China Studies in McCarthy's Shadow: A Personal Memoir

China Studies in McCarthy's Shadow: A Personal Memoir

Mini Teaser: Great differences among academics and personal antagonisms in their fields of specialization are common in the best of times.

by Author(s): Richard L. Walker

Great differences among academics and personal antagonisms in their fields of specialization are common in the best of times. But the 1950s were not the best of times. In what was to become known as the McCarthy era, differences within American university faculties were stark and personal antagonisms often poisonous.

To some extent this was inevitable. Ideological loyalties and attachments formed during the Depression years, and then strengthened by the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, came into head-on conflict with the attitudes shaped by a fuller knowledge of the real nature of communist regimes and the beginning of the Cold War.

Senator Joseph McCarthy's peculiar contribution to this conflict was two-fold. First, he coarsened and polarized it to an extent that made it extremely difficult to sustain some vital distinctions. One such distinction, drawn most clearly by Sidney Hook, was encapsulated in the title of his book Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No. The book represented a rational approach that too few appreciated. Another and even more fundamental distinction for academics was that between what was ideologically correct to believe and what was actually the case. Second, McCarthy's behavior--his bullying, his lying, his demagoguery--gave those who had an interest in doing so a perfect opportunity to change the subject.

Instead of the extent, nature, and consequences of allegiance to a political party controlled by a foreign totalitarian power being made the proper object of attention, "McCarthyism" could itself be made the central issue. In some ways, McCarthy's cynical and outrageous antics made it as difficult to be a serious and principled anti-communist in the America of the 1950s as it was to be a fellow-traveler.

For several reasons, the effects of McCarthyism were particularly virulent in the field of China studies in American universities. For one thing, the Chinese communists exerted a strong and long-established claim on the sympathies and imagination of a number of scholars. Often (though certainly not always) this was as much romantic as it was ideological. One of the first works in the 1930s to build up the romantic version of Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese communists was the bestselling work of Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China. According to this version, Mao and his fellow communists were the austere heroes of the Long March, the incorruptible reformers living in the caves of Yanan, and the dedicated opponents of both the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Japanese invaders--they were men who seemed to be above and beyond ordinary politics. Such uncritical admiration often coexisted with a distaste and sense of guilt concerning past Western behavior toward China. The late John King Fairbank, professor at Harvard and a dominant figure in American post-World War II China studies, spoke for many when, looking back in 1972, he said, "Well, you know, I've been on their side since 1943." Fairbank wrote and talked with consistency about what he called "the Chinese Revolution", in which the communist phase was represented as both ineluctable and as continuous with earlier imperial China. Communist realities were always played down.

As against all this, with the victory of the Maoist party and the proclamation of the Chinese People's Republic on October 1, 1949, China became a major--and ominous--new factor in the Cold War. When the Sino-Soviet alliance was proclaimed on February 14, 1950, concern grew about how the United States could have "lost" China. This became an even more serious political issue after Kim Il-Sung invaded South Korea in June 1950, with Stalin's blessing and with stunning initial success. In his book, Modern Times, Paul Johnson maintains that "McCarthy would have been of little account had not the Korean War broken out. . . . His period of ascendancy coincided exactly with that bitter and frustrating conflict--one might say that McCarthyism was Stalin's last gift to the American people."

Certainly this accumulation of events relating to China created within the small and intimate community of America's China scholars a tinder box of recrimination and finger-pointing, giving the normal rivalries and differences within the academic community an unprecedented intensity. This is part of the background for my own story as one of the less typical sufferers from the phenomenon known as McCarthyism.

Following more than three years' active military service in World War II, at the beginning of the 1950s I was a relatively young assistant professor at Yale University, with several publications in refereed learned journals to my credit. Early on, and while he was still riding high, I made my own position on McCarthy clear on several occasions. On one of them, for example, I sent a letter to my colleague at Yale, Professor Robert A. Dahl, a distinguished political scientist who possessed impeccable credentials for working against the Leninists in academe and who eventually was to become president of the American Political Science Association. He had delivered a talk entitled "Congressional Investigations Threaten Academic Freedom." I felt this was an overreaction to what was happening and wrote to him on July 7, 1953. I began, "Let me state at the outset . . . my firm belief that Mr. McCarthy and his tactics do constitute a real threat to democracy on the American scene today." But I then went on to say, "I sincerely believe that the liberals could make a positive contribution to destroying the power of Mr. McCarthy if they would stop building him up through their hysteria."

The hysteria to which I was referring was real enough and was effectively ridiculed by the literary critic, Leslie Fiedler, at the time: "From one end of the country to the other rings the cry, 'I am cowed! I am afraid to speak out!' and the even louder response, 'Look, he is cowed! He is afraid to speak out!'" Nevertheless, because of such attempts to make some elementary distinctions and the critical positions I took with regard to the new regime in China, some colleagues in the field quickly labeled me a McCarthyist. It was not pleasant, but it was only a foretaste of what was to come.

In the spring of 1951 I received an invitation that was heady stuff for a young academic. I was asked to review Freda Utley's The China Story for the New York Times Book Review. Utley was a former communist with experiences in the Soviet Union and China. She was a major supplier of information on Owen Lattimore and other Western intellectuals in China to Senator McCarthy. Given the prevailing atmosphere, this meant that the book was a very hot item, and I was given just 750 words to deal with it.

My review noted that it was a "violent tract" containing "bitter invectives and denunciations" and "attack on personalities." But I did go on to say, "Since this is her answer to Owen Lattimore's Ordeal by Slander (which had named Utley), it must in all fairness be read by those who have read that volume." Utley wrote me almost immediately to let me know of her displeasure with my review. More remarkable, given the general tone of what I had written, were the messages from several China scholars upbraiding me for having had anything even faintly positive to say about the book. One of them, particularly sharp, was from Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania. I mention this because I shall have occasion to refer to him later. The New York Times, incidentally, liked the review, and I was quickly asked to do several more.

A few months later, in the early summer of 1951, I received a call from a friend in government and a note from Sol Levitas, the venerable editor of The New Leader magazine--a liberal journal of opinion published in New York and supported in part by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and other trade unions, but clearly anti-communist. They suggested that since the wild charges by McCarthy--that Owen Lattimore and the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) represented part of a communist conspiracy--were hurting us abroad, it might be helpful for me, as a younger scholar who had not been involved in the events then being investigated, to look into the issue. The idea was not to investigate Lattimore's political views, but to assess the quality of his work in scholarly terms.

In retrospect I suspect it was naive on my part to think that, given the academic sensitivities of the time, these two aspects could be separated. In any event I undertook the project, in part because I felt it necessary for my own education to learn about past Asian scholarship and some of the central issues. This involved long days in the Yale library that summer and the following fall going through shelf after shelf of IPR publications, especially its two journals Far Eastern Survey and Pacific Affairs. The second of these, edited for many years by Lattimore, had been a vehicle for some of his own views, including his justification of the Stalin purge trials.

The result was a "special supplement" (their first) for The New Leader. Entitled "Lattimore and the IPR", it appeared on March 31, 1952. It was followed in subsequent issues by numerous letters to the editor and by exchanges first between William Holland of the IPR and me, and then between Owen Lattimore and me.

It is not hyperbole to state that the special supplement caused something of a sensation. It also marked me, and I learned very quickly that it was difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to take a detached view on issues relating to U.S. policies in East Asia, particularly on China. In my piece I had argued that the work of the IPR over past decades was of primary importance, that it had provided valuable and useful service over the years, but that Lattimore had failed in his responsibilities as an IPR editor to maintain the integrity of his publication and had misled the organization. His scholarship left much to be desired. I also observed that the same could be said of the McCarran Hearings on Lattimore and the IPR, which were then continuing. I noted that Lattimore had frequently been a polemicist, but that was not to be the issue as far as I was concerned. The fact was rather that the nature of McCarthy's attack against him had made him both a hero and relatively immune to criticism from colleagues, many of whom would admit in private conversation that he was not without flaws.

But after McCarthy's sensational (and absurd) charges that Lattimore had been a key Soviet agent in the United States, anyone who questioned Lattimore's scholarship was considered beyond the pale. I was now one of those, even though my New Leader piece was considered balanced and objective by a number of distinguished scholars. Some messages from overseas encouraged me to believe that through translation into several languages in Europe and Asia, the supplement helped some intellectuals in allied countries to soften some of their hitherto harsh assessments of the American scene.

In 1953 I published my book The Multi-State System of Ancient China. The reaction from the scholarly world was very good. One distinguished scholar--who shall remain nameless but who will appear in this narrative again in the context of events that happened a few years later--wrote to me, "I wish to send my congratulations. I find it excellent and marvel at the mass of literature you went through to reach your conclusions. This week--twice--I have had occasion to recommend it strongly to my students in Chinese history." Other reviewers praised the volume. Dr. Hu Shih--a distinguished scholar who had served as China's ambassador to the United States during World War II and who had stayed aloof from the contest between the KMT and the CCP--wrote to me of his admiration for the work and called it a major achievement for American Sinology.

During the first half of the 1950s, in addition to being recalled for a short time to active duty with the U.S. Army at the start of the Korean War, I was able to spend time in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Burma, and to interview some of the refugees from Mao's "New China." These were wrenching and moving experiences that contributed powerfully to my increasingly hostile view of the PRC. I was not completely ostracized from the community of China scholars, and in all fairness I note that, supported by Dean Rusk and C. Burton Fahs, who were with the foundation at that time, in 1954 I was able to receive a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. Even in the most intense periods of division among the China specialists in the 1950s, there were still individuals who insisted on fair presentations from both sides.

My next major book, published in June 1955, was of a different nature. China Under Communism: The First Five Years dealt with contemporary rather than more distant events--a trickier and more dangerous project even at the best of times. Hence I was delighted when Professor Edwin O. Reischauer of Harvard gave it an outstandingly favorable review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. After noting that it was "as lucid and revealing a picture of communist rule in China as is possible at this time", Reischauer concluded by advising his readers that, "This is a book which must be read by those who wish to have a solidly based opinion on China policy." Generally favorable reviews also came from Richard Yang, Robert C. North, George E. Taylor, Paul M.A. Linebarger, and C. Martin Wilbur, all of them acknowledged leaders in the China field.

I should note that Utley also reviewed the book. She claimed that I had made a "valiant effort" to fend off the school that had opposed her--the "Lattimore-Fairbank-IPR school of thought"--with a "massive array of facts . . . a 'balanced' and unemotional record so that he cannot be smeared as a heretic." She continued, "He writes in such a pedestrian style that he can rarely stir the reader's imagination, or evoke pity or terror."

Utley aside, gossip from colleagues warned me that an attack was under way and that Mary C. Wright at the Hoover Institution (yes, things were different back then) had been recruited to "do a job" on the book. Her review in the Journal of Asian Studies was 180 degrees away from those of Reischauer (one of her teachers) and the others named above. Her attack ended by dismissing the book as "good lunch-club material." It was no surprise, of course, that the reviewer for the IPR journal Pacific Affairs found it "long and tendentious and full of asseverations . . . deeply ballasted with opinion . . . loaded with commentary, the sideways and ponderously hostile approach to everything . . . partisan journalism." This review and Wright's were the ones that were to be most frequently quoted in subsequent bibliographies that listed my book.

It may be appropriate here to refer to an informal review that the book was to receive much, much later. In April 1992, at the time of my formal retirement dinner at the University of South Carolina, the then U.S. ambassador to Korea, Donald P. Gregg, wrote a letter that went in part: "Morton Abramowitz was a recent houseguest of mine . . . and we were talking about the amazing changes we have witnessed in Asia over the past few years. Mort recalled that as a college student in the mid-1950s he had read your book entitled China Under Communism. Mort's comment was as follows: 'A lot of people were dumping on Dixie's book at the time but you know what, he was absolutely right.' Mort now heads the Carnegie Endowment and is an immensely fair-minded man. His comment was wonderful and I hope some day people will say things like that about me."

But that was far in the future. Meanwhile, at a meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Philadelphia in April 1956, John Fairbank, with whom my relations had been cordial and with whom I had debated on public platforms, came up to me and said, "Here's a lady who wants to meet you", and stepped away. "I'm Adele Rickett", she said. I knew of her because of the book Prisoners of the Liberation, which she had written jointly with her husband. "I just wanted to meet the person who wrote that horrible book and see whether you're as inhuman as I thought you were."

That's how things were back then. At that same AAS meeting, one of my graduate students at Yale was told that if he wanted to get anywhere in the field, he would have to get away from "Walker and his gang." It was the first time I realized that I was part of a gang, but I already learned that in the atmosphere of the McCarthy era I would not be given the chance to stick by my views and remain above the political fray. Although I had not in any way supported the junior Senator from Wisconsin, I was being dubbed a McCarthyist.

Late IN 1956 the Yale history department sent out letters to twelve top scholars in Chinese history asking them to review my credentials for promotion and tenure. This was the first of two years in which such a procedure could be taken. Meanwhile, I had already received inquiries from other universities about my availability, one of which was to lead to my appointment at the University of South Carolina. The dean of Yale College, William C. DeVane, was a South Carolinian and a staunch supporter of mine. He knew of my situation within the profession and followed it with interest. He also knew the president of the University of South Carolina, Donald Russell, a former assistant secretary of state. I was to end up accepting a full professorship at South Carolina even before the initial tenure procedure at Yale could be completed.

The response to the letters from Yale reflected the impact of McCarthyism and how it had polarized the China field. There were no neutral replies: all were either enthusiastically "pro" or emphatically "con." Despite the fact that I had probably the best teaching, publishing, and research record of any of those up for tenure or promotion, my candidacy in that first year was rejected. It was only later that I learned some of the details of the history department's meeting on my case: that in the sharp division the major strikes against me were that I was too anti-communist, that I was more a political scientist than a historian, and that I was "controversial."

Once one has been labeled controversial in the academic world, any evidence will do to validate the description. One of my supporters at that history department meeting had a copy of the euphoric letter, mentioned earlier, that I had received from a distinguished scholar about The Multi-State System of Ancient China. Now, in response to Yale's inquiry, the author of that letter stated blandly that to his knowledge Walker had not done any really serious scholarly research in his career. When Professor Samuel F. Bemis, another of my mentors, held the two letters up side by side, one colleague, later to become president at a well-known New England college for women, triumphantly concluded: "That just proves how controversial Dixie is!"

I had been at Yale for eleven years, including graduate work after my service in World War II in the Pacific, and it was probably time to move on. The offer from South Carolina was challenging, though I must report that some of my colleagues at Yale and in the China field considered going there as being consigned to what we call these days, after the Soviet and Chinese experience, "internal exile." They could not have been more wrong. At the University of South Carolina I was able to put my energies into building a program that in less than a decade had achieved national standing. We were able to establish an Institute of International Studies, including a Center for Asian Studies, that attracted visiting scholars from around the world.

At the annual meeting of the AAS that year (1957) most of the China scholars, as had become the custom, met in a Chinese restaurant for a get-together. Normally a regular participant, I did not attend the sessions that year because I was in South Carolina making preparations for an important move in our family life. Two of my graduate students, who subsequently received their doctorates from Yale, attended the meeting and told me what transpired. Following a few toasts and rounds of drinks, Professor Derk Bodde (who was one of the first to apply for the post I was vacating at Yale) rose and announced, "I propose a toast! We finally got Dick Walker!" John Fairbank and others joined in. Ed Reischauer, who had reviewed my China Under Communism so favorably and who was to go on to become our distinguished ambassador to Japan, later told me when I visited him in Tokyo that he had been deeply embarrassed and immediately left. My two graduate students, who still keep in touch with me, told me that episode had been instrumental in turning them against the academic profession. They have subsequently had successful diplomatic and research careers with the U.S. government.

In the remaining years of the McCarthyist 1950s I was able to plow my energies into creative activities. I published another volume titled The Continuing Struggle: Communist China and the Free World, which was treated in the same manner as China Under Communism. These were, however, good years for me. I was able to join colleagues at the University of Washington to teach in the summer, to travel frequently to East Asia, and to work with a group of young Chinese from Peking University to set up the Union Research Institute in Hong Kong.

This latter group helped me to gather materials dealing with the Great Leap Forward in China, and in June 1959 I published another special supplement for The New Leader entitled "Letters from the Communes." These letters, together with those published a year later in another special supplement entitled "Hunger in China", provided moving evidence in first-person terms of the suffering inflicted on the Chinese people by Mao's lunatic Great Leap Forward. As Ross Terrill has recently recorded in these pages, these estimates were scoffed at as "extreme" by John Fairbank and his circle, or dismissed as mere journalism ("Mao in History", Summer 1998). But as we now know, I grossly underestimated the extent of the suffering: instead of the one to two million deaths that I had calculated for the Great Leap, and that had been so contemptuously dismissed as an exaggeration, the now widely accepted figure is thirty million.

The grotesque blindness that characterized many of those on whom the American public depended for advice on conditions in China did not end as the McCarthy period receded. It was just as evident when the next great convulsion--the so-called Cultural Revolution--occurred, and again I was in a position to observe its effects at first hand. In 1971--that is, at the peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement--I was asked by the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary to do a study on the "Human Cost of Communism in China", a companion piece to a similar study by Robert Conquest on the Soviet Union. In this work I drew on official statements and figures from Chinese leaders themselves. Again it created a major stir, with the result that I became more than ever an outcast in the field.

Fortunately, I have lived long enough to have senior leaders in the PRC acknowledge that my writings were on target. During a conference at the Summer Palace outside Beijing held in 1980, one of the Chinese participants, a retired PLA general who had fought against us in Korea and was now with the Beijing Institute of International and Strategic Studies, approached me. Over a cup of tea he said, "Now, Professor Walker, about that study you did on 'The Human Cost of Communism in China.'" I blanched and thought, "Oh dear." But he continued, "Your figures on the Cultural Revolution's costs were way low!" At least some of those who were breaking away from the Maoist era--which Fairbank had labeled "one of the best things that has ever happened to China"--understood those of us who have never accepted the official line from the Chinese capital.

So much for one China scholar's engagement with McCarthyism. From the perspective of four decades, what can one conclude about that sorry phenomenon?

First, McCarthyism had some deeply negative effects on U.S. China studies. It exacerbated personal disputes and personality clashes, and it polluted even such areas as art and literature. It eroded the integrity of some fine scholars who, under pressure or in weakness, substituted emotion for reason. It polarized the field and created real difficulties for those who wished to maintain an objective scholarly position.

Second, by making it easy to discredit serious and informed criticism of what was happening in China, McCarthyism had the unintended effect of moving the center of gravity in scholarship on the subject considerably to the Left. In my view, that made it more often than not spectacularly wrong on the essentials, in much the same way as left-wing Sovietology was wrong about the Soviet Union. If anything, the situation was worse in the case of Sinology, and error persisted longer.

Clearly the excesses of McCarthyism served to legitimize the Fairbank school of thought and its support of the "Chinese Revolution." From his seat at Harvard, Fairbank devoted himself to presenting the Maoist regime as a legitimate successor in an ongoing history of China. With his proteges Arthur and Mary Wright moving to Yale, and with his command of resources from foundations and academic centers, his ability to get this view accepted was formidable. As Professor Richard C. Thornton has summed up: "For the better part of four decades, Fairbank exercised enormous leverage on the field of Chinese studies: He influenced where and how resources would be expended; helped to train hundreds of students who went on eventually to fill high academic, governmental, and business positions; and shaped American attitudes toward the Chinese Communist regime." He confidently dismissed those who disagreed with his position as "insignificant"--a class that included, as he confidently asserted in his 1982 autobiography China Bound, the group at the University of Washington, as well as myself. In that same volume he summed up his basic approach succinctly: "I was committed to viewing 'communism' as bad in America but good in China, which I was convinced was true." On the same page he also explained the pragmatic nature of his condemnation of communism in America: "I could state the merits of the CCP effectively only if I were anti-CPUSA at home."

Third, McCarthyism destroyed the careers of a number of fine China specialists in the Foreign Service. What happened to Oliver Edmund Clubb and John Paton Davies was a discreditable chapter in the defense of State Department professionals who were rendering honest service to their country. At the same time, the State Department was not as devastated as these individual cases might suggest, or as some academics were later to insist. Distinguished officers such as Ralph Clough, Howard Boorman, and Charles T. Cross were able to continue their service unobstructed.

Fourth, McCarthyism resulted in some, but only a few, academic purges, which are always ugly, no matter the motive, in a society that cherishes academic freedom. The victims were at both ends of the spectrum to which they had been consigned by the intensity of McCarthyist polemics, though only those at one end have received much subsequent attention.

Fifth, as McCarthyism has become a legend and a catch-all characterization of a decade, its strength and impact have been grossly exaggerated. This has had pernicious effects over the years. Thus, for example, was it possible for Professor Edward Friedman of the University of Wisconsin to discuss the so-called Cultural Revolution as "Marxist McCarthyism." And today a colleague of mine still tells his students that McCarthyism was worse for the United States than Stalinism was for Russia. Such statements are ludicrous and morally repugnant. As ugly as McCarthyism was, nobody died because of it, no one went to a gulag, and the total number of people jailed, usually on charges of perjury, did not exceed 140. By contrast, the Cultural Revolution marked the greatest wave of destruction of cultural and artistic treasures, the greatest purge of intellectuals, and the greatest national destruction since the First Chin Emperor beginning in 221 BC. Accurate estimates of the human casualties are still not available, but the figure is probably more than two million. As for the second comparison, according to Russian scholars Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than fifty million people during the course of his career. Mao Tse-tung was to score even larger.

The McCarthyism label never matched the reality. There were positive developments in China studies even during its worst years. McCarthyism did not send scholars into headlong retreat in fright. Many were able to continue their studies and inspire a new generation of specialists. Not only did some stand up to McCarthy, but major projects, including the National Defense Education Act and new support for China studies from foundations beginning in the late 1950s, made the field remarkably productive. Indeed, the U.S. scholarly community was well prepared for the access to the PRC that came in the wake of the Nixon opening to China. In the end, and as ugly as it was, McCarthyism was not as powerful as the deafening howls from some academics who insisted that they were forced into silence. It was a sorry chapter, but it was neither deadly nor lasting.

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