Killing the messenger

On the fate of envoys who speak the truth at the risk of blighting their future.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

THIS book deserves careful study in India for three reasons. One is that it reveals graphically the damage on lives and on the public interest that ignorant popular clamour, worked up by unscrupulous politicians—now also by incompetent and equally unscrupulous TV anchors—can inflict. Secondly, the author, an accomplished American diplomat, was in India in 1942 when the atmosphere was charged with Gandhi’s suicidal moves to force the Congress to pass the Quit India resolution. Lastly, it records the author’s strikingly prophetic assessments of the bleak future of the Chiang Kai-shek regime and of the inevitable success of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong. It contains some revealing vignettes such as Mao’s desire to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). The author met Mao, Zhou Enlai and Chu The in Yenan. For all his qualities and successes John Paton Davies was sacked from the foreign service by the Secretary of State John Footer Dulles on November 5, 1954. Eight probes by the Loyalty Security Board had cleared him of the charge of disloyalty or of being a Communist. The ninth held him guilty of lack of “judgment, discretion and reliability”. Dulles offered to recommend him nonetheless, for future employment. Davies refused to resign or retire with pension. He settled down in Lima and crafted good furniture.

That has been the fate of envoys who spoke the truth at the risk of blighting their future. In 1948, the Soviet Union published two volumes of documents, captured from the Nazi archives, containing prophetic reports by the German Ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen. They were sold by the Communist Party bookshop in Bombay for Rs.3 each, which even a schoolboy with limited pocket money could afford. Dirksen predicted that Britain would, indeed, go to war if Germany invaded Poland. It did and the Second World War broke out. Dirksen was snubbed when he returned to Berlin.

Davies’ crime was to predict accurately not only the rise of ‘Red China’ but also that American indifference and, more so, its hostility would drive Mao, most reluctantly, to Stalin’s cold and suffocating embrace. There was nothing inevitable about the Sino-Soviet alliance. Decades later, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar was begging the Americans for recognition and serious parleys. The wooden Karl Inderfurth rebuffed him, cementing the alliance between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The tragedy is being repeated now—over Iran and Syria. It reveals traits in America’s diplomatic culture which are as pronounced in India’s diplomatic culture; just as McCarthyism has its counterpart in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attacks on the government whenever it embarks on the path of conciliation.

The son of American missionaries, Davies was born in China and educated in the United States where he joined the Foreign Service. He was posted in China as special diplomatic attache to General Joseph W. Stilwell, Commander of the Allied China-Burma-India theatre who was also Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In March 1945, he was transferred to Moscow where George F. Kennan was Minister Counsellor to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. He earned the respect of both and was assigned in August 1947 to the newly established Policy Planning Staff. But in China he had received a different treatment from the Ambassador, Patrick J. Hurley, who was out to ingratiate himself with Chiang. He was a wealthy oilman from Oklahoma who knew nothing of China—that the U.S. had a feckless and, in foreign affairs, incompetent President in FDR did not help matters.

When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, cries went up in the U.S. for the scalps of those responsible for “the loss of China”. A powerful China lobby, generously funded by Chiang, was formed, with Hurley as a prominent member.

An obscure Senator declared on February 9, 1950, “While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” He was Joseph P. McCarthy. In this clime, the messenger was “killed”. During his term in China, Davies had occasion to pass through India where he met Gandhi, Nehru, Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari, or CR), C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, Sarojini Naidu and others.

“Rajaji was arguing for his so-called Madras resolution; India was being attacked; Indians had already been killed on Indian soil; it was useless to cry out over the inequities of the present government; India must unite now; Mr Jinnah’s Muslim League can be brought into a national government. It is a child which wants to sit in the front seat of a car taking a family to the station—if you enter into a discussion with the child on who is to sit up front you miss the train. The principal obstacle to a national government is the psychological one of Muslim prestige; concede Pakistan in principle and in practice you will find the Muslims cooperating.” In this, as on much else besides, Rajaji was ahead of his times and a man taller than Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. It is interesting to note Nehru’s comment in 1942 that “corruption in the Government of India is extraordinarily widespread… especially in connection with defence industries”. V.K. Krishna Menon of the jeep scandal would have agreed with him.

Meeting with Gandhi Davies met Gandhi at Birla House in Bombay on May 14, 1942. His report merits quotation in extenso . “I asked him what he thought the United States could do to be helpful to India. He replied ‘Persuade the British to withdraw immediately and completely from India’. Japan’s primary objective in this part of the world, the Mahatma said, is the destruction of British power. Eliminate the British from India and no incentive remains for the Japanese to attack India. The British were not able to withdraw from Malaya and Burma with dignity. They still have time to withdraw from India with dignity. If they leave now it would be best for Britain, best for India and best for the world.

“I observed that the Chinese had not been saved by a pacific attitude toward Japan from a Japanese invasion, and that Japan’s incentives for attacking an independent India would seem to be scarcely less than they had been for attacking an independent China. Mr Gandhi explained that India is not a neighbour of Japan as is China, and is, therefore, less likely to be subject to Japanese aggression.

“Mr Gandhi admitted that a Japanese invasion might nevertheless be possible. In such a case, the Mahatma declared, ‘Our only weapon is non-violent non-cooperation. We are not a nation of heroes,’ he said. ‘I frankly recognise and admit that.’ He said that he would advocate that the Indian people refuse the Japanese food, water and labour. The practice of non-violent non-cooperation against the Japanese, he recognised, would be quite a different matter than against the British. The British imprisoned and sometimes tortured, but they stopped short of killing. With the Japanese it would be for the Indians success or death.

“Some of his friends, like Mr Rajagopalachari, had argued with him that the British were civilised and the Japanese were barbarians, and that, therefore, Indians should at this juncture cooperate with the British to check the greater evil. His reply, Mr Gandhi stated, was that India wanted neither British nor Japanese rule, that non-violence was the strongest force in the world and that its impact on the barbarian might be greater than on the civilised man. He said that the Japanese had experienced little contact with the Indian mind, and implied that if Japanese troops were met by non-violent non-cooperation from the Indian masses, they would in effect be defeated.…

“He stated that American diplomacy was under the control of the British, and that the voice of those Americans in the United States friendly to India was being stifled by the British. I asked whether in connection with his wish that the British withdraw he also desired that we leave too. ‘Naturally, yes,’ he replied. I inquired of Mr Gandhi whether he felt that there might not ultimately be general acceptance of Mr Rajagopalachari’s proposal that the Congress concede the principle of Pakistan in order to achieve an understanding with the Muslim League leading to the formation of a national government. The Mahatma replied in vague terms, seeming to indicate an answer in the negative.

“An Indian editor told me that the secret of Gandhi’s power over people was that he treated everyone as a child. During the visit of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek to India, they met with Gandhi and, the editor smiled, the Mahatma offered to the imperious Madame Chiang the sanctuary of his ashram where she might ‘live as my daughter’.”

With Nehru Davies met Nehru on May 24 in Allahabad. “I asked Nehru about the reported plans for civil disobedience. He seemed to be disturbed that the alleged preparations were known. Unconvincingly, he pled ignorance; he had been vacationing in the hills. I pointed out the obvious—the damage that disruption in India would do to our efforts to help China. Not only China would suffer, but straining the point in an appeal to his pro-Soviet sympathies, so would the Soviet Union. Would he support Gandhi in the projected campaign? Nehru was non-committal. Following the advice of two Indian friends who said that “the only way to induce Jawaharlal to reveal what he is thinking is to make him flare up”, I asked him if he believed that he should follow the dictates of the Congress party (that is, Gandhi) even though they were counter to his convictions. He was evasive.

“Gandhi had recently said, I went on, that Nehru was virtually his heir, that the Mahatma was not disturbed by Jawaharlal’s occasional “apostasy” because he had faithfully carried out the Congress policy defined by Gandhi. Nehru pretended to be unaware that the Mahatma had claimed him as heir and asserted that he had more often won Gandhi over to his point of view than the other way around. Getting no revelations, I asked why, if statements made to me were correct, was there no published accounting of Gandhi’s Harijan Fund, ostensibly for improving the lot of the untouchables. This flustered Nehru, ‘Why that’s a most unusual question. Of course, I have nothing to do with the fund. I don’t know anything about the administration of the fund.’”

Jinnah sized up Jinnah was sized up correctly. “Jinnah, as astute and opportunistic a politician as there is today in India, fulfils the role of fuhrer called for by the circumstances in which the Muslims find themselves (a minority feeling discriminated against by the Hindus). He has skilfully exploited the apprehensions of his community and has built up the Muslim League as a disciplined organisation obedient to his will. The political credo of the Muslim League, and Mr Jinnah’s battle cry, is Pakistan. Pakistan is a vaguely defined programme for a more or less independent Muslim state in the areas where the Muslims are in the majority.”

Ambedkar had sweeping generalisations to offer. A Congress-League coalition frightened him. It would mean rule by three groups “the Brahmin… the Bania… and the Muslim”.

Decadent nationalists On the whole, Davies’ impressions of India’s leaders were most unflattering. “However, decadent British rule in India may be, most of the Indian nationalistic leaders are themselves more decadent and lacking in aggressive vitality. A British official observed to me that he and his colleagues were able to rule India not because they were strong but because the Indians were so weak. The tremendous influence of Gandhi in defining the expression of the Indian revolutionary urge has been a retrogressive one. His philosophy of action began with perhaps over-realistic acceptance, from both religious conviction and tactical considerations, of the fatalism and negativism of the Hindu character... And Nehru, whose progressive philosophy was in opposition to the Gandhi programme had not had the strength to override the Mahatma.

“The urge toward revolution in India is, therefore, frustrated by the relative weakness of the Indians themselves and by the fact that, no matter how incompetent it may be in other respects, the Government of India knows how to use the instruments of control that it has firmly in its hands.”

The author was opposed to “British imperialism in India” and warned that Indians had come to identify the U.S. with it. Nor was he much impressed by Churchill’s policies. “The Churchillian policy was (1) Conservation of British manpower—trading time for men and the realisation that victory accompanied by exhaustion and decimation is no victory. (2) Repossession and even expansion of empire. (3) Preventing China from becoming a major power. (4) Reducing Russia’s strength as a major power by delaying the opening of a second front…. Whatever Soviet policy might otherwise have been, Mr Churchill’s apparent intention to let German dog eat Russian dog can hardly be expected to evoke anything other than a Russian determination to play a role only and strictly in its own interest.”

Davies viewed afar. From his base in China he foresaw Soviet and American policies after the war. He was concerned lest the Soviet Union “in seeking to establish its new strategic frontiers, will expand into territories which the other three powers, also for strategic reasons, wish to remain independent or which one of them (China) claims. How far does the Soviet Union intend to penetrate into middle Europe in pursuit of the Germans? What are Soviet intentions in south-western Asia? What are the Russians’ plans for the use of their Korean division? And if the Chinese Communists are driven to seek Russian aid because of Chungking attacks, does the Kremlin intend to utilise as satellites the Chinese Communists and any territory which they may, with Russian arms, hold or capture? North China and Manchuria, for example.”

American policy, he commented in a 1943 paper, seemed to be “more or less committed to certain vague political and economic principles enunciated in the Atlantic Charter and “Four Freedoms”. But this policy had never appeared to override the purely military strategy of defeating the Axis. One political policy, however, seemed to have prevailed over military strategy and that was maintenance of Britain as a major power. By its silence, the United States had, in the eyes of the rest of the world, acquiesced in Churchill’s imperialism.” He was all for propping up Japan as a counter “against the Soviet Union and China”.

FDR proposed to Churchill an Indian Constitution modelled on the American Articles of Confederation. Anglo-American rivalry in India was rife even during the War. Davies proposed that the U.S. should press the United Kingdom to grant independence to India.

In Moscow in 1944, he met Foreign Minister Molotov who said “the Soviet Union had long supported Chiang and was not connected with those poverty-stricken elements in China who called themselves Communists, but in fact were not real Communists.”

China & U.S. Davies had established contact with Zhou Enlai in 1938 when he was the CPC’s representative to the Chiang regime at Chungking. By 1943, it was clear that Chiang had no future. The U.S. sent an “Observer Group” to Yenan, the CPC’s headquarters in July 1944. John S. Service, who was also persecuted later, met Mao who indicated “at the outset that he wanted an American consulate at Yenan, one that would remain after the conclusion of the war and the departure of the observers. He also told Service that he wished to have a talk with him after Jack had acquainted himself with the Yenan scene. Service needed no urging. He had already begun the first of what would develop into a harvest of detailed and illuminating reports.

“One month after Service’s arrival, Mao received him—for a conversation lasting eight hours. Not only in length was this an extraordinary dialogue. For here was the dominant Chinese Communist, whose forces within a half dozen years would overthrow Chiang and overrun China, broaching to a junior American diplomat a plea that the American government collaborate with the Chinese Communists…”

“China must industrialise, Mao continued. It could do this only by free enterprise and with help from foreign capital. He said that Chinese and American interests were correlated and similar, that China and the United States can and must work together. The United States would find the Communists would not fear but rather welcome democratic American influence.”

Recording the substance of Mao’s concluding remarks, Service reported, “America does not need to fear that we will not be cooperative. We must cooperate and we must have American help…. We cannot risk crossing you—cannot risk any conflict with you.” Service dispatched to FBI Headquarters and the Embassy a full account of Mao’s statements to him. The Embassy forwarded a copy of the report to the State Department. Washington did not deign to respond to Mao.

Mao then controlled some 85,000 square kilometres and a population of about 90 million. Davies’ advice was used against him a decade later. “The more aid we give Chiang exclusively the greater the likelihood of his precipitating a civil war and the more protracted and costly will be the Communist unification of China”; not to mention its alliance with the Soviet Union. Patrik Hurley James, Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Chiang. aspired to bring Mao in a coalition led by Chiang. Mao asked for a real sharing of power while Chiang wanted control of Mao’s forces.

In January 1945, “Mao and Zhou indicated to the ranking American military officer at Yenan that they wished to be received in Washington for an interview with Roosevelt. They asked that Hurley not be informed of their request. The Mao-Zhou overture was referred to the theatre headquarters where General Wedemeyer (Stilwell’s successor) quite properly, showed it to the Ambassador. This evoked the predictable outburst and dark suspicions of the luckless officer who had forwarded the Yenan message. Hurley suppressed the Mao-Zhou request.” In 1945, Ho Chi Minh was also rebuffed when he sought to open relations between the Viet Minh and the U.S. Davies’ reports from Moscow were as perceptive. In July 1945, he warned that China might emerge as “the greatest single threat” to the USSR.

The book has an Epilogue by Prof. Bruce Cummings, author of a magisterial history of the Korean War. His comments on the impact of McCarthyism we would do well to take to heart given the Swadeshi McCarthyites of the Sangh Parivar.

“McCarthyism appeared to die with the man himself in 1957, but it has had an extraordinary and lasting influence on our foreign policy. Foreign Service officers reacted to the inquisition of the China hands with a cringing silence, leaving Averell Harriman (who always defended Davies and was subject to red-baiting himself) to find ‘a disaster area filled with human wreckage’.

“The United States is still a provincial country, in spite of all its power, and it is still true that Foreign Service officers who come to know the language and culture of another country will be perceived as internal foreigners in their own land. And so the military carries out most of the tasks of empire, yielding the inane result that there are more people in the Pentagon’s marching bands than in all the Foreign Service.…

“We still live in a political milieu where anyone who can be labelled a leftist or ‘revisionist’, or who just harbours controversial or non-mainstream views, has little or no chance of making an impact in Washington, or being hired by any Republican or Democratic administration. When I was a new graduate student in East Asian Studies at Columbia University in 1968, one of my advisers told me point blank that my anti-war activities, if they continued, would obviate any possibility of a job in Washington; he then told me that his deepest fear was a revival by the right wing of the witch hunts of the 1950s. The whole field of modern China studies was shaped by McCarthyism, and still is if we speak of specialists whose fondest desire is to advise presidents. The result is a remarkably constricted foreign policy debate inside the Beltway; people seem to arrive at their foreign policy positions along partisan lines, or with an eye to a future government position. Or they filter information and policy through presupposition and rules of thumb that are mostly beyond examination— especially their own.”

In India, the raucous exchanges on TV channels in the evening “debates”, hawkish writings of former Indian Foreign Service officers who have come out of the woodwork to join forces with the BJP, and others of their ilk, have combined to build up a climate of opinion which a weak Congress government, facing the elections in 2014, finds difficult to combat.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment