Anna Chennault, for many years one of the most visible private citizens in Washington as a Republican fundraiser, writer and Chinese-born, anti-communist lobbyist who dabbled in foreign intrigue after the death of her husband, the renowned leader of the Flying Tigers in China and Burma in World War II, died Friday at her home in Washington. She was 94.
Her death, in her apartment at the Watergate complex, was announced today. The cause was complications of a stroke she suffered in December, her daughter Cynthia Chennault said.
In her memoir photographs, wearing a high-necked white ao dai, Chennault appears with her husband, Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault; with Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford; with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI; with Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and with Nguyen Cao Ky, the South Vietnamese vice president who fled to the United States with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Except for her husband’s picture, taken a year before he died in 1958, it is a gallery of Chennault’s Washington regalia, assembled over many years as an airline executive, hostess, Republican stalwart, advocate for the Chinese Nationalists and South Vietnam, and staunch opponent of the Communist regime that seized power in China in 1949.
She was also a vice president of the Flying Tiger Line, her husband’s postwar cargo operation; a writer of novels, poetry and nonfiction books; a Voice of America broadcaster; and the center of a social whirl at her Watergate penthouse that drew in Cabinet members, congressmen, diplomats, foreign dignitaries and journalists.
But there was a hidden side to Chennault’s affairs, historians say. She was known to have been a conduit for Nationalist Chinese funds for the Republican Party, and to have been a secret go-between for U.S. officials and Asian leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Chinese generalissimo, and President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam.
And in a contretemps of international intrigue and presidential politics that generated heated debate for years, Chennault was recorded on an FBI wiretap helping to sabotage a peace initiative during the Vietnam War in order to promote Nixon’s victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
Soon after President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam to ease the way for Paris peace talks that fall, Chennault, a behind-the-scenes liaison for Nixon’s campaign and the Saigon government, was overheard urging South Vietnamese officials to boycott the Paris peace talks, saying they would get a better deal from a Nixon administration if they waited until after the election.
That same day, Nov. 2, Thieu announced that his government would not join the Paris talks. Three days later, Nixon was elected.
Johnson was furious when he learned of Chennault’s intervention, and considered having her charged under federal statutes with criminally interfering with the conduct of foreign affairs. She was never prosecuted.
Nixon lifted the tap on her telephones and awarded her Flying Tiger Line a lucrative Pacific cargo route. But for a supporter who had provided vital Asian contacts and $240,000 in contributions to the Nixon campaign, Chennault received no major appointment in his administration, as she had hoped.
In her 1980 memoir, “The Education of Anna,” she denied involvement in the peace talk maneuvers but acknowledged her disappointment with Nixon.
“The ultimate handshake came months later, at a White House function, when Nixon took me aside and, with intense gratitude, began thanking me for my help in the election,” she wrote.
“‘I’ve certainly paid dearly for it,’ I pointed out.
“‘Yes, I appreciate that,’ he murmured, suddenly uncomfortable. ‘I know you are a good soldier.’”
Anna Chennault was born Chen Xiangmei in Beijing on June 23, 1923, one of six daughters of P.Y. and Isabelle Liao Chen, members of a prosperous family of diplomats and scholars.
Her father taught law at the University of Peking and was editor of the English-language New China Morning Post. She and her sisters grew up in a mansion near the Forbidden City with an entourage of servants and tutors.
As Japanese invaders approached Beijing in 1937, her family fled to Hong Kong. Her father became an envoy to Mexico, her mother died, and Anna and her sisters became scattered refugees in occupied China, with family jewels sewn into coat linings. Despite the war, she studied journalism with refugee professors and earned a degree from Lingnan University in 1944.
Fluent in Chinese dialects and English, she became a correspondent for China’s Central News Agency, covering the war and later Mao Zedong’s spreading communist revolution. She met Claire Chennault in Kunming. He was three decades older, a married father of eight and the hero of the Flying Tigers, who shot down hundreds of Japanese warplanes and kept China’s hopes alive during the war.
In 1947, after his divorce, they were married in Shanghai. Besides Cynthia, they had another daughter, Claire, who also survives her, as do three sisters, Cynthia Lee, Sylvia Wong and Loretta Fung; and two grandsons.
The Chennaults lived in Shanghai, San Francisco, the general’s hometown, Monroe, Louisiana, and Taipei, where they ran the Flying Tiger Line and the Civil Air Transport, which was later owned by the CIA and used in covert anti-communist operations.
Claire Chennault died of lung cancer in 1958 at 67, and Anna Chennault moved to Washington.
She was soon embraced by her husband’s friends, including Thomas G. Corcoran, a New Deal strategist who became a notable Washington lobbyist for corporations and foreign powers. He showed her the ropes of lobbying, and she dedicated her memoir to him, calling him “the best teacher of them all.”
In Washington, Chennault joined the Republican Party and right-wing cadres of influential Americans supporting Taiwan and opposing Communist China. In 1962, with Kennedy’s blessing, she founded Chinese Refugees’ Relief, which assisted thousands fleeing China. She testified in Congress, wrote articles, gave speeches and, from 1963 to 1966, made weekly broadcasts in Chinese on the Voice of America radio.
In a penthouse apartment resembling a James Bond movie set overlooking the Potomac, she entertained 80 to 100 people a week, serving concoctions like “concubine’s delight” (chicken/snow peas) and “negotiator’s soup” (for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). At her soirees, Chennault, less than 5 feet tall, cut a striking figure in slim Chinese dresses and spike-heeled satin shoes.
Her aura of intrigue was only enhanced by evasive replies to reporters’ questions about possible CIA connections and her frequent travels to Asian countries embroiled in Cold War conflicts.
“Mrs. Chennault — or the Dragon Lady, as she is called by her enemies — is well-known around Washington as a Vietnam hawk,” The New York Times Magazine said in 1970.
She chided Nixon for what she called his cautious prosecution of the Vietnam War. “He should have gone ahead and done what had to be done — clean it all out, go the whole way,” she told Parade magazine.
Her image as an implacable anti-communist was eased in 1981 when she visited Beijing and Taipei for talks with Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, and President Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan. Acknowledging that her views had softened, she said people must be “humble enough to learn, courageous enough sometimes to change their positions.”
By then, her causes had all been lost. The Vietnam War was over, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong were dead, and the United States had severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized the People’s Republic of China.