Tentative numbers for NARA 2018

I have finished looking at the 3082 records which are listed in NARA 2018, but not in NARA 2017, as discussed by John Greenewald (see earlier post). Unfortunately, I have not been able to access NARA’s JFK Records Collection catalog for over 5 days now. For whatever reason, I have usually found access to the NARA catalog on again off again, but this is really too much; for almost a week my session is killed or the search results are 0 for every query, using different networks, computers, and browsers. Just frustrating as all hell.

As a result, I have relied for this count primarily on the copy of the JFK Collection catalog at Mary Ferrell. Mary Ferrell is always reliable, and my subscription was a truly worthwhile investment. Unfortunately, the MF copy of the catalog is stale; it was done over two and a half years ago by Ramon Herrera, according to the MF FAQ. This means my result will almost certainly change, but at least I can shrink the amount of queries I have to make to the unreliable NARA system to a minimum.

I have found 298 records which are listed as ‘redact’ on NARA 2018 but as ‘Postponed in full’ on the MF copy of the Collection catalog. 136 are HSCA records, and one group, 180-10068, accounts for 66 of these. Looking at the description, these 66 are all payroll records for the HSCA staff. Similar records for the ARRB were also withheld for privacy reasons as I noted in a previous post, so perhaps these really are withheld. In any case, I would like to be able to check on the current NARA catalog.

There are other anomalies as well; 9 records are listed as ‘OPEN’ on the MF copy of the catalog; I thought this meant no deletions; if so, this also contradicts NARA 2018, which is supposed to be a list of records with deletions.

On the other side of the coin, 3 of the records which NARA 2018 lists as ‘Withheld’ are actually present on NARA 2017, and were indeed released last year.

My conclusion on this whole thing is that NARA 2018 is not the final answer to whats up and what’s not.

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Indexing at NARA: Putting the pieces together

This is another post on the JFK Records Act Release 6 at NARA. To get up to speed on the subject, I suggest looking at the other posts in this category (JFK ARCA).

As I noted at the end of a recent post, NARA’s spreadsheet for JFK record act release 6 lists a number of records where there are two different files having the same record number. Some of these are different versions of the same file, but in a few cases, the two files appear to be simply different documents.

As I said, this seems to defeat the purpose of the record numbers, which are supposed to be unique for each document in the collection. Is there really a reasonable explanation? Yes, Virginia, there is!

Bit and pieces of files

This link has a list of six cases where NARA seems to do this, assigning the same record number to two files with large differences between them. But a closer look shows that these documents are closely related.

Take the case of 124-10328-10025. This number is assigned to two separate pdf files: one from release 5 with 4 pages, and one from release 6 with 20 pages. When you go through them carefully, however, the two are actually one document: a 1958 report by FBI agent Malcolm Carr. In the report, Carr details his surveillance of Rafael Medan, an assistant press director for the Israeli delegation to the United Nations.

The report is captioned ‘Espionage Case’, but there’s not really enough information to tell us what is going on. (I’ll try to explain later on why this report is in the collection.) The 20 page document (19 minus the cover sheet) includes the original report and a carbon copy. The carbon copy is complete, but the original is missing 3 pages. The 4 page document (3 minus the RIF sheet) is the missing 3 pages of the original report.

Why was the document released in two pieces? Perhaps this is just how NARA got it from the HSCA. No need to ask too many questions; by statute, all documents from the HSCA are automatically part of the collection, so into the collection it goes. The only real question is how do we handle these two chunks of one document? NARA’s answer is to release it in two pieces, but to index it as one document. Index here means to give it the same document number.

124-10173-10382 is also one FBI document in two pieces: one pdf from release 5 with 7 pages, and one pdf from release 6 with 11 pages. The 7 page pdf includes a RIF sheet, a JFK ARCA “cross-reference” sheet, an administrative memo (I think) that gives the name of informants and is mostly blacked out, and a letterhead memo which is completely blacked out except for the date. Then a postponement sheet that says pages 2 and 3 are not here. Then a page marked ‘3’ at the top and blacked out except for the middle, which says that (name blacked out) claimed that Oswald worked for the FBI. Then another postponement sheet that says 8 more pages are not here. Notice that only one page, page 6, actually has any content. Cheez.

The 11 page pdf from release 6 is a cover sheet (105-NY-66954 sec 11), then a ten page 302 form, the record of an interview with Walter George Sikora. This is the part that the pages in the 7 page pdf postponed (no 2 pages, no 8 pages). It does not have the administrative sheet, the LHM, or the page mentioning the claim about Oswald, but clearly this is something that must have come up in the course of interviewing Sikora. Like the two chunks of the report about the surveillance of Medan, NARA gives these two files the same record number.

The other documents in the list are even more complicated. For example, 124-10193-10031 and 124-10193-10032 are two related documents put together from 4 chunks, with bits of each document distributed across all four chunks, and all the pages out of order. 124-10164-10276 and 124-10164-10277 are two documents put together out of three chunks, one of them a humongo 571 pages.

Some thoughts

I take all this as evidence that NARA sometimes uses one record number (RIF#) for multiple files when it determines that all the files are fragments of a single record. This is very distinct from the other cases we looked at before, when the same number was assigned to two files that were trivially distinct from each other (different case nos, with RIF without RIF etc).

In fact, this multiplicity of files with the same record number occurs in material on Mary Ferrell as well. In what must be an extreme case, I have found one record number, 124-10289-10035, which is assigned to 10 different files. Can these all be pieced together into one large file? Possible, I think, but a tough job; there are 848 pages in these 10 files.

On the other hand, the fact that these different files have the same RIF# tells us that NARA believes they belong together. This is an essential aid. If we non-adepts had to do this unassisted, we are in the same spot as the Chinese archaeologists trying to reassemble the tortoise shells used to record royal divinations, after they have been broken up and sold to herbal doctors as dragon bones.

Another more general thought after going through this material is how hard it is to understand these documents without context. The Carr report on Medan is a typical example of this problem. Why is this an assassination record? The answer is to look up the record number on Mary Ferrell and see where it came from. The Carr report, in a very mutilated condition, in the HSCA’s FBI subject files, under the name of Joseph Shimon. Shimon is indeed mentioned in the report, in a couple of places, but without checking I would never have suspected that his mention in this 1958 report is what made it an assassination record.

On similar lines, it is also hard to avoid the thought that for those interested in the JFK assassination, the amount of dross, as opposed to silver, in these materials is very very high. The 10 page interview with Walter George Sikora that omits the remark about Oswald is marked NAR: not assassination related. This FBI annotation is not arbitrary; it is apt.

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A note on NARA 2018

I am still looking at NARA 2018, the new list of JFK records from NARA which The Black Vault website posted January 29. It is interesting and helpful information, but as I said in my last post, I don’t think the list indicates there are still over 3000 JFK records that have never been released.

Jefferson Morley, owner of the JFKFacts blog, posted a note I sent to him on the problem (here), and noted that Rex Bradford at the Mary Ferrell Foundation also does not agree with the figure of over 3000 unreleased records.

The Black Vault’s John Greenewald has since written more on the subject, in a comment posted at JFKFacts (link here).

I will post again when I have finished going over the 3082 records in NARA 2018 which did not appear in NARA 2017, the spreadsheet for the 2017 releases of JFK records. The 798 ‘withheld’ records in NARA 2018 are also worth a separate post.

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Another list from NARA

Another list from NARA has been posted, this time at The Black Vault. The link can be found here.

According to the link, the list is the result of an FOIA case (#NARA-NGC-2018-000072), and the BV was nice enough to provide both a pdf and excel version of the list, very handy indeed. The list seems to be NARA’s latest assessment of the state of the JFK Assassination Records Collection. BV cites a letter from NARA which states:

We conducted a search and were able to locate an EXCEL spreadsheet that lists everything that has not been released since December 15th, 2017 (the last release date). We are releasing this document in full with no redactions. The spreadsheet lists the JFK record number, the decision, the file number, document date, number of pages, and the origination agency.

The list totals 22933 rows (excluding the field list at row 1). Counting up, 798 rows are listed as ‘Withheld’, the remaining 22135 are listed as ‘Redact’.

I interpret this as follows: ‘Withheld’ means the document has not yet been released. ‘Redact’ means the document has been released, but not in full. (As the 2017 releases show, these redactions can be anywhere from 2 letters to whole pages.) I also think the list is intended to be comprehensive. This is a description of the entire JFK ARC collection.

I thought this was a straightforward explanation, but BV has a different interpretation. They write:

However, upon investigation, NARA also listed the entire set of PARTIALLY released records, along with those completely withheld. Digging deeper, and with the help and verification of Jimmy Falls of the news agency WhoWhatWhy we came up with the same numbers, using two entirely different methods. It confirms there are 3,082 Documents, totaling 217,114 Pages that are not yet released to the public.

I was quite puzzled by this and left a note on the BV forum asking about this. I haven’t yet seen their response, but will post if they do. In the meantime, I have probably figured out what they did. They compared the new list, (hereafter NARA 2018) to the release 6 spreadsheet posted at NARA here (hereafter NARA 2017). There are indeed 3082 records on NARA 2018 which do not appear on NARA 2017, and using the number of pages listed in NARA 2018, these add up to 217,114.

The 3082 figure includes all of the 798 records that are ‘Withheld’, and these are indeed not yet released, I believe. The remaining 2284 records were not posted at archives.gov in 2017, but most, if not all, of these records were released long ago, as indicated on the NARA on-line catalog of the JFK Assassination Record Collection. Many of them are available at Mary Ferrell. As an example, all of the records in the group ‘124-90104’ which appear in NARA 2018 but not in NARA 2017 (a total of 70) are up at the MFF.

Of the total of 2284 records, all the ones I have checked so far are listed at either Mary Ferrell or on the NARA catalog as ‘Released with deletions’. It would be nice to see the deleted material, but one cannot say that these records are not yet released.

Posted in History, JFK ARCA | 2 Comments

Review of The Man on Mao’s Right

Portrait of a diplomat

Ji, Chaozhu. The man on Mao’s right: from Harvard yard to Tiananmen Square, my life inside China’s Foreign Ministry. New York: Random House, 2008.

For those interested in the rise of the Chinese diplomatic establishment, this is a book well worth reading.

Ji’s career as an important Chinese diplomat is full of the usual twists of fate and odd family connections that make modern Chinese history such a fascinating read. in the case of Ji Chaozhu, he was the younger brother of Ji Chaoding, a fascinating figure, but very obscure because of the covert nature of his activities (he was a spy for the Communists for many years). Ji’s reminiscences of his brother made the early part of the book a highlight. For example, Ji claims that his brother first met Zhou Enlai all the way back in the May 4th movement of 1919! Amazing, if true.

During WWII, Ji Chaozhu left China and enrolled in Harvard. When the Korean War broke out, he returned to China, and after service in Korea, where he did some of the negotiations with the Americans, he rose quickly in the diplomatic ranks Up until the middle of his career, Ji was a frequent English interpreter for both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. Interpreters’ experiences can make for great reading, and Ji was there for several important and famous meetings. He was also a witness to some famous quips, such as the Deng Xiaoping–Shirley MacLaine conversation where MacLaine told Deng how impressed she was by the rusticated Chinese scientist who told her how happy he was to learn from the peasants. Deng’s reply: “He was lying.” According to Ji, a true story.

Politically, during his career in China’s Foreign Ministry, Ji was perhaps not a major policy maker, but he was on close terms with many of them, and his picture of the Ministry’s members is the human side of an often analyzed, seldom humanized institution. He idolizes Zhou Enlai, admires diplomats such as Zhang Wenjin and Huang Zhen, dislikes his one time superior Han Xu, and came to violently dislike Wang Hairong and Nancy Tang, his one time neighbor and family friend. Of the grim struggles that rocked the Foreign Ministry during the Cultural Revolution, however, he is laconic and short with details; you will need to go elsewhere to find that.

In the end though, the most interesting part of the book was Ji’s own development. During his war-time studies in the US, he was very happy, encountering little prejudice, fitting in easily with his friends, excelling academically, and after entering Harvard, was clearly convinced that great opportunities awaited him. Yet he chose to return to China, a choice that he himself clearly wondered about sometimes. I wondered too in some places.

Still, some of Ji’s reasons are clear: his strong patriotism, his pride in his family’s revolutionary background, his loyalty. Once he gave his loyalty, he did not easily withdraw it; this shows in his defense of individuals such as Pu Shan, his mentor both at Harvard and in the Ministry, despite Pu’s being condemned as right wing, and in his defense of the revolution, the Communist Party, and even Mao Zedong.

Another striking aspect of his worldview is a lack of sympathy or even tolerance for dissenting opinion. During the Hundred Flowers period, he found democrats such as Luo Longji and Zhang Bojun offensive and even threatening, just as he found the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrators dangerous and their leaders such as Chai Ling contemptible.

For those who insist on a wholly sympathetic writer, this may be discomforting, but if you are interested in an opinionated, outspoken writer who lived a fascinating life, the book is well worth your time.

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CLLD list on line

Last month I put up a new version of my list of foreign languages and literature departments in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I now have a new list up, for all the Chinese languages and literature departments. This list also includes a new type of department in Taiwan: the Taiwanese language and literature department. I’ll have more to say about all of this in a future post. To visit the new list, just click on this link.

Like the FLLD list, there are Chinese and English versions, with English the default view. Like the FLLD list, this is a work in progress, and I will continue to add departments and programs as I find them. If the list is useful to you, let me know! If you get a page not found error when using the list, please let me know as well.

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JFKRA Release 6: Different versions

[This article was revised on 1/30/2018 to correct several major points.]

As I noted in an earlier post, there are a number of records listed twice in NARA’s spreadsheet of the JFKRA documents which it has posted on line.

These double listings come in two varieties: in one case there are actually two files posted at NARA: one from release ‘A’ and one from release ‘B’, both files presenting the same document, but with various differences between them.

In the second case, the same record is listed twice, but each listing refers to the same file, so there is only one file on line.

Today I return to a look at the cases where there are two different files on line. This situation is actually not new to release 6. Last November I already noted a number of cases where there were two files that provided different versions of the same document.

In those cases, the differences were clear: one version might have a reader information form (RIF sheet), and the other one not. One version might have redactions and the other one dropped them.

In release 6, this situation continues. This link provides a list of different versioned files posted in release 6, followed by a list of the earlier cases in releases 1-5, with a brief description in each case of the differences between the two versions.

In release 6, the differences between the two versions are sometimes very small. An example of this is the files in two versions released under case numbers 45839 and 45840; the only difference between these documents that I can see is the case number.

When there is a significant difference between the two versions, it is often, perversely, that the release 6 versions offer a redacted version of documents previously released in full. The last six files on my list are all like this!

In a few cases, the differences between the two versions are larger. The first two files on my list, 104-10330-10088 and 104-10332-10021, both come in two different versions, presenting somewhat different material. The comments in the NARA spreadsheet do not offer any explanation of where the two versions of these documents came from.

Of course, the JFKRA documents available before the 2017 releases are often highly redundant in the first place.

The same document may be released multiple times because the investigation that acquired a document acquired 3 or 4 copies of it. The entity responsible for overseeing the releases, the ARRB, interpreted the Assassination Record Collection Act of 1992 to require that all of these copies become part of the collection, regardless of whether they were identical or not.

Another way this could happen is that two different investigations into the assassination obtained copies of the same document; these copies are present in the records of both investigations. Again, the ARRB interpreted the ARCA to require that both copies should be part of the collection, listed, of course, as separate records.

On the other hand, I don’t see why this has resulted in NARA posting versions of the same document with and without rif sheets, or with and without various other minor, non-textual changes and redactions.

In addition to the files on my list, there are also a few cases where two files having the same record number are simply different documents. This seems to defeat the purpose of the record numbers, which are supposed to be unique for each document in the collection.

In fact, I think there is a reasonable explanation for these cases, which I’ll discuss in my next post on the JFKRA records.

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JFKRA Confusion at NARA

[Revised on 2018/1/26 to fix a goof. I was even more confused than I thought.]

Most of my posts about the JFK records act releases at NARA are on very trivial subjects, but the problems I discuss are, nonetheless, quite confusing (to me). The subject of the post today is confusing++.

There are three entries on the NARA Release 6 spreadsheet that are problematic. The first of these entries is row 4172 on the spreadsheet, identifying a document with record number 124-10223-10189 and filename docid-32570769.pdf

This is a four page list of informants on the NY state CPUSA in the late 1950s. It is an excerpt from a longer document, the full version is at Mary Ferrell. The MF version redacts some of the FBI informant numbers, this excerpt releases them all.

The second problematic entry is row 31532 on the spreadsheet, identifying a document with record number 124-10223-10189 and filename docid-32555585.pdf

Although this is the same record number as on row 4172, it is a different file with totally unrelated content. It is a memo on Rene Jesus Castillejo Cova, sent by the FBI legat in Caracas (don’t ask what it’s about, too confusing). This document is also available at Mary Ferrell in a redacted version.

The third problematic entry is row 31573 on the spreadsheet, which lists a document that has record number 124-10223-10289 and filename docid-32570769.pdf

This is, of course, the same filename as on row 4172, but a different record number. Same filename means it is the same file: the list of CPUSA informants.

The only way I was able to straighten this out was to check on-line at the Mary Ferrell Foundation, a great resource which I use constantly.

There are three problems here. The second entry has the wrong record number. Per Mary Ferrell, the Castillejo document is record number 124-10223-10289, not 124-10223-10189. The record number for the third entry on row 31573 is also wrong. It should be 124-10223-10189, not 124-10223-10289.

Yes, the two record numbers were swapped: the entry at 31532 listed the record number for the informant list and the filename for the Castillejo document; the entry at 31573 listed the record number for the Castillejo document and the filename for the informant list.

The third problem: NARA has listed the informant document, file docid-32570769.pdf, twice: once on row 4172 and once on row 31573.

This last point is not actually a mistake, but it is highly confusing. In this case, NARA posted two different versions of file docid-32570769.pdf. How do I know? I downloaded docid-32570769.pdf on October 26, and again today. They are the same document, but different files. The text of the two files is exactly the same, but the earlier version, downloaded on 10-26, has a stamp on the bottom of the first page indicating it was released as part of case #NW 54464 on 10-10-2017; this case# appears on the footers of all pages of the file.

In the version of the file now up at NARA, which I just downloaded, there is no stamp on the first page, and the footer says NW 45785. This is one of the “replaced” files I discussed a couple of posts ago.

So, I caught the errors in the record numbers on my list of errata, but I missed the replacement on my list of replaced files here. Bad on me.

Why is the same document the subject of two different NARA cases? Why did NARA post it twice in two trivially different versions? Why is this trivial stuff so confusing?

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Review of China Nurse, 1932-1939

On the front lines

Ewen, Jean. China nurse, 1932-1939. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981.

Jean Ewen was a Canadian nurse who spent 6 years in China, working first with Catholic missionaries, then with the Chinese Communists’ 8th and New 4th armies. This might seem like a drastic change, but there is a back story of course. Her father was Tom Ewen (or McEwen?), a prominent member of the Canadian Communist Party. As Jean tartly remarks, he looked forward to the proletarian revolution, “in which he could play a more interesting role than being a father to his four children.” Ewen herself is emphatically not a communist, and her decision to head off to China as a Catholic missionary is classic youthful revolt against parental authority.

According to Ewen, she arrived in China in mid-1933 (oddly conflicting with the title of the book), and took up nursing posts in increasingly isolated areas of Shantung province, encountering bandits, floods, famine, and all manner of political turmoil, but apparently getting along well with both the missionaries and the desperately poor peasants she nursed.

She returned to Canada in June 1937, just missing the beginning of the China-Japan war. In December, she was recruited by the Canadian Communist Party for a medical mission to the Chinese Communists’ Eighth Route Army in northwestern China. Also on the mission was the famous Dr. Norman Bethune, about whom Ewen has many interesting things to say.

Basically, Ewen found Bethune a “gifted physician,” but a rather awful person, and the conflict between them is very entertaining to read about. After a horrific air raid, in which she is “scared spitless,” Bethune ponderously informs her that “Every man must have two baptisms in his life–once with fire and once with water.” This, Bethune explains, is her baptism of fire, to which Ewen snaps, “You are nothing but a bloody missionary.” Bethune then rains down fire on her a second time: “He yelled and screamed, talking so quickly that I don’t think he knew exactly what he was saying. ‘Don’t you ever say anything like that to me again, you dizzy bitch!'”

Bethune and Ewen soon parted ways, but Ewen stayed for over a year, first in Shensi, then in Anhui, where she worked with the Communist New Fourth Army and Agnes Smedley, among other people. This, according to Ewen, was a terrible snafu, with the Army finally taking over the hospitals and medical services.

Ewen is often a very evocative writer, as in her description of sleeping in one of the loess caves that served as housing in Shensi: “From the bed roll you hear all the chattering of the mice and the scratching of the crawlers who live in the earth. You never know just how alive the earth is until you occupy a cave.” Her description of the brutal Japanese air raids and the chaos that followed are also some of the most vivid I’ve read about the war.

Overall, this book is a great read, but the reader must be careful, especially when Ewen is describing events in which she has not herself participated. Her description of the famous Sian Incident of Dec. 1936 is a mess, and there are many odd departures from fact throughout the book. Oddest of all is her description of leaving Sian in October 1938, on pages 118-120, where she seems to go from Sian to Chengchow, then back to Sian, in order to get to Hankow! The Chinese transcriptions are also totally scrambled, but fortunately few.

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Review of Decadence Mandchoue

Indefatigable reiteration

Backhouse, Edmund Trelawny. Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse. Ed. Derek Sandhaus. Hong Kong: Earnshaw, 2011.

Make no mistake about it: Decadence Mandchoue is a work of pure fantasy, for the most part a remarkably monotonous fantasy, of sex, sex, sex. I can’t imagine anyone reading through the whole thing unless he has a real taste for Victorian gay pornography; I don’t, so it was skip, skip, skip. The few non-pornographic bits are something else, though; these are like fragments of a late Victorian historical romance, an Anthony Hope imitation with Peking as Ruritania. If that makes it sound appealing, give it a shot, but be aware that this is only a small part of the book.

The author of this really odd book, presented as an autobiographical memoir, was Edmund Backhouse, the subject of a really interesting book, The Hermit of Peking, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Backhouse was originally known as a somewhat eccentric sinologist who published two books on Qing Dynasty politics in collaboration with British journalist J. O. P. Bland, and who gave the Bodleian Museum one of the best collections of Chinese books in Europe. Trevor-Roper, however, uncovered a lot more interesting information than this, and The Hermit of Peking is much more entertaining (for the most part) than Decadence Mandchoue.

Still, the starting point for Trevor-Roper’s book was in fact just Backhouse’s two volumes of reminiscences: Decadence Mandchoue is the second, the first remains unpublished. Trevor-Roper was asked to authenticate them and was immediately interested by the incredible nature of the stories the books told. After diligent spadework, he dug up some remarkable information about the complex scams and fantasies that Backhouse inflicted on anyone unlucky enough to get involved with him. Naturally anyone who is interested in this book should read Hermit of Peking first, otherwise most of it won’t make any sense, not even the sex.

Oddly, though, Trevor-Roper comes in for some heavy criticism in the introduction from the editor of Decadence Mandchoue, Derek Sandhaus. I find most of this criticism hard to accept.

For instance, Sandhaus complains that Trevor-Roper did not make any attempt to “consult Backhouse’s Chinese and Manchu contemporaries.” He concedes that Trevor-Roper could hardly have gone to Peking in 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, but insists that “he could have spoken with former Peking residents who had left China around the time of the Communist takeover in 1949. These people would have been in a unique position to confirm or refute Backhouse’s claims.”

In fact, Trevor-Roper did consult Peking residents: he talked to Harold Acton, Henri Vetch, Roland de Margerie, Hope Danby, Humphrey Prideaux-Brune, and to William Lewisohn, a true contemporary of Backhouse, 90 years old when Trevor-Roper contacted him. Most of these people actually met Backhouse; some, like Danby, saw him often and must count as friends, others, like Lewisohn, tried to unravel some of Backhouse’s complicated literary scams and showed Trevor-Roper their correspondence with Backhouse.

Sandhaus would apparently discount all these people and insist on Chinese acquaintances, but except for his servants, Backhouse’s Chinese acquaintances are unknown. How was Trevor-Roper to contact them? You need names first, and no one ever got names of real Chinese acquaintances out of Backhouse. When the American Bank Note Company was trying to figure out what happened to their contract for 650 million banknotes, they interviewed the Chinese politicians Backhouse claimed he had made his crooked deal with: Hsu Shih-ch’ang, former President, and Tuan Ch’i-jui, then Prime Minister. Their response: Never heard of him. Signature on the contract? A forgery.

Given Backhouse’s skill at concealing virtually all of his personal life, I think Trevor-Roper did the best that could be done. Of course he did not have the skills to dig into the Chinese side of things, but because of the fake diary that Backhouse produced for his work with Bland, both Western and Chinese scholars looked hard for his Chinese acquaintances (or accomplices). Nothing has turned up and the origin of the fake diary remains a mystery. This silence is puzzling. A number of Western scholars studied and lived in Peking in this period, and show up in various reminiscences, Chinese and Western, but not Backhouse. The best we can get is a claim from a Backhouse acquaintance that a rickshaw puller once told him there was a rumor that Backhouse used to be the lover of the Empress Dowager. How did the puller know the rumor? How does anyone know a rumor? “Some dude told me.”

Behind Sandhaus’s criticism of Trevor-Roper lies an idea: there is, somewhere, somehow, some fragment of truth to Backhouse’s memoir, and in justice to Backhouse we must examine his work sentence by sentence, confirming or refuting until we have found it. Please. Trevor-Roper found plenty of evidence that there were outrageous lies in Backhouse’s memoirs. No doubt it might be an entertaining process to try and find some truth in them as well, but we need not delay any decision on how much to rely on Backhouse without examination. You’d have to be nuts to believe a word he wrote.

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