Oriental Despotism is a quintessentially Cold War document. It integrated Chinese historical development into a story of global violence as illustrated by World War II, the Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. This paper uses drafts of Oriental Despotism to trace how Wittfogel’s imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, liminal status as a political refugee in the United States, break with communism, and involvement with McCarthyism shaped his understanding of universal global history and international crisis. Wittfogel’s anti-communism made him a prophet on the Right but testifying to Congress against fellow China specialists made him a pariah in the China field. The tie to McCarthyism limited Oriental Despotism’s audience and still casts a shadow over its re-evaluation.