Magnuson, U.S. Sen. Warren G., and Relations with the People's Republic of China

  • By Shelby Scates
  • Posted 8/21/2003
  • Essay 5524
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Following Mao Zedong's declaration of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) became one of the leading advocates of normalized relations and trade with the new Communist regime. He risked his political career and reputation in the process, but survived often heated criticism to witness the victory of his views in 1972 and after. In 1973, the Senator, known as "Maggie," visited China as a guest of Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976). In 1979 he welcomed to Seattle Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and, later that year, the first PRC ship to visit the United States.

A Puzzlement

Whenever the subject of China arose, Senator Warren G. Magnuson was fond of relating how he had sailed to China in the 1920s aboard an American Mail Line steamer and sojourned in Shanghai. Such a tale helped to justify his life-long interest in Sino-American relations.

Unfortunately there is not one shred of evidence to support this claim -- or to explain why this most practical of politicians repeatedly risked his office and reputation advocating a policy that ran counter to the fundamental political tide of his era. It is a puzzlement, but in the last analysis, it doesn't matter how Senator Warren Magnuson came to be a voice of reason amid the political hysteria over the Chinese Communist Revolution.

What matters is that of all the players in this turbulent current of the twentieth century American politics, none had a clearer understanding of the U.S. dilemma over China than "Maggie" -- at least none who were able to maintain political office.

No Red Monolith

Just as important was Magnuson's judgment that China would be run by the Chinese, regardless of their ideology, not by the Communist dictatorship in Moscow. He didn't buy the idea of a "Communist Monolith," an intellectual fallacy that helped our government stumble disastrously into a war in Vietnam.

Magnuson's notion of a China policy was steadfast: We can't write off 700 million (now more than a billion) people because they've been united under a Communist regime. We should bring them into the United Nations and make trade -- and pacify the Pacific Rim with commerce. He pressed this singular point of view in radio, television, and newspaper interviews and on the Senate floor.

A flatlander from Minnesota who arrived in Seattle in 1925 to attend the University of Washington, Magnuson was impressed by the flourishing China trade then based at Pier 91. After his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938, Maggie fought to repeal federal laws excluding Chinese immigrants that dated back anti-Chinese unrest of the 1880s. (He finally succeded in 1965, and a Chinese immigrant's grandson, Gary Locke, is now governor of the state of Washington.)

Loyalty Questioned

Magnuson's China stand won votes from workers and business leaders who depended on Pacific trade, but it also invited attacks on his loyalty and patriotism. Former State Legislator Albert Canwell, who chaired the state's Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940s, declared in a recent interview, "I wouldn't say Magnuson was a Communist. He just did whatever they wanted."

As Mao Zedong's People's Army marched toward Shanghai and General Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists retreated toward exile on Taiwan, Magnuson compared America's predicament to Hobson's choice. "The U.S. wants to see a great Chinese democracy," he explained, "but it cannot possibly be a democracy in terms of the American perception. If the Communists win north China, it will be a Communist country. If the [Nationalists] win, a semblance of a dictatorship will be set up." Either way, the best hopes of America's China policy were doomed.

Republicans and other critics of President Harry Truman's administration had a different view. They saw "treason" and betrayal by which the Democratic Party had "lost China" to Communism. This theme was sounded for the next 23 years -- until a Republican president -- Richard Nixon -- "played the China card" and sipped tea with Mao Zedong.

In 1950, Albert Canwell ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination to challenge Magnuson's Senate seat. His slogan was "Get the Reds out of government and the government out of the red." The GOP nod went to the more moderate W. Walter Williams, a Seattle mortgage banker, but he too made veiled references to Magnuson's political sympathies. "Not that I accuse Magnuson of Communism," he said. "Personally, I doubt that he is. Of course I don't know that he isn't."

Maggie and McCarthy

Rhetoric and suspicion intensified with the Korean War, yet, surprisingly, Magnuson never came under the scrutiny of Joe McCarthy, the fellow U.S. Senator who gave his name to the cause of rooting out suspected Communists in government. McCarthy was at the peak of his power in 1950 and forced the wholesale firings of "suspect" China specialists in the Department of State while leading successful assaults against eight U.S. Senators that he regarded as "soft on Communism." Magnuson was not targeted, however, owing possibly to his personal friendship with the junior Senator from Wisconsin. "A grand fellow," Magnuson later said of McCarthy, until he "kinda went crazy on Communism."

Magnuson won re-election in 1950. McCarthy was ultimately censured by the Senate, and died in 1956. Despite McCarthy's disgrace, support for recognition of and trade with "Red China" remained politically dangerous for many years. Future Congressman and Senator Brock Adams recalled joining Magnuson in a debate with University of Washington scholars George Taylor and Don Treadgold in 1958. The hostile public reaction to his pro-trade position left Adams with "the uncomfortable feeling of hanging out on a limb."

Not Magnuson. That same year he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that it should editorialize in favor of trade with China because "the most stupid policy we could follow is to pretend 700 million people in the world don't exist." Although the P-I was unmoved at the time, Magnuson sensed that attitudes were changing. He told George Killion, then head of American President Lines, "I see signs in the State Department, and when you get them to move, that's something." As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Magnuson arranged for hearings in San Francisco on the issue of Sino-American trade.

Republican efforts to make China an issue in the presidential election of 1960 were pre-empted by John F. Kennedy's own criticism of the Eisenhower Administration's response to Mainland Chinese provocations against Taiwan and the alleged Soviet-U.S. "missile gap." Kennedy eked out a narrow victory over Vice President Richard Nixon, and there is evidence to suggest that Kennedy might have opened trade with China had he lived to be re-elected in 1964.

A Secret Joke?

The "China Factor" re-emerged in 1962 amid a conservative clamor to "unleash Chiang Kai-Shek" to retake the Chinese mainland. Seattle Congressman Tom Pelly drafted a bill to ban U.S. trade with all Communist nations, which put Magnuson in a tight spot. Maggie responded that he had found the Chinese government "uncooperative, refusing to give a ray of hope" for better relations, and offered to sponsor a Senate version of Pelly's bill if it passed the House. It did not, allowing him to finesse the issue.

China still polarized opinion in 1965, when Seattle's Argus weekly bravely editorialized in favor of trade -- even the Port of Seattle took the paper to task. Things changed dramatically in the early 1970s, thanks to "ping-pong diplomacy" and secret negotiations. When President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Magnuson felt vindicated at last.

Ironically, Nixon opposed Magnuson's own visit to China the following year at the express invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai. A marvelous photograph records their July 1973 meeting in Beijing. The Senator is leaning forward, with a sly grin and an impish twinkle in his eyes, and Zhou is thrown back against his overstuffed chair, mouth open wide in a burst of laughter. About what? Was it a secret joke they shared? Or a roar of triumph over Magnuson's survival despite his long, lonely battle to open China to trade and a new world?

Neither man ever said.

Post Script: The first ship to visit the United States under the flag of the People's Republic of China docked in Seattle on April 18, 1979. Earlier that year, the Chinese leader Deng Xaioping had also visited the city. The following year, Slade Gorton defeated Senator Magnuson in his bid for a sixth term, and Maggie retired to Seattle with his wife Jermaine. Senator Warren G. Magnuson died on May 20, 1989.


Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).
Note: This essay was corrected on April 18, 2015.

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