Patrick Hurley, America's Worst China Diplomat

During 1944-5, on the eve of Japanese surrender, the USA faced a crisis in China.   Chiang Kai Shek(“cash my check”, Truman called him.  Truman knew a parasite when he saw one).  CSK and Stilwell were famously not getting along.  At times it seemed that Stilwell had less cachet with the White House than even Soong May Ling did.  Stilwell was frustrated that CSK simply wasn’t using the military supplies he was receiving from the USA to defeat the Japanese.

And Chennault and Stilwell were bitter rivals, themselves.  So FDR decided to send one of his most trusted emissaries, albeit a Republican, to China to help FDR see things a bit more clearly.   He was trusted with meeting both sides of the coming Civil War in China.  His name was Patrick Hurley, and Mr. Hurley’s impact on US-Sino relations lasted far longer than his short term as emissary turned Ambassador.   He thus earns my vote as The Worst American Diplomat Ever in China.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mr. Hurley himself was reasonably competent, and he actually served admirably enough during WW2 to gain the confidence of both Gen Marshall and the President.   It was his ability to gain FDR’s trust, along with Marshall’s, that gained him the opportunity to shape US-Sino relations in the first place.

In hindsight, sending Hurley to China, ignorant of Asia as he was, certainly counts as incomprehensible today.  Yet his success to date serving in other roles for FDR did not hint at failure in his role as China Envoy at the time.  It was his disastrous experience in China, at the time when the West needed more than anything an informed, non ideological diplomat on the ground, that certainly prejudiced Mao towards Westerners, and American envoys in particular.  

 America needed a fellow that would go in with an open mind.   Instead it sent a fellow with experience in Russia, where his distaste for Communism was only hardened, into a situation that required the ability to compartmentalize previous experiences when making a judgment.  Instead, what Uncle Sam sent was a virulently anti-Communist diplomat to China. (Mao called Hurley a “clown”)   Like others of his day, he assumed China and Russia were merely part of a global “cabal”. 

It did not help that Hurley was himself a patrician, lawyer capitalist.  Mao simply did not fit into his world view.

His unwillingness to objectively look at the situation at hand, to accept the expertise of the “boots on the ground”, ie John Davies and John Service, gave great discredit to not only their future careers, but  to any possibility of there being an objective analysis of the situation at hand.    Hurley’s incessant paranoia towards the “career men” did not help.  Minimizing the input of America’s brightest, most thoughtful China Analysts simply because they didn’t fit into Hurley’s philosophy, itself did great damage to America’s ability to anticipate the path China would take. 

For instance, and this is admittedly conjecture, if the above had been allowed to maintain their postings within China, which Hurley went to great lengths to abolish, and if their views had been encouraged, it’s possible the USA would have maintained diplomatic relations with China, albeit on icy terms.  It’s possible the Chinese intervention in Korea would not have taken place.   It’s possible the USA could’ve filled the Russian vacuum once the Soviets withdrew from China. 

This is important to note because of the access Hurley had to the White House.   It is fair to say if his views were otherwise, the USA and the West by extension may have had a more sophisticated view of the Communist leadership, and of the Movement itself.    It is fair to surmise the “Who Lost China?” witch hunt that took place after the Fall of China may have thus been avoided.   Thus the appointment of Hurley to such a sensitive role certainly counts as a “missed opportunity” for the United States to better gauge the future of China, and how the West could have played a role.

Any future rethinking of the above Question may certainly start at Hurley’s Door.


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