Review by Carl R. Fritz
Book Review Editor’s Note:
What is unusual about this issue’s Reviews section is the inclusion of a novel reviewed by one of American Diplomacy’s most distinguished “real life” characters, Ambassador William N. Dale. The intrigue-laced narrative in that volume fits nicely with another suspenseful tale, albeit a true one—the memoirs of Charles T. Cross, whose fascinating life reads like a novel. While we do not usually review fictional works, we hope that our readers will see how much of “real life” can be portrayed by the pen of a novelist, as well as one who has really “been there.” Enjoy!—RMPlatt
Born a Foreigner: A Memoir of the American Presence in Asia.
By Charles T. Cross. (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999. Pp. 281. $24 paper.)
This memoir relates the international life of Charles Cross from his birth in China of missionary parents until his retirement from the Foreign Service in 1981. As a child growing up in China, he traveled extensively in Siberia and Europe during family “furloughs” and was present during the Japanese occupation of North China. Both the author and the reviewer witnessed the burning of Chinese (and later–Vietnamese) villages and the ensuing refugee panic.
The author left China to begin his studies at Carleton College in 1940. Two years later, he left college to attend the Navy’s Japanese Language School. In 1943, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. His Fourth Marine Division made four major beachheads in the Central Pacific, including Iwo Jima, incurring heavy casualties. Cross vividly describes the fighting, which included Japanese attempts at mass suicide.
After a break in Hawaii at war’s end, Cross was reassigned to duty in China. While in his native Beijing, he experienced a humorous encounter while standing in a truck delivering a speech to a crowd of Chinese. Hearing his Chinese name, he looked down and saw his family’s old cook, who said: “Charles, when you were a boy you said you were going to be a Marine when you grew up. When I heard the Marines were coming to town, I came downtown to find you!”
Cross returned to the United States shortly thereafter and married in January 1946. The following year he completed his Carleton education and attended graduate school at Yale. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Information Service, but failed the Foreign Service’s French exam. Cross was assigned to Taipei in time to witness the Chinese Nationalists’ retreat from the mainland, but was soon transferred to newly-independent Indonesia. From 1952-54, he served in Hong Kong, whose population had quintupled to over two million between V-J Day and 1952 due to a flood of refugees fleeing communism.
In 1954, Cross served with USIA Washington before accepting the political officer position in the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. Arriving in time to witness the transition to independence, he observed the first countrywide elections, the final drafting of the constitution, and the defeat of a communist insurgency, which proved of value to him later in Vietnam. From 1957 to 1959, he served in Egypt, followed by four years in Washington as a desk officer in the Department of State’s Office of Southeast Asia Affairs, where he played a role with the American delegation at the Geneva conference on Laos in 1961-62. In 1963-64, he attended the National War College.
After a tour as deputy chief of mission in Nicosia, Cyprus, Cross served in London from 1966 to 1967 as the American Embassy’s political officer dealing with East Asia. He found himself reluctantly defending America’s Vietnam policy at public meetings throughout the United Kingdom.
During his tenure in Vietnam, Cross served as first Assistant Deputy for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) in I Corps, the five northernmost provinces of Vietnam. (In 1969, this reviewer held the same position.) The author notes that America’s pacification program, including CORDS, was heavily influenced by Sir Robert Thompson, the architect of Britain’s successful counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya. Unfortunately for the United States, its presence in Vietnam produced a less happy outcome.
Cross describes the defoliation of the flame trees in Danang, the poor behavior of the Korean Marine Brigade in I Corps (Marine General Cushman’s warnings, notwithstanding), and the ineffective and counterproductive use of “search and destroy” missions. Cross believed (as does this reviewer) that those teams “often alienated the population and undid months of CORDS work.” Consumed with refugee problems, Cross also believed that military operations “invariably drove people from their homes even though the original intent had not been to attack through populated areas.” He noted that “This always happened unless CORDS intervened.” Military opposition, notwithstanding, Cross (and this reviewer) supported using Revolutionary Development Teams and Combined Action Platoons (Marine squads working with Vietnamese Popular Forces platoons) to provide security for the people. His point of view gained a new-found respect after General Creighton Abrams assumed overall command in 1968, the same year that Cross became Deputy for CORDS in I Corps.
After Vietnam, Cross served as a diplomat in residence at the University of Michigan, Consul General in Hong Kong, Ambassador to Singapore, and as the first director of the American Institute of Taiwan (which required his retirement from State). During his retirement, he continued to reflect on his Vietnam experience and his interesting relationships with both Asian and American officials.
In summation, the author believes that the American presence in the countries of East Asia has created “an optimistic and safer international atmosphere for their development—and the freedom to make their own mistakes.” Cross maintains that the “inspiration for our national approach goes back to the early decades of the century—to Americans like my parents—and to the continuous American presence in its multitude of forms ever since.”
The author, retired from the Foreign Service and a consulting career in the private sector in 1989 after nearly forty years experience, recalls an adventurous jeep trip from India to Afghanistan early in his career with the U.S. Government.