Winter 1999 - Spring 2000

1983: … The Crucial 1940's

By Walter Sullivan
[This article originally appeared in the Spring 1983 issue of Nieman Reports.]

Scottsdale, Arizona — Two dozen of those whose reporting from China in the 1940's helped shape American attitudes and policies in the years culminating in the Communist victory met here recently to discuss with historians whether they did an adequate job.

They were asked if, charmed by so charismatic a figure as Chou En-lai, they ‘China was a mystery to all of us as it remains to this day a mystery to the most learned scholars. We never knew who was doing what to whom and why; we could not penetrate Chinese politics.’
—Theodore White
had misled the public regarding the consequences of a Communist victory. Or had they failed to make it clear that popular support for the Nationalists was vanishing and a Communist victory was inevitable?

Historians seeking to determine the forces that influenced reporting from China questioned the correspondents on their attitudes and biases the "intellectual baggage" they brought with them to China. Facing the historians were those who had represented the major news services and newspapers. Also present were two newsmen who had stayed on in China after the revolution. One, Julian Schuman, now edits China Daily, an English-language paper in Peking. The other, Israel Epstein, former United Press correspondent, edits the magazine China Reconstructs.

The meeting was organized by the Center for Asian Studies of Arizona State University in nearby Tempe to provide material for a book exploring the role of American journalists' reporting on China during the critical years after World War II. It appears to be the first time scholars have assembled reporters who covered a particular period and region in an effort to understand what happened.

A number of the participants blamed such publishers as Hearst, Scripps Howard, and Henry R. Luce, head of Time Inc., rather than their correspondents, for playing down the news of a probably inevitable Communist takeover and the deep-seated reasons for it. John Hersey, former Time correspondent and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, told how a reversal in attitude by Luce transformed Time's coverage of China under the aegis of Whittaker Chambers, then its foreign news editor.

Another former Time-Life contributor, Annalee Jacoby, now Mrs. Clifton Fadiman, said a large part of her interview with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalists, was fabricated in New York presumably by Mr. Chambers. Mrs. Fadiman, who co-authored the book "Thunder Out of China" with Theodore H. White, said her interview with Chiang was published "with questions I did not ask and answers Chiang did not give." Former correspondents for several major newspapers including The New York Times said, however, that their reports, when published, were not substantially altered.

Mr. Hersey told of his early close relationship with Mr. Luce based in part on their both being "mishkids" the children of missionaries in China. Originally, he said, Mr. Luce warmly supported such programs as the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives that set up model projects in remote areas including those under Communist control.

Then Mr. Luce underwent a basic change of view. Unlike other missionary offspring, Mr. Hersey said, he could not believe that a Communist victory was fast becoming inevitable. Mr. Hersey placed primary blame on two figures: Mr. Luce's wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who was becoming converted to Catholicism, and Whittaker Chambers, Time's Foreign News Editor, who had joined Time in 1939 after quitting the Communist Party and becoming obsessively anti-Communist. It was his testimony that later helped send Alger Hiss to jail after Hiss was accused of being a Soviet agent.

By 1944, Mr. Hersey said, such correspondents of Time as Theodore White and Mr. Hersey were deeply disturbed by the "monotone of paranoia" they felt Mr. Chambers had imposed on the magazine. Mr. White threatened to quit in protest at treatment of his material.

When Mr. Luce asked the correspondents to evaluate Mr. Chambers' editing, "the replies were unanimous," Mr. Hersey said. They resembled his own response, in which he said his copy was "torn" out of context and tailored to Time's "editorial bias." Mr. Hersey refused Mr. Luce's offer of managing editorship. Both he and Theodore White quit the magazine, and it was not until later that such gross doctoring of copy at Time ended.

There was wide agreement among newspeople and historians at the conference that even though they reported the steady decay of the Nationalist position and its loss of popular support, little attention was paid to this at home. Americans were unprepared for what happened.

The result, according to John K. Fairbank, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and a leading authority on China, was "a first-class disaster for the American people." What he called "non-acceptance of a new order in the Chinese Empire" led, he said, to American involvement in Korea and Vietnam.

John Melby, who had been a foreign service officer in China, said that as anti-Communist fears took hold in the United States little attention was paid to what the press or foreign service reported from China. Mr. Melby coordinated preparation of the government's 1949 White Paper, documenting American involvement in the events leading up to the collapse of the Nationalists.

It was agreed that a very different situation existed during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930's. The accounts by such correspondents as A. T. Steele of the Chicago Daily News and Tillman Durdin [NF '49] of The New York Times helped align American public opinion on the side of China, particularly after they provided eyewitness accounts of the so-called "rape of Nanking."

Journalists at the meeting were asked whether they had failed to convey what was really happening because they did not speak the language or remained tied to the big cities, whereas the "real China" was rural. It was pointed out that at least some correspondents, such as Jack Belden who worked for United Press and Time-Life, lived with the peasants or traveled with the armies. So did Agnes Smedley, a graduate of Arizona State (which sponsored the conference), who reported for the Manchester Guardian and New Masses, becoming a champion for the Communist cause.

A few correspondents, such as Mr. Hersey, and foreign service officers, such as John S. Service, a conference participant, were "mishkids" in Mr. Hersey's term and fluent in the language.

The correspondents were asked by several of the historians whether personalities colored their reporting. It was agreed that Chou En-lai was an extremely engaging individual whereas Chiang Kai-shek and his wife were not. The journalists, however, admitted to no bias in their coverage. The Communist communiqués were depended on, they said, because they almost always proved accurate whereas the Nationalist ones were usually not.

Correspondents who visited the Communist headquarters at Yenan saw what was described there as "the new democracy." The contrast with the autocratic and corrupt atmosphere at Nationalist headquarters in Chungking was dramatic, according to A.T. Steele. "It was like going from hell to heaven," he said. He conceded that the "redness" of the Communists that later emerged was de-emphasized because of growing anti-Communism at home. "We were reluctant to paint them as real Communists," he said, "because we knew that would go against the American grain."

"We were all very young men, ignorant men, unskilled men," wrote Theodore White in a letter sent because he could not attend [the conference]. "China was a mystery to all of us as it remains to this day a mystery to the most learned scholars. We never knew who was doing what to whom and why; we could not penetrate Chinese politics. We lived on the slope of a volcano; we could see it steaming, record an eruption now and then, knew the landscape was heaving, and all of us sensed that this volcano would blow its top."

It was a remarkable meeting, bringing together those who, from radically different perspectives and backgrounds, had seen the Chinese revolution run its course. So much time had elapsed since the participants had seen one another and discussed such issues that, for at least some of us, it was like meeting in heaven and looking back in serenity at a period when, as Teddy White put it, we were young, ignorant and immersed in one of the greatest upheavals of human history.

Walter Sullivan, Science Editor for The New York Times, was in China during the climactic period of the revolution, 1948-49, as the traveling correspondent for The New York Times. He ventured as far west as Sinkiang and remained for another year on the periphery of China, primarily in Korea and Hong Kong.

1 Comment on 1983: … The Crucial 1940's
robert leng says:
September 27, 2009 at 1:29pm
While the Russians were helping the communist, the US pulled the rug under Chiang with the white paper. The reporting of these young, inexperienced and naive reporters helped to turn the american people against the nationlist but not knowing the true character of the communist and the consequence of a communist victory. What follows were the Korean war and the vietnam war which greatly wounded the US. A tragic decision made by Truman while influenced by the misinformation provided by these reporters.
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