Bernard Loeffke, retired US Army major general, motivated by own experiences
While this year marks the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy, which was started by American and Chinese table tennis players and led to sports and cultural exchanges between the two nations, retired US Army Major General Bernard Loeffke remembers how it was before then.
During the Vietnam War, the 1957 graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point was wounded by Vietnamese forces, who were trained and equipped by Chinese.
His first indirect contact with China caused a physical wound, but his subsequent contacts with China changed his views of the country and led him on a path of promoting friendship and understanding between the two peoples.
In 1973, as director of the White House Fellows, Loeffke visited China for the first time. During that trip, he shook hands with Chinese General Xu Xin, who was wounded by US fire as the commander of Chinese volunteers in the Korean War. Two wounded generals shook hands.
“In the 1980s, my Chinese hosts who knew my background as a competitive swimmer went out of their way to honor that title. One time in the winter in one of the northern provinces, I was taken to an Olympic-size swimming pool. I was introduced to one of their national champions and asked if I wanted to do an exhibition race. I agreed. The Chinese athlete was in his teens and I in my 40s,” Loeffke said.
“We swam four lengths of the pool. The Chinese swimmer, seeing that I was hopelessly behind, faked bad turns that allowed me to catch up. We finished together and the foreigner exited the pool without losing face,” he said, fondly calling that experience his personal “swimming diplomacy”.
Since his service at the US embassy in China in the 1980s, Loeffke has become an active advocate for peace and friendship between American and Chinese people. He even took his son and daughter to China to teach Chinese children English and theater.
In 2012, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the White House Fellows, Loeffke published a book —
China, Our Enemy? A General’s Story
— in which he documented his experiences in China. In that year, he also set up a $10,000 annual Friendship Fund at West Point to send cadets to China for three weeks in the summer. Since then, scores of cadets have volunteered in China to teach preventive medicine to elementary school children.
With relations between the US and China having deteriorated in recent years, the program was ended. Now Loeffke is establishing an annual award program at Fudan University in Shanghai to continue to foster better understanding between the two peoples.
He wants to dedicate the award to someone who has done the most to help the community or a student who writes the best essay on improving relations with the US.
“But in 2020 we labeled China as enemy No 1. Today is not 1972 and I am hopeful that we will soon improve relations. We have dropped enemy and changed to competitor. We can do better. There are many ways we can cooperate. Climate change, pandemics, exploration of space are but a few,” Loeffke said.
To avoid that, “I want to do all I can to improve relations,” Loeffke said.