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Pacific News Minute: The Extraordinary Life of “Dragon Lady” Anna Chennault

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An extraordinary woman known as the “Dragon Lady” and the “Steel Butterfly” died in Washington DC at the end of March at the age of 94. As we hear from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute. Anna Chennault was different things, to different people.

To her fellow Chinese, she was Chen Xiangmei, the wife of war hero Claire Chenault, who lead the famous Flying Tigers against the Japanese during the Second World War. They met when, as a journalist, she traveled to Kunming to interview the famous general.

To Chiang Kai Shek, she was a friend, and, after the Chennaults relocated to Washington DC, a tireless lobbyist for the cause of Nationalist China.

To the Central Intelligence Agency, she was, almost certainly, an asset. Following her husband’s death in 1958, the CIA bought an airline he’d co-founded; it became notorious during the Vietnam War under the name Air America.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Anna Chennault became Vice President of a new air cargo company, “Flying Tigers.” She was also a glamorous hostess, an important fundraiser for the Republican Party and a power broker.

To President Lyndon Johnson, she was a traitor. Just before the election in 1968, an FBI wiretap recorded her telling the South Vietnamese to torpedo peace talks with the North. She acted on instructions from republican candidate Richard Nixon who was afraid the talks might tilt the election.

To be fair, it’s not clear whether President Johnson’s remark about treason referred to her or to Nixon.

To President Ronald Reagan, she was an informal emissary to Beijing; she later lead the first delegation of Taiwanese businessmen there and, in 2015, received a medal from President Xi Jinping.

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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