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Robert W. Barnett Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Robert W. Barnett

U.S. member of economics and reparations committees, Far Eastern Commission, representing U.S. Dept. of State, Japan, 1945-49; officer in charge, China economic affairs, State Dept., 1949-51; and officer in charge of Western European economic affairs, State Dept., 1951-54.

Washington, D.C.
January 26, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened February, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Robert W. Barnett


Washington, D.C.
January 26, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Mr. Barnett, would you comment on how you came to choose a Government career, and particularly how you came to be involved with the China relief in 1941-42, and then, ultimately, say something about the circumstances of your appointment to the Far Eastern Commission.

BARNETT: I did not choose a Government career. I had no intention of working for the Government. When I finished college and went on to Oxford, and then from Oxford came back to Yale, my


life plan was to be a writer, and I had my eyes on a number of ways to do that. I would be an editor of a small magazine in the Far East, or get on the editorial board of a magazine like Fortune. I wanted to write about China, and I wanted to write, as my way of dealing with a number of the problems that I thought were of importance to our time.

My studies at Oxford served that purpose; my graduate work at Yale, where I studied Chinese, served it too. When war between China and Japan became violent and pervasive through the countryside, I was very much tempted to get in the war on the Chinese side against the Japanese, but nobody was urging me to volunteer. Working for the United China Relief was a way of my becoming morally and administratively involved in a war that meant a great deal to me. I was bitterly anti-Japanese, vengefully so, during those years. And my academic pursuits


had a practical and pugilistic motivation.

I was sent to China by the United China Relief right after the loss of the Burma Road to make an analysis of how it was possible to get help to a China which was inaccessible to any kind of logistic support, and whose major internal problem was inflation. So, how could foreign relief move into the China scene without contributing to inflation, or without making demands on the transportation facilities that were really much more needed for things like gasoline and spare parts for trucks and airplane engines and that kind of thing? But I did go to Chungking for United China Relief and used my time there to make the acquaintance of almost everybody in the Chinese power apparatus.

I saw Chou En-lai quite a few times in Chungking, saw Madam Chiang [Kai-shek], Madam Kung and Madam T.V. Soong, all the women in the picture, and then the principal ministers -- of foreign affairs, of finance, and so on. It


turned out to be quite a dangerous trip, both getting there and coming back. The Hump was a very dangerous flight and they didn't know much about it; but I got back.

I was still a civilian and I had this rather extraordinary experience with the Chung-king governing apparatus after the loss of the Burma Road -- after the loss of the coast -- and so putting China in isolation.

I got back and I found it intolerable not to be in a uniform. I was approached, as a matter of fact, by a number of organizations to wear all kinds of fake uniforms -- OSS: "Be a captain in our army." Navy also thought they would like to have me put on their uniform and start working on postwar administration in the Pacific Islands.

Well, this wasn't my idea of fighting a war, so I joined the Air Force and I went to officer's training school in Miami Beach,


became a second lieutenant and then went to air intelligence school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then to the Pentagon briefly from where I was assigned to be a member of General [Claire Lee] Chennault's staff, the 14th Air Force, the Flying Tigers.

Well, I got out to China with doctoral training in Chinese. I had written a book and so on, so on. But I was reminded that in a war there can be things that are more important than learning, or "intelligence" even; supplies were more important. So, I became the supply officer of the 23rd Fighter Group, which was really the Flying Tigers. It was the fighter group that later grew into an Air Force.

Well, I was, as I say, the supply officer for this fighter group for about a month when General Chennault discovered I was doing that and he said, "Well, look, we have better use for you." So, he brought me to 14th Air Force headquarters, where I was very soon placed in charge


of combat intelligence for the Air Force, I briefed General Chennault every morning for two years, and I briefed many who came through -- General Wedemeyer and Vice President [Henry] Wallace, and Senator [Mike] Mansfield and Walter Judd, etc.

I got the daily and the weekly and the monthly intelligence reports out to units in the field and then back to headquarters here in Washington. But through this whole involvement with the military operation in China, a number of things became very clear to me. One was that the 14th was doing most of the fighting so far as we were concerned, and that the Army and the Navy and the Marines' components, ours, were engaged in a variety of training and logistic exercises, but weren't doing very much fighting. They all seemed to be somewhat overstaffed as compared with our Air Force, that always felt understaffed.


They became much more political than the 14th Air Force, and in the "toing and froing" of the American military personnel and diplomatic personnel there were the Jack [John S.] Services and the John Davies and the John Emmersons and so on who were on the Stilwell side of this operation who got to know the political situation in China, to some extent at the cost of having a good appreciation of what the military situation was. We in the 14th Air Force had the reverse problem. We were fighting the war month by month and were not really all that concerned with what would be the profile of China five years after the end of the war.

For one thing, nobody really knew when the end of the war was going to be, and five years after the end of the unending war was kind of farfetched in the terms of the living, the combat and the administrative and political interests and responsibilities of the people


actually fighting the war in the 14th Air Force context.

Well, this meant that my China experience was very combat oriented, but it was experience in which I had continuing acquaintance, association, friendship with people who had time to do a lot of other things. I left the 14th Air Force about six months before the surrender.

I was brought back to the Pentagon to work on intelligence there. During that period of time my intention was to leave the armed forces to get into my kind of journalism -- this was what I wanted to do, and I had the contacts to do it. I knew Harry Luce, and I knew the New York Times people, and so I thought that it was a matter of getting out of the uniform and having two or three conversations and starting over. I had no idea of starting at the top, I just wanted to start.

Well, I was in the Pentagon, working,


actually, on the Japanese surrender problem when I had a phone call from Ed Martin, who is now the chairman of the DAC, Development Assistance Committee, in Paris. And he asked if I would be willing to join him in a small exercise, supporting Under Secretary Will Clayton in the State Department, who was the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, and had been charged with responsibility for the occupied areas, and, in this case, specifically Japan. Ed Martin was named to be the adviser, to Will Clayton, on the occupation of Japan. Ed belonged to a State, War and Navy Coordinating Committee, and he wanted to have somebody to back him up. I didn't know him, he didn't know me, though he knew my wife who worked with him in OSS during the war. But he had read the book that I had written on Shanghai and he thought that I might be of value to him.

Well, I told him I was not interested, that


I didn't want to work for the Government. In any case, I didn't want to work on Japan, that if I did anything I would want to work on China, not Japan. I knew something about China, I didn't know anything about Japan.

So he said, "Well, I'm really in a jam, why don't you agree to work for say, three or four months, just so we can get through this period of writing the post-surrender directive, which was negotiated through the State, War and Navy Coordinating Committee and was sent out as a directive to the occupation, to [General Douglas] MacArthur. And that had been the work of a great many people in the State Department on the political side with Ed working a bit on the economic side of the SWNCC document. The thing that really pursuaded me was that he arranged to have Secretary [James F.] Byrnes, write a letter to Secretary [Henry L.] Stimson saying that the vital national interests were involved in my


being discharged from the Air Force before I had accumulated enough points. You know you couldn't get out at that time without having points. Well, I had a lot of points, but not enough. It was just short. In a normal kind of discharge proceedings I would not have left the Air Force until, oh, maybe March of 1946. And here it was in October '45 with Byrnes writing Stimson, you know, I thought, "My God, I only have to work three or four months to get out of this damn uniform, and you know, maybe working through the State Department a little while, what's wrong with that?" So, it was strictly on a temporary, and I must say somewhat cynical basis, that I decided that I'd work for the State Department.

I was given an office over in the basement of the Executive Office Building. Ed Martin had an office there and I had an adjoining office, and we had some secretaries that tried to help us.


Then this trip to Japan was staged. There was a meeting in Moscow where Jack Ahernstein and several other people were along. John Carter Vincent was on that trip, and they talked about a Far Eastern Commission with the Russians. The idea was that the occupation of Japan would be administratively in the hands of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. There would be an Allied Control Commission in Tokyo, but it really wasn't any kind of a control commission at all. It was just a fake, and there would be a Far Eastern Commission made up of 11 countries who would lay down the policy directives for the Supreme Commander and the Supreme Commander would have all of the executive discretion, but his policy guidelines would be furnished him by an international body in which there were an appropriate number of vetoes; ours and the Russians, I guess, and the Chinese. But anyway, this was all a joke. The vetoes didn't


really make a damn bit of difference.

Well, it didn't operate that way, because MacArthur once he got the directive from the U.S. Government just settled down and was doing everything the way he thought fit, from the moment he arrived, and he arrived right after the surrender in September.

MCKINZIE: The Far Eastern Commission, I take it, was to make its recommendations to the U.S. Government, the U.S. Government was then to convey them to the Supreme Commander in the Pacific, is that correct?

BARNETT: That was roughly the procedure. Now prior to the construction of the Far Eastern Commission you know we handled the relationship to MacArthur and we were the people who pulled together the Far Eastern Commission before it really got into business. The first act of business, you might say, in the Far Eastern Commission


was to go to Japan. And on the 26th of December, 1945, representatives from ten countries -- the Russians were not in that group, but the other ten were -- got on airplanes down here at National Airport and flew across the country. This was a long, long trip -- prejet, of course, everything took a long time. We flew all the way to Pearl Harbor on four-engine, I guess maybe, C-54s. And when we got to Pearl Harbor we left our planes and got onto the Mt. McKinley which was a naval command vessel, a communications vessel. Apparently communications vessels have lots of officers and these officers had officers quarters, so there were enough places where reasonably senior diplomats could find a place to, you know, have a drink and maybe even have a meal. served in their room. And that's the way we traveled from Pearl Harbor to Japan.
Well, we got to Japan after about eight or nine days of steaming across the Pacific.


Of course, there's a terrible problem of accommodations in Japan. And so, instead of going to any normal port like Kobe, Osaka or Yokohama, w