Dec 9, 2013
Suzanne Pepper on John S. Service
Posted on Feb 12, 2010
Still, after the Supreme Court overruled the disloyalty charge, Service hoped to resume his career. His ordeal, however, was only half over. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee now stood guard, and a new security regimen at the State Department decreed that his entire case must be reviewed yet again before assignments and promotions could be decided. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Lynne Joiner gained access to this file, which Service himself never saw but which guided the six days of questioning he underwent during his final 1958 review.
Hence during the review, Service learned that Phillip Jaffe had indicated he received 19 reports from Service, not just a few as Service had always maintained. There was also the question of his Chungking housemate, Sol Adler, who had sent copies of Service’s reports to the Treasury Department and was suspected of having ties to a Soviet spy ring. Additionally, the Chinese actress Valentine Chao, with whom Service had an affair in 1944-45, was allegedly a Communist sympathizer or worse. He was reinstated following the 1958 review, but with his career path blocked by congressional pressure plus a permanent file that cited his past poor judgment and indiscretions, Service finally retired in 1962 after a series of dead-end assignments. He then enrolled as a graduate student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where he became something of a campus celebrity in the rich soil of an increasingly restive student body.
Still, Service’s enemies would not rest. Sen. James Eastland’s Internal Security Subcommittee published in 1970 a two-volume compendium of more than 300 Amerasia case papers subtitled “A Clue to the Catastrophe of China.” Service was given star billing and blamed not just for anticipating but espousing the fall of China to communism. Two years later, however, the FBI finally closed his case. With Nixon’s trip to China, Service’s views seemed finally to be vindicated, and in 1973 Service received a standing ovation at a State Department luncheon honoring the old China hands. It signified the end of official attempts to discredit him and them, but the old charges of betrayal and treason persist, as can be seen in Jonathan Mirsky’s review of Joiner’s book (The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 15 and 20).
Honorable Survivor: Mao’s China, McCarthy’s America and the Persecution of John S. Service
By Lynne Joiner
Naval Institute Press, 450 pages
Probably Joiner could not have written an end to such charges, but she might have presented a sharper rebuttal nonetheless. She writes that Service was reckless in his Amerasia association, and he himself told the 1958 review board that he felt he had been used. Yet those were conclusions reached after the fact and after the State Department’s lax pre-1945 security regulations were a thing of the past. World War II China was a different time and a different place. It was precisely because of his interest in socialism and the company he kept that he put the Communist base areas on his itinerary. Once there, he realized something new and important was under way and saw it as his responsibility to raise the alarm.
The source of Service’s tragedy was not so much his freewheeling wartime behavior as his standing between two worlds at a time when both were changing rapidly. He also knew more about the dangerous currents of Chinese politics than he did about his own. Returning to the United States in early 1945 for what he thought would be a brief stay between postings, he probably treated his Amerasia contacts like he treated his sources in China, assuming he was learning as much from them as vice versa.
For example, Joiner mentions that during his 1944 stay in Yenan, Service was given a map showing both Japanese and Communist troop concentrations, bunkers, airfields and the like. Service had asked about the map’s classification and his question was shrugged off with the comment that there was no need since everyone on both sides already knew everyone else’s battle positions. Yet this is the same kind of intelligence from the same period that Mirsky cites in his review as evidence of Service’s treasonous indiscretions. During telephone conversations shortly before his death in 1999, Service allegedly confessed to Mirsky about having shown Jaffe a map with KMT order-of-battle information. If such information had been treated so casually in Yenan, the question remains as to why Service should have treated it differently after returning to the U.S. a few months later.
In fact, the most fascinating aspects of this story are not about the Service case but about its place in the evolution of American politics and the striking similarities it highlights between past and present. Having spent most of his life in China, Service foresaw China’s political future more clearly than the impact that future would have back home. There the “loss” of China to communism reinforced conservative/liberal divisions that, far from ending with the Cold War, have since become even more firmly entrenched.
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. The FBI’s unauthorized break-ins and bugging were justified in the name of national security. And zealous conservative politicians stoked popular fears without troubling to define the Communist or socialist labels that proclaimed guilt by association and innuendo. In all of these respects, the Service case illustrates not just some overwrought episode from our past but patterns of political behavior that have been reproduced across several political generations to define our present as well.
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