The Correspondent and His Typewriter: Keyes Beech in Northeast Asia in the 1950s

Foreign correspondents in East Asia in the late 1940s and early 1950s were a wild and wonderful bunch, but few were more incisive or entertaining than Keyes Beech. Perhaps because Beech had won a Pulitzer for his Korean War reporting, his writing was cocky and powerful; it has a verismo quality, and it is very 1950s. He went on to visit and cover communist China in 1957 and serve as a battlefield correspondent during the Vietnam War. And he was a military veteran, too, serving in the Pacific Theater after leaving Akron, Ohio to sign up in late 1941. (His work on Iwo Jima merited a role in the Hollywood film Flags of Our Fathers).

But primarily he was a writer, and a damn good one.

For heaven’s sake, the man describes his emotional relationship with his typewriter. It’s a beautiful thing.

In his 1954 book Tokyo and Points East, Beech indulges in a first-person recollection of his greatest hits: time in occupied Japan, civil war China, and the maelstrom of the Korean War. For a historian like myself who is allegedly immersed in that same inglorious eight-year swath of time from 1945-1953, the breadth of his experience is both amazing and integrative.

(Too often linguistic and academic training inculcates in subsequent generations that the three major northeast Asian cultures/civilizations were completely ignorant of one another in those years, when in fact in spite of Korean division they were fearsomely mixed up. The push to understand Japanese repatration from postwar China, for instance, is a nice counternarrative that brings us closer to a transnational and complete understanding of the epoch.)

Time Magazine, May 9 1949

Time Magazine, May 9 1949

Bruce Cumings recalls interviewing old Beech in the University of Chicago historian’s remarkable text War and Television, a pleasurably uncomfortable genre-bending book best described as a “memoir of scholarship” or “historical journalism.” Beech drops a few sharp facts, revelations even in 1987, when I believe he and Cumings sat down.

"Maude Linquist, head of UMD history department, makes plans for her summer venture to the West."  University of Minnesota, Duluth, 1955 Yearbook.

"Maude Linquist, head of UMD history department, makes plans for her summer venture to the West." University of Minnesota, Duluth, 1955 Yearbook.

At the same time, his memoir divulges details that I personally find intriguing and endearing. Perhaps it works well with our own confessional age. In the argot of his era, Beech writes of being divorced, his love affairs (or desired love affairs) with “dames” around the world. However, he will occasionally drop a hint that he is not a man-before-his-time, that is to say, he indulges in a handful of references that indicate his immersion in the era of McCarthyism. For instance, in conceding that foreign critics and intellectuals were “held together by a common loathing of the [U.S.] occupation [of Japan],” Beech says that these critics were probably homosexual (Tokyo and Points East , p. 45).

Here are a few more choice quotes from his book. In a sure sign of his classic status as a writer, some of these bon mots could equally be applied to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

And I recall that I once taught some very fine students at Hiram College in a course examining the U.S. occupation of Japan from that very comparative perspective. But at the time, sad to say, I had not yet made acquaintance with the fruits of Beech’s magnificent typewriter. All quotes and page numbers are from his memoir:

“Generals are disciplined men; correspondents are undisciplined. Generals, being accustomed to command, often resent those whom they cannot command. In Japan they could command their own troops, thousands of American civilians employed by their government, and more than eighty million Japanese. But they could not command the correspondents if the correspondents did not wish to be commanded. And I did not.” pp. 42-43.

“My troubles were twofold: I began to suspect that everything was not perfect and I began to brood about who was paying for it all and how much.” p. 47

Beech likens MacArthur to Mount Fuji, implicitly critiquing the “hysterical emotionalism” of the General’s return to the US, in particular its “startling resemblance to Emperor Hirohito’s postwar tours of Japan” (Beech had attended the Kyushu tours, so was well aware of the reverent and irrational ethos of seeing the legend) with their “shuddering sort of excitement” p. 54

Beech notes that MacArthur’s main spy, and doyen of the right wing, Charles Willoughby went to Franco’s Spain after 1952 to advise El Cudillo! p. 57 And it is quite possible, in the weirdest postwar quirk I have considered in some time, that Willoughby met there with the ex-Wallonie-SS commander and collaborateur-extraordinare, the man with whom I spent hours in the Montreal Metro underneath reams and tons of ice, Léon Degrelle.

Beech noted the complete sycophancy of the Western press corps toward MacArthur, stating: “my democratic soul rebelled at what I considered MacArthur’s autocratic behavior.” At the same time, Beech notes his pure joy at seeing MacArthur emerge out of the smoke at a blasted airfield in Suwon, Korea, in 1950, airlifting the correspondent out paternally from the nearing grasp of the Korean People’s Army. (On page 124 of his memoir, Beech drapes the KPA in the garb of new Genghis Khan, indicating his animosity.) In a strange way, MacArthur’s comfort with violence and the outsized personality he had allowed Beech’s book to be published at all (as the author was not rotting in some Pyongyang jailhouse or, as a couple of French correspondents I recently found in the Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing, being shoved out without food into Dandong via cold and disconnected Sinuiju in 1953).

Beech puts a human face on the U.S. “reverse course”, or the conservative turn. The paint factory industrialist Hasegawa is back in business in 1952, with five wives; he meets Beech on p. 71-74. At the same time, Beech interviewed Japanese Communist Party leader Nosaka Sanzo on June 29, 1948 and at Aug 13, 1948 at Tokyo Correspondents Club, interpreted by Yoko Matsuoka, who later went to US p. 76.

And he is no stranger to the pithy and powerful quote. According to a hostess Beech interviewed in Japan: “There are no more prostitutes. They are all waitresses now.” 78-79.

Citations:

Keyes Beech. Tokyo and Points East. (New York: Doubleday, 1954).