The Magazine

How China Was 'Lost'

And could it have been saved?

Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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What was called by some “the loss of China”—the unexpected victory in 1949 of the Chinese Communists over the American-backed Nationalists—also destroyed the career of the diplomat John Paton Davies Jr. (1908-1999) as, in the 1950s, he and other like-minded “China hands” were wrongly accused of having been responsible for the defeat. Davies’s China reporting had certainly been pessimistic about Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government—which Franklin Roosevelt was determined should take its place as one of the “Big Four” after World War II—while consistently upbeat about the Communists, to whom, he forecast, “China’s destiny” belonged.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Chiang, General Joseph Stilwell, 1942

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Chiang, General Joseph Stilwell, 1942


The charge, however, confused accuracy (the Communists did, in fact, win) with advocacy, needlessly sacrificing one of the ablest diplomats of his generation.

Davies was born in China to missionary parents and educated at the University of Wisconsin, Yenching University in Beijing (which was built by American philanthropy, abolished by the Communists, and whose architecturally distinguished Chinese-style campus now houses Peking University), and Columbia University. He served in consular posts from 1933 to 1940. In 1942, he was assigned by the State Department to serve with General Joseph W. Stilwell in Chungking (now Chongqing), the Chinese wartime capital.

General George C. Marshall wanted Stilwell, a superb ground fighter, to advise Generalissimo Chiang on military matters and to command Chinese and Allied operations in Burma that would secure Chinese supply lines from India. Stilwell did all of that superbly, but he was a difficult man—nicknamed “Vinegar Joe”—who scarcely concealed his contempt for Chiang, whom he called “the peanut.” When Roosevelt sought to make Stilwell commander of all troops, including the Chinese, Chiang objected, and Stilwell was recalled in 1944 amidst bitter controversy, which also touched Davies. Davies then went directly to Moscow, where he became first secretary, and returned to Washington in 1947 to serve five years on George F. Kennan’s Policy Planning Staff, followed by a year in Germany. The emergence of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who included a number of leading China specialists among his targets, led to Davies’s sidelining to the embassy in Peru. In 1954, John Foster Dulles dismissed Davies from the Foreign Service. His already brilliant career went no further. Thereafter, he manufactured avant-garde furniture in Latin America and traveled the world. He also published two books about China and diplomacy. His clearances were restored in 1969, and he retired to Asheville, North Carolina.

This superb memoir, now thankfully published a dozen years after Davies’s death, can be read in two ways. Viewed as a commentary on Chinese politics, it is very much as one would expect, given Davies’s reputation. It is almost merciless in its chastising of Chiang Kai-shek, of his formidable, Wellesley-educated wife, Mayling Soong, and his smart, constantly intriguing, Harvard-educated brother-in-law, T.V. Soong, as well as their circle of foreign admirers. These included General Claire Chennault of “Flying Tigers” fame, a tireless advocate in Chungking of an airpower-based strategy against the Japanese (anathema to Stilwell), and the patrician journalist and OSS officer Joseph Alsop, among others.

The surprise is Davies’s relentless and telling criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he analyzes and criticizes more thoroughly than he does any Chinese actor. It quickly becomes clear that the vagaries of Roosevelt’s ill-considered and amateurish approach to China not only vexed serious Foreign Service professionals like Davies, but also sowed, early in the war, the seeds of the catastrophe that would overtake China when the Communists came to power some four years after the war’s end. Most commentary on the Communist victory in China, and how America did or did not contribute to it, concentrates on the end of World War II and the immediate postwar period. To read Davies is to be abruptly reminded how badly China was handled by the Roosevelt administration, with what adverse consequences, and from how early a time. The fundamental problem was that Roosevelt embraced a mythicized version of Chinese reality, in which he identified China as one of the Big Four great powers that would take responsibility for the postwar world, with its leader Chiang (whose name FDR characteristically rendered as “Shang”) in the same class as Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and himself. Strongly promoted by the Chinese government, this was an illusion from which Roosevelt never took the trouble to free himself.

True, Chiang had managed by 1928 to impose a fragile unity on the country. But in 1931 hostilities with Tokyo began when Japanese troops annexed Manchuria (today the three provinces of Northeast China). That struggle became total in 1937, when the Japanese invaded the heart of China to the south, including Shanghai, into the battle for which Chiang threw his best German-trained divisions. When that was lost, a long, bloody fighting retreat ensued—through Nanking (now Nanjing, where the terrible massacre occurred), up the vast Yangtze River to Wuhan (where Davies had been consul), and finally to Chungking in the distant southwest. This city was chosen as last refuge because it lay above the precipitous three gorges of the Yangtze, which were impassable to land forces, and was thus one of the few places in China the Japanese could not reach—except by air: They bombed it regularly.

Such was the dire situation when the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Strategically, China was a spent force, though fighting continued all over the map. It was incapable of a war effort remotely comparable to what the British, Soviets, and Americans were mounting. Not only that: Its government, never strong throughout the country, had been greatly weakened, while the Communists, who favored low-casualty guerrilla tactics, were growing in strength.

Nor was the United States in a position to offer much help. Washington judged Europe to be the primary theater, which meant that material aid to the embattled Chinese was “only a trickle” during 1942-43, years when aid poured into Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1944, an all-out Japanese offensive came very close to toppling Chiang’s government, and Washington briefly panicked. Yet none of this struck home: FDR’s “geopolitical assumption” remained that China, under Chiang’s leadership, would become a great power after the war. Such an outcome would have been possible only if America had designated China the primary theater in the war against Japan: if they had landed hundreds of thousands of troops there, systematically built up Nationalist forces, and moved deliberately from south to north, retaking the vast continent of China, mile by mile and battle by battle, as was done in Europe. That approach was discarded, however, in favor of the far less casualty-intensive strategy of island-hopping and bombing Japan.

Instead of joining the war in China, the best the administration could do, as Davies observes, was “to present Chiang Kai-shek with a high-ranking military officer as adviser .  .  . an earnest of large-scale support to come.” Rather than grappling with the inescapable issues that Davies and others were already pressing—e.g., how to work with a faction-ridden Chinese government whose armies were being bled white; whether to adopt a China-based or Pacific-based strategy against Japan; how to deal with the inevitable territorial demands Stalin would make, certainly extending to Manchuria—

The President put great store by getting along with the Generalissimo. His vision of the Big Four gaining victory and dispensing a just peace depended on, he thought, avoiding unpleasantness with Chiang.

To make matters worse, Roosevelt was “a politician not an executive,” and was accustomed to undercutting and bypassing his formal officialdom, treating even his secretaries of state as “greeters” while he and Harry Hopkins ran foreign policy.

Not surprisingly, the most compelling reading in this memoir is Davies’s description of how, exactly, this was done. Particularly delicious is his rendering of the remarkable procession of personal envoys—one of Roosevelt’s favorite expedients—who regularly arrived in Chungking with utterly vague remits, while keeping the American premise of China’s great-powerdom inflated, creating unrealistic Chinese expectations, and utterly confusing lines of responsibility and command.

The first was Lauchlin Currie, “a brisk, little, rimless-bespectacled Harvard economist who had been acquired by Roosevelt as a special assistant.” When Davies came to know him in Washington, Currie was developing “an interest in Chinese affairs .  .  . and took to phoning me .  .  . to ask for information or my comments on Chinese events. I thought it odd that he should occupy himself with matters so evidently outside his expertise. But then this spontaneous straying into other jurisdictions to dabble therein was characteristic of the helter-skelter Roosevelt administration.”

Currie was eventually sent to Chungking as a “special adviser” to Roosevelt. On the basis of the most superficial inspection, he recommended “the recall of Stilwell and [Ambassador Clarence E.] Gauss.” Not only that, he “considered himself to be the most suitable replacement for Gauss, a dream that was not to be realized.”

Then, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie turned up, “visiting China on a round-the-world junket meant to fabricate an image for himself as a man of vision.” General Chennault prevailed upon Wilkie to carry a letter from him to Roosevelt asking for “105 fighters, 30 medium bombers, [and] 12 heavy bombers,” with which Chennault promised to accomplish “the downfall of Japan.” General Marshall dismissed this as “just nonsense,” but the approach appealed to FDR as a quick and easy solution to an otherwise impossible problem.

In 1943, Davies and Stilwell attended the Cairo Conference, at which Chiang joined Churchill and Roosevelt to discuss the Asian theater. Churchill, who was ready to let China fall, tried without success to persuade Chiang and his wife to go sight-seeing while the others met. Roosevelt was solicitous of the Chinese leader. Stilwell understood this method, confiding to his diary, “The Squire [FDR] was in good spirits, looking for short cuts.” Davies was appalled to find that FDR was dispensing with any State Department aid in translation or negotiation. Ignored at the conference was his colleague, Willys Peck, who “spoke Chinese fluently, for years had been acquainted with Chiang, and was the soul of discretion.”

Without the inhibiting presence of a knowledgeable American at his side, Roosevelt plunged into cultivation of Chiang and soliciting the Generalissimo’s collaboration in building a Rooseveltian world order. Madame Chiang .  .  . bedizened as for a cocktail party .  .  . interpreted at the private meeting between FDR and her husband.

The president’s utterly “dilettantish foreign policy” became even clearer when some of the Americans were treated to an informal session with him:

We heard a good deal about his ancestors. The one who went to China, made a million, returned home, lost it in a coal mine investment, went back to China, made another million, went home and put it in railroad stock which did not pay a dividend until two years after his death. Told with much laughter.

Davies and Stilwell left confused and depressed.

It was part of the politician’s brush-off technique. He never directly came to grips with the real subject at hand—what did he want the General to say to Chiang[?] .  .  . What instructions as to policy toward China did he have?

In the car on the way back to the Mena House hotel, Stilwell “held his head in his hands.”

When they returned to Chung-king, the flow of emissaries continued. Vice President Henry Wallace arrived. Roosevelt had ostensibly sent him to help with the problems between the Nationalists and their Communist rivals. Davies explains that the real point of the mission was to ease Wallace out of the United States so that Roosevelt could “lay the ground for unloading him as running mate at the upcoming Democratic convention.” Wallace, too, recommended the removal of Gauss and Stilwell.

Following Wallace, and as FDR’s “personal representative for economic matters,” was Donald Nelson, deposed head of the War Production Board, whom the president also did not want in Washington. Harry Hopkins told Davies that he was perplexed as to how the “personal representative” might actually occupy himself, but added that “Nelson would be happy if the Chinese provided him with four or five girls—that would keep him quiet.”

Most disastrous of all of Roosevelt’s envoys was Patrick J. Hurley, an Oklahoma lawyer who had been Herbert Hoover’s secretary of war. An honorary major general in the National Guard who was given to Choctaw war whoops and other “flamboyant displays of mesquite, tomahawk, and six-shooter culture,” he floundered hopelessly as he tried to make peace between the irreconcilable Communists and Nationalists. But, inexplicably, Roosevelt radioed Hurley late in 1944: “Your intimate knowledge of the situation there both from the military and diplomatic stand-points .  .  . eminently qualifies you to be Ambassador to China.” And so it was. Had Roosevelt consciously sought to ruin his China policy through incompetent staff, he could scarcely have done worse.

As Davies reflected, contemplating the sorry group of political outcasts with whom he had to work, “China is apparently to the American political scene what Siberia is to the Russians. Only, Roosevelt’s technique is quicker and more humane.”

Eventually, Stilwell was replaced by General Albert C. Wedemeyer, and Davies went to Moscow. Relations between the Chinese and Americans in Chungking became less “rancid,” but the basic problems remained, particularly that of Soviet ambitions.

To Davies’s disgust, the dying Roosevelt had, at Yalta in February 1945, endorsed Stalin’s postwar occupation of Manchuria, something on which Chiang would have choked, given that Japanese annexation of the territory had been the cause of war with Japan in the first place. Moreover, as Davies observes, Stalin would have taken it in any case; blessing such an action served no American end.

Davies understood, as well, that Soviet-occupied Manchuria would become a sanctuary for the Chinese Communists, and perhaps a Soviet client state, the possibility of which FDR seemed entirely unaware of. So thoroughly did Yalta shred the myth of China as one of the Big Four—a myth Roosevelt had been at pains to preserve—that a typical Rooseveltian ruse had to be invoked: Chiang was not to be told of the agreement’s full contents until the time was judged right.

As it turned out, the Nationalist attempt to retake Manchuria in the first phase of the Chinese Civil War would prove their strategic undoing, the great mistake that led to the loss not only of that territory, but of the rest of China as well.

Here we are brought, finally, to the once-politically-explosive question of what, if anything, the United States might have done differently that could have helped spare China the bitter fate of Communist rule, which Mao’s biographer Jung Chang estimates cost some 70 million lives. Questions over this ruined Davies’s career; we cannot leave the man without considering them.

Like many China hands of his generation, both diplomats and journalists, John Paton Davies certainly had a higher opinion of the Communists than he did of the Nationalists. The Nationalists he knew intimately, at first-hand, in intrigue-ridden and climatically oppressive Chungking. The Communists he knew more through reports and through one visit he made to their wartime redoubt, Yenan (now Yan’an) in the Loess Plateau region of the northwest, where bracing clear weather was more the order.

Moreover, Davies was convinced that what was happening in China was more than a war. As he later put it when explaining why a Marshall Plan could not save the Nationalists in China as it did Western Europe, the country was in the throes of a “profound political, economic, and social revolution.” For that reason, Davies never saw Chiang as personally responsible for the problems of his government. Their ultimate source was China’s obsolete social and political structure, which would frustrate any attempt at mobilization or national reconstruction. Chiang was “a captive of the sorry forces he manipulated.”

Davies supported the creation of the American observer mission in Yenan in July 1944, and the supply of weapons to the Communists as well as to the Nationalists. While in China, he took Communist affirmations of pro-American and democratic principles seriously enough to consider whether it might be possible to wean them from Moscow and win them over. He was distressed, when Mao and his colleague Zhou Enlai expressed a desire to visit the United States, that Roosevelt took no action: Any contact with the Communists ran afoul of the generalissimo.

The Communists were not only more modern than the Nationalists, thought Davies, they were also less autocratic. Late in 1945, when Davies was already in Moscow, Mao had given Reuters an interview in which he promised a fully democratic, secret-ballot, multi-party system should he come to power. Many foreigners were persuaded by this. So, too, were Chinese. Davies saw the Communists trending toward “more or less democratic nationalism.”

Such views were widespread at the time, particularly within the Foreign Service and among those associated with General Stilwell. They were, as is clear with more information today, incorrect in certain ways. But they were long influential. John Fairbank, who taught this reviewer at Harvard, had come to the same conclusions during his time with the OSS in China, confessing to a close colleague, “I’ve supported these people since the 1940s.” (His break with the Communists came only with the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.)

The positive view of Chinese communism was largely silenced in America during and after the McCarthy period, only to regain life as controversy mounted over the Vietnam war. In 1972, the journalist Barbara Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for her Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945, very much the right book at the right time. There, and even more explicitly in a 1972 article in Foreign Affairs (“If Mao Had Come to Washington: An Essay in Alternatives”), Tuchman argued that, by failing to embrace Mao and his colleagues in the war and its immediate aftermath, the United States had lost the chance to help power a liberal, modernizing, and pro-Western People’s Republic of China, while avoiding the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Davies’s wartime writings, along with those of some of his colleagues, became fundamental texts of this view—which, for a while, ruled among academics and the American foreign policy elite. Davies, however, never embraced the “lost chance.” Clearly, he was bitter about the bungling of the Roosevelt administration, with its single-minded concentration on the Nationalists—not to mention its disgraceful treatment of him. But readers of this volume will clearly understand that Davies’s primary concern was keeping the Soviet Union from extending its sway into northern China, possibly even to Peking, and forestalling the emergence of a Sino-Soviet bloc.

Thus, he writes:

In retrospect, the idea of politically capturing the Chinese Communists was unrealistic. It reflected my underestimation of the Communists’ commitment to ideology. Better grounded was the calculation that American aid to the Chinese Communists, who I assumed would take over China in any event, could free them of material dependence on the Soviet Union and thereby reduce the Kremlin’s influence on them.

China Hand is absorbing reading, characterized by a clear style, rigorous and razor-sharp analysis, and steady irony. It is also a very important contribution to the underresearched history of American China policy in wartime. Davies’s story suggests that the roots of the Cold War in Asia lie very much in failing, from the outset, to consider the postwar interaction of the Soviet Union and China. He does not say it, but others have observed that if Washington and Moscow had agreed on clear spheres of influence in China (and Korea), as they did in Europe—in effect partitioning China and confining its leaders to set postwar zones (roughly the Communists to Manchuria, the Nationalists to the south)—a far more stable and less troubled region would have been the result.

Franklin Roosevelt thought of China as a power already securely held by “Shang.” But John Paton Davies recognized how tenuous was the generalissimo’s hold on power, while understanding as well that once the Japanese were defeated, China would become a power vacuum, tempting to Moscow, and beyond the capability of the Nationalists to control. In that sense, the collapse of China into communism was aided by the incompetence of Roosevelt’s policy.

But China Hand must be digested by anyone interested in China, then or now. We still live, after all, in an age of myth about China.

Arthur Waldron, Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of several works on China, and the editor, most recently, of China in Africa.