The Sichuan Connection: Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump

(Jack Service and Mao Zedong)

In 1906, Grace and Robert Service, two YMCA missionaries en route from Berkeley, California to Chengdu, Sichuan, experienced an unthinkable disaster while traveling up the Yangzi river. Their seven-month old daughter Virginia died of complications from dehydration.

"Even now," wrote Grace Service in her memoir Golden Inches, "all my memories of anxiety at Virginia's illness are forever blended with the sounds of rushing water, of the hiss of the crisp surge against the thin wooden side of our boat, of looking out when caring for the sick child and seeing into the heart of a whirlpool, of rocks half-disclosing their jagged points near the side of our craft, of a feeling of man's utter impotence and the irresistible power of wild water."

I started reading Golden Inches as part of my mission to absorb a kaleidoscope of Sichuan complexity. I have pored over the travel diary of a 12th century Song Dynasty poet, marveled at the Victorian arrogance of a 19th century English explorer, boggled at the chutzpah of the American woman who was the first person to bring a living panda to the United States, absorbed the insights of one anthropologist doing field research as the People's Liberation Army arrived in 1949 and another analyzing the economic consequences of footbinding on rural women. I've even imagined another life for myself as an English teacher chronicling the last days of a city about to be flooded by the Three Gorges dam.

My hope has always been that by overlaying multiple refracting accounts of Sichuan I can arrive at some essential truth about the region, something that will illuminate the hold it has on my imagination. At the same time, I am increasingly mindful that my obsessive efforts to bury myself in all things Sichuan are a desperate diversion, a way to escape the age of Trump. I spend my days losing myself in other lives and other centuries, submerging in their wild waters like a body surfer barely in control. This is how I self-care.

But Grace Service's account of the death of her daughter snapped me out of my maze of refraction into a moment of heart-pulsing connection across space and time. On the one hand, the solidarity of grief; on the other, incredulity: how could the parent of an infant possibly rationalize making an arduous months-long trek from California to inland China? Was anything worth that kind of sacrifice?

Grace Service soldiered on. Through revolution and warlord anarchy and Chengdu's oppressive heat she assisted her husband in his efforts to establish the YMCA in Chengdu, while teaching her Chinese servants how to "properly" bake bread and prepare Western meals, and raising three sons. The eldest, John "Jack" Service, born in Chengdu in 1909, edited and annotated her memoir before publishing it several decades after her death.

One of his footnotes, appended to the end of the story of Virginia's death, caught my attention. Jack observes that when he and his wife "made our first return trip [to China] up the river in 1975," they could see that a pagoda at the top of the hill overlooking the point on the Yangzi where Virginia Service had died still remained "lonely and unchanged."

Just three years after Richard Nixon's epochal visit to China in 1972, the sight of Americans traveling up the Yangzi must still have been an extreme rarity. I sensed a puzzle here; breadcrumbs in a labyrinth; another road to Sichuan that must be followed. How and why did Jack Service get back to China? What was his story? And why was his name so familiar?


On February 9, 1950, Senator Joe McCarthy gave an address in Wheeling, West Virginia known to history as the "Enemies From Within" speech. The State Department, he declared, "is thoroughly infested by Communists." McCarthy claimed to have in his hand a list of "57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party."

McCarthy never made the names on that list public. But in his speech in Wheeling he took pains to single out one State Department Foreign Service employee: John Service, a "China hand" who had been stationed in Sichuan during World War II. McCarthy zeroed in on Service with his customary vehement malice. The reports that Service filed to his superiors analyzing China's political situation, said McCarthy, stated "in effect, that communism was the best hope for China." McCarthy also accused Service of "turning over to the communists secret State Department information." In doing so, charged McCarthy, Service had sabotaged Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists -- a U.S. ally in the war against Japan -- and ultimately aided and abetted Mao's Communists in winning the Chinese civil war.

The accusation was absurd. Nearly all of Jack Service's superiors considered him an exemplary Foreign Service officer of high integrity and keen insight.  It is true: he despised Chiang Kai-shek, but that hardly made him unusual. Nonetheless, Grace Service's eldest son became the focal point of the "Who Lost China?" debate that raged throughout the 1950s. The non-stop attacks on his character were fueled not just by McCarthy's accusations, but also by the personal animus of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Chiang Kai-shek, and Patrick Hurley, the Ambassador to China at the end of World War II who thoroughly botched any chance of preventing a civil war between Chiang's Nationalists and Mao's Communists. If one may judge a man by his enemies, Service was unimpeachable.

As for the charges? Service was initially cleared multiple times of all charges of wrongdoing or disloyalty, but accelerating Cold War hysteria in the wake of the Korean War outbreak finally got him fired from the State Department in 1952. In Honorable Survivor: Mao's China, McCarthy's America, and the Persecution of John S. Service, the author Lynne Joiner makes a meticulous and convincing case that he was innocent. The worst that can be said is that Service was a little too cavalier when it came to sharing information with journalists and magazine editors, some of whom were definitely Communist sympathizers -- but he had been directly ordered by his superiors to act as a liaison to the press! In 1957, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that Service was improperly dismissed and ordering his immediately reinstatement.

Service's real crime was his entirely accurate assessment that Mao's Communists had generated broad-based popular support and were effectively fighting the Japanese, while Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government was corrupt and murderously incompetent -- and likely to lose in any ultimate showdown with the Communists. But his recommendation that the United States should build stronger ties with the CCP if it wanted to maintain any capacity for influencing the course of China's development was rejected. How matters might have progressed (would there have been a Korean War? A Vietnam War?) if Service's advice had been followed is impossible to say. But Nixon's decision to visit China and begin the process of normalizing relations was a de facto acknowledgment that Service had been right all along.

(My original copy from freshman year at college)

I first encountered the name Jack Service in a seminar I enrolled in as a freshman at the University of Michigan called "The Struggle for East Asia." He was a key character in one of our first readings for the class, Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China. That seminar so excited my imagination that I started studying Chinese the following year, and, well, here we are, forty years later. Was I partially inspired by the heroic Foreign Service employee who faced down the unctuous and vile Joe McCarthy? I wonder...

But it wasn't until I read Joiner's biography that I learned how closely my own life had intersected with Service's. He graduated from Berkeley High School, as did my children. After he retired from the Foreign Service, he returned to Berkeley to obtain an MA in political science. He arrived in the East Bay in September 1962, barely a month after I was born just a few miles down the road in Oakland. After getting his masters, he devoted himself to building a world-class research library at Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies -- the very spot where I spent many hours researching my own master's thesis, and the ancestor of the East Asian Library where I borrowed his mother's memoir! It is even conceivable that my father and Service both took the same class in Chinese history from the great Joseph Levenson.

As I reacquainted myself with Service's McCarthyist ordeal, I began to experience a weird inverted sense of déjà vu. Joiner's account of J. Edgar Hoover's desperate attempts to get Service fired -- a sordid tale of illegal FBI searches, wiretaps of top government officials and lobbyists, suborned perjury and the manipulation of mass hysteria -- set off a cascade of resonances with the current moment.

Card-carrying Communists in the State Department? Just another version of the deep state.

The FBI wiretap of Tommy Corcoran, legendary Roosevelt fixer and prototypical lobbyist? A distant mirror of the wiretapping of the Russian ambassador and the unmasking of Michael Flynn.

No holds-barred partisan warfare between Republicans and Democrats involving both China and Russia? The "friendly" journalists that were happy to carry Hoover and McCarthy's water by printing misleading information leaked to them on the sly?

There is no diversion, no distraction, no escape. During a Twitter break I emerge from my rabbit hole and learn that, in an obvious attempt to squelch Trump-related investigations, Attorney General William Barr is firing the top prosecutor of the Southern District of New York. And who is William Barr but Donald Trump's latter day replacement for Roy Cohn, the amoral lawyer who greased Trump's path into Manhattan real estate tycoon-dom? And how did Roy Cohn launch his career? As Joe McCarthy's attack-dog.

I wonder if Jack Service and Roy Cohn ever got into it. A quick google, and there it is: an oral history in which Service recalls being summoned by Cohn to a hearing with Joe McCarthy in which the two Commie hunters grill him on the utterly risible charge that he is a CIA secret agent.

How did this happen? The death of Grace Service's baby in 1906 has somehow led me to Roy Cohn, who is himself the connecting node between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump.  This is how the past becomes the present. This is how the myriad things are all interconnected.

One of the unexpected things about getting older is that what once seemed the distant past starts telescoping closer and closer. Although I was raised in a household that considered the McCarthy era one of the most disgraceful periods in modern American history, as far as I was concerned anything that happened in the 1950s might as well have occurred during the Roman Republic.

But as I mulled over the Jack Service-Roy Cohn-Donald Trump continuum, I realized that McCarthy's "Enemies From Within" speech was given barely more than a decade before I was born. And at age 57, a decade seems hardly longer than the flutter of a butterfly's wings. 9/11 is further back in time from my present than the end of World War II was from the moment I was born. Suddenly, the cataclysms of the 1940s and the Red Scare of the 1950s are sneaking up on me. History has shrunk while the now has broadened. The spirit of Joe McCarthy is alive and well and living in the White House.

Which is disconcerting. But also strangely heartening, because it proves that the present is not an anomaly.

For most of my life, I've regarded the McCarthy era as an inconceivable tragedy of yesteryear, while comforting myself with the conviction that America eventually came to its senses, experienced its "at long last, have you no sense of decency?" moment, and moved forward into the era of civil rights and women's liberation and environmental awareness. Progress was real. The past could be left to its own devices.

My faith in progress stumbled in November 2016. I have few words with which to explain to my children how Donald Trump could be elected as president; or how culture war polarization has made something as simple as wearing a mask fuel for partisan warfare; or how racism could be enshrined as government policy in the 21st fucking century... Age is supposed to bequeath wisdom but one of the drawbacks to being in my sixth decade is the confidence with which I have found myself saying, this is the craziest, most disastrous, most disappointing shit I've ever seen.

But my snapshot view of history is the most fleeting of glimpses! The witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Japanese invasion of China, the Holocaust; these things are not ancient history; they are integral parts of the current moment. The older I get the more I feel the tug of their gravity and the more I sense the heat of their conflagrations. We're still fighting the Civil War, we're still fighting World War II and Jack Service is still defending his integrity against J. Edgar Hoover and Tailgunner Joe and Roy Cohn.

And perhaps, if the last month of massive civil protests and Trump's plummeting poll numbers tell us anything, it is that another moment of decency, at long last, is looming.

I hope. But ironies do abound. Grace and Robert Service set off for Sichuan to do the YMCA's work armed with the sincere conviction that Western Christian morality and modern education could help China escape its poverty and paganism and political dysfunction. They were so confident in their extraordinary privilege that they were willing, disastrously, to risk the life of their infant daughter. And for what? So that a hundred years later, their home country would be a case study for the rejection of the Enlightenment, a place where evangelical Christians would throw their support to a man that Grace Service would despise, a place where public health officials regularly receive death threats for their efforts to protect the public welfare?

Who needs help now, in the fight against backwardness, ignorance, and superstition? How long, I wonder, before Daoist missionaries start arriving on our shores from Taiwan, to help us build a democracy that actually works and provide lessons on how to stop a plague?