As Taiwan’s ruling party, the KMT, is preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the so-called Republic of China, the publication of Milo Thornberry’s memoir, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror, is a timely book with great contributions to understanding the long struggle of democratization in Taiwan.
Based on personal experiences, Milo tells a shocking and most significant story of an era in that long process which deserved its infamy: White Terror. It was about the story of the darkest era of persecution and suppression in post-war Taiwan brave American missionaries with big hearts helping Taiwanese in their pursuit for freedom and democracy. And they themselves also became victims of White Terror.
Fireproof Moth should be read and appreciated by Taiwanese-Americans and people in Taiwan. Taiwan could not have achieved its democracy without its own political leaders and support of friends around the world. In the late 1960’s, a distinguished Taiwanese professor, Dr. Peng Ming-min, raised the most fundamental political issue in Taiwan: the rule of the minority Chinese over the majority Taiwanese without the consent of the governed through democratic process. Dr. Peng was arrested and convicted for “treason”, attempting to overthrow the government by illegal means.
Under international pressure, the KMT released Dr. Peng but put him under house arrest, refusing to let him return to the teaching job at National Taiwan University. Since Dr. Peng had played a significant role in Taiwan’s struggle for democracy and was a potential political leader, the KMT wanted to nip the Taiwanese leadership in the bud.
Then the courageous American missionaries, Milo and Judith Thornberry, risking careers, freedom, even lives, came to rescue. They secretly helped Dr. Peng escape from Taiwan and persecution by the KMT. They saved a future leader of Taiwan’s democratic and independence movement.
For general American readers, this is a great story of missionaries involved in the spread of fundamental values: freedom, democracy, and human rights. They not only helped Dr. Peng regain his freedom but also raised funds to help family of political prisoners. They were pioneer human rights activists.
I knew Milo when I came across the name Michael Thornberry in my research at the National Archives, looking for diplomatic reports related to Dr. Peng’s case. In September 2008, we met in Taipei when we both were invited by Dr. Peng to participate in a panel discussion in commemorating 44th anniversary of release of the “Manifesto of Formosan Self-salvation,” which had been seized by the KMT as “evidence” of Dr. Peng’s offense.
I gave Milo a copy of a declassified confidential cable from the American Embassy in Taipei to the State Department as souvenir. It mentions that Michael Thornberry was closely associated with the Taiwan Independence Movement.
Milo told me his story of being put into house arrest, summarily expelled by the KMT from Taiwan, and then denied a passport by the State Department. He kindly sent me his papers on his missionary experiences in Taiwan, written as family letters to his children.
As a journalist by training and author of a few books on Taiwan’s political history, I recognized the significance of these papers in the history of Taiwan. I suggested that he re-write the letters in book form and expand it to include American missionary’s support for Taiwanese dissidents during the era of White Terror. I also promised to look into the archives to see if there are any more files related to his activities in that era.
I did find a folder containing “the Thornberrys case” and sent Milo copies of those declassified cables. I was so pleased to know that Milo did re-write his manuscript for publishing, and it is my honor to be one of the first persons to read his manuscript.
Fireproof Moth is the kind of book that the KMT doesn’t want you to read, but it is a book that our fellow Taiwanese and those who care for the democracy and well being of the people in Taiwan should read.