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William O. Douglas calls for recognition of PRC

Following a hiking and mountain climbing trip through Asia, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas issues a statement calling for the recognition of the communist People’s Republic of China. His comments touched off an angry partisan debate in the U.S. Senate.

Douglas spent much of the summer of 1951 hiking and mountain climbing around the borders of Russia and China. Upon his return, Douglas urged that the United States recognize communist China. America had not established diplomatic relations with the communist People’s Republic of China since the establishment of that nation in 1949, following Mao Zedong’s successful revolution. And by 1951, U.S. troops were battling Chinese military forces in the Korean War. Nevertheless, Douglas suggested that U.S. diplomatic recognition of China would be a “real political victory” for the West.

Recognition by America, he reasoned, would help split China from its dependence on the Soviet Union and perhaps stem the tide of communist expansion in the Far East. “Recognition,” Douglas stated, “will require straightforward and courageous thinking by all Americans, but it is the only logical course.” In the U.S. Senate, Herman Welker (R-Idaho) set off a furious exchange when he proposed that Douglas’s comments be printed in the Congressional Record. He suggested that the justice was a “high Administration spokesman” and that his statement indicated that the Democratic administration of President Harry S. Truman was considering recognition of China. Tom Connally (D-Texas) rose to attack Welker’s action as pure politics and a “purely personal attack” on President Truman. Connally then chided Douglas for his “fool statements.” Douglas, he suggested, was not the secretary of state or president and should “stay home instead of roaming all around the world and Asia.” Senator Everett M. Dirksen (R-Illinois) commented that Douglas’s comments could not be “divorced from the party in power.”

The firestorm set off by Douglas’s comments showed that despite talk about a “bipartisan” Cold War foreign policy, party loyalties were a very important component of post-World War II debates on America’s diplomacy. In 1951, Republicans were still blaming Democrat Harry S. Truman for having “lost” China to the communists in 1949. The Democrats had their turn, however, during the presidential campaign of 1960, when John F. Kennedy jabbed at the Republican administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower for “losing” Cuba.

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