Author and journalist Kevin Peraino described an interview with a former child soldier in Mao’s army the “most compelling” part of his research for A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, which was released Sept. 19.
“In Beijing I interviewed a man who had been a child soldier in Mao’s army. He had joined when he was twelve years old, and was near Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, when Mao proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China,” said Peraino, who grew up in Ridgefield. “These eyewitnesses really helped bring the story to life for me.”
“When I’m writing history, I always try to ground the story in the primary sources — diaries, letters, memoranda, that sort of thing. In this case newspapers were also really useful — I spent days on end at the library scrolling through microfilm reels of old newspapers. You can’t really go back to the China of 1949 — it’s long gone. Immersing yourself in the newspapers and other sources is the only way,” he said. “I knew I was spending too much time looking at newspapers when I would start to date my checks ‘1949.’”
Peraino will be visiting the Ridgefield Library to discuss his book Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 7 p.m.
He shared the inspiration behind his book. “As I was finishing my last book, the CIA declassified one of its secret internal histories of covert operations in China in 1949,” he said. “Whenever there’s new information like that, it’s a great opportunity to reexamine old assumptions. There was a ton of granular detail in there that made for a really vivid story.”
Peraino also noted the relevance of the topic today. “The events of 1949 are extraordinarily relevant to today’s headlines. The book is really about the lead-up to the Korean War, so it is oddly timely. And the whole question of whether the US should be engaging or confronting Beijing is one of the most hotly debated topics in Washington right now.”
“I loved doing the research for this book,” Peraino said.
“For me, it’s always the characters who catch my attention. One of the main figures in the book is Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the first lady of the Republic of China,” he said. “She was an extraordinarily colorful personality — she lived to be 105 and her life spanned the 20th Century. She was a powerful, charismatic woman who played a major role in the diplomacy of the day.”
Peraino also travelled to various sites in China for his research. He said, “I also traveled to Xibaipo, which was one of Mao’s base camps as he prepared for the final stages of the revolution. It’s a tourist site now, about four hours outside Beijing. Visitors pay the equivalent of a few dollars to pose for photos in old army uniforms behind sandbags. It’s a great example of how Mao’s revolution is still very present in today’s China.”
Peraino grew up in Ridgefield, attending Farmingville Elementary School, East Ridge Middle School, and Ridgefield High School before going to Northwestern University.
He wrote about domestic and foreign affairs for Newsweek Magazine for over a decade, becoming a finalist for the Livingston Award for his foreign-affairs reporting. Peraino’s work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and Politico Magazine. Currently, he lives in Darien with his wife and children.
As part of the promotion for this book, Peraino will give talks at numerous locations, starting at New York University.
He said, “The biggest takeaway, to me, is that history matters — these events over the course of a single year nearly seven decades ago still inform how we think about the U.S.-China relationship. It’s really impossible to make sense of the news today about China — and even North Korea — without understanding this vital history.”