The First Death of the Cold War

Remembering John M. Birch….

JohnMBirchOn the 25th August 1945 John M. Birch, an American intelligence officer and Baptist missionary during World War Two was killed by Chinese communist party members in what would come to symbolise in part, the beginning of the war of two ideals.

Birch was born quite literally into the Baptist missionary life. Born in 1918 in the Himalayas to Baptist missionary parents he followed his parents lead and became a missionary in China in 1940. Living and working in areas already affected by two Sino-Japanese wars he and his fellow missionaries found themselves on the run from the Japanese following their attack on Pearl Harbour.

By 1942 he was fluent in Mandarin and had begun to set up a missionary in Zhejiang province when a crash landing by American air crew nearby would lead to a new career with the American military. So impressed was Colonel Claire Chennault upon hearing of Birch’s help in rescuing and giving safe passage to the air crew that he commissioned Birt as a fist lieutenant in the Fourteenth Air Force.

His knowledge of the Chinese language, its people and landscape made him an ideal candidate for intelligence work and he managed to build a considerable as well as loyal network of Chinese followers sympathetic to the American cause.

Despite his religious upbringing and beliefs Birch was a staunch conservative, anti-Japanese/Communist American. He had a quick temper  and suffered few fools. By the end of the Second World War and with the Japanese surrender confirmed, Birt had led a group of volunteers to search out Allied soldiers still held in prison camps. As they approached X’ian the group were stopped by Chinese communists and Birch was ordered to surrender his gun. In typical Birch style he steadfastly refused and became embroiled in a bitter row which saw him shot dead in front of his colleagues.

Conservative Americans have defined the killing as the first deadly act of the Cold War and the moment when the democratic forces of the West first took on the ‘evils’ of the Communist machine. Already a holder of military recognition honours from the war he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Medal.

It was a sad and cheap end to a short life devoted to taking risks for a strongly held belief which, ironically, could well sum up the Cold War in its entirety.

Categories: Reportage

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