain that I want to cry, but there are no tears."

Years later, in June 1948, he lamented about the weakness of his own government:

"After the fall of Kaifeng our conditions worsened and became more serious. I now realized that the main reason our nation has collapsed, time after time throughout our history, was not because of superior power used by our external enemies, but because of disintegration and rot from within."

The diaries are part of a larger exhibit, "Unlocking Chinese History: New Initiatives of the Hoover Archives," curated by exhibits coordinator Cissie D. Hill. Since the end of World War II, the think tank has collected the papers of prominent Chinese and other people working in China, including U.S. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India theater of war between 1942 and 1944, an adversary of Chiang Kai-shek; and Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, Chiang's friend and ally. Scholars expect that access to the combined papers of Stilwell, Chiang and Soong will provide new insights into the controversial firing of Stilwell in 1944. "Roosevelt wanted to keep him, Chiang Kai-shek wanted to get rid of him and T. V. Soong played a role in this power struggle," Danielson said. "President Roosevelt was really overruled. You can see in these papers how it happened."

At the Feb. 16 ceremony announcing the arrival of the Chiang diaries, Stanford alumnus Leo Soong, a nephew of T. V. Soong, praised Hoover for its efforts to collect and preserve information from a range of sources. "All human progress is built on respect for the truth," he said. "Hoover fellows are doing historical research which will cut through the accretion of propaganda to give some objective understanding to the historical record."

In addition to the diaries and private papers, Hoover is helping to preserve 3 million declassified documents of the Central Reform Committee of the Kuomintang, the Nationalist party that ruled Taiwan during most of its history. The project, launched a year ago, has sent Hoover archivists to Taipei to train local staff to use the institution's machinery to microfilm and digitize documents at the party's headquarters. Hoover will keep a copy of the archives that could be opened to scholars by 2006, Danielson said. Plans also include microfilming the papers of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a promoter of women's education and social reform, which are held by the National Women's League in Taipei.