Pressure group activity on behalf of the Nationalist regime dates back to the Nationalist revolution (1925–1928), when Chiang Kai-shek was struggling to unite China with Soviet and Chinese communist assistance. Fearing intervention by the United States and other governments, a group of American missionaries and educators, led by individuals like A. L. Warnshuis, secretary of the International Missionary Council; J. Leighton Stuart, president of Yenching University (Beijing); and Roger S. Greene of the China Medical Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, worked to alert policymakers, members of Congress, and the public to the need for an accommodation with Chinese nationalism. Links between Chiang's government and American missionaries and reformers continued into the 1930s as Madame Chiang Kai-shek and other American-educated Chinese leaders sporadically attempted to gain American assistance in the modernization of China. Major lobbying activities did not begin, however, until after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.
Of the various groups that were organized to influence U.S. policy on behalf of China between 1937 and 1941 the most important was the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression, also known as the Price Committee. In 1938, appalled by the inaction of the U.S. government in the face of Japanese aggression in China, Frank and Harry Price, sons of the famous missionary P. Frank Price, called together a small group of men, including an American employed as a propagandist for the Chinese government. To campaign against the flow of American supplies to Japan, they created an organization that soon received financial support from the Chinese government. There is no evidence that the formation of the committee was inspired by Chinese authorities, but given the relations between the two, especially during the early stages, this possibility cannot be ignored. Furthermore, the Chinese government considered itself entitled to reports.
Despite the initial role of the Chinese, the Price Committee subsequently attempted to restrict contributors to Americans and to sever potentially embarrassing ties to Chinese officials. One member who was employed by the Chinese government and required to register as the agent of a foreign principal resigned from the committee. Roger Greene and Henry L. Stimson served respectively as chairman and honorary chairman; Harry Price, as executive secretary; and Walter Judd, a former medical missionary, proved to be its most effective speaker. Frederick McKee and Geraldine Fitch, wife of the well-known missionary George A. Fitch, were also important members of the organization.
The central program of the Price Committee called for an embargo on supplies of military value to Japan. Beginning in 1939, it worked closely with key figures in the U.S. government, especially with Stanley K. Hornbeck of the Department of State and with Stimson, who became secretary of war in 1940. Individual members, like Greene and McKee, were also active and influential in the most important of the pressure groups espousing collective security. The activities of these friends of China may have been responsible for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision in July 1939 to notify Japan of the intention of the United States to terminate the commercial treaty between the two nations, thus facilitating economic sanctions. With access to Roosevelt and other top administration officials, Greene and Price may have shaped a number of important government actions, such as credits to China for the purchase of trucks and the National Defense Act of 1940, which gave Roosevelt authority to control exports. Similarly, these lobbyists on behalf of China utilizing the most sophisticated public relations methods then available—mass mailings, press releases, speaker tours, petition drives—mobilized opinion leaders in the colleges, churches and civic organizations across the country behind administration efforts to help China. Indeed, they generated pressures designed to push Roosevelt faster than he wanted to move. In the autumn of 1941, their warning against a Far Eastern Munich made a modus vivendi with Japan extremely difficult.
After the United States entered World War II, many groups emerged to raise money for China, enlisting men and women who had participated in the Price Committee's efforts. Most of these groups were brought together under United China Relief, a kind of holding company that attempted to coordinate private aid to China. Typical of the new groups that were organized during the war was the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China (ABMAC), with which Greene was involved and in which Kohlberg played a major role. All of these organizations reminded the American people of the long suffering of their Chinese allies, filled the country with stories of Chinese resistance and heroism, and, to simplify their story, personified China in the figures of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. From the Weekly Reader to the newsreels and the public prints, these glamorous figures appeared as the spirit of Free China, with greatly exaggerated references to their dedication to democracy and to the Four Freedoms that Roosevelt had offered as symbols of the ideals for which Americans fought.
From 1937 on, as Americans who believed China to be worthy of American support exercised their right to attempt to influence the policies of their government, various Chinese officials worked toward the same end. The Chinese ambassador, Hu Shih, made strenuous efforts to obtain aid for his country; and he was supported by a host of other officials, most prominent among them Madame Chiang's brother, T. V. Soong. Madame Chiang was herself probably the most effective propagandist for her country: an attractive, American-educated Christian who made marvelous copy for the mass media. Lin Yu-tang, a well-known popularizer of Chinese culture, also spent the war years in the United States on a diplomatic passport, advertising the virtues of Chiang's regime to the American people. These and similar Chinese activities were sometimes irritating to U.S. officials who resented pressures to do more for China, but the Chinese were not known to be violating any laws and were engaged in practices whose legitimacy was sanctioned by custom in the United States.
Chinese officials and American friends of China naturally came together frequently to discuss China's needs and strategy for various campaigns. Again, there was nothing improper about this sort of cooperation. Most of the American participants were not acting as agents for the Chinese government and those who were did so openly and legally. They shared a concern for China, and their countries were allies in war, sharing an interest in the effort to defeat Japan. Problems developed only as questions arose as to whether Chinese and American interests remained congruous, and whether Chiang's regime represented the best interests of the Chinese people.
In 1943 the cohesiveness that Japanese aggression had produced among Americans interested in China began to wear away. The initial friction between the Chinese and U.S. governments had come about because of the limited Chinese share of lend-lease material, and American friends of China generally shared Chinese dissatisfaction. But in 1943 the focus was shifting to the Chinese war effort and to tensions between Chiang's regime and the Chinese Communists—tensions that threatened to erupt into civil war and already prevented Chinese forces from devoting their full attention to the Japanese invader. More and more criticism of Chiang was heard in U.S. government circles and leaked to the press. A few knowledgeable Americans began to argue in favor of sending aid to the Chinese communists, who seemed more willing to fight against Japan and more committed to democratic principles than were Chiang's Nationalists. Among China's American friends a growing number despaired of Chiang's repressive tendencies, brooded over corruption in his regime and, although apprehensive of the Chinese communists, wondered if the U.S. government might find an alternative to its total support of Chiang.
On a trip to China in 1943, Kohlberg was troubled by criticisms he heard of Chiang's regime—criticisms that did not appear to him to be justified. Increasingly he brooded about the source of these charges. Increasingly the Chinese government became fearful of the effects on American support if a corrupt and repressive image prevailed. Lin Yu-tang and Hu Shih publicly and privately contended that communist agents were responsible for the attacks on Chiang. Hu Shih maintained that American scholars affiliated with the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) depended on Chinese researchers who were in fact communists. Greene was troubled by the publication of articles that appeared to substantiate Hu Shih's argument. Kohlberg gradually became convinced of a communist conspiracy to deceive the American people, convinced that the IPR, the center of East Asian studies in the United States, was an instrument of this conspiracy.
As Chiang's regime and some of its staunchest American friends, such as Judd and Fitch, tried to preserve the idealized image of the early war years, Kohlberg attacked the IPR. A man of great energy and considerable wealth, Kohlberg conducted a one-man campaign to purge the IPR of alleged communist domination. His initial charges in 1944 were ignored, but he persisted tirelessly, gaining support from professional ex-communists and Red-baiters who helped him to formulate charges and to obtain broader publicity for his effort. In particular, George E. Sokolsky, a widely syndicated Hearst columnist with strong ties to the House Un-American Activities Committee, helped Kohlberg with contacts and provided a public platform for his accusations.