SpyCast 3.12.24
Ep 624 | 3.12.24

Telling Americans About China (and Intelligence) – with Sara Castro


Erin Dietrick: Welcome to SpyCast, the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. My name is Erin Dietrick, and your host is Andrew Hammond. Each week we explore some aspects of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. If you enjoy the episode, please consider leaving us a five-star review. If you want to dig even deeper into the content of this episode, you can find links to further resources, suggested readings, and full transcripts at cyberwire.com/ podcasts/spycast. Coming up next on SpyCast.

Sara Castro: This experience of having their country and their traditions and their attitude of superiority completely dismantled by foreigners and being the victims of it, at least this is the narrative that the Chinese Communist Party is going for now. I think it is the thing that set this anti-imperialism as a constant in the worldview.

Erin Dietrick: This week's guest is Sara Castro, a former intelligence analyst at the CIA, a professor of history at the United States Air Force Academy, and the current president of the Society for Intelligence History. She describes the thread of her career as, quote, telling Americans about China. She has a deep interest in Chinese culture and history and is the author of a new book, Mission to Mao, US Intelligence in China during World War II, which tells the story of the so-called Dixie Mission, which set out to gather intelligence and establish links with the Chinese Communist Party. In this week's episode, you'll learn about why US intelligence set up a unit to work with Chinese Communists; how modern Chinese identity was shaped by the 19th century Opium Wars; communism, anti-imperialism in China; how Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek helped build modern China; and much, much more. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks so much for joining me, Sara. I'm really pleased to speak to you this morning. So I'm just wondering, I know that you work at the US Air Force Academy. Can you tell us what you do there?

Sara Castro: Sure. So I'm currently an assistant professor in the history department. And so I teach a variety of classes in that position. So there's a required class on global history that all cadets take. And then sometimes I teach about Asia. Sometimes I teach about historical methods. Sometimes I teach about military history. And all of my students, when they graduate, they commission into the Air Force or the Space Force of the United States. So they become Air and Space Force officers, future, you know, military leaders. So that is an important privilege to be their teacher. And, you know, I think it changes the way I teach. At a civilian school, people are going off to do all kinds of different careers, and they're in school for all kinds of different reasons. So one of the things we talk about at Air Force is that we're teaching history for the profession of arms. And so I think it's a good fit for me personally because I have a background in international relations and intelligence. So I constantly try to bring that into my classroom, talking to the cadets about, okay. So here's this historical thing. This is a thing from the 1200s. But we -- you know, it is still relevant because people in this area remember it. And here's what -- you know, here's why you can make that useful in your life as a -- as a military leader.

Andrew Hammond: Well, now I'm intrigued. What was it in the 1200s?

Sara Castro: It was a required course, basically, starts with Genghis Khan. And so -- and I have a fascination with Mongol history. And I love teaching them about the Mongols. There are so many interesting unconventional warfare tactics that we can learn from the Mongols. So anytime I get to bring the Mongols into my teaching, it's a good day.

Andrew Hammond: So teaching that you do at the Air Force Academy, it sounds a little bit like and in some ways is very different but, in other ways, it sounds quite like a regular academic job. You teach some things that you really want to teach. You teach some things that you're kind of happy to teach but it's not your area of specialism. You teach research methods and historical methods, which almost nobody likes to learn.

Sara Castro: That's totally right. And so all of our students graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree. And so it really is, you know, their college experience with this added military education that's like, you know, at the same time concurrent. So it's similar to ROTC programs, but, you know, very specialized. And so the work that I do, you know, it's interesting. I've moved around in my career at different places. So I have a previous career as an intelligence analyst. And I've also taught at a civilian institution. Now I'm at the military service academy. And, actually, the skills I used at those three jobs were kind of the same. It's a lot of gathering, you know, all source material, making this interpretive mosaic about it, and explaining it to a customer. So the customers have changed. I would say, you know, undergraduates tend to be less cynical than policymakers, though not all of them. It's not universal. So that's one of the things that I like about working with the undergrads and why, you know, teaching kind of seduced me after that career as an intelligence analyst because it's a lot the same skills, slightly different materials, slightly different customer.

Andrew Hammond: Very, very briefly, just to finish off before we pivot over to China, which is what we're here to speak about, for our listeners that don't know, so West Point, that's the kind of preeminent military college for people joining the Army. The Air Force College, is that the same kind of idea? You can either go there. You can go through ROTC. You can try to join up directly. There's a number of different roads, but this is the sort of West Point of the Air Force. Is that -- is that how it is?

Sara Castro: Yeah. That's exactly right. So there are -- so there's West Point, which is the Army's service academy. There's Annapolis for the Navy, the Navy service academy; and USAF is the Air Force Service Academy. There's also a Coast Guard service academy. So students who, you know, know that they're ready to commit to being an -- you know, a military officer after graduation, this is one path that they can pursue. One of the -- one of the cool things about service academies is that the students come from all over the country. So they're -- they're nominated from every congressional district. And if they are nominated to attend or chosen to attend, they're accepted. They don't pay tuition. In fact, they earn their military salary, and all of the benefits that come with being a part of the service academy come to them at taxpayer expense. It's a big commitment on their part and a big responsibility. And I think, you know, most of the students that I work with realize that and take it very seriously, and I think that that's the same across all the service academies.

Andrew Hammond: And let's just pivot over to China now, as we discuss your research and some -- a little bit more about your background. Help our listeners understand how you came to study China. Did you stumble into this? You mentioned your intelligence and national security experience previously. Are you able to share with our listeners the agencies that you worked at and maybe your what your focus was? Was it China?

Sara Castro: Yeah. So I started studying China as a freshman in college. And I -- I really did stumble into it, as you said. I was dared by the dean of my college to start taking Chinese language. I was, you know, stumbling. I didn't know which foreign language I wanted to take as a freshman. And he dared me to take Chinese, and I was the kind of nerd that took dares like that. The more I learned, the more I wanted to go there. And I was lucky I had some scholarship money that facilitated me studying abroad. I also earned a Boren undergraduate fellowship. That's a fellowship that is run by the US government. And you can go to study a language in like a non-Western, non-English-speaking place. And then you pay back the time that the government paid for with public service. And so this is -- it used to be called the National Security Education Program. So I ended up spending a little over a calendar year studying in China. So I spent two full semesters there. And then the in between times in the summers, I was just traveling all around. Now, some listeners are probably like, oh my goodness. You couldn't do this today. And you really couldn't. And it's interesting to think about, in my career, so I graduated from college in 2000. And I was in China during this year, '97, '98. And that was sort of an opportunity when there was a lot of exchange. So there -- there were -- and there still are. Lots of Chinese students coming here to the US. And, at that time, there were lots of us students of Chinese going from America, going from Europe, going from Australia. And it was easy, safe, and cheap for us to move around. And so I think I counted up once I went to like 45 cities in China. And I had Chinese roommates in the dorms where I was studying. So that whole cohort of people that was, you know, learning about China in the '70s, early '80s did not have this experience. And now -- so the people that came right after me, the aughts, that generation had more opportunities than I did. They were -- they were renting apartments. They were living in China, right. And there's -- there's this whole cohort that did that. And now we're back to my students can't believe that I went there and was able to just move around freely like this. And that's not an experience that they'll have. And that's true, not just at Air Force, but even at the civilian schools. It's just there's an extremely low number. So the US ambassador, I saw him talk recently. And he said that the number is like 350 US students or less right now in China. So that -- that just blows my mind, thinking about how we're going to manage this relationship with people who haven't even seen inside this country.

Andrew Hammond: And what's the figure like going the other way? How many Chinese students in the US?

Sara Castro: Oh, gosh. I don't know. It's thousands. It's thousands. And they don't all come to study language. I think most of the American students that go there, it is mostly language programs. You know, there were always very few kind of direct enrolled students that went there to study something else.

Andrew Hammond: Not for as long as you, but I went to China in 2007. And it was over the summer in Beijing, went to Beijing Normal University to learn Mandarin. And I -- I bopped around the country for quite a while after that finished, went to all kinds of places. And just so happened to bump into perfect English speakers and the deep interior of China and stuff. I don't think it was quite a coincidence. But it was -- but it was -- nevertheless, it was a very fascinating experience. And it's kind of sad to think that that can't be reciprocated by students now. So you go there for college. And then, between college and going to the Air Force Academy, you've got some intelligence experience. Could you briefly share that with our listeners.

Sara Castro: Sure. I started out. My -- my first job away from college was working as a Program Officer at the National Committee on US China Relations, which is I think maybe the first NGO that did US China relations. They were responsible for ping pong diplomacy in the '70s. And so that's where -- they were based in New York, and they still are. And they still are fostering dialogue between the US and China. So it's Track 2 diplomacy is really what they what they do. And so my first two years were there. Right in the middle of it was September 11. And living in New York during September 11 made me think that perhaps the government needed some good people. This would be a good time to kind of pivot into that work. And I didn't know quite how to do it, so I -- I started with going to school and graduate school. So I did a master's at The Fletcher School, which is based at Tufts. So it was basically, you know, an IR, a very broad international relations master's degree. And, in my first semester there, I was approached by a recruiter from the CIA who offered me a summer internship. And, at the time, I knew very little about the intelligence community, very little about what that lifestyle would look like. And I thought an internship was something that you could just easily, like, do for a little while and then walk away. I had not heard this quote, but Putin said is about, Once a Chekist, always a Chekist, which is sort of the actual case to this work. But, luckily, I really liked the work. And I really liked the colleagues that I was with. And, you know, I have to say that, if you work on something that's a hard target like China, like North Korea, like Iran, if you're interested, like, deeply interested as a scholar on one of these places that's hard for Americans to get to, CIA as an intelligence analyst is an incredibly addictive place to work because you have access to all of these ideas and people and resources on that place that are not otherwise available to Americans.

Andrew Hammond: So you've done that for a period of years, and then you left to do a PhD and go into academia; is that -- is that the right --

Sara Castro: Yeah. So -- and I think -- I think it's very common for intelligence analysts, once they hit about six- or seven-year mark, which is where I was, to want to do a rotation of some kind. And smarter people than me go to work on a different country within CIA, or they go to work at sort of a different functional job so a rotation at the NSC or something like that and sort of, you know, manage their -- their intelligence career by moving around within. And I felt committed enough to want to keep working on China that I decided to do something that I thought was, like, easier. Go do a PhD to answer this question that policymakers had been asking me. And -- and it wasn't the kind of question that I could really answer in that job. And the question was, why is China still communist? Like -- well, so, for one thing, are they still really communist? So policymakers didn't want to believe that people like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and Deng Xiaoping could really believe the ideology that they were talking about. So there was that. And then, if they did, why? Like, how does this all work? And so we talked about -- you know, that's a question that policymakers and I would talk about. But that job is not designed to go into depth on things like that. And so a history degree for me made sense to look into what is this ideology? Why does it continue? And it's been like 10 or 15 years now. Like, I'm getting closer to this answer. I can describe it a lot better now. But that is a huge question. And I think the answers are changing, right. So what -- the politics that we're seeing in China right now is maybe not the politics of China that people would have expected 10 years ago. People in China, people here maybe didn't expect Xi Jinping to be running things the way that he is. So it changes.

Andrew Hammond: For me, that's really fascinating, the shift to do that because, as a as an intelligence analyst at CIA, you've got an important voice. Obviously, if you're working on China, say here's my analysis. And then through various processes and so forth, the information will be synthesized and boiled down and presented to various customers and policymakers and so forth. But, to some extent, you are straightjacketed within an institutional corporate voice to some extent; whereas in academia -- one of the good things about being in academic is you can literally just pull up a soap box, stand on top of it, and just proclaim what you take the world to be. There's less levels of filtration. So that's quite interesting to me. And it seems like you had the edge to -- to not be straight -- and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, but you -- you wanted to find things out for yourself and be involved in a bigger conversation, rather than being within that kind of institutional voice; is that correct?

Sara Castro: Yeah. So I think that's part of it. And so it -- really the questions are what drove me to an academic life. And then the thing that I didn't expect, I expected to go back into a national security job after I had the PhD. And so I didn't expect to like teaching as much as I do. And I didn't expect the thing that I started off telling you, which is how much teaching is actually like intelligence analysis. And so that surprised me. And so I really did get kind of seduced by teaching the undergrads. It basically, for me, felt the same as those policymaker briefings, except that the students didn't already have their minds made up. And that was really appealing. One of the things that is frustrating about being an intelligence analyst, even one on a top issue, even one on an issue that's a hard target thing, you feel like you're constantly telling them stuff that they haven't heard, people really do have their minds made up. It's very frustrating to say here's this team of some of the best people in America telling you what people in this country are probably going to do based on all this stuff, and here's our level of confidence. And then the policymakers are like, Huh. Interesting. And then they do this other thing, you know. And that's totally their privilege. And they have multiple inputs and whatever. But it's very frustrating. And so one of the things that has been so appealing about teaching is that there is room there for people to be ready to change their minds. And so the thread for me has been content on China, right? So telling Americans about China. That is the thread of my career. And so explaining this place and explaining this culture and civilization to students and getting them to see, oh, it's not what I thought it was. And, you know, it's different. And I can learn about it. And even though it's -- maybe seems inaccessible or foreign to me, I can break it down and learn what it is so I can understand it. That's exciting, right? So I did some of that with policymakers. But I really wasn't exposed to it till I started to be, like, a teaching assistant. And it made me not want to go back right away. So I still may go back to some national security job at some point. But, right now, the Air Force Academy kind of fills that need for me. So when I was in the civilian -- when I was in the civilian kind of academic world, I really missed the public service aspect of it. So, in some ways, the Air Force is the best of all worlds. Being at the service academy, I'm still helping future leaders, right, but I'm doing it in this other way.

Andrew Hammond: So let's go to your research, Sara. So you leave the intelligence community; you go to the PhD. You look at US intelligence in China during World War II. You've got a book coming out next year on it. Tell our listeners, just give them a few sentences on the book. When does it come out? How does it get ahold of -- what's the kind of key takeaway of the book?

Sara Castro: Yeah. Sure. So the book is -- it's called Mission to Mao, US Intelligence and the Chinese Communist in World War II. And Georgetown University Press is publishing it, so it's already available for preorder. And it will be out in bookstores probably in July 2024. And this is -- this is one of the first books in 20 or 30 years to talk about the Dixie Mission. And so the Dixie Mission is a nickname for a mission, an American mission that had a variety of names in World War II. It's an Army-led intelligence mission that had a team of US officials embedded with the Chinese Communist Party from 1944 to 1947. And so there are many books. This mission is not really a secret to people that do the history of US-China relations. But the first part, you know, the first tellings of it were all wrapped up in this question of the US loss, so-called loss of China.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Lost China.

Sara Castro: So, yeah. What happened in 1949? The US and China were allies, and Chiang Kai-shek had been in charge. And then, by 1950, they're no longer allies. The Communists are in charge. So what happened? So the first question was about, like, what did the Dixie Mission have to do with this? And this period cause historians to wonder if this had actually been an opportunity for the US to improve relations that they missed. The lost chance thesis came out. So these questions had really dominated all of the books about the Dixie Mission. And I encountered them in graduate school. And I was like, well, you know, what's really interesting about the Dixie Mission is this example of, like, an intelligence mission. It's an interagency mission. So it's Army led, but it had people from the Office of Strategic Services, so precursor to the CIA. It had all these different people that were doing signals intelligence and radio. And they're -- you know, the Communist Party headquarters is not in an urban area of China. It's in this really remote area of Central China that happened to be very close to the Japanese front lines and the Japanese occupation, which the capital of China at that time was not. They had moved the capital to Chongqing, which was, you know, far away deliberately to protect it. So when I encountered these reports of the Dixie Mission in these first books, I was like the question of who lost China, that is obsolete. That question is a bias question that assumes that the US had any control over the politics of this place. Right. So that presumption is just obsolete, in my opinion. And lots of other. That's kind of the floor of this argument now is that those questions are outdated. So that sort of gave me an opportunity to look at it as an intelligence problem, as a World War II intelligence problem. And so that's what the book is really about. It's about showing through the eyes of this mission how malleable US intelligence was at the time and -- which I think is the thing a lot of Americans don't realize now, at least with my students. They kind of think that something like CIA and the intelligence community is this, like, monolith that has been there since the beginning. And, actually, it's very new. And the fact that this intelligence role develops at the same time as America's new role in global security is developing means something about the role that America takes on and also means something about the way intelligence looks today. And so I think you can see some of that in the microcosm of this Dixie Mission because the interagency thing kind of works out. It works out in the field. These guys get along. But then, as soon as the intel leaves the field, it falls apart, right? Almost none of the reporting they do, some of which was very interesting, actually reaches the White House because, when it reaches these headquarters offices, turf wars just warp and delete it. And -- and that's when they're even able to get intel out of the space because different parts of the Army were fighting to physically remove the messages from the -- you know, they can't just drive across China, so they're relying on airpower. And so there's this conflict between General Stilwell, who's the, you know, kind of land forces guy in the China Burma India Campaign; and General Chennault, who's the Air Force's guy. And so if they're not getting along, the planes can't go there. And so, anyway, it's looking at logistical issues, rivalry, headquarters-field communications, the role of covert action, all of these things you can see in this mission and looking at the actual, you know, social history of the people who were there. So that's what the book is about.

Andrew Hammond: And I'm assuming that no one from the Air Force Academy came to you and said, you know, on this Stilwell Chennault question, the Air Force versus the land, you know, we're going to need you to cook the books a little bit because you're at the Air Force Academy. Make us look good. And they never done that.

Sara Castro: Yeah. No, no. Nothing like that happens to us. I think if that kind of thing happened, no civilians would work there.

Andrew Hammond: I'm teasing, obviously.

Sara Castro: No.

Andrew Hammond: Yes. It's interesting that you're getting different intellectual inputs. And that's gestating in your mind about what the future outputs are going to be. A lot of our listeners, they won't know the deeper context of this. So the role that China played in the Second World War and the United Front, the nationalist versus the Communists, why in '49 is there's this debate about losing China. We could go even further back, Manchukuo, the first Sino-Japanese war. So we don't have time to get into all of that. But I'm going to try to, like, briefly recount it. And I'm taking a big risk here because I'm doing it in front of a specialist. So if I get any of this wrong, feel free to stomp all over the top of me and help me get it right. So we get to the end of the 19th century. And the second half of the 19th century, Japan decides it's going to modernize and industrialize. Japan initiates a number of reforms. There's a war that breaks out between Japan and China. China gets defeated. The Chinese dynasty at the time, it's struggling with reforms. Then we get to the early part of the 20th century. Japan overtakes China really as the major power in East Asia. Then we have the standoff between the nationalists and the Communists. And then, when we get to the Second World War, the two of them buddy up again to fight the Japanese. One of the reasons why the Americans are there, why the exhibition is there is because America is at war with Japan, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So the US are involved there. But then, as soon as World War II is over and Japan surrenders, then the nationalists and the Communists go back to war again. Then eventually the nationalists have got the upper hand. But it all swings around and the Communists end up winning. A lot of the nationalist go to Taiwan. The communist state is still in power today, even though it doesn't particularly look communist to many people. But this is some of the kind of background context that's gone on there. Feel -- feel free to correct that or to augment it. I'm trying to take all of this information and just boil it down so people can get their heads around it. So help our listeners understand your book within that deeper context.

Sara Castro: Sure. Bravo. That was a pretty good -- that's a pretty good summary of it all.

Andrew Hammond: I mean, you don't have to be kind. The most important thing is that the listeners get the right story.

Sara Castro: Sure. Yeah. So the way you've described it, you know, there -- there were things -- there are things that I could elaborate on there. So China's revolution happens in 1911. And it is a revolution where they don't have a firm plan in place for what is going to replace the monarchy. And so they've had this dynasty. They've had a variety of dynasties for hundreds of years. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty falls in 1911. And they -- you know, people become citizens. They are no longer subjects of this monarchy. But what that means is up for grabs. And so from 1911 to 1949, that is a debate in the country. So the rest of the world, the whole world is experiencing global economic depression. It experiences World War I and World War II in that time period. And Japan experiences this extreme ultra nationalism that causes it to occupy China. And all of those things are these vectors of competing historical change that are happening while China domestically is trying to decide what it looks like to be a nation state, what it looks like to be a citizen of this place. And, at the same time, ideologies are coming from abroad, right. And some of them have sponsoring organizations with them. So that's what happens with the Soviets. And so they sort of have this smorgasbord of ideologies to -- that they're choosing from, and that's one of the ways that I think the Chinese Communist Party gets started up because it has these Soviet sponsors that are telling them about it. But also, in their minds, modernity and liberal democracy is very -- it's wound up very tightly with capitalism, with imperialism, and especially the kind of imperialism that the British and the French brought. And so they don't really -- that -- that has some unappealing aspects to populations of elites in China. And so I think that that's one of the reasons why communism is initially appealing because it seems like you can just skip right over that undesirable foreign imperialism moment. So one of the big pieces that has changed and one of the, you know, things that inspired me to write the book is that new documents have changed our view of the American relationship in this. Okay. So World War II, this -- the US strategy during World War II was basically keep the Japanese engaged in China long enough that we can help the Europeans defeat the Nazis, and then we'll come back and help China. So, if you think about that anti-imperialist message that the Chinese politicians were dealing with, that's really an appealing strategy, the idea that, you know, we're just going to -- we're just going to hold off the Japanese for a little while here until our allies can come help us. That's not too appealing, and they don't really have many other options, right? So they're -- they're dealing with this -- they really need the Allied help. Allied help is coming to them mainly in the form of US help because Britain is otherwise occupied. So that is a real devil's bargain. It's a real devil's bargain. And it doesn't go very smoothly between the main US interlocutor, who is general Joseph Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek. Their relationship, you know, it's a rocky one. And I think a lot of that, the historical records' show, has to do with mistakes that Stilwell made. And this is the part that's controversial with some people. A lot of people on the US side want to believe that the problem was Chiang Kai-shek. And the first, you know, 70 years of books are kind of all about Chiang Kai-shek and his problems and if he would -- he would have just listened. And I think the newer records and the newer interpretations are revealing Stilwell as a person with old-fashioned ideas about how infantry worked. Many of them didn't work. And his ideas about China, which were mostly paternalist, made him believe that this was Chiang Kai-shek's and, you know, especially the Chinese leadership's mistake, that they didn't implement his ideas correctly, and that's why they were losing. And all of this is a preface for why they sent the Dixie Mission at all because Stilwell is having so much trouble working with Chiang Kai-shek and he thinks so -- so little of Chiang Kai-shek's leadership that he's looking for an out. And so that's why they pulled together this group of experts to go and meet with the Chinese Communists to see if that -- if they're having any better luck and to see what they're learning about -- about the Japanese. And so the way that we remember the war in America, just me saying that might be kind of surprising, right, that the -- anyone in the US government, anyone on the allied side would be thinking of working with the Communists, that has gotten wiped out of the historical memory, I think. And I'll tell you, though, it doesn't make it very far, this plan to cooperate with them. It doesn't make it very far. But what I found is that's not because they were Communists. That's -- it's largely because the intelligence norms were so dysfunctional that the messages about any success that they were having weren't making it back. And then there was just a lot of misunderstandings about domestic Chinese politics and their interests and their capabilities, especially their capabilities, that precluded Americans from wanting to even see what that Intel said.

Andrew Hammond: Hearing you talk there, it's kind of crazy when you think about that, okay. We've got the 20th century. We've got huge patterns, industrialization, changes in the global economic system, migration, ideological conflict. But, yeah. We're just going to blame it on Joe Stilwell or someone or Harry Truman or something. I mean, it's kind of crazy when you -- when you think about the way that you described it there. I mean, I guess, from the American point of view, it makes sense, right? You know, you can -- it would have been difficult to fight in the Pacific and in the Atlantic side at the same time, so sometimes you just have to make uncomfortable decisions. And, from the American perspective, I'm sorry but you're just going to have to try to survive, and we'll come and get you when we can. But I realize that's not what you want to hear. But I can't snap my fingers and -- and do everything at the same time. So -- so there's lots of -- there's lots of interesting things going on here. One of the things that I want to pick up on, which I think is so important to understand, and it's very difficult to understand, like, the Chinese sensibilities or the Chinese mindset or Chinese national security without having some understanding of the way that they think about imperialism, the way that they think about -- about Britain, about -- about France, even, you know, Germany, the Tsingtao, the most -- probably the most popular beer in China is, you know, it's there as a result of Germans being there. Shanghai was an international setting and so forth. So -- and, again, this could be another whole podcast, but could you just give our listeners just a couple of minutes on imperialism in China. And we should tee this up by saying, of course there's the British imperialism in the 19th, 18th, 20th centuries. But China's got a whole long history of imperialism as well. And even during this period with Korea, the first Sino-Japanese War is partly over the struggle over his going to influence Korea and so forth. So all of that is just to say, if you could, just give our listeners like two or three minutes just on here's China, and here's imperialism and how this feeds into the way that China views the world today.

Sara Castro: Yeah. Sure. So this is something that global historians and historians of China have been -- have been writing a lot about in the past 15 or 20 years. So certainly if listeners want to read more about this, there are great books out there. And I'm going to try to really distill it down. So China has been a continuous civilization for centuries. And preindustrial revolution, it was if not the wealthiest one of the top five wealthiest civilizations on the planet. And so, as it developed and especially in this land, Last dynasty that we were talking about, the Qing Dynasty, pretty much the leaders of that in the middle thought that they were, were then and always would be the masters of the universe because, economically, they basically were. And so, when their worldview, when they're looking around to the extent that they even bothered, at Europe, this is a place that had been a total backwater, a place that made nothing that they wanted. And when people finally got it together there to get on boats and come over to China, all that they wanted to do was extract things because stuff there was better in China than it was in Europe. And so this is kind of the worldview that they had up into the 1800s, right. And as it gets to be that early part of the 1800s and Europeans have been competing and having their own, you know, cultural developments and social and economic and technological developments, the Industrial Revolution hits. And it's a total game changer, right. So this shift to fossil fuels and what it enables you to do is something that I think China didn't expect, right. And it's not inevitable that it happened in Europe. But it does happen in Europe. It happens in England. And because of the historical circumstances, England is able to win the Opium Wars, right. And so that forces on China a series of treaties that -- that the Chinese call the unequal treaties. And this is not a creative exaggerating it. They are unequal treaties. They are terribly unequal. And at the end of them, by the 1870s, it's not just Britain that basically has complete extra territorial, you know, diplomacy in China into the interior of the rivers, it's all of the other countries in Europe that want this because, at that point, China is just too weak to be able to negotiate better treaties with anybody. It's -- it's become too backward compared to the rest of the world. So the industrial revolution happening outside of China really sets China behind. And so this launch is what Xi Jinping refers to as the century of humiliation. And so there's debate about where you start and end the century, but it's about 100 years of Europeans being able to dominate economics and society and global security and things like this. And so I think, China, you know -- and Xi Jinping -- Xi Jinping, when he evokes this, wants to balance things out. He wants to make China more of an equal partner in the global norms. I think China today feels like they weren't a creator of the liberal world order. They weren't -- they were sort of standing by being pushed around. And so it's one of the reasons why they're not on board for participating. And it -- so this experience of having their country and their traditions and their attitude of superiority completely dismantled by foreigners and being the victims of it -- at least this is the narrative that the Chinese Communist Party is going for now -- I think if you try to see things from this perspective, you can see that, actually, the rest of the players in the world are not using rhetoric that -- that recognizes China's equality, right. Or, you know, certainly you see this in the World War II example. Just the whole strategy of China will just be here biding the time when we go to other things with other people, right? And so I think, in looking at US China relations, having this domestic perspective where I've read a lot of different primary sources and really tried to understand the -- and empathize with the worldview behind it, the thing that jumps out to me is this, you know, communication rhetoric of inequality. And it's really obvious when you look at 19th century materials. Like, it's really obvious to us, to my students, right. But I -- it becomes more subtle, slightly more, slightly more subtle when you're in World War II. It's very subtle when you're talking about policy now, right, or when we're talking about relationships now. And -- and so, anyway, I think this paternalism is something China is trying to get the rest of the world to notice, and I'm not sure the rest of the world is noticing. And so, until that equals out, I think we're going to have problems.

Andrew Hammond: I mean, just to get back to your book, so the Dixie Mission, so that's the Chinese Communist Party. Is there an equivalent mission to the nationalists? >> So the mission to the nationalists is much bigger. It's much more formalized. And there's a lot more known about it. And that intelligence does reach the White House. And so the US and China had a formal treaty called the SACO treaty. And this sort of spelled out who was going to do intelligence gathering, what the parameters of that would be. Part of it was that the US was actually not supposed to go and independently gather their intel. And they certainly weren't supposed to do that from the communist space. And so this was something that General Stilwell and his people worked around that treaty to do. It was certainly, you know, not allowed. Chiang Kai-shek objected to it. The only reason that he eventually agreed was specific, deliberate White House pressure from FDR and from Vice President Wallace. The hidden story of the mission to the Chinese Communist Party reminds me of the Lockhart plot, which we cover here at the museum. So the British government sent an envoy to the Bolshevik Revolution. And he's there to ostensibly be an envoy, but he's secretly trying to undermine them. So I'm just wondering, for the people in the Dixie Mission, were they sent their with, okay. You're there to support them and to help them fight against the Japanese, our common enemy, but also expecting you to pick up intelligence on them. We're also expecting you to maybe be ready to throttle them when the Japanese get defeated. And -- and we're actually trying to go on to enable the nationalists and let them win because, frankly, we don't want China to go communist. Is that something that's happening?

Sara Castro: Yeah. So that's a -- it's a really interesting comparison, I think, that you draw. And there are some similarities. I didn't notice anything in any of the records that talk about this, we're gathering this information so we can someday defeat them.

Andrew Hammond: Really. Well -- wow.

Sara Castro: It's amazing. I thought that that would -- so there -- there isn't really anti-communist messages. And, in fact, there's very little discussion of their ideology, full stop. And so that is something that was very surprising to me about this set of records. And I -- and, in studying it, what I realized is that a lot of the anti-communist attitudes that we kind of take for granted now, those came about in the '50s and later and that they were developing. There certainly were roots of them in the '40s. But that was not -- that was not what -- the priority, right? That was not the most important thing. So I didn't see any -- any -- any directives that were, like, let's gather this information now so we know their vulnerabilities. There was a laundry list of orders. And it was everything from this thing that you first talked about with, you know, how can we cooperate with them? What are they doing against the Japanese that is working? That was like the main requirement. And then this -- there was this second set of requirements that was just like, who are they? And so I think -- you know, thinking about your question, when in, you know, 1943, 1944 they were drafting these orders, so little was known about the Chinese Communists. I mean, this -- the Dixie Mission is really the first sustained official engagement between Americans and the Chinese Communists. Chinese Communists had been sequestered off. Chiang Kai-shek wasn't letting really anybody go in there. There were some journalists that had gone in there. And so Americans had heard from different journalists that had passed through about them, but there was no official contact. And so I don't even think that they could have drafted a question that assumed that they were a threat in 1943, 1944. They assumed that they were never going to be a threat. It was sort of like, it's this side group, and it's located very close to the front lines. So let's just see what they're gathering. And so you have this situation where the Americans don't know that much about the Communists to even ask the right questions. And, also, the intelligence is just not functional yet.

Andrew Hammond: They're still figuring it out.

Sara Castro: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: How many people were on the Dixie Mission?

Sara Castro: So it ran for three years. And the one -- the people that I focus on most are the first, kind of the first crew, the first six months' worth. And it's about 25 to 30 people. And so -- and they go out in kind of two planeloads in July and August 1944. And then that crew is kind of stable for a little while. They get themselves into some big trouble in the beginning of 1945 planning these covert ops, and then it changes. And in 1945, it becomes really more of a standard Army observer mission where they're doing radio and they're doing weather and these kinds of basic military intelligence, not so much the kinds of stuff the -- that the OSS would have done and a lot less of the covert action towards the end of the mission.

Andrew Hammond: You know, just as we get to the end of the interview, I'm looking forward to the book now. And one of the things that I wanted to ask was, I know that you can't comment on current policy because of your position. But you were in the intelligence community briefing people that we're dealing with contemporary affairs, current affairs; but you also have this historical sensibility where you're trying to get at the deeper context of things. Is there something as you're looking at the past, you're like, Oh, my goodness. I can't believe that we're doing this all over again. Or if there was a policymaker who was involved in China listening to this, here's one thing that I would want them to take away from these thousands of hours of historical research I've done.

Sara Castro: A thing that I've noticed, and this is just my own individual view, as a person that has worked around national security, particular to US-China relations, so a person that's now technically working for the Pentagon, a lot of Americans seem to think that China wants a war or that China is militaristic, wolf warrior, this kind of thing. And that stuff is all there. But I think, from my perspective, China doesn't actually want a war. It wants to be treated with respect from the rest of the world, which, as far as I can tell, is not a thing that has really happened yet. And I think some policymakers would hear me saying this, and they would say, oh. But the WTO; and, oh, but the UN Security Council and whatever. But those were all things that, like, China sort of had to elbow their way in. And it was the rest of the world saying, Oh, look what we did for you, China. You should be grateful. Right? So it's not -- it's not really equality. And there are things that China is doing that are problematic, that are counter to the norms of the global system that the rest of us recognize. And those are important, but I think we can't get even to a conversation about changing those until this other piece is resolved about the rhetoric and you know, equality. And I think that, if we don't get there, that it's very dangerous. It's very dangerous.

Andrew Hammond: Briefly, Sara, just to push back a little bit, you know, China had to elbow its way in, but is that not always the case in international affairs? Nobody -- nobody just hands you things. Like, generally, you have to -- you have to stick your chest out and advocate for yourself, or you don't really get given anything. And then the other part of it would be about China being respected and etc., etc. What about all of these very small countries or weaker countries that are all around that China's chiseling out of a islands or -- or pieces of land and so forth? I mean, China has been an expansionist, imperialist country for a very long time. And people from small countries have been thinking, well, how do these big countries that have this long imperial history always think of themselves as victims? Like, do they not see some of their own behavior? And, you know, other -- other countries, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, whole variety of places. So just pop the ball back in your side of the court. What would you kind of respond to those listeners that are maybe a little bit skeptical about what you said?

Sara Castro: Sure. So I come at the question thinking about US national security first, right? And so, from a perspective of US national security, I think the US is less worried about those little countries in China's atmosphere. Right? The US is more worried about China's relationship and its attitude toward the -- toward the US and other bigger powers. And so this is -- this is one minor rhetorical thing in the -- in the way that diplomacy works that I -- that I think could make a difference. Now, is it going to solve all of our problems to change our rhetoric? Absolutely not. But if the rhetoric is this way in reflecting this inequality, I think we're likely to see more defensive actions, heightened deterrence. And, at some point, those things are very dangerous because now we have all this, you know, heightened saber rattling. And one little thing can trigger something into an actual kinetic engagement, right? And so that's what's scary about it. So this is -- this is a thing that I think would be useful for policymakers to notice is that our rhetoric does matter to China. Changing it is not going to solve all of these problems, right? So it's not going to solve whatever encroachment the Belt and Road looks like it's doing or you know, debt traps or the South China Seas. I mean, there are real diplomatic problems. But I think the way that those -- the way that the US side carries its message is important in a -- in a way that I'm not sure everyone realizes on the receiving end.

Andrew Hammond: So it's not going to solve all the problems overnight, but it's a small step towards an eventual -- us eventually getting to a better place as a global community. That's what you're saying?

Sara Castro: I think that's right.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah.

Erin Dietrick: Thanks for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at SpyCast@spymuseum.org or on Twitter at intlSpyCast. Coming up in next week show:

Mark Zaid: I'm a spy lawyer, and I am. I represent individuals who are covert case officers at the CIA or work at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department as diplomats, whatever it might be.

Erin Dietrick: If you go to our page, thecyberwire.com /podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm Erin Dietrick, and your host is Andrew Hammond. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Rens, Afua Anokwa, Ariel Samuel, Elliott Peltzman, Tré Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.