Repeating the Mistakes of the Past

You’ll see why I am posting the following bit of history in a minute. Just take your time and read through this carefully:

Foreign Service Officer John S. Service is dismissed from the Department of State following a determination by the Civil Service Commission’s Loyalty Board that there was “reasonable doubt” concerning his loyalty to the United States.

Service was one of a number of so-called “China hands”—State Department officials who were experts on China and the Far East—who saw their careers ruined during the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts. McCarthy targeted Service and several of his coworkers, including John Carter Vincent, O. Edmund Clubb, and John Paton Davies, for criticism and investigation. McCarthy charged that Service and other State Department officials had effectively “lost” China to the communists, either through incompetence or, more ominously, through sympathy with the communist cause. The case against Service centered on the 1945 Amerasia scandal. In that year, FBI agents raided the offices of the magazine Amerasia and found classified government documents concerning America’s policy in China. Service was implicated because he had given de-classified background information to the magazine’s editor. A grand jury, a House subcommittee, and the State Department’s Loyalty Board subsequently cleared him. In 1950, however, McCarthy singled out Service as one of what he called “the 205 known communists” in the Department of State. In short order, Service’s case was reviewed once again, and this time he was dismissed. Service declared that the decision was “a surprise, a shock, and an injustice.” Senator McCarthy exclaimed, “Good, good, good!”

Service fought the dismissal, and was eventually reinstated in 1957, but his career never recovered from the damage. Like the other “China hands” who were hounded out of the State Department, Service’s real crime was his unremitting criticism of the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek during and after World War II. All believed that Chiang’s government—due to corruption, incompetence, and brutality—was doomed to fall to the communist forces in China. Thus, Service and his colleagues became easy scapegoats for Red Scare promoters such as McCarthy. Their dismissals severely damaged the Far East division of the Department of State, destroyed morale in the Foreign Service, and effectively squashed any dissenting debate concerning America’s China policy. All of these factors assisted in the serious underestimation of communist China’s political investment in Korea and Vietnam and indirectly resulted in the military conflicts in those countries in the years to come.

We clearly underestimated China’s willingness to intervene in Korea and subsequently overestimated their willingness to intervene in Vietnam. Both errors were extremely costly and possibly avoidable if we hadn’t purged the State Department of the expertise we had there to help guide our policy makers and military leaders.

Flash forward to today.

In December 2016, the department employed 2,580 people under the foreign affairs occupation series, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. By September 2017—the most recent data available—that number fell to 2,273, a decrease of roughly 11.9 percent.

Most employees under the series serve as foreign affairs officers, a broad role that encompasses responsibilities such as advising, administering and researching foreign policy areas like trade, drug trafficking, arms control and the environment. Foreign affairs officers also serve as key figures in international negotiations.

Foreign affairs employees made up more than 40 percent of the 836 civilians who left the State Department between January 1, 2017, and September 30, 2017—the final month of the Obama administration and the first eight months of the Trump administration.

The drop off in foreign affairs officers reflects a larger overall trend in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s treatment of his agency’s career workforce, said Ron Neumann, a retired 37-year State Department veteran who served as ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. The most recent administration appears to have a unique “contempt” for the career workforce, Neumann told Government Executive, prompting many top policy experts to leave the government’s diplomatic arm, whether they want to or not.

The risks today are the same as they were in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when the collective freak-out about the “loss” of China combined with the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities, totalitarian tendencies and expansionist foreign policy created a ripe environment for McCarthyism.

In most ways, McCarthyism was a more rational and understandable mistake than what we’re experiencing right now. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the current purge other than some kind of misguided hostility to our own government, combined perhaps with a grouping of policies so hostile to reality that expertise is seen as a positive hindrance.

We’ll be extraordinarily lucky if we don’t wind up paying a similar price in the near future to the one we paid in Korea and Vietnam. A nation cannot make itself deliberately stupid and get away with it.

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