AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas
As Israelis cope this week with a historic bombardment of rocket attacks on their homeland and tensions with Palestinians reach the highest point in years, Israel will stoically manage to celebrate its 73rd birthday on May 14. While Israeli history is full of countless heroic personalities who helped found and defend the early Jewish state, perhaps none had a more unlikely life than Morris Abraham “Two-Gun” Cohen, a former youthful pickpocket and emigre from Poland who became the only non-Chinese general in the history of the Chinese Revolutionary Army. Without his providential intervention, the State of Israel might never have been born.
Cohen was taken from Poland to England by his parents in 1889 when he was two. As a youth, he was constantly in trouble with the law, and after getting out of reform school at 18, he was sent to western Canada to straighten out his life.
He initially worked as a farmer in Saskatchewan but soon began wandering through the western Canadian provinces gambling and again getting into trouble. By chance, Cohen became friendly with some local Chinese exiles after he defended a Chinese restaurant owner who was being robbed. Defense of the Chinese was unheard of in those days, and the immigrants befriended Cohen and brought him into the growing Sun Yat-Sen movement that opposed the Manchu dynasty, which then ruled China. Moving to Edmonton, Alberta, Cohen sold real estate. And on the side, he recruited Chinese immigrants to train them in drill and firearms on behalf of the Sun Yat-Sen organization in Canada.
During World War I, serving in the Canadian Army, Cohen saw combat in Europe before resettling in Canada. But the pre-war land boom there was now over, so Cohen went to China in 1922, where he soon managed to become part of Sun Yat Sen’s private entourage, serving as a bodyguard. After being wounded in an attack during this period, he took to carrying a second gun and became widely known as “Two-Gun Cohen.” After Sun died of cancer in 1925, Cohen went to work for various Chinese warlords and got to know Chang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader. He was given the rank of major general in the Chinese Army, the only foreigner ever to hold the title. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, “Two-Gun” Cohen joined in the fight against them, rounding up weapons, rescuing Sun’s relatives and friends, and even assisting British intelligence. Cohen remained behind in Hong Kong, and when that city fell in 1941, he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. In 1943, he was freed in a prisoner exchange.
He then returned to Canada, settled in Montreal, and got married. It was at this time that “Two-Gun” Cohen committed his most historic and pivotal act. The newly-created United Nations was meeting in San Francisco in 1947 and debating the creation of the state of Israel. The matter was scheduled to come to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, deciding whether an independent Jewish state would be sanctioned. Since China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, it had veto power over any U.N. action. “Two-Gun” Cohen learned that China was intending to veto the creation of the State of Israel, and he then did something remarkable. Cohen flew to California, and based on his lifetime of accumulated credibility and cache with the Chinese, he successfully persuaded the head of China’s delegation to change his vote, thus, in effect, making Israel’s founding possible.
Cohen later moved back to Manchester, England, and went into the raincoat business. He also served as a consultant for British companies wanting to do business with the Chinese governments in Beijing and Taiwan.
Because of his historic service to Sun Yat-Sen, Cohen was one of the few people who influenced and could move easily between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. On his last visit to China, he was honored by Premier Chou En Lai, and both Chinas sent representatives to his funeral in 1970.
Perhaps only the extraordinary and extremely violent events of the 20th century could have produced such characters as “Two-Gun” Cohen. As Israelis celebrate the anniversary of their founding this week, they should spare a thought for the man without whom their country might never have been.