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Knight Biggerstaff, Cornell Sinologist who worked alongside Marshall trying to avert Chinese civil war and fended off McCarthyism, dies at 95


Biggerstaff

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Knight Biggerstaff, a Cornell University professor emeritus of history who assisted U.S. Gen. George C. Marshall's effort in 1946 to construct a peace plan to avert a Chinese civil war, died of bronchial pneumonia May 13 in Ithaca. He was 95.

Because he was a China expert at the height of the Cold War, an acquaintance of Sinologist Owen Lattimore and because of his affiliation with the Institute of Pacific Relations, Biggerstaff was falsely branded as a Communist sympathizer in the 1950s. For about two years, Biggerstaff waged a battle -- ultimately successful -- against the federal government to preserve his reputation.

As a noted scholar of contemporary China, he served as a China specialist in the U.S. Department of State during World War II. In 1945, Biggerstaff became the Chinese language secretary at the American Embassy in Chongqing, working under United States envoy Gen. Patrick Hurley. Because of Biggerstaff's ßuency in Mandarin Chinese, he became an interpreter during peace negotiations.

In the hot Chongqing summer of 1945, as the Allies sat on the verge of victory over Japan, a truce between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Kuomintang government and Mao Tse-tung's Communists began to unravel. Ambassador Hurley invited Mao and communist leader Chou En-lai, Chiang, Biggerstaff and four others to the ambassador's residence for lunch to resume negotiations, according to Biggerstaff's unpublished memoir.

Little progress was made between Chou, who was dressed in peasant drab, and Chiang, a more cosmopolitan dresser. However days later, Biggerstaff recalled, Chou had been fitted with a "very snappy Shanghai suit." Hurley, meanwhile, stumbled over negotiations between the Nationalists and the Communists and often disagreed on policy with U.S. Foreign Service officers. The U.S. negotiators sought out Biggerstaff to set the ambassador on a preferred course of bargaining. Biggerstaff later recalled, "Whenever they had problems with Hurley, they would say, 'Knight, it doesn't matter if you get fired, you want to go back to Cornell anyway. Now go in there and argue with him."

Eight years earlier, the Japanese had invaded China during what is now known as the Nanking Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking. From that time to the end of World War II, the countries were sworn enemies. On the night of the Allies' victory over Japan in August 1945, Biggerstaff was at a party where Mao and Chiang -- "each teetotalers and each hating the other one's guts," he later recalled -- posed for a snapshot together toasting Japan's defeat.

In November 1945, Hurley resigned his post and President Harry S. Truman replaced him with Marshall. By the time Marshall arrived, the Nationalists and the Communists had seemingly begun to warm to the idea of a coalition government. Biggerstaff prepared the original coalition peace plan for Marshall. It was that blueprint that led to a subsequent plan that the Nationalists and the Communists agreed to in early 1946.

The plans did not matter. Neither side abided by them and subsequently civil war broke out that would last until the Communists came to power in mainland China in 1949.

After the agreement's collapse, Biggerstaff resigned from the State Department -- against Marshall's wishes for him to stay on -- and returned to teaching Chinese history at Cornell.

As an academic, Biggerstaff had cursory acquaintance with the noted Harvard Chinese scholar Owen Lattimore, who would later be hounded as a Communist sympathizer by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Lattimore's son was a Cornell student, and Biggerstaff would invite the father to his home for tea when he visited Ithaca.

When Biggerstaff applied for civilian consultant credentials with the U.S. Army, his acquaintance with Lattimore, as well as his past association with the Institute of Pacific Relations, raised questions about his own loyalties. "My first reaction, knowing that the charges concerning me … were completely untrue, was to ignore the whole thing …," Biggerstaff wrote in a letter in 1954. "But on second thought … I realized that by my taking no action would be accepted as a confession of some kind of guilt by the [Eastern Industrial Personnel Security] Board and that I probably would never be able to serve my country again." The board was a McCarthy-era organization established to ferret out alleged Communists. In his bid to quash the charges, Biggerstaff was represented by Leon Lipson, a young Wall Street attorney, who had successfully defended other victims of McCarthyism and who filed a 32-page avadavit denying to the charges. (Lipson, who died in 1996, eventually joined the Yale Law School faculty and became the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence.)

During an appeal before the Security Board, Biggerstaff was asked pointedly if he thought the United States lost China to the Communists. He replied, "No, I feel very strongly the United States did not lose China to the Communists. As a matter of fact, this is a very complicated problem, and I feel that the statement that China was lost to the Communists by the United States is a bad overstatement. Just as the statement that China was won for Communism by Russia is a bad overstatement."

Biggerstaff was eventually cleared of the charges.

Born Eugene Knight Biggerstaff on Feb. 28, 1906, in Berkeley, Calif., he graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of California - Berkeley in 1927. He received his master's degree (1928) and doctoral degree (1934) from Harvard University. In 1928, he became the first Harvard-Yenching Fellow to study at Yenching University in Peking. He was a Fulbright Scholar, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. In 1957, Biggerstaff was a primary contributing editor to Rand McNally's first edition of the Atlas of World History . His books Earliest Modern Government Schools in China , Some Early Chinese Steps Toward Modernization and An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Chinese Reference Works (authored with the late Teng Ssu-ying) are still widely used by the academic community.

At Cornell he chaired the Department of Asian Studies from 1946 to 1956, helping to create the university's China (now East Asia) and Southeast Asia programs. He chaired the history department from 1956 to 1963. Biggerstaff helped to launch a quarterly journal, now The Journal of Asian Studies.

He is survived by his wife, the former Nancy Echols, of Ithaca; his sister, Helen Way, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; his brother, William, of Portola, Calif.; two step-daughters; and three step-grandchildren. Biggerstaff's first wife, Camilla, died in 1982.

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