John S. Service Oral History Interview, Chap III-IV

Oral History Interview with
John S. Service

Political adviser to the Commander in Chief of American forces in the China-Burma-India Theater, 1943-45; executive officer to the political adviser to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in the Far East, 1945-46; First Secretary of the American Legation, Wellington, New Zealand, 1946-48.

Berkeley, California
April 28 | May 3 | Sept 12, 1977
by the University of California Bancroft Library/Berkeley Regional Oral History Office (Rosemary Levenson interviewer)

Chapters III and IV

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional John S. Service Chapters]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview donated to the Harry S. Truman Library. The reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word, although some editing was done.

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

All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement between the Regents of the University of California and John S. Service, dated March 7, 1980.

No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of The Bancroft Library of the University of California. Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the Regional Oral History Office, 486 Library, and should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user. The legal agreement with John S. Service requires that he be notified of the request and allowed thirty days in which to grant or deny permission.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

John S. Service, "State Department Duty in China, The McCarthy Era, and After, 1933-1977," an oral history conducted 1977-1978 by Rosemary Levenson, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1981.

Opened March, 1980
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional John S. Service Chapters]

Oral History Interview with
John S. Service

Berkeley, California
April 28, 1977
by the University of California Bancroft Library/Berkeley Regional Oral History Office (Rosemary Levenson interviewer)

Chapters III through IV




Clerkship in Yunnanfu

J. SERVICE: Almost as soon as I got to Shanghai I went around to call on the American consul-general, Cunningham, a very elderly gentleman who had been in Shanghai a long time, and applied for a clerkship .

It wasn't too long--I think it was only about six weeks--when Cunningham asked me to come and see him and said, "Would you like a job as clerk at Yunnanfu?" which in those days was considered the end of everything. I mean to hell-and-gone , a remote and isolated post in South West China. He said, "You don't have to say today." I rushed off and sent a telegram to Caroline.

I didn’t get an answer right away, but I went back to Cunningham I think the next day and said yes, I'd take the job. Then, Caroline's cablegram came in saying, "No, don't go!" But, the die was cast. I had committed myself, so I went to Yunnanfu which is now known as Kunming. In fact, to the Chinese even in those days it was known as Kunming. It was only the foreigners who still called it Yunnanfu because that is what it had been
before 1912. The old Chinese name was Yunnanfu.

LEVENSON: So, that was your first post. What did it pay?

J. SERVICE: The pay was $1800, U.S. dollars, for that day and age, a very fine job. But as soon as Roosevelt came in the Economy Act cut all federal salaries 15 percent across the board. That still didn't bother me. I had plenty to live on. But then they started devaluing the dollar. This meant that our paycheck went down as the U.S. dollar went down.


J. SERVICE: It was particularly bad in Yunnan because it was in the French sphere of influence and a lot of prices were based on the French Indochinese piaster, which was a gold-based currency. So, we had a very substantial cut in pay.

Eventually the government got around to compensating us, not for the depreciation of the U.S. dollar, but for the "appreciation of foreign exchange." So, it meant I had eventually quite a nice lump sum payment which I promptly proceeded to deposit in the bank, the American Oriental Bank in Shanghai.


LEVENSON: What were your duties? First off, to whom did you report?

J. SERVICE: When I first got there there were two officers -- two vice consuls actually. The senior vice consul who was in charge was a man named [Charles] Reed. Then, there was John Davies.

Everybody in the Foreign Service was usually sent first to a Mexican or a Canadian border post for a short trial period, usually three months or so. Then, you came to Washington for Foreign Service School which was another three months, sort of indoctrination, orientation, whatever you want to call it. Then you were sent out to the field. So this was John Davies' first field post really. He'd been in Windsor, Ontario, and then Foreign Service School.

Very soon after I got there they decided that with two men there--in other words the chief vice consul and me--there was no need for John Davies. They were cutting down every- where. John then was transferred up to Peking as a language student. You asked who I reported to. Well, there was only one person to report to, and that was the vice consul.

The office, of course, reported to the legation--it hadn’t been raised to embassy status. We always said Peking, but actually the capital of the country was Nanking. In 1928, the Nationalist Kuomintang government made Nanking the capital.

This was very unpopular with the foreigners because, well, they loved Peking and they had their establishments in Peking. They had no lovely buildings in Nanking. So, the ambassador kept most of his office--most of the chancery was in Peking. He would make occasional visits to Nanking to conduct business.


J. SERVICE: So, we would always say that we reported to the legation in Peking. We generally reported by mail which might take two or three weeks, because the only way to get to Yunnan was a long trip through Hongkong, then down to Haiphong, then by train, the French railway, from Haiphong--which in those days was a three-day trip because they didn’t run at night--up to Yunnan. You could come directly overland but it would have taken you weeks and weeks to make the trip. So the only practical way was this two-week trip around.

LEVENSON: When you say direct--

J. SERVICE: Well, you’d go up the Yangtze to Chungking and then overland to Kunming, but it would take you about four weeks to do it.

LEVENSON: What were your duties there?

J. SERVICE: I did everything. Files, of course. I maintained the files. I did all the filing. I did all the typing and I was not a trained typist. This was to create a lot of grief because Reed was terribly worried about promotions and much concerned about almost everything, social position, everything else.

But he couldn’t stand any erasures or any mistakes on a page. I was always having to retype things so they would go in looking perfect. I myself don't mind little things like that. [laughter]

He had me do trade letters, commercial work. But, there really weren’t any commercial opportunities in Kunming. There couldn't be because the French were not about to let any Americans do business--or anyone else except themselves, any other foreigners except themselves--do business in Yunnan. All goods had to come through French Indochina.

We would get trade inquiries--what is the market for beer, for instance, in your consular district? The only real letter to send them back was just, "There isn’t any." But not my boss! He insisted that we write them a full dress discussion of the market and procedures for importing and the desirability of getting a local agent, the desirability and necessity of getting a forwarding agent in Haiphong, and all the rest of this. Every trade letter had to be a certain number of pages.

I had gotten eventually to do most of the routine consular work, registration of American citizens, issuance of passports, registration of births, marriages, this sort of thing.


J. SERVICE: After a year I was commissioned as a vice consul with no increase in pay.

LEVENSON: Your first title was what?

J. SERVICE: Just clerk, foreign service clerk. But then they commissioned me a vice consul, which meant that I could perform services like passports since I had signing authority. I could do notarials.

"Bureaucrats are Made, not Born"

J. SERVICE: My chief was not a China service man. We had a Chinese interpreter in the office who was supposed to call attention to newsworthy things in the [Chinese] newspapers and translate them if necessary.

But, my vice consul didn't think he was doing a very good job. So he'd make poor Mr. Hwang sit down beside him, and he would point at the paper, [sternly] "Now, what is this? What’s this?" You know, point at the headlines here and there and make this poor Chinese translate.

Actually, most of his political reporting was from talking to the British consul general who was an old China hand and whose Chinese was excellent. He was eccentric like a lot of British people in remote places. Homosexual and a Mohammedan to boot. He’d served in places like Kashgar.

But he was not alone in being unique or peculiar. In the French consulate, one of their members was a Buddhist.

But, anyway, Charles Reed talked mainly to the British consul general. He'd go to the club and hear the gossip at the club. The commissioner of customs and the commissioner of posts had Chinese colleagues, theoretically on the same level they were. So, they got a good deal of news because they had to know where the disturbances were. The political reporting basically was the sort of gossip Reed got from talking to other people. We had to submit a monthly political report. If anything urgent came along we would make a special report. If it was something really vital we'd send a telegram, but that was very unusual.


J. SERVICE: I remember one night. I think we were having a Christmas party and a telegram came in--any telegram was an event. We had to leave the party, rush down to the office, open the safe and get out the code book.

The telegram was from the legation in Peking relaying a circular from the Department of State saying that the president had declared December 24th a holiday because of the weekend arrangements or something like that. But, of course, we’d passed December 24th [laughter] by the time we got the telegram. So, we went back to the party.

The political reporting was, shall we say, very low key, very unimportant .

LEVENSON: So, you don’t feel you really got any good training in this--

J. SERVICE: Negative training, mostly negative.

LEVENSON: In what sense?

J. SERVICE: How not to do it. This was a favorite phrase of Mao Tse-tung, training by negative example.

We ought to go back to Kunming because I rejected out of hand the value of serving there. That really wasn't true, because although I wasn't getting any very useful training in political reporting, I was learning to be a bureaucrat.

This is something that should not be treated facetiously. Bureaucrats are made, not born. Nothing in my background trained me or prepared me to be a bureaucrat. It's very important. It's not all negative. If you're going to get along in a bureaucratic system, bureaucratic organization, you've got to learn what things are acceptable, what you can do, what you can't do. You've got to learn prudence and caution, how to get things done, things like that.

Actually I became, I think in most people's minds, a pretty good bureaucrat. Most of my career was spent as a bureaucrat. I've made a little summary here. Actually, out of my twenty-nine years of service--which were diminished by five and a half by firing, leaving twenty-three and a half years as actual time served in the Foreign Service--I only spent about five years in political reporting.


J. SERVICE: This is what I'm generally known for, and this is probably why I'm sitting here talking to you. But, actually administrative and consular work, which are usually lumped together, were about fourteen years of my time. So most of my time was, shall we say, in bureaucratic pursuits.

Of course, in the Amerasia case I violated a lot of bureaucratic rules, and I acted in a very unbureaucratic way. That's one of the reasons why I got into trouble. But that's something that comes later.

Also, the business of being a clerk and learning from the ground up how things are actually done--filing, coding a telegram, all the routine operation--was something that always stood me in good stead.

I had it in Kunming. I had it for a while in Peking because after things got busy in China politically, then they needed extra help in the code room, and the language officers were called out for night code room duty.

Then in Shanghai, as we'll see later, most of my work was administrative .

Always in my later Foreign Service career I knew what the practical problems were. I knew the advantages of writing, breaking up a despatch, for instance, into various smaller despatches, because then they would be filed more easily under the appropriate topic. You write a grab bag type of despatch, why the file clerk has got a terrible problem.

Learning how to draft telegrams so that the night duty officer could get the subject right away and decide whether or not it's worth decoding in the middle of the night,