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Homer Lea and Modern Political Thought

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He was not quite five feet and hampered with a hunchback. Throughout his young life, he would be affected by constant headaches and frail health, yet his theories proved prophetic. This colorful individual became one of America’s most proficient geopolitical theorists. Even General MacArthur had his staff read his books. His name was Homer Lea.

Journalist Clare Boothe Luce met with Colonel Charles Willoughby a month before Pearl Harbor. Colonel Willoughby detailed the possible Japanese game plan against the Philippines, Luce asked, “You’re not giving away military secrets?” Willoughby replied that he was quoting the military gospel according to Homer Lea. Unfamiliar with Lea, she asked for more information. Willoughby described Lea as a “self appointed general” who predicated a war between America and Japan.

Born in 1876, Homer Lea’s frail health kept him from finishing his career at West Point and his subsequent attempts to join the military was thwarted by his health problems. Despite these setbacks, Lea turned his attention to China, a nation in turmoil. Manchu Emperor Kwang Hus acknowledged China need for reform but others led by Dowager Empress Tzh-hsi wanted to force all foreigners out. Conflict reigned throughout China. Allied with a secret society known as the Boxers to Westerners, the Empress led a coup that ended Hus reign after 100 days.

The Boxer Rebellion, backed by the Imperial force, targeted European and American trading centers and the Boxers attacked Chinese Christians converts as well for converting to foreign ideas. Lea traveled to China and joined the Chinese reformists. Lea understood that he was entering the stage of great world changes and as young man; he felt ready to make a difference.

Lea viewed the world at a cataclysm with Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Japan set to collide with one another in a conflict that the United States could not avoid. Lea’s adventure in China began the process of formulating his own theories on upcoming events in the Pacific and throughout the world. He visited Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines on his way to China. During these visits, he studied the landscape and began formulating possible military scenarios along the Pacific Rim.

With the Chinese, Lea played the role of little general. He marched into Peking with the European and American forces as the leader of the reformist Chinese forces allied with the Western forces. Lea, dressed in lavish golden uniforms of General, became a celebrity among the Western press. His forces pursued the retreating Imperial forces but they fared poorly against Imperial forces and he found himself a hunted man with a price on his head. After the Boxer’s rebellion, the Empress was left in power by the Western powers, albeit with limited power. The Western powers were not necessarily interested in a strong or united China.

As for Lea, he left China. After his first campaign in China ended in failure, he fled to Japan, where he met the leading figure of China Budding Republican movement, Sun Yat-sen.

Homer Lea talked Sun Yat-sen into allowing him to be his chief military chief advisor. Among his first duties was raising money and he began the process of raising the funds to further Sun Yat-sen’s cause. Lea, working Chinese émigrés, became the perfect fundraiser as he appeared throughout both North America and Europe raising funds for the cause. His reputation grew among enthralled Western audiences and with funds in hand, he returned back to China.

He commanded the 2nd Army Division but his efforts to help install the Republican government fell short. He fled and with frail health adding to his woe, he went back to California to recover. History took a new twist and the ventures of Lea continued. He continued his interest in the Chinese Republican movement but he took intense interest in the result of the Russo-Japanese. Japanese victory in the war convinced Lea of Japanese threat to our interest and China.

It was here that Lea the military adventurer became Lea the geopolitical thinker. Through his own travel in the Pacific, he knew of America’s weakness in the Pacific and he began to formulate serious theories that would eventually encompass the entire world. Lea wrote his first book, The Valor of Ignorance, which detailed the possibility of war between Japan and United States. The title was a direct slap to United States diplomatic corps and their blindness to the threat that swirled around them.

The book was not well received in the states but some just as Douglas MacArthur found the book impressive. MacArthur wanted it to be compulsory reading at West Point but it was placed on the optional list. While much of the American establishment rejected Lea’s theories, the Japanese audience loved it. Valor of Ignorance sold 84,000 copies in Japan and this book became compulsory reading for Japanese cadets. (Irony is that Lea used the proceed to help Sun Yat-sen cause. Japanese had no interest in any movement that would unite or strengthen China. Their support of Lea’s book provided Sun Yat-sen with resources for the fight ahead.)

Another important person who read the book and took it thesis seriously was British army field marshal Lord Frederick Roberts. Roberts was concern about a coming clash with Germany and just as many Americans rejected a possible conflict with Japan, there was many in Britain rejecting the possibility of a clash between Germany and Britain. Roberts asked Lea to review Europe political landscape and Lea obliged. Lea visited Germany and just as he became an expert on Japanese way of thinking during his stay in Japan, he developed an understanding of the German mindset as well. In his book, The Day of the Saxon, he dissected the German expansionism and the theories behind it.

Lea felt that that Germany and Britain were rushing into a Titanic struggle of biblical proportions. Lea predicated Germany would seek a greater Reich including Austria and place puppet governments in Low Countries. Germany original strategy in World War One included maneuvering through Holland and Belgium, both neutral countries at the onset of war. (The plans were modified to move through just Belgium but Germany had plans to violate other countries neutralities in their quest to defeat France.)

Lea’s thesis challenged Great Britain defense strategy of depending upon Sea Power by warning that Britain needed a larger land force. Britain could not just depend upon other land European powers to defend their own vital interest. Lea also noted Germany and Japanese obsession with national supremacy and racial purity. And he studied Russia own role in the world and decided that Russia would seek to rule both Europe and Asia. At the time of Lea’s death, he was writing his third book, The Swarming of the Slav.

Lea left for China in the autumn of 1911 when he heard of Sun Yat-sen attempt to bring a revolutionary government in China. Lea, suffering from frail heath, traveled to China and lived long enough to see Sun Yat-sen victory as a new year ushered in 1912. Within months after Sun Yat-sen victory, Lea suffered from a massive stroke and shortly afterwards, he died.

Lea proved to be a one of America most original geopolitical thinker. While many American isolationist or pacifists rejected him, others saw original theories that could not be dismissed out of hands. German geopolitical theories Karl Haushofer, who later consulted with Adolf Hitler, read his book, The Day of the Saxon, and key Japanese figures digested Valor of Ignorance. While many American policymakers remained blind to serious thinking about foreign affairs, many future adversaries understood clearly his theories. Valor of Ignorance stated the obvious, maximum military preparedness ensured a nation’s survival. In 1910, Sun Yat-sen gave Lea permission to negotiate a Sino-Anglo-Saxon alliance with the British and American governments. Sun Yat-sen wanted the Chinese Republican to be allied with the two leading democracies of the world at the time. The alliance was never formulated and an opportunity to cement an relationship between a Republican China and the West failed to materialize.

What Lea provided in his writings was description of a world in transition and the need to prepare for it. Lea felt concerned about Japan and Germany single-minded obsession with their own superiority and need of expansionism. He clearly understood that Germany would eventually collide with Britain and Japan would move south to clash with the United States. A decade before the communist revolution, Lea foresaw Russia ambitions to becoming the leading Eurasia power. This was similar to the foresight of the French writer Alex Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America. Like Lea, Tocqueville viewed Russia as a natural rival to the United States. Tocqueville observed Russia exhibiting opposite qualities of the United States. Whereas Americans preferred decentralization and freedom, Russians were comfortable with autocratic rule. Lea looked at Russia land mass and concluded that Russia grab for power was inevitable. Some in Germany viewed Russia as a serious rival and World War I may have easily been considered a preventative war by Germany to ensure its own dominance over Europe before Russia was powerful enough to challenge Germany. While a shot in the Balkans may have started the war, Germany had a strategic plan mapped out for the war.

Lea was skeptical of the United States adjusting its policy and preparing for the inevitable conflicts he foresaw. Many of the intellectuals of his day dismissed the diminutive writer. David Starr of Stanford declared Lea a charlatan and portrayed Lea “ambitious little romancer trying to make the most of his short life, limited physique and boundless imagination.”

In Germany, Karl Haushofer read Lea and produced his own geopolitical theories after the First World War. While Haushofer advised Hitler before the Second World War and his son worked with the Nazis regime, Haushofer own theories lacked the racial component of many of his German colleagues. He considered Hitler invasion of Russia as mistake and viewed Russia as natural ally in his grand strategy of developing a landmass power to counter the ascendancy of the “Anglo-Saxon” rule.

Haushofer spent years in Japan as a Germany attaché and was familiar with the Japanese culture. He spoke Japanese, Chinese and Russian fluently. When Hitler formed his grand alliance with Tokyo, he was merely following Haushofer advice. Haushofer served in World War I and like many returning German soldiers, he felt betrayed by Germany defeat. Haushofer theory began with the idea that the German state needed living space or “Lebensraum.” Haushofer felt the best way to obtain this was to develop an alliance with the Soviet Union and add Japan as a maritime component to his land based alliances. This alliance would confront the Anglo-Saxons led by Great Britain and the United States. The Nazis would twist his theory with a racial component but Haushofer nationalistic theories had a logical warlike quality.

Like General Roberts, British parliamentarian Sir Halford Mackinder viewed Haushofer vision as a threat that needed to deal with. Mackinder discussed the importance of seeing the world not just through narrow vision of Europe but the world as a whole. In his book, The Geographic Pivot of History, Mackinder discussed the importance of Geography in viewing international politics. Mackinder concluded that Britain needed to view the threat of a land power dominating the Eurasia continent seriously. Mackinder understood that to control the Eurasia landmass meant controlling the world. Like Lea, Mackinder warned of a land power rising to challenge Britain. In his day, it was Germany.

Why care about these men? Simple, their thinking still is important, even if the nations involved are different. In advent of the recent Iraq war, we saw French statesmen attempt to build a European Union not just independent of the United States but as a rival to the United States. A France-Germany led European Union allied with Russia would be similar to Karl Haushofer vision of a land mass competitor to the United States led Anglosphere. France feared that its own unique welfare state may not be able to compete with the Anglosphere nations by its self and the control of the European Union not only allows the French to maintain its own welfare state but dominate a significant portion of Europe with the help of Germany. A France led European Union would allow France to be a major player on the world scene. The European Union was and still is France attempt to restrict any Anglosphere influence within Europe and outside.

As for China, it has adopted capitalism as an economic model but it is still an autocratic society. Homer Lea hoped for a Republican China but the present China is far from that goal. Lea’s own lobbying effort for an alliance with the young Chinese Republic and the West fell on deaf ears. Today, China has replaced Japan as the expansionary power competing with the Anglosphere in the Pacific Rim. As I have mention in previous blogs, it is not an automatic assumption that China would end up an enemy to the United States and a dream of Chinese Republic is partially being realized- in Taiwan. The major goal of the United States is to follow up on Homer Lea vision and find a way to export the political freedom of Taiwan to the mainland. A unified democratic China will not pose the same threat to our interest or peace than an Autocratic nationalistic China could or will.

As for Homer Lea, he was a rebel that spoke truth to America but was ignored. Unknown to many Americans today, Lea understood the world that was evolving at the turn of the 20th century and much of what he discussed still has validity today.

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About Tom Donelson

  • SonnyD

    Interesting, but Tom, you really need a good copy editor.

  • Tom Donelson


    You have my permission to pass this on. Thank you for the kind comments. Curious could you tell me more about the readers of Root and Branch information?

  • Tom, you have written an excellent and thought provoking analysis. I don’t agree with everything you say in extending Lea’s analyses, but what you say is important enough to pay attention to and worth integrating into the political ananlyses of the writers I’m familiar with.

    With your permission, I will forward your artile to the Root & Branch Information Service, which aims at a different audience and has many influential readers.