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…

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