‘I can think as the Chinese do’
‘I can think as the Chinese do’

‘I can think as the Chinese do’

Harned Hoose played both sides of the US-China relationship — including during Nixon’s famous trip in China in 1972

23 February, 2022, 10:35 am

Last modified: 23 February, 2022, 11:03 am

Mike Chinoy / Senior fellow, University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute


Mike Chinoy / Senior fellow, University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute

The memo arrived at the White House in January 1972 marked “Top Secret: The following materials are for eyes alone of President Richard M. Nixon and Dr. Henry A. Kissinger” and titled “President’s Manual for China Trip.” 

But it did not come from within the US government. The author was one Harned Pettus Hoose—and his effort to involve himself in Nixon’s trip was just the latest episode in an extraordinary life at the intersection of China’s long-fraught relationship with the United States.

On one level, the memo, which Hoose, a successful Hollywood lawyer, had worked on for months, was breathtakingly presumptuous. It contained sweeping proposals on strategy and tactics for dealing with the Chinese; detailed personality profiles of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, even down to their reading and drinking habits; drafts of two full-length speeches for Nixon to give; suggestions for public ceremonies and events; a brief summary of Chinese history; tips on Chinese tea- and liquor-drinking customs and how to use chopsticks; and a three-page list of Chinese proverbs to which the president could refer.

And it contained this startling assertion: “Culturally, I am an American. But also and simultaneously, culturally I am Chinese. … I can think as the Chinese do, and almost can read their minds.” He added: “I want very much to be a part of the President’s team and included in his entourage, on the China trip.”

Hoose was aware of how he might come across. “Who is this man Hoose?” the memo asked. (His habit of using the third person about himself added to the strangeness.) To Nixon and Kissinger, who was Nixon’s national security advisor at the time, he acknowledged: “It would be reasonable for them to wonder if, perhaps, I am some kind of a nut. As my record and status reflect, I am not.”

Hoose was not a nut. But his life—especially as he transformed himself into a political middleman between Beijing and Washington—was a strange mixture of skill, braggadocio, and storytelling.

Like so many of the so-called China hands who offered themselves as cultural interlocutors, Hoose was the child of missionaries, born in Jiangxi province in 1920 and raised in Beijing. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 ultimately forced his family back to the United States, but he returned to China as a young officer in the Naval Reserve during World War II, where he was part of the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. special operations agency that eventually became the CIA.





The United States ran a network of intelligence operations in China, training guerrillas to operate behind Japanese lines and rescuing downed American pilots. Much of Hoose’s work there remains opaque, but his commander wrote later that his work was “so highly secret that the ordinary oath of a naval officer was insufficient.”

Hoose then built a successful career as a Hollywood lawyer. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, with a handlebar moustache, an omnipresent pipe, and a booming voice, he cut a colourful figure in Los Angeles high society. He bought the lavish Brentwood mansion of film star Greta Garbo, was a member of the California Yacht Club, married twice, and had six children. His second wife, Georgia Hoose, the daughter of an Oregon rancher, became his office manager.

With the Chinese Communists’ triumph and the poisonous political debate in the United States over who “lost China,” however, Hoose became concerned about coming across as too Chinese, so for years he went out of his way to downplay the Chinese side of his personality and life. He talked occasionally about Chinese customs and traditions but shared few stories of his own experiences. As one relative observed, “He didn’t want to be dismissed as a commie.” Noted an old friend, “If you met him in LA, you would think he was a Hollywood pitchman.”

When Nixon announced plans to visit Beijing, however, Hoose’s decades-long reticence about China disappeared. His nephew Geoffrey Shepard, then working as a young staffer on domestic issues at the Nixon White House, put Hoose in touch with Brig. Gen. Alexander Haig, the president’s deputy national security advisor. Following a meeting with Haig, Hoose spent the rest of the fall of 1971 drafting his 153-page memo as well as unashamedly lobbying to join Nixon’s team in China.

“If I can see and hear our opponents in Peking communicate with you and your Advisors,” he wrote directly to Nixon, using an older English spelling of Beijing, “I am sure that I can help you in understanding them—not their words, since you have excellent interpreters—but their involuntary messages, as shown by facial expressions or lacks of them; body language; omissions; pauses; and all of the other special cultural signals, as well as the spoken word. I am very good and am experienced at doing that with Chinese, Mr. President.”

Needless to say, Hoose’s improbable proposal to accompany Nixon was politely rebuffed. Within the government, reaction to his memo appears to have been mixed.

Looking at the memo decades later, Donald Keyser, a China specialist who joined the State Department in 1972 but did not know or know of Hoose at the time, was dismissive.

“By the time it hit Kissinger’s desk—if it ever got that far—the White House would already have had massive briefing materials prepared by [the] State [Department], CIA, [Defense Department], and other executive agencies. Hoose comes across as suffering from the delusion that he is literally so ‘bi-cultural’ that he can ‘read the Chinese mind.’ Receipt of this sort of thing probably provoked reactions including snorts of derision,” Keyser wrote in an email.

Chas Freeman was then a young State Department China expert who would translate for Nixon in Beijing. He was involved in preparing some of the president’s briefing papers and does not recall seeing Hoose’s memo at the time. But reading it later, in contrast to Keyser, he was impressed. “If I had seen it, I would have probably tried to incorporate pieces of it,” he said. “It’s very sound on the cultural side. He obviously had had some classical education in Chinese. His portraits of Mao and Zhou were very well-limned.”

For his part, Hoose claimed later: “In my one meeting with Dr. Kissinger before the journey, he told me that a substantial amount of my material was being used, some added into other memoranda and some verbatim. He very kindly called my several hundred pages of work a ‘Tour de Force.'”

Further evidence of the memo’s impact comes from John Holdridge, then an Asia specialist at the National Security Council. Holdridge had accompanied Kissinger on the July 1971 secret trip to China that laid the foundation for Nixon’s visit and would go with the president on his trip as well. In his memoirs, Holdridge wrote, “Among all the outside advice we received I particularly valued one item: a neat looseleaf binder presented to me personally by a California businessman named Harned Hoose.”

Hoose’s combination of shameless self-promotion and deep insight about China established a lifelong pattern.

Two months after the Nixon visit, Americans were allowed to attend the semiannual Canton (Guangzhou) trade fair for the first time. Hoose secured a coveted initial invitation, becoming a pioneering figure in opening China up to U.S. business. By the end of 1975, he had made numerous trips on behalf of various clients, altogether spending nearly nine months in the country—and reconnecting with the beloved sites of his childhood.

Back in the United States, Hoose boasted of his high-level Chinese connections to his friends as well as to as his contacts in business and the U.S. government.

“He said his childhood playmates from Peking were now running the Chinese Communist Party,” Shepard recalled. “He knew them from being a kid. Nobody could duplicate that relationship. Harn pictured himself as the back-channel link, the invisible go-between delivering messages.”

While Beijingers were not well represented at the top of the Communist Party, and most key party leaders were two or three decades older than Hoose, he does appear to have had remarkable access. One American colleague recalled Hoose holding a surprisingly cordial meeting with the hard-liner Li Peng, known for his xenophobia. On another occasion, the same colleague said, Hoose was invited to have dinner with Zhou. When the car arrived at the Beijing Hotel to collect Hoose, Zhou’s wife, Deng Yingchao, was inside.

In his self-styled role as middleman, Hoose continued to offer information to U.S. government officials. But, as Freeman noted, Hoose’s behaviour raised a troubling question: “Who is he working for? Is he representing a Chinese interest?”

Perhaps aware of such suspicions, in a 1975 memo to Philip Habib, then the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Hoose went out of his way to describe himself as a “loyal and patriotic American.” But he also sought to explain his role.

“The use of a middleman is traditional among the Chinese, and is particularly in vogue now, with political and ideological uncertainties … in which … only the most agile can survive by avoiding taking any dangerous positions,” he wrote. “[T]he Chinese have used middlemen and unofficial go-betweens to float trial balloons and make preliminary inquiries which could be disclaimed if rejected, to preserve the principals’ political or even physical skins; to save face, when a negative response or disinterest is ascertained in advance, by then avoiding presenting the question openly; and to establish in advance of any confrontation, the dignified and safe boundaries of what is and is not feasible between two different principals who are about to meet face-to-face.”

But Hoose sought to play both sides. In 1973, he sent a detailed memo to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft about Paul Lin, a Canadian Chinese professor whom Hoose had befriended and whom the U.S. government suspected of being a Chinese intelligence operative. Hoose’s memo described Lin’s home and office and his connections to the Chinese mission in Canada. “Dr. Lin is far more than a professor … and quite possibly a powerful member of PRC ‘governing circles,'” Hoose wrote. “[He] should be regarded by the U.S. as potentially very dangerous.” When Richard Solomon, a China expert at the National Security Council, saw the memo, he wrote to Scowcroft: “I am concerned about the insistent Mr. Hoose’s amateur sleuthery. … [He has] shown himself to be unabashedly self-serving in using his past access to the NSC for his own commercial wheeling and dealing.”

Being a middleman, however, didn’t always work, as Hoose discovered when he was employed by the Fluor Corp. Nixon had encouraged the U.S. engineering giant—whose chairman, J. Robert Fluor, was both an old friend and longtime political supporter—to get into the China market. Early signs of China’s opening up had the energy behemoths “desperate to get in,” according to Freeman, then the economic and commercial officer on the State Department’s China desk.

By his own account, Hoose held preliminary conversations with senior Chinese officials and in early 1975 began pushing Fluor to build a huge petrochemical refinery complex in Hong Kong that would be supplied with oil and gas from China. That July, he wrote a 39-page memo—which he labelled “Top Secret”—to Habib, Scowcroft, and Tilton Dobbin, an assistant secretary of commerce.

Hoose claimed that the project had the support of Mao, Zhou, Defence Minister Ye Jianying, and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, only to be brought back in the early 1970s to revive the battered Chinese economy. While Zhou, Ye, and Deng were known as pragmatists, even some of Hoose’s colleagues at the time wondered about his claim that Mao was in favour. But as Eric Kalkhurst, a Chinese-speaking former U.S. military intelligence China analyst then working for Fluor, observed, “When Mao was alive, Fluor was moving forward. When Mao died, that support for embracing foreign technology dried up. It was not necessarily a stretch for Hoose to cite Mao.” Hoose described sensitive secret discussions in China about the project and how he had prepared material that had been conveyed to Deng and Ye to secure their support. He also noted that the project had been caught up in the power struggle between this group of pragmatists and “radicals” associated with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

The same memo also asserted that Hoose himself had been given “certain oral messages from [Ye Jianying] and his group, with respect to informal and off-the-record suggestions and inquiries as to possible solution of the U.S.-PRC problems, including the Taiwan question.” Consequently, he requested, on an urgent basis, a meeting for himself and Fluor’s chairman with U.S. President Gerald Ford, who was scheduled to visit China at the end of 1975.

Through Hoose’s own contacts, the memo made its way to the desks of Kissinger and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, but within the State Department and National Security Council, his freelance diplomacy set off alarm bells. On Aug. 19, 1975, Scowcroft sent a confidential memo to Ford’s counsel, Philip Buchen; White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld; and presidential economic advisor William Seidman. “We have had dealings with Hoose for several years now,” Scowcroft wrote, “and have discovered that he typically uses very casual and self-initiated contacts with White House officials to promote his own commercial activities with the Chinese in a very self-serving manner. … [W]e are concerned about Mr. Hoose’s efforts to link up his investment scheme with the political dimensions of the President’s forthcoming trip to Peking.”

A month later, Habib was even harsher, writing to Kissinger, who was planning a late October trip to Beijing, that “there are many bizarre aspects to this case which call for caution.” He added: “Hoose is a name-dropper and contact-exploiter par excellence” who had injected “implausible political elements,” such as his claim to “have developed a ‘high political channel'” directly to Ye and Deng.

A State Department briefing book for Kissinger’s October visit was equally sceptical. It devoted two pages to the Fluor project and warned that “Hoose has, over many years, been pumping himself up as an intermediary, and we have been turning him off firmly.”

There is no record of Ford responding positively to Hoose’s request for a meeting or of the Hong Kong petrochemical plant being discussed during Kissinger’s or Ford’s meetings in Beijing. In fact, by late 1975, the project had been further entangled in the increasingly fierce domestic political struggle between the moderates around Zhou and Deng and radicals led by Jiang, who opposed any business ties with the hated Americans. At the same time, the hopeful projections of large oil deposits in Guangdong turned out to be exaggerated. In 1976, the year of Mao’s death, the Fluor project collapsed.

But Hoose continued to seek ways to enhance his own standing. In 1976, he described himself as “one of [then-U.S. presidential candidate] Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy advisers.” It remains unclear what his actual role, if any, may have been, but in 1977, Hoose conducted a remarkably unsubtle campaign to have himself appointed the head or deputy head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, which became an embassy when formal ties were established in 1979.

When it became evident that United Auto Workers President Leonard Woodcock, an early Carter supporter, was likely to be appointed as head of the U.S. Liaison Office, Hoose started lobbying the labor leader to select him as deputy head. In April 1977, he wrote to Woodcock three times. Although the two had not met, all were addressed “Dear Leonard.” The first declared, “Leonard, I am a lifelong Democrat and also have supported the labour movement ever since my early law school days. … I lived 23 years in China (American Methodist missionary parents); speak Chinese fluently; and have worked, written, spoken and negotiated with the Chinese intensively in the last five years. … I want very much to serve you and President Carter as your Deputy, in Peking.”

Woodcock’s papers show that in May 1977, he wrote to Hoose proposing a meeting in Los Angeles, but no other details are available. There is no way to know whether Hoose was ever seriously considered for the deputy chief position or how Woodcock and others in the Carter administration viewed his remarkable pushiness and self-promotion. Whatever his hopes, they didn’t work. The job went to veteran foreign service officer David Dean, who had already been in the position since 1976.

Following this rebuff, Hoose’s self-appointed role as intermediary with China began to diminish, especially after the two countries established diplomatic relations. But he continued travelling to China on behalf of corporate clients. In November 1981, he was touring Jiangsi province to explore investment possibilities and stopped for the night in Guling on Mount Lu. On the evening of Nov. 7, Hoose wrote a sentimental letter to his wife, Georgia. “Here I am, 61 years later, at the place I was born on June 2, 1920. Amazingly, I remember a few features from when I was six. Little has changed—just different neighbours. It is beautiful here. … Am off and down the Mt. to Kiukiang tomorrow. Am fine, well and safe—and may well last another 61 cussed and happy years.”

It was the last letter Hoose would ever write. After being injured in a car crash, spending 12 days in the hospital where his mother had worked as a missionary nurse, and being treated by a doctor who had studied with his father, Hoose was determined to hold one final meeting in Seoul before returning to the United States. While there, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Even in death, Hoose’s guanxi network remained active. His old Nixon administration contact, Alexander Haig, was now U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and became personally involved in arranging for his personal effects to be sent home—while Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, and John Holdridge, now assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, both offered tributes.

More than 40 years later, many of the key moments in Hoose’s life remain a mystery. Was he as well connected as he claimed? What was the line between his personal agenda, American interests, promoting better Sino-American ties, and Chinese interests? To what extent did his genuine knowledge of China mean his assertions and initiatives could never quite be disbelieved, no matter how outlandish, and how much of it came from his well-honed talent for manipulation?

To some, like Keyser, the former State Department China expert, the judgement on Hoose is harsh. “My quick sense of the man,” he noted, “is roughly: a not unfamiliar type, convinced of his own uniqueness and brilliance, playing angles for his own future advantage.”

Others, including Freeman, are more sympathetic. “Hoose is interesting precisely because of the Janus-like character that he exhibits,” he said. “He really could have been a Mandarin at the Chinese court. It’s almost as though he has the ability to become Chinese briefly and then become American again.”

In a letter to their children during one trip to Hong Kong and China, Georgia Hoose put it slightly differently. “I am watching him, here, in ‘his element’ and he is a totally happy, ‘at home’ person and he understands these people,” she wrote. “They love him and he loves them. … The idea is to bring America and China-Asia together. That is his dream.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, and indeed into the early 2000s, Hoose’s dream seemed a real possibility. Shared animosity to the Soviet Union and Beijing’s embrace of market-style economic reforms and reengagement with the world after years of isolation appeared to offer a framework for fundamentally different and more constructive ties.

In recent years, however, the two countries have become increasingly estranged, locked in a downward spiral of tension, suspicion, and ill will. China still occasionally tries to make use of intermediaries, from the ageless Kissinger to, more recently, former Goldman Sachs President John Thornton, who was allowed to visit Xinjiang. The United States has accused China of committing genocide against the region’s Muslim Uighur population.

With few face-to-face government meetings these days, and much harsh rhetoric on both sides, genuine—even if informal—dialogue might have a role in managing such a fraught relationship. Yet it is far from clear that such intermediaries could play a constructive role. For one thing, on the Chinese side, cockiness, coupled with fear of deviating from the party line, has reduced the space for real give-and-take. For all practical purposes, China appears mainly interested in engaging with people who will tell Beijing what it wants to hear and will then tell the Americans what the Chinese want them to hear.

Even more problematic is that many potential interlocutors who might be granted high-level access in China have business interests there. Such a conflict of interest raises the question—which existed with Hoose and has been an issue for Kissinger and others—of whether any message delivered to Washington might be colored by personal or corporate financial considerations.

Under such circumstances, someone like Hoose would likely be taken even less seriously now in Washington and, probably, in Beijing as well. Moreover, if his deep affection for China raised questions about his loyalty in the 1970s—which Hoose felt the need to repeatedly address: “My qualities as to integrity, loyalty and patriotism are known,” he wrote in his memo to Nixon—maintaining such a balance now might arguably be even harder and the questions about his credibility more acute.

To some degree, the same issue arises when asking why so few Chinese Americans have been able to act as middlemen. In the United States, ethnic Chinese have long been absent from the power structure. Beijing’s own attitude toward “overseas compatriots” has historically been one of both receptivity and suspicion, exerting pressure to show loyalty to the motherland while distrusting ethnic Chinese who have chosen to define themselves as nationals of another state. Plus, for Beijing, dealing with non-Chinese interlocutors has had the advantage that if a message needed to be disavowed, it was always easier to blame the foreigner.

Still, there might yet be a useful lesson in Hoose’s story and his ability, as he bragged to Nixon, “to think as the Chinese do and almost to read their minds, which I have developed over the years by being in effect bi-cultural.” As Freeman noted, especially in dealing with adversaries, it is important to be able “to think in the same manner as your interlocutor so you can intuit foreign behaviour because you are empathetic. You are not sympathetic, you don’t agree with the guy, but you understand where he is coming from. And Harned Hoose is pretty much the perfect example of that.”

Yet it is by no means clear that Hoose actually played the role he imagined for himself. And it is even harder to see a modern-day Hoose having any influence, given the worrying trajectory of Sino-American relations.

Mike Chinoy is a nonresident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute and a former senior Asia correspondent at CNN. He is the author of five books, including the forthcoming Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in China, and has visited North Korea 17 times.

Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.


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