One of the most colorful, albeit largely unknown, characters in contemporary Jewish history is Morris (Moishe) Abraham “Two-Gun” Cohen (1887-1970), a.k.a. “the uncrowned Jewish king of China.” Cohen was a Jewish adventurer who, as aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen and the only Jewish major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army, played an influential role in both the founding of modern China and the birth of Israel.
Part of the problem with telling his story is that he played a significant role in “enhancing,” sensationalizing, and fabricating his biography, particularly through his collaboration with Charles Drage in that author’s The Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen (1954). Nonetheless, it is beyond dispute that he made critical contributions to the birth of modern China and the new Jewish state.
Shown here is the only Cohen autograph that I have ever seen, an inscription he ironically wrote on the inside title page of Drage’s unreliable book and which he signed in both English and Chinese (his Chinese name was “Ma Kun,” the closest Mandarin pronunciation of “Morris Cohen”):
To Allen my very good friend whom I am very fond of.
With my very best wishes
According to Drage’s biography, Cohen was born in London in 1889 to a family that had just arrived from Poland. However, most analysts agree that he was actually born in a shtetl in 1887 to a poor Jewish family in Radzanów, Poland, shortly before his family fled Eastern European pogroms and emigrated to London.
His parents were Orthodox Jews fiercely dedicated to Talmudic scholarship and religious practice, but he rejected both the traditions of his family and the lessons taught to him at the Jews’ Free School, turning instead to Victorian London street crime and to the boxing ring (though not observant, he refused to fight on Shabbat), where he fought as a minor under the names “Fat Moishe” and “Cockney Cohen.”
After his arrest for pickpocketing – he had been taught the “trade” by a character known as “Harry the Gonof” – he wound up in a reformatory “for wayward Jewish lads” established by Lord Rothschild where, over the course of a five-year stay, he learned the military discipline and tactics that would later play an important part in his life.
Upon his parole at age 18 in 1905, he had become such an embarrassment to his family and to the Jewish community that they shipped him off to Western Canada, hoping that he would reform his errant ways but, after a year on a farm – where he learned to handle both horses and firearms – he returned to pickpocketing and took off through the western Canadian provinces, earning a living as a gambler, carnival barker, and lawbreaker.
It was during these travels that he befriended poor Chinese immigrants working on the Canadian Pacific Railways. Having himself been the victim of discrimination for his Judaism during his misspent London youth, he was highly sympathetic to their plight and, when he defended a Chinese restaurant owner during a robbery – a notable act because white men rarely interceded on behalf of the Chinese – word of his gallant act spread and he earned the admiration and gratitude of the broader Chinese community.
He soon came to the attention of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary leader regarded as the “George Washington of China” and the founder of the first Republic of China, who was then in Canada marshaling support from the Chinese community there.
Though it was only years later, in 1922, that he met Cohen and came under his influence, Sun Yat-sen was at that time already a strong supporter of Zionism. His movement sent an official statement of support for the Balfour Declaration to the Shanghai Zionist Federation in 1918 and, in an April 24, 1920 correspondence to the editor of Israel’s Messenger, he wrote, “All lovers of democracy cannot help but support…the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserve [sic] an honorable place in the family of nations.”
While becoming a wealthy real estate speculator during a land boom in Western Canada, Cohen also represented a broad spectrum of Chinese interests in Canada at virtually all levels of government, recruiting Chinese, training them in musketry and military tactics, and providing important financing and contacts for arms purchases in support of the Chinese cause.
After supervising Chinese laborers and seeing significant military action fighting with the Canadian Railway Troops in Europe during WWI, he returned to Canada but, finding that the post-war real estate market had crashed, he left for China to help Sun Yat-sen close a railway deal. A strong bond of mutual trust and friendship developed between them. In 1922, Sun hired Cohen to serve as commander of his bodyguard detail and – although the Western-educated Sun, his wife, and many of their associates were fluent in English – as his English language secretary.
Cohen commenced training Sun’s small armed forces in boxing and shooting; established China’s first Military Academy; and, as aide-de-camp and an acting colonel in Sun’s army, he became one of Sun’s chief protectors, shadowing him to conferences and through war zones. Cohen earned his famous moniker when, after a battle in which he was struck by a bullet, he began carrying a second gun, and the Chinese, fascinated by their leader’s gun-toting guardian, began affectionately calling him “Two-Gun Cohen.”
When Sun died in 1925, Cohen was the only foreigner permitted to attend his funeral. Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, continued a warm relationship with Cohen, put him in command of the Chinese 19th field army, and elevated him to the rank of general, making him not only the first Jew but, indeed, the first European to hold such rank in the Chinese military.
Serving as purchasing agent for Chinese armaments (and earning a nice commission on each sale), as China’s Chief of Intelligence, and essentially as its War Minister, Cohen led military campaigns against the Communist rebels and, when the Japanese invaded China in 1937, against them as well. His greatest contribution in that regard, however, may have been proving that the Japanese were committing genocide (though that term had yet to be coined) against the Chinese masses in Manchuria by using poison gas to exterminate them.
In the civil war between the Communist People’s Republic and the Republic of China, Cohen was the only person who was trusted by both opposing leaders, and Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek used him as a middle man traveling between Beijing and Taipei. He was in Hong Kong when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and, after the Japanese took Hong Kong later that month, they imprisoned and tortured him until he was later repatriated to Canada as part of a rare prisoner exchange in 1943.
He resettled in Canada, making regular visits back to China hoping to reestablish business ties, and after the Communist takeover in 1949, he became one of the few people trusted by the authorities on both sides to move between Taiwan and mainland China.
But “Two-Gun” Cohen’s greatest contributions were yet to come.
Even before the Palestine partition issue came before the UN, Cohen was using his influence to promote the Zionist cause. When he obtained British plans at a British naval base in Singapore, he offered them to the Irgun with the idea of seizing two Italian miniature submarines and using them to blow up British warships. That plan was never carried out.
When he learned about 200 British bombers sitting unused in Canada, he went to the Canadian Ministry of Defense to try to get the planes for Israel, but this plan failed too because, though he had successfully convinced Canada to sell them, Israel lacked both the funds to purchase them and the infrastructure to make appropriate use of them.
When the UN commenced discussion on the partition of Palestine, the initial vote, to be taken by the five-member Security Council, was whether to bring the partition question up for a vote in the General Assembly, with even a single negative vote essentially constituting a veto. With the United States, France, and the Soviet Union on record with strong “yea” votes and Great Britain indicating that it would abstain, tremendous pressure was brought upon the Republic of China, particularly by the Arab world, to veto the proposal.
When all efforts by Zionist leaders to meet with General Wu Tiecheng, the head of the Chinese delegation, failed, they brought Cohen to San Francisco to urge him to use his connections to influence Wu. In a wonderful turn of fate and fortune, it turns out that Cohen had not only been an advisor to Wu when the latter had served as the Canton police chief, but he had also later appointed Wu as general.
In a meeting the very next morning, Cohen presented Wu with a 1920 letter from Sun Yat-sen expressing his strong support for the Zionist cause and convinced his old friend to abstain on the Palestine partition vote – and the rest, as they say in the vernacular, is history.
But that was not to be Cohen’s final contribution to the Jewish state. Throughout Israel’s early years, Arab terrorists had been dropping plastic button mines made in China across the Israeli border, particularly near Jewish schools, and many children were picking them up and sustaining catastrophic injuries. Ben Gurion asked Cohen to use his influence with Chinese officials to resolve the problem, after which Cohen met with Chou en Lai in Geneva, and the sale of these mines to the Arabs stopped soon after.
Finally, Cohen’s funeral in 1970 was attended by representatives from both Communist and Nationalist China who, though still in a state of war, were united in their admiration and respect for a man who remained a loyal friend of the Chinese throughout his life. It was not at all unusual for his tombstone to include the usual references to the deceased being a kohen, but what was truly remarkable was a Chinese inscription etched by Madame Sun Yat-sen acknowledging Cohen as an authentic Chinese hero.