In late March of 1952, after being savaged by the McCarran Internal Security Subcommittee, John Carter Vincent wrote a parody for his wife:

"Mrs. Vincent, where were you on the night of December 31st, 1929?"

"Senator, I do not recall. I have a poor memory but I assume . . ."

"Let me refresh your memory. Did you pass the night of December 31, 1929 with John Carter Vincent?"

"Senator, I have testified that I don't recall where I passed the night of December 31, 1929, and therefore I cannot recall whom I passed it with but it may be that I passed it with Vincent."

". . . Would you say that the night you spent with Vincent, December 31, 1929, was pro- or anti-Communist?"

"No to both questions. Now that you have refreshed my memory I would say that it was free-enterprise in the best sense of the term."

That Vincent could remain so outwardly lighthearted during a vicious campaign to ruin his diplomatic career is just one of many surprises in this story of one man's punishment for that mythical crime, the loss of China.

Gary May's detailed account, winner of the Society of American Historians Nevins Prize, assumes an eerie quality as Vincent moves through his pesonal tragedy with the same detachment he used to weather Chinese strikes and riots in Changsha in 1927 and bureaucratic warfare in the U.S. embassy in Chong-ging in 1942. If oil shortages and other troubles produce another spell of political paranoia similar to what Washington experienced in 1952, beleaguered Iran-watchers in the U.S. government may find comfort in this story.

I met Vincent once in 1966. He lived in semi-retirment in Cambridge, Mass., and lightly dismissed questions about the agonies of the early 1950s. His apparent lack of passion, except in matters concerning his family, makes May's faithful account of his diplomatic career somewhat dry and lifeless. However, there's more drama in the second half of the book. Using hitherto undisclosed documents from FBI, State Department and Civil Service Commission files, he reveals a bureaucratic monster flopping blindly down upon a gentle, astonised Vincent. Excerpts of personal notes by Vincent's wife, Betty, also give a welcome glow of outrage, something her husband seemed incapable of. At the 1959 death of John Foster Dulles, who forced Vincent to retire on a ludicrous incompetence charge because his loyalty could not be disproven, Betty Vincent writes: May God not rest your soul."

Born in Kansas, raised in Macon, Ga., Vincent was an earnest Baptist who liked baseball and travel. He barely passed his State Department examinations and had trouble learning Chinese, but rose quickly in the department because of a warm personal manner, a knack for calm administrative decisions, and unusually sound political judgment.

By age 45, after several posts in China, he was made director of the office of Far Eastern Affairs - what is now the post of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. During a ship voyage to Shanghai in 1941, Vincent had had the bad luck to meet and engage in argument an American businessman named Alfred Kohlberg. Vincent attacked Kohlberg's idea that a victory of fascism over socialism in the war would be good for U.S. business. Vincent apparently forgot the conversation, but Kohlberg came away convinced Vincent was a Communist. He set out to destroy Vincent's career, and later used to great effect the fact that Vincent called for American pressure on the nationalist Chinese to help escalate the war against Japan, and later stabilize China.

May briefly flirts with the notion that if Vincent's ideas had won out, the 30 years of postwar Sino-american relations might have been more friendly. In his introduction, Vincent's friend John K. Fairbank neatly kills off that historical ghost, pointing out that such hopes underestimated the Communists' anti-imperialist sentiment. By 1951 Vincent himself saw that "There never was a time when we could have saved China for Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek without going into the country with a large army and literally establishing a protectorate . . . Revolution there would have been. We tried to make it a liberal one but the odds were against us."

The government records unearthed by May, through clever use of the Freedom of Information Act, provide a chilling look at how little material Vincent's tormentors needed to end his career. A rightwing monthly article by Kohlberg titled "The State Department's Left Hand" and some totally unsubstantiated charges by ex-Communist Louis Budenz were cited and then recited, thickening the files. Much was made of an incident in which Vincent once borrowed a raincoat which had Russian grammar exercises in a pocket. An FBI investigation of Vincent's background turned up little that was more illuminating than statements of his former Kansas neighbors. They said it was difficult to evaluate his loyalty because he had been "an infant when he resided in Seneca."

"What the record reveals gives us little reason to feel nostalgic about either Harry Truman or the 1950s," May concludes. Vincent, however, unruffled as always, went off to a happy retirement, certain of eventual vindication. He lived until 1972, long enough to watch a master Red-baiter of the 1950s, Richard Nixon, announce a trip to Peking. The announcement, May said, "was received by Vincent with some degree of hilarity."