Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Canadian hero

I picked a book from the shelves here to read, it's called The Sword, The Scalpel: the story of Doctor Norman Bethune. It was written in the '50s so it is quite old and has no pictures at all. The authors had access to his voluminous writings, and also correspondence with his wife and friends. One of the authors knew Bethune personally, the other only by reputation, so they combined subjective and objective viewpoints.

Bethune died relatively young, at the age of 49, in a remote part of China. He prided himself on being a Communist, he hugely admired Mao Tse Tung (who he met and chatted with during his short time in China). He was right in the thick of China's battle to fend off the Japanese invasion,. Before that he participated in the Spanish Civil War and before that he campaigned for "socialized medicine" in Canada and the USA.

Doctor Bethune was originally from Gravenhurst, Ontario, and like many Canadians I knew he was sort of famous and revered by the Chinese, but I didn't really know much about him. I didn't know for example that he nearly died of tuberculosis himself as a young man, and had committed himself to a sanatorium to await his end. But as a trained doctor he continued to read medical journals and he heard about a radical surgical treatment for TB and decided to get it done to himself.

Basically it was a procedure of collapsing and shutting down the affected lung. He had it done and immediately recovered, although it was years before his collapsed lung became functional again. Before that happened though he was quite the bon vivant, and a very driven man. He made a lot of money dealing in art, he travelled a lot and he lived very well. After his bout of TB he came to realize that TB was a disease of poverty, it was rampant because poverty was rampant. He became a convert to the idea of socialized medicine but he did not live long enough to see his dream realized. His experience of nearly dying of TB really changed his perspective on what his life was for.

Doctor Bethune practiced medicine in Montreal and Detroit before volunteering to help in Spain. He was horrified by the treatment of common people in time of war. Being one of those people who is either all on or all off, he worked tirelessly to help refugees and resistors. They finally insisted that he return to North America to tell the real story of what was happening in Spain to try to raise money and support for their fight. He did return but his efforts were to no avail, the great powers of the time allowed Spain to fall to Franco with assistance from Mussolini and Hitler. In the meantime though Bethune heard about the struggle in China and decided to go there to help.

These days we take a dim view of Mao Tse Tung, in great part because of the so-called Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and also because of the invasion of Tibet. But he was an admirable leader during the actual revolution itself, providing a degree of freedom, opportunity and inspiration to millions of peasants that had never been available to them before. Bethune considered Mao very wise, and took many of his sayings very seriously. He did not live to see how things turned out, he died in 1939 and the Chinese Communists only achieved victory in 1949.

I was very interested in some of the historical information in this book, as well as the account of Bethune's life. I was particularly interested in the details of Spanish Civil War and the early days of the Communist Revolution in China. It made me realize what a slanted view conventional history texts and news accounts provide.

The thing that struck me the most though was about all these battles going on in the '30s. I think of World War II as starting in 1939 since that is when Great Britain and Canada declared war. But in reality it started long before that, we North Americans just downplayed or ignored what was going on. Bethune was aware of what was happening to Jews in Germany and other European countries even in the '30s, that information was out there, just not really paid attention to. Japan was busy invading China long before it ran afoul of the USA by attacking Pearl Harbour. The USA tolerated Japan's activities in China quite easily. Canada and the USA and Great Britain tolerated the invasion and subjugation of Spain, they even abetted it because the resistance was supported by Communists. Fascism was seen as a good thing, it opposed Communism.

Bethune was horrified by the suffering, angry at the lack of action by governments that ought to know better. He proudly declared himself a Communist because to be a non-Communist was to sit by and ignore the suffering of others.

Bethune was not an ordinary person, I think he must have been an extremely obsessed and driven man. He had a terrible temper, he scared the very people who adored him. When he was in China, the Communist revolutionary soldiers he lived with engaged in regular sessions of mutual criticism, and they told him in no uncertain terms how damaging his temper was to them. They loved him, but.

Of course they were devastated when he died. Temper or no temper they really did love him.


Barbara Anne said...

How interesting. I'd never heard of Dr. Bethune in any context.

In high school, I took a course called History of Non-Western Civilization and it was immensely intriguing. I remember that Mao was a good leader early on and also remember being told that the winners write the history books.

Have you ever read about Richard Francis Burton (not the actor) who explored and lived in the middle east in the 1800s?


20th Century Woman said...

What an interesting post. I spent the summer of 1938 in my grandmother's house in Italy, and even as a 6 year old I could feel the fear the grown-ups were expressing about the political situation in Europe. They knew war was coming and they would have to leave.