This lecture was given at the Sixth Annual Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference on October 11, 2014 in Indianapolis, IN.
On January 19, 1961 outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Elect John F. Kennedy met for the second administration transition meeting to discuss lingering concerns of the departing administration. According to Clark Clifford, Kennedy’s liaison to the outgoing Eisenhower administration, the January 19th meeting violated standard procedure for such meetings in how President Eisenhower discussed China policy with the President elect. Instead of merely suggesting possible directions for future China policy, Eisenhower made an ultimatum that he would publicly condemn the administration if Kennedy made any attempt to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through either formal recognition or United Nations membership.[i] Having squeaked into the White House by a slim margin, a chastened Kennedy resolved to not attempt any China policy reform until winning his second term, although some historians view this as an apocryphal tale meant to absolve the administration for its inaction.[ii]
Clifford’s account expresses a long-standing sensitivity among Kennedy defenders about the President’s refusal to deviate from his predecessor’s China policy, which recognized the Republic of China (ROC) as the sole legitimate government for all of China. This paper will attempt to provide an explanation for Kennedy’s stagnant China policy, by emphasizing the role played by distrust between the Kennedy administration and American university China specialists. In particular, I’ll focus on the relationship between the Kennedy administration and Harvard China specialist John Fairbank. As a Harvard man, member of the East Coast Establishment, and the best connected person in the China studies community, Fairbank and Kennedy seemed natural allies. Yet, partly because of their ideological differences regarding the future of PRC-US relations and partly because of personal animosity, Fairbank was excluded from the Kennedy administration. Refusal to engage Fairbank, together with Kennedy’s deferral to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on China issues, left the administration short on ideas about PRC engagement and ultimately forced Kennedy down the same policy road as his predecessor.
So, how did we get to the Kennedy era? The era between 1945 and 1960 was calamitous for Sino-America relations. During World War II the two countries were uneasy allies. At war’s end, the US attempted to mediate a power-sharing agreement between the Guomindang (Nationalists) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which managed to alienate both groups. Between 1946 and 1949 the US pursued a confused China policy torn between Truman’s unwillingness to commit substantial military aid or ground forces to a regime he viewed as corrupt and domestic pressures applied by Congressmen like Walter Judd of Minnesota and William Knowland of California to support the Nationalists as a bulwark against the spread of communism. National backlash against the ‘loss’ of China to the CCP in 1949, led to multiple rounds of un-American activities investigations into the State Department and independent advisory bodies on East Asia, most notably the Institute of Pacific Relations. These investigations, which took place between 1950 and 1956, occurred in a climate where China was transformed into a threat commensurate with the Soviet Union. By 1960, the PRC’s entry into the Korean War, the two Taiwan Straits Crises, and rumors of PRC development of nuclear weapons cemented China as the foremost threat to American interests in Asia and the Pacific.[iii]
While relations between the US and China collapsed, academic study of modern China flourished after World War II. Government service, usually in intelligence and propaganda organizations had provided a generation of young China specialists like Harvard’s Fairbank, the University of Washington’s George E. Taylor, and Johns Hopkins University’s Owen Lattimore a more prominent role within the university and a larger public profile. In the postwar period, China specialists used the perceived importance of their field for solving the problem of deteriorating Sino-US relations to grow their discipline. As Meribeth Cameron, a researcher at the Institute of Pacific Relations, claimed in 1948 “overnight the few experts on the Far East who had been clinging to the fringes of academic life became national assets.”[iv] New research centers focusing on East Asia were established with Foundation money at the University of Washington and later Harvard and new graduate programs devoted to modern China study were established nationwide. These programs were unified into a recognized academic field with the establishment of the Far Eastern Association in 1948.
The 1950s reversed many of the gains made by university China scholars after World War II. As informal advisors to the State Department and other government branches, they were easy targets for McCarthyism. Furthermore, Senator Patrick McCarran’s investigation of the Institute of Pacific Relations deprived China scholars of their longest lasting scholarly association and an important nexus connecting them to Foundation funding. The careers of some scholars, like Owen Lattimore, were ruined by rounds of humiliating public investigations. Most scholars however were able to preserve their academic careers by abandoning political engagement. As a result of this abandonment, university China specialists were largely insignificant in shaping Eisenhower’s China policy and were excluded from his East Asian policymaking circle.
Removed from political power, China scholars embraced more ambitious resolutions to the US-PRC conflict than their counterparts in government positions. While there were a few conservative scholars like the George E. Taylor favored isolating the PRC, the vast majority of China scholars favored normalizing relations by 1960. Normalization could be accomplished in one of two ways. First, a single state solution of diplomatic recognition including admission of the PRC into the United Nations as the ‘China’ delegate, which included a seat on the Security Council. Presumably, this meant abandoning Taiwan, though no scholars were so bold as to publicly acknowledge that necessity. The second option was a two state solution whereby the PRC and Taiwan would each be recognized as independent countries. The two state solution was not acceptable to either the PRC or ROC, but provided US policymakers with a plan whereby they could assume normal diplomatic relations with the PRC without facing the accusation of abandoning Taiwan.
If ever a President and a China scholar were to see eye-to-eye one would think it would be President Kennedy and John Fairbank. Both men were part of what has been alternately called the liberal establishment or the imperial brotherhood. They were both products of New England prepatory schools and graduates of Harvard University. Kennedy and Fairbank were members of the Boston Brahminate, but felt like outsiders – Kennedy due to his Catholicism and Fairbank due to his mid-West origins. They shared many common friends and acquaintances including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and McGeorge Bundy. Furthermore, their careers had been bolstered by their World War II service. Kennedy parlayed his war hero status into a rapid rise in Massachusetts politics, while Fairbank used his personal connections from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to develop Harvard’s fledgling China studies program into one of the best in the country.
Despite his academic successes and personal connections to the liberal establishment, Fairbank’s beliefs regarding the direction of American China policy placed him at odds with Kennedy and other anti-communist liberals. Fairbank was an outspoken critic of the Nationalists for corruption and what he viewed as the brutalization of the Chinese people under their rule. He believed CCP recruiting success was owed to Nationalist cruelty and that popular opinion was mounting against Chiang that would lead to his eventual ouster. He urged American policymakers to stop supporting the Nationalists lest the US become contaminated by its association with Chiang in the eyes of the Chinese people. Kennedy responding to an article Fairbank wrote in The New Republic wrote, “I agree with you that any hope of resuscitating the government of Chiang Kai-shek is now dead, but I also feel that the policies of yourself and others in the State Department contributed much more heavily than the [Truman] White Paper would indicate to the downfall of our position in China. Therefore, in view of the sorry record I cannot put any degree of faith in your plans for the future.”[v] Fairbank replied, with not a little condescension, “I think you will be amused to realize that while you have evidently been blaming me for our disaster in China, I on the other hand have been blaming you and Mr. Judd.”[vi]
Still, Kennedy got the last laugh. At a campaign stop in Salem, Massachusetts, Kennedy accused the Truman administration of ‘losing’ China to communism. Furthermore, he singled out university China scholars and Fairbank in particular as being personally culpable. Kennedy said, “So concerned were our diplomats and their advisors, the Lattimores and Fairbanks, with the imperfections of a diplomatic system in China after 20 years of war, and the tales of corruption in high places that they lost sight of our tremendous stake in a non-communist China.”[vii] A little over six months later, Senator Joseph McCarthy began investigating communist infiltration in the State Department, an investigation that would destroy Lattimore’s career and wound Fairbank’s.
Despite early enthusiasm for investigations into Washington’s China policymaking apparatus, by the late 1950s Kennedy had come to see the harm such scrutiny had inflicted on America’s position in Asia. In a 1957 article in Foreign Affairs, Kennedy criticized John Foster Dulles and the Eisenhower administration for portraying communism as monolithic. Echoing China scholars like Fairbank who had urged policymakers to understand Chinese communism as distinct from its Soviet counterpart, Kennedy argued, “In Asia we have shifted from a hyperbolic image of a free China to the brittle conception of a shiftless totalitarian China.”[viii] He recognized the ways domestic pressures had warped American China policy in the 1950s. “If a low ceiling is placed on criticism”, Kennedy warned, “policy tends towards rigidity and vested interests harden to the point where established viewpoints cannot be modified.”[ix] Furthermore, Kennedy admitted to having overstated the role the State Department and its allies had in ‘losing’ China to communism. Confronted once in office by journalist, and former Fairbank pupil, Theodore H. White about his ‘loss’ of China speech, Kennedy said, “Don’t beat up on me. I was wrong. I know I was wrong. I didn’t know anything then – you know what a kid congressman is like with no researchers, no staff, nothing. I made a mistake.”[x]
For their part, Fairbank and his fellow China scholars wanted to reengage with the public, but were ambivalent about working with the government. In the 1958 edition to his The United States and China, Fairbank hoped for expanded public engagement in China without further government involvement. “The new phase of our relations [with China] will demand hard study, emotional maturity, skilled personnel. These call for effort by American citizens, not merely the United States government.”[xi] In his 1959 presidential address before the Association of Asian Studies, Fairbank urged his fellow Asianists to reach out to the American public by shaping elementary and secondary school curriculums to include greater coverage of Asian histories, languages, and area studies. He chided American Asia scholars for being overly concerned with academic pursuits at the expense of public involvement. Fairbank believed Asia scholars, and China scholars in particular, were important cultural intermediaries who could facilitate cooperation and understanding between American and Asian peoples. Political content is notably absent from Fairbank’s speech. In fact, he suggested that improved cultural diplomacy between Americans and Asians could transcend political differences and minimize politicians’ effects on US-Asian relations.[xii]
Despite Fairbank’s criticism of politics, his history of public service and the appointment of notable American Japan scholars to prominent positions in the Kennedy administration suggested a rapprochement was possible. The intellectual vitality of China studies in 1960 was so well aligned with the incoming administration’s interest in the “best and brightest” that it appeared to two sides could not remain apart. For a fleeting moment in 1960 it appeared China scholars and policymaking liberals approached an ideological reconciliation. But the call to service never came. Why? Two reasons:
1) Public relations. The Kennedy administration’s narrow margin of victory made it sensitive to outside criticism. This is particularly true of well-worn issues like recognition of the PRC. While it was long assumed that the China Lobby had diminished by 1960, new evidence uncovered by Noam Kolchavi and others has suggested that the China Lobby continued to exert pressure on the Kennedy administration. Its lingering power is best illustrated by the internal hand-wringing over Edwin Reischauer’s appointment as Ambassador to Japan. Reischauer was a pretty uncontroversial figure. He had worked in codebreaking during World War II and had been a reliable advisor to the Truman administration on Japanese occupation and reconstruction. Unlike Fairbank, his status as a Japan specialist had allowed him to avoid McCarthy’s ire. Still, administration conservatives like Dean Rusk voiced objections to Reischauer’s nomination. Initially, they wondered about the appropriateness of nominating an ambassador with a Japanese wife. Once East Asian experts within the administration like James C. Thomson – a Fairbank pupil – dismissed this concern, focus shifted to Reischauer’s acquaintances. This meant Reischauer’s close personal and professional relationship with Fairbank. When the extent of Reischauer’s relationship with Fairbank was discovered in the former’s FBI file, it was rushed to Assistant Secretary of State Chester Bowles for consideration. Upon hearing that Reischauer’s nomination might be blocked by his association with Fairbank, Thomson supposedly said, “I told him [Roger Jones, the man who discovered the FBI file] that if they really worried about John Fairbank and his influence on this government, his brother-in-law Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is sitting right at the President’s side in the White House.”[xiii]
Fears by Rusk and Bowles about Reischauer’s nomination proved well-founded. Critics inside and outside the administration scrutinized the prospective Japanese ambassador’s connections to China scholars. Their furor was intensified by the absence of Republican Senators at Reischauer’s confirmation hearing. A seething article in the Los Angeles Times attacked Reischauer’s close association with China scholars targeted by McCarthy. Again, Fairbank was in the midst of the fray. “He [Reischauer] is the coauthor of a book with John Fairbank who is the foremost public advocate of recognizing Red China.”[xiv]
If the mild-mannered, likeable Reischauer generated this much furor one can only imagine the controversy appointing Fairbank or another senior university China specialist would have caused. Given his small margin of error at the polls, this was controversy Kennedy wanted to avoid.
2) Ideological. There was more blocking university China scholars from taking an active role in the Kennedy administration than PR. Kennedy deferred to men who continued to view China as a virulently expansionist appendage of the Soviet Union. These administration insiders, including Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow, believed America’s democratic worldview was so foreign to communist Chinese leaders that dialogue was almost fruitless. Like the Eisenhower administration that preceded it, Kennedy’s China men were skeptical that any change, short of regime change, could deescalate tensions. If “the essence of good foreign policy is constant re-examination” as David Halberstam suggested, Kennedy’s East Asia appointments seemed unlikely to create a good China policy.[xv]
The most formidable ideological opponent to China scholars like Fairbank was Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Rusk was the ultimate bureaucratic survivor. Despite being an important architect of Truman’s China policy, Rusk had managed to avoid McCarthyism with his reputation intact. At first, Rusk seemed to be an ally within the administration for academic China scholars. He shared their commitment to Wilsonian ideals and believed the US embodied security, democracy, and freedom for the developing world.[xvi] Despite his flexibility however, Rusk was a hardliner on China. He believed the PRC’s values endangered the spread of American democracy in East and Southeast Asia. Making matters worse, Rusk believed in the words of his biographer Warren Cohen that “Once the Communists gained control of a country it was too late. The opportunity to be free was lost forever.”[xvii] So while Rusk did not believe China scholars were malicious in supporting Truman’s China policy, he would not empower those same intellectuals – many of whom continued to urge the US to mend fences with the PRC – by providing them with political appointments or even informal advisory access.
Rostow, a fellow academic and potential ally, also proved unwilling to advocate inclusion of China scholars in the administration. Rostow’s problem was an overestimation of his own understanding of China. He had written a book on China, Prospects for Communist China (1954), which according to one voice inside the administration was “very out of date” by 1960.[xviii] It posited a monolithic communist world whereby the PRC’s development would both follow the Soviet Union’s path and depend on it for material and ideological assistance.[xix] In fact, the book itself was built upon the foundation of Rostow’s previously published The Dynamics of Soviet Society (1953) and merely overlaid a veneer of Chinese history over the earlier book’s method and conclusions.[xx] Still, he cited the book often in his reports and summarily dismissed those within the administration (even those with much more experience studying China) who disagreed with him. Rostow was his own China expert and if he wouldn’t listen to those within the administration there was little possibility he’d bring in a senior China scholar to challenge his ideas.
So what was the impact of China scholars’ exclusion on Kennedy’s China policy? Trying to measure absence is often a fool’s errand. However, I believe it’s more foolish to ignore the obvious parallel between the Kennedy administration’s exclusion of China experts and their stagnant China policy. At least one of Kennedy’s East Asian specialists, John C. Thomson Jr., believed the exclusion of university China specialists had a deleterious effect on, not only China policy, but American Asia policy more generally. In a scathing article he wrote for The Atlantic in 1968, Thomson excoriated the Kennedy administration’s East Asian policymakers as “committed to one policy line: the close containment and isolation of mainland China, the harassment of ‘neutralist’ nations which sought to avoid alignment with either Washington or Peking, and the maintenance of a network of alliances with anti-Communist client states on China’s periphery.”[xxi] Beyond developing a conservative China policy, the specter of 1950s purges of China experts led East Asian experts dealing with Vietnam to pursue a rigid, hardline policy. “Career officers in the [State] Department and especially their colleagues in the field, had not forgotten the fate of their World War II colleagues who wrote in frankness from China and were later pilloried by Senate Committees for critical comments about the Chinese Nationalists. Candid reporting on the strengths of the Viet Cong was inhibited by memory.”[xxii] The focus was on the Vietnam public relations angle and not making intelligent Vietnam policy. Like their fellow China specialists, those who dissented from increased American involvement in Vietnam were converted, marginalized, or transferred to other departments. The result in Thomson’s eyes was an error of judgment compounded by an ideological unwillingness to change policies. Thomson concluded, “In a sense, these men are our counterparts to the visionaries of Communism’s radical left: they are technocracy’s own Maoists.”[xxiii]
In conclusion, the inability of either President Kennedy or China scholars to transcend past disagreement hurt the short term policy aims of both groups. The administration’s China policy stagnated, while the absence of PRC knowledge put those tackling related foreign policy challenges in Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia at a disadvantage. Without a political outlet, China scholars’ ideas remained confined to the university. Fairbank’s dream of creating an American public informed about China remained just that, a dream. Kennedy’s China policy was not haunted by Eisenhower’s ghost, instead he was trapped in a nightmare of his own creation and haunted by his own poor judgment – through his condemnation of American China scholars and too late criticism of McCarthy.
[i] Kolchavi, A Conflict Perpetuated, 56; Tucker, The China Threat, 1.
[ii] Kolchavi, A Conflict Perpetuated,
[iii] Yafeng Xia, Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.-China Talks during the Cold War, 1949-1972 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006): 106-134;
[iv] Cameron, “Far Eastern Studies in the United States” (1948), 117.
[v] Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China, 125.
[vii] John F. Kennedy, Speech at Salem, Massachusetts, January 30, 1949.
[viii] John F. Kennedy, “A Democrat Looks At Foreign Policy”, 50.
[x] Theodore H. White, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure (New York City: Harper and Row, 1978): 470.
[xi] John K. Fairbank, The United States and China, 2nd Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958): 320.
[xii] John K. Fairbank, “A Note of Ambiguity: Asian Studies in America”, The Journal of Asian Studies 19, No. 1 (Nov., 1959): 3-9.
[xiii] James C. Thomson, Jr., recorded interview by Sheldon Stern, February 29, 1980 (25), John F. Kennedy Oral History Program.
[xiv] Holmes Alexander, “Hasty Confirmation of Edwin Reischauer”, Los Angeles Times (April 4, 1961): B4.
[xv] David Halberstam, The Best and Brightest (New York City: Random House, 1969): 121.
[xvi] Warren I. Cohen, Dean Rusk (Totowa, NJ: Cooper Square Publishers, 1980): 108-109.
[xvii] Ibid. 109.
[xviii] Thomson, Interview with Sheldon Stern, 13.
[xix] Rostow, The Prospects for Communist China, 311-314.
[xx] Ibid. v-vi.
[xxi] John C. Thomson, “How Could Vietnam Happen?: An Autopsy”, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1, 1968: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1968/04/how-could-vietnam-happen-an-autopsy/306462/?single_page=true.