The Spy Who Went Into the Cold: On the Covert History of US-China Relations

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Thursday, February 16, 2023
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Law Building Room 1347

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Unraveling truth buried in murky Cold War intrigue

Please RSVP for lunch

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

Agents of Subversion reconstructs the remarkable story of a botched mission into Manchuria, showing how it fit in a wider CIA campaign against Communist China and highlighting the intensity—and futility—of clandestine operations to overthrow Mao.

In the winter of 1952, at the height of the Korean War, the CIA flew a covert mission into China to pick up an agent. Trained on a remote Pacific island, he belonged to an obscure anti-communist group known as the Third Force based out of Hong Kong. The exfiltration would fail, disastrously, and one of the Americans on the mission, a recent Yale graduate named John T. Downey, ended up a prisoner of Mao Zedong's government for the next twenty years.

Unraveling the truth behind decades of Cold War intrigue, historian John Delury documents the damage that this hidden foreign policy did to American political life. The US 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.
Mining little-known Chinese sources, Delury sheds new light on Mao's campaigns to eliminate counter-revolutionaries and his use of captive spies in diplomacy with the West. Agents of Subversion is an innovative work of transnational history, and it demonstrates both how the Chinese Communist regime used the fear of special agents to tighten its grip on society and why intellectuals in Cold War America presciently worried that subversion abroad could lead to repression at home.

John Delury
is Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) in Seoul, Korea. He is the author of Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China (Cornell University Press, 2022) and co-author with Orville Schell, of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2013). On faculty at Yonsei since 2010, he serves as Chair of International Studies at Yonsei’s Underwood International College (UIC) and founding Director of the Yonsei Center for Oceania Studies. His articles can be found in Asian Survey, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Cold War History, and Late Imperial China, and essays in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and Washington Post. John is a public intellectual fellow of the National Committee on US-China Relations, senior fellow of the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations, board member of the Pacific Century Institute, leadership council member of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and non-resident fellow at the Sejong Institute and CSIS. He is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, Association of Asian Studies, American Historical Association, and The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. John received his BA, MA, and PhD in history from Yale University.

Talk will be moderated by Alex Wang, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and a Faculty Co-Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA Law