Theodore Harold White (May 6, 1915 – May 15, 1986) was an American political journalist and historian, known for his wartime reporting from China and accounts of the 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980 presidential elections.
Awarded a traveling fellowship for a round-the-world journey, he ended up in Chungking (Chongqing), China’s wartime capital, and later became a freelance reporter after briefly starting out with the only job he could find: as an advisor to China’s propaganda agency. When Henry R. Luce, the China-born founder and publisher of Time magazine, learned of White´s expertise, he hired him and then came to China the following year, where the two became friends. White became the China correspondent for Time during the war. White chafed at the restrictions put on his reporting by the censorship of the Nationalist government, but he also chafed at the rewriting of his stories by the editors at Time, one of whom was Whittaker Chambers.
Although he maintained respect for Henry Luce, White resigned and returned home to write, along with Annalee Jacoby, widow of fellow China reporter, Mel Jacoby, a book about China at war and in crisis, the best-selling Thunder Out of China. The book described the incompetence and corruption of the Nationalist government and sketched the power of the rising Communist Party. The authors called upon Americans to come to terms with this reality. The Introduction warned “In Asia there are a billion people who are tired of the world as it is; they live such terrible bondage that they have nothing to lose but their chains…. Less than a thousand years ago Europe lived this way; then Europe revolted… The people of Asia are going through the same process.”
During the war, White had gotten to know and respect General Joseph Stilwell, the American commander in Asia. He sympathized with Stilwell’s disgust with Chiang Kai-shek’s unwillingness or inability to wage all-out war on the Japanese invader. Stilwell died shortly after the war, and Stilwell’s widow called White to her home in Carmel, California and asked him to undertake the job of putting the General’s papers into publishable form. White succeeded in seeing The Stilwell Papers through to publication. White witnessed and reported on the famine that occurred in Henan in 1943.
White then served as European correspondent for the Overseas News Agency (1948–50) and for The Reporter (1950–53)
White returned to his wartime experience in the novel The Mountain Road (1958), which dealt with the retreat of a team of American troops in China in the face of a Japanese offensive provoked by bombings by the 14th Air Force. The novel was frank about the Americans’ conflicting, sometimes negative attitudes toward their Chinese allies. It was made into a 1960 movie, starring James Stewart and Lisa Lu, that has been characterized as anti-war.
The McCarthy period made it difficult for any reporter or official who had had any contact with communists, however innocent, to come out from the shadows of suspicion such contact aroused in the minds of people like McCarthy, and those who feared him, and persist in their chosen careers. White opted to turn from writing about China, though all of his education and training was oriented to that country. Instead he took up reporting on the Marshall Plan in Europe and then ultimately to the American presidency.