“China Hand: An Autobiography” by John Paton Davies Jr.

May 11, 2012

In November 1954 John Paton Davies Jr., deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Lima, Peru, was fired by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. His dismissal had nothing to do with his service in Peru and everything to do with his standing as one of several “China Hands,” Foreign Service veterans “who were China specialists and had dealt with Chinese Communists.” Davies and the others — they included Edmund Clubb, John Emmerson, John S. Service and John Carter Vincent — were victims of a fierce campaign by the so-called China Lobby, a handmaiden of Joe McCarthy and his allies on the far right, which charged that the China Hands’ attempts to report honestly to the State Department, the White House and Congress about the state of affairs in China had undermined the administration of Chiang Kai-shek and brought about the triumph of Mao Tse-tung and his communists.

The accusations, as Davies dryly summarizes them, “were, in effect, that what we independently reported and predicted was what we willed and plotted to bring about.” Nothing could have been further from the truth, but truth was in short supply in the halcyon days of McCarthyism. The country was “in a national mood of mounting public apprehension, suspicion and anxiety, exacerbated by Chinese agitators, American lobbyists and hostile member[s] of Congress,” and the handful of men who had tried to give their superiors a fair assessment of the situation in China were made the scapegoats for what was portrayed as the “loss” of China.

Davies, who was in his mid-40s at the time of his dismissal, had been in the Foreign Service for more than two decades and had spent much of that time either in China or working on matters related to China. As he writes in this unfinished memoir, published long after his death in 1999, he began his career in a world we now barely recognize:

“At the time I entered the Foreign Service, fingerprinting an officer was unheard of. When this precaution was some years later routinely put into effect, I felt a twinge of sadness, as if trust between friends had been spoiled. Bugging an officer’s telephone and home or testing his veracity by lie detectors were unknown and would have been considered an outrage. The greatest security of the Foreign Service may well have lain in, along with the tradition of honor, the close association and familiarity of its members with one another due to the small size of the staffs at posts abroad and, relatively speaking, of the Foreign Service in its entirety. A man’s character and point of view became well, and with time, widely known within the service. With this understanding of one another often went a wholesome tolerance of considerable nonconformity and even eccentricity.”


’China Hand: An Autobiography’ by John Paton Davies Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Press)

As has been said before, the Foreign Service was in those days something of a gentlemen’s club, short on diversity as the term is now understood but long on diversity of viewpoints and experience. People were more likely to enter it as patriots than as careerists, and public service was an underlying theme in almost all of their lives. To say this is not to romanticize it but to emphasize that it was a place where trust was valued highly and a person’s word was taken seriously. By and large it was divorced from politics — indeed, Davies makes no effort to disguise his disdain for the machinations of politicians, not only Joe McCarthy but Franklin Roosevelt as well — and was proud of the objectivity with which the Foreign Service sought to evaluate the places where its officers were sent and the people whom they encountered there.

Davies, the child of American missionaries in China, began his service in that country in 1933 but remained in relative obscurity until 1942, when “I received . . . State Department orders assigning me as Consul at Kunming, designating me as Second Secretary of Embassy at Chungking, and detailing me to ‘the China Military Mission headed by Major General Joseph W. Stilwell.’ ” His assignment was “liaison between the Mission and American foreign civil officials,” one that placed him at Stilwell’s side as the general attempted to make his way through the labyrinthine passages of Chinese politics, dominated by the “alternately impassive and overwrought, obstinate and vacillating”Chiang and his scheming wife, the notorious Madame Chiang, “a comely matron, who, when she concealed her imperious, calculating nature, could radiate fetching charm.”

Stilwell — “Vinegar Joe” as he was universally known — was “complex” and “contradictory,” at times “an abusive vulgarian in his speech and writing,” at others a man of “refined perceptions and taste.” He “was merciless in his demands on his troops” but “he was also merciless with himself.”

Davies “identified myself with Stilwell and felt affection for [his] gnarled tangle of fierce feeling, [but] I did not cultivate a close association with him.” He was utterly loyal to Stilwell, though, not only because he admired him but also because he believed that Stilwell was right in wanting to bring China into the war as an effective fighting force against Japan. Chiang and his gang resisted Stilwell mightily, constantly demanding American arms and money with the aim not of fighting Japan but of arming for the impending fight against the communists.

Davies and Stilwell had no illusions about the communists, but they did hope to persuade the warring factions in China to resolve their differences and form a compromise government rather than allow the country to collapse into civil war, which of course is exactly what happened at the end of World War II. Their instincts were if anything on the conservative side — i.e., they were willing to accept the continuation of the corrupt Chiang government as the price of active Chinese participation in the war against Japan — but their willingness to be forthright about the strengths of the communists in time became a ready weapon for the political adventurers who inflicted a second Red Scare upon the United States in the late 1940s and ’50s. For Stilwell the price of honesty was Roosevelt’s capitulation to Chiang’s demands that he be recalled; for Davies it was the loss of his job and, for many years, his reputation.

Davies returned to Peru after his dismissal and, with his wife, Patricia, established a company that made handsome furniture and other designs. This was more successful artistically than commercially, and for the rest of his life he drifted from one occupation to another. Money was more often a struggle than not. He seems to have begun writing this memoir reluctantly and to have worked on it fitfully, though none of that shows through. “China Hand” is low-key but forceful, at times quite deliciously witty, as when he describes “a middle-aged woman of versatile convictions, each successively proclaimed with passion” or when he gives us Wendell Willkie, “a large, hearty fellow and, like so many seeking to thrust their services on the citizenry through elective office, enamored of self, assuming that his unbuttoned personality exuded persuasive allure.” Davies is wrong, though, to say that Willkie was “the Republican candidate for the presidency” when he toured China in 1942, as there was no presidential election that year; Willkie lost to Roosevelt in 1940.t

No doubt “China Hand” will be of particular interest to students of Chinese history from the 1930s to the ’50s and of American diplomacy during the same period, but its greatest value is as the personal testament of a man who was the wholly innocent victim of political opportunism yet retained his sense of personal worth and, equally important, his undying loyalty to the country that had served him so poorly. His life should be an object lesson to everyone.

yardleyj@washpost.com

CHINA HAND

An Autobiography

By John Paton Davies Jr.

Univ. of Pennsylvania. 351 pp. $34.95

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