He had been assigned to work in China, and send reports about the domestic situation there back Washington. His accounts of the internal dynamics would shape the policies of the United States toward China.
His bosses did not know, however, that John Service was feeding them, not accurate assessments of the conditions in China, but rather narratives designed to further the progress of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). The ongoing civil war between the communists and the nationalists in China had started in 1927, but an uneasy truce had been declared in 1936, so that both sides could fight the Japanese invaders.
In the mid 1930s, John Service was assigned to be an FSO in China. He sent a steady stream of unfavorable comments about the nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi), complaining about “the clap-trap of Chungking officialdom” in a report dated 28 July 1944. (The city of Chungking was Chiang’s headquarters at the time.)
Yet Chiang’s soldiers were doing the majority of the work in resisting the Japanese invasion.
By contrast, Service’s reports about Mao were enthusiastic, gushing that the CPC “has grown to a healthy and moderate maturity.” A few years later, Mao’s CPC would be executing millions of Chinese civilians.
How effect were Service’s propaganda-ridden reports? State Department officials, located in Washington and having never set foot in China, began to make plans for either a coup to overthrow Chiang, or even an assassination. Happily, these plans were never carried out.
The lingering question is whether John Service was actually in the employ of the international communist conspiracy, or whether he himself had been persuaded by the CPC’s propaganda and had internalized the CPC’s worldview. No certain answer can be given to this question.
The intensity of his reports increased until October 1944, when he wrote a series of memoranda from China, declaring flatly that Chiang was unnecessary and useless, and that the United States should welcome the collapse of Chiang’s government and the rise of Mao’s. Historian Stan Evans writes:
In the fall of 1944, having loosed his October thunderbolts at Chiang, John Service headed back to the United States for what was in essence a two-month furlough. The official purpose of the visit was to consult with his State Department bosses, which he did, but he also did some other things that would be even more critical for his future — and for the secret history of the Cold War.
Fresh from China, John Service would have much detailed and sensitive information, not only for the State Department, but also for a couple of known Soviet operatives, Max and Grace Granich. Service apparently met with Grace Granich.
He also met with other known Soviet agents, including Harry Hopkins, Lauchlin Currie, and Harry White. The USSR was, at this time, actively supporting Mao’s CPC.
Someone informed Max and Grace that John Service was returning to the U.S. from China, so that they could be ready to pump him for information. Stan Evans continues:
One revealing aspect of this trip was that it brought Service, for the first time we know of, to the notice of the FBI. According to the Bureau records, he was on his return to have supplied a link between pro-Red forces on the ground in China and their confreres in the United States. As one FBI memo relates: “A highly confidential source, which is completely reliable, has advised that Max and Grace Granich, both of whom have been engaged in Communist and Comintern activities for many years, were advised in the fall of 1944 that Service was returning to Washington details as to the latest developments.”
What was the outcome of John Service’s activities? The United States was remarkably half-hearted in its support of Chiang, even though Chiang was the only chance for something resembling political liberty for China.
Predictably, Chiang’s government fell, Mao’s CPC took control, and millions of Chinese died as a result. Was the savage butchery inflicted in the CPC’s “reeducation through labor” camps a direct result of John Service’s work?
Chiang’s fall, and Mao’s rise, were multifactorial, and certainly it would be a stretch to say that John Service caused them. But he was clearly a factor.
Had John Service not acted as he did, would Mao’s mass killings have been prevented? Historians should not speculate.