John W. Lewis, 86, China expert and Vietnam War critic

NEW YORK — John W. Lewis, a political scientist whose unconventional peace overtures — engaging in Ping-Pong diplomacy with China and providing antibiotics to North Korea — helped lift the Bamboo Curtain, died Sept. 4 in Stanford, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was urothelial cancer, his daughter Amy Tich said.

Mr. Lewis served as an adviser to the Defense Department and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and had made scores of visits to China since 1972 and to North Korea since the mid-1980s.


In 2002, he was allowed to tour a North Korean plant where uranium was being enriched, ostensibly to fuel power plants. He also brought Stanford researchers to Korea to help contain a strain of drug-resistant tuberculosis there.

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Remembered as a preeminent scholar of contemporary China, an inspiring teacher, and an unofficial diplomatic conduit, Mr. Lewis achieved national recognition in 1967 by becoming what he described in an oral history as “the first major China specialist who came out against the Vietnam War.”

In their book “The United States in Vietnam,” he and George McTurnan Kahin, who were both professors at Cornell University, argued that Washington’s policy since the early 1950s had failed because it “did not differentiate between Chinese power (then assumed to be a projection of Soviet power) and the national communist movements in Southeast Asia.”

Some critics said the authors underplayed Hanoi’s early military role in the indigenous communist movement in South Vietnam and discounted the “domino theory,” which predicted that a communist victory there would inevitably lead to the toppling of anticommunist governments in neighboring countries.

But the authors’ overall conclusion proved to be prescient: that Washington would eventually have to accept “an outcome in Vietnam that is reasonably representative of the balance of political forces that actually exists there.”


Mr. Lewis was a vice chairman of the National Committee on US-China Relations, which helped arrange the table tennis matches between Chinese and US teams in the early 1970s that thawed relations sufficiently for President Richard M. Nixon to visit China in 1972.

By contrast, Mr. Lewis believed that the United States had lost opportunities to ease tensions with North Korea — first when the administration of George W. Bush abandoned an agreement, reached in 1994 under his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to recognize North Korea, and then when Bush repudiated a communiqué, signed by Clinton and Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, declaring that Washington had “no hostile intent” toward Pyongyang.

“So they went nuclear,” Mr. Lewis said of North Korea in the 2015 oral history interview. “It is terrible. It is getting worse and worse by the day.”