Scapegoats: Then and Now

In the aftermath of the provocative North Korean shelling of a South Korean island, some now blame China for not reining in its North Korean Communist comrades. In the recent mid-term election campaign, nearly thirty candidates -- from both parties -- ran TV ads accusing their opponents of being "too sympathetic to China," and claiming Americans suffered loss of jobs as a result.

This is not the first time America has looked at China for scapegoats. In this insecure winter of our discontent, a new season of scapegoating China seems to be taking shape. Once again bitter domestic partisan politics may dangerously limit our national policy options. Americans need to understand the threads of history woven into the fabric of our current relations with Korea, China and Taiwan, or the dangerous desire to find scapegoats will grow. The story of diplomat John Service offers a cautionary tale.

In 1945, on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Harry Truman was sworn in, a young Foreign Service officer arrived in Washington after secret talks with Mao in war-torn China. John Service had been sent behind Japanese lines by the U.S. Army commander to learn as much as possible about the Communist guerrillas when the army urgently needed allies willing to fight against the Japanese. Service had grown up in China, spoke several dialects, and had already traveled extensively throughout the chaotic country carved up among rival forces: Nationalist Chinese, Japanese occupation troops, rival warlords, and Mao's guerrillas. In village tea shops he heard peasant complaints about the growing corruption and repression of Chiang Kai-shek's dysfunctional central government and their fears of a renewed civil war.

Once Service arrived in Mao's "other China," he discovered that the Communists were building a grassroots revolutionary movement. He predicted that unless Chiang's Nationalists went as far as Mao's Communists in initiating moderate economic and land reforms, the battle for "hearts and minds" of the people would be lost. Mao assured Service that his guerrillas would cooperate with the U.S. Army, and he expressed a desire for American businessmen to help rebuild war-ravaged China after the war ended.

At the time, Mao's China was off Washington's radar screen. John Service became a man with a mission, urging high officials to deal realistically with the reality of the two Chinas. He had two objectives: to prevent the renewal of China's bitter civil war, fearing it would impede our fight against the Japanese; and to protect American national interests in a postwar China he felt certain Mao would control. However, no serious policy review took place in Washington. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy, aided by Hoover's FBI and Taiwan's intelligence service, targeted John Service for having "lost China" to the Communists. He was also blamed for the Korean conflict , then costing many American lives.

Service spent the rest of his life trying to restore his reputation. A unanimous 1957 Supreme Court decision returned him to the Foreign Service, but true vindication only came after Nixon's historic handshake with Mao in 1972.

For decades, his ordeal had a chilling effect. Some Foreign Service officers and U.S. intelligence agents found it safer to be politically correct than to report their honest observations and recommendations. At a State Department luncheon in 1973 honoring all the old China hands unfairly persecuted during the McCarthy era, Service reminded his audience of some truths about the conduct of foreign policy we still need to remember today :

Foreign Service reporting becomes vital as we move toward countries that may be small, less developed, non-white or with cultures and institutions drastically different from our own...

If we keep ourselves in ignorance and out of touch with new popular movements and potentially revolutionary situations, we may find ourselves again missing the boat.