• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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

  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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print