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.
- Jonathan Yardley
‘China Hand: An Autobiography’ by John Paton Davies Jr.
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.”
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.