Agents of Subversion reconstructs the story of a botched mission into Manchuria, placing it in the context of a wider CIA campaign against China. In the winter of 1952, the CIA flew a covert mission into China to pick up an agent. One of the Americans on the mission, a recent Yale graduate named John T. Downey, ended up a prisoner in China for the next twenty years. The U.S. government kept the public in the dark about decades of covert activity directed against China while Downey languished in a Beijing prison and his mother lobbied desperately for his release. John Delury sheds new light on Mao’s campaigns to eliminate counterrevolutionaries and on his use of captive spies in diplomacy with the West.
In an interview conducted on January 25, 2023, John Delury and Jerome Cohen discuss Downey’s story and its implication for today with Gina Tam.
MARGOT LANDMAN: My name is Margot Landman, and I am deputy vice president for programs at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I am delighted to introduce our speakers for today’s interview.
John Delury is a professor of Chinese studies at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, Korea. And he is joining us from Seoul. His book, Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, was recently published by Cornell University Press.
Also with us is Jerome Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University School of Law, founder and faculty director emeritus of its U.S.-Asia Law Institute, and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a longtime friend and sometime board member of the National Committee, and we’re very glad that he’s with us from New York.
Moderating the interview is Gina Tam, associate professor of Chinese history and co-chair of women and gender studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. But she is not in Texas. She is in Hong Kong. John and Gina are both fellows in the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program. And with that, Gina, I will turn it over to you.
GINA TAM: Thank you, Margot, and thank you, John and Jerry. I’m so excited to have this conversation. As a historian, I love reading history books, but very rarely do I call history books page turners. But I think I can honestly say that about John, about your book. So, let’s start with you, John. If you could tell us a little bit about first why you decided to write this book, and also what you think are your key takeaways that you wish audiences would remember about your book?
JOHN DELURY: Well, thank you, Gina, for joining us, and Jerry, of course, and to the National Committee, it’s just so exciting. In terms of sort of the origin story of the book, there is this very definite moment where I know it all began, which was reading the obituary of this figure, John Downey, who Jerry can tell us more about, because he actually met him and knew him back in the day. I didn’t ever cross paths with him, but I read his obituary. It is one of these moments, you know, Gina, maybe you have it as a historian, it’s probably the most conventional way in which you start a project, like, oh, okay, this this is an incredible history here, and this feels more like a book than an obit. And so, I just started casting about from that.
I suppose I was already in that moment, you know, that’s 2014, I think I was looking for an academic and historical vessel to explore U.S.-China relations a lot more deeply in the way that you do when you write a book. And so, I think that was maybe the larger thing in my mind is that I did really want to, you know, move from the kind of policy adjacent commentary and that sort of stuff that I had done, for example, at Asia Society and through the National Committee, I wanted to really dig deeper. And then the story of Downey, the mission and his imprisonment just it just blew me away as this would be incredible to really dig deep. So that’s when it all started.
And I might be a little evasive with your second question, if that’s okay, because I don’t—and you can probably relate to this as a fellow historian—you know, there’s a lot of things going on in the book, hopefully we could talk about some of them, and I think there are really multiple messages. It wasn’t the kind of book where there was something I really needed to say about U.S.-China relations now and then found a historical vessel to do it. And so, my hope is that readers can actually derive different lessons, as it were, and just have a better historical grounding for thinking about the relationship because I try to cover from the end of WWII really all the way up through the normalization moment. So, there’s a lot going on in that period. So, I’m not sure there’s one really clear takeaway from the book, for better or worse.
TAM: Entirely fair. We’ll try and jump into at least some of the many takeaways from the book and ones that I got as well. But first, I want to switch over to Jerry. So, one of the things you say in your book, John, is that the more you wrote this book, the less it was actually about John Downey. It was about the structures and forces happening around him that affected him. If I remember correctly, one of the things you say is that the real main character in your book is U.S.-China relations. But Jerry, you knew John Downey, and you lived through this history that that John is telling. So, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you remember about the early period of the 1950s when John was captured and a little bit about him?
JEROME COHEN: Well, it was my life. You see, we were both in the class of 1951 at Yale. The Korean War was going badly. The Chinese had entered the war in the fall, and the CIA was being charged with doing more to stop the Chinese Communist Revolution. And they decided to expand their recruitment. They had many contacts with the Yale faculty, and as a result, Yale became a focal point of their recruiting.
I was an international relations major. I thought maybe I can get a job after graduation as an international analyst in Washington. One day on the bulletin board that advertised firms that were looking for graduating talent—IBM, Sheraton Hotels, GM—there was a sign that said Mr. John Jones of the CIA will be here to interview graduating seniors. I thought, well, maybe this is my chance.
I didn’t know they were taking many steps, many of them confidential, private, personal, to recruit people from my class, when about 30 of us saw the public announcement. We piled into a seminar room and this fellow gave a very vague introduction to what they wanted us for. And I thought, this is impossible, how do I know what I would do?
So, I sat in front of the group [and asked], can’t you at least give us a hypothetical? And this fellow got very indignant he said, well, I’ll give you a hypothetical, but mark you, it’s absolutely hypothetical. He said, we might want to train you and drop you into red China to organize resistance. And my jaw must have dropped. And I said, gosh, that sounds very dangerous. And he was really irate. He said during the last war, we had fewer casualties than the infantry, meaning the OSS. And I said in front of the group, well, are you talking on a relative or absolute basis? And he said, I don’t think you’re seriously interested. And I said, you’re right, and I walked out.
COHEN: Well, my colleagues stayed. Later, I heard that about a dozen of them said they were interested. Six were rejected as insufficiently rugged. Jack Downey was not insufficiently rugged. He was a 195-pound tackle on the varsity football team. He was captain of the Yale wrestling team, and he got recruited. I knew Jack slightly—he was very nice, but I didn’t know much about him. I didn’t know that he didn’t even attend our graduation. He went off immediately to work with the CIA. And of course, we didn’t know what happened to him. 18 months after graduation, that hypothetical proved to be true. He was shot down over China trying to pick up an anti-communist Chinese agent who had previously been dropped there.
Well, the Chinese convicted him. That was the announcement in 1954, November, as a CIA agent guilty of spying and subversion, and the U.S. put out a perfectly preposterous story. They claimed that he and his sidekick Fecteau, Richard Fecteau, were on a plane flying between Seoul and Tokyo as employees of the Department of the Army, and they got blown off their course into China, and those horrible red Chinese shot them down and imprisoned them and made these outrageous charges that they were from the CIA. And Mr. Dulles, who came in—it was at that time John Foster Dulles, secretary of state—was a total hypocrite. He was a leading Christian layman, but he didn’t mind putting out phony stories. And that was the story the U.S. maintained until 1973, I guess it was January 31st.
TAM: Wow. That is an incredible story. Thank you for telling us that. I can imagine you all listening to that speech. That’s incredible. I want to hear more about your experiences, but I’m going to switch back to John now.
One of the things that really struck me about your book that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how, on the one hand, one of the things that I think you talk about is that you have sort of ideology shaping the way that people are thinking about U.S.-China relations, both in China and in the United States. And one of the things you really focus on is how Cold War ideas and, in particular, anti-communism, was affecting the early batch of sinologists in the early 1950s.
And what really struck me about that narrative was that we often think of people as being pro-this or anti-that—there’s two camps, there’s this camp or there’s that camp. But I think a lot of the relationships that you describe here and the ideas that you describe don’t neatly fall into one camp or the other. Owen Lattimore and John Fairbank, they’re trying to think of China and how we engage with China, given the tumultuous events of the 1930s and 40s and 50s in unique ways. And I was wondering maybe you could talk a little bit about that and ask if—I know you didn’t purposefully want to say something about U.S.-China relations today—but I see a lot of echoes for today. And I was wondering if maybe you wanted to talk a little bit about that as well.
DELURY: Yeah, thanks, Gina. I see where you’re going, and I probably could have pulled that out more explicitly because that was fascinating to me. I mean, first of all, I had picked up—I was in graduate school, I was an undergrad at Yale, and then I was in graduate school there, focused on Chinese history in the early 2000s—and I remember that was kind of lore then about what McCarthyism did to the China field, but it was sort of one of those things you never got really detailed information, or I didn’t anyway. And I think I put that somewhere in my mind of like, gosh, I’d like to learn more about that one day. That seemed sort of important to the history of our field. And so this was, for me, a lot of fun.
But there were some pretty disturbing moments, frankly, of really getting in there and seeing, you know, the vindictiveness, and I would say even some of the cruelty in terms of how China scholars went after one another, after the toxicity had hit and the polarization that hit. And I’m not going to be that shy, I guess, about morals and lessons because I do see some of that now, I would expect readers to, and we should all, be sort of disturbed by it. But if you look before that toxicity where I mean—don’t forget Joe McCarthy, the first name he leaked to the press, that was, I mean, Jerry would probably remember the moment, was this somewhat obscure, unless you were a sinologist or in Far Eastern studies, person, Owen Lattimore, who was a professor at Johns Hopkins. That was the first name that McCarthy put out, like this is the top Soviet agent at work in the United States. And so, from that moment forward, that’s 1950, you have this intense polarization where you do get these camps. And they’re really—it gets ugly.
But as you say, Gina, prior to that, one thing is, if we look at Chiang Kai-shek—this was very interesting to me—looking at Lattimore and Fairbank, who we sort of categorize as, oh, they’re the first-generation panda huggers, you know, they’re the apologist for Mao, and they thought Mao is just a nationalist, and all this, but if you really go back in the moment, they were shifting in their views, you know, in a good way. They were hedging. Lattimore actually was one of the biggest pro-Chiang Kai-shek propagandists out there, if you read the pieces in time, and then his view shifted, and he saw, no, this is really not going to work. So, yeah, reconstituting that cast and seeing how they had more interaction, and then the U.S. domestic politics kicks in and then they’re really just divided against one another. And needless to say, the analysis [and] the public understanding of China suffers dramatically after that moment.
TAM: One of the things that is true about after John Downey was captured, Jerry, is that you were one of the people who was really focused on getting him released. He spent a couple of decades in prison in China and was finally released in the 1970s. Could you talk a little bit about the experience of trying to get his release? And perhaps even more interesting is how you interacted with the U.S. government in trying to make that happen. What did those interactions look like?
COHEN: Well, it goes back to my 15th college reunion in 1966. I hadn’t attended any reunions—I didn’t intend to go to this one. But I got a lot of pressure from classmates who were very close friends of Jack’s, and the result was they assigned me the task of getting him out of prison. 1966 was not exactly an ideal time to try that. The Cultural Revolution was just breaking out.
But three years later, things began to look better. China was through the worst stage of the Cultural Revolution. Canada was reaching out to China. They established diplomatic relations then [in] October 1970. And that meant for the first time there was an authoritative Chinese official on the North American continent. His name was Huang Hua, and he later became their ambassador to the UN and foreign minister. Well, I decided I would go up to Ottawa and see him as much as I could. And I went up a number of times, and we became friendly, and then I sprang on him in the spring of ‘71 the idea, based on my work on international law in China, that if I could get the United States to stop lying, to tell the truth about this case and admit Downey was a CIA agent, would it be possible to get him out? And Huang Hua liked the idea, and he said he would send it back to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
I then had to work the U.S. government. In November ‘68, right after Nixon’s election, a group of us at Harvard and MIT that I chaired sent a memorandum to Nixon about the need for a new China policy. And to follow up on that, I used to see Henry Kissinger occasionally when he was the national security advisor to Nixon, and I knew that he was concerned about getting Downey and Fecteau out. And I thought I could put some pressure on Henry. Even though we had given Nixon and Kissinger the idea for a secret trip that ultimately happened in July ‘71. Henry was very tight lipped about what they were doing in discussions with China, which were at a preliminary stage. So, I decided I’d better put the heat on informing the public.
I wasn’t the first one to sow doubts about the U.S. position, but it had never been much publicized. So, I had a wonderful opportunity. Senator Fulbright was holding hearings on China and invited me to testify, and I used that, as John points out the book, as a vehicle for telling the American people—it was a national TV broadcast—about the case. I’ll never forget the way Fulbright looked down at me from his seat. He took his glasses off and he said, do you mean to tell me our government has been lying about this case for 20 years? And I said, that’s right. Well, the New York Times didn’t pick that up, as John points out. And I felt, I’ve got to make this public.
So, I did an op-ed in the New York Times right after our 20th reunion, which Jack obviously didn’t attend. And I liked [what] Harrison Salisbury put on the as the title, “Will Jack make his 25th reunion five years hence?” And that attracted a considerable pressure. And Henry Kissinger didn’t know whether the Chinese had picked out my testimony calling on the U.S. to stop lying.
But certainly, they didn’t miss the op-ed, and I think that gave him more to coast on when he met with the Chinese a couple of days later, secretly. And ultimately, Nixon and Kissinger tried hard to get Jack out. But again, I wasn’t party to that. It was a tightly held secret. But I did publish another op-ed in December ‘71, trying to make sure that they didn’t let up.
But the real problem was, how could the United States president lose face by saying that our government had been lying? Americans, like Chinese, prize face. And in 1972, at the Democratic Convention, Senator McGovern, whom I liked and whom I advised on China policy, he made a statement to the South Carolina delegation saying that if it would get our prisoners of war out of jail in Vietnam, he would go and beg—beg—for their release. Well, what American wants to see a president go and beg another country? I knew Nixon and Kissinger were up for that, but the question was, how would they make this confession?
And Nixon and Kissinger devised a very clever way. On January 31st, ‘73, when they gave a detailed press conference about our recently announced withdrawal from Vietnam, there was a question at the end of the press conference about Vietnam, and this was about China. And the question was, does this mean the release of Downey? And Nixon, who was a good lawyer, could have said, that’s irrelevant, this is a Vietnam conference. Or he kind of fudged it, like Eisenhower did 20 years earlier. But no, he took the opportunity to say, that was a different case. That case involved the CIA.
And when I read that, and the New York Times picked it up this time, I figured, we’re on our way. And six weeks later, Jack was out, released March 12th, 1973, aided by the fact his mother was seriously ill, and Henry played on Zhou Enlai’s sympathy for helping to speed his departure.
TAM: Thank you for telling us that story. That is a terrific story. I’m being cognizant of the time here. And so, I’m thinking of how many questions I want to ask here. But I’m going to hop back to you, John.
In thinking about your book, I’m going to ask you to briefly answer a very big question. One of the benefits of your book, as opposed to many other books on U.S.- China relations, is that you also take into account very seriously—because you’re a China scholar or because you can read the sources—how the PRC is looking at this period of time, is looking at the Cold War and is looking at both the United States and the CIA and CIA activities, something that the PRC often brings up today. Could you tell us a little bit about what you think are the key moments of how the PRC is communicating—both to the public and to themselves—how they’re thinking about activities in terms of their own nation building?
DELURY: Well, that brings us, Gina, to one of the ironies of this project from a research perspective. You know, sometimes people ask, like, how did you get this Chinese material? And generally speaking, the answer is what you’d say in the intelligence world open-source, which is often in newspapers, basically.
TAM: Yes, yes.
DELURY: Yeah. And it goes to your question, again, the great irony here, as Jerry pointed out, the United States government is gaslighting its own people and the world denying that that this case happened. But there are plenty of other cases, and I tried to detail that in the book to give kind of the panorama of how many CIA-directed or -backed activities there were to subvert Mao’s government, you know, to subvert the communist regime. And it’s not just during the Korean War. I mean, it continues after the Korean War, for sure. Some of those are better known, like the Tibetan case. I could mostly rely on a lot of great secondary source literature that that’s detailed that. But there was quite a bit of it. And so, for the most part, this is a staple of CCP—I shouldn’t even call it propaganda—reporting, you know, domestically. And they are talking about it quite a bit, you know, to, to say, like, the American imperialists are really coming for us. They are literally dropping people by parachute among us.
And then, of course, that feeds into some of the worst tendencies that exist within Maoism and within that period in the 1950s, because what better justification do you need for the campaign to suppress and then eliminate counterrevolutionaries than your newspapers saying with basis in fact there are infiltrations happening all the time on our coasts. Not to mention Taiwan—I mean, there’s massive, that’s been kind of forgotten, you know, you need to know this history—Taiwan was a base for constant intelligence gathering and basically just crude, subversive activities, leaflet dropping. You know, all this stuff is going on at an intense pace. So, that’s being reported to the Chinese public and it’s, again, feeding—one of the main themes that I ended up developing in the book is the relationship between subversion and repression, which is happening in both countries. And it’s obviously very intensive in this period in the PRC.
And so, the CIA—and I don’t want to blame the CIA; the CIA is acting with the full authority of the U.S. government—so, the U.S. government, through the CIA, is making the case for Mao to tighten the grip. And sure, he wants to do that anyway, but we shouldn’t make it easier. And we do. And so yeah, that’s both a research answer as well as a—it wasn’t short—answer to your great question.
COHEN: I thought you did a wonderful job on citing Chinese sources, and especially about the night that led to Downey and Fecteau being shot down. You gave us what the Chinese were saying at the time as they prepared the ambush for them, whereas another very good book that we should mention, Jack’s memoirs that have been edited by political scientist Tom Christiansen of Columbia, that gave us a very good picture of what Jack and Sector were going through in preparing for that flight. And it was wonderful because I had the sense of both sides preparing for this historic incident.
DELURY: Well, that’s great. That was precisely the point of what I what I hoped I could do with access to the ability to read the Chinese sources. And so, I’m glad to hear that, Jerry.
COHEN: Yeah, it was a great job.
TAM: Agreed. And, and another reason why, when we think about the history of foreign relations in U.S.-China relations, why it’s so critical that we read Chinese sources. I think it’s critical to our understanding of the history. So, as sort of to wrap up this this program, what I’d like to ask the both of you in sort of separate ways is to reflect on the present.
And so, Jerry, in thinking about your life, you have seen decades of U.S.-China relations and the way that scholars have engaged U.S.-China relations evolve from the 1950s until now. I think we often say that today U.S.-China relations is in a really bad position. That that tensions are very high. They’re getting worse. We feel as though we’re slow-walking into conflict. And it seems as though that feels quite a lot like it was several decades ago. So, I guess I’m wondering from both of you, both as a historian and as somebody who has seen this evolution, just thinking about what U.S.-China relations looked like in the 1950s through 70s, does that give you some hope for the present that we can once again get to a point where at least we’re better communicating with each other? How does that history make you see the present day?
COHEN: Well, we have to make another best effort to establish better communication and relations with China. It’s much more difficult now than it was in the late 60s and early 70s when we started the last time. There are many steps that U.S. government could take right now to try to reset the relationship and stop the negative motion that’s underway.
And one of them that the Chinese could take is to release the remaining Americans who are still imprisoned in China. We don’t even know how many there are. The State Department refuses—and this is an echo of the past—to tell us how many we believe there are detained and how many are prevented from exiting China, even though they’re not actually in Chinese jail.
And I think we have to put pressure on the Chinese to do more to establish a friendlier atmosphere. That’s what Kissinger advised them with respect to the release of Downey, and I think it’s another time when we should try to make sure that human beings are very important, and the Chinese should not wrongfully detain them.
DELURY: Yeah, that’s a great point. I guess to add to that, Gina, it doesn’t make me hopeful. Swimming back into that period of time and spending time there, I almost feel like it’s—and a reason to read it is to sort of gird yourself for a variation on what we’re entering, the kind of period that we’re entering.
And I guess one point I would just underscore is the damage that this inveterate hostility toward China can do to the United States itself. We talked about what happened to the world of China scholarship, and there’s also a whole problem with not understanding where they’re coming from, what their objectives are, and that’s just becoming more and more important as their power grows. And when you embrace decoupling, and figure the answer is just this kind of implacable, hardline attitude, you find yourself flying blind on both sides and really not understanding one another.
So that’s why the incredible efforts of Jerry and people like Jerry, I would add Jack Downey’s mother, who emerged as one of a kind of unsung heroes of my book, Incredible, making a half dozen visits, when no private American was going to China, she went to see her son. And then, you know, that becomes a form of knowledge and understanding. So, I fully agree with Jerry, it requires steps on both sides. But us in this group and those listening as part of civil society, we have a huge burden to do everything we can within our spheres to maintain some degree of friendship and understanding between the two sides. It’s just more important now going forward.
TAM: Can’t agree more.
LANDMAN: I would say not burden, but responsibility and privilege. And it has certainly been a privilege to listen to the three of you today. Absolutely fascinating discussion, and I’m sorry that we have to bring it to a close. So, thank you, and thanks to the National Committee staff working behind the scenes to make this possible. We hope that those who have tuned in found the interview interesting and informative and that you will join us for future National Committee programing.
Thanks again and goodbye.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.