Soong May-ling’s historic Congress address — and her tour to save China

Society & Culture

On February 18, 1943, Soong May-ling became the first Chinese national to address Congress in Washington, D.C. — only the beginning of a six-week tour to win American support for China's cause.

This Week in China’s History: February 18, 1943

The year is just six weeks old, but in an odd coincidence for a series on Chinese history, the most common setting for this column so far in 2021 is not the Forbidden City or Purple Mountain, or anywhere in China at all, but the United States Capitol. (See our January 13 column: “Bombard the Headquarters.”) This week we look there again, on February 18, 1943, when Soong May-ling (宋美齡 Sòng Měilíng) became just the second woman — and first Chinese national — to address Congress.

Soong May-ling was part of a family that was as close as the new Chinese republic had to royalty. May-ling’s father, Charlie, had emigrated to America and been educated there. The family he and wife Ni Kwei-tseng (倪桂珍 Ní Guìzhēn) raised blazed an extraordinary arc across the 20th century. The sisters — May-ling, Ai-ling, and Ching-ling — get the most attention (most recently in Jung Chang’s Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister), but brother T.V. was no slouch either, serving as China’s finance minister and rumored to have been the world’s richest man.

May-ling may have been the most famous of them all, largely because of her association with the American media empire of Henry Luce. Luce, born to missionary parents in China, eventually came to run TIME-Life, and used that platform to shape American public opinion about China. Luce was particularly concerned with combating Communism, and worked hard to promote Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) as the face of Free China, fighting against Japan and also Communism. Chiang was not an easy man to like, but when he married the telegenic and eloquent Soong May-ling, the Republic of China found its spokesperson.

Soong was no stranger to America. She had been educated at Wesleyan (the one in Georgia, not New England) and then Wellesley (very much New England). Although she returned to China after graduation, she maintained a presence in the American media, appearing on the cover of Luce’s TIME magazine for the first time in 1931. (She graced the cover several times, including with her husband, Chiang Kai-shek, as “man and wife of the year” in 1937.)

The 1937 cover photo was part of a concerted effort to court U.S. public opinion after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. With Soong — almost always described as “Wellesley educated” — as its most public face, the campaign intensified after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Chiang and, especially, Soong were called on to explain to Americans the war they were entering.

The speech at the Capitol was direct and bold. China had “bled and borne unflinchingly the burden of war for more than five and a half years,” she told the assembly, bringing the legislators to their feet. Now it was time for America to help defend the values that her government represented and that the American government claimed to support. “You have today before you the…opportunity to implement these same ideals and to help bring about the liberation of man’s spirit in every part of the world.” 

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aides expected Soong’s speech to bolster the president’s standing by celebrating the diversity of America and the importance of its commitment to democracy. Though Soong endorsed America as an important ally, she did not soft-pedal her principles to curry favor with her hosts. She criticized the president’s “Germany first” strategy in the war, arguing that Japan had greater resources and controlled more territory than Germany. “The prevailing opinion seems to consider the defeat of the Japanese as of relative unimportance and that Hitler is our first concern,” she said. “This is not borne out by actual facts.“ 

Soong impressed observers who underestimated her. Her speech fluidly assessed the military situation and the political landscape, weaving American history, Greek myth, and even European philosophy into her remarks. Befitting her status as a diplomat — she received protocol appropriate to a head of state, not just an honored guest — she represented her country’s interests through her words and their delivery.

If Soong’s trip is sometimes minimized as style over substance, it is because the American press, and government, perceived her as glamorous and exotic. Unpacking both of these requires assessing both the racism and sexism that obscure many of Soong’s accomplishments. Historian Karen Leong, in her book The China Mystique, points out that Soong was a forceful advocate not only for China — as is widely understood — but also for women. “I do not mean this as a dig,” Leong quotes Soong as saying at a news conference held with Eleanor Roosevelt, “but statesmen the world over so far have failed to keep peace, to maintain peace…Why not give women a chance?” In the same gathering, Soong expressed her support for an Equal Rights Amendment: “I have never known brains to have [a] sex.”

Leong contrasts Soong’s visit to the almost simultaneous one of Winston Churchill. Gendered readings of the two make Churchill the tough diplomat and Soong the ornamental envoy, yet while Churchill quietly affirmed American strategy and supported the president, Soong very publicly challenged American priorities and lobbied for change. Soong even used some of the same unconventional tactics that had served FDR well. That her address was nationally broadcast meant she could circumvent Congress and the White House and take her case to the American people directly. 

A hoped-for meeting between Churchill and Soong foundered on issues of protocol and perception. American officials — and even Soong’s own brother — bristled at Soong’s refusal to meet Churchill on his terms, calling her a “diva”; Leong saw her motivations in her assessment of America, which she described to American scholar Owen Lattimore as “racist and condescending.” “The American attitude has always been,” Leong quotes her telling Lattimore, “‘Oh yes, she is clever, but after all she is only a Chinese.’” Especially now that she represented the Chinese nation, Soong May-ling would not be disrespected.

The speech before Congress was just the beginning of a tour that brought Soong to some of America’s most famous venues: Madison Square Garden, Chicago Stadium, and the Hollywood Bowl. More than 100,000 people heard her speak in person, and many times more than that on radio and television. 

Soong’s six weeks in America were a stirring success in building support for China’s cause. Yang Ling, who made a study of Soong’s 1943 goodwill tour, cites a survey by the American Institute of Public Opinion showing that the percentage of Americans who regarded Japan — rather than Germany — as their first enemy doubling after Soong’s visit, from 25% in June 1942 to 53% in March 1943.

Although the war against Japan was won, the government Soong represented did not long survive in power on the mainland. Soong and her husband fled to Taiwan after 1949, defeated by the Communists in the Civil War. After Chiang Kai-shek’s death, Soong May-ling emigrated to the United States, and reprised her visit to the Capitol in 1995, where she was honored as part of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of World War II’s end. She eventually settled in an Upper East Side apartment where she died, age 105, in 2003.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.