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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

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 placed him “on the conservative side of US foreign policy toward East Asia.” So this would not be the “studio bash” that Pfeffer had hoped for. Since Davies would be a far greater draw for an audience, I offered to withdraw. My memory is that Pfeffer decided to cut his losses and keep hold of the two birds in his hand.5


Among the China hands who bore the brunt of McCarthyite attacks, only two were “mish” kids: Davies and Service, who grew up as boyhood friends in Sichuan province. John Paton Davies Sr. was a devout Baptist missionary. Robert Service was in charge of YMCA activities; apparently, the Davies parents regarded the YMCA people as a little “worldly,” though John Paton Jr., born 1908, grew up to be more worldly, or perhaps more conservative, than Jack Service, born 1909.

After home schooling and two years in the American High School in Shanghai, Davies spent a couple of years at the Experimental College of the University of Wisconsin, studying Athenian civilization the first year and nineteenth-century America the second. For their junior year, Davies and a friend went to China, working their way across the Pacific on the Dollar Line, jumping ship in Tokyo, and enrolling as students at the missionary-supported Yenching University in Beijing. Davies majored in journalism

in anticipation of a glamorous career as a foreign correspondent, traveling about the world (first class), darting in and out of wars, mingling easily with the high and the mighty, and reporting it all in crunchy cables to an appreciative public.

Much of his dream came true, though not through journalism. His freelance efforts at Yenching were unsuccessful and he abandoned the thought of a press career. Instead, after a senior year at Columbia, he successfully sat the foreign service entrance examination.


Despite the shabby way in which the State Department later treated him, Davies, who died in 1999, looked back on the foreign service that he entered with high regard. It was an “elite corps,” because it had a “compelling sense of public duty,” a commitment that “reached back to a nineteenth-century assumption that with privileged status went an obligation to serve the commonweal.” He described Henry L. Stimson, the secretary of state at the time of his entry into the foreign service, as being of this character, “an upright, public-spirited gentleman.”

After an obligatory probationary year at the consulate in Windsor, Ontario, he had three months of tutoring in department duties in Washington, receiving very mixed reviews. From consul general C.E. Gauss, who taught “documentation of merchandise and shipping and seamen,” he was graded as having good appearance, courtesy, and pleasing manners, “but not particularly energetic, inquiring, attentive or accurate. Thirteenth in a class of fifteen officers.” Gauss’s lack of enthusiasm for Davies surfaced again ten years later when, as ambassador to China in the early 1940s, he had to put up with his freewheeling diplomatic style.

Davies’s first posting was as a vice-consul in Kunming in southwest China, but it did not last long. He applied successfully for the two-year course in Chinese studies that the legation in Beijing offered, believing that his career would be advanced as a China specialist.6 His replacement in Kunming was Jack Service. During his two years in Beijing—1933 to 1935—Davies met a number of Americans who would loom large in portraying China to the outside world: Edgar Snow, yet to make his famous trip to the Communist bastion in the northwest; John Fairbank, a graduate student researching Qing documents; and Harold Isaacs, the future author of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. But Davies’s most significant encounter was with the US military attaché, Colonel Joseph W. Stilwell, and the man who would become his principal aide, Captain Frank “Pinky” Dorn, a fellow student in the legation course. Stilwell and Dorn later shaped his career.

After completing his course, Davies was posted to Mukden (now Shenyang) in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. There he learned from the consul general, Joseph W. Ballantine, that it was permissible to allow “reputable and discreet” journalists to see confidential documents.7 According to Davies, John Gunther’s section on Manchukuo in his Inside Asia was basically a rewrite of consular files. By 1938, after the Japanese invasion of China, Davies was posted in what turned out to be the temporary Nationalist Chinese capital of Hankou. Stilwell, Dorn, and Snow, by now the famous author of Red Star Over China, were there, along with other future notables of the China field. (China Hand reproduces a picture of a party at Davies’s apartment that included Agnes Smedley, Jack Belden, Evans Carlson, Freda Utley, and Zhang Hanfu.)8


At the time of Pearl Harbor, Davies was working as a China desk officer back in Washington. Still in touch with Stilwell and Dorn, he asked that they take him along wherever they might be posted, which he doubtless assumed would be an exciting assignment since Stilwell was reckoned to be one of the best battlefield commanders in the US Army. Instead, Stilwell was assigned to China as chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek, the supreme commander of the Chinese theater, and as commanding general of US forces in China-Burma-India (which hardly existed at the time), and promoted to lieutenant general.

Stilwell and Dorn asked for Davies and, much to his superiors’ chagrin, the State Department had to appoint him consul at Kunming, ranking as a second secretary at the Chongqing embassy, and detailing him to “the China Military Mission headed by Major General Joseph W. Stilwell,” as a “liaison between the Mission and American and foreign civil officials.” For the next two and a half years of Stilwell’s abortive mission to persuade Chiang to commit his troops to large-scale operations against the Japanese, Davies had an enviably “wide latitude of initiative and action.” Stilwell told him: “There’s nothing I can tell you about how to run your job. You’re a free agent.”

This freedom involved a fair amount of travel between the Indian and Chinese sectors of Stilwell’s command. On one occasion, flying over the “hump” to China, he had to parachute from a malfunctioning aircraft into the jungle and the arms of Naga headhunters. Fortunately they turned out to be friendly and hospitable. Davies emerged as the one who maintained the morale of the erstwhile passengers, and at the time of his dismissal from the State Department in 1954, Eric Sevareid of CBS, who had been his fellow passenger, commented on the air that there had been a move to decorate Davies for his outstanding personal conduct—it did not happen—and went on:

I thought then, as I think now, that if ever again I were in deep trouble, the man I would want to be with would be this particular man. I have known a great number of men around the world, under all manner of circumstances. I have known none who seemed more the whole man; none more finished a civilized product, in all that a man should be—in modesty and thoughtfulness, in resourcefulness and steady strength of character.

Typically, that encomium does not appear in Davies’s autobiography.


Davies liaised far and wide: the remnants of the British authorities from Burma did not occupy him long, but he had many meetings with Indian politicians, including Gandhi and Nehru. Davies had no time for British imperialism, arguing in a report to Stilwell that “the British raj is not and will not be exempt from the decay nor from the impact of new forces at large in the world.” But he had little time for Indian leaders either:

However decadent British rule in India may be, most of the Indian nationalist leaders are themselves more decadent and lacking in aggressive vitality…. The tremendous influence of Gandhi in defining the expression of the Indian revolutionary urge has been a retrogressive one.

Perhaps he was right, or perhaps he had become so inured to the continual warfare among Chinese that he had only a limited conception of how a non-violent political movement like satyagraha might be successful.

  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

  5. 5

    I was acquainted with Pfeffer, having published one of his articles on Chinese law in The China Quarterly. For a discussion of “Ric” Pfeffer’s career—he died in 2002—see Nathan Karnovsky, The Other Cultural Revolution: The Academic Uprising of the American China Scholar in the 1960s (Haverford College Senior Thesis, 2012; available in Triceratops: TriCollege Digital Repository), pp. 70–91. 

  6. 6

    According to Kahn, The China Hands, p. 58, Davies could already speak Chinese fluently but with a strong Sichuan accent, which he smoothed over in Beijing. Later, he would also “master” Russian, German, and Spanish and could get by in French and Japanese. 

  7. 7

    Twenty years later, Ballantine, a Japan specialist, was involved in analyzing Owen Lattimore’s Solution in Asia for the Department of Justice. “ Solution,” said Ballantine, “goes 100 percent along the line of the Communist solution in Asia”; see Robert P. Newman, Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China (University of California Press, 1992), p. 599, n. 6. 

  8. 8

    Agnes Smedley, a radical American, formally a correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, had close contact with the CCP in Yan’an and would write a biography of its top general, Zhu De; for her entanglement in Mao’s philandering in Yan’an, see Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, Mao: The Real Story (Simon and Schuster, 2012), pp. 306–311. Jack Belden, a UPI correspondent, later wrote China Shakes the World about the Communist revolution; Evans Carlson, a captain in the US marines, would write The Chinese Army on the basis of his experiences alongside communist guerrillas.

    Freda Utley had been a member of the British Communist Party, fled from the Soviet Union when her Russian husband was arrested, wrote China at War idealizing the CCP, turned against it for endorsing the Nazi-Soviet pact, and in the 1950s became a scourge of those who “lost” China. Zhang Hanfu, later a vice foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China, was a member of Zhou Enlai’s CCP liaison team with the Nationalist government. 

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