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American Diplomacy: Water, Witch Hunt, War, and Blood


ISSUE:  Spring 1976
The China Hands: America’s Foreign Service Officers and What Befell Them. By E. J. Kahn, Jr. The Viking Press. $12.95. Embassy at War. By Harold Joyce Noble. University of Washington Press. $12.50. The Angels Game: A Handbook of Modern Diplomacy. By William Macomber. Stein and Day. $10.00

THE epitaph which John Keats proposed for himself, in despair, at the close of his short life—”here lies one whose name was writ in water”—is one which many American diplomats have considered peculiarly apt for them. Not only have their careers and accomplishments been writ across water; but, despite their involvement in an important, fascinating, and exciting occupation, seemingly in it: no one for a long time paid much attention to them. From this watery erasure they have been little by little rescued in the last quarter century as their country, swept into the endless typhoon of international politics, acquired crucial and worldwide responsibilites. Among the increasing number of books by and about American diplomatic officers and diplomacy itself are recent ones writ not in water but in witch hunt and war. E. J. Kahn, Jr. on The China Hands and Harold J. Noble on the tribulations of Embassy Seoul during the North Korean invasion are exemplary of these. And no one need be reminded of the persistent newspaper reports which add other accounts in blood.

Two hundred and sixty years ago, the acute Francois de Callie’res concluded his treatise on diplomacy by noting that disappointments in life await everyone, but “in no profession are disappointments so amply outweighed by such rich opportunities as in the practice of diplomacy.” Opportunities to do what? To serve one’s country and, if his government is so oriented, to serve the combined causes of truth, international understanding, and peace. Thus, in the end, to serve civilization itself.

This may seem quite enough and so, it appears, thought some of our diplomatic officers of a generation ago, who devoted themselves to Chinese affairs. But there are responsibilities so closely intertwined with opportunities as to be inseparable from them and thus affect and even determine the nature of the opportunities themselves—to conduct oneself with skill, discretion, and an uncommon amount of common sense not only in a wholly different culture and sometimes historical period, thousands of miles away from one’s own headquarters, but with respect to those very headquarters, so as to win the respect and confidence of two different governments—the host and one’s own. This is not easy. Learning, political instinct, wisdom, and finesse, are required—sophistication, in a word—and they are as much the name of the game as opportunity.

I will avoid the temptation to excoriate the scurrilous and un-American witch hunt to which the McCarran-McCarthy-Hurley-Nixon-Chambers-Budenz crowd resorted in pursuing a perfectly legitimate question as to the reporting, conduct, and philosophic beliefs of American diplomatic representatives. Kahn has done so with a brilliance which will grip every reader from his first to his last page.

But neither will I succumb to the tempting conclusion to which the victims (and their defenders, including Kahn) have surrendered that this is all there is to their experience. Two myths were engendered by the witch hunt. One was that the China Hands and confederates in the State Department lost China and did so because, as Communists or Communist sympathizers, they secretly wanted this to occur and contributed whatever they could to bring it about. That was nonsense, without one iota of truth to blemish it. The other myth is pithily put by Professor John K. Fairbank in his dust-cover comment on Kahn’s book, viz. the China Hands were hounded out of the diplomatic service “because China’s revolution proceeded as they correctly foresaw it would.” On this premise, Kahn’s book, Fairbank says, “has the story.” It hasn’t. Persecuted, treated atrociously by some so-called “loyalty security boards,” deserted by all but an exceptional colleague, and hounded out of the Foreign Service some of the China Hands were; others escaped first-degree burns and survived but were forever mutilated in their careers; while still others went on to scale the heights. What accounts for these differences? The Kahns, Fairbanks, et al. are diverting us from the answer, which exacts a refined analysis of what diplomacy is, how well the China Hands performed in that arduous and risky calling, and how effectively the State Department and Presidents assisted them. The period was not simply one of McCarthyism; it was a period of gross diplomatic inadequacy with respect to China.

By taking one of the victims as an example, John S. Service, on whom Kahn focuses much of his attention, perhaps I may make my meaning clear in limited space. Service I do not know, but by all accounts he is one of the most decent, self-effacing, considerate, and—insofar as China is concerned— learned and perceptive of humans. But he had serious limitations, and the State Department did nothing whatever to detect and stimulate or assist him in overcoming them. President Roosevelt added to his burdens and risks by appointing a blundering, egocentric dunce of a general as his special representative and then as ambassador in Chungking. All of this was during a war, and it all exposed Service—and his government—to extraordinarily complex demands.

Like another victim, John Paton Davies, Jr., Service had been born and reared in China, the son of missionaries. He had spent little time in this country and knew little of it. Washington was less familiar to him than Kunming, Peking, Shanghai, Chungking, or Yenan. He knew little or nothing about it until, after a decade of service in China, he was assigned to the State Department and promptly committed a grievous error which set the FBI and the McCarran-McCarthy-Hurley wolves on his trail. He never received the slightest professional introduction to diplomacy nor even a briefing on the Foreign Service, the State Department, and the foreign affairs community of which Congress is a part. During his decade in China, continuing virtually a lifelong expatriation, Service was from 26 to 36 years of age. Twenty-six to 30 is not exactly a ripe age for involvement in one of the more hellish of American foreign policy situations. Furthermore, in that decade, he was not on the embassy staff, advised and tutored by seasoned colleagues, but served as a young, free-wheeling political adviser to General Stilwell.

Far more knowledgeable and perceptive of China than of his own country, Service contributed to Washington an extraordinary reporting—brilliant at times—of conditions, developments, and likely outcomes, but nothing in Kahn’s study indicates that he took the most elementary precautions to ensure that his reporting was “getting through” in Washington. Kahn does not tell us, for instance, whether Service used any of the familiar devices by which Foreign Service officers keep their Departmental colleagues posted on what they are doing, their problems, the complexities of judgment with which they are confronted and thus encourage, in return, information on the drifts of Departmental and White House thinking and moves, political cross-currents, comments “up the line” on what he is doing, and the like. Coming into our diplomatic establishment as he did, an untutored, unprofessional expatriate, he may never have known that such devices or practices existed or appreciated the wisdom of using them. It would have been a miracle if all of this appalling slackness had not resulted in serious trouble.

Moreover, conditions being what they were in China, Service sometimes reported in haste, often on impulse. This can induce the most perceptive reporting and also the riskiest. At times, as Kahn says of one memorandum to Washington, his reporting and policy advice found expression in an “emotional” document, and Service conceded it was composed in “some haste and heat.” It does not take a William Macomber, whose book on diplomacy is also before us, to warn that a diplomatic officer who does not retain his “cool” is in for trouble. That particular memorandum, as things turned out, proved critical to Service’s fortunes. A diplomat is not simply a reporter, nor precisely a political scientist, as the Kahns and Fairbanks would have us believe. He is a political operator, a government adviser and persuader as well, and this is what makes his calling so exacting and at times so hazardous. If he considers his government’s policy wrong, as Service did, he must exercise all the greater care in choosing his rhetoric.

Service’s use of the term “democracy” in describing Mao Tse-tung’s Communist movement poignantly suggests this lack of care. Time and again he insisted that the “widespread popular support” which the Communists had achieved “must be considered a practical indication that the policies and method of the Chinese Communists have a democratic character.” “Democratic”? In what sense? In the sense in which an ordinary American would construe it, this would be considered naive at best, betraying a complete misconception— or nonconception—of Communist philosophy. So, too, with language indicating that Chinese Communist policy toward the United States was “and will remain one of extending cooperation regardless of American action.” Kahn relates the experience of another career officer who served in China at the time, John Carter Vincent (who was also hounded out of the Foreign Service) when interrogated by a congressional committee later. He was asked what he knew about Mao and Communism. Vincent, who had served for years in China and wound up there as the Number Two officer in Embassy Chungking, responded that he had never met Mao, had never read anything by or about him, and was virtually illiterate on the subject of Communism generally, Kahn tells this with great glee, as though the officer scored a coup to the committee’s embarrassment. It was, in fact, no coup at all and can only be viewed as an extraordinary confession of unprofessionalism reflecting embarrassingly upon both the officer and the Department.

Another indiscreet and imprecise practice indulged in by Service was in the use of “fascist” and “nazi” in referring to Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. There was no advantage and only considerable emotional risks in resorting to Western terms to describe an oriental authoritarian regime. Not only had these become terms of opprobrium and therefore emotionally loaded but there were significant differences between the Western and Asian regimes.

“Representation,” a diplomat has written, “is the term used to describe a diplomat’s efforts to demonstrate through his personality, manners, hospitality, and erudition the admirable qualities of his country and thus of the advantage of maintaining close friendly relations with it.” What of the advantage to all concerned of maintaining close friendly relations with visiting congressmen? This is dictated by not only common sense but considerations of national security, not to say the political instinct of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, Kahn’s narrative is a mixture of fact and fancy and cannot be wholly relied upon for inferences as to the conduct of the China Hands. For instance, he purports to relate what happened in Chungking when Congressman Walter H. Judd showed up there on a visit toward the end of 1944. Judd had been a medical missionary in China, considered he knew all there was to be known about the country, and was an endless monologist when he got started. Kahn writes: “When he [Judd] turned up, a State Department functionary detailed to look after him begged all the American officials on the scene to be nice to him, but the more the diplomats thought about it the madder they got. One night when a few of them were supposed to have dinner with him they stood him up; convening instead in a room just above his room, they sang in what they hoped was a carrying voice, “Poor Jud is dead.”“

It seems that these were not “diplomats” but OWI officers, Judd was not accompanied by a State Department escort and it was the OWI chief who asked his staff to be polite to Judd. The Congressman was not stood up but, after listening for a long while to his well-known views on China, some of the staff excused themselves and thereupon did their convening and singing in the room above. Had these indeed been Foreign Service officers—China Hands—this would have been a shocking instance of skewed conduct.

Macomber has a whole chapter in his Angels’ Game on the diplomat’s relations with Congress. It contains nothing novel or esoteric, just plain sense, none of which the China Hands seemed to have possessed, at least in this instance. Such deliberate antagonism of an influential Chiang supporter in the Congress could only fortify any suspicion that he might have had that American diplomats in China were a heedless, reckless, undisciplined lot. It was just this suspicion which came to permeate Washington and made it difficult for colleagues of the China Hands to come to their defense when the walls caved in.

Diplomacy has always been, at least in modern times, a profession of professions, a calling of callings—of politics and political science, of military science, law, journalism, economics, history, philosophy, public relations, and almost anything else one can think of. So Harold Noble’s preparation was remarkably apt, Born and reared in Korea, he got his doctorate in this country, spent some years in university teaching on the West Coast, served in the U. S. Marine Corps during World War II, became a migratory journalist in Asia, shifted to government service with the U. S. occupation authorities in Japan and Korea, where he wound up as political adviser to Lt. Gen. John H. Hodges in Korea. He was attached to the U. S. delegation to the U. N. General Assembly meeting in 1948 and then, at Ambassador John Muccio’s request, joined Muccio’s embassy in Seoul as first secretary.

The record which Noble kept of the embassy’s experience during the North Korean invasion provided the material for Embassy at War, a first-class account greatly enriched by the extensive notes of Frank Baldwin. Noble’s Korean background, as the Chinese background of such China Hands as Service and Davies, gave him a command of the indigenous language and insights possessed by no other member of the embassy staff and, together with his family’s relationship with Syngman Rhee—Noble’s father had taught Rhee—brought the American mission a ready and invaluable entrée to the irascible President. His record, therefore, throws revealing light on what well-qualified first secretaries can do as negotiators and persuaders of heads of state that ambassadors sometimes cannot and demonstrates the absurdity of Sir Harold Nicolson’s contention that diplomacy is a written rather than a verbal art.

William Macomber only gently contests that absurdity, but his book is a thoroughly modern discussion, moving through the thickets of verbal and written diplomacy with an almost augustan dignity. As Horace observed, a classic must be interesting as well as instructive and Macomber, who is a first-class diplomatic operator, could have made his opus a magnum had he kept this in mind and reduced his abstractions to the living world, as Charles W. Thayer did in Diplomat. He does not so much as obliquely refer to the China Hands although their experiences and tribulations are poignantly apropos of many of his generalities.

These various studies are of a piece, attesting how times have changed and how impossible it is for the careers, accomplishments, and failures of American diplomats and diplomacy itself ever again to be writ in water, least of all when the only available water is of tears of regret.

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