The Sand Pebbles, China, and Calvin Coolidge
December 14, 2009
by William P. Meyers

Site Search

Also sponsored by Peace Pendants at PeacefulJewelry

Popular pages:

U.S. War Against Asia
Barack Obama
Democratic Party
Republican Party
Natural Liberation


The Sand Pebbles is a novel by Richard McKenna about a U.S. gunboat crew in China in the 1920's.

Can you imagine a novel about the crew of a Chinese, British, Japanese, or any other nationality of gunboat sailing up and down, say, the Mississippi in the 1920's, blasting away at people? If you are American, of course not. If anyone had done that to us, we would have gone to war over it. It would be an insult to the American people and their sovereignty. Such a novel would need to be truly a work of the imagination.

But McKenna's The Sand Pebbles is not a work of imagination, although it is fictionalized. McKenna served on a U.S. gunboats in China in the 1930s, and had access to men who served on such gunboats in the 1920s.

One could argue that the U.S. gunboats, and the ones from Great Britain, France, and Japan, were not violating Chinese sovereignty because they were allowed under treaties China had signed with the gunboat nations. On the other hand the treaties had been signed by the Chinese at gunpoint, and signed by the old Manchu, imperial government that only pretended to rule and had been entirely swept away by the nationalist revolution of 1912. But by the end of World War I the Chinese government was mainly a fiction. War lords ruled various parts of China, imperialist powers ruled their colonies and zones, and in addition the imperialists played the war lords against each other when they could.

To almost all Chinese, the gunboats were an assault on their national sovereignty. In the 1920s even Chiang Kai-shek, then allied with Russia, but who would later become a U.S. puppet, wanted the gunboats removed.

Which brings us to President Calvin Coolidge, who ascended to the office when Warren Harding died in 1923 and served until March 1929. American history students are encouraged to think of "silent Cal" as a do-nothing Republican who was lucky enough to preside over the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties. But Cal did plenty of stuff, including the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was supposed to outlaw war. It is hard to imagine a Republican or Democrat president even pretending to try to outlaw war today.

Yet Calvin was tough on the Chinese, if The Sand Pebbles is to be believed. Commerce was in jeapardy. American troops were stationed in Shanghai; more were brought there by the U.S.S. Stewart in January 1925. By 1928 the new Nationalist government of China, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, was looking better to the United States ruling class. Most Chinese warlords acknowledged Chiang as their leader, and he threw the Communists out of the nationalist party, the Kuomintang. Having voted with guns, no elections were deemed necessary. Calvin Coolidge recognized the new government of China, which was willing to cater to American interests, and a continued U.S. naval presense on Chinese rivers.

The Sand Pebbles movie starred Steve McQueen and is well worth watching. The book, however, contains many scenes that are not in the movie that provide a lot of insight into Chinese-American relations in that era.

Also notable is that Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924. He said disagreed with the provision excluding Japanese immigrants. He should have vetoed it, for such racist acts kept Japan and the U.S. on a path to war. By the standards of the times Coolidge was no racist, but while he spoke out in favor of civil rights for African Americans, he sponsored no legislation to that end.

III Blog list of articles