Anna Chennault, China-born Washington power broker and hostess, dies at 94

Anna Chennault’s marriage to a storied American general, three decades her senior, put her at the centre of Asian and US diplomatic, military and commercial circles, and she became a leading figure in the ‘China lobby’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 10:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 8:46pm

Anna Chennault, the Chinese journalist who married the legendary leader of the second world war Flying Tigers squadron and, after his death, became a Republican power broker in Washington, has died at the age of 94.

A doyenne of Washington society in the 1960s, she charmed politicians and diplomats while running her late husband’s cargo airline, becoming embroiled in the Richard Nixon election scandal known as the Anna Chennault Affair, and funnelling large sums of Nationalist Chinese money to Republicans.

Chennault, also known by her Chinese name Chen Xiangmei, died in Washington on Friday three months after she suffered a stroke, her daughter Cynthia Chennault said.

Born in Beijing on June 23, 1923, Chennault was raised in a well-off family of diplomats and editors who fled mainland China as Japanese invaders approached in 1937.

She studied journalism at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University and became a reporter for the Xinhua News Agency.

Covering the rise of Mao Zedong’s communists after the war, she met and married lieutenant general Claire Chennault, whose swashbuckling Flying Tigers operated out of Burma in the early 1940s in support of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese.

As the communists took power in 1949, the couple started up two Taipei-based airlines, Civil Air Transport and the Flying Tiger Line, which helped relocate Chiang’s nationalists to Taiwan. 

Both continued to operate for years, Flying Tiger as a pioneering global cargo carrier and Civil Air Transport becoming a CIA front.

When Claire Chennault died in 1957, Anna moved to Washington, where she learned the ropes of lobbying, and became a power broker in her own right, representing especially Taiwan’s nationalist government.

She entertained out of an opulent flat in the Watergate complex, raised money for Chinese refugee charities and maintained the mysterious aura of a svelte “Dragon Lady”.            

“Her career represents a unique model of an informal diplomat,” Chennault’s biographer, Catherine Forslund, a history professor at Rockford University in Illinois, said in an interview. 

“She was somebody who interpreted China to Americans, government officials, businesses and the public, to a certain extent. Plus, she interpreted the United States to all these Asian countries.”      

Adamantly opposed to the Beijing regime, she became a public advocate for Asia’s anti-communist autocrats, strongly backing the Vietnam war.

That put her at the centre of an election scandal. In the 1968 presidential election, Chennault was vice chair of the Republican National Finance Committee, raising huge sums for Nixon.

During the campaign, Nixon used Chennault to set up a backchannel to the South Vietnamese government, scheming to block any efforts by then-president Lyndon Johnson to enter peace talks with North Vietnam. 

Republican Nixon wanted to make sure that Johnson’s launch of peace talks would not propel his Democratic election rival, vice-president Hubert Humphrey, into office.

The gambit worked, but Johnson was infuriated when FBI wiretaps exposed Chennault’s backdealing, and she was castigated in the press.

Chennault later expressed disappointment that she was not named by Nixon to an official position, but she continued to wield influence – and money – across Washington for years.

But after Nixon undertook his historical opening to China, Chennault herself joined in, helping the Reagan administration in the 1980s as a “shuttle diplomat” with the government of Deng Xiaoping.

“The smart thing about the Chinese is they’re so patient,” Chennault said in 1981, according to The Washington Post.

During a meeting with Deng, Chennault said he asked: “Why do all the so-called China experts have blue eyes and blond hair?”

It was a question that long rankled Chennault, especially as she grew more frustrated with diplomats and lawmakers who never offered her a major policymaking role – but kept attending her parties.

“I am not a hostess,” she told People magazine in 1981.

“For years I have despised that description. Why don’t people recognise me as a China expert?”

Agence France-Presse, The Washington Post