John F. Kennedy, Dean Rusk
President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk chat in Washington, June 29, 1962 as they walk across White House lawn before the president and Mrs. Kennedy left for a three-day Mexico City visit. (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)

Three years ago Dean Rusk is said to have complained to a staff aide that “some young men around here think we’re going to change our China policy. I can tell you,” he added with a flash of anger, “they’re dead wrong.”

As it turned out, Secretary Rusk was proved right at the time. What is more, his words may well hold true for the future, despite his retirement.

The reason is not, as many would expect, the bureaucratic monolith. Quite the opposite. The reason—or at least one reason—is the large variety of views within the federal establishment as to what China is.

Consider this list, by no means complete, of some of the casts of mind one finds among the policy-makers and analysts in the various echelons of bureaucracy:

  1. The dead-telephone approach: China viewed as a switchboard that simply won’t take our calls. “The difficulty,’’ as Mr. Rusk put it on April 11, 1966, “is that the other side keeps hanging up the phone.” To be sure, we do talk to them at Warsaw, and they do talk back. But what they say is so outlandish as to be undeserving of the ear. (The dead-telephone approach is often a cover for the deaf-ear approach.)
  2. The exotica approach: China viewed as Tierra del Fuego. “Tell me,” one used to be asked, “about the newest bizarre development in that Cultural Revolution of theirs.” “Incredible! They really closed down their whole educational system?” The questions are not foolish, but the tone becomes troubling: amused and benign disbelief bordering contempt. (“What will they think of next!”) Here China is viewed as quaintness re-visited, recalling those questions of yesteryear about pigtails, birds-nests and puppy-dogs. More ominously, the China-watchers themselves become tagged with quaintness—as purveyors of exotica, collectors of curios, not serious policy men. In the process, China again fails to surface as a serious policy problem.
  3. The behemoth approach: China viewed as a Frankenstein monster, a bad and dangerous thing, not at all quaint. This approach stresses China’s vastness, belligerence, irrationality, and—most emphatically—its nuclear capability. Mr. Rusk’s nightmare of “a billion Chinese on the mainland, armed with nuclear weapons” is widely unsettling (tapping, one assumes, our collective unconscious about the Golden Horde, if not the Yellow Peril). A first response among behemoth—type planners is to “take out their nukes”—a thought one heard sometimes in the Pentagon during the mid-60’s. Fortunately, wiser heads have prevailed, and the behemothers appear to be out of fashion—though a China-oriented ABM might yet give them a new grip on the defense budget.
  4. The trees-but-never-the-forest approach: China viewed as raw data. This is the affliction of specialists long resigned to detachment from the policy process. Their talents are increasingly focused on the mastery of occult knowledge, to be exchanged within the fraternity of China-watchers—questions, say, of the development of Red Guard factions within factions in the suburbs of Canton between January and February 1967—or questions of fertilizer production in Southeast Szechuan. The questions are not unimportant; but they tend to narrow and even deaden minds that deserve wider scope. (One is reminded of Ambassador Galbraiths Famous comment, at one stage in the Laos negotiations, that the State Department’s secret weapon in the struggle against communism is apparently the microscope.)
  5. The friendly beast approach: China viewed as a large shaggy dog. If you pat it and feed it and let it run around the house, things will surely get better. Such humane optimists were seen around the government in the early 1960’s when China seemed to face a severe food crisis; some thought, at the time, that Maoism might be tranquilized by massive offerings of wheat. Flickerings of the same approach are said to have characterized, surprisingly, President Johnson’s view of the Chinese as decent people in need of shoes, schools, roads, and hospitals—a cast of mind perhaps more accurately described as “the indigent Mexican approach.”
  6. The psychiatric approach: China viewed as psychotic—or at least as a very disorderly neurotic. “China has gone mad”—one heard the words quite frequently (hardly surprising when even such a veteran observer as Theodore White regrettably entitled his great documentary film “China: The Roots of Madness”). The diagnosis of insanity produces at least two prescriptions for treatment: try forms of therapy, say the dovish psychiatrists; no, tighten the straitjacket of containment, say their hawkish opponents.
  7. The terra incognita approach: China viewed as a blank space on the map. Most characteristic of Assistant Secretaries of State, this approach conceives of Asia as the chain of nations on China’s periphery—the Great Arc of Free Asia. It lauds their stability and commitment to the Free World; it stresses their growth rates and political development; it boasts their progress toward regionalism. Those who would interrupt the confident official rhetoric by posing questions about China are dismissed as “Sino-centric”—a term of bureaucratic opprobrium. (Sino-centrists should go away and teach at small colleges.)
  8. The wait-for-China-to-shape-up approach: China viewed as a juvenile delinquent. The Chinese have been bad, we are told, but sooner or later they will repent. To Mr. Rusk, they must change their “behavior”; and now, to Mr. Nixon, they must change their “attitude.” Those who wait for China to shape up seldom ponder some puzzling questions: why the Chinese behave the way they” do, why they hold such attitudes—and whether there might just be something we might do to help change both behavior and attitudes.
  9. The now-is-not-the-time approach: China viewed as a problem to do something about, but not now. Now is not the time because Mao Tse-tung is alive, or because he is dead, or because we don’t know whether he is alive or dead; now is not the time because Chou En-lai is up, or Lin Pia0 is down, or Mrs. Mao is sick, etc. Prior to 1966, now was not the time to change our stance on China’s admission to the United Nations because China was fierce and confident and strong. In 1966 and since then, now was not the time to change our stance because China was preoccupied and convulsed and weak. (Now is, of course, never the time.)
  10. The don’t-rock-the-boat approach: China viewed as the creator of waves. The view here is that you don’t shift China policy because it will rock the boat. What boat? Actually, several. The oldest though smallest boat is Taiwan (Taiwan’s helmsmen tell us that if we move on China policy, they will, in effect, hold their breaths until they are blue in the face; and the threat usually works). A more recent boat is Russia-or more specifically, the Soviet-American detente. If we move on China, say our gifted Soviet specialists, it will alarm the Russians. Other potential boats are the Thais, the Indians, and even the Japanese. (The antiboat-rockers assume that we have no skill at persuasion, reassurance, maneuver, and preventive diplomacy; and they may well be right.)

All of these views co-exist in a kind of negative equilibrium. Over the years each has become drearily familiar in Foggy Bottom. When China is discussed, everyone knows what everyone else will say. And everyone knows that each discussion will adjourn without agreement.

Why so? Because a fundamental rule of bureaucracy is that no action flows when no action is required. The missing element in our intramural discussions is that time-honored State Department prod, the incoming cablegram from our embassy overseas. An incoming cable usually requires a reply. And it is in the drafting and clearing of replies that policy is made.

But on China these days—and over the past two decades—where are the incoming cables? From Embassy Taipei, where our man, afflicted with the inevitable case of localitis, argues
staunchly for the interests of his clients. From Embassy Warsaw, where our man
requests instructions as to how to keep his footing in those spasmodic forensic contests with his Chinese counterpart. And from Consulate General Hong Kong, where our skilled physicians squat outside the patient’s door, peering through the keyhole.

But from Embassy Peking? Alas, no. Why alas? Because in the absence of a steady stream of messages from that vital center of the China problem from our ambassador speaking as a lawyer for those clients—Washington need not reply, hence it need not act, hence policy need not move.

It is useful to recall that even in the darkest days of our relations with Stalin’s Russia, our man in Moscow kept us on our toes—not merely by reporting, but by urging, protesting, provoking, pleading. Those incoming cablegrams forced the bureaucrats to think, to fight, and sometimes even to innovate, on the subject of Soviet-American relations.

Not so with China-in the past, in the present, or, one glumly concludes, in the foreseeable future.

James C. Thompson, Jr.

James C. Thompson, Jr., teaches history at Harvard. He has worked at both the White House and the State Department.