YAN’AN, China — In 1944, a group of American diplomats in a beat-up C-47 propeller plane swooped down onto a rocky runway in Yan’an. Their mission was to assess Mao Zedong, who had made the city in northern China his guerrilla redoubt, and judge whether he deserved American backing.
Some of the Americans concluded that because Mao had the support of the people, he would have the upper hand in the inevitable civil war with Chiang Kai-shek, viewed by Washington as obstinate and corrupt. They were in favor of the United States throwing its weight behind Mao.
For that judgment, they saw their careers destroyed during the McCarthy era. They became victims of the witch hunt for so-called Communist sympathizers and those who “lost” China.
But to this day in Yan’an, they are heralded as the good Americans who understood China, and are even featured in a museum and compound here that eulogizes the Communist Party’s embattled origins and endurance.
One of the Americans, John Paton Davies Jr., jotted down his impressions of the city:
“Yenan — which we called Dixie since it was rebel territory — was from the air a thoroughly insignificant Northwest China town set in a treeless valley. The eroded, lumpish plateau that rose from the valley floor on either side was, in late October, parched bare and tan.”
Some of the others in the Dixie mission were also State Department China experts, like John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent. Some were United States Army officers, like the mission’s leader, Col. David D. Barrett, a Chinese-speaking former military attaché.
In some respects, the old Communist Party stronghold has barely changed. The caves that the cadres used as hide-outs from Japanese bombers still exist, buried into the bleak hills like black eyes. The Yellow River remains a scrawny thread of water. The sense of isolation from the modern metropolises on the faraway coast persists. The food, stingy during wartime, remains surprisingly plain.
Yan’an is now a city of two million people, much of the progress coming on the back of oil and gas, and patriotic tourism designed to attract Chinese citizens curious about the Communist Party’s history. Senior cadres, dressed in black suits and chauffeured around in small vans, come to refresh their knowledge of the party’s early years under Mao, who fought both the Japanese and the Nationalist forces.
The museum, the Yan’an Revolution Memorial Hall, is a hulking edifice built 10 years ago that commemorates the Communist Party’s perseverance in the face of scarce food and diseases, like dysentery, that killed because of the lack of penicillin. The displays say nothing about the brutal ideological purges conducted by Mao and his secret police chief, Kang Sheng.
In one startling image of Service, who was born in China to American missionaries, he is dressed in work clothes, bending over to help a Chinese worker level rocks on the airport runway. Another shows Davies, dressed in a dark shirt and pants, standing in an official tableau with Mao, Zhou Enlai and other party officials.
The Americans called their living quarters the “dude ranch,” and Davies, also the son of American missionaries, describes in the memoir “China Hand” its eight rooms as dirt-floored, each with two beds fitted with straw mattresses. Heat came from charcoal braziers, and light from kerosene lamps.
The “ranch” has been rebuilt (brick flooring added) with wooden pillars in front, and with windows that in a touch of authenticity have glass only halfway up the wooden frames.
A few hundred yards away, a similar building marks the place where the border region military command was housed. A plaque notes that the command’s political commissar at the time was Xi Zhongxun, the father of the president of China, Xi Jinping.
The Americans had regular meetings, talking tactics and post-World War II prospects, with Zhu De, the Communist commander in chief, who would later lead the forces to victory over Chiang’s Nationalists.
“The Dixie Mission had closer relations with senior Chinese military officers than any Americans have had with the Chinese Communists command before or since,” Richard Bernstein wrote in “China 1945,” his book about the period.
The Chinese were fascinated with the Americans’ luxuries: The soldiers each had several uniforms, they enjoyed canned food, and whenever they needed drugs, a plane would arrive with the supplies.
The Americans showed Hollywood movies in their cafeteria. The Chinese soldiers would peer in, shocked by the images of men and women kissing. “Vulgar taste,” Li Yaoyu, a Chinese veteran, later wrote of the movies. “We would leave, allowing these confusing Americans to watch on their own.”
Despite the outward bonhomie, an underlying thread of distrust gnawed at the relationship. When the civil war began in the fall of 1945, the Communists built a wall between the “dude ranch” and Xi’s building to protect secrets.
The Communists coveted the far more sophisticated American weapons. Li wrote how he and his colleagues had connived to steal an American rifle so they could copy it.
“We drove two American soldiers to a valley in an American jeep to find a Christmas tree,” he wrote. On the way back, the Chinese announced that the tree had to be delivered in the jeep immediately and that the Americans would have to walk back. Once the jeep returned to headquarters, the Chinese disassembled the rifle, and measured it, all in an effort to figure out how to make it.
Things fell apart when Mao, who had never been out of China, asked for a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.
“Mao wrote a letter asking the Dixie mission to deliver it to F.D.R., saying Mao and Zhou Enlai were willing to go to Washington,” said Zhao Hong, an associate professor of history at Yan’an University. “The letter was given to Wedemeyer, the commander of American forces in China, but it was not delivered to the president. The contact failed, and the Communists lost faith,” she said. (Ms. Zhao was referring to Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer.)
The museum ignores the ruined careers of the Americans who portrayed Mao in a positive light. Davies was fired in 1954 during a brief personal audience with the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. Service was dismissed in 1952, though a Supreme Court decision reinstated him in 1957. Vincent was forced to leave the State Department in 1952.
Mr. Bernstein, in his book, called Davies and Service “smart and dedicated public servants” who were “naïvely dazzled” by the Communists.
Ms. Zhao, who has devoted her academic career to the Dixie mission, is not particularly critical of the American decision to stand by Chiang.
“The Americans were practical. They were looking after their own self-interest,” she said. “They wanted a pro-American government, and Chiang Kai-shek was easier to manipulate than the Communists.”
As for the men who supported the Communists but suffered for it, she said: “Service wrote that F.D.R. and Harry Hopkins didn’t understand China. But Service really understood China. After a long talk with Mao, he wrote that China would not be a replica of the United States, or a replica of the Soviet Union.”
He was right, she said.
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