A Shameful Tale

Dragon by the Tail: American, British, Japanese, and Russian Encounters with China and One Another

by John Paton Davies Jr.
Norton, 448 pp., $10.00

On the contents page of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs1 the new shape of American diplomacy is writ large and in italics. In this prestigious house organ of the international affairs establishment—and by coincidence it happens to be its fiftieth anniversary issue—the subject of China comes close to the top of the list, preceded only by the journal’s editor and by Sir Isaiah Berlin. America-watchers in Peking will doubtless note with interest that the names of John K. Fairbank and Barbara Tuchman take precedence on this page over those of Indira Gandhi and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

The Chinese must appreciate the irony of the “reversal of verdicts” (as they might themselves describe it) in the American view of them. What is happening in the pages of learned journals is only the academic counterpart to the political somersault performed by Mr. Nixon earlier this year. It is equally sensational and equally overdue, even if it raises the same question whether a better understanding of China has really been gained in the process.

In his contribution to Foreign Affairs, Professor Fairbank urbanely surveys the new Sino-American relationship, approves of the new China, and calls for a better understanding of the reasons for the old “age of bitter confrontation in the 1950s.” Mrs. Tuchman goes back further still to the 1940s, in an essay which implies a reversal of verdicts in its very title: “If Mao Had Come to Washington: An Essay in Alternatives.” This is one of those iffy questions which are readymade for wry reflection on what Mrs. Tuchman likes to call the “harsh ironies of history.” The title had its source simply in the fact that in January, 1945, Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, who for the previous six months had been in close contact—in their revolutionary capital of Yenan—with the “Dixie Mission” of American Foreign Service officers and military observers, offered to travel to Washington to talk with President Roosevelt. Twenty-seven years, two wars, and a million lives later, an American president has reversed the unmade journey of 1945. Might not the interim, asks Mrs. Tuchman, have been otherwise?

Perhaps it might, but the question could and should have been raised with a far greater political urgency in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was tinkering (according to his more sympathetic biographers) with the thought that something should be done about China, than in 1972, after Richard M. Nixon has finally done it. A proper understanding of the essential flexibility in the attitude of the Chinese communists, and in particular in that of Mao himself, toward the United States would have been more useful still in 1952, when American policy was wholly predicated on the assumption of monolithic unity between China and the Soviet Union.

It is of course gratifying for historians today to be presented with so much information, in the shape of documents, monographs, and reminiscences, on the “Dixie Mission” of the Allied Observers Group to Yenan and its remarkably frank discussions with Mao and his colleagues about the shape of postwar China and its relations with the Great Powers. It would have been much more gratifying if these had been made available earlier. By 1961 the volume for the year 1944 of the special China series in the official Foreign Relations of the United States was ready for publication, but efforts by the State Department’s Historical Office to release it were frustrated. Their colleagues in the Bureau for Far Eastern Affairs joined with the Chinese Nationalists in resisting publication on the grounds that this and subsequent volumes in the series would do irreparable harm to the Taipei Government. The 1944 volume finally appeared in 1967, those for 1945 and 1946 not until 1969 and 1972 respectively.2

What these documents reveal is an attitude on the part of the Chinese communists that was at least open-minded toward the future role of the United States in Asia. They were well aware of the past and potential contradictions between the policies of the US and of the colonial powers in Asia, and the opportunities which these offered for Asians. They also believed that America’s participation in the world war against fascism had strengthened the influence of the “progressive democratic factions” in the US. Mao himself regarded the war as an agent for liberating immense human resources. “War has educated the people,” he told the Seventh Party Congress in April, 1945. “They will win the war, the peace and progress.”3

As the defeat of Japan drew near, Mao and his colleagues waited to see which way the American ball would bounce in China. Of one fact they were certain, that the US would largely determine the rules of the game. As Mao told John S. Service soon after his arrival with the Dixie Mission in Yenan, “America has intervened in every country where her troops and supplies have gone. This intervention may not have been intended, and may not have been direct. But it is nonetheless real—merely by the presence of that American influence.” Logically Mao went on to inquire on whose side American intervention might be expected. “We only ask now that American policy try to induce the Kuomintang to reform itself. This would be a first stage…. But suppose the KMT does not reform. Then there must be a second stage of American policy. Then this question of American policy toward the Communists must be raised. We can risk no conflict with the United States.”4

Meanwhile it was clearly in the best interests of the Chinese communists to establish a close working relationship with those Americans already in China. In July, 1944, Commander-in-Chief Chu The had offered his forces’ co-operation in the event of an Allied landing on the North China coast, and he seemed prepared to accept an Allied Supreme Commander in China if the US did intervene on the ground.5 Mao told Service in an interview almost a year later (though the prospects of an American landing had by then become very slim) that, “If Americans land in or enter Communist territory, they will find an army and people thoroughly organized and eager to fight the enemy.” 6

To many Americans in China, including General Stilwell and (for a brief time) his successor General Wedemeyer, cooperation with the Chinese communists also seemed in the best interests of the United States. In his recent monograph on the Dixie Mission Barrett describes how in December, 1944, he discussed the possibility of communist military support if a US paratroop division was to establish a beachhead on the shores of Shantung.7 Independently of Barrett, Colonel Willis Bird of the Office of Strategic Services entered into negotiations with Yenan for the placement by airborne landing of special American units alongside communist guerrillas in North China, and the supply of arms and ammunition, in return for the “complete cooperation” of the communist forces (the plan was sufficiently detailed to provide for the supply of “at least 100,000 Woolworth one shot pistols” for the People’s Militia).8

These and other proposals were soon repudiated by General Hurley, by now ambassador in Chungking, in a fit of Oklahoman abuse and recrimination which would be farcical if it had not blighted the careers of many of the Americans associated with Yenan and wrecked any chance for an independent relationship with the communists. But before this happened Mao and Chou had made their now famous offer to visit Washington for secret talks with Roosevelt, which raised the ambassador’s blood pressure still further. In his new book John Paton Davies, who as Stilwell’s political adviser had originally floated the idea of the Dixie Mission, describes how he took his farewell of Hurley on the very day (January 9, 1945) that the Mao-Chou proposal was transmitted from Yenan. After Davies had incautiously wished Hurley luck in his negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek and Mao, “[Hurley] became quite florid and puffy, shouting that he would break my back and other pleasantries. ‘You want to pull the plug on Chiang Kai-shek,’ he repeatedly bellowed.”9

Hurley himself had thought differently when he met John Service a few months earlier in Chungking. “God damn it, Service,” he whooped, “I’m going to see that the communists get arms!”10 But since then the agreement for a political settlement between the Nationalists and the communists, to which Hurley incautiously set his name in Yenan, had been rejected by Chiang, thus leading the ambassador to the obscure conclusion that he had been “tricked” by Mao. In his recent monograph The Amerasia Papers, Service describes how yet another attempt was made by a group of Foreign Service officers in Chungking, who sent a telegram to persuade Roosevelt of the need to “supply and cooperate with the communists and other suitable groups who can assist the war against Japan.”

This action was not recommended solely or even primarily on its military merits, but with an acute eye to the political future of postwar China and the likelihood that US aloofness would drive the communists to seek Soviet assistance.

Although our intentions have been good and our actions in refusing to deal with or assist any group but the Central Government have been diplomatically correct…chaos in China will be inevitable and the probable outbreak of disastrous civil conflict will be accelerated.

Such a situation would be “dangerous to American interests from a long-range point of view.”11

But Hurley was soon in Washington and he had the President’s ear. All the Foreign Service officers who signed this telegram were shortly afterward transferred away from the China theater. The Chinese communists were themselves well aware of the contradictions in American policy-making. “There are many US diplomatic and military officials who have come to China,” they later commented, “who are extremely honest, and their unbiased reports have made a valuable contribution to friendly US-Chinese relations. But unfortunately there have also been cases of the opposite situation….”12

It was more than unfortunate. From this time American policy was tied to the maintenance of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in power and ultimately to the extension of military and economic aid to him to the tune of three billion dollars during the civil war. It is hard to quarrel with Service’s conclusion that things might have been very different if the US had followed instead “an independent, uncommitted…policy in China.” If it had, “we might have found co-existence with a stoutly independent, nationalistic Mao Tse-tung not wholly impossible—and the world as a result considerably less complicated.”13

The full story of these abortive contacts between the US and the Chinese communists has, as has already been indicated, only emerged years after it might have had a significant impact upon American cold war attitudes toward China. And this, as they say, “is no accident.” In the lengthy White Paper put out by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in August, 1949, to justify “the loss of China,” all mention of the Yenan negotiations was excised, and the optimistic conclusions of Service, Davies, and their colleagues were left apparently unsubstantiated by any evidence that the communists would have responded to a Washington uncommitted to Chiang.14 Even when the 1945 documents were finally published twenty-four years later, harsh comments about Chiang were cut from the text, as Service observes,15 and the scholar must still assemble the full story from a patchwork of sources including some very hostile ones.16

The combination of McCarthy’s witch hunt and the State Department’s feeble-mindedness which forced Service, Davies, and the others into one form of exile or another is well known. But it is worth noting that, apart from the personal injustices, their treatment also ensured that they were unlikely to want to tell the full story or to get a hearing for it. Even today, as the monographs issue forth from the Center for Chinese Studies in Berkeley and the handsomely. produced and priced hardbacks from New York, their authors sometimes feel the urge to justify as well as explain. Colonel Barrett, writing the preface to his monograph in 1969, begs his readers “to try to believe me when I say I have never had but one loyalty, the United States of America.” And Davies apologizes for having “mistakenly” described the character of the communist government in Yenan as “democratic”—he should have said “popular.”17

Yet did we really have to wait so long for the CIA to release its film clips of the Dixie Mission in Yenan, for the talented Foreign Service officers to be recast as heroes instead of villains by the very publications that acquiesced in the witch hunt against them twenty years ago, for the Department of State publications to tell (nearly) all, for Mrs. Tuchman and Foreign Affairs to award their own seals of approval? If scholars had been asking the right questions at the right time, the story could have been unraveled years before. They had for example only to consult the third volume of the official War Department history of Stilwell’s China-Burma-India theater, published in 1959, to find a perfectly adequate summary of the Barrett-Bird military proposals to Yenan.18

Communist encouragement for American cooperation could be documented from interviews given at the time to Western journalists such as Gunther Stein and Israel Epstein, and some of Service’s reports to the same effect were excerpted in the 1951-1952 Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Hearings on the Institute of Pacific Relations. Even the Mao-Chou offer to visit Washington was referred to in a dispatch from Hurley, which the Department of State reprinted in its volume of documents on the Yalta Conference fourteen years before a fuller account was given in its “China 1945” volume.19

A similar scholarly time lag has occurred with our understanding of another critical episode in US-China relations four years later on the eve of the communist victory in 1949. In his recent book Seymour Topping relates for the first time how in May, 1949, the Chinese diplomat Huang Hua approached the US ambassador, Leighton Stuart, then in Nanking, with an invitation that Stuart should visit Peking to discuss future relations with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. The response of the State Department was both negative and delayed. Topping bases his account mainly on Leighton Stuart’s unpublished diary, but it is clear from his narrative that he himself, as a journalist in China in close contact with Stuart, was aware at the time of Mao’s invitation.20

In any case a clear hint of this episode was recorded by Stuart in his published memoirs (which appeared in 1954), where he described how Huang Hua paid him an informal visit in which the Chinese official had broached the subject of recognition.21 It was in the same month that the State Department first tried to persuade its Western allies of “the disadvantages of initiating any moves toward recognition” of the new communist government of China. Once again the standard cold war myth of how the “implacable hostility” of the Chinese communists deterred the United States from any attempt to establish a modus vivendi in the late 1940s is totally controverted by the true though long-obscured historical record.

It may seem unfair to John Paton Davies to dwell at such length upon an episode that forms only one part of his personal and wide-ranging survey of the Western powers’ collision in China and “the fusion of a new order” that was triggered. But the Dixie Mission does dominate the last quarter of his book; it is the key to his final conclusions and the peg on which the publishers hang their blurb. Like Service he believes that America should have stayed neutral between the two Chinas of Mao and Chiang, allowing the Chinese communists to “retain their independence and develop…as a natural counterweight to Soviet power in East Asia.” But he also believes that this realpolitik alternative was simply unworkable in view of American psychology—“it would have let down Chiang, supported atheistic communism, and, at best, been speedily identified as amoral and European.”

I would go further and say that for Washington to abandon Chiang was, ultimately, unworkable in view of America’s commitment to a new world order safe for its own economic hegemony. However Davies does not share any part of this revisionist approach to the origins of the cold war. His view of America’s motives for entanglement in East Asia is more indulgently rooted in a historical perspective that emphasizes the quirks of personality and the accidents of circumstance. The US suffered, as he describes it, from “a long-standing infatuation with China and the Stars and Stripes flying over the Philippine folly.”

The essential irony of Davies’s fate is that nothing in his ideology should have disqualified him from exemplary service in the State Department as a liberal-minded officer of the kind whom one now meets at almost every diplomatic cocktail party. Indeed David Halberstam suggests quite fairly that Davies would have been the ideal successor in 1964 to Roger Hilsman as Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs—Hilsman himself having come unstuck for trying to play the China game with more liberal rules.22

Davies, born in China the son of Baptist missionary parents, had entered the Foreign Service in 1931. He was trained as a linguist and served in Peking, Mukden, and Hankow before the war, witnessing the steady erosion of Chinese resistance to Japan with a lively sympathy which is reflected in the first half of his book. After a spell at the China desk in Washington, he was detailed to join the China-Burma-India headquarters as political adviser to Stilwell, and he commuted between these three areas of operations until he was transferred to Moscow early in 1945.

In his account of these years, the grand design of international politics and the petty world of bureaucratic intrigue are neatly intertwined in Davies’s very personal, almost quirky, but always readable style. Davies meets the OSS apparatus in Washington—“a pungent collection of thugs, post-debutantes, millionaires, professors, corporation lawyers, professional military, and misfits, all operating under high tension and in whispers.” Davies first raises the possibility of a mission to Yenan to Stilwell in his bath—the General was lukewarm at first but later came around. Davies witnesses the incredible Hurley’s arrival in Yenan—Mao and the assorted Marxists were dumb-founded as “he suddenly stiffened and gave forth a Choctaw war whoop” which echoed around the canyon. And we have the fullest description yet (there is a shorter account by Service in one of his 1944 dispatches) of a Yenan dance at which the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party waddled round the floor in their padded garments to the tune of “Marching through Georgia.” Lin Piao, apparently, “had an eye for beauty.”

Embedded in this amiable narrative are some more serious judgments on the whole China fiasco, notably on Roosevelt’s dismissal of Stilwell. It was wrong for Stilwell’s partisans (including Davies at the time) to see Roosevelt as the culprit. Rather the episode was an inevitable result of two illusions, first the American romantic image of China in which Chiang had to be portrayed as a stout little ally tugging at the leash; and second “an assumption that the United States could pretty much work its will on China.” This assumption was shared, Davies implies, by Stilwell as much as by anyone else.

Davies himself had an orthodox enough view of the need to exercise American power in the interests of American postwar objectives in Asia. In February, 1944, he wrote a memorandum arguing that these objectives were “(1) the greatest possible stability after the war, and (2) an alignment of power favorable to us when we again become involved in an Asiatic or Pacific war.” This analysis was incorporated in a State Department assessment which concluded that “responsibility for future security and order in the Pacific will fall primarily upon the United States,”23 and this assumption of responsibility is surely the key—one which Davies in his book does not readily grasp—to America’s interventionist policies in postwar Asia.

But Davies grasped accurately enough the key to China’s postwar future during his sixteen-day visit to Yenan in November, 1944 (although he had inspired the Dixie Mission he was not a member of it, and Service’s reports are much more prolific). If Chiang started a civil war, he would lose it. If he accepted a coalition government, then the communists were bound to extend their political influence throughout the country. Either way around, “Chiang’s feudal China cannot long coexist alongside a modern dynamic popular government in North China.”

Davies wonders now whether in his reports from Yenan he “under-estimated the influence of ideology on communist behavior” in hoping that US cooperation would “attract Yenan away from the Soviet Union.” Others have wondered on his behalf too, notably Professor Tang Tsou, who—in a chapter of his revealingly entitled America’s Failure in China—awards merits and demerits to Davies and other contemporary observers according to their degree, or lack, of “naïveté” about “the realities of communism.”24 But the question is virtually meaningless because of its inherent circularity: If the US had “cooperated” with Yenan, this would have presupposed a very different kind of attitude toward the values which Yenan represented. The war would have educated the American people, to use Mao’s phrase, much more successfully than it actually did.

It was these reports that were flung against Davies at the various inquisitorial hearings in the early 1950s, until, after nine loyalty investigations, he was found guilty of “lack of judgment, discretion and reliability,” a decision in which Dulles cravenly concurred. But the trip wire which felled this loyal Foreign Service officer was more subtly ironic. In 1949-1950, after serving in Moscow, he was attached to the Policy Planning Staff under George Kennan—Washington’s first think-tank for plotting out the cold war. As Kennan deprecatingly relates in his latest volume of memoirs, the thinkers were occasionally “obliged” to cooperate with their military colleagues in the planning of “black propaganda.” At one such meeting, Davies advanced a number of ideas “as to how certain kinds of informational material could be conveyed to the Chinese communist intellectuals, despite the severity of the censorship in communist China.”

Davies appears to have suggested that American China experts with good contacts on the liberated “mainland” should be used in some way as a channel for passing information to and fro.25 Later on the McCarran Committee got wind of Davies’s scheme, now presented as a subversive attempt to employ communists to work for the US government, and it was under pressure from the McCarran Committee that the State Department then allowed Davies to be scourged by his long ordeal of loyalty investigations.

In Peru, the place of his last Foreign Service appointment until he was forced to resign in November, 1954, Davies and his family settled down to making furniture and, it appears, trying to blot out the past. When in 1964 Davies published a collection of essays on American diplomacy, he did not refer once to his own considerable diplomatic experience in Asia and the Soviet Union. On China he wrote that “the combination of vaulting ambition and maddening frustration fans the fanaticism of the rulers of China”—it must have seemed a long way from Yenan by then.26

More than a trace of this same remoteness, this putting of distance between oneself and one’s past, can be felt from time to time in Dragon by the Tail. Its amiable readability, its cheerful acceptance of the “inevitability” of everything that happened to China and to the author, is certainly genuine and unforced. But the effect is somehow muffled, the author’s judgment conveyed more in nuances than in the forthright terms which he once employed in his reports back to Washington. To the very end of his book, Davies refuses at any point to clench his fist and hit the table as hard as he is surely entitled to do.

Appropriately to his own mood, he calls his last chapter “The Huge Practical Joke.” It is of course China that has fooled everyone who tried to do anything with it, starting with the Western businessmen, the missionaries and educators, and the Japanese militarists. The United States “which tried to democratize and unify it [China] failed. The Soviet rulers who tried to insinuate control over it failed. Chiang failed. Mao failed.” That is the end of Dragon by the Tail, its final sentence. It is also the end of an argument with which, one feels, Davies might have dealt rather differently if he had been given the chance to make it twenty years ago, and the people to hear him out.

  1. 1

    October, 1972.

  2. 2

    This is discussed in James C. Thomson, Jr., “On the Making of US China Policy, 1961-1969: A Study in Bureaucratic Politics,” The China Quarterly, No. 50, April/June 1972, pp. 224-225.

  3. 3

    On Coalition Government,” April 24, 1945, translated in Stuart Gelder, The Chinese Communists (London: Gollancz, 1946), pp. 2-3.

  4. 4

    Foreign Relations of the United States, 1944, Vol. VI, China (Washington: USGPO, 1967), “Interview with Mao Tse-tung,” August 23, 1944, p. 609.

  5. 5

    Gunther Stein, The Challenge of Red China (London: Pilot Press, 1945), interview with Chu The, pp. 242-251.

  6. 6

    Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, Vol. VII, The Far East: China (Washington: USGPO, 1969), Memorandum by Service, April 1, 1945, p. 314.

  7. 7

    David D. Barrett, Dixie Mission: The United States Army Observer Group in Yenan, 1944, (Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 1970), pp. 76-78.

  8. 8

    Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sutherland, United States Army in World War II, China-Burma-India Theater, Vol. 3, Time Runs Out in CBI (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1959), p. 253.

  9. 9

    Dragon by the Tail, p. 386.

  10. 10

    Quoted in E. J. Kahn, Jr., “Foresight, Nightmare, and Hindsight,” a profile of John Service, The New Yorker, April 8, 1972, p. 65.

  11. 11

    John S. Service, The Amerasia Papers: Some Problems in the History of US-China Relations (Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, May, 1971), pp. 109-112.

  12. 12

    Xinhua Agency, Yenan, December 17, 1945.

  13. 13

    Service, The Amerasia Papers, p. 191.

  14. 14

    United States Relations with China: With Special Reference to the Period 1944-1949 (Washington: Department of State, 1949), since reissued with an introduction by Lyman P. Van Slyke as The China White Paper, August, 1949 (Stanford, 1967). See in particular “Memoranda by Foreign Service Officers in China, 1943-1945,” pp. 564-576.

  15. 15

    Service, The Amerasia Papers, p. 187, fn. 83.

  16. 16

    In a last-ditch attempt to stir up pro-Nationalist sentiment as US-Chinese relations were resumed after the Cultural Revolution, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee published in February, 1970, a two-volume collection of documents from the 1945 “Amerasia” case which included virtually all of Service’s Yenan reports, thus making these available to the author as well as to the public for the first time in twenty-five years. It was Dr. Anthony Kubek’s malign “Introduction” to this collection which stung Service into writing his Berkeley monograph.

  17. 17

    Dragon by the Tail, p. 371.

  18. 18

    Romanus and Sutherland, Time Runs Out in CBI, pp. 72-75, 251-253.

  19. 19

    Foreign Relations of the United States, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945 (Washington, DC: Department of State, 1955), pp. 346-351.

  20. 20

    Seymour Topping, Journey Between Two Chinas (Harper and Row, 1972).

  21. 21

    John Leighton Stuart, Fifty Years in China (Random House, 1954), p. 247.

  22. 22

    David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Random House, 1972), p. 379. Halberstam provides a full and sensitive account of the blighting of Davies’s career and his exile.

  23. 23

    Foreign Relations of the United States, China 1944, pp. 32-33.

  24. 24

    Tang Tsou, America’s Failure in China 1941-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1963), Chapter VI, “The American Image of Chinese Communism.” The author sets up certain standards by which the Chinese communists should have been judged at the time, including a proper estimation of “the communist menace” and a true understanding of the “totalitarian” nature (according to the definitions of Morgenthau, Friedrich, and Brzezinski) of the Chinese Communist Party. Not surprisingly most of the contemporary observers considered by Tang Tsou are found wanting; there is an especially vicious footnote on Owen Lattimore. This book, the standard work on US-Chinese relations in the 1940s, reflects a general tendency among the China experts (until recently) first to lay claim to an “objective” view of the nature of Chinese communism and then to belabor those of their colleagues who had the advantage of having seen the Chinese communists at first hand. The historical substance of the Dixie Mission was consequently of less interest to Tang Tsou than the “misjudgments” and “misunderstandings” of Davies and Service.

  25. 25

    George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963 (Little, Brown and Co., 1972), pp. 200-214. One would like to know whether any version of Davies’s “ideas” was ever taken up by the interdepartmental “agency for secret operations” which Mr. Kennan describes. It was not, he explains in his usual civilized way, a “department of dirty tricks.” It was merely “a facility designed to give greater flexibility to the operations of a government, now involved in a global cold war…” (p. 202).

  26. 26

    John Paton Davies, Jr., Foreign and Other Affairs, A View from the Radical Center (Norton, 1964), p. 119. In this same year Davies began the legal battle to have his case reviewed by the State Department. He was eventually rehabilitated in 1969 when he was granted a security clearance.