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WWII heroes on the diplomatic front got raw deal back home

By Chris Davis in New York (China Daily USA)

Updated: 2015-09-09 12:22:37


Two Chinese-born Americans, unsung heroes both, deserve a salute on the anniversary of the end of World War II. Both advocated early on that the US establish ties with Mao Zedong's Communists and both paid a price for it.

In 1941, when the US got into World War II, China had been fighting all alone against Japan since 1937. FDR realized how important it was to keep China in the war, if for no other reason, to keep tying up the 1 million Japanese soldiers deployed there.

"If China were to capitulate or be defeated or give up or come to a separate peace, all of those men would be freed up to come to the Pacific and fight the Americans," said China expert Andrew Lam, author of Two Sons of China (Bonfire Books, 2014).

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the US sent envoys to Chiang Kai-shek's base in Chongqing, in the south of China. Some of those Americans became disillusioned with the Nationalists, who didn't seem that avid about pursuing the war against Japan.

"They seemed more interested in hoarding American supplies," Lam said. "The Americans were distraught about how much corruption they saw, the desperate poverty and the brutal conscription policies - they basically kidnapped Chinese men and had to lead them to the front in chains or ropes tied around them so they wouldn't run away."

Among the Americans who went there were a very special group of people - American Foreign Service officers who spoke Mandarin fluently, had been born and raised in China, the sons of missionaries who had gone to China at the turn of the century.

Two of them, John Paton Davies, Jr and John S. Service, both born in Sichuan, were actually boyhood friends. They understood the culture like no other Americans ever could and were poised to help the Americans in a big way.

Service and Davies started hearing rumors about fighters in the north, centered in Yan'an, who had been waging an effective campaign against the Japanese. They turned out to be Mao's Communists, settling in Yan'an after the Long March of 1934-36.

Davies and Service wanted to take a mission to the north check these Communists out, if for no other reason than the enemy of their enemy was their friend. It was worth knowing what they were doing. Maybe the US should consider supplying them, the diplomats wondered.

They called the delegation the Dixie Mission, a nod to the US Confederacy. Chiang Kai-shek was dead set against the idea and it took no less than a heart-to-heart with US Vice-President Henry Wallace to get his okay.

In July of 1944, the first group of American diplomats flew to Yan'an and immediately noted a contrast to Chongqing. "Mao's people were motivated, well-mannered, no corruption, no banditry; everyone was happy to be there, the women had equal rights - completely different from the Nationalist-controlled parts of southern China," Lam said.

It was like a whole new China. The Americans were very favorably impressed by the Chinese Communists. Davies and Service wrote honest reports about what they saw. After long talks with Mao and Zhou Enlai, it became clear to them that the Americans should reach out to the Communists. If it came to an all-out civil war, both men predicted the same winner and thought the US should hedge their bets.

WWII heroes on the diplomatic front got raw deal back home

"The Communists are in China to stay and China's destiny is not Chiang's but theirs," Service wrote.

Sentiments that would come back to haunt both men. Fast forward to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. Both diplomats were accused of being Communist sympathizers and driven from their careers at the State Department, in part because of the honest reports they had filed.

Davies and his wife moved to Peru and started a furniture business. He continued to fight to clear his name and was reinstated by the State Department in 1969. He died in 1999 at the age of 91.

In 1956, the Supreme Court decided Service had been wrongfully discharged. He was reinstated in 1957 but it was too late, he was "tainted", as Lam put it. His career stagnated and he retired in 1962. In 1971 he was among the small delegation of Americans invited to China to advance President Nixon's historic trip. He also died in 1999 at the age of 89.

"Some will always wonder how history might have changed had their reports been received differently," Lam said. "This will never be known. It is clear by all accounts that they served their country with honor and devotion in a difficult foreign land."

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.