How many times can we lose China?

via James Fallows a link to James C. Thomson’s “How Could Vietnam Happen?” a 1968 piece that The Atlantic has lifted from their archive. Thomson was a China scholar, the son of China missionaries and that point newly resigned from the government over the direction of policy in Vietnam. One point Thomson made (really for the first time) was that Vietnam policy had a serious China hangover. The Kennedy administration had inherited, and largely accepted, old ideas from the 50’s, including both geopolitical ideas, such as that the Red Chinese were on the march and that American policy must contain this new peril, and more practical points, such as the cautionary example of what had happened to the careers of the China experts in the U.S. government who had made the crucial error of being right about the outcome of the Chinese civil war. Thomson laments the limited number of Asianists with real authority in government, but I was struck by how many there were and how much influence they had in comparison with present policy towards East Asia and above all towards Iraq. One of Thompson’s points is that many of the experts were hamstrung by their concern for their “effectiveness” i.e. as people of only limited power in the hierarchy they had to pick the points were they were willing to dissent. As points where knowledge and rationality could turn Vietnam policy in a good direction were pretty few, they ended up immobilized. Still, there were at least there to be immobilized and were writing pieces like this by 1968.

One of the things that struck me was how much less contact their is between the scholarly world and American foreign policy today. Assuming that you count the “loss” of China, there have been three disastrous failures in U.S. foreign policy since my dad was born, and they were all in Asia. The Thomson essay seems to be about an important turning point in American Asia policy, the point where things went from bad to worse. Within a year of its publication the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars was created1 and the divorce between state power and academia proceeded apace. While this was probably good for the academic world, I think it was pretty bad for America. Today I get the impression that a MESA member would be about likely to get a job making Iraq policy as a reporter from Al-Jazeera.2 The China hangover seems to be going on for a long time.


  1. I think Charles Hayford was one of the original members 

  2. Of course to some extent advice and knowledge are no good if powerholders don’t care. John Dower would no doubt have been quite happy to give President Bush a briefing on why the occupation of Iraq was not likely to be like that of Japan, but nobody wanted to listen. 

One response

  1. Thanks, Alan, for a trip down memory lane. My first teaching was as a TA in Jim’s survey of American-East Asian Relations. Another TA was Richard Bernstein, who was recruited from the PhD program by Newsweek to go to China.

    And yes, we were, along with John Dower, founding (foundering?) members of CCAS. Some of the first meetings were in John Fairbank’s living room. It was Fairbank who suggested the name for the organization — “scholars” was a nice touch. We were not all that happy with his reluctance to speak out earlier and louder on the war. He wanted us to finish our degrees before we shot off our mouths about Vietnam, where, he pointed out, if we came across an unfamiliar name we would not know “if it was a man or a bridge.”

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