An Honest Diplomat: John Paton Davies
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: The world in which John Paton Davies played his hour upon the stage seems so removed from modern China, modern America, modern geopolitics, that reopening it feels like uncovering a box of secret family photographs that were evidence of crimes. Yet Davies, whose life was brought to mind by his death at the age of 91, at the end of the year, committed no crime. During World War II and the years in which Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists and took over China, Davies was one of the famous china hands– experts in the state department who were given the intellectual assignment of understanding china– something, as Davies wrote later in his life, no one has ever done successfully.
NEWSREEL: A Senate subcommittee investigates sensational charges by Senator Joseph McCarthy…
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Unfortunately for Davies, his capacious and subtle intelligence was called upon at a time of intellectual thuggery in America, the McCarthy era. And so he and other prominent good men, such as John Stewart Service, Owen Lattimore and John K. Fairbanks, were hounded from their jobs as communist sympathizers, blamed for losing China. Too honest and too proud to resign when asked by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Davies spent the rest of his life in honorable exile.
The crime he did commit was that of practical, complicated, and nuanced thought. Though an ardent anti-communist, he also knew that Chiang’s regime was bankrupt and that eventually America would have to deal with Mao if it wanted power over him. He also foresaw that one day we would want to do business with China. All this, of course, was soon to be learned by Nixon and every president since, long after, however, McCarthy had done his terrible damage to the republic. When McCarthy was counting his communists in the government, much of the nation had simplified its attitude towards communism down to: “Better dead then red”; “are you for us or agin’ us?”, “Yes or no?”; “Are you now or have you ever been?” Davies paid dearly for his ability to see the gray tones between the black and white, and the red. He was punished for what tyrants hate and fear most– for seeing several sides to a problem. Tyrants call such thinkers mush- heads, and then they try to crush the heads.
SPOKESMAN: Have you left no sense of decency?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Today we look at the grainy pictures of that era and congratulate ourselves on its passing. But is it really past? You don’t need McCarthy for McCarthyism. All you need is the prevalence of simple-minded, yes-or-no thought, and it can show up in apparently benign places. Political campaigns are all reduced to yes-or-no thinking these days. It makes for good television. Some political talk show hosts on cable TV are, in terms of intellectual style and attitude, the accidental heirs to Joe McCarthy, though they heatedly would deny it. They badger guests like congressional witnesses and argue like machine guns in order to reduce the human mind to something clear, sure of itself, and stupid. Be definite: Who was the greatest President of the 20th century? Be certain: What was the most important discovery of the past thousand years?
SPOKESMAN: You are about to enter the courtroom of Judge Judith Sheindlin.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Ladies and gentlemen, all rise for Judge Judy and all the other TV judges. Give them a few minutes and everyone will know who is guilty or not guilty. Good, bad. Right, wrong. Bang, bang. The interesting paradox is that the apparent impulse for sure thinking has nothing to do with that. It is merely intellectual laziness– innocent in current forms, yet the very stuff on which sure-thinkers like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao made careers.
People like John Paton Davies made the best uses of the human mind. They saw life whole, something zealots cannot abide. And in the end it is they, not the zealots, who matter. After the years of hounding, Davies took his loving, raucous family and moved around the globe, seeking work where he could, surviving on a generous and alert sense of the absurd, and eventually settling in Ashville, North Carolina, from which news of his death reached the world that had seemed to pass him by. But he had a supple fearless and honorable mind just sure enough of itself not to be sure of anything. And nothing could pass him by.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.