'Throughline' Examines An American Who Became A Chinese Revolutionary

Jun 13, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 4:24 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just at the end of World War II, an American named Sidney Rittenberg was in China. He was serving in the United States military. He stayed in China after the war as Communists took control in 1949. Sidney Rittenberg is still alive today, so he has seen the entire 70 years of communist rule. This American became a Chinese revolutionary, which makes Sidney Rittenberg the last of our stories of people with A Foot in Two Worlds. Here are Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei from NPR's history podcast Throughline.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: When you first meet Sidney Rittenberg...

IRV DRASNIN: You know, your first impression of Sidney Rittenberg is his charm.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Just a very warm and incredibly intelligent man.

ARABLOUEI: This is Rob Schmitz...

SCHMITZ: I am the Shanghai correspondent for National Public Radio.

ARABLOUEI: ...And Irv Drasnin.

DRASNIN: I'm a journalist by profession.

ARABLOUEI: They've each had the chance to talk to Rittenberg about his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

SIDNEY RITTENBERG: I was born in Charleston, S.C., August 14, 1921.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Rittenberg became a Communist as a teenager and got politically active.

SCHMITZ: Organizing workers - he was challenging Jim Crow laws.

ABDELFATAH: Then, in 1941...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTER PLANE)

ABDELFATAH: ...The U.S. joined World War II, and Rittenberg was drafted. The Army assigned him to learn Chinese. And in 1945...

DRASNIN: He was sent to Kunming, which is in the southwest of China.

ARABLOUEI: Rittenberg was tasked with handling legal disputes, and one case changed everything for him.

ABDELFATAH: An American soldier, driving his truck while drunk, hit and killed a girl in a nearby village.

SCHMITZ: And the U.S. basically had Sidney settle this by giving the family $26 for the life of their daughter.

ABDELFATAH: Reluctantly, Sidney got in his car...

SCHMITZ: Drove to the village...

ABDELFATAH: ...To meet the family.

SCHMITZ: He gave this money to the father of the dead girl.

ABDELFATAH: And the next day...

SCHMITZ: The father walked for miles back to the U.S. base to return $6 of that reward just for the trouble of Sidney giving him that money.

ABDELFATAH: Rittenberg was moved by this gesture and just how much the average Chinese person was suffering at the hands of the U.S. military and their allies on the ground in China, the Nationalists.

ARABLOUEI: For decades, the Nationalists and Communists in China had been vying for power. As World War II came to an end, this civil war ramped up. And Rittenberg admired the passion of the Communists.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: It was the feeling of democratic rebellion that was in the air that was a powerful - young people making speeches that sounded like Patrick Henry.

ARABLOUEI: He saw an almost American Revolutionary spirit among them.

ABDELFATAH: So he left the Army and traveled to the center of China's communist movement, Yunnan province.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: I met Mao for the first time on the day I arrived in Yan'an. I walked in the door, and there he was. And I thought, it's like a picture right out of history.

ABDELFATAH: This is Rittenberg describing his first meeting with Mao Zedong, the leader of China's Communist Party at the time. It's from a documentary Irv Drasnin made with Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers called "The Revolutionary."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: He said, if you don't object, I'm going to ask for you to come and spend a whole day or maybe two days with me, just talking about America.

ARABLOUEI: Rittenberg became close to Mao and the other Communist Party leaders. Before long, they offered him a job.

DRASNIN: They said to him, we need someone whose first language is English who can help us organize radio broadcasts.

ABDELFATAH: And Rittenberg agreed - on one condition.

DRASNIN: That he become a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which no American had ever been. And they agreed.

SCHMITZ: He becomes, effectively, a Chinese journalist.

ARABLOUEI: In 1949, the Communists won the civil war against the Nationalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAO ZEDONG: (Speaking Chinese).

ARABLOUEI: Mao was named chairman of the People's Republic of China. Things seemed to be going well for the party and for Rittenberg.

DRASNIN: But he was called in one day and told he was being given a special assignment by the party.

ABDELFATAH: Turns out, there was no special assignment. Instead, he was arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: And the room spun round and round - you know, just terrific shock.

ABDELFATAH: He was accused of treason by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

SCHMITZ: Mao was told by Stalin that Rittenberg was a spy.

ABDELFATAH: So Rittenberg was imprisoned for six years, much of that time spent in solitary confinement.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: You're sitting there with your own potential madness sitting across from you, watching you.

ARABLOUEI: When he got out, Rittenberg's faith in the Communist Party was remarkably intact.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) It's amazing. I mean, I think in a normal situation, you would leave the country and return back home. But that's not what Rittenberg does.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: I was part of something that was moving forward and that would win. So I never thought of giving up.

ABDELFATAH: Rittenberg got back to work for the party, started a family and became sort of a celebrity in China.

ARABLOUEI: But during the 1960s, the Communists began to splinter into factions. And Mao, desperate to reassert control, launched the Cultural Revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Where they'll be loyal to the invincible thought (ph) of Mao Zedong forever.

ARABLOUEI: Rittenberg remained by Mao's side.

SCHMITZ: And like many people who became involved in the Cultural Revolution, he was turned on.

ABDELFATAH: Once again, he was accused of treason.

SCHMITZ: Mostly because he is American, he's sent to prison again in 1968 for nine more years.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: You know, I felt the walls closing in. And I'm sweating, and I'm terrified. This time, it's going to get me.

ABDELFATAH: In 1977, Rittenberg was released. And in 1980, after 35 years living in China, he finally decided to return to the U.S.

ARABLOUEI: You know, he ends up working as a consultant to U.S. businesses that need help breaking into China.

ABDELFATAH: This American soldier-turned-Chinese revolutionary never quite fit in in the U.S. or in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE REVOLUTIONARY")

RITTENBERG: Two of my closest friends in China both said to me, you forgot you were a foreigner (laughter). That's part of what went wrong anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, hosts of NPR's Throughline. We've been hearing stories from people with A Foot in Two Worlds - China and the United States. Listen back to the whole series at npr.org.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we incorrectly say that Sidney Rittenberg met with communist leaders in Yunnan province. He actually met them in the city of Yan'an.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.