Theodore Harold White (Chinese: 白修德, May 6, 1915 – May 15, 1986) was an American political journalist and historian, known for his reporting from China during World War II and accounts of the 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1980 presidential elections. He was the first foreigner to report on the Chinese famine of 1942–43 and helped the famine to catch Chinese and international attention.
White was born May 6, 1915, in Dorchester, Boston, the son of David White, a lawyer. He was raised Jewish. In his memoir In Search of History: A Personal Adventure, White describes helping form one of the early Zionist collegiate organizations during his time in college. He was a student at Boston Latin School, from which he graduated in 1932; from there, he went on to Harvard University, from which he graduated with a B.A. in Chinese history as a student of John K. Fairbank, who went on to become America’s foremost China scholar. He wrote for The Harvard Crimson during his time at Harvard.
Awarded a traveling fellowship for a round-the-world journey, White ended up in Chungking (Chongqing), China’s wartime capital, and later became a freelance reporter after briefly starting out with the only job he could find: as an advisor to China’s propaganda agency. When Henry R. Luce, the China-born founder and publisher of Time magazine, learned of White’s expertise, he hired him and then came to China the following year, where the two became friends. White became the China correspondent for TIME during World War II. White chafed at the restrictions put on his reporting by the censorship of the Nationalist government, but he also chafed at the rewriting of his stories by the editors at TIME, one of whom was Whittaker Chambers.
Although he maintained respect for Henry Luce, White resigned and returned home to write, along with Annalee Jacoby, widow of fellow China reporter, Mel Jacoby, a book about China at war and in crisis, the best-selling Thunder Out of China. The book described the incompetence and corruption of the Nationalist government and sketched the power of the rising Communist Party. The introduction warned, “In Asia there are a billion people who are tired of the world as it is; they live such terrible bondage that they have nothing to lose but their chains…. Less than a thousand years ago Europe lived this way; then Europe revolted… The people of Asia are going through the same process.”
During the war, White had gotten to know and respect General Joseph Stilwell, the American commander in Asia. He sympathized with Stilwell’s disgust with Chiang Kai-shek‘s unwillingness or inability to wage all-out war on the Japanese invader. Stilwell died shortly after the war, and Stilwell’s widow called White to her home in Carmel, California and asked him to undertake the job of putting the General’s papers into publishable form. White succeeded in seeing The Stilwell Papers through to publication. He also witnessed and reported on the famine that occurred in Henan in 1943.
White then served as European correspondent for the Overseas News Agency (1948–50) and for The Reporter (1950–53)
White returned to his wartime experience in the novel The Mountain Road (1958), which dealt with the retreat of a team of American troops in China in the face of a Japanese offensive provoked by bombings by the 14th Air Force. The novel was frank about the Americans’ conflicting, sometimes negative attitudes toward their Chinese allies. It was made into the antiwar movie a 1960 movie, starring James Stewart and Lisa Lu.
The McCarthy period made it difficult for any reporter or official who had had any contact with communists, however innocent, to escape suspicion of communist sympathies. White opted to turn from writing about China to take up reporting on the Marshall Plan in Europe and then ultimately to the American presidency.
Making of the President series
With experience in analyzing foreign cultures from his time abroad, White took up the challenge of analyzing American culture with the books The Making of the President 1960 (1961), The Making of the President 1964 (1965), The Making of the President 1968 (1969), and The Making of the President 1972 (1973), all analyzing American presidential elections. The first of these was both a bestseller and a critical success, winning the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. It remains the most influential publication about the election that made John F. Kennedy the President. The later presidential books sold well but failed to have as great an effect, partly because other authors were by then publishing about the same topics, and White’s larger-than-life style of storytelling became less fashionable during the 1960s and ’70s.
A week after the death of JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy summoned White to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to rescue her husband’s legacy. She proposed that White prepare an article for Life magazine drawing a parallel between her husband and his administration to King Arthur and the mythical Camelot. At the time, a play of that name was being performed on Broadway and Jackie focused on the ending lyrics of an Alan Jay Lerner song, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” White, who had known the Kennedys from his time as a classmate of the late President’s brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was happy to oblige. He heeded some of Jackie’s suggestions while writing a 1,000 word essay that he dictated later that evening to his editors at Life. When they complained that the Camelot theme was overdone, Jackie objected to changes. By this telling, Kennedy’s time in office was transformed into a modern-day Camelot that represented, “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.” White later described his comparison of JFK to Camelot as the result of kindness to a distraught widow of a just-assassinated leader, and wrote that his essay was a “misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed.”
After Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon, White broke his quadrennial pattern with Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (1975), a dispassionate account of the scandal and its players. There was no 1976 volume from White. (The closest analogue was Marathon by Jules Witcover.) After a volume of memoirs, published in 1978, he returned to presidential coverage with the 1980 campaign, and America In Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-80 (1982), draws together original reporting and new social analysis of the previous quarter-century, focusing primarily but not exclusively on the Reagan-Carter contest.
TIME partnered with White to publish the 400 page The Making of the President 1984, which was to be a collaborative effort amongst multiple writers. White was expected to write the opening and closing chapters, and the chapter covering the 1984 Democratic National Convention. The remaining chapters were to be written by other Time magazine writers, principally Hays Gorey, TIME’s Washington correspondent. However, prior to the election, the partnership dissolved, as White was unhappy with the quality of work he was seeing from the TIME reporters. This final entry in the series was shortened and titled “The Shaping of the Presidency, 1984,” a lengthy post-election analysis piece in TIME, in its special Ronald Reagan issue of November 19, 1984.
Personal life, and death
On May 15, 1986 White suffered a sudden stroke and died in New York City. He was survived by two of his children, Heyden White Rostow and David Fairbank White, and his wife, Beatrice Kevitt Hofstadter.
Books in order of publication:
- Thunder Out of China (with Annalee Jacoby) (1946) reprinted Da Capo, 1980
- The Stilwell Papers (1948) by Joseph W. Stilwell, Theodore H. White (Editor), Eric Larrabee (Contributor)
- Fire in the Ashes: Europe in Mid Century (1953)
- The Mountain Road (1958), novel, reprinted with an Introduction by Parks Coble, Eastbridge, 2006
- The View From the Fortieth Floor (1960) novel, depicted his experience at Colliers.
- The Making of the President 1960
- The Making of the President 1964
- The Making of the President 1968
- Caesar at the Rubicon: A Play about Politics (1968)
- The Making of the President 1972
- Breach of Faith : The Fall of Richard Nixon Atheneum Publishers, 1975; Dell, 1986,
- In Search of History: A Personal Adventure (Harper & Row, 1978) autobiography
- America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956–1980 (Harper & Row, 1982)
- Theodore H. White at large: the best of his magazine writing, 1939-1986, Authors Theodore Harold White, Editor Edward T. Thompson, Pantheon Books, 1992,