Murray Polner: Review of John Paton Davies, Jr.’s “China Hand: An Autobiography” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)


Murray Polner, a regular book reviewer for the History News Network, co-edited with Thomas Woods Jr. We Who Dared To Say No To War.

If nothing else, this impressive autobiography by a reflective and long forgotten U.S. Foreign Service officer reminds us how the powerful China Lobby, a combination of demagogic politicians, private interests, wealthy businessmen and media giants, backed Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang against a then-popular, pre-authoritarian Communist Party of China. It set off a furious, if one-sided battle that ended in the U.S. firing its China specialists for daring to predict that the Communists would win the civil war against Chiang unless serious reforms were instituted.

One of the many victims of that purge was John Paton Davies, Jr., the author of China Hand. Davies’s crime was that he had repeatedly warned the State Department that Chiang’s corrupt and ineffectual Kuomintang, the recipient of massive U.S. military aid, was sure to lose the Chinese civil war. Born in Szechuan to American Baptist missionary parents, he was fired in 1954 by that consummate cold warrior Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who then offered to help him get another job!

After the Communist victory in 1949 and Chiang’s escape to Taiwan, the false and deliberately manipulative cry of “Who lost China?” became the common refrain of Republicans and assorted right-wingers desperate for a return to power. But the United States never “lost” China, as if that ancient country was America’s to lose, and it could not have been “won” short of a massive American invasion. The allegation then and now in certain right-wing circles is that, since 1945, the failure to win the Korean and Vietnam Wars was because home front appeasers, subversives, and traitors denied Chiang his victory, an updated “stab-in-the back” theory first enunciated by Erich Ludendorff after World War I, who argued that German antiwar dissenters had lost the war, not he.

Dashing any hope that things might be different once Germany and Japan surrendered, the U.S. suddenly found itself drowning in a climate of fear in which millions of Americans held an induced, pathological dread of communism. Former Reds confessed their sins—some true, some fictional—to the FBI, Congress and the media. Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall were accused of being communist dupes. Communist and left-liberal critics were punished and silenced. That some were in fact Soviet spies certainly helped fan the fires—while ignoring that the U.S. in the early fifties was also engaged in spying and overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. The new Torquemadas, said Davies, assailed “those whom they regarded as agents or dupes of an omniscient, pervasive Soviet conspiracy”

Davies’s fellow “China hands” John Carter Vincent, O. Edmund Clubb, John Stewart Service, John K. Fairbank and Owen Lattimore were hounded and persecuted for supposedly favoring our new “enemy.” Lattimore was condemned by Joe McCarthy and his sycophants as Moscow’s chief American-based spy. Raised in China, where his father taught French, German and Spanish, he once served as Chiang’s personal advisor. After McCarthy’s allegation he was indicted for perjury for denying that he was “a follower of the Communist line,” a charge later dismissed by a federal court.

John Stewart Service, another China-born son of missionaries, was a prime target because he foolishly gave the left-wing editor of Amerasia magazine copies of classified notes he had written urging the U.S. to take an alternative course in China. For this he was arrested, tried, and acquitted by a grand jury and cleared three times by security boards and State Department investigations. Even so, McCarthy and his followers saw to it that he was pilloried in the press, and he was finally fired (though he was later rehired).  

David Oshinsky’s A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy concluded:To say that Service used poor judgment would be understating the case. But his objective was not espionage; it was rather to publicize an alternative opposition on China through a news leak.” (For another view, see Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh’s The Amerasia Spy Case).

In addition to his unpopular prediction about the Chinese civil war, Davies, who had nothing to do with Amerasia, would also be fired. By then the China Lobby and McCarthy, its favorite senator, were tasting blood.  Word spread that as a foreign service officer in China, Manchuria and Moscow, Davies had met lots of suspicious people. One was the Nebraska-born Anna Louise Strong, probably a Soviet agent, who defended Stalin’s blood trials of the thirties and also admired Mao’s pursuit of power. There was also Agnes Smedley, a Missouri-born pro-communist and Mao devotee. Smedley, incidentally, was a friend of Richard Sorge, the German-born Nazi diplomat and Soviet spy stationed in Tokyo. It was Sorge who correctly named the date the Nazis were planning to invade the Soviet Union, which he passed on to Moscow and which Stalin famously and idiotically rejected as false.

China Hand, however, mainly concentrates on Davies’s role as a diplomat, and what times they were. Working closely with General Joseph Stilwell, Chiang’s main American military advisor, he met FDR, Churchill, Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten, “Chesty” Puller, George Kennan (who respected and mentored Davies and placed him on his State Department Policy Planning Staff), Mao Zedong, Chiang himself, and the powerful Soong family (he married one Soong sister and another sister was the wife of Sun Yat-sen).

He describes his years with Stilwell, whom he obviously admired. Stilwell, who commanded the China, Burma, India campaigns, detested Chiang and called him “peanut,” while Chiang in turn loathed Stilwell. Davies also took conservative positions, such as flirting with ideas about a preventive war with the Soviet Union and taking “vigorous measures” against communism in Southeast Asia.

At the 1943 Cairo conference with FDR, Churchill and Chiang, he wrote that no one in the U.S. delegation knew much about China or could speak even Chinese. FDR offered Chiang lots of postwar real estate to get him to stay in the war and, wrote Davies, "to sweeten” his bias against “foreign devils.” FDR also sent his leftish vice president Henry Wallace to China to try reconciling Mao and Chiang. “Wallace was … uncomprehending of the Chinese scene,” and was persuaded by three Chiang supporters to recommend Stilwell be fired. (And, in a somewhat irrelevant aside, Davies notes that William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the OSS—“He was a bit of a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt, effervescent and adventurous”—told him J. Edgar Hoover was gay, though Tim Wiener absolutely disagrees in his new book, Enemies: A History of the FBI.)

While hardly a fan of Winston Churchill, Davies considered the British prime minister smarter than U.S. politicians because he kept Britain aloof from what he said was an “American obsession” with Chiang, to which Davies added, “in striking contrast to the distraught, self-destructive behavior not only of the American government, conspicuously within the Congress, but also of segments of the America public, particularly within the information media.”

The China lobby, like contemporary powerful pressure groups such as the Israel lobby, neoconservatives, the Cuban exile lobby, and weapons manufacturers, scare policymakers and politicians and help stereotype and shut up critics while preventing the emergence of possible alternatives. The China lobby’s largely unchallenged assertions that America faced an unyielding, menacing monolithic communism paralyzed all efforts to change course and eventually helped persuade Washington to plunge into two failed wars in Korea and Vietnam.

China Handis a forceful reminder that what happened in the bad old days of the forties and fifties could very well reoccur when another “enemy” is created. Plus ça change.

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