Agents of Subversion: A Q&A with Author John Delury

Cover of John Delury, Agents of Subversion

On March 12, 1973, John T. “Jack” Downey walked across the Lo Wu Bridge from mainland China into Hong Kong—a crossing more than two decades in the making. In November 1952, Downey had been a young CIA agent tasked with a covert mission near the border between China and Korea. Chinese forces, however, had prior knowledge of the planned infiltration, and shot down the plane carrying Downey and his CIA colleague Dick Fecteau. Downey and Fecteau were taken into custody by the Chinese government, their imprisonment soon becoming a long-running point of negotiation in U.S.-China relations. Not until the thaw occasioned by Richard Nixon’s visit to the PRC would the two men receive their freedom.

Jack Downey returned to the United States, attended Harvard Law School, and settled down in Connecticut with his wife and family. When Downey died in 2014, a long obituary appeared in the New York Times—which is how historian John Delury (Yonsei University) first learned of his story. Delury quickly realized that Downey’s secret mission, capture, and years in Chinese custody shed light on a much more expansive history, involving domestic politics in both the United States and China as well as diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Delury intertwines these narratives in his new Cornell University Press book, Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China. In Agents of Subversion, Delury blends the intellectual history of the early Cold War years, stories of intelligence operations, and the arc of U.S.-China foreign policy from the 1940s to 1970s. Throughout it all, Jack Downey sat in a Beijing jail cell—one man whose fate was subject to forces far beyond his reach.

After reading an advance copy of Agents of Subversion, I interviewed John Delury via email about his work.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): I’d like to start with the evolution of your scholarly work. You trained as a historian of the early Qing and wrote your dissertation on the political thinker Gu Yanwu, who died in 1682. The action in Agents of Subversion, however, covers the 1940s through early 1970s. How and why did you make the leap from the 17th century to the 20th?

John Delury (JD): First of all, thank you so much, Maura, for doing this. I’m a huge #AsiaNow fan! And thank you for bringing up my old pal Gu Yanwu. In fact, by the time I entered graduate school right at the end of the 20th century, I already thought of 17th century China and China today as existing on a continuum. No doubt this was the influence of my undergraduate teacher and doctoral advisor Jonathan Spence, whose class on modern China, 1600 to the present, framed my basic conception of Chinese historical time, and whose writings ranging across that period inspired me to one day do the same. In other words, I’ve always thought of it more as a hop, skip, and a jump, as opposed to a leap, from early Qing to early PRC.

Also, in between the dissertation and this book, I co-authored an intellectual and political history of 19th and 20th century China (Wealth and Power, with Orville Schell), and in the course of that project I found myself drawn to certain decades—including the 1860s (a future book one day, I hope!) and the 1950s, which is the anchor point of Agents of Subversion. I wouldn’t push the comparison too far, but perhaps there is a similarity in being a time felt by those in it as one of shifting world order. For thinkers during the transition from Ming to Qing dynasties like Gu Yanwu, it felt like one epoch giving way to another. Similarly the post-WWII years had that feeling of a hingepoint in history. As someone interested in the history of political thought, I’m naturally drawn to those sorts of moments, which tend to nurture a rich debate over the fundamentals of how the polity is ordered.

MEC: The political thinkers of the 1940s and ‘50s, of course, grappled with the lessons of World War II and struggled to understand the Cold War world that was emerging around them. You profile two groups, the realists and the China Hands. What were some of the arguments that these thinkers put forth, and how did they gain traction within the foreign-policy establishment of the early Cold War?

JD: You know that feeling when you hit send on your manuscript submission to your editor thinking, “No way they will let me keep that part in”? That was my trepidation sending in the chapter on “the realists,” and I was ready to do battle to defend keeping them in the book. To my delight, my editor seemed to love it as much as I did.

So yes, there’s a healthy dose of the history of early Cold War American political thought in this book, which might surprise readers. I drill down on a quartet of exceptional thinkers: Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan. They published seminal works in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, trying to instill some humility in their readers, to get Americans to recognize the perils of their newfound “superpower” status. They also, quite presciently, alerted readers to the danger of being afraid of the wrong thing—specifically, they saw the fear of Communist subversion [think Joe McCarthy] as a more dangerous threat than the actual force of Communism (although none of them were pollyannish about Stalin, to say the least). I didn’t choose them for this reason per se, but I couldn’t help thinking that the realists’ message had something to say to our own moment, as well.

Interwoven with the realists, my book takes a close look at the China Hands, including prominent figures like the post-war “founder” of modern Chinese studies in the U.S., Harvard’s John King Fairbank, and the first high-profile target of Senator McCarthy’s witchhunt, Owen Lattimore at Johns Hopkins. Drawing on deep knowledge of and experience in China and bordering lands, Fairbank and Lattimore staked out positions on U.S. “Far Eastern” policy that echo and reinforce the more general arguments being made by the realists. My cast of China Hands includes lesser-known figures as well, some of whom are on the opposite side of the ideological and policy debate, who are equally fascinating—experts like the Yale political scientist David Nelson Rowe, for example.

I don’t want to include any spoilers here, Maura, but let’s just say that a treat for the reader who reads to the end is how these realists and China Hands, many of whom were ostracized from mainstream foreign policy discourse, make a dramatic return in the context of the national debate over the Vietnam War, setting the stage for the breakthrough in U.S.-China relations in 1971. I’ll leave it at that. 

MEC: One of the key terms in Agents of Subversion is “Third Force,” which seems to have been an idea even more than it was any sort of coherent or unified entity. What was the Third Force, in the context of the early PRC and the China-U.S.-Taiwan triangle?

JD: A simple definition of the Third Force might be anyone who hated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party as much as they did Mao Zedong and the Communists. And you are right, it never quite came together as an organized entity, although there was a compelling idea at its core.

When I first heard the term in a CIA context it sounded like a delusional fantasy, a projection worthy of The Quiet American (which Graham Greene wrote after hearing about Third Force on a reporting trip to Vietnam). But the Third Force was a powerful idea on a global scale in the post-war years, and its roots in Chinese thought can be traced back to the public intellectual Liang Qichao, who tried to carve out a moderate, centrist path through the divisive early years of the Republic of China. Liang’s protégé Carsun Chang carried the torch for the liberal cause into the even more tumultuous and violent years of the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek and his followers on Taiwan. Many Third Force intellectuals—as well as anti-Chiang Nationalist soldiers and generals—ended up in Hong Kong, where they tried to persuade American contacts that the Third Force represented a more viable alternative to Mao than did Chiang. Between the disillusionment with Chiang in Washington, DC and the impetus of the Korean War to support anyone who opposed Mao, the Third Force possibility gained traction. Their weakness had always been, especially as compared with both the Nationalist and Communist Party, that the Third Force was unarmed, and the CIA looked for ways to fix that problem for them.

MEC: Many of the American intelligence operations you discuss led to terrible outcomes—the capture and deaths of countless Third Force operatives, the decades-long imprisonment of Jack Downey and Dick Fecteau—and it doesn’t appear that Chinese intelligence agents fared much better. It seems like both governments took aggressive action based on the belief that the opposition was on the brink of carrying out massive and successful intelligence operations, when the reality was that everyone was floundering around. Was the CIA ever actually effective? Or did it just have good PR, capitalizing on the popular image of spies as slick James Bond characters?

JD: Well, the answer depends on how you define “effective.” For the first few years, the CIA struggled to find its place in the emerging Cold War “national security” apparatus of which it was a part. When the Korea War erupted, U.S. intelligence as a whole did not perform well—failing to anticipate Kim Il Sung’s invasion in June 1950 and Mao’s willingness to send massive reinforcements that fall. But you can’t blame it all on the CIA; military intelligence made egregious mistakes and the political analysis in State Department circles suffered from a lack of understanding of the countries and leaders involved. McCarthyism magnified the problem by sidelining experts who were deemed insufficiently loyal. Overall, I think the track record of intelligence on China was not good throughout the period covered by the book—there is probably a cautionary moral there as the U.S. and China drift back into a relationship with thinner ties and increased hostility. The moral might be something like: “Do not underestimate the ability to misread one another!” As far as the Korean War-era covert operations are concerned, it’s hard to argue those achieved any larger goals, and the human, individual cost was great.

All that said, I think you can make the case for CIA success as far as intelligence analysis and even clandestine operations, just maybe not vis-à-vis China. I came out of the research impressed by Sherman Kent, for example, who left his job teaching 19th century French political history at Yale to run the analytical directorate at the CIA for over a decade. And during the Eisenhower-Dulles years, the CIA scored some remarkable achievements in subverting governments deemed a threat to U.S. interests or values or propping up “friendly” ones. But again, a lot depends on how you define “effective.” The Agency was proud of its role in tipping elections in Italy and France and toppling governments in Iran and Guatemala, but were those not Pyrrhic victories?

MEC: You write that this book explores “the perilous linkage between subversion abroad and repression at home.” What’s the relationship between the two that you found in the past, and how do you see it playing out in the present? What lessons can current-day foreign policy actors or domestic policymakers find in Agents of Subversion?

JD: One of the unnerving similarities between the United States and China in the early 1950s is how strong the forces of reaction and repression grow in both places. Mao launches his first nationwide mass campaigns to root out and “suppress counter-revolutionaries” at the same time that McCarthy abuses his senatorial powers and manipulates public fears into an American equivalent. While McCarthy fanned flames of a Red scare, the U.S. government was taking active measures to subvert the People’s Republic of China, which do nothing to weaken Mao’s grip but did help justify his calls for a stronger “public security” state. You could even say the covert subversion against China was hidden only from the American public. Meanwhile the United States was being targeted by Soviet (not so much Chinese) espionage, but the repressive measures taken in response made the U.S. a less open society, not necessarily a more secure one. Subversion and repression generate a feedback loop—and the fact that Owen Lattimore was the first name leaked/made up by Joe McCarthy as the leading Soviet agent in America dramatizes the tragic absurdity of how China experts were sucked up into the engine of the national security state and its demands for loyalty. I should add that racism against Asians played into the equation as well, channeling fears of subversive forces into suspicion of Chinese-Americans based on their ethnic background.

I certainly hope folks concerned about subversion-repression dynamics will read the book. The fear of subversion has been rising toward China as its power and influence have grown, and some of these fears seem, like in the 1950s, more dangerous than their objects. At the same time, the apparatus of repression grows stronger and net of control tighter year by year in Xi Jinping’s China, a tragic and ominous trend. I’m sure policymakers don’t want to be told what to do by a historian. So I think more in terms of what we can all do as citizens and civic activists to be constructive (not subversive) while standing firmly on the side of openness (against repression). The more that individuals and groups in the U.S. and PRC can act together in solidarity on those principles, the better for us and the world. But I too struggle to identify the concrete ways to achieve that solidarity, and at the policy level, the challenge is really daunting going forward.

MEC: Finally, where have you focused your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

JD: The number one focus of my attention in life is our three kids, who are extremely talented at finding ways to attract attention. So there is a lot of focus going into being a Dad, which is a blessing. My “pandemic hobby” was learning to surf, and I’ve found few places in this world that cultivate paying attention better than being out on the water, waiting for a wave—let alone those blissful moments of actually riding a wave. As far as reading, writing, teaching, and being a historian, my attention is definitely moving back in time—to my roots, as you put it in this interview. Am I too old to convert my dissertation into a book? I hope not, because I find Ming-Qing China calling out to me. It is a lot of fun going back to texts I studied twenty years ago, and seeing them in a new light. So that’s where my scholarly attention is focused for the time being.

MEC: Thank you, John, and congratulations on seeing Agents of Subversion in print!