The Life of a Cold War Lightning Rod
Few Americans today are familiar with the life story, let alone the name of John S. Service, the subject of Lynne Joiner’s recent biography, entitled Honorable Survivor. Vivid, engaging, and dramatic, this book tells the story of a life inextricably linked to a larger story about accusers and the accused in postwar U. S.-China relations and Cold War domestic politics.
Though the average American in 2010 has never heard of him, Service would have been familiar to many Americans in the early 1950s, when his name and image appeared frequently in national newspapers, as well as on radio and television broadcasts, as a key thread in the biggest political scandal of the era that was then in the process of unfolding.
Many Americans first heard of John Service on February 9, 1950, the day that Senator Joseph McCarthy gave his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he announced that he had in his hand a list of 205 employees of the State Department who were members of the Communist Party. A Foreign Service officer who had served in China during the Second World War, Service was near the top of McCarthy’s list. This man, claimed McCarthy, “had sent official reports back to the State Department urging that we torpedo our ally Chiang Kai-Shek and stating in unqualified terms (and I quote) that ‘Communism was the only hope of China.’” Moreover, Service had aided and abetted the Communist cause by turning over secret State Department information to known Communist agents, an act of espionage and treason for which he had not been tried.
The first half of Honorable Survivor is devoted to Service’s life and U. S.-China policy before McCarthy’s accusations. Service, we learn, was born and raised in China, the son of YMCA missionaries. He spoke Chinese and had a better understanding of the local politics and culture than most American officials from an earlier generation, who had little knowledge of or interest in the domestic affairs of the country to which they were posted. At the wartime embassy in Chungking, Service quickly proved himself an unusually eager and talented political reporter, who, in addition to meeting regularly with local officials, traveled into the countryside to get a sense of political and economic conditions in China.
It was in this capacity that Service began sending reports back to Washington in which he argued against unconditional support for the corrupt and unpopular Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek and for possible collaboration with Mao’s Communist forces. While Chiang was starving peasants in the countryside and saving his resources to fight the Communists, reported Service, Mao was giving food and other resources to the peasantry and actually helping to defeat Japan. Joiner devotes substantial space to Service’s 1944 trip to the communist base in Yenan. The first American diplomat to meet with Mao since the Long March, Service enjoyed long conversations with the Communist leader, who expressed an eagerness to work with the Americans. Service reported these conversations and the larger state of wartime China in a period when President Roosevelt was deeply frustrated with Chiang and considered cooperating more directly with the Communists. But, as Joiner recounts, the “window of possibility” closed in the following months, when Roosevelt appointed an ardently pro-Chiang ambassador to China and shifted his war strategy in the East to a greater reliance on the Soviet Union. Back in Washington after the war, Service met with interested journalists and academics and shared his version of the story with them, occasionally giving them personal copies of his reports to use as background. Contrary to McCarthy’s charges, Service had been arrested for these acts and deemed innocent by a grand jury. Between 1945 and 1950, he underwent and passed no less than eight loyalty examinations in the State Department.
Joiner does an excellent job of conveying the relative freedom of expression in the foreign policy establishment before McCarthy. Yes, Service had lost the policy battle. But he had won great respect in the State Department as a talented and committed political reporter. In the years following the war, he was promoted to senior status in the department, becoming the youngest officer ever to be so honored. But these promotions took place against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile Cold War climate, both internationally and domestically. By the end of 1949, with the Communist victory in China and the Soviet explosion of the atomic bomb, the Red baiting that would characterize Cold War domestic politics for the next several years shifted into high gear. Thanks in large part to the testimonies of ex-communists like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers and to intercepted “Venona” cables between American and Russian agents, a few real and many more supposed Soviet spies were being uncovered in all branches of American government and society, fueling accusations that Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, were “soft” on Communists. The Korean War put added political pressure on the Truman administration. In late 1951, the Loyalty Review Board overturned the previous rulings on Service’s behalf. In December 1951, John Service became the first China specialist and one of the first of dozens of Foreign Service officers to be fired as a result of McCarthyism.
But, as Joiner illustrates, Service’s story does not end there. He spent the next six years in a lengthy legal battle to exonerate and reinstate himself in the Foreign Service. The case went all the way to Supreme Court, which, in 1957, ruled in Service’s favor. While this ruling reflected the end of the most spectacular era of Red baiting in the Cold War, Service’s fate in the Foreign Service also reflected the deeper impact of McCarthy’s charges on the State Department. Locked out of posts in Asia and other politically critical areas, Service retired in 1962. As with his initial firing, the complicated dance between Service’s life, McCarthyism, and U.S. relations with China did not end with his departure from government service. Just as Service’s evolving fate in the 1940s and 1950s had reflected the changing political tides of that period, so did his reputation in the 1960s and 1970s reflect the evolving, albeit still contentious political sentiments of that era.
In 1972, when Nixon traveled to China and shook hands with Mao, Service once again became a “lightning rod,” attracting attention from both supporters and critics of the administration’s policy of renewing relations with China. Invited to China by Zhou Enlai in 1971, Service actually visited before Nixon and at the same time as Kissinger. As Joiner describes, Kissinger asked Service for advice on China policy and even invited him to San Clemente. But when Kissinger returned to Washington, he learned of Service’s checkered history and never followed up on the invitation. The same year, associates of the China Lobby, who opposed rapprochement with China, renewed their accusations against Service. In the late 70s and early 80s, after the United States formally recognized the P.R.C. and forged closer ties under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Service’s repute was still being punted back and forth by key political players on both sides of the China-Taiwan debate. Service died in 1999. Towards the end of his life, he won a number of honors and awards and was increasingly lauded as a hero by the foreign policy establishment. Ironically, however, as U.S.-China relations have normalized in the last two decades, fewer and fewer people know Service’s name.
The first comprehensive biography of Service, Honorable Survivor does the important work of detailing Service’s personal life, as well as his career. To my knowledge, Joiner is the first of Service’s sympathizers to even acknowledge Service’s affair with Chinese actress Val Chao. Relying on interviews with Chao, as well as with Service and his wife, Joiner concluded that Service and Chao did have a passionate love affair and Service did consider leaving his wife for her. But Service was not the father of her child, and Chao was not a Communist spy. This is probably the best example of how Joiner exposes Service’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses to create a fuller and more human picture of a man who is typically represented as either completely sinister or completely innocent.
If the strength of Honorable Survivor is the connections it makes between Service, McCarthyism, and U.S.-China relations, its primary weakness is a lack of attention to more indirect connections between Service and the broader map of U.S. foreign policy beyond China. In his classic critique of the Kennedy administration in the Vietnam War, David Halberstam cited the firing of Service and other China and Asia experts as a fateful event in U.S.-Asia policy. Having purged the department of its Asia experts, U.S. envoys in Vietnam had absolutely no expertise in the politics or culture of that part of the world. Their ignorance contributed to the flawed and ultimately failed policies in the war. Joiner glosses over this important connection and, in so doing, neglects the way in which Service’s story was part of a larger erosion of the truly best and brightest in the diplomatic corps in the Cold War.