McCarthy Target Touted Soviet Agent’s Book in NY Times


In July of 1947, General Albert C. Wedemeyer was chosen by the Truman administration to travel to China to assess the situation in that country and in Korea.  Wedemeyer completed his assignment in two and a half months and submitted his report in September.  As described by John J. McLaughlin in his forthcoming book:

The first page of the report is a broad indictment of Communism generally which then focuses on how China’s efforts at development have been sabotaged and  “…jeopardized…by forces as sinister as those that operated in Europe and Asia leading to World War II. The pattern is familiar—employment of subversive agents; infiltration tactics; incitement of disorder and chaos [designed] to undermine popular confidence in government and leaders…” He directly implicates Soviet Russia and condemns them in the strongest language as potentially more dangerous than Nazism, and attributes this to  “…the futility of [the Allies] appeasement…of Soviet Russia” in the hopes that they [Russia] “…will adopt …a conciliatory attitude…” He continues the charge spelled out in detail in Russian literature and which has been  “…confirmed repeatedly by Communist leaders, [which literature] reveals a definite plan for expansion far exceeding that of Nazism…” Wedemeyer disputes the commonly held fiction that Communism is winning over in China because of it’s [sic] popular policies, agrarian reforms, and hatred of the Nationalist government by the bulk of the Chinese people. To the contrary Wedemeyer says that “…notwithstanding…the [admitted] corruption…in China, it is a certainty that the bulk of the people are not disposed to a Communist…structure.” Political blunders at Yalta, he says, contributed to the present problems in China by allowing the Russians entry into Manchuria, and later withholding aid from the Nationalist government. He says that the World War II objectives for which we fought are not being attained and that there “…remains in the world a force presenting even greater dangers to world peace than did the Nazi militarists and the Japanese jingoists.”  He underscores the supreme irony of the United States supplying substantial aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947 to protect them from Communist takeover [a clear indication that the government knows the menace of Communism] yet refusing to render like assistance to China which faces the same enemy, and with consequences far more serious.

As it turned out, the report was ignored and its contents were suppressed until 1949, after the Communists had taken over and it was too late to do any good.

Journalistic Weight Thrown for the Reds

Powerful forces, it would seem, were being exerted upon the Truman government both from within and without to see to it that Wedemeyer would be ignored.  An indication of that power is to be seen in a review of a book that came out just a month before Wedemeyer embarked upon his mission.  The book was The Unfinished Revolution in China by Israel Epstein, the chosen reviewer was Owen Lattimore, and the venue was the Book Review section of The New York Times.  Here is the review in its entirety:  

New China; in Painful Evolution

The New York Times, June 22, 1947

Although Sun Yat-sen declared at his death that the Chinese Revolution was unfinished, and though at the end of the long agony of the war of survival against Japan it is still unfinished, at least the world now regards Chinese politics with a new respect.  No longer is it possible to dismiss the Chinese soldier as a quaint, uncombative fellow with an umbrella, whose services are bartered by comic-opera warlords.  Nor is it possible to dismiss the Chinese peasant as an honest oaf who has no comprehension of politics and only wants firm government and regular taxes.  Chinese warfare is now warfare of world importance: the politics of the Chinese peasant is big-time politics.

In the last ten years American writers have taken the lead over all others in raising the level of description and analysis in writing about China.  From Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” to Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby’s “Thunder Out of China” the list of names is distinguished—and most of those writers won their distinction solely or primarily by what they had to say about China.  Israel Epstein has without question established a place for himself in that distinguished company. 

Mr. Epstein has lived in China since boyhood; he knows the language well; his knowledge of people is exceptionally wide even for a newspaperman.  The amount of territory he has covered in China is astonishing, even though correspondents got about during the war more than they ever did before.  Most important of all, he can write with clarity and style.  When he summarizes, foreground and background are in proportion.  He analyzes neatly and swiftly.  And when he pleads his case—which is the purpose of the book—the arguments pile up like a wedge, cutting edge ahead and mass packed in behind.

It is noteworthy that the recent and current trend of good books about China, well-documented and well-written, has been well to the left of center.  The writers either throw their weight into criticism of the Kuomintang, like Mr. White and Mr. Jacoby, or into outspoken support of the Chinese Communists, like Mr. Epstein.  Partly this is because, in a revolutionary situation, the more radical the analysis, the easier it is to make it logical, or to make it look logical.  An attempt at a balanced presentation, on the other hand, always runs the risk of looking less like a balance than a straddle.

There is no question about Mr. Epstein’s partisanship.  He not only justifies Chinese Communist policy but he justifies it and Russian policy in relation to each other and in relation to American policy.  But the overall American interest in China has moved beyond partisanship.  We need to be able to tell whether an author is partisan or impartial; but we also have a right to demand that he present enough facts for us to be able to form our own opinions.  Mr. Epstein has presented enough facts for this reviewer, at least, to form an opinion.

He convinces me that the trend of the civil war in China is not toward the triumph of an ideology or the winning of dictatorial power by individual generals or politicians.  It looks as though what is going to win out is people—millions and millions of people.  For centuries most Chinese have been merely the victims of history; never before have so many been the shapers of their own destiny.  The incubators of this new generation were the liberated and guerrilla areas behind the Japanese lines, where men organized to defend their own homes and families.  Out of that there has grown a movement of solid millions in vast blocks of territory.  I doubt if the landlords will ever get the bridle on those peasants again; and it also looks as though they will reject the bite of doctrinaire Marxism.  It all makes exciting reading.

Readers of this web site will recognize Lattimore.  He is the powerful adviser to the Truman administration who a couple of years later, after China had fallen to the Communists, called for surrender of Korea to the Reds in another New York newspaper, The Daily Compass His concluding lines were, “The thing to do, therefore, is to let South Korea fall—but not to let it look as though we pushed it.  Hence the recommendation of a parting grant of $150,000,000.” 

He was, appropriately enough, a major target of Senator Joe McCarthy.  At one point he had been given a job as adviser to Chiang Kai-shek in China upon the recommendation of Lauchlin Currie in the White House, later exposed as a Soviet agent, and he was a major pro-Communist influence upon U.S. policy in the Far East.   As M. Stanton Evans put it, his many “assignments and connections become the more intriguing when we note the line of thought that he consistently promoted about the Soviet Union and the Communists in general, usually couched in neutral-sounding prose just setting forth the ‘facts.’ ” 

As we see above, the technique was very much on display in his New York Times review of the Epstein book.  In this instance, he tells us that the open pro-Communist Epstein is the one who has marshaled enough “facts” to permit Lattimore to “form an opinion,” which is really a pretty amazing thing when you stop and think about it.  It is dangerous, indeed, for anyone to form an opinion based only upon the facts presented from one side of an argument.  And what was that opinion that Lattimore claims to have formed?  It is, in so many words, that the Communist revolution in China reflected the inexorable will of the people, and that it would not result in doctrinaire Marxist or dictatorial control of the country.  We now know that that was precisely the result, in spades, and that only in the name they gave to the new government that he formed, the People’s Republic of China, did Mao Tse-tung’s takeover represent the true will of the people.

At this point we would like to share with readers a joke that was long popular behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.  “What is the difference between a republic and a people’s republic?  It’s the same as the difference between a jacket and a straitjacket.”  And that is the jacket that Lattimore and The New York Times helped fit for the most populous country on earth in the very pivotal year 1947.

Surely the higher-ups at The Times knew just what kind of gushing praise they would get for Epstein’s pro-Communist screed when they chose Lattimore for the task.  He, like they, was a longstanding defender of the Soviet Union, even to the point of defending the notorious Moscow show trials.  Here Evans gives us Lattimore’s own words:

“The fact that the Soviet Union stands for democracy is not to be overlooked. It stands for democracy because it stands for all the other things. . . . The fact is that for most of the people of the world today, what constitutes democracy in theory is more or less irrelevant. What moves people to act, to try to line up with one party or country and not with another, is the difference between what is more democratic and less democratic in practice. ” This uncanny power of attraction seemed to exert its fascination on Lattimore himself up to and including bland extenuations of Stalin’s purge trials of the ’30s. While many liberal intellectuals (e.g., John Dewey) [a slow learner, himself – ed.] were horrified by these, Lattimore took them well in stride. “Habitual rectification, ” as he smoothly described this series of murders, “can hardly do anything but give the ordinary citizen more courage to protest, loudly, whenever in the future he finds himself being victimized by ‘someone in the party’ or ‘someone in the government.’ That sounds to me like democracy. ”

It is no surprise, then, that what Epstein saw going on with Mao’s movement in China would sound like democracy to Lattimore, as well, and the people at The Times had to know it

Epstein defected to China in 1951 where he became editor-in-chief of the English-language Communist Party propaganda organ China Reconstructs, later called China Today.  He remained in that position until his retirement at age 70 in 1985, with a five-year interruption during the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, when he was imprisoned on charges of plotting against Zhou Enlai.

Epstein died in China in 2005 at age 90.  He was treated by The New York Times to what can only be called a glowing obituary, almost matching the review they had given his 1947 book (which, in the obituary, they said had received “good reviews”).  Reading the obituary, one would hardly see just another one of those misguided Westerners in China whom Canadian-Chinese writer Jan Wong dubbed “the Lifers.”  “The Lifers,” she said, “were too old to start anew in the West and too broken-hearted to admit that they had wasted their lives.”

Also missing from Epstein’s Times obituary is any mention of Communist defector Elizabeth Bentley’s 1951 testimony before the U.S. Internal Security Subcommittee that "Israel Epstein had been a member of the Russian secret police for many years in China.”

General Wedemeyer’s book, Wedemeyer Reports!, was published in 1958.   This time, The New York Times chose Baltimore Sun reporter, Mark S. Watson, to write the review.  Watson had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his World War II reporting in 1944 and had accompanied Wedemeyer on his 1947 mission to China and Korea.  Particularly with respect to what Wedemeyer has to say about U.S. policy toward Chiang and Mao, Watson’s review, which appeared on November 16, 1958, could well have been written by Wedemeyer himself.  Watson repeats uncritically Wedemeyer’s view that Mao was never just an “agrarian reformer” but was always a doctrinaire Communist certain to regard the United States as the enemy, and that the U.S. should have supported Chiang to the hilt. 

In 1958, though, it was too late to close the barn door; the cows were already well out.  One can only wonder how different a review Watson would have written of Israel Epstein’s book had The Times chosen him for the task and what a difference it might have made in U.S. policy.

David Martin

November 17, 2011



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