Skip to content

How a China Hand Lost to McCarthyism

John S. Service ended up on the right side of history. The front-page charges of Communist sympathy leveled against this former foreign service officer and China expert after World War II have mostly been reduced to a historical footnote in a more sordid tale involving such notables as ex-Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.

His reputation, once so tarnished that he was declared a person of interest by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and drummed out of the foreign service, has seen a remarkable rehabilitation since his reinstatement to the State Department in a unanimous 1957 Supreme Court decision.

Lynne Joiner’s remarkably candid, thorough and sympathetic biography, “Honorable Survivor: Mao’s China, McCarthy’s America, and the Persecution of John S. Service,— is yet another testament to the exoneration of a loyal American caught up in a historical maelstrom.

In an interview, Joiner, a broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker by trade, revealed the meticulous care that went into crafting the book, which is her first. All told, the project took 10 years and involved selling her house to work on writing full time. But it was ultimately worth the sacrifice, she said.

“It’s just a very exciting story about intrigue, love and — literally — the fate of nations. But I also think it’s relevant to our foreign policy and our domestic policy and what kind of America we want,— she said.

Tracing the story of Service’s life from his formative years growing up in China with American YMCA missionary parents to his vindication on charges of disloyalty and his later academic career, Joiner weaves an intricate narrative of Chinese revolutionary history, geopolitical intrigue and bureaucratic infighting with a more human story of Service’s strained familial life, professional disappointments and conflicted love life (he had a Chinese mistress as well as a wife in the U.S. for much of his sojourn in China).

The heart of Joiner’s narrative begins in the runup to World War II, when Service was posted as a diplomatic attaché in the foreign service to Chungking, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s capital city. China at the time was embroiled in both a civil war (temporarily halted to fight Japanese forces) and a fierce fight for survival against invading Japanese forces. Chiang’s Kuomintang Party nationalists and Communist Party of China revolutionaries led by Mao Tse-tung had formed an uneasy temporary alliance of unity against the Japanese — but tensions remained high.

During the course of Service’s time in nationalist China, he became disillusioned with the incompetence and pettiness of Chiang’s government. A secret military and diplomatic mission deep into Communist territory confirmed his belief that U.S. policy should be more flexible in dealing with both Chiang’s government and Mao’s revolutionaries. In an extraordinary series of wartime dispatches to the State Department, he further predicted that renewed civil war was imminent as soon as the Japanese were defeated and that Chiang’s Nationalists would be defeated.

“He was always concerned with the long-term interest of the United States,— Joiner said. “All he did was report what he saw and what he heard.—

Toward the end of WWII, U.S. policy sharply veered toward all but propping up Chiang’s deteriorating government as relations between the Nationalists and Communists broke down. Yet Service continued to file dispatches arguing for weapons and war material to be sent to Mao.

Service was aware at the time that his wartime reports could cause him trouble in certain policy and bureaucratic circles, writing to his mother, “We may become heroes — or we may be hung.—

Still, Service was unprepared for the ferocity and duration of the accusations to come. Upon his recall to Washington, D.C., after the war, a lapse in judgment caused him to become embroiled in a scandal concerning leaked documents to left-wing reporters at Amerasia magazine, ensnaring him in a criminal investigation. A grand jury refused to indict Service, but it was the beginning of accusations of disloyalty that would dog him for the rest of his career.

From there, Joiner takes readers on a whirlwind tour of government infighting and irrational paranoia, as Service’s subsequent career was repeatedly interrupted by loyalty boards’ inquiries and official investigations. Democrats, fearful of being painted as soft on Communism, had ratcheted up their anti-communist activities, just as McCarthy began his infamous witch hunt before the Tydings Committee.

Caught up in this perfect storm of paranoia, Service faced years of suspicion and rounds of interrogations before he was finally discharged from the foreign service and fired from the State Department. Service’s vindication only came years later, when it took a Supreme Court decision to reinstate him in the foreign service. Ultimately, Service retired again from the foreign service when he realized that his past leak of classified material would make his further advancement unlikely — even if loyalty questions and communist sympathies no longer loomed.

Joiner revealed a personal motive for wanting to write the book as well — a personal friendship with both John Service and his wife, Caroline, whom she met in the early 1970s as a reporter. “I was sitting in their living room on the day that tanks started rolling through Tiananmen Square [in 1989]. It was my fate to write the book,— she said.

“The reason I call him the ‘honorable survivor,’— she added, “is that he never let the bastards get him down.—

Recent Stories

CBO: Deficits and inflation higher, but so is economic growth

Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass ban on ‘bump stocks’

Senate report piles on new allegations of Boeing safety failures

Matt Gaetz goes on offensive as House Ethics offers update on probe

Senate spectrum bill markup scrapped over partisan differences

Rules on clean energy prevailing wage, apprenticeships finalized