The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’

In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies, John Stewart Service, John Carter Vincent, and John King Fairbank himself. What the McCarthyites had forgotten, Fairbank said, was to finger the fifth “John”: John Kai-shek.1

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Davies Family
John Paton Davies Jr., circa 1943, when he was a State Department official based in China

Fairbank was the “John” I knew best. When I heard the joke, the topic was still raw for Fairbank, who had had to testify before Senator Pat McCarran’s Subcommittee on Internal Security and before a Pentagon loyalty-security board (in the latter case to determine whether he was fit to be admitted to American-occupied Japan). He addressed a seminar about his experiences. He underlined the irony that while he was being queried about his relationship to the Chinese political scientist Qian Duansheng, Qian was being attacked in China for his relationship to Fairbank.

A problem for Fairbank was that he could not always recall what he said or when he said it, or whom he met when. He told us that it was vital to keep a record of such comings and goings; indeed, to prepare for his ordeal, he had felt obliged to compile a twenty-two-page booklet of Excerpts from Writings and Speeches, 1946–1950 containing all his key statements relating to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).2 Edwin O. Reischauer—Fairbank’s collaborator in teaching Harvard’s legendary “Rice Paddies” course about East Asia3—disagreed, arguing that this would constrain scholars into an undesirable consistency. Of course, as a Japanologist (later Kennedy’s ambassador to Tokyo), Reischauer’s loyalty was not questioned; America had unquestionably “won” Japan.

Fairbank had a rough time, but it did not affect his academic tenure. The four foreign service “Johns” all lost their jobs. I only had brief acquaintance with each of them. I met John Paton Davies Jr. in the environs of a major China conference held in New York in March 1969, with Edwin Reischauer and Doak Barnett of Columbia presiding. The aim was to produce new policy initiatives, and Ted Kennedy, at that time still a viable presidential hopeful, gave a keynote speech.4 I was buttonholed by a radical younger scholar, Richard Pfeffer, and asked if I would appear on air, presumably representing the establishment, in a discussion (read confrontation) on China with John Paton Davies, presumably a stern critic of US policy, who would put me to flight. Davies and I sat down over a coffee to discuss how we would handle the subject.

I found Davies very charming and knowledgeable, but perhaps that was because we disagreed about relatively little. As Professor Bruce Cumings writes in a helpful epilogue to China Hand: An Autobiography, Davies’s memos for the State Department in 1949–1950 clearly …

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  1. 1

    There were other foreign service officers whose careers were affected to a greater or a lesser degree by McCarthyism. E.J. Kahn Jr. lists thirteen men in The China Hands: America’s Foreign Service Officers and What Befell Them (Viking, 1972), pp. 309–311. 

  2. 2

    Fairbank narrates his experiences in his autobiography, Chinabound (Harper and Row, 1982), pp. 331–351. 

  3. 3

    Later they transformed their course into a two-volume textbook: East Asia: The Great Tradition and East Asia: The Modern Transformation (Houghton Mifflin, 1960 and 1965). 

  4. 4

    An edited version of the conference was produced for the National Council on US-China Relations by Praeger in 1970: The United States and China: The Next Decade