Magazine article The National Interest

China Studies in McCarthy's Shadow: A Personal Memoir

Magazine article The National Interest

China Studies in McCarthy's Shadow: A Personal Memoir

Article excerpt

A Personal Memoir

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. …

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