There’s quite a number of folks willing to give Tony Clement advice on what to do with the Bethune Centre in Gravenhurst, the national park site honouring Dr. Norman Bethune: namely, shut it down and let it rot, because he was a “commie” and ally of the genocidal tyrant Mao Tse-Tung.
The virulence with which this line is being pushed, though, is making me wonder: can Bethune and his legacy be defended? As an intellectual exercise, I think it can. So let’s have a look at the lines the anti-Bethune side is advancing, starting with:
“Bethune was a Commie!”
Yes he was. And in Bethune’s time, Canadians would respond to such an accusation with, “So what?”
One of the biggest problems historians have is convincing the public to see the past without the filters of the present. We happen to live in a post-Cold War world, which saw Stalinist-style communism take over much of Europe after World War II, so we certainly know about its evils.
The thing is, though: Bethune isn’t a product of the Cold War, or even of World War II. You have to go back to Montreal, mid-1930s, to understand where he came from. We’re talking about the middle of the Depression, when the working poor couldn’t afford decent medical care, and there happen to be a lot of working poor. Bethune, being a doctor with a sense of responsibility, is naturally appalled at this, and starts treating poor patients for free. And, while establishing a reputation as a brilliant surgeon, he becomes an early advocate for what we now call publicly-funded health care.
The CCF (the forerunners of the NDP) has only just started out in the West, so the only political party of significance in those days, that supported public health care, happened to be the Communist Party. And so Bethune becomes a member — not because he wants to take over the world, but because he wants to offer hope to patients who won’t otherwise be able to afford health care.
“Bethune fought for the Commies in the Spanish Civil War!”
Yes, he did treat Communist soldiers. Who happened to be fighting Fascists and Nazis. But the detractors don’t seem to mention that, do they?
We tend not to think about the Spanish Civil War, because from our perspective there were no “good guys.” On one side, you had Communists and socialists; on the other, you had Fascists, both homegrown and imported from Italy, as well as support from Nazi Germany. It could be argued that Bethune’s war was, in effect, a sneak preview of World War II.
Which partially explains why Bethune, in 1937, decided to go to China. It wasn’t about the Communist revolution because that particular revolution had to be put on hold, by both sides. You see, there was the little island country called Japan that had to be dealt with first, and China needed unity for that.
“Bethune was an ally of a genocidal despot!”
Yep. Bethune dealt directly with Mao Tse-Tung, who helped established the Soviet Republic of China in Jiang-xi province, and who may have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 186,000 people during that entity’s existence –
What’s that? Millions? More than Stalin and HItler?
Ah, but you see, that hasn’t happened yet. The 1948 Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, that’s all in Mao’s future. Bethune isn’t going to know about this, because he’s going to die of an infection in 1939. The 186,000 figure is what Bethune might have been able to verify. (Not having had the advantage of satellite television, that figure’s a bit iffy for Bethune to confirm independently — and bear in mind, he’s sailing into the middle of a war zone. Having been a veteran of Ypres, he could callously shrug this off as a rumor amid the horrors of war.)
To condemn Bethune for his association with Mao misdirects the anger, because it assumes that Bethune had (a) prescience and (b) telepathy, to be able to predict Mao’s future atrocities. What Mao gave Bethune was cooperation, to establish training facilities for medical personnel and for setting up mobile surgeries. That cooperation was something he could not have counted on from the other leader of the Chinese leader, the National Chiang Kai-Shek, who had a reputation for being anti-Western.
We’re not talking about an apologist in the vein of someone like a Goebbels or a Baghdad Bob. We’re talking about a doctor who’s grateful for whatever cooperation he could get, to do his job — and who, after his death, had a work colleague who expressed a grand admiration for him during the rest of his life. It wasn’t Bethune who was an apologist for Mao; it was Mao, a despot, who was a champion for Bethune.
“Well, if you think Bethune’s such a great Canadian, why don’t you put up a monument to Ernest Zundel? He’s a famous Canadian too!”
That sort of argument is a non-sequitor, because it ignores Bethune’s accomplishments. Things like:
- An honourable record of service in World War I (including an injury at Ypres)
- Membership in the Executive Committee of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery
- Inventor of the Bethune rib shears, used to cut through the rib cage while opening the chest for surgery
- A pioneer in the use and development of mobile blood transfusion services
- A teacher of battlefield medicine
That is a solid record of accomplishment, and certainly a case that the Trudeau government of 1973 could not ignore, which is why they established the Bethune site as a gesture towards the Chinese. (Again, remember the context: the 1970s was when China was starting to open itself up to the West. If it was okay for Richard Nixon to deal with them, why shouldn’t Trudeau?)
If the critics really wanted to pick an equivalent figure from today to compare with Bethune, think about the efforts to commemorate Mordecai Richler, in Montreal. And I can predict that, when Dr. Henry Morgentaler eventually passes on, you will almost certainly see some movement for a federally-sponsored memorial to his work.
In a way, I suppose we should be grateful for this “condemnation” of the Bethune site from the Sun and others in the Conservative punditocracy. Because it leads to a closer examination of the historical record, which does tell an interesting tale of a Canadian with an extraordinary drive and work ethic. And encouraging the study of a Canadian’s history is always a virtue.