Congressman Wayne Aspinall survived his own ‘Red’ scare
President Obama’ s friendly visit to China a couple of months ago brought back memories of the era when being labeled a “Com-Symp” could be disastrous politically.
So, it happened that, once upon a time, when communist China was the biggest bogeyman among all the other bogeymen in the mid-1960s, opponents of Democratic Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall of Palisade thought they had caught him red-handed, so to speak.
That was the era when the issue of recognizing Red China was being heatedly disputed by both major political parties, when many Americans still remembered the 1950s Communist witch-hunt headed by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
In one Grand Junction interview when he was running for reelection — probably in 1962 — Aspinall was asked if he thought the United States should recognize Communist China.
The congressman said that both houses in Congress had been talking about the issue and he believed such recognition was inevitable. He said that there were a lot of others in the U. S. House and Senate who agreed with him. He indicated that, should the issue come before Congress, he would support it.
The statement in those anti-China-recognition days made Page One headlines in The Daily Sentinel.
“Why did you ask him that question?” agonized Aspinall aide Tommy Neal to me, indicating that he was afraid it could be political suicide. My reply was that recognition of China was a hot topic, and it seemed a legitimate thing to ask.
Neal later told me he had asked Aspinall why he had chosen that answer, and the congressman, noted for direct replies, said, “Because that’s the question she asked me.”
Republican opponents thought they had conservative Democrat Aspinall right where they wanted him, and much was made about his supposed support for communists during the next two election campaigns.
But, as all fairy tales must have a happy ending, either the voters didn’t read or hear the stories and ads that well, or they trusted Aspinall, or they just didn’t care. Or perhaps they quietly agreed that the time for Chinese recognition was past due.
The attempt to unseat Aspinall by claiming he was sympathetic to communist China had no effect on the outcome of his next two races. It eventually faded into obscurity, since it appeared to be a non-issue.
Thus, I was watching with absorbed interest in July and October 1971, when then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the People’s Republic of China to begin steps toward U. S. recognition of that country. In February 1972, Republican President Richard Nixon dramatically became the first sitting U. S. president to visit Communist China.
After the Nixon visit to China, I waited for the Democrats to come forth with the adult version of “Nyah, Nyah, Nyah” and maybe do a little crowing about Republican leaders catching up with the tenor of the times. Whatever Democrats in the old western Colorado Fourth Congressional District may have said in private, they made absolutely no public pronouncement about Republican leaders admitting that recognition for China was overdue.
When Aspinall eventually lost his congressional seat in the 1972 Democratic primary election, several years after the communist China brouhaha, he was defeated by Alan Merson, a liberal Democrat from Boulder. The China episode played no part in the race.
Ironically, the Fourth Congressional District had already been revised to include a portion of the Front Range, and Merson couldn’t compete with the heavy Republican population in that expanded area. He lost to Republican James Johnson of Fort Collins, who remained in Congress through 1980.
Today, historians credit Nixon with opening d&233;tente, which led to the 1979 formalization of U. S. relations with communist China during Democrat Jimmy Carter’s presidency. However, there appears to be a considerable way to go before full accord is reached between the two countries.
According to news reports from when Obama was in China, “Thirty years after the start of diplomatic relations between the two nations, the ties are growing — but remain mixed on virtually every front.”