The twin subjects of China and Japan dominated the 39 years that John Roderick spent as an AP correspondent. When Americans were barred from the People’s Republic, he was based in Tokyo, becoming acknowledged as the No. 1 China watcher for the Associated Press. He had begun building his firsthand knowledge in 1944 when he went to Nationalist-held west China. In the early postwar years, he hoped to spend his career in China.
Roderick’s life has elements of a gripping adventure story. He was 13 and caddying part time at a Maine golf course when he first encountered China. He said: “One of the players had just returned from a visit to Shanghai. He showed me photographs of young Chinese being beheaded. They were executed by the Nationalist forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in the Shanghai massacre of 1927. 18 years later, I met the most famous of the survivors of that massacre, Zhou Enlai, who became foreign minister and premier of the People’s Republic.”
The last of five boys in his family, Roderick was orphaned at 16. He became a reporter of high-school news for his local newspaper, and graduated from Colby College. An AP editor since 1937, he has never worked for another news organization.
He transferred to Washington in 1942, and joined the army. In the following year he entered Yale University to learn Japanese, and was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services. With OSS he went to West China, and after the end of the war rejoined AP in Chungking. A month later, he flew to Yan’an, the besieged capital of the Chinese communists.
“Next to the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall of China, Yan’an was like no other city I had ever seen,” Roderick said. “The Japanese had destroyed the walled city in 1938, and the communists found shelter in 10,000 caves dug into the soft loess mountains. I lived for seven months in a primitive cave of the American Dixie Mission, a handful of American military men stationed there to assess communist wartime military strength and to rescue downed American pilots.” He had two long stays in Yan’an, where he was the only foreign correspondent in residence. He met and interviewed Mao Zedong and other survivors of the epic Long March.
Later in Manchuria, Roderick spent two weeks with Lin Piao, “the youthful military genius who later plotted to kill Mao and seize control of China.” After a year in China, and intending to return to his China life, Roderick was transferred to Palestine.
“That was two weeks after the creation of Israel,” Roderick said. “I reported the Arab attempt to stifle Israel in its infancy, and the still unresolved Arab refugee problem. Two days after I met Count Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator was dead at the hands of Israeli assassins.”
He moved to London, Paris, and French Indochina, where he reported “the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the last hours of French empire there and the rise of Ngo Dinh Diem.” He was appreciated for what Frank Gibney described as his “straight, honest reporting,” gentle authority and evaluation of people, which eventually resulted in his being named one of six AP special correspondents. From Hong Kong, Roderick was assigned to Tokyo.
Because of “increasing pollution and a new sense of mercantilism spurring a reindustrialized Japan,” he might not have stayed. But he met the Takishita family and rural Japan. He adopted Yoshihiro, who found for him in the Gifu mountains a 1734 “minka” farmhouse that he transported to Kamakura. In that most beautiful, characterful house on a high ridge in the hills, Roderick lives closely with Yoshihiro and his daughter-in-law Reiko, “a surrogate family for the one I lost.”
In 1971 Roderick accompanied the American ping pong team on its historic visit to Beijing. In the Great Hall of the People, Premier Zhou said to him, “Mr. Roderick, you opened the door.” In 1979, 30 years after it was closed, Roderick reopened the AP office in Beijing.
Roderick is a past president of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo. The Emperor has honored him with the Order of the Sacred Treasure. At the height of the China crisis, the secretary of the Pulitzer Prize committee described Roderick as the correspondent who most influenced American opinion on China. Now 87, he lives during Japan’s cold weather in Honolulu, and travels for part of each year. Last year he lectured on China at Oxford and Cambridge universities in Britain, and to the Far Eastern Institute in Moscow.