Vern Sneider was a 1950’s writer whose hands-on experience in post-WWII reconstruction helped form the storylines for his novels. The U.S. Army had sent Sneider to Princeton University to study Taiwanese society in preparation for a post-invasion U.S. military administration of the island – which was later aborted. Instead, Sneider was assigned to Japan and Korea. His experience as a commander of a Japanese village formed the basis for his well-known first novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, set in Okinawa. That book was later made into a Pulitzer-prize award-winning play and a hit Hollywood movie starring Marlin Brando.
On the heels of this success, and after spending time in Taiwan, Sneider wrote A Pail of Oysters (1953), a novel critical of Taiwanese military rule. Though brilliantly insightful, his second book was not destined to meet with the same success as his first. While it was no surprise that the governing Kuomintang (KMT) banned it in Taiwan, not as foreseeable was that copies were reportedly stolen from libraries and bookstores across the United States, perhaps by Taiwanese sympathetic to the KMT government. And given the book’s indictment of an anti-communist U.S. ally during the McCarthy era, the China lobby and U.S. military persuaded Congress that the book presented a negative and biased view of the U.S. government’s activities in Taiwan. John Caldwell, a former director of the U.S. Information Service, in testimony to Congress, described it as a “thoroughly dishonest book.” And, despite positive reviews, Hollywood producers were not enthusiastic about adapting A Pail of Oysters’ sad tale into a movie. What might have been a post-WWII classic was quickly buried.
The book was only republished in January 2016, on the 69th anniversary of the 1947 2-28 incident (a massacre of thousands of civilians by the KMT), and just one month after president-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen. As the book states in its introduction, “the conflict over Taiwan’s future – whether or not its leaders should bind the island more and more to the fortunes of China – is closely connected with the debates about Taiwan’s past. Americans, many of whom know little about Taiwan, might be asking again what, if any, role the United States should play.”