Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

The Civil War in China, Part II –The Dixie Mission and Losing China

Service 2-CCPLeadersAfter attempting to convince Washington that a civil war in China was imminent and that the Communists would be the likely victors, John S. Service and a group of other U.S. diplomats traveled to Yenan in July 1944 to meet with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Nicknamed the Dixie Mission, the U.S. Army Observation Group spent several months there learning about the Communists, who were involved in a bitter struggle with Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). Ultimately, Washington’s view towards China did not change and, if anything, became more anti-Communist.

As a result of his trip, John Service was exposed to high levels of diplomatic infighting, which ultimately led to his ouster. Some of the key players included Patrick J. Hurley, a decorated Major General whom Roosevelt appointed as Ambassador to China in 1944, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, a U.S. army four-star general who was in charge of troops in China, and John Paton Davies, one of the China hands whose views largely aligned with Service’s. John Service was interviewed by Rosemary Levenson in 1977. Read  Part I.


Pushing for a trip to Meet with the Communists

SERVICE:  All this time we had been working on the question of getting permission to go to Yenan. When [Vice-President Henry] Wallace was coming we thought that this would be a good time to try to make one more try. The White House had earlier sent a request, which the Chinese had agreed to. They would let us go to north China, any areas under Kuomintang control. Of course this was not what we wanted.

DA-SD-05-00593Anyway, we drafted a message to the War Department for [General George] Marshall summing up all this and suggesting that Wallace’s visit would be a good time for a push. We got a message back which, as I recall, simply said that the White House had agreed that our message could be given to Chiang Kai-shek as being from the White House. We were elated at this, but it turned out that that morning — Wallace was already in town — that very morning Chiang Kai-shek had agreed. Apparently he decided that this was something he was going to be hit with. So, he’d agreed without being pushed on it.

Well, at any rate, this was a message which had to be delivered and we wanted to discuss details, so I was summoned with the chief of staff, who was General [Benjamin Greeley] Ferris up to the embassy where Wallace was having lunch. We arrived out at the Generalissimo’s and said that this message had come in, and although it wasn’t necessary we wanted him to know that the President thought this very important.

[Chiang Kai-shek was] like a stick of wood, impassive. They were very surprised when we walked in. Madame showed her surprise at seeing me there. I was there with Ferris, you see. They had expected Wallace. We were two extra people that they hadn’t expected. She walked into the room. She was a bit surprised, and then we explained why we were there. After we’d finished this, Ferris and I withdrew. We weren’t there for the last part of the talk. By this time they had already decided that I was not a friend. I think the Chiangs by this time had a pretty good idea that I was one of the pushers on this business — I made no particular bones of it –getting up there to Yenan. That was an unfriendly act as far as they were concerned.

“We’re not in a position to promise. We’re here to observe”

Service 2WorksYenanAirstripWe finally got up to Yenan on July 22, 1944. Part of the thing that dazzled us — dazzled us is too strong a word — was the difference in attitude in Yenan. Chungking was simply waiting for the end of the war to come. Here up in Yenan — they had nothing, and they were poor as anything, off in the boondocks, the whole atmosphere was just full of confidence and enthusiasm. They were absolutely sure that they were winning. As the Communists always say, the situation is excellent. Everything is positive, everything is good, we’re going to win, we are on the winning road. We hadn’t expected this. They obviously expected, as we got to talk to them more, expected to be very important in the post-war era, expected to share power, at least, with the Kuomintang. They were quite confident that, “The Kuomintang can never whip us, can never take away these territories.”

People would drop in to see you. It was all very informal, as I say, like a sort of a Christian summer conference atmosphere. People were living fairly close together. Mao Zedong might drop by for a chat in the evening, or we could go over and see them almost at any time or on very short notice. They had some telephones, very poor ones. But you could call over to the headquarters and say, “Can I come on over?” “Sure.” If you came, it might be a “Stay for lunch” sort of thing. It was all a very congenial, friendly, frank sort of an atmosphere. Of course, there were things they didn’t tell us, but we didn’t know what they were. [laughter]

We didn’t draw our conclusions immediately. We tried to wait a time until people had traveled in the areas and gotten out and seen what the guerrillas were doing and what things were like. But the confidence that we ran into, the difference in the morale, esprit, this was something that hit us right away. The ways things got done. If you asked for things, yes, they said they’d do it, and it was done, promptly, in fact, efficiently. In Chungking nothing was efficient. Nothing seemed to work and everything took a long time. But, almost anything– “Newspapers, yes, we can get them for you.” Pretty soon we started getting newspapers from Peking and other occupied cities in a very surprisingly short time. All sorts of things.

We had a very elaborate briefing when we first got there. We told them: “We’re not in a position to negotiate. We’re not in a position to promise. We’re here to observe. We want to find out all we can about you, what you’ve been doing, what the war has been like, what you think of it.” So, they arranged a very extensive series of briefings. Each day we’d have another Communist leader come and spend the whole day more or less briefing us. Sometimes it was two days. A lot of them were already in Yenan….

service 2Mao-Yenan-350Mao said at one of the very early meetings, “I suppose you want to see me,” you know, with a smile on his face. I said, “Why yes, certainly I do.” But, he said, “I want to see you also, but I think maybe it’s better if we wait till we get acquainted a bit, you see more about us, know more about us, and then our talk will be more useful.” Just a month later I got word, could I see the Chairman the next day at two thirty or something. I said, “Of course, I can.” The talk was one that lasted from two till ten at night….

[In Chungking] the attitude of the Chinese officials, generally, that you met was rather resentful. They had a feeling that you were critical of them. So they were rather on guard, rather prickly. They felt that we weren’t giving them very much, we weren’t doing what we should for China. So most of our official relations in Chungking were uncomfortable, uneasy. They were particularly suspicious of me. The fact that one could speak Chinese, read Chinese, was something that made them suspicious….

The idea became very fashionable that everyone who had served in China had preconceived ideas, had prejudices, and what was needed was a whole new crew….Everyone assumed…even apparently Roosevelt, that the Chinese Communists after all would do what the Russians told them to do.

“Chiang Kai-shek is not China”

service 2hurley_Communist_-_531400.tifWe were fairly cut off in Yenan ourselves. We knew about [Personal Representative of President Roosevelt, General Patrick] Hurley’s coming. The Chinese Communists wrote Hurley a letter inviting him to come up since we’d been told he was to solve the problems of China, or at least his own publicity gave that impression. They invited him up. We got no answer, and the Chinese got quite impatient after he’d been in Chungking for about a month and they hadn’t heard from him.

Then on the tenth, I think it was, of October, the plane came in….Colonel [E.J.] McNally,… assigned to Hurley as a military aide,…told us, to our amazement, that…the only thing they were talking about in Chungking was whether or not Stilwell’s job could be saved. The Kuomintang were trying to get him fired. We had a big venting of feelings and I wrote that famous memorandum of October 10 that caused so much hullabaloo later on. But, I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said by many other people, by [General Joseph ] Stilwell, by Davies, and by other people. In other words, that Chiang Kai-shek is not China, and we should not limit ourselves to talking to Chiang Kai-shek.

At any rate, Stilwell was recalled about a week after that….By the time Stilwell got to the States, his mouth was sealed. He wasn’t allowed to talk. So, the policy issues were pretty much fixed. The theater had been split….

Hurley said he wanted very much to talk to me. It was not much of a conversation because Hurley simply held forth and kept saying that he was going to get the Communists arms, he knew what they wanted, he knew all about them, and so on.

Q: What was your impression of him at that time?

SERVICE: A blowhard. A man that you can’t talk to, that can’t, wouldn’t listen, and won’t talk to a man who’s been on the spot and knows something. [loudly, paraphrasing Hurley] “All you people seem to think I’m an ignoramus, that I’ve never had any experience. I’ve done a lot of negotiating. I’ve brought parties together. I did this in Mexico.” He solved the Sinclair Oil claims against the Mexican government after expropriation. “I’m not a child,” he said, shouting loudly….

The interesting thing as far as my own future is that…the Chinese, I think, were in a quandary about what to do. American reaction to an American general being recalled to appease a foreign dictator was rather bad. The decision was made to blame it on his advisers. Almost simultaneously all over the world, wherever there was a Chinese embassy or bureau of the Central News Agency, or press officer, the same story popped out that Stilwell was a fine person, the Generalissimo had the highest regard for him, he’d tried to give him China’s highest decoration — which Stilwell refused — before he left, but that Stilwell had been misled by these young pro-Communist advisers, Davies and Service. This popped up everywhere. Of course, to anyone who knew Stilwell, it’s laughable. Stilwell was a man of very strong mind, and he’d been in China since I was a kid. The idea that Stilwell, who I only saw three or four times altogether, was being led around by the nose by these young advisers, is for the birds. But anyway, this was the Kuomintang solution of the Stilwell problem, was that it was these young advisers misinforming Stilwell.

Futility in Washington, Again

In 1942, I was the first political officer back from China after Pearl Harbor. This time, in ’44, I was the first person back to Washington who’d been in Yenan. So it was the same thing, only double in spades. I was in much more demand for these debriefing sessions. I had, of course, far more to say. I’d observed far more. It was a frantic business of running around and talking to Currie and more talks with people like [Drew] Pearson, other newspaper people, a lot of them sent to me by the Department.

Hopkins-HarryI was called to [close FDR advisor and key person behind Lend-Lease Harry] Hopkins’ office, had about forty minutes with Hopkins, in a little tiny office in the White House, barely enough room on the floor for me to stretch out this map. Showing the extent of Communist controlled areas of China. He said, at the end that, “Well, very interesting, and probably what you say is mostly true,” or “Most of what you say is true.” “But, after all, they call themselves Communists. Besides, the only Chinese that Americans know is Chiang Kai-shek.” That was the end of the conversation. I tried feebly to do as I had done with Hamilton on an earlier talk, to say something about taking a positive role, informing the public, and so on. I said that when word gets out what the Communists are really like, the attitude toward them is going to change. But, Hopkins wasn’t really very much interested.

I was discouraged, but it seemed so completely absurd that I don’t think I really took it in. You know, “This can’t be,” was my reaction. He asked me about Hurley as ambassador, and I said it would be a disaster. He said, “Why?” I said, “He’s in the Kuomintang pocket, working against Stilwell.” But Hurley was appointed….

The chief of personnel, chief of Foreign Service personnel…said that he had very serious doubts about sending me back to Chungking, that he’d been told that it would very likely have bad effects on the family. I said the real problem in Chungking, as far as I could see it, was Hurley, his attitude toward the Foreign Service….

[Shortly thereafter I] got a telegram…from my brother Dick and from Dave Barrett. I think they said, “Don’t go to Chungking, You’re committing suicide. Don’t go. Hurley will have your scalp.” “Well,” I said, “one can’t refuse. You can’t not go after having accepted the assignment. So I went….

Service 2-Zhou-Barrett-LuddenI was in Chungking from January 18 and I left in early April [1945], so I was only in China for a relatively short while. It’s a confused and ineffectual period in a way. Hurley wanted to talk to me, as soon as I arrived, and this was when he gave me the warning that if I interfered with him, he would break me. I said I had no intention of interfering with him. After all, any military or other commander needed intelligence, information, and I felt that was my job. Also I was working for the army, which was something he never really accepted. He felt that he was coordinating all American activity in China including the army….

This business of lying low and not interfering with Hurley proved to be very difficult. Zhou En-lai was in town for negotiations which had died out, petered out. He looked me up and, of course, the Communists were desperately trying to find out just what was American policy. I’m not quite sure right now just how he did it….I didn’t look him up. I was at this time trying to be fairly cautious.

“There is great potential for cooperation with the Communists”:  A Joint Dispatch

Sometime early in February, Ludden came back, Ray Ludden, a Foreign Service officer who had gone up with the Dixie Mission. He’d been on a long trip to the guerrilla areas, way out to the area fairly close to Peking. He was a fresh mind. He hadn’t been intimidated. He and I went to see Wedemeyer. We had an outline. He told Wedemeyer what great potential there was for cooperation with the Communists. Wedemeyer was very interested and said, “Well now, I’m going to Washington very soon with Hurley, and we’ll undoubtedly talk about these things.” He wanted us to write out more fully what we’d discussed, which we did in a memo on February 17. Then he gave orders for Ludden to go to Washington to be there at the same time. But Ludden was never called in Washington….

Soon after [George] Atcheson, who was chargé d’affaires, said to some of us that he thought we should give a report on the situation since the Department hadn’t received any full reporting for some time, and give them our estimation of the situation….[To give] the message more impact –and also a good thing to show solidarity with Atcheson — we all signed the message: “This telegram has been drafted with the assistance and agreement of all the political officers of the staff of this embassy and has been shown to General Wedemeyer’s Chief of Staff, General Gross.”

service 2-GeneralWedemeyerThis went off [on February 28, 1945], and when it got to Washington there was a big explosion when Hurley saw it, although the State Department agreed wholeheartedly with it, sent it to the White House, and so on. This was fairly well discussed around American circles in Chungking. The fact that we were sending it was discussed. We took it over to the army, and the chief of staff, Gross, who was acting in the absence of Wedemeyer [at left], agreed to it wholeheartedly.

In March I got word, and I’m not sure just how the word came to me — Zhou En-lai had returned to Yenan — word came to me through the Communists that it would be a good time to be in Yenan. I got official orders and went and started reporting again from Yenan. The spirit had changed in Yenan. The Chinese Communists weren’t sure just what American policy was. They felt rebuffed. They were angry at Hurley because he had come up there in November and worked out with them their five points and agreed enthusiastically and signed them. Then as soon as he got back to Chungking and found out that Chiang Kai-shek didn’t like them, he had gone back on his word and had become in effect a spokesman for the Kuomintang.

Hurley had found out in Washington that I was in Yenan, and that apparently enraged him. He stormed over to the State Department, demanded I be recalled…. I was ordered home on army orders, and then released. This was the beginning of controversy and disagreement in Washington, you might say. In 1944 when I’d come home, everyone was interested in what I had to say and there was pretty general agreement. But this time people were already beginning to divide a little bit.

Some people in the State Department…were arguing that there was a civil war in China, the Communists are in rebellion, we can’t have any dealings with them. There were people in the Far Eastern section, particularly the old Japan contingent…who represented the anti-Communist point of view. The European people were anti-Communist, bitterly anti-Communist. They couldn’t believe that there was any difference between Chinese Communists and Russian Communists. So you began then at this period to have a sort of splitting in the Department. We had already reached a point, as I said, in the Department of having a debate as to what policy should be, whether we should try to maintain a neutral position in China. Some of us were already talking fairly freely that we were backing the wrong horse if we got behind the KMT.

“Just a venomous kick from a senile, old fool”

george atcheson[The Department] asked if I’d be interested in going to Tokyo with George Atcheson. I was very pleased. So I went out to Japan with George to be his executive officer, his number two [in 1945]…In late November the press called the office one day about a flash that had just come over the wire that Hurley had resigned. I went in and told George [Atcheson] about it. Without saying anything more, I just went down the hall to the vault and got a bottle of whiskey and brought it up to George’s office. The rest of the staff by that time had assembled to join in the excitement.

We had some paper cups and were just having good slugs of whiskey when suddenly the press was at the door, because by this time they had gotten more news about Service and Atcheson. For instance, they were the principal culprits accused by Hurley in his letter of resignation. [We were accused of] working with the Communists, opposing American policy and telling the Communists that he didn’t represent American policy. Also working with the imperialists and so on and so on. It’s a long blast, a famous blast. Poor George was frantic. Well, it was his first experience with anything like this. Also, he was much more at stake. He was already at the top. He was designated as Ambassador to Thailand. I think he saw his whole career being shattered.

At any rate, I wrote the State Department a long message answering Hurley’s charges. It seemed to be just a venomous kick from a senile, old fool. It seemed so incredible. Hurley had been frustrated that I hadn’t been fired in the Amerasia case [when the FBI raided the magazine’s office in 1945 and found classified material. Service was implicated because he had given a declassified briefing; he was subsequently cleared] and of course he had failed in China. By this time the two parties in China were squaring off at each other. Hurley’s attempts to bring about a peaceful settlement right after the signing of the Russian-Chinese treaty at the end of the war hadn’t worked. What we predicted was coming true. The Chinese Communists were not going to lie down and play dead. I felt that the Hurley letter, and its patently absurd accusations, was something that would be taken care of fairly soon. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did hold hearings. Hurley did make a fool of himself. They discontinued the hearings because he couldn’t make any case at all.

The China White Paper

I’ve got to talk about the White Paper, the China White Paper. China had been a hot topic since ’45, and all through the Chinese civil war, the Department had been under tremendous pressure. Before Truman was elected [in 1948], and then particularly after Truman was elected, he was bitterly attacked. The critics charged, “We’re letting China go down the drain.”

service Chiang_Kai-shek(   )By the summer of ’49, it was apparent that [Kuomintang] China was finished. All through the civil war we had abstained from anything which could be interpreted as being critical of the central government, Chiang Kai-shek. We couldn’t appear to push him out of China. By the summer of ’49, the administration had had enough of criticism. They were going to counterattack and defend themselves, prove that they had done everything they could to support Chiang, that it was not our fault that the Communists were winning. It was Chiang’s own failings. John [Davis] called me and said that it had been decided to add an annex to the White Paper, summarizing the views of some of us in the [China] field who had predicted what was going to happen.

Apparently the State Department wanted to have it both ways. First it hadn’t done anything to push Chiang Kai-shek, and also it wasn’t so stupid that it didn’t know what was going on. So they decided to put in some of our field reports. John wanted to know if I could get back to Washington and help write this annex, since we presumably knew our own reports better than anyone else. I got a train and went to Washington where I put together annex 47 of the White Paper, which is reports of officers in the field. After discussion we decided to do it by subject: Soviet intentions, Chinese Communist background, Kuomintang disintegration, and so on. These are all excerpts from reports that we wrote. It was accepted without change, as I recall, and was incorporated in the White Paper.

It was sensational, of course. It came out in the fall of ’49. It was bitterly attacked by [Representative Walter H.] Judd and the China Lobby. It couldn’t avoid criticism because it couldn’t be the whole record. As big as it is, it had to omit a good deal.

Gauss was the only smart man. Gauss said to me that we made a great mistake in letting our reports be in there. [chuckling] Of course we were pleased. You know, we thought this was fine. We even thought it was good to have it on the record, to prove we were right. But Gauss said it was a great mistake to put people in the limelight in this way by having the authorship of reports identified. He was absolutely right. This gave information and ammunition for the attacks on us. This was all used later on. It proved to a lot of people that we were the villains.

What could the State Department have done? Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t think that it was necessarily the wrong thing to do. The character of public opinion and the nature of the issue was something that probably couldn’t be predicted, even by a wise man. I don’t know if that should have stopped an attempt to clear the record.


  • soros oria

    For a good read on China at the cross-roads in 1945, see Richard Bernstein’s book, China 1945. Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. At times it’s a suspenseful page turner with memorable characters who made history.

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