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.