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Suzanne Pepper on John S. Service

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.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).

 

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

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.

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and the author of “Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949.”

Suzanne Pepper
Reviewer
Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and the author of “Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949.” Pepper now authors her hkfocus blog which focuses on Hong Kong’s democracy…
Suzanne Pepper

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