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Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA's Covert War in China

Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA's Covert War in China

By John Delury

Cornell University Press, 2022, 408 pp.
Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW

Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW

By John T. Downey, Thomas J. Christensen, Jack Lee Downey

Columbia University Press, 2022, 344 pp.

In the fall of 1952, two young CIA officers boarded an unmarked C-47 plane in Korea, bound for enemy territory in Manchuria, in northern China. Their mission: to pick up a Chinese agent who had been in China for several months. The Americans planned to fly low over the ground, release a hook that would pluck the operative from the cold and treacherous terrain, and then return to the safety of Korea. The officers and their two pilots had no cover and no exit strategy if anything went wrong. They spoke only a few words of Chinese between them. As the plane approached the pickup spot, a full moon above, a blaze of gunfire slammed into the fuselage. The C-47 crashed, killing the pilots and stranding the officers, who were swiftly captured. A grainy photograph shows the dazed Americans, dressed in winter clothing, standing in a field as a Chinese soldier binds their hands. This failed covert mission was kept quiet for decades. The captured spies, John Downey and Richard Fecteau, spent two decades in grim Chinese jails, often in solitary confinement. Fecteau was released in 1971 and Downey in 1973. The breakthrough came thanks to the diplomacy of U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the dogged campaigning of Downey’s mother, Mary, who traveled to China on five occasions to visit her imprisoned son. The press, bamboozled by the U.S. government, had shown little interest in the case.

A pair of new books, Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, by John Delury, and Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW, by John Downey, Thomas Christensen, and Jack Downey, tell the story of this botched secret operation and the dark and fantastical period surrounding it. Although the tale of the two imprisoned CIA agents remained a minor historical footnote even after Washington admitted who they were, it says much about the United States’ approach to Communist China during the early stages of the Cold War. The memory of “losing China” to Mao Zedong was fresh in the minds of American leaders, stoking fears that Beijing was in step with the Soviet Union. Washington’s liberal-minded China hands despaired at the folly of trying to take down a government in control of more than 500 million people.

Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in South Korea, uses his flair for narrative and his eye for often surreal detail to describe the desperation in Washington in the wake of the Korean War and the fateful decision to use the fledgling CIA to try to undermine Mao’s China. He shows that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and members of his administration refused to believe that Mao’s regime was fully in control of China, resulting in dysfunctional policymaking by officials who knew little about the government that they resolutely opposed. Downey offers a more closely cropped portrait of the era, hewing to the narrative of his long captivity, but his account is nonetheless revealing about this early chapter of U.S.-Chinese relations. Downey’s brief memoir is published for the first time in Lost in the Cold War alongside commentary by Christensen and a moving afterword by Downey’s son, Jack.

The foundational story of American attitudes toward Communist China recounted in these two books has new relevance today, as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorate by the month. It shows what can happen when ideological intransigence trumps rational decision-making and when policymakers are guided by implacable opposition to an adversary they do not fully understand. Implicit in Delury’s tale is the United States’ enduring desire to forge a democracy in the most populous country on earth. But the two books show why the urge is impractical, even unwise, when applied to a regime that derives much of its strength from opposition to the United States.


Downey and Fecteau’s ill-fated flight to Manchuria was just one of many so-called Third Force operations carried out by the CIA during the Korean War. The idea of a Third Force, which had been circulating since the 1940s, was that the right leaders for China were neither radical Communists nor the authoritarian Nationalists but a centrist alternative. By backing a Third Force, the thinking went, Washington could encourage subversion behind enemy lines and destabilize its ideological foes. Allen Dulles, then the CIA’s deputy director for plans, explained the logic behind the Third Force to an advisory group at Princeton University in 1951: “You have got to have a few martyrs,” he said. “Some people have got to get killed. I don’t want to start a bloody battle, but I would like to see things started. I think we have to take a few risks.”

A formal U.S. strategy for stirring resistance inside China was based on a proposal by General Charles Willoughby, a hard-line anti-Communist, who had served as General Douglas MacArthur’s chief of intelligence from 1940 to 1951. But Willoughby’s understanding of China was limited. In 1950, he had chosen to ignore the obvious signs that China would intervene in the Korean War, even as 250,000 troops massed in Manchuria. Nonetheless, in 1951, U.S. President Harry Truman signed a document calling for subversion efforts in China.

The idea for a Third Force grew out of a desire to do “something” about China under Mao. China was closed. There was no way in or out except by clandestine means. Policy, then, was made isolated from the facts. Eisenhower liked the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who had decamped to Taiwan. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not, believing Chiang to be “a lost cause.” At one point, the debate in the administration veered toward engineering a coup against Chiang as a way to give the Nationalists a “fresh face.” Ultimately, Washington decided against unseating Chiang, instead launching a haphazardly managed program of sabotage against Communist rule.

Hong Kong, the refuge for about one million Chinese who had fled the Communists, became the center of activity for the Third Force. The CIA-backed Fight League for a Free and Democratic China operating there recruited volunteers from among the refugees to train as anti-Communist foot soldiers to be smuggled onto the mainland. They were sent for training in counterrevolution in Okinawa, Japan, and in Saipan, a U.S.-controlled island in the Western Pacific. To lead the effort, the Americans hired a disaffected general of Chiang’s Nationalist forces, Zhang Fakui. In a memorable conversation at Hong Kong’s Foreign Press Club, Zhang warned one of the American organizers, “Anyone who lands on the mainland will be captured.” The Communists, he said, would outwit the foreign forces at every turn. He also contended that much of the intelligence on what was going on inside China was fake. Zhang’s suspicions turned out to be correct, but he nonetheless accepted a leadership position in the American scheme.

Downey leaving China for Hong Kong after his release, March 1973
Downey leaving China for Hong Kong after his release, March 1973
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

On Saipan, the CIA trained recruits on ideological instruction, parachuting, communications, and explosives. The recruits were flown from Hong Kong to Saipan by Civil Air Transport, the CIA-owned airline founded by the American aviator Claire Chennault that later conducted operations during the Vietnam War as Air America. The airline’s director of operations, Joe Rosbert, was not optimistic. “I’m disgusted with the so-called thinkers in Washington who work out these utterly stupid plans,” he wrote in his diary. Rosbert, a right-wing China hand, wanted a far bigger, more aggressive, and better-funded effort.

All the while, agents were operating in China. Downey and Fecteau were sent to collect one such operative and transport him safely back to Korea. As Downey and Fecteau set out for Manchuria, the trap had been set, and their fates sealed. When the C-47 flew over the Yalu River to pick up the agent, units of China’s People’s Liberation Army were expecting them. Mao had organized an all-seeing surveillance state based on tight organization of village committees and party cells. The dragnet of public security was almost impossible to escape. Mao’s top-down system ensured a human spy in every corner of society, a forerunner of the high-tech, all-invasive security apparatus of today’s Chinese state. Long before Downey and Fecteau left South Korea, the Communists had captured a Third Force radio operator and turned him, promising leniency if he continued to radio the Americans in Japan and reassure them that all was normal. When the C-47 appeared, the Communists were ready and waiting.


Records from the CIA show that of 212 Third Force agents dropped into China during the Korean War period, 111 were captured and 101 killed. In other words, not a single one succeeded. As Delury notes, instead of fomenting a counterrevolution, the activities of the “martyrs” had the opposite effect. Mao justified enhanced surveillance and repression of the population on the grounds that Chiang and the American imperialists were ganging up on the new Communist state.

For two years, Washington believed that Downey and Fecteau had died in the crash. Surely, the CIA reasoned, if the Chinese had captured the Americans alive, they would have bragged about it for propaganda purposes. But the Chinese kept quiet. Then, on Thanksgiving Day in 1954, Mao announced that the men were alive and were CIA agents. The news of Downey and Fecteau’s imprisonment rekindled the debate in the Eisenhower administration about what to do about China, its very existence still gnawing at the Cold War warriors. The Pentagon wanted to establish a naval blockade along China’s coast, capture ships and crews, and hold them as bargaining chips for the two Americans.

After the initial indignation subsided, the U.S. mission in Geneva took charge of the negotiations to release the two men. The CIA had concocted a story that Downey and Fecteau were civilian employees of the Department of Defense. If word leaked that they were in fact spies, agency brass had been prepped by their public relations assistants “to go to the top man of a news organization in order to kill a story,” as Delury recounts. But the two prisoners were never a major focus of attention for reporters in Washington, who were blasé about China and Asia in the wake of the unsatisfactory end to the Korean War. It was Nixon, of all people, who told a press conference in contorted language that the Downey case “involves a CIA agent.” The New York Times ran the headline “Nixon Acknowledges American Jailed in China Is CIA Agent,” but the story was buried inside the paper.

Downey and Fecteau showed endurance almost beyond belief as they rotted in Mao’s jails. Downey’s son, Jack, recounts how his father was subjected to two years of merciless interrogation, long stints in leg irons, and solitary confinement in a five-by-eight-foot cell. When the judge announced a sentence of life imprisonment, his interpreter smirked and said, in English, “You could have been sentenced to death.”

Downey’s mother kept her son’s plight in front of Washington, publicizing his confinement after each of her trips to China. Downey’s family sent him food, books, newspapers, and the first issue of Sports Illustrated. Downey taught himself some Russian, and since his Communist guards were more than happy to allow him access to Russian literature, he read parts of a Russian edition of War and Peace.

Downey and Fecteau showed endurance almost beyond belief as they rotted in Mao’s jails.

In 1956, China made an offer that could have led to the prisoners’ release. Beijing’s proposal was to invite American journalists to China to report on the state of the country, and in exchange the American prisoners would be released. The Chinese government also demanded that Washington admit that Downey and Fecteau were indeed CIA agents. U.S. Secretary of State John Dulles, brother of Allen, refused to consider the plan: the United States would not make deals with the Communists, he said. Dulles’s obstinacy meant that Downey became the longest-serving American prisoner of war in history.

By 1958, the Saipan venture was closed. The CIA had set its sights on another Third Force project, in Tibet, almost a repeat of the doomed adventure in northern China. Inexperienced American trainers inserted Tibetan freedom fighters into western China, even though the trainers did not know Tibet and had never been there. Many hundreds of U.S.-trained Tibetans were killed or captured. None of the population was liberated.

During a meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971, before Nixon’s arrival in Beijing, Kissinger acknowledged that Fecteau and Downey had done things that any country would consider illegal, a hint at their real employer and enough of an admission for Zhou. Fecteau was released in December of that year. In March 1973, Downey walked to freedom across the bridge connecting southern China to Hong Kong. He returned to his beloved Connecticut, went to law school, and became a judge.

In his memoir, Downey put it bluntly: “I had been sent to fight for a country I didn’t know, to train guerrillas whose language I didn’t speak; I had been shot down on a flight I wasn’t supposed to be on and sentenced to life in prison for sticking a pole out of an airplane.” In the Oval Office, his freedom was noted as a win for the administration, nothing more. Kissinger said to Nixon, “We got a good play out of this Downey thing.”

Delury retells this remarkable episode in the history of U.S.-Chinese relations with fire and astonishment. You can almost hear him asking: How could this have been approved? Why was it so urgent to try to overturn the ruling Communist regime by such sketchy means? His mining of Communist Party sources in Shanghai and Hong Kong archives yields intimate details of conditions in Manchuria—such as the disciplined organization of society into tiny cells—that are key to understanding Mao’s first years in power. The bravery of Downey and Fecteau is a story within the story.


In 1969, while Downey and Fecteau remained behind bars and Washington still refused to recognize the government in Beijing, the Yale historian Jonathan Spence published To Change China. In this book, he detailed hundreds of years of well-meaning Western-led projects to change China, from the Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s attempts to spread Christianity in the late sixteenth century to the deployment of a phalanx of American generals at the end of World War II. Delury, who was a student of Spence’s at Yale, has followed in the footsteps of his distinguished mentor with a riveting and important case study, which comes to a similar conclusion.

Lost in the Cold War tells what happens to an American who bears the brunt of foolish policymaking. Delury’s broader historical narrative—focused on Washington’s overarching fixation on Communist China in the 1950s and, later, the diplomacy of Nixon and Kissinger—is implicit in Downey’s story. The suffering that he and Fecteau endured was the direct result of a failure to understand, or a blind unwillingness to acknowledge, that the Communists had fully captured China. That failure went right to the top: during his presidency, Eisenhower consistently underrated Mao and overrated Chiang.

In his conclusion, Delury gets it right, arguing that the misguided policies Americans hatched some 70 years ago provide a warning of what not to do in a moment of deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relations. He writes, “The temptation of reverting to Cold War patterns of covert subversion—playing out not only on land, sea, and air but also in unseen domains from outer space to cyberspace—should give us pause in light of the history of how that went the first time it was tried.” Washington should not forget that lesson.

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  • JANE PERLEZ served as a New York Times correspondent and Bureau Chief in Beijing from 2012 to 2019.
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