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Suzanne Pepper on John S. Service

Posted on Feb 12, 2010

By Suzanne Pepper

John Stewart Service was one of several diplomats caught up in the currents of mid-20th century U.S. domestic and foreign policy as Washington’s strategic objectives shifted rapidly from fighting fascist aggression to halting communism’s advance. In “Honorable Survivor,” Lynne Joiner has tapped previously unavailable information from FBI files and State Department records to tell the story of his life in a sympathetic but carefully researched account that ranges from Mao Zedong’s north China redoubt to the marble precincts of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the leading U.S. Foreign Service political reporter in China between 1943 and 1945, Service quickly became a political lightning rod when he took it upon himself to advocate an unconventional direction for post-World War II China policy. In return, he was declared disloyal to his country, his career was ruined, and today 10 years after his death some still cry treason at the mention of his name. Joiner thus tells a cautionary tale about youthful self-confidence and indiscretion, compounded by the bitter enmity between conservatives and liberals that reached fever pitch during America’s long-running struggle to fix blame for the “loss” of China. 

The son of YMCA missionary parents, Service was born and raised in China but finished his education as did many other missionary offspring at Oberlin College. He graduated in 1931 and joined the Foreign Service two years later, beginning his career on the lowermost rung of the ladder as a clerk in the smallest of America’s 16 consular China offices. His apprenticeship passed quickly amid the gathering storm clouds of strife-torn 1930s China. After the consular women and children were evacuated from Japanese-occupied Shanghai in late 1940, Service embarked upon the adventure that would lead to his arrest by the FBI five years later, cutting short a promising career and prompting his long quest for vindication.


book cover


Honorable Survivor: Mao’s China, McCarthy’s America and the Persecution of John S. Service


By Lynne Joiner


Naval Institute Press, 450 pages


Buy the book

With Service assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Chungking, wartime capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government, his command of the Chinese language, widespread contacts and reporting skills soon made him an indispensable member of the staff. Service was the first Foreign Service political officer to report from China after America entered the Pacific War in December 1941, and his views were eagerly sought by the Washington intelligence community when he returned for consultations a year later. Among other things, he suggested sending American observers to the north China headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party to learn more about U.S. ally Chiang Kai-shek’s nemesis, Mao Zedong, and the rural-based movement he led. 

Many journalists and others were making the same wartime journey north from Chungking to Yenan and would reach similar conclusions about the Communists’ growing strength relative to the Nationalist government’s decline. But Service’s internal reports went further: He argued that a renewal of civil war was probably inevitable and that U.S. military supplies sent to Chiang Kai-shek would probably be used against his Communist adversary rather than the Japanese. Service’s first such report, in January 1943, launched a debate that would continue for years about whom to support and how and why. It pitted the powers that be in Washington against Foreign Service officers and observers in the field, among whom Service was probably the most knowledgeable and certainly the most prolific. He was also eager to circulate his message as widely as possible, both inside and outside official channels, a practice not uncommon at that time. On returning to Chungking, he was transferred to work as a political adviser at U.S. military headquarters under the command of Gen. Joseph Stilwell. In mid-1944, Service had the satisfaction of seeing one of his ideas bear fruit when a U.S. Army observer group, known as the Dixie Mission, was finally sent to Yenan. Attached to the team as its only civilian member, Service spent three months getting to know the Communist leaders, who promised all possible cooperation with American battle plans for the final defeat of Japan. Service’s effort culminated in February 1945 with a policy recommendation he drafted that was signed by all the embassy’s political officers. They agreed that civil war in China was imminent and that Mao would probably win. In order to keep postwar options open for future U.S.-China relations, they urged that Washington adopt a policy similar to that being followed in Yugoslavia, where aid went to all sides, both Communist and otherwise, in the final push to defeat Nazi Germany.

The recommendation was summarily rejected and all its signatories were recalled by order of Ambassador Patrick Hurley. He himself would resign only a short time later, damning them for what he regarded as their pro-Communist sympathies. By then, Service had already been arrested for lending some of his Yenan reports to Phillip Jaffe, editor of the leftist magazine Amerasia, who was under surveillance on suspicion of stealing government documents.

In the multiple investigations that followed his arrest, Service was repeatedly exonerated between 1945 and 1951. Nevertheless, he was dismissed by the presidential Loyalty Review Board for suspected disloyalty based on his unauthorized disclosure of nonpublic documents. Intent on clearing his name, he pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court, winning a unanimous judgment clearing him of all charges in 1957. Still his adversaries would not let go, and they in turn pursued the case until President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing, which marked the end of an era, at least as far as official efforts to discredit Service were concerned. 

Service’s chief nemesis was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose determination to ferret out Communist sympathizers was notorious. He was suspicious of Service from 1945 onward. While Hoover’s relentless efforts did uncover some actual spies, there is nothing to suggest that Service was among them, despite his being fingered as a collaborator by Sen. Joe McCarthy. With Mao’s triumph in 1949, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea and growing Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, the anti-Communist crusade reached fever pitch.

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Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, February 13, 2010 at 2:46 am Link to this comment

anambrose, February 13 at 3:40 am;

Blow back’s a bitch.
It seems we’re treating blow back as an investment opportunity; we just keep investing in it.

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By anambrose, February 12, 2010 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment

General Stilwell bitterly complained that Chiang was stockpiling the arms, ammo, and supplies we were providing him to attack the Japanese to fight Mao after WWII ended. Stilwell was sacked for his efforts. The paranoia of “losing China” infected every Foreign Policy argument on Asia in America. We went into Korea and might have started WWIII if MacArthur crossed the Yalu or used the A bomb. Our entry into Vietnam after the French were thrown out was cut from the same crazy quilt and our fear of China’s intervention a la N Korea kept our options to the lose lose scenario of fighting a defensive war. The list of covert ops and policy screw ups is long indeed and we are finding out each day that the crap hitting our fan today was started 65 years ago. Our unconditional support of Chiang, the Vietnamese Cao Dai who included the Diems and a whole cast of bad guys (you know like the Sha of Iran?) have us once more knee deep and deeper into the big muddy. If we want our Republic back we have to dismantle our Empire and if we don’t do it. Others eventually will. That is Not the legacy I was hoping to leave my grandchildren.

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By ardee, February 12, 2010 at 7:38 am Link to this comment

My favorite worm nails it again!

We are doomed to repeat our mistakes until or unless we somehow begin to learn from them! We replace the absurdity of the “Cold War” a battle for markets really, not ideology, with a new absurdity. The belief that this so-called war on terror is anything but a dying colonialism’s last gasp at controlling the lives, the resources and the actions of others.

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Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, February 12, 2010 at 4:43 am Link to this comment

“Those may have been the days before party
realignment, but the anti-Communist drive was not a
bipartisan enterprise. Republicans spearheaded the
crusade and accused Democrats of being soft on
communism. Today they are accused of being soft on
terrorism. Joiner refers to Richard Nixon’s
senatorial election campaign in California when he
accused President Truman of treating alleged
Communist infiltration like an “ordinary political
scandal.” Today the accusation is about treating
terrorists like ordinary criminals.”
LOL, 60 years and nothings changed. Scary!

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