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'China Hand': John Paton Davies Place In History


When John Paton Davies died, he left some unfinished business. His daughter, Tiki Davies, knew he had signed a contract to write a memoir but never finished it. One of her sisters had a carbon copy of the manuscript, which Tiki Davies started typing into a computer.

TIKI DAVIES: What was interesting to me about retyping it is that it's very much in his voice. He was very funny and an elegant speaker as well as a writer. And so I felt as though I had him back for the couple of months I did this.

INSKEEP: Tiki Davies has now published her father's unfinished memoir under the title "China Hand." It is the story of a man with a special, painful place in American history. John Paton Davies was an American diplomat, a specialist in China. He advised an American general in China in World War II. He received the Medal of Freedom for leading men to safety after their plane crashed.

But after the war, China fell under communist control and Davies was repeatedly investigated for supposed communist ties. Though no evidence was found, Tiki Davies' father was fired. An iconic case of excess of the McCarthy era - the United States was obliterating its own expertise on the world's largest nation.

This is the story of a man whose career was destroyed because he had a label put on him.

DAVIES: I think that's accurate. When he was brought before one of the security hearings, and in fact in my father's case he had nine security hearings, they said to him, are you pro-communist or are you pro-nationalist? And he said I'm neither, I am pro-American. And what seemed to have gotten lost in the translation was that these men were reporting what they were seeing happening, not that they were espousing that this is where we should be and this is what we should be.

INSKEEP: So the United States was holding onto an ally who just wasn't going to win, in your father's view, and had trouble accepting the idea of communist rulers of China. And of course, this is a time - it's the early days of the Cold War here, of course. This is a time of great concern about the Soviet Union.

DAVIES: Well, and that was what they kept saying, that this is going to be a monolith. And one of the things that my father kept saying is it's not necessarily going to be a monolith at all. And what we want to do is make sure that there continues to be a schism between the two, so we need to encourage the Chinese communists so that they don't align themselves with the Soviets.

INSKEEP: But in the end he is suspected of some kind of communist taint, 'cause he didn't write negatively enough about the communists.

DAVIES: That's essentially it, yes. He was found to lack judgment. And Secretary of State John Foster Dulles fired him on November 5, 1954. And the true surreal, not to say ironic, part of this is, he then offered my father a letter of recommendation.

INSKEEP: This is a man who's later cleared, who knows he's innocence. He includes in this autobiography a letter, your father here writing to your mother. The family is in Peru at the time. Would you read the last couple of paragraphs?

DAVIES: Sure. Now, what we do. You sit tight and I shall take this business step by step, day by day, until the hullabaloo dies down. Then I'll think about job hunting, one thing at a time. Keep your chin up, darling. I know how hard this is for you. But we're beginning a new and I trust happier and freer life. This is the side I look on.

He was not bitter. That's the astonishing thing and that's - that's what I certainly took away from retyping it, was first of all, he never looked back. He never mourned the past as though there was something that he had lost. He was never angry about this. It was as though this is just what happened.

INSKEEP: How many kids did he have?

DAVIES: Seven, we call them the senior and the junior varsity because there's a gap of like eight years between us. And the three younger runs were born in Peru.

INSKEEP: Peru, which is where he was stationed at the time he was fired, it's 1954.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

INSKEEP: He's out of work, not getting any more diplomatic work. What did he do?

DAVIES: So he figured that there was no way he was going to get work in the United States. The hysteria was still rampant and Peru was a safe, civilized and relatively inexpensive place to bring up the kids. So he chose to start a furniture factory and - out of the blue. He had no idea how to make furniture. I mean he hired craftsman and then started designing furniture.

INSKEEP: He found this other way to use his mind, I guess.

DAVIES: Exactly, but that is, again, the extraordinary thing about him. People say, well, he just started another career. And I say no, no. He just expanded.

INSKEEP: Now, you say that he was not bitter about being fired by the State Department. And I believe that as a father he never showed you that he was bitter. But after he'd been cleared, when he came time to write this autobiography, he couldn't finish that part.

DAVIES: Yeah. I think that was more about reliving it than it was about anger. First of all, he was very decorous about his own achievements. And I think you see that in the book. So that would have been so personal. It was such an uncomfortable time. It was such a desperate time. I've read a number of the letters between my mother and my father - because he spent so much time, of course, in the United States, and we were in Peru. Occasionally he said: We know people who've really suffered, like in the Soviet Union.

He said we're going to get through this one way or the other. But I think it was so - it was just too hard. It was too hard for him to write about.

INSKEEP: Is it difficult for you to relive that?

DAVIES: Well, I was pretty small at the time. But I think all of us were hugely proud of him. I mean he was - without being dramatic or vulgar about it - he was a noble person. And I think all of us had this great sense of admiration for him and felt he had done something spectacular. But at the same time, we knew we were different in some form. And even amongst the ex-pat community in Lima, we were ex-pats amongst ex-pats, if you will.

INSKEEP: Tiki Davies is the daughter of John Paton Davies, Jr. whose autobiography has now been published posthumously. It's called "China Hand." Thanks very much.

DAVIES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Her father was formerly cleared by the U.S. government a decade and a half after he was fired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.