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No Lost Chance in China: The False Realism of American Foreign Service Officers, 1943-1945

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image of Journal of American-East Asian Relations

This article reexamines the question of whether a chance was lost for the U.S. government to develop relations with Mao's China in the 1940s. I focus on John S. Service and John Paton Davies, seeking along the way to illuminate the ideological roots of the Truman administration's nonrecognition policy toward China. I argue that proponents of the “lost chance” thesis have misapplied the concept of realism in diplomacy, since realism is primarily concerned with power and security, not ideology such as democracy. These proponents overlook the assumptions on which American diplomats and leaders operated. The China Hands assumed that the Chinese Communists were social democrats, not revolutionaries controlled by Stalin. Dean Acheson embraced Davies's assumption that Mao would reassert nationalism upon assuming power and might still be drawn away from Moscow toward Washington. Far from being realists, they were deeply ideological. They disagreed with their domestic rivals within a liberal consensus. None of them had the intention of recognizing a Communist government in China. This study reveals how unspoken shared assumptions shaped not only the dynamics of American policymaking toward China during World War II and in its aftermath, but also the work of many historians who have written about the “lost chance.”


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