Magazine December 7, 2009, Issue

Secret Service

Honorable Survivor: Mao’s China, McCarthy’s America, and the Persecution of John S. Service, by Lynne Joiner (Naval Institute, 450 pp., $37.95)

The period since the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been kind to the dozens of Americans accused of collaboration with Soviet intelligence during the 1930s and 1940s. Each new revelation from Russian archives, and each new release of decrypted Soviet communications from declassified top-secret American archives, has brought more bad news to the left-wing intelligentsia, among whom hope springs eternal that someday a document will turn up — preferably signed by Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy — ordering the framing of distinguished public servants as Soviet spies. Instead, the verdicts have come in a cascade. Alger Hiss, guilty. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, guilty. Harry Dexter White, guilty. I. F. Stone, guilty. And on and on.

There have been two major exceptions. New evidence has confirmed that Robert Oppenheimer, architect of the atomic-bomb project, while a secret Communist, did not cooperate with Soviet agents. And, more than 15 years ago, Ronald Radosh and I concluded that John Stewart Service, one of the State Department’s China hands, pilloried as a spy for his involvement in the Amerasia case, was, in fact, innocent. Service had been arrested in 1945 along with several others and charged with providing secret documents to a pro-Communist magazine editor. The case against him soon fell apart and a grand jury unanimously refused to indict. Five years later, Senator McCarthy revived the charges, and Service was denounced for having contributed to the fall of China to Mao Tse-tung’s forces. After losing his security clearance in a protracted legal battle, he won vindication in the courts and returned to minor postings in the State Department. Although we found no evidence that Service had ever been a spy, we argued, based on then newly released documentary materials, that he had been secretly trying to undermine American policy in China by leaking confidential documents and inadvertently become enmeshed in an espionage plot.

Lynne Joiner’s new book does not alter our verdict that Service was innocent of espionage. But it does try to change the picture of Service, transforming him from a foolhardy diplomat so convinced of his own righteousness that he assiduously worked to undermine his superiors into a man of rectitude and honesty whose promising career was unfairly derailed. Despite a number of interesting observations, new documentary sources, and a felicitous writing style, Joiner fails to make a convincing case.

Service’s increasingly outspoken belief that American policy in China should tilt away from Chiang Kai-shek and toward the Communists led him to disaster after his return to the U.S. in 1945, as he fell in with a cabal of Communists and sympathizers, led by Philip Jaffe, eager to obtain government secrets and turn them over to Soviet intelligence. They could hardly believe their luck when Service, eager to damage the Nationalists, started providing them with material. Watching and listening to their wiretapped conversations was the FBI, which had been investigating Jaffe and his friends for a few months as a result of the discovery of hundreds of top-secret documents during an illegal search of the offices of Amerasia, a journal he edited and owned. Among other tidbits, the taps picked up Service’s informing Jaffe that “what I told you is secret,” and Jaffe’s telling an associate that he had been approached by a friend who worked for Soviet intelligence and wanted to obtain material from Service’s section of the State Department. Jaffe was determined to cooperate, salivating about what he could extract from Service.

The espionage cases against the six defendants arrested in May 1945 rapidly fell apart, to a large extent because much of the government’s evidence had been gathered without warrants. It is a depressing and sordid story, from which none of those involved emerged looking competent or honorable. The FBI and the Justice Department had counted on the cooperation with the government of at least one of the arrestees; that would have enabled prosecutors to avoid revealing their tainted investigative tools. One obvious candidate was Service, since the case against him was weak. He could testify about Jaffe’s constant requests for documents; his friends in government, however, worried that such a course of action would destroy his career and, potentially, open an unsavory can of worms, exposing their own machinations. They persuaded Tommy Corcoran, the premier “fixer” in Washington, to assist Service. He traded favors with high-ranking Justice Department officials to ensure that his client was treated with kid gloves when he appeared before the grand jury. 

Not one Amerasia defendant went to jail, but the issue refused to go away. Joiner is so intent on rehabilitating Service that she ignores compelling evidence that a variety of witnesses, including Service, lied about the affair. Further, when a Loyalty Review Board investigated him, he was bedeviled by another indiscretion from his past. With his wife and children evacuated to the U.S. for the duration of the war, he began an affair in China in 1944 with a prominent actress, Val Chao, whom both Nationalists and Communists believed was working for the other side. Falling in love, he wrote his wife for a divorce, but the two reconciled during his brief trip home in 1944. He decided he could not abandon his family, but never informed his Chinese lover, who by this time was pregnant with their child. 

Learning that Service’s wife was herself now expecting a child, and bitter at her treatment, Chao had an abortion, arranged by one of Service’s embassy colleagues. But that was hardly the end of the problem. Chao arrived in the U.S. in 1946, once again pregnant after an affair with an Army officer, to study at Yale. Although she did not see Service — now on his way to Japan — she harbored fantasies about raising the child as his. They did meet in 1949, shortly after Mao’s victory and just before her return to China. Years later, Chao recalled that Service promised he would join her at some point; Service remembered only being asked for his advice about whether she should go back. Chinese Nationalist sources tried to use the affair to discredit him; it was a factor in the decision of the Loyalty Review Board in 1951 to find “reasonable doubt” as to Service’s loyalty. He was promptly fired.

Six years after his dismissal, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered him reinstated. During the course of a routine security investigation late in the 1950s, Service finally heard the FBI wiretap transcripts of Jaffe’s boasting of the material he had obtained from him. Service also learned that his Chungking roommate Sol Adler had sent copies of his reports to another Soviet spy, Harry Dexter White. He admitted that he had been “used,” felt “horrified,” and agreed that the evidence had been sufficient to support his firing as a security risk. 

Joiner sniffs at the gossip about Service’s extramarital affair and complains that it was used to smear him. And, in retrospect, it does not appear that Chao was a Communist, much less a spy. But, years later, Service conceded that his relationship with her was “probably unwise” — and that it would have been a dereliction of duty if investigators had not taken into account the potentially fatal doubts that it had cast on his judgment and reliability. It was neither paranoia nor a smear to suggest that John Service might be a security risk.

Joiner also underplays the evidence that Adler and another friend of Service, T. A. Bisson, were Soviet agents. And she never mentions that a wiretap picked up a conversation in which Jaffe informed Service that Chi Ch’ao-ting, his upstairs neighbor in Chungking, was Jaffe’s cousin, and that Jaffe was anxious to keep that information secret. Even though Service was well aware of Jaffe’s pro-Communist leanings, he agreed not to let anyone know — including his State Department superiors, who certainly would have been interested to learn that news, particularly since Chi also turned out to be a Communist mole. Service’s friendships, both in China and in the U.S., were a security nightmare.

Rather than consider what was so honorable about Service’s behavior, Joiner apologizes for his unethical actions, willingness to protect people he must have at least suspected had ulterior motives for cultivating him, and prevarications when under investigation. She acknowledges that Corcoran manipulated the Justice Department, that some of its top lawyers pressured subordinates to go easy on Service, and that Service was aware of these maneuverings. She concedes that his behavior was hardly diplomatic or honorable, noting that “in hindsight it is hard to fathom” how he could have been so reckless.

Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge offered a cogent assessment of Service: He was not disloyal but “gullible and indiscreet.” No doubt he paid a high price for his indiscretions, but Joiner’s understandable sympathy for his travails does not erase the fact that he was the author of many of them. Many of his friends and acquaintances were Communist spies who used him to advance the interests of a totalitarian political movement that wound up killing tens of millions of people. Just why his self-righteousness, Joseph McCarthy’s bullying, and a bungled government investigation should turn him into a man of honor is never explained in this interesting but flawed book.

– Mr. Klehr, a professor of history and politics at Emory University, is the author most recently (with John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev) of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.

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