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John S. Service – The Man Who “Lost China,” Part I

During the 1950’s hundreds of government employees, entertainers, educators, and union activists were accused of being communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Careers were ruined, reputations smeared as people found themselves on black lists and the victims of unjust persecution. In 1950, Senator Millard Tydings (D-MD) headed the Tydings Committee to investigate McCarthy’s claims of Communist penetration of the federal government and military. The hearings revolved around McCarthy’s charge that the fall of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang regime in China had been caused by the actions of alleged Soviet spies in the State Department and that China expert Owen Lattimore was a “top Russian agent.”

The hearings, held from March to July 1950, were extremely stormy and attracted much media attention. The Committee published a report denouncing McCarthy and his claims as a hoax.

John S. Service, a Foreign Service officer and long-time “China hand” who had criticized Chiang Kai-Shek, was one of those accused. In these excerpts, Service describes the frustrating sham hearings he endured, the support he received from his colleagues at the Department, and his eventual dismissal from the Foreign Service on December 13, 1951.

Part II, taken from his wife, Caroline’s, oral history, deals with  their struggle to make ends meet after he was dismissed, the isolation they felt for the years they fought to reclaim his honor, and the Supreme Court decision which vindicated him.

You can also read about Service’s experiences in China and other Moments dealing with China and McCarthyism.

“There’s been a lot of stuff about you on the news”

SERVICE: We came out on leave in California, and then McCarthy started his speeches around Lincoln’s birthday, early February, Wheeling, West Virginia. All sorts of numbers, 207, 257, 81, 57, and so on of people employed in the State Department who were Communists or pro-Communist. Or traitors, security risks, and so on, all sorts of things. Perverts were apt to get thrown in too at that time. …I assumed, of course, that I would be in the list. McCarthy had already attacked me on the floor of the Senate. So I went every day down to the Berkeley Public Library to see the New York Times. Senators challenged McCarthy: he couldn’t just indulge in this sort of wild, random accusations. They wanted some evidence.

He said to protect the rights of people, he wouldn’t give any names, but he would give some details. Then he went through eighty-one cases that he said were the real substance, the core of his accusations. None of these eighty-one cases fitted me. I called up the State Department, called the chief of Foreign Service personnel, my old boss, the man I’d been working for. I said, “Well, what do I do? Here I am. Do I go to India or not?” He says, [loudly] “You’re not on the list. Go! Take off!”–the intimation being the sooner the better.…

[While in Japan] the radio operator one night at supper said, “Say, is your name John Stewart Service?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “There’s been a lot of stuff about you on the radio news, talking a lot about you in Washington.” This was the first intimation we had. We went up and heard a news broadcast over his radio. 

A day or two later I got a telegram from the Department saying I should return because of charges by Senator McCarthy. The family could either remain in Japan or go on to India. We decided they should go on to India. We expected that there would be a hearing. We knew from the radio broadcast that a Senate committee had been set up–but something that shouldn’t take long. So Caroline went on to India to get the children in school and get settled. I flew back from Yokohama. …

We were not well informed. We didn’t really know what was happening. The news broadcasts were very sketchy. Certainly annoyed, uncertain of course, about what was going on, but not particularly concerned. After all, I’d been through 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] and gotten a unanimous clean bill.

“I welcome this chance to have an investigation. I have nothing to hide”

I wasn’t prepared for the tremendous hullabaloo. But every place the plane stopped, the press were after me. I evaded them once by simply staying on the plane. … You keep saying, “I welcome this change to have an investigation to clear the air. I have nothing to hide.” You keep saying the same thing. And yet they pursue this at every single stop. What surprised me was the friendliness of the people on the plane.

When we got off in Seattle, they all gave me a friendly hand clap. This was true all the way through. With one or two exceptions, you always have friendship from people that know you, even on just a sitting beside you in an airplane basis, or trades people, liquor store clerks you deal with– Anytime anybody has any sort of personal relationship with you, they don’t believe any of this garbage at all. They’re very friendly and sympathetic. You read about somebody in the paper, it’s somebody far away. There’s no intimacy or humanity. He’s just a sort of cipher. You can believe something about somebody like that. But if you actually live next door to a person or see him, why, what you read in the papers doesn’t seem to affect you.…

One thing I might as well explain now–was that there were two levels of boards. Each department under the loyalty security program had its own board which was called the Loyalty Security Board. Then up above, set up by the president, nominally under the Civil Service Commission, there was something called the Loyalty Review Board. The Loyalty Review Board had the authority to review all cases to enforce uniformity of standards. They interpreted the executive order as giving them the right to call up and hear or reverse lower courts’ cases that were decided in favor of the employee. In any case, no one objected to their having the right to supervise.… 

Anyway we expected the State Department to be detailed and difficult. But we thought of the Tydings (seen at left) Committee which had been set up by this time, a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to hear McCarthy’s accusations and charges, as being the principal forum, because of its public importance.

Lattimore’s tactics had offended really some of the people who were inclined to support him simply because he had been so extreme and violent. It wasn’t a dignified way to act. We decided it would be better tactics to be low key, to admit some blame.

It was obvious that I had behaved in an abnormal fashion. We couldn’t explain in detail why I had. We had to admit some indiscretion. That was generally our policy. So that, the Currie business was not an overwhelming disaster. I think this may have been a subjective judgment by my lawyers. I may have overstated it, but they were in contact with all sorts of people. As I mentioned, Reilly was a friend of some of the senior, older senators. He may have gotten it from them. They were always in contact with a lot of other lawyers who were following these things very closely. 

I think the general feeling was that Lattimore might have helped himself if he hadn’t been quite so combative. He overdid it. Certainly I couldn’t have played that same kind of role. I’m just not the kind of person. Also, I was a government employee. Lattimore was not. He was a private citizen, had been outrageously attacked, and had a right to be outraged.

But, we just felt that it wasn’t good tactics for me to try to do a Lattimore. A little more dignified, a little more calm approach seemed to us to probably be more likely to bring along the people in the Senate that we wanted to bring along.…

State Department Loyalty Security Board Hearings

There were hearings before the State Department board, not every day, but almost every day, from May 26 to June 24, sometimes fairly long, some days not so long, depending on the board members’ available time. They were, of course, all people with other jobs to do. I won’t go into the details here. We asked for Hurley [a diplomat in China with Service] to appear, but Hurley declined. He would have had to agree to cross-examination by my attorney if he had appeared, and he didn’t want to do that obviously.

Q: Were you under oath? 

SERVICE: Oh yes, certainly. It was all semi-judicial. You’re under oath and a transcript is taken. The witnesses were all under oath, and evidence has got to be by oath or affidavit. …I asked for affidavits of testimony from a couple of people–they were army–who’d known me in China or in Japan, and they declined. But I didn’t particularly hold that against them. They were army officers, and they were concerned, obviously, about what it might involve them in.

Other people, General [Frank] Dorn, who’d been Stilwell’s closest friend and subordinate in China, and Joe Dickey who had been head of G-2 and people like that appeared without any hesitation, testified very fully. My former chiefs, [Ambassadors] Nelson, Johnson, and Gauss appeared.

Gauss’ testimony was interesting in one way, for showing us what happens in your FBI interviews. Hundreds of people were interviewed by the FBI. There are always two of them. They talk to you, and then they write their own notes down. What eventually comes back may be quite different from what the person said, because it’s a selective process of what they want to put down in the notes.

Then even that is probably selected again for writing up their report. In other words, they’re not looking for good things; they’re looking for bad things. Gauss was able to counteract some of the things that the FBI credited him with having said, but this was a problem in this whole process of interviews by FBI people.

At one point when they were talking to me, I tried to have a secretary in the room, and they wouldn’t talk with a secretary present. I wanted her to take notes. I said, “Well, you’re taking notes. Why can’t my secretary take notes?” They said, “Sorry, but we won’t talk to you on that basis.” So, you’re always alone, and there are two of them. You don’t know what they write down, what notes they take. 

The State Department Loyalty Security Board had a windup hearing on June 24. They told me then that their decision–up to that point–was favorable. They were in a tough spot. We were all unhappy, shall we say. The Tydings committee hearings on McCarthy’s charges had been going on for three months and had produced a great deal of furor, but no clear refutation in the mind of the public of those wild charges. 

By and large, the Department was quite helpful. We got a lot of information. We knew, for instance, that some of my reports in Jaffe’s possession had Larsen’s fingerprints on them, so he’d gotten them from Larsen; not from me. Information of that sort was proper to give us but if they’d wanted to be unfriendly, they might have withheld it.

Some of the wiretap information was rather amusing. They tapped a conversation between Jaffe and Gayn soon after I came back from China in 1945. One of them asked the other had he talked to Service and what did he think of him? The other man said, “Why, Service isn’t even a liberal.” [laughter] At any rate, the board gave a favorable decision and then we moved on the Tydings committee.

The Tydings Committee

We had a lot of hassling about whether the Tydings hearings would be open or executive. The committee wanted to have them closed. We insisted that they be open because McCarthy was finding out, from either Republican members or probably from the minority counsel, Robert Morris, something about what had gone on, which then he would give to the press in a very distorted way. This is a problem in Washington all the time of course. We’ve seen it more recently in other hearings. McCarthy was so unscrupulous and tricky about leaking stuff that had gone on in executive hearings that we wanted to have it all out in public. 

At the last minute they agreed to our request to make it open. … We had three days of hearings. The third day they insisted on being closed because they’d had this so-called secret recording of a conversation between Jaffe and myself. It wasn’t a recording at all. It was a transcription, an alleged transcription, of some sort of a wiretap or a listening device put in a room in Jaffe’s hotel. It was incomplete, very garbled, and some parts unintelligible.

We got finally a statement out of the Department of Justice, and they said that it was excerpts, portions, of a transcript and that the original had been destroyed.

We’ve never been able to get any access to the original. It’s got me, as we say in the testimony, it’s got me saying things that I couldn’t possibly have said. It was scrambled and was obviously of very poor quality. But the FBI destroyed it, so we weren’t able to get it. …

It’s been argued that we should have made more of an issue — perhaps by refusing to be interrogated on the basis of such clearly illegal evidence. We didn’t make any contest on admissibility. We took the point of view that when the loyalty of a public officer is involved, we were not going to make an issue of whether or not the evidence was obtained in a proper way. In a court of law, of course, it would not have been admissible. Both the minority and the majority counsel got into hassles about this. Of course, all the members of the Tydings committee were lawyers, so they would do some more arguing.

Too Cool and Calm?

You had to be cool, although some of the press people told me informally that they thought I should have shown a little more heat, you know. They thought that I was being too cool and calm. But, it seemed to me the best way to do it, the way we were doing it.

I think that my tone of voice may have been a little more heated than appears in the printed page. I don’t know. I tend to be too wordy of course, as I am here now. I think this annoyed the senators or whoever was interrogating me. Sometimes I got too detailed, but by this time I’d been doing my homework for a long time and I had an awful lot of information. I’d been through the State Department board as sort of a warm up exercise, so I was primed. I probably was too verbose and too lengthy. 

I had a funny experience after one of the hearings. People shared taxis, you know, in Washington. We were going back toward the State Department. Several people got in the taxi, newspaper people. One of them didn’t say a word to me the whole time, but when he got out, as he was getting out of the car, he said, “I don’t know how you think you can fool anybody with the shit you’re saying up there,” and walked off.…

They had a terrific hassle in the Senate as to whether or not they would accept it. There was about two or three days of debate. Somehow I got tickets and was in the gallery. No one recognized me.…The conclusion of the report was very favorable to me.…They investigated the Amerasia case very, very thoroughly, a great deal of investigation of the Amerasia case all through these books. Their report goes into it in detail. They rejected Hurley’s accusations.

The minority was going to put out a second report, but [Senator Bourke] Hickenlooper [R-IA] never did. [Senator Henry Cabot] Lodge [Jr, R-MA] put out a very brief report in which he said that the investigation in the Service case was complete. He was satisfied with that, but he wasn’t completely satisfied with the report in some other ways. For example, he didn’t think the Lattimore case had been conclusive. It hadn’t been complete or something of this sort. It was very favorable as far as I was concerned.…

The 1950 Elections: McCarthy’s Power Grows

I was saying before that, after the initial strong support, the Department had to pull in its horns, be more careful, particularly after the November 1950, elections when Tydings was defeated and a nonentity was put in. McCarthy got great credit for the defeat of Tydings. This really added greatly to his political threat. The State Department decided that the sort of confrontational standing up to McCarthy, the tactics Lattimore used, wouldn’t work.

After the election, they became very much more cautious.… The State Department board had told me in June, when they finished the case, that they were satisfied. But new information kept being produced. New accusations would come in. Every time this happened, the case had to be reopened. It was very difficult to ever bring anything to a close.

Then, the standards were changed. Originally, there had to be a reasonable basis to consider you disloyal. Then that was changed to reasonable doubts of loyalty. All cases had to be reconsidered under the new rules. When you get a certain amount of notoriety and get talked about enough in the press, people come up with all sorts of wild accusations, some completely frivolous, some easy to disprove. Anyway, they decided that I would have to be kept in Washington.

It was publicly announced in December 1950, that I had been cleared by the State Department. But this was only provisional. They brought Caroline home. She came home in the spring of 1951. The children stayed in India for school and then came to the States.… 

The State Department, as I say, was wringing its hands about what to do with me. By this time Foreign Service personnel and departmental personnel had been brought under one personnel office. Pete Martin, I think, may have been head of personnel. I’d known him quite well in 1949 when I’d been working in the Department.

He wanted to know if I couldn’t volunteer for some specially arduous duty or something and get out of the State Department for a while on leave. He suggested the CIA. So, I said, “Okay, I’ll try.” I didn’t think the CIA would take me! I went over, saw a friend who had been in OSS during the war, and asked if the CIA could use me on some sort of “Mission Impossible.” Of course, [chuckling] their security people were not going to have anything to do with me, so that fell through.…

“The silly garbage about my having an affair with Zhou En-lai’s secretary”

About this time — in February actually I think it was — the press told us that Chinese intelligence reports from Taiwan had been supplied to some senators interested in the question of China policy — the assumption was Knowland and McCarthy — and that they were being translated for the senators by the Library of Congress. I went up to the Library of Congress and talked to the head of the Far Eastern section, which was old Arthur Hummel [Sr.], you know, compiler of Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period.

I wanted to get either copies of the Chinese originals, or copies of the translations. He was very sorry, but the Library of Congress couldn’t allow me to. It was an agency of the Senate or the Congress, and they could only work for Congress. So, it was something that he couldn’t let me have. Whichever senator it was, and I assume it was McCarthy, he leaked the reports to Fulton Lewis. Then Fulton Lewis had a fine sensational series of his reports. 

“Chiang Kai-shek had a wily crew of Chinese counter-intelligence agents on his payroll.” It describes how they followed John Stewart Service around, and it has the silly garbage about my having an affair with Zhou En-lai’s secretary. Chinese Mata Hari. It’s just absolutely, absolutely ridiculous sort of stuff. Anyway, that’s sort of an interesting exhibit maybe.…

On October 11, we got a letter rather surprisingly — it was surprising to us — from the Loyalty Review Board, saying that they were going to hold their own hearings. … It says that “the charges [reading from the letter] will be based upon the charges heretofore issued to you by the Department of State Loyalty Security Board.”

We had gotten a specific charge from the Loyalty Review Board, so we assumed–we read this literally–assumed that our charges would be the same. There wasn’t much for us to do in the way of preparation. We just sort of went in and said, “Here we are.” We didn’t prepare a case. 

The thing was actually held in early November, November 8. Three very distinguished elderly lawyers. The early morning hearing was very rigorous and concentrated heavily on Jaffe and my association with Jaffe. I was very discouraged at noon time, but Ed [Rhett] said, “Oh, don’t worry.” He didn’t think it was that bad. These guys were good lawyers, competent and experienced and they knew how to conduct a good cross-questioning.

The afternoon was rather deceptive because it was very relaxed. They asked me about what life was like in Yenan and my contacts with Foreign Service officers. Everyone laughed about some of the reports such as the views of Captain Alsop. Bingham was present himself most of the time — a rather forbidding, scowling presence — just as an observer. But he wasn’t a member of the panel. 

A staff member of the Loyalty Review Board asked some silly questions. He was a real know-nothing type. The only one of his questions I recall was to the effect that I had referred to “C-C” many times in reports, to the “C-C Clique,” and did this mean Chinese Communists? Well, of course, the C-C Clique is well known to anybody involved in Chinese affairs. It meant the Chen brothers, Chen Kuo-fu and Chen Li-fu–the right-wing clique of the Kuomintang. This was the expertise of the staff of the Loyalty Review Board.… 

As soon as I read the transcript it was clear to me that they had in their minds quite different charges from the ones in the original letter of October 11. The original charge was that I was a Communist or associated with Communists in such a way as to betray the security interests of the United States. The charge that they had in mind was a different thing in the regulations, a different section in the regulations about “willful disclosure of confidential information.”

I pointed this out to Ed. I wrote him a short memo, I think, and I pointed out how the whole thrust of the questioning indicated they were confused about what charges I had been given in my original letter.

Ed said, “By God, I think you’ve got a point here.” So, he went over to see the board. They were very embarrassed. They said, “Yes, that’s right.” They apparently never even read the original charges.… 

So, then what to do about the mix-up in the charges? They said, “Well, we can have hearings all over again if you want.” But, they didn’t think it would make any difference. Ed’s own feeling was that these were very experienced, reputable lawyers. They suggested a stipulation that the hearings were conducted as if we had been informed of the charges.

Ed said that his reaction was, as a lawyer, that these people would not use a technicality like this to hang one. Therefore, it must mean that they were going to decide in my favor. He thought we’d be okay to go ahead and sign the stipulation. So, we signed, waiving my right to a new hearing. 

The afternoon session was just so that it didn’t look too much like a kangaroo court. In other words they wanted to make the hearing last a little longer, but they hadn’t really any need to know much more, so the afternoon was very relaxed. I don’t think that signing the stipulation was our downfall in the sense it could have altered things any.

Q: In your opinion what were the grounds for their decision at that time? 

SERVICE: These people were under a great deal of public pressure, the atmosphere of the times. They were convinced, I think, that the State Department had been too lax. They didn’t understand anything from personal experience about the wartime background, the special circumstances in China, the relations with the press.…

I wasn’t used as the Department scapegoat. There’s just no basis for that. The Department, as I say, was pretty much on my side. The State Department at the Humelsine level, the top level, tried to cut its losses at the last minute. They weren’t going to make any fight about it.

But up to that point they had stuck by me through a lot of thick and thin. I was a scapegoat in a sense, a whipping boy– That isn’t the right word. I turned out to be an easy, vulnerable target for McCarthy and for the China Lobby and for the Kuomintang.

Read Part II