Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened January, 1976
Oral History Interview with
June 5, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Ringwalt, could you tell me how you happened to join the Foreign Service? I notice that you entered in 1928. Was it more by way of design, or was it a man who needed a job at the time?
RINGWALT: Basically, I needed a job. My father was an insurance man; he tried to make an insurance man out of me and it didn't work. So I professed to be very interested in music, which I was pretty good at, and managed to get his permission to go to Europe. I spent several years
in Europe having a good time and, incidentally studying some music. And when I came back in 1925 the depression had hit the Middle West like a ton of bricks. So, the only job I could find, other than going back into the insurance business , was being a retail salesman in a department store, but a year and a half was enough to cure me of any further interest in retail salesmanship. Then I got restless and thought I would like to get back overseas again and went to Washington to see if I could get into foreign service. I tried the Standard Oil Company, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of State. The Department of State gave me a pretty good rating on my written examination, which is, incidentally, a very funny story because that particular year the examinations were all thrown out. Did you ever hear about that?
RINGWALT: In order to prepare for my examination I went to a coach in Washington named Angus Crawford, who placed 90 percent of the aspiring Foreign Service officers at the time. The day before our written examination he invited us all around to his residence and he said, "We're not going to have any class today," -- there were about 28 in the class -- "but I thought I would just give you a little hint. If the Foreign Service examination contains the question, 'What is the significance of the Battle of Santa Maria, something or other,' you should answer, 'this is the decisive battle in the Chilean Civil War in 1857." And he said, "Don't ask me why I'm giving you this answer, but just keep it in mind."
So, we all with nearly 400 others took our Foreign Service examinations in mathematics, in history, in law, and what not, and, to and behold, there was the question, "What was the significance of the Battle of Santa Maria something or other;"
and so all 28 of us very brightly wrote down the proper answer. But one of the candidates who was not present at Mr. Crawford's residence at this last meeting heard us gossiping after the examination rushed to the State Department and complained: "There has been some cheating going on." Those of us who had put in several months of preparation didn't like this fellow very much, as the Department invalidated the examination; those of us who were still interested in the Foreign Service had no choice but to take a second examination the following year.
By way of explanation, it seems that a certain State Department employee who had access to the safe where the examination questions were kept, a few days before the exam was held he removed them from the safe and called on Crawford saying he wanted the correct answers to a list of questions among which was "what is the significance
of the battle of Santa Maria something or other?" Crawford demurred, saying he would prefer that the young man enroll as a student in his next class. When this suggestion was rejected, Crawford became suspicious and so indirectly warned his class.
MCKINZIE: In the interim, though, were you employed?
RINGWALT: In the interim I was employed. I found a job singing which was part of my musical training and I thought I'd see if I liked being on the stage. I worked in the Fox Theater in Washington and continued to keep abreast of current events in order that I might take the examination the next time it was offered, and the next time I passed.
MCKINZIE: What kind of assignments did you get in the depression years?
RINGWALT: On May 21, 1928, I joined the Service and
worked for a while in the Passport Division learning a little bit about passports, in the Treaty Division, and in the Division of European Affairs; and so I got a fairly broad picture of what was expected of me. Then along about October they began to say, "Well, it's high time you all go out to the field." I didn't want to go to Latin America for one reason or another; I had lived in Europe a long time, and I had never been to the Orient and there was great pressure put on people then to join the so-called China Service. I was not prepared to say I wanted to stay in China the rest of my career but would take an assignment out there and if I liked it then I would apply for the China Service. So they sent me to Shanghai. And that's the reason how I got out there in the first place.
MCKINZIE: When did you get to Shanghai?
RINGWALT: In November of '28 and stayed there until
July '32, when I came home on leave and agreed to go to Peking to study the language, which I did in '32, October. I stayed there for two years and ruined my eyes studying Chinese characters. Then in '34 I went to Yunnan Fu, now called Kunming. In '36 I came home and stayed in Washington for two years, got assignments in Washington, got myself married, and went back to Peking in 1938 as Third Secretary.
MCKINZIE: You were in Peking when war in the Far East was actually underway?
RINGWALT: My wife and infant daughter were sent home in October '39, and I came home on leave in '41 just before our war with Japan broke out. A young Japanese language officer then stationed in Peking and I estimated that I could get home and he couldn't. My leave was due in October and his leave was due in January. Shows how closely we figured when the war was coming.
And he lost; he was interned, and I got home.
MCKINZIE: What did you do then during the war years?
RINGWALT: In '41 I went to visit my wife's family in Richmond, I remember, until my leave expired on the date known as December 7, 1941. I went to Washington by train and got in a taxi at the station with my wife; the driver turned the radio on, when we heard the announcement over the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. So, I didn't go to the little flat we had reserved but went straight to the State Department and said, "What can I do to help?" There wasn't a damn thing Foreign Service Officers could do to help then, because it was out of the hands of the State Department and became a matter for the military to handle. So I diddled around various odd jobs in Foreign Service administration for a year and a half, and then pressure was exerted to send China language officers back
to the field; and so I went to China via South America, Africa and India -- we couldn't go across the Pacific, of course -- and arrived in China in March of '43 and stayed until August of '45.
MCKINZIE: And you were there at the time a number of American missions went out to China then to try to...
RINGWALT: Oh, yes. Everybody came out to save China.
MCKINZIE: Could I get you to comment on any of those missions that came out to save China from itself?
RINGWALT: Well, I think the silliest mission was General [Patrick Jay] Hurley's mission, if anybody should ask me.
MCKINZIE: In what sense? General Hurley being silly or...
RINGWALT: Yes, General Hurley being silly, no question about it. We always had the impression, but we
never had it confirmed, that he had been such a damn nuisance in Washington that Roosevelt decided to send him as far away as possible to get him out of his hair, and that was how he finally got to China. Apparently he arrived without any instructions whatever from Washington, and -- this is what he told us anyhow -- and he said, "If I haven't been given American policy, I shall make American policy."
So he himself sat down and made American policy for China and said, "This is what we should do." His idea of American policy and ours differed somewhat.
MCKINZIE: Well, that's one reason it's difficult for me to talk about China affairs during and immediately after the war: everyone has a different view of what American policy actually was. Roosevelt seemed to be a little slow in making up his mind exactly what he wanted,
and then the situation changed and as Roosevelt faded out and Truman came in there was a period in there where I think it would have been difficult, don't you, to say exactly what U.S.-China policy was?
RINGWALT: I never did learn. I don't know yet. I think Mr. Roosevelt had the idea that when the war was over, Great Britain and France might get together and gang up on the United States; so, he decided it would be a hell of a good idea to have another country in partnership with the United States, stand up to Great Britain and France, and, of all countries, he chose China, and of all people he chose Chiang Kai-shek to head postwar China. That's my basic impression of what that was all about. And he couldn't bother -- he wasn't particularly interested -- to learn anything that went contrary to his idée fixe, if you like.
MCKINZIE: What about the idea that if American aid
were to be given, whether it be wartime aid or postwar aid, it had to be given with certain guarantees that it would be used for "proved purposes?"
RINGWALT: Well, we tried that. It didn't work. You couldn't make him do this; he was a stubborn old son of a gun, I'm talking about Chiang Kai-shek.
RINGWALT: General Stilwell used to call him "The Peanut."
MCKINZIE: Among other things.
MCKINZIE: Back then, in the latter part of the war, what kind of duties did you have? Where were you stationed?
RINGWALT: I went to Kweilin, the idea being that,
as I understood it, I would be the Consul General in Canton in exile, so to speak. The Japanese had taken over Hong Kong and Canton, and so Kweilin was the closest place we could get to Canton and Hong Kong without running the risk of capture. Refugees from Hong Kong and Canton and that area in Southeast China were constantly passing through, and it was of interest to find out from these people what the situation was in Hong Kong and in Canton, then Japanese occupied areas. I stayed in Kweilin until the Japanese captured it and then went to Chungking, in the summer of '44, if I remember correctly. In Chungking I was the senior political officer, and I used to pass on to Washington reports from other officers from various parts of China. It was chiefly a bookkeeping job, but I'd take them and read them and comment on them, if I wanted to, and then forward them to Washington.
MCKINZIE: Could I ask you to comment on the mind-set,
to use a modern word, of the people who were in the China Service? Everyone talks about "old China hands," as if they had some special insight into the Oriental mind and into politics and into the whole thing.
RINGWALT: Some did and some didn't. I think the dumbest officer I ever saw was born in China; never heard him speak a word of Chinese. One of the brightest I ever saw was Jack Service, who was born in China. So, you have a wide spectrum.
MCKINZIE: But no particular unifying characteristic?
RINGWALT: John Davies was a very bright officer, also born in China.
MCKINZIE: How much speculation about the future of China was going on among the people in the China Service? Was it optimistic at the end of the war?
RINGWALT: It was generally agreed that sooner or later
the Chinese Communists were going to win, and what was the use in opposing a movement which was almost unopposable.
MCKINZIE: Was this because of Chiang Kai-shek's...
RINGWALT: Chiang Kai-shek was dumb, and his methods were not very clever, and the assistance we sent to Chiang Kai-shek to use to fight the Japanese, mostly went to build up his army to protect himself against the Communists in a future war. In the event that was what happened. We used to send arms and money and equipment and advice, and he would ignore all of the advice. In lieu of that, he just built up his own little clique, so the Nationalists could hold, he hoped, when the war was over, against any Chinese Communist attempts to take over the country.
MCKINZIE: You mentioned that there was nothing that could be done about that, that you couldn't really force him to make changes.
RINGWALT: We tried awfully hard.
MCKINZIE: I was going to comment, that a number of people did evidently try very hard and in fact everyo