Oklahoma’s forgotten soldier diplomat

In 1944, Major General Patrick J. Hurley was given what proved to be an impossible task: reconciling the Nationalist Chinese of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Zedung.

Hurley was one of the most influential Oklahomans of the first half of the twentieth century. Born to Irish immigrant parents in the Choctaw Nation, he became a prominent Tulsa attorney and businessman and an Army officer who served with distinction in World War I. In 1929, Hurley was named Secretary of War in the Hoover administration, thus becoming the first Oklahoman to hold a cabinet-level position.

Although a partisan Republican, during World War II Hurley became Franklin Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the Soviet Union and later the Far East. It was in this later capacity he arrived in China, initially to mediate the tense relationship between the autocratic Chiang and prickly U.S. General Joseph Stilwell.

Stilwell, however, had already reached the point of no return. Against Hurley’s advice, he confronted Chiang with an ultimatum that resulted in Stilwell’s replacement.

Although the Communists and Nationalists were nominal allies against the Japanese, their armies functioned more or less independently and sometimes at odds with each other. Hurley’s task was to set the foundation for a united China during the final stages of the war and going forward.

The U.S. position was a difficult one. Its alliance of necessity with the Soviet Union aside, the United States was not keen on promoting communism. Those familiar with the situation, though, generally found the Communists better organized and disciplined and less corrupt than the Nationalists. Stilwell’s staff, in fact, clandestinely equipped and assisted the Red Army, and  continued to do so even after Stilwell was recalled.

Throughout his time in China, and during two trips back to Washington, Hurley contended not only with the seemingly intractable differences between the Communists and the Nationalists, but intrigue within the U.S. State Department.

John Carter Vincent, the official in charge of Washington, fought long-term commitments to Chiang, preferring “flexibility which would permit cooperation with any leadership in China ….” State Department officials in China leaked confidential information to Mao, undermining Hurley’s attempts to negotiate a coalition government led by Chiang.

Vincent gained considerable influence following Roosevelt’s death, and in November 1945, Hurley called a press conference in Washington to announce his resignation. He told reporters that State Department personnel in China had collaborated with the Communists in an effort to oust Chiang and the Nationalists.

The furor thus created effectively ended, but he does not seem to have minded much. He moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he became involved in uranium mining, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate three times. He died in 1963 at the age of 80.

Hurley is now largely forgotten, but at least one important monument to him remains in Tulsa. In 1929, Hurley and a business partner built the first “apartment hotel” in the city at 1314 S. Main St. Restored in the 1990s, the Ambassador Hotel is today the city’s most exclusive boutique hotel.

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