In the late summer of 1944, a C-47 landed in Yan’an, a remote town in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province. On board were US military and diplomatic staff, sent to the headquarters of the Communist Party of China (CPC) as members of the US Army Observer Group, better known as the Dixie Mission.
It was the first official contact between the US government and the Chinese Communists.
Sixty years later, on August 23, 2004, a meeting was held in Beijing to commemorate this major but relatively little-known event in modern Sino-American relations. Jointly sponsored by the Society for People’s Friendship Studies (CSPFS), the China Institute of International Strategic Studies (CIISS) and the Friends of China Research Foundation, the gathering was attended by over 100 former Chinese diplomats, scholars, publishers and journalists as well as family members of Dixie Mission staff and American researchers.
Huang Hua and Ling Qing, the honorary president and president of CSPFS, were keynote speakers, as was General Xiong Guangkai, chairman of CIISS, and Robert Service, son of John Service, a member of Dixie Mission and a famous scholar who suffered years of persecution under McCarthyism because of his views on US-China relations. Robert Service is himself a former US ambassador to Chile.
Both Huang Hua, a former foreign minister, and Ling Qing, a former representative at the UN, once worked in the Foreign Affairs Group of the CPC Central Committee and had personal contact with the Dixie Mission members.
Huang said, “Most of the mission staff and members of the foreign affairs group at Yan’an have passed away. Yet today we still treasure the memories of those who participated in this precious chapter of the extraordinary, historical cooperation between China and the United States.”
General Joseph W. Stilwell first suggested sending the mission and President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved it. The detached military unit sent to Yan’an was responsible for transmitting weather information, assisting the Communists in their rescue of downed American flyers and evaluating their Communist hosts’ contribution to the war effort against Japan.
Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai and many other leaders met and had long discussions with mission members in Yan’an. They explained the CPC’s views on the international situation and China’s war of resistance.
To familiarize the members with the situation in the resistance bases, arrangements were made to take the Americans behind enemy lines to see at first hand the fighting against the Japanese.
Reports of mission members such as John Service, John Davis and Raymond Ludden, together with a proposal on American policy toward the CPC signed by US Embassy staff in Chongqing, aroused the attention of the US State and Defense departments and the White House. The understanding and sympathetic views of the American observers toward the CPC’s work and war effort stirred up controversy in Washington.
Said Huang Hua: “On this occasion, our thoughts turn naturally to General Stilwell. . . . He saw where the real strength of the Chinese people was. To expedite the defeat of the Japanese aggressors, he called for cooperation with the Eighth Route Army and other resistance forces and for military aid for them. Although his proposals failed, his spirit of going beyond ideological differences and joining hands with the CPC in the face of a common enemy is worthy of our deep respect.”
Ling Qing, who served as an interpreter for the mission, recalled the Americans as fun-loving and friendly, but at the same time hard-working, interested and intelligent. “These young American friends met with warm and sincere friendship from our cadres and people, who rendered them assistance as best as they could,” recalled Ling.
General Xiong Guangkai, concurrently deputy chief of Staffs of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, said that the lesson learned from the Dixie Mission was that Sino-American relations will be strong provided the two countries emphasize mutual understanding and respect, treating each other with honesty and sincerity.
“In the new century, with peace and development as the main theme, China and the US should enhance cooperation in all sectors and deal with various challenges together just as they did in their common fight against fascism during World War II,” said Xiong.
Robert Service noted that at the time of the Dixie Mission, all official contact with China was with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. Placing the Communists off limits was considered irrational by many Americans, as the primary goal was to defeat the Japanese.
Military need became the driving force behind the relaxation of policy toward the Communists that enabled the Dixie Mission to exist, Service noted. But that need paved the way for an event of considerable significance in the history of Chinese-American relations to take place.
During the gathering, a documentary film on the mission was shown and a pictorial album with collection of rare old photographs, as well as a translation of Carolle J. Carter’s book, Mission to Yenan, was distributed to the participants.
During an afternoon panel discussion, three family members of mission staff and one American researcher were special guest speakers. One of the Chinese speakers on the panel was a Long March veteran who was responsible for logistical support to the mission.
Three surviving members of the Dixie mission, unable to attend because of health reasons, sent congratulatory messages.