Review by James W. White
China Hand: An Autobiography by John Paton Davies, Jr., Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 978-0-8122-4401-4, 2012, 351 pp., $34.95
When I was just getting started in the field of East Asian politics, in the 1960s, one of the names most commonly heard—usually in a tone somewhere between respect and awe—was that of John Paton Davies, Jr. One of the career Foreign Service officers hounded out of government service during the McCarthy era, he had the reputation of having been almost unfailingly prescient regarding US China policy. And for this reason he was fired. But was he as good as people said, or just the beneficiary of a positive retrospect? Actually, he was better: now we have his story in his own words, and it is even more extraordinary than I then had reason to believe.
The son of missionaries in China, Davies was educated at Wisconsin, Yenching, and Columbia, and entered the Foreign Service in 1931. His career thereafter combined a veritable Who’s Who of the mid-20th century, as the Forward puts it—not only every significant China expert in academia and government, but also FDR, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung (I’m using Davies’ transliterations here), Joseph Stilwell, Cordell Hull, John Foster Dulles, Stalin and Molotov, all the way to Eero Saarinen, Teilhard de Chardin, Diego Rivera, and Reinhold Niebuhr—with an only barely imaginable ability to show up anywhere world-shaping events were going on: Peking, Mukden, India, Burma, Washington, DC, Cairo, Yenan, Singapore, Moscow, and on and on.
The major focus of Davies’ career was of course China. He served in several consulates there, and also in Burma and India, given their crucial importance to American efforts to support the Nationalist (KMT) government against the Japanese. But most importantly, he was from 1942 to 1944 the special assistant to General Stilwell, America’s liaison with the KMT, and in this role became a central figure in our “China tangle.” Basically, the conflict was between Stilwell’s desire for a China-based offensive against the Japanese and the KMT’s passivity, corruption, and ineptitude combined with Chiang’s (and General Chennault’s, and later Patrick Hurley’s) constant demands for more military aid, which he planned to hoard while the US defeated Japan, after which he would use it against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), his Number One enemy all along. Unfortunately, the KMT’s PR machine, combined with the myth of a heroic China in the American mind and the foreign policy naïveté of FDR, contributed to ongoing stalemate between Stilwell/Davies and Chiang and ever-increasing bitterness and hostility on both sides. Ultimately Chiang was able to force Stilwell out; Davies, however, continued his involvement in China policy, and thus became a major focus of the postwar China Lobby/McCarthyite attacks on the supposedly pro-CCP elements in the State Department who caused us to “lose” China. Davies was so accused and his case reviewed no fewer than nine times; failing to find any evidence of disloyalty, the Department finally found him lacking in “judgment, discretion, and reliability,” and in 1954 fired him.
There was infinitely more to Davies’ fascinating career than I can recap here. Rather, I would to note a number of his more prescient insights. (Indeed, early on I wondered if Davies was writing with foresight or hindsight; the quotations from his own memos and reports of the time make it clear that it was the former.) Certainly China was first: by 1942 it was clear to Davies that the KMT was not willing to help win the war against Japan, would not use US aid to that end, and would cynically let us do the job, after which they would take on the CCP. It didn’t take him much longer to see that the CCP was probably going to win that battle, with or without aid from either the US or the USSR. Indeed, he foresaw that in future years a communist China might well become Russia’s major adversary in Asia—exactly what came to pass. He did (as he admits) err in underestimating the ideological integrity of the CCP: he thought that a favorably disposed US, not blindly backing the KMT, might possibly “capture” the party, although his underlying assumption that there was room for division within the communist bloc was spot-on.
India (and Southeast Asia as well) was another topic for Davies. He was convinced that the era of imperialism was past, and French, Dutch, and British efforts to restore their colonial holdings in Asia would come to naught, and that the U. S. ran the risk of alienating much of Asia if it became identified with colonialist revivalism. India’s and Indonesia’s decades-long pro-Soviet or at least anti-Western stances, and Vietnam’s sucking of the US into France’s quagmire bear him out marvelously. Nor did the USSR escape his eye. He was certain that the USSR would attack Japan—just as it did—according to its own schedule, and that the payoffs made to it by FDR at Yalta were unnecessary. He also saw the USSR as intrinsically expansionist, for both nationalist and ideological reasons, and that American efforts to enroll Russia in a peaceful postwar order were fatuous. Finally, and most ironically—as Bruce Cumings points out in his Epilogue—Davies was actually pretty conservative when it came to the USSR: he advocated measures not just to contain, but to roll back Soviet communism.
He was also no choirboy, which may have hastened his downfall. He was up to his ears in intrigue, repeatedly briefing (lobbying?) respected journalists on behalf of Stilwell in particular and his positions on China in general. And these background briefings included on occasion showing (leaking?) to journalists classified documents: he states that this was a common practice, but he seems in fact to have thus provided his enemies with the ammunition they wanted.
And he was not always right. Davies admits that his partisanship on behalf of Stilwell was excessive, as were his views of the nationalistic as opposed to ideological appeal of the CCP, and even of the importance of Chinese military action to the defeat of Japan. Last, he was—in my opinion—unfair to some Asian nationalist leaders. He foresaw independence movements sweeping Asia, but saw their leaders as at least partly “inspired by a desire themselves to dominate and exploit their own people.” I think that men such as Sutan Sjahrir, Mohammed Hatta, and even Ho Chi Minh belie these words.
Still, Davies’ memos and reports reflect a deeply insightful, and deeply patriotic, man. Losing his abilities to the vicious forces of demagogic American politics, the naïve American view of China, and the power struggles of the KMT was for our country a tragedy of the first order. His was an exciting, almost dazzling—if ultimately frustrating and unfairly terminated—career, and to have it in his own words, even at this late date, offers illumination to any reader.