Late on the morning of February 21, 1972, I listened at my desk in the U.S. Embassy Saigon as an Armed Forces Radio announced the arrival of President Richard Nixon in Beijing. I had been a Foreign Service "China watcher" through the horrendous years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao sent thousands of young Red Guards out to burn books and put an end to China's traditional culture. For more than two decades, American strategists considered themselves engaged in a colossal struggle against revolutionary communism, an ideology bent on destroying and replacing the established international state system of world order. Now here were Nixon and his chief advisor, Henry Kissinger, presenting themselves to the "Great Helmsman" of the People's Republic of China.
In the manner of dictators, Mao suddenly summoned the two Americans to his private residence in the sequestered Chungnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City. Kissinger later described Mao's study in his memoirs: "Manuscripts lined bookshelves along every wall; books covered the table and the floor, it looked more like the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world's most populous nation." The few unfrequented bookshops left in China offered little else but the writings of Mao and Marx and Lenin. But here in his lair, Mao had hoarded all the great texts his heart desired. He knew them well, and marked them up. ("If you don't put your pen in action, it cannot really be considered reading," he had said.) The Outlaws of the Marsh (or The Water Margin), a tale of bandits in rebellion against oppressive lords, inspired him, and classical Chinese poetry too, much of which concerns matters of war and statecraft; Mao inflicted his own considerable poetic output on the masses.
But what are we to make of Mao's love for the huge 18th-century novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, which he boasted of having read five times? What are dictators, generals, and strategists looking for in the books they keep around them or carry with them? Certainly Mao was not made a better person by his extensive reading in classic texts. Inhumane leaders have made use of humane letters; the Nazis cultivated the arts. But admirable underlying principles of statecraft can be found in nearly all classic texts. Literary works address the conundrums of statecraft in ways that may be used for good or ill by people in power.
Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him on his eastern conquests, keeping it, Plutarch said, with a dagger under his pillow, "declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge." Prior to sainthood, Thomas More read Roman poets and playwrights. Queen Elizabeth I read Cicero for rhetorical and legal strategy. Frederick the Great studied Homer's Odysseus as a model for princes. John Adams read Thucydides in Greek while being guided through the "labyrinth" of human nature by Swift, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Abraham Lincoln slowly read through Whitman's Leaves of Grass and was changed by it. Gladstone, four times prime minister under Queen Victoria, wrote volumes of scholarly commentary on Homer and produced vivid translations -- the best kind of close reading -- of Horace's Odes. Lawrence of Arabia, who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks, carried Malory's Morte d'Arthur, if not in his camel's saddlebags then in his head.