Q&A with author Lynne Joiner
Why is the story of a World War II-era diplomat in China named John Service relevant to readers today?
We’re still saddled with a whole host of troublesome international problems that were born of that era –and if Service’s prescient predictions, keen observations and warnings had been heeded, perhaps we might have avoided a generation of bitter animosity with the People’s Republic of China, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam– and continuing tensions over Taiwan and North Korea. There are countries in the world now where the situation is not unlike that in China in the 1940s. Today we need Foreign Service officers just like John Service on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other hot spots with his superb language skills and cultural experience.
His story is also relevant because of current concerns over government spying and invasion of privacy allowed under the Patriot Act. John Service was illegally wiretapped, unjustly suspected of being a security risk, and fired in disgrace as an early victim of Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt. For more than 25 years, he was an FBI “person of interest”. His long ordeal and redemption was hailed as “a victory of intelligence, patience and loyalty to country over political opportunism and hysteria.”
But his story also happens to be a rip-roaring good story filled with adventure, intrigue, spies and the love of a long suffering wife and a beautiful Chinese actress that literally involved the fate of nations.
Why did you decide to write about Service?
I first heard about John Service as a college student in class at Cornell University. Years later, we met at a conference on U.S.-China relations. He and his wife introduced themselves because they had seen and admired my recent China documentary. Our shared professional interest in China soon developed into a warm personal friendship that lasted more than twenty years. After Jack and Caroline Service allowed me to read their oral histories at UC Berkeley, I became determined to tell their life story. In December 1978, the U.S. and China announced that official diplomatic relations were formally being established –nearly seven years after Nixon’s historic handshake with Mao. After sharing a champagne toast to improved U.S.-China relations, Service first told me about his talks with Mao during the war –and Mao’s hopes for America to aid in rebuilding his war-ravaged country. Ten years later, we sat in stunned silence–watching television as Chinese tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square. Service expressed deep disappointment in the evolution of the Chinese revolution, whose early years he had witnessed. It was then that I became committed to tell this story.
In your research for the book, was it difficult to gain access to his confidential security files at the FBI and State Department?
It took more than a decade to research and write this book, I had no idea that it would take this long, but as a trained investigative journalist, I followed where the trail led me. I spent five months in a windowless room at the FBI in Washington reading the heavily redacted files, and petitioned for re-review of the files under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I also requested the State Department’s security case documents under FOIA. This eventually resulted in obtaining a treasure trove of materials revealing the machinations of officials in the FBI, the Justice Department, zealous anti-Communist politicians and journalists, and Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police who all contributed to Service’s ordeal. I interviewed Service extensively and talked with a number of people who had known him, including his former Chinese mistress and his wife. U.C. Berkeley houses a superb collection of family correspondence dating from his unusual childhood in China as the son of YMCA missionaries. And I benefited greatly from earlier books written about China, McCarthy, the FBI, the OSS, and the super-secret Venona Project –the decoded Soviet wartime cables that helped uncover the atomic spies and other subversives of the 1940s.
In addition to exploring his fascinating career, you also shed light on his personal and family life. What impact did this have on his persecution during the McCarthy era when he was attacked as a traitor?
As a result of Service’s duty amidst the turbulence that characterized China, his family became accustomed to long separations. In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war first broke out, Service’s wife, two small children, and his widowed mother, were all briefly evacuated, then in 1940, his family left permanently to live with his wife’s parents in California. After their departure, Service volunteered for hazardous duty in the embassy in Chiang’s remote wartime capital, Chungking, which was enduring relentless bombing attacks from the Japanese.
It is, perhaps, not so surprising that Service had an affair in Chungking with a beautiful Chinese actress in 1944. What is astonishing is that this love affair became tangled into his loyalty investigation six years later when Chiang’s agents (then in Taiwan) sent a secret report to the FBI claiming Service had consorted with female spies during the war—and had fathered an illegitimate child. These allegations became a prime (but confidential) reason for his dismissal from the Foreign Service.
Five years later, when the loyalty investigations began, Caroline and her children got stranded for a year in India waiting for him to take up his post at the embassy. But being far away from the hysteria and nastiness of the witch-hunts actually spared them a lot of suffering, although the long separation caused the family great anguish.
How did John Service first meet Mao?
Few Americans today are aware of this amazing chapter of early contact between the U.S. and the Chinese Communists.
At that time, the U.S. Army eagerly wanted cooperation against the Japanese from all Chinese forces willing to fight the common enemy. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor when the U.S. entered the Pacific war, Mao and his ragtag band of revolutionaries were far off the radar screen. But in his travels, Service began hearing that the Chinese Communists were effectively mobilizing peasants in a war of resistance behind enemy lines. He began urging the U.S. to send observers on a fact-finding mission to the guerrillas’ base. Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China, refused to allow the Americans to cross the heavily guarded border into occupied territory where his bitter civil war rivals had taken refuge.
Eventually, under pressure from President Roosevelt, Chiang agreed, and a group of U.S. military observers—including Service, by then a special political adviser on General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s staff— flew into Yan’an, Mao’s stronghold. The mission established a base there behind Japanese lines which meant the U.S. tacitly recognized the reality of “the other China,” much to the dismay of the official Nationalist government in Chungking.
Service spent three months in Yan’an getting to know Mao and other top communists and reporting extensively on their brand of communism. As a result of his significant role in the mission—and his role as interpreter and messenger for top secret cables from Roosevelt to Chiang bluntly suggesting General Stilwell be put in command of all Chinese forces, including the communist guerrillas—John Service became a target for revenge to Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters.
Finally in 1950 Chiang found his opportunity: his agents aided Sen. McCarthy and FBI Director Hoover in their hunt for subversives by sending disinformation alleging that during the war, John Service had been part of a communist conspiracy trying to overthrow the Nationalist government and had fathered the illegitimate child of his spy mistress!
Why did the FBI arrest Service on espionage charges in 1945 and keep a file open on him until 1972?
John Service returned to Washington in the spring of 1945 filled with a sense of mission, eager to report there was another force in China willing and able to help America fight the Japanese —and which might soon seriously challenge Chiang Kai-shek’s increasingly corrupt Nationalist regime. High level State Department and White House officials facilitated his deep background briefings to government agencies, politicians and journalists. Service got introduced to the editor of Amerasia, a journal specializing in Asian affairs. But unbeknownst to him, the FBI had been investigating the editor and several others, for stealing hundreds of official government documents that were discovered in the magazine’s offices. Service walked into a lifelong web of suspicion when he met with the editor in his hotel room which was being secretly—and illegally– bugged by the FBI and offered to show him some recent reports about Mao.
In 1950, why did Senator Joseph McCarthy make John Service one of his first targets in his anti-communist crusade? And how did Service learn that he had become a target?
McCarthy gave an infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in February 1950 in which he charged Truman’s State Department with harboring Communists and their sympathizers—and claimed to have a list of 205 “card-carrying communists.” John Service was one of only four people he named. McCarthy’s source was a powerful group of Chiang’s American supporters, who –after his defeat in the Chinese civil war– had escalated their propaganda campaign against enemies like Service. In a speech before the Senate, McCarthy sharpened his personal attack on the diplomat, now also aided by information furnished by J. Edgar Hoover from FBI files on the old Amerasia case.
At the time of this Senate speech, Service and his family were on a freighter with their household goods and automobile sailing across the Pacific to his new post in India. At dinner one night, a crewman burst in to tell him there was “some senator” talking about him on the shortwave radio. A few days later, he received a cable from the State Department requesting his return to Washington as soon as the ship docked in Japan. The family continued their journey, expecting him to join them in a few weeks. Instead, he wound up in a vicious series of loyalty investigations –and his family spent a year in limbo waiting for him in India.
If Service was investigated and cleared of disloyalty by both the State Department’s loyalty board and a Senate subcommittee in 1950, why was he fired in late 1951?
President Truman had appointed a “loyalty review board” to reconsider unfavorable judgments about the loyalty of federal employees. But in Service’s case, the board intervened to reverse a positive finding! And secret transcripts of their meetings revealed that living with an alleged “Soviet-spy” mistress was a key reason –although never officially mentioned! The FBI furnished lots of raw file material, because, as Hoover insisted: “this is an administrative hearing and the rules of evidence do not apply.”
Why do you call John Service a modern-day Greek tragic hero?
He experienced many reversals of fortunes in his odyssey, but steadfastly forged ahead in his efforts to restore his reputation. Every time the shadows of suspicion created new controversies, he calmly defended himself. As soon as he thought he’d gotten his career back on track, he was derailed by more intrigue going on behind the scenes.
Despite knowing he was taking risks by actively advocating changes in U.S. policy toward the “two Chinas,” he felt that for the sake of America’s long-term interests and to avert disaster in China, it was worth it.
Yet after being fired and finally reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, he was never promoted, even though he always received strong job performance ratings.
N.Y.Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson, an old friend and former war correspondent in China, once remarked John Service, unlike Greek tragic heroes “lived to enjoy the dramatic climax.”
After Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao, Service’s reputation was finally restored: he was profiled in the New Yorker, wrote articles for the New York Times and featured in TV documentaries. “If America had accepted what you were writing in 1945,” Atkinson wrote his friend, “the world would have been spared a lot of trouble and misery. In the 1940s you were a traitor. In the 1970s you are a patriot and seer.”
What was Service like as a man? Was he bitter about being made a scapegoat and spending so many years trying to clear his name?
John S. Service was unflappable, very bright, with a droll sense of humor and flaws like all humans.
Like many men, he was not deeply in touch with his emotional side. I once remarked that I suspected one reason he survived his ordeal with McCarthyism was that he never allowed himself to feel things like anger or bitterness, nor did he become an alcoholic, disappear into self-exile or commit suicide like some victims of McCarthyism.
At times Service was too trusting, even naive. But he remained an eternal optimist and never became bitter. Disappointed, but never bitter. He once told me that he had hoped to become an ambassador. Although it became an impossible dream, his eldest son capped his own diplomatic career with an ambassadorship.
I believe that what happened to John Service was a bloody outrage. He spent his best years defending his honor, instead of serving the country he loved.
This year the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 60th anniversary…. How would things have been different if Service’s advice had been heeded?
In my book, I’ve just tried to show how individuals, events, and policy decisions shaped the world we inherited. But Barbara Tuchman, the noted historian, said developments in the postwar world couldn’t have been any worse—and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam might have been avoided.
If a truly cooperative effort between Mao’s guerrillas and the American army had been forged in 1945, perhaps the war against the Japanese in China might have ended differently– and there might have been a lot less suffering for the Chinese people in the civil war that led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The United States might have been actively involved in the war-torn country’s reconstruction– and diplomatic relations with the PRC would not have been delayed by mistrust, miscalculations, and bitter animosity for 30 years.