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Title of Thesis:
Daniel Aaron Rubin, Masters of Arts, 2004
Thesis Directed By:
Professor Keith W. Olson
Department of History
In November 1954 Chinese officials produced two American prisoners who
they had accused and convicted of being Central Intelligence agents. Outraged
American officials denied the charges, labeling the men “civilians.” This thesis traces
the subsequent, twenty-year imprisonments of these two Americans - John Downey
and Richard Fecteau – and places the prisoner issue in the context of Sino-American
relations throughout the first two decades of the Cold War. Analyzing American and
Chinese policy between 1954 and 1973, this thesis argues that the imprisonments
need not have lasted as long as they did. Due to the uncompromising and
anticommunist actions of Secretary of State Dulles, the United States missed several
opportunities (created by the Chinese) to bring the men home. Despite the
ineffectiveness of Dulles’s policy, it was not until the 1970s, at the height of SinoAmerican détente, that American and Chinese officials reached a final agreement on
the two prisoners.
Daniel Aaron Rubin
Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Maryland, College Park, in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Advisory Committee:
Dr. Keith W. Olson, Chair
Dr. James Zheng Gao
Dr. Art Eckstein
© Copyright by
Daniel Aaron Rubin
Table of Contents
Chapter I:
“A Fantastic and Conflicted” Reality, 1954-1957………………….………….12
Chapter II:
Onto the Backburner, 1957-1968………………………………………………66
Chapter III:
Clearing the Slate, 1969-1973……………………………………………….…81
In August 1949, an American military plane flying from Alaska to Japan collected
an air sample that proved to be radioactive. The significance of the discovery was clear:
the Soviet Union had successfully exploded an atomic bomb. While not a total surprise
to American officials, the timing of the Soviet detonation caught many off guard; most in
Washington had believed Russian scientists were years away from such a development.
Taking a few days to organize his thoughts, President Harry S. Truman, on September 23
relayed the distressing news to the country. Possibly more so than it did government
officials, the news stunned and frightened the American public. The American people
likely understood that with the Soviets possessing an atomic bomb, a new phase of the
Cold War had begun, in which atomic superiority and relative security could no longer be
Making matters worse, in October Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese
Communists (CCP), declared victory in his nation’s civil war, bringing a populous
People’s Republic of China (PRC) onto the already precarious international stage. As
they had with the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb, Washington officials long
expected a Communist victory in China; but also like the former event, Mao’s rise to
power further verified the communist threat and further reinforced the need for an
immediate and decisive response.
In April 1950, the heightened tension led Truman to approve NSC-68, a National
Security memorandum suggesting a new approach to American Cold War strategy.
Though based roughly on the idea of containment – the general foreign policy that had
prevailed since the end of World War II – NSC-68 advocated a much more aggressive
and combative approach than the father of containment, George Kennan, had likely
intended.1 Arguing that the Soviets, driven primarily by communist ideology, were set
on world domination, NSC-68 concluded that only American military strength could
check the Russian juggernaut. Part of this military muscle, the memorandum stated,
would take the form of a new, “super” hydrogen bomb. Expressing no attempt either to
quell the burgeoning arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union or to
slow the rush toward Soviet-American conflict, NSC-68 portended a further polarized,
bellicose, and frightening future.
One did not have to wait long, moreover, for such a future to arrive. On June 25,
1950, North Korean communist forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel into South Korea,
sparking what would be a three-year, bloody, Cold War battle. Understanding the threat
that the North Koreans (possibly with Soviet or Chinese support) posed, Truman
immediately committed American troops to action. While the goal of the war had
originally been to restore the status quo, in September Truman made the crucial decision
to move beyond containment, sending American troops north of the thirty-eighth parallel
with the intention of restoring all of Korea under an anticommunist, pro-American
regime. The decision had disastrous results as Chinese forces, with the hesitant consent
of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, entered the war in October, increasing the war’s
fatalities and significance in the process.
China’s intervention in the Korean War, combined with the general policy of
NSC-68, provoked a reformulation of American policy toward all of Asia. From the end
George Kennan had indeed resigned over NSC-68. In his place, Secretary of State
Dean Acheson appointed Paul Nitze, a veteran hard-liner, to head the State Department’s
Policy Planning Staff and oversee the writing of NSC-68.
of World War II until the Communist victory in 1949 American officials, while certainly
showing partiality toward the Chinese Nationalists (GMD), had shied away from
preventing a Communist victory by any means necessary. Most officials understood the
inevitability of a Communist takeover and few in Washington liked or trusted GMD
President Jiang Jieshi and his corrupt Nationalist regime.
With the Communists
consolidating power in October – and no doubt with the Soviet atomic bomb in mind –
American inhibitions regarding a more aggressive policy suddenly disappeared.
Reinvigorated, Truman officials poured more money and resources into the weak,
illegitimate GMD government now entrenched on the island of Taiwan.
dramatically, Washington began organizing covert missions over mainland China, often
with the assistance of the GMD, designed to incite resistance or uprisings against the
Communist regime. While the extent of these missions was still small in 1949 and 1950,
by the end of Truman’s administration and the beginning of Eisenhower’s, they had
become a significant component of the American arsenal. The new, aggressive approach,
moreover, was not confined to China; Mao’s victory provoked American aid to
vulnerable nations throughout Asia. As Michael Schaller points out, American foreign
policy in Asia became “a knee-jerk reaction” as Washington poured money and resources
into any regime that found itself under threat of communist takeover.2
At home, the upsurge of Cold War turbulence divided the American people.
Frightened by the rapid successes of foreign communism, conservatives demanded
protection of American interests. The China Lobby, which had made its presence felt
since 1947, exploded to the scene in late 1949, following the CCP victory. The coalition,
Michael Schaller, United States and China in the Twentieth Century, Second Edition
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 144
set on restoring the GMD to mainland China, pressed Congress for aggressive action and
came down hard on anyone advocating a more moderate policy. Further, Cold War fears
frequently led conservatives to suspect government officials and American citizens of
disloyalty or treason. Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg made headlines for
their alleged involvement in the Soviet conspiracy, and a young congressman, Richard
Nixon, earned national celebrity for his role in weeding out such individuals. Like
Nixon, the nation’s fear of communism catapulted Joseph McCarthy, a virtually unknown
Republican senator, to national stardom. Maintaining the simple, but unfounded, claim
that American communists had contaminated the State Department and other
governmental agencies, McCarthy likely did more than any other American to bring the
conflict between communism and democracy onto American soil.
For two years,
McCarthyism dominated domestic politics, polarizing Washington and intensifying the
public’s fear of communism.
Despite the Truman administration’s own significant crusade against the
communist threat – at home and abroad – the prolonged stalemate in Korea and the
vitriolic accusations that conservative Republicans were flinging proved too much for the
Democrats to bear; the 1952 election ushered in Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower to the
White House and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The change in
power did little to ease the rising tensions. Even with the death of Stalin in 1953 and the
Senate’s censure of McCarthy in late 1954, the Cold War remained a strong force in both
international and domestic politics. Both Eisenhower’s campaign promise to “go to
Korea” and his administration’s agenda of K1C2 (Korea, corruption, communism)
demonstrated the continuing importance of American strength and the survival of
democratic institutions.
Further, while President Eisenhower himself may have
represented a moderate sect of the Republican Party, his appointment of the staunch
anticommunist John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State eliminated any thought that he
would usher in a passive approach to foreign policy that would avoid the moralistic,
uncompromising, and aggressive form of anticommunism supported by so many
contemporary American officials.
It was in the midst of this chaotic and tense environment that, on November 23,
1954, Washington officials received word from Beijing that the Chinese3 were holding
two Americans prisoner after having convicted them of working for the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA). Assumed by family and friends to have been dead for some
time, John Thomas Downey and Richard George Fecteau had been in China since
November 29, 1952, after their plane had gone down in the third year of the Korean War
and Chinese officials had captured the two men. On November 23, after two years in a
Chinese jail, a Chinese court had handed down life and twenty-year sentences to Downey
and Fecteau, respectively. American officials, led by Secretary of State Dulles, lashed
out against the charges immediately, refuting them as “reprehensible” and “without
foundation.”4 Dulles adamantly insisted that the men’s mission had been legitimate, their
imprisonments unjust. Conversely, Chinese officials pointed to concrete evidence to
For the remainder of the paper, the terms “Chinese” and “China” will be used
interchangeably with the terms “Chinese Communists” and “PRC,” respectively. The
terms “GMD” or “Chinese Nationalists” will be used when referring to Jiang Jieshi
Taiwanese government.
Saltzman to American Embassy in London, 25 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2554,
RG 59, North Korea Files, Box 2886; “United States Government Text Which the
Government of the United Kingdom Was Requested to Transmit to the Chinese
Communist Foreign Office, 26 November 1954,” RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954,
Box 2886.
prove their case and demanded professions of guilt and apology from Washington. For
almost twenty years, American and Chinese officials failed to find a middle ground in
regard to the prisoners, leaving Downey and Fecteau to remain in jail. The international
fiasco did not end until February 1973, at the height of Sino-American détente, when
President Richard Nixon finally linked the two men to the CIA and the Chinese
consequently released John Downey from prison.5
Knowing now, a half-century after the episode began, that Downey and Fecteau
were indeed CIA agents, it is important to examine whether such information was known
by top U.S. State Department officials in 1954, or even earlier. If the employment of the
two men were, in fact, known within the State Department the question remains why
officials did not publicly disclose this information for two decades. If United States
officials, specifically Secretary of State Dulles, knew the true identity of Downey and
Fecteau and opted not to concede that information to the Chinese, then it would appear
that American policy had sacrificed the freedom of two American citizens both to
promote an anticommunist Cold War agenda and to save face in light of an international
At least since 1973 the American public has known the true employment of
Downey and Fecteau, and that the executive branch purposefully orchestrated a cover-up.
Scholars who have discussed Downey and Fecteau, however, have not adequately dealt
with this aspect of the case. Generally, studies of the Downey and Fecteau affair divide
The Chinese released Richard Fecteau in December 1971.
into three categories. The first of these groups focuses on the two men in the context of
the development and deployment of covert operations in Asia during the Cold War. In
1983 William Leary published Perilous Missions, a superb work on Civil Air Transport
(CAT) and its coordination with the CIA.6 Thirteen years later John Prados published
Presidents’ Secret Wars and William Breuer published Shadow Warriors, two
comprehensive studies on U.S.-supported covert activity throughout the Cold War.7 All
three books do an excellent job of tracing the careers of Downey and Fecteau, providing
detailed accounts of their training and their missions. Though scholarly in research and
content, and crucial to understanding the complexities of American espionage during the
Cold War, the books do not tell a complete story of the two men. Focusing exclusively
on Downey and Fecteau’s flight, none of these works sufficiently discusses the role of the
United States government in denying to the American public the truth about Downey and
Fecteau’s employment.
A second category of books concerns the policies of the United States and China
during the Cold War, and the effect of those policies on the Downey-Fecteau affair.
Unlike the books mentioned in the first category, these books attempt to give some
insight into Washington’s deceitful and ineffective approach on the prisoner issue. Few
of these works, however, do so sufficiently. Two classic studies, Richard Deacon’s The
Chinese Secret Service8 and David Wise and Thomas Ross’s The Invisible Government9
William M. Leary, Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations
in Asia (University of Alabama Press, 1984).
John Prados, Presidents’ Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations From
World War II Through the Persian Gulf (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1996); William
B. Breuer, Shadow Warriors: The Covert War in Korea (New York: John Wiley & Sons,
Inc., 1996).
Richard Deacon, The Chinese Secret Service (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co.,
are representative of this weak historiography. For one thing, discussion of Downey and
Fecteau rarely takes up more than a page or two in the entire book. Such a limited
discussion makes comprehensive analysis almost impossible. For example, in discussing
Downey and Fecteau, Deacon jumps from Dulles’s public outrage in 1954 to Downey’s
release in 1973, leaving out the bulk of relevant and intriguing information.10
A more fundamental weakness in most of these books, moreover, is the writers’
decisions (avoidable or not) not to draw from governmental records in their research;
historians dealing with this topic have relied almost exclusively on newspaper articles
and secondary sources. The result of this research is that these books actually reveal very
little that was not already known to the public. For instance, in The Chinese Secret
Service Deacon probes into Dulles’s unwillingness to admit to the Chinese the true nature
of Downey and Fecteau’s employment, lest the United States lose face on the
international stage.11 Deacon’s discussion, while accurate and helpful in understanding
the ensuing government cover-up, is based entirely on newspaper articles not
governmental records. Likewise, in The Invisible Government, written in the midst of the
Downey-Fecteau affair, Wise and Ross “uncover” information that was readily available
to the public. Throughout the book, the authors discuss some of the case’s contradictions
– such as various allegations from government officials and American students that
Downey and Fecteau were indeed CIA agents. These revelations, as critical as they were
to debunking the American cover story, are based solely on secondary source material
Inc., 1974).
David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, The Invisible Government (New York: Random
House, 1964).
This succinct discussion can be found in Deacon, Chinese Secret Service, 370-372.
See ibid., 371.
and newspaper articles.12 Deacon, Wise, and Ross truly cannot be blamed for their
limited research, since they wrote their books while much of the useful governmental
material remained classified, and in the case of Wise and Ross before the Chinese had
even released Downey and Fecteau. Regardless, nearly all recent works on American
policy on the prisoners draw from these earlier sources, and thus these deficiencies need
to be remedied.
The third category of books consists of personal accounts by Americans who
found themselves in Chinese prison alongside Downey and Fecteau. Wallace Brown and
Steve Kiba, both members of an Air Force crew captured by the Chinese shortly after
Downey and Fecteau, and imprisoned for a time with the men, wrote books chronicling
their experiences.
Unfortunately, these books, clearly unique in their access to
undocumented information, fail to tell sufficiently the story of Downey and Fecteau.
Kiba’s The Flag,13 representative of this type of study, is a strident narrative, composed
almost entirely of mundane and often offensive dialogue (supposedly verbatim), and no
scholarly analysis. Further, having no possible knowledge of the parallel events ensuing
in Washington or Beijing, Kiba’s work lacks both context and significance, contributing
only to the reader’s understanding of the inhospitable conditions of a Chinese prison cell.
By far the best work to date on the Downey-Fecteau case – yet not wholly
satisfying - is Ted Gup’s The Book of Honor.14 Unlike other historians writing on this
topic, Gup attempts to combine both the military and political aspects of the Downey-
See Wise and Ross, Invisible Government, 108.
Steve E. Kiba, The Flag: My Story: Kidnapped in China (Bloomington, Indiana: 1st
Books Library, 2002).
Ted Gup, The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives (New
York: Anchor Books, 2001).
Fecteau case into a readable narrative. While Gup chronicles the life stories of several
CIA operatives, his detailed discussions of Downey and Fecteau comprise a major
portion of the book. Further, Gup investigates aspects of the case that most historians
have simply ignored, including the visits to the PRC by the prisoners’ families, high-level
meetings in Washington regarding the men, and post-release events related to the
imprisonments. In this respect, Gup tells a relatively comprehensive and insightful story,
following the Downey-Fecteau case from its origins in the early 1950s to its intriguing
finale in the early 1970s.
What ultimately makes Gup’s book unsatisfying is that he ignores the numerous,
previously classified government documents that shed so much light on the DowneyFecteau case. Writing in 2001, moreover, Gup potentially had access to this material. To
his credit, Gup does frequently refer to NSC and CIA memoranda (which surprisingly
and unfortunately, lack citation) but these documents do not address the crucial issue of
the State Department cover-up. For this reason, Gup’s discussion of government policy
as it applied to Downey and Fecteau, while more elucidating than most historians’
contributions to the topic, fails to tell the entire story.
The story of Downey and Fecteau is one that needs to be told in full. Not only
does this require historians to focus on both the military and political aspects of the case
and draw from relevant primary material, but also to tell the Downey-Fecteau story in the
context of the Cold War. The fluctuations in the Sino-American relationship between
1952 and 1973 go far in explaining the turbulence of the Downey-Fecteau affair. Thus,
the story of Downey and Fecteau is, to a large extent, a story of China and the United
States in the post-World War II era, a seemingly obvious aspect of the narrative that most
historians have not fully explored.
Chapter 1: A “Fantastic and Conflicted” Reality, 1954-1957
The November 23, 1954 Beijing radio broadcast picked up by Washington
officials announced that the Chinese were holding thirteen Americans accused and
convicted of “espionage.” The Chinese had sentenced the guilty Americans to prison
terms ranging from four years to life. United States Air Force Colonel John Knox Arnold
and his crew accounted for eleven of these men.
American officials identified the
remaining two men as twenty-four year old John T. Downey and twenty-seven year old
Richard G. Fecteau.15
Following the broadcast, Washington and Beijing officials set to work arguing
their cases to international and domestic audiences. Though discussing the same series of
events that involved the same individual Americans, the Chinese and American
governments quickly realized they were developing two very different versions of the
same story. Not only did Washington and Beijing fail to find common ground in regard
to the physical details of the prisoner cases, but also in the manner that the two nations
hoped to resolve the affair. In this latter regard, American government officials, knowing
that at least some of the imprisoned men were guilty, set out to resolve the ordeal by both
alienating the Chinese and intentionally burying the case in ambiguity and deceit. On the
other hand, the Chinese government – despite the existence of hard evidence to verify its
case – proved, for a time, to be more lenient. During the first few years of the prisoner
John Foster Dulles to American Consul in Geneva, 23 November 1954,
611.95A241/11-2354, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886; “13 Americans
Get Terms Up to Life as Spies in Peiping,” New York Times, 24 November 1954, 1.
affair Chinese officials were more willing to negotiate with Washington and they worked
toward managing the prisoners’ releases through acts of compromise.
Upon learning of the men’s imprisonments, Secretary of State John Foster
Dulles lashed out against the Chinese for two reasons; first because he considered the
imprisonments to be based on “trumped up charges,” and second because despite the fact
that the men had been Chinese prisoners for nearly two years, the Chinese broadcast of
November 23 was the “first word” on the issue heard by American officials.16 Surely,
China’s delay in relaying information to the United States regarding the imprisonments
aggravated American officials. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed the Chinese
had, in fact, deliberately timed the announcement to cripple America’s international
standing.17 It was the “wrongful” detentions themselves, however, which truly fueled
American animosity. Responding to all the convictions, the U.S. government issued an
official statement insisting that the Chinese were holding the Americans “without
foundation” and demanding their releases. Furthermore, due to the fallacious and meanspirited nature of the Chinese charges and the consequent imprisonments, Washington
This second complaint was only in regard to Downey and Fecteau. At a June meeting
in Geneva Chinese officials had admitted holding the Arnold crew in prison, but they had
not mentioned Downey and Fecteau at that time.
This refers to a statement of Eisenhower’s in which he questions whether the
announcement was delayed to provoke the United States into action that would “divide”
the U.S. from its allies of “free governments.” “The President’s News Conference of
December 2, 1954,” Public Papers of the President of the United States, Dwight D.
Eisenhower, 1954 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960), 1075
(hereinafter PPDDE, and year).
demanded both “compensation” and the “punishment of the Chinese Communist officials
responsible for the denial of the rights of” the prisoners.18
Throughout government circles, Americans widely accepted and reiterated such a
passionate and hostile response to China’s actions. Responding to the imprisonment of
Captain Elmer Llewellyn, a member of Arnold’s crew, Montana senator Mike Mansfield
chastised the Chinese for “their total disregard of all the elements of decency.” He urged
Dulles to “do everything in your power to see that this wrong…be righted.”19
Congressman Thomas Lane of Massachusetts, too, sent the Secretary a letter informing
Dulles of his frustration. Representing Lynn, Massachusetts, Fecteau’s hometown, Lane
passionately argued for an aggressive response to China’s actions. He saw “Force” as the
only reasonable solution to the problem, and thus if the “Chinese Reds” did not release
the thirteen Americans within “one week,” Lane suggested supporting Jiang Jieshi and
the GMD in “counter-offensive actions against the Chinese mainland.”20 It is ironic that
the solution Lane suggested for the release of the prisoners was strikingly similar to the
charges of which Downey and Fecteau were initially accused and convicted. Downey’s
congressman, Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, exhibited a passion and demand for action
comparable to Mansfield and Lane. Like his fellow legislators, Dodd expressed his
aggravation over “[t]his outrageous breach of international law and of the rules of human
decency.” While Dodd did not share Lane’s desire for uncompromising aggression, he
Dulles to American Consul in Geneva, 23 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2354, RG
59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886; Saltzman to American Embassy in London,
25 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2554, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box
Senator Mike Mansfield to Dulles, 23 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2354, RG 59,
North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Congressman Thomas Lane to Dulles, 24 November 1954, 611.95A251/11-2454, RG
59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2887.
did advocate moving “beyond the line of diplomatic protest”; this, however, would take
the form of trade embargoes or naval blockades, not attacks on mainland China. Dodd
did not want to “bring [the United States] into armed conflict” with the PRC. The
cautious congressman quickly qualified his weariness over aggression, however, by
insisting that the PRC would “only respect strength.”21
Responding to Congressmen Lane and Dodd, Assistant Secretary of State
Thruston Morton agreed with the men’s “indignation at the outrageous and illegal action
of the Chinese Communists.”
Further, he promised the congressmen that the U.S.
government would do everything possible to free the thirteen Americans. Morton even
questioned the effectiveness of Dodd’s proposal to tighten trade embargoes on China
(and presumably other non-militant tactics), contending that they would never, “even if
successful, provide the kind of immediate and compelling pressure needed to free the
detained Americans.”22 Clearly the State Department was considering a more immediate,
aggressive response to the prisoner issue.
The public calls for strong action echoing throughout Washington should have
been expected in light of the malevolent nature of Sino-American relations throughout
the 1950s.
The militant tone of the congressmen’s and Morton’s correspondence,
however, produced a slightly misleading portrayal of actual State Department policy.
Dulles did not want outright war with China. The plethora of calls for revenge and
punishment for the imprisonments existed only in public speeches and correspondence
Congressman Thomas Dodd to Eisenhower, 30 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-3054,
RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Thruston Morton to Lane, 1 December 1954, 611.95A241/12-154, RG 59, North Korea
Files 1950-1954, Box 2886; Morton to Dodd, 9 December 1954, 611.95A241/12-954,
RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
with concerned Americans, never in classified memoranda or private meetings. The
aggressive, jingoistic language of Washington’s response to the imprisonments should
thus be understood more as a political tactic to sooth a frustrated and anxious public than
as a direct call for military action.23 This did not mean that Dulles sought peace with
China, only that he was not an extremist. The Secretary of State was, nonetheless, an
uncompromising anticommunist, and his uncooperative response to the Chinese
broadcast – while not a call for war – assured that peaceful resolution was not in the near
future. This stubborn, politicized, and hostile approach to the prisoner issue remained a
key component of American policy until the 1970s.
While U.S. presidents and
secretaries of state never seriously considered going to war over the prisoners, they made
certain – through public attacks, snubs, and ineffective policy – that Sino-American
cooperation on the prisoner issue was not an option either.
Aside from this passionate – though hollow – rhetoric, State Department officials
quickly got to work formulating an actual course of action on the prisoner issue. The
result, in the months following China’s broadcast, were two distinct policies regarding
the two groups of American prisoners. American officials agreed that all thirteen men
had been on legitimate flights at the times of their capture and consequently, that the
Chinese had acted criminally when they imprisoned all the Americans. Aside from these
Nancy Bernkopf Tucker makes a similar point in regard to American policy toward
Taiwan in “John Foster Dulles and the Taiwan Roots of the ‘Two Chinas Policy’,” in
John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War, ed. Richard H. Immerman
(Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990), 240.
significant similarities, however, Washington officials approached the two cases in
different ways.
In the case of Colonel Arnold and crew, American officials insisted that the
eleven men belonged to the U.S. Air Force and that their mission had been a direct
component of the United Nations-led fight in the Korean War. As such, officials claimed
that the men were traditional prisoners of war and should be released as stipulated in the
Korean Armistice Agreement.
This approach promised not only the release of the
prisoners, but also the chance to cast the Chinese as uncooperative or even criminal.
Even if Washington’s strategy failed to secure the release of the men, such a policy
ensured that the American public would view Beijing, not Washington, as the source of
Supporting such a policy, Far East Air Force Headquarters reported that in the
early evening of January 12, 1953, Arnold and crew, all members of the 581st Air ReSupply and Communications Wing of the U.S. Air Force, departed Yakota Air Force
Base in Japan on “a routine leaflet-dropping mission over North Korea.”24 Designed to
disseminate “psychological warfare materials,” Arnold’s mission appeared to American
officials a “legitimate military operation” in wartime.25
Further, American officials
Memorandum on “Air Force Prisoners of War in Communist Hands,” prepared by
Millard Young for Charles A. Sullivan, 26 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2654, RG
59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Walter P. McConaughy to American Ambassador New Delhi, 31 December 1954,
611.95A241/12-2854, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886; Henry Cabot
Lodge to State Department, 20 December 1954, Foreign Relations of the United States
1952-1954, Vol. XIV, Part I (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985),
1041-42 (hereinafter FRUS, year, and volume).
pointed out that the crewmembers were in full Air Force uniform, and were carrying all
the necessary identification and documentation associating them with the UN mission.26
Near midnight American radar had spotted the crew’s B-29 being “attacked by
twelve enemy fighters.”27 Washington officials insisted the attack was not the result of
the American plane straying over the North Korean-Chinese border, citing “radar
evidence” that showed Arnold’s plane “12-15 miles south of the Yalu [River]” when the
PRC fighter planes had “intercepted” it.28 Another official report corroborated such facts,
placing the aircraft’s last location fifteen miles south of the Yalu River, near the North
Korean city of Sonchon.29 The obvious purpose of the American reports was to prove
that Arnold’s plane had not been flying over Chinese territory when Chinese forces shot
it down – the argument PRC officials were presently employing. If the American crew
had been over Chinese airspace (a region in which American soldiers were not supposed
to be fighting), using the Korean Armistice Agreement to secure the men’s releases
would have proved more difficult. Thus, with radar evidence and a firm defense intact,
Anthony Nutting, Britain’s representative to the United Nations and a close ally to the
United States throughout the prisoner affair, reinforced this fact to the United Nation’s
General Assembly. In his December 1954 speech Nutting rhetorically questioned why
eleven American fliers would be dressed in uniform if they were carrying out a covert
mission in China. “Text of Speech Delivered to United Nations by Anthony Nutting,” 8
December 1954, 611.95A241/12-854, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Memorandum on “Air Force Prisoners of War in Communist Hands,” prepared by
Young for Sullivan, 26 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2654, RG 59, North Korea Files
1950-1954, Box 2886.
“13 Americans Get Terms Up to Life as Spies in Peiping,” New York Times, 24
November 1954, 1, 6; Dulles to American Consul in Geneva, 23 November 1954,
611.95A241/11-2354, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886. While American
officials regularly used twelve to fifteen miles as the crew’s distance from the Yalu, flight
navigator Elmer Llewellyn said they had been forty miles south of the North Korea-PRC
border. Kiba, The Flag, 269.
Memorandum on “Air Force Prisoners of War in Communist Hands,” prepared by
Young for Sullivan, 26 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2654, RG 59, North Korea Files
1950-1954, Box 2886.
the American approach to the Arnold case appeared solid. The location of the plane
crash, the status of the men, and the purpose of the mission all seemed to support the
men’s innocence – a conclusion that American officials gladly and boldly maintained.
American officials never felt or acted as confidently in regard to Downey and
Consequently, American policy regarding these two prisoners was not as
straightforward. While American officials agreed that Downey and Fecteau were on a
legitimate flight at the time of their capture, this marked the only significant similarity
between American policies on the two groups of prisoners. Immediately distinguishing
them from Arnold’s crew, American officials insisted that Downey and Fecteau were
“civilian…employees [of] the Department of the Army” who had been on a routine
“flight [from] Korea to Japan”30 when they were “attacked.”31 Outside of this core
argument – and the unwavering support for Downey and Fecteau’s innocence – American
policy regarding the two men was immersed in confusion.
President Eisenhower
succinctly described this ambiguity at a press conference soon after the Chinese
broadcast, describing Downey and Fecteau’s status as “cloudy.”32
Two reasons lay behind this haziness. First, American officials found themselves
unable to prove convincingly their side of the Downey-Fecteau case due to the absence of
concrete evidence such as radar reports.
This lack of evidence proved especially
frustrating when American officials were forced to explain why Downey and Fecteau’s
plane had crashed in China, a location over which they should not have been flying.
Such a label first appeared in Dulles to American Consul in Geneva, 23 November
1954, 611.95A241/11-2354, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
“United States Government Text Which the Government of the United Kingdom Was
Requested to Transmit to the Chinese Communist Foreign Office, 26 November 1954,”
RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
“The President’s News Conference,” 2 December 1954, PPDDE, 1954, 1083.
Unable to point to radar reports to prove the “civilians’” location, American officials
played dumb, claiming it was “unknown” how the plane got into Chinese hands.33
Further, due to the absence of information, preliminary reports from Washington and Far
East Headquarters often contradicted each other in regard to the nature or the course of
Downey and Fecteau’s flight.34
Second, American officials quickly discovered the difficulty of applying the
Korean Armistice Agreement to Downey and Fecteau. Unlike Arnold’s crew, Downey
and Fecteau were allegedly civilians, not military men. Such a status did not make using
the Armistice Agreement to secure their releases wholly useless, but did make it less
appropriate. Without a firm defense intact, moreover, confused officials often placed
Downey and Fecteau in discussions of traditional prisoners of war who the Chinese were
legally obligated to return, but they also frequently refused to associate Downey and
Fecteau with the Korean Armistice Agreement or the UN-led offensive, relying on other
channels to secure the men’s returns.
The question of the usability of the Korean
Armistice Agreement plagued the Downey-Fecteau case for its first year, contributing to
Washington’s vague and ineffective policy on the two prisoners.
Helping set the stage for America’s ambiguous policy on Downey and Fecteau,
Ruth Boss of Eugene, Oregon, wrote to Senator Wayne Morse in a desperate plea for
more information on the two prisoners.
Confused by the November 23 Chinese
Dulles to American Consul in Geneva, 23 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2354, RG
59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
This contradiction can be seen clearly in “13 Americans Get Terms Up To Life as
Spies in Peiping,” “Leaflet-Dropping Mission,” New York Times, 24 November 1954, 6.
broadcast, Boss was mainly concerned with the fate of her brother, whom she felt was
somehow linked to the two “civilians” the Chinese were allegedly holding. Though Boss
herself learned very little from Washington, her inquiry helped expose not only the case’s
ambiguity but also the contradictory and deceitful nature of early American policy.
Boss’s brother, Robert Snoddy, was a CAT pilot whose C-47 had supposedly
“exploded in midair” in 1952. According to reports available to Boss, Snoddy and copilot Norman Schwartz had flown out of Seoul, South Korea on November 26, 1952
heading for Miko, Japan. Not only did the aircraft type, departure date35 and city, and
destination provide comparisons to Downey and Fecteau’s doomed mission, but
Snoddy’s last flight report listed “the names of J. Downey, civilian, and R. Fecteau,
civilian.”36 From this, Boss assumed that her brother had been flying the two men at the
time of the crash. Aside from that, however, Boss was completely in the dark.
Boss’s confusion, reasonably enough, stemmed from the fact that while CAT
officials had informed her, “all hands perished with [Snoddy’s] plane,” Chinese officials
broadcasted they had Downey and Fecteau in their possession. Moreover, in a United
Press article that Boss included with her letter to Morse, a CAT spokesman alleged that
the only people on board the missing C-47 were Snoddy and Schwartz. If Snoddy’s
flight report were accurate, and Downey and Fecteau had been aboard the plane, Downey
and Fecteau should have been dead, not in a Chinese prison. Conversely, if CAT’s
allegation were true then there existed no satisfying explanation for Downey and
It is not entirely clear why Boss’s letter refers to the date November 26 while the date
of Downey and Fecteau’s crash was November 29. It is possible that the C-47 was
stationed in Korea for several days before departing.
Ruth Boss to Wayne Morse, 25 November 1954, 611.95A241/12-354, RG 59, North
Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Fecteau’s names being on the pilots’ flight report. Understandably, in her letter to Morse,
Boss demanded to know who was lying.37
Aside from the discrepancy between CAT and the flight report, the UP article also
highlighted a contradiction between the statements coming from Washington and Far
East Command Headquarters in Japan. According to Washington officials and Snoddy’s
flight report, Downey and Fecteau were civilian employees of the Department of Army,
flying from Korea to Japan. However, soon after the doomed flight a spokesman from
Far East Command Headquarters, where Downey and Fecteau presumably would have
been stationed, stated there was “no record of the men in the current or retired civilian
employees file.”38 Not only were private citizens questioning the official American
position, but it appears that in the first few days following the Chinese broadcast not all
American officials had been sufficiently introduced to the government’s cover story.
While the truth regarding Snoddy and Schwartz would not be made public for fifty
years,39 Boss’s confusion offered a brief glimpse at the intricate government cover-up
that was already underway.
Ibid.; Dolph Janes, “UP News Release,” 25 November 1954, included in Ruth Boss to
Wayne Morse, 25 November 1954; 611.95A241/12-354, RG 59, North Korea Files 19501954, Box 2886.
It was not until 2002 that the U.S. Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced
that Snoddy and Schwartz were indeed flying Downey and Fecteau on the night of their
doomed mission. That same year, in an effort to put an end to the confusion surrounding
Snoddy and Schwartz’s role in the espionage mission, an American Army recovery team
cleared a fifty square meter area in the foothills of the Changbai Mountains, where
Downey and Fecteau’s plane had supposedly crashed. Unfortunately, the team, while
uncovering debris from a small aircraft, was unable to identify the wreckage and thus link
it to the infamous C-47. John Schauble, “Search for Spy Pilots Conjures Up Spooks of a
Cold War Past,” Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 2002, 15; Michael Dorgan, “Wreckage
in China May be CIA Plane Lost in Korean War; Army is Looking for Pilots’ Bodies,”
San Diego Union-Tribune, 30 July 2002, 7.
CAT (later known as Air America) had, in fact, been in business since 1946,
successfully carrying out paramilitary operations such as transporting military supplies,
soldiers, and dignitaries throughout China. It was not until spring 1949 – as the GMD
was nearing its inevitable defeat in the Chinese civil war– that U.S. officials first
recognized the benefit of using CAT as the airline of the CIA, and the start of the Korean
War in summer 1950 only amplified this potential. Pouring money into the financially
weak airline, the CIA, by the end of 1949, owned CAT.
With the Chinese civil war already a lost cause, American officials used the
Korean War as the true testing ground for the new acquisition. CAT fit well into
America’s new military strategy – beginning under President Truman and blossoming
with Eisenhower and Dulles – which placed a larger emphasis on covert operations. In
July 1950 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had recommended to the Secretary of Defense
that the CIA “be authorized to exploit guerilla potential on the Chinese Mainland to
accomplish the objective of reducing the Chinese Communist capabilities to reinforce
North Korean forces.” Shortly thereafter, the State Department authorized the CIA to
begin such activities.
This authorization, coming from the State Department, the
Department of Defense, and the JCS, was “affirmed and reiterated” “[f]rom time to
time…during the course of the Korean hostilities.”40 While this specific dialogue did not
explicitly mention CAT, the covert airline was now part of the American arsenal and
would be used most definitely in the pursuit of victory.
“Memorandum on JCS Requirements,” Attached to McConaughy to Robertson, 9
December 1954, 611.95A251/12-954, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2887.
In 1951, in line with these general orders, Snoddy and Schwartz, members of a
select group of CAT pilots known for flying the most dangerous of missions, volunteered
for a new CAT-CIA project known as TROPIC. Commencing in spring 1952, TROPIC
flights left Japan at night in unmarked C-47s and usually dropped cargo or people over
Jilin Province in northeastern China for the purpose of stirring up resistance or
establishing communication networks.41
In November 1952, however, Snoddy and
Schwartz were to embark on a much more dangerous, and far less perfected mission of an
in-flight pickup. Traditionally, if CAT pilots needed to retrieve a Chinese agent, the
American fliers would land their plane in China and proceed with the pickup. The
process was time consuming and agents increased their risk of capture. A new procedure,
however, allowed pilots to pick up agents without ever landing the plane. To execute the
new technique, the grounded agent would be harnessed to a strong wire, stretched tautly
between two poles. The airplane crew, flying at sixty miles per hour, would hook onto
the wire, hopefully lifting up the agent in the process.
While practice runs had shown
this type of retrieval to be feasible – though failure could mean decapitating the grounded
agent – the November flight was to be the first real test.42
Accompanying Snoddy and Schwartz on November 29 would be two CIA agents
– John Downey, who had often joined Snoddy and Schwartz on their previous flights
over China, and Richard Fecteau, a relatively inexperienced intelligence officer. Using
the new technique, the four men planned to pick up Li Chun-ying, a Chinese agent who,
since October, had been observing the action of a resistance team.43 The flight had,
Prados, Presidents’ Secret Wars, 73.
Breuer, Shadow Warriors, 217.
Leary, Perilous Missions, 139-40.
unfortunately, been doomed before the four Americans had even taken off. Chinese
forces had already captured the Chinese resistance team and the agents had consequently
disclosed the plans of the Downey-Fecteau mission. Three hours after the plane took off
from Seoul Snoddy and Schwartz were dead from Chinese gunfire and Downey and
Fecteau had been captured.44
Though few high-level American officials were aware of Ruth Boss’s specific
inquiry, they all were very sensitive to the fact that the contradictory (and fallacious)
statements currently circulating about Downey and Fecteau would make it difficult to
formulate a coherent policy on the men. Commenting on the grueling task ahead of him,
Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Walter Robertson noted that he could
not conceive of any policy “that would not raise more problems than it would solve.”
Concurring with Robertson’s dreary assessment, Dulles maintained that the only
acceptable course of action was to “play everything down.”45 Ideally, such a policy
would limit confusion, embarrassment, and conflict. This indeed was the crux of a
December 1954 State Department memorandum written by Walter McConaughy,
Director of the State Department Office of Chinese Affairs.46 Provoked by the question
Ibid., 138-40; Wendell L. Minnick, Spies and Provocateurs: A Worldwide
Encyclopedia of Persons Conducting Espionage and Covert Action, 1946-1991
(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992), 57.
Robertson-Dulles telephone conversation, 27 December 1954, 1:20 p.m., John Foster
Dulles Papers, Eisenhower Library 1951-1959, Telephone Conversation Series, Box 3,
Folder 3.
McConaughy sent the memorandum to Walter S. Robertson, Assistant Secretary of
State for Far Eastern Affairs. The memorandum was based on the discussions between
Mr. McConaughy, Mr. Wisner, and Mr. Godel. Memorandum on “Treatment of Cases of
of whether revealing a “fuller description” of Downey and Fecteau’s mission would assist
American officials in their quest toward an effective course of action, the memorandum
laid the foundation for a policy of evasion, ambiguity, and deceit that would remain intact
for the next fifteen years.
The memorandum forwarded several reasons as to why it would be “highly
questionable” for Washington officials to reveal more fully the nature of Downey and
Fecteau’s flight. First, it noted that the two men’s mission was “different” from that of
Colonel Arnold’s crew. The Chinese, who had given the Air Force men shorter prison
terms, had apparently determined some type of distinction between the crews, and the
Americans reinforced again and again that Arnold’s crewmembers were military men.
Due to the real difference between the two crews, and the fact that Washington officials
considered themselves in an “excellent position” on the Arnold case, the memo argued
that any further revelation regarding Downey and Fecteau would be detrimental on the
whole. If anyone were to discover that the U.S. government had not been completely
honest from start regarding Downey and Fecteau, Chinese, UN, and other foreign
officials would naturally doubt Washington’s sincerity in regard to the eleven Air Force
men whose imminent release appeared possible.47
Second, the memo intimated that initial “official” statements regarding Downey
and Fecteau had not been entirely accurate, a revelation of which Ruth Boss was
painfully aware. A “fuller revelation,” therefore, would create further contradictions,
“seriously weaken[ing] [America’s] stance.” Even worse, the memo noted that such a
Downey and Fecteau,” Walter P. McConaughy to Walter S. Robertson, 9 December
1954, 611.95A251/12-954, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2887.
revelation “might seem to put the Chinese Communists in a less unfavorable light.” Full
disclosure might actually allow PRC officials to “argue, with some plausibility” that
Downey and Fecteau’s prison sentences were “lighter” than they could have been in such
Third, in accordance with the “long-established” custom “of all countries,” the
memorandum insisted that the full nature of such operations should never be disclosed. It
can only be assumed that the “operations” to which the memorandum refers are covert
espionage activities. Calling for “official silence,” the memo suggested that Washington
officials should not be compelled to reveal anything further regarding Downey and
Fecteau since such matters were the concern only of the U.S. government.49
Finally, revealing fuller details should be avoided, the memo argued, because
such disclosure “would be difficult” to defend domestically. Officials worried that by
acknowledging that Downey and Fecteau were CIA agents on an illegal flight over
China, it would appear that they “were going out of [their] way to incriminate these men
and seal their fate.”50 For the sake of the Eisenhower administration, therefore, U.S.
officials should continue to deny culpability. It is ironic that State Department officials
believed releasing a “fuller description” would prolong the men’s imprisonments, when it
would later prove to be their unwillingness to do so that guaranteed lengthier sentences.
With the dangers of full disclosure and the inherent problems of the DowneyFecteau case clearly in mind, McConaughy laid out in the memorandum’s conclusion the
basis of America’s official policy on the two prisoners. He insisted it would be ideal for
American officials to assert that Downey and Fecteau had been involved in a
“mission…directly connected with the UN effort,” without “going to the lengths of a full
revelation,” but he understood that this would be difficult: “Inevitably curiosity would be
aroused in the UN as to the precise nature of their mission.”
Regardless of such
difficulty, McConaughy suggested that American officials maintain that exact stance. To
deal with any awkward situations that might consequently arise, the memo suggested
American officials “evade” the inevitable questions and stand firmly behind Downey,
Fecteau, and Washington’s official position.51
As opposed to American policy regarding the Arnold crew – which required a full
and detailed explanation of the mission in question – disclosure appeared to be
detrimental to the success of American policy on Downey and Fecteau. Such a policy,
while effective in upholding a façade of American innocence and Chinese cruelty, did
little to resolve the fundamental issues of the case or hasten the release of the two
American prisoners. Despite its ineffectiveness, American officials would, for the next
fifteen years, remain faithful to its tenets of evasion and deceit.
The Chinese versions of the Arnold and Downey-Fecteau cases obviously differed
greatly from Washington’s positions. Initial Chinese reports in late 1954 indicated that
the Chinese had charged twenty-two men (thirteen Americans and nine Chinese) with
espionage activities. According to the Chinese, two of the Americans, John Downey and
Richard Fecteau, had “stealthily crossed the Chinese border” in a C-47 aircraft before
Chinese forces shot down their plane on November 29, 1952.52 One and a half months
later, the reports continued, Chinese forces shot down Colonel John Arnold’s plane in a
similar fashion, leaving the Air Force men stranded in China’s Liaoning Province.53 The
Chinese quickly charged the latter crew with the near identical crime of “having sneaked”
into China in order “to conduct espionage activity.” Further incriminating the Air Force
men, the Chinese alleged that Arnold’s 581st U.S. Air Re-Supply and Communications
Wing was one of several American “special air wings” that routinely cooperated with the
CIA in carrying out “criminal activities against China and the Soviet Union.”54 While
indisputably on different flights, the Chinese considered Downey and Fecteau, and the
eleven Air Force men all to be American espionage agents.
Aside from significant Chinese assumptions regarding the nature of the thirteen
men’s employment and missions, substantial physical evidence “fully prove[d]” to the
Charged along with Downey and Fecteau for espionage against China, the Chinese
defendants Hsu Kwang-chih, Yu Kwan-chou, Wang Wei-fan, and Wang Chin-sheng,
were sentenced to death; Chang Tsai-wen, Luan Heng-shan, Chung Tien-hsing, and Li
Chun-ying, were sentenced to life in prison; and Niu Sung-lin was sentenced to fifteen
years in prison. “Judgment of Military Tribunal on US Spies in the Downey-Fecteau
Espionage Case,” translated in People’s China, no. 24: 6-8, 16 December 1954, found in
Jerome Cohen and Hungdah Chiu, People’s China and International Law: A
Documentary Study, Volume I (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
1974), 625, 628.
Following the Arnold crew’s imprisonment, the U.S. government determined three
members of the original Air Force crew – Paul Van Voorhis, Henry Weese, and Alvin
Hart – to be dead. Crewmember Steve Kiba, however, insists that he saw Van Voorhis
months after his imprisonment. By Kiba’s own admission, however, he was the only one
to see Van Voorhis; the official report on the missing prisoner is still that he was killed in
action. Contradictory reports on the fate of Van Voorhis can be seen in “Enclosure ‘C’”
of memorandum on “Air Force Prisoners of War in Communist Hands,” prepared by
Young for Sullivan, 26 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-2654, RG 59, North Korea Files
1950-1954, Box 2886, and Steve Kiba, The Flag, 300.
“Full Text of the Judgment of the Military Tribunal of the Supreme People’s Court of
the People’s Republic of China on 11 U.S. Spies in the Arnold-Baumer Espionage Case,”
3 December 1954, 611.95A241/12-354, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Chinese the guilt of the defendants.55 On board both planes, parts of which had been
recovered after the respective crashes, PRC officials discovered substantial “evidence of
espionage.” From the salvaged sections of the two planes, on display in Beijing, Chinese
officials had recovered “secret code books…sub-machine guns and revolvers, wireless
receiving and transmitting sets for use on [the ground],” a “map of…Kirin [Jilin],”
devices “for retrieving agent from [the] ground” and “implements for making fake
passports.”56 To reduce any doubt within Washington of the authenticity of the evidence,
British officials in Beijing had viewed the “exhibits” of the two planes’ wreckages, and
they believed “little evidence of obvious faking” existed.57
Further convincing the Chinese officials of the men’s guilt were the alleged
confessions of both Downey and Arnold to their involvement in espionage activities.
According to Chinese officials, Downey had conceded that throughout 1951 and 1952 he
was actively involved in training Chinese agents on the Saipan Islands, and dropping
them into mainland China with the purpose of creating insurgent, guerilla warfare.
Downey allegedly admitted that he had conducted three such drops in the four months
preceding his 1952 capture.58 PRC officials claimed Arnold had confessed as well to his
Summary of United Press of India report on prisoners, Kennedy to Dulles, 30
December 1954, 611.95A241/12-3054, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886;
Butterworth to Dulles, 17 December 1954, 611.95A241/12-1754, RG 59, North Korea
Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Summary of United Press of India report on prisoners, Kennedy to Dulles, 30
December 1954, 611.95A241/12-3054, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886;
Butterworth to Dulles, 17 December 1954, 611.95A241/12-1754, RG 59, North Korea
Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Upon his release, Downey admitted to newsmen that he gave the Chinese every bit of
secret information he had, but it is not clear if this confession coincided with the one
alleged by the Chinese. “Downey Gave Chinese Secret Information,” United Press
International, The Evening Star and Daily News, 14 March 1973, A-3. Corroborating
engagement “in espionage work over China.” In a “written deposition,” Arnold allegedly
admitted that the unit to which he was attached had “introduced special agents and
guerilla units into Communist-held areas and Communist countries.”59
While the Chinese did not obtain confessions from all the men involved, they took
the confessions of Downey and Arnold, who the Chinese considered to be the “heads of
two different espionage groups,”60 as representative of the remaining eleven men.61
Chinese officials also quickly pointed out that Downey and Arnold’s confessions verified
the ongoing Chinese belief “that there had been a pattern of US espionage against China
during the last seven years.” By December 1954 PRC officials insisted that the Chinese
had either captured or killed 230 American “special agents” after “American espionage
organization[s]” had dropped the agents into China.62 Understanding that this number,
despite the real possibility of exaggeration, did not include U.S. agents that proceeded
undetected in China, the suspicion among Chinese officials in the Arnold and DowneyFecteau cases seemed to have legitimate basis.
Downey’s alleged 1952 confession were two Chinese agents, convicted along with
Downey and Fecteau, who, in 1951 had joined the “Free China Movement,” a U.S.
espionage organization. According to Chang Tsai-wen and Luan Heng-shan, Downey
had trained them for the specific espionage mission in question. “Judgment of Military
Tribunal on US Spies in the Downey-Fecteau Espionage Case,” translated in People’s
China, no. 24 (supp.): 6-8, 16 December 1954, found in Cohen and Chiu, People’s China
and International Law, Volume I, 626-28.
Summary of United Press of India report on prisoners, Kennedy to Dulles, 30
December 1954, 611.95A241/12-3054, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
According to Fecteau in 1999, “there was no leader” between himself and Downey.
The Chinese, however, decided that Downey was in charge since he had studied at Yale
while Fecteau attended Boston University. Fecteau quoted in Mac Daniel, “Former POW
Finds Freedom by Making Peace With Past,” Boston Globe, 11 July 1999, 1.
Lodge to State Department, 20 December 1954, FRUS 1952-1954, Vol. XIV, Part I,
1041-42; Kennedy to Dulles, 30 December 1954, 611.95A241 /12-3054, RG 59, North
Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
American action during the Geneva Conference of 1954, Chinese officials
maintained, further incriminated Downey and Fecteau.
Beginning in April, several
months before the Chinese announced the imprisonments of the two “civilians,”
American and Chinese representatives met in Geneva primarily to discuss the terms of
the Korean Armistice Agreement. One component of this discussion was American and
Chinese prisoners still being held by the opposing nation. During the June 10 meeting, in
an effort to resolve this sticky issue, American Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson gave
Chinese Ambassador Wang Ping-nan a list of civilians and military personnel who
American officials “had good reason to believe were imprisoned or…detained in
Communist China.” Johnson hoped the Chinese would return these individuals under the
provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement. Colonel Arnold and his crewmembers,
along with dozens of other Americans were on the list.63 A problem emerged, however,
in that Downey and Fecteau, both of whom had supposedly been missing from action
since November 1952, were not listed.64 While this omission could have been due to the
fact that American officials took Downey and Fecteau to be dead, the Chinese – who
were currently holding the men in prison – took the absence of Downey and Fecteau’s
names to signify Washington officials’ attempt to cover up or simply ignore American
covert activity. Conceding that the Chinese might have Downey and Fecteau in prison
Soon after Johnson had given the list to the Chinese, Beijing officials admitted they
were holding the eleven Air Force men. Word on Downey and Fecteau, however, did not
come until November. “Background Information on United States Air Force Personnel
Sentenced By Chinese Communists,” 3 December 1954, RG 59, North Korea Files 19501954, Box 2886.
Lodge to State Department, 13 January 1955, FRUS, 1955-1957, Volume II, China
(Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1986), 26-30.
would, according to Chinese logic, be one step closer to admitting that the U.S.
government had authorized covert activities in China.65
The Chinese case was not without its flaws. For one, some of the espionage tools
on board Arnold’s plane were “regular” items carried by all Air Force crews, a fact that
further reinforced Arnold’s traditional military status.66 Further, as American officials
were quick to point out, the Chinese often forced confessions from prisoners, and thus the
incriminating statements of Downey and Arnold were not wholly convincing. These
flaws were most significant in the Arnold case, in which the Air Force men appeared to
be the victims of faulty Chinese assumptions and an unfair Chinese legal system. In the
Downey-Fecteau case, however, the strengths of the Chinese case outweighed any
weaknesses; regardless of China’s questionable tactics, Downey and Fecteau were guilty
of the espionage charges.
Not entirely convinced of a distinction between the guilt of the two groups,
Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai felt “his case against the fliers was good.”67 Commenting
on China’s case, the Chinese press insisted, “beyond [a] doubt…the defendants were
dropped into Chinese territory to conduct espionage activity” and “undermine the cause
Interestingly, American officials took the same event as evidence of Chinese
maliciousness. In retrospect, many in Washington felt that Chinese officials’ silence
regarding Downey and Fecteau at the June meeting proved the Communists’ desire to
conceal the detentions from the American government and public. Such an assertion can
be found in Macomber to Dirksen, 14 March 1969, RG 59, POL 7-1 US-CHICOM 19671969, Box 258.
McConaughy to American Ambassador New Delhi, 31 December 1954,
611.95A241/12-2854, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Lodge to Department of State, 20 December 1954, FRUS 1952-1954, Vol. XIV, Part I,
of people’s democracy in China.”68 Despite his confidence, Zhou soon made clear that
he did not intend to prolong unnecessarily the Americans’ imprisonments. If the United
States and China could come to some understanding on the prisoner affair, Zhou insisted
that the men would return home.
As the Americans quickly realized, this understanding would be difficult to
achieve. Unable to reach a settlement with the Chinese in the early days of the prisoner
affair, Washington officials concluded that, with the drastic exceptions of military
operations or total capitulation, they had run out of unilateral options. Thus, to the credit
of the Eisenhower administration, American Ambassador to the United Nations (UN),
Henry Cabot Lodge quickly brought the prisoner issue into the UN. The international
body moved quickly and on December 10 the UN’s General Assembly (GA) passed a
resolution granting Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold the authority to obtain the
release of the “eleven” men “captured by Chinese forces…on 12 January 1953” as
mandated by the Korean Armistice Agreement. Stressing the legitimacy of the Armistice
Agreement, the resolution condemned “the trial and convictions of prisoners of war
illegally detained.”69
Though Arnold’s crew was likely innocent of the Chinese charges, the
resolution’s wording was nearly identical to the ineffective American responses that had
“Judgment of Military Tribunal on US Spies in the Downey-Fecteau Espionage Case,”
translated in People’s China, no. 24 (supp.): 6-8, 6 December 1954, found in Cohen and
Chiu, People’s China and International Law, Volume I, 627.
Text of UN resolution found in Andrew W. Cordier and Wilder Foote, ed., Public
Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, Volume II
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), 417 (hereinafter PPDH, and volume).
followed China’s November 1954 broadcast. The harsh language worried Hammarskjold
and following the adoption of the resolution he guided UN action in an unexpected
direction. Despite strong support for the resolution in both the UN and Washington,
Hammarskjold aptly argued that its condemnatory and clearly politicized language would
result in its ultimate failure.70
Based on the body’s vote on the resolution,
Hammarskjold’s point had credence. Support for the December 10 decision clearly
divided along communist (as well as communist-sympathizing) and non-communist
lines;71 its implementation would thus be an implicit sign to China of the UN’s favoritism
toward anticommunism. Hammarskjold feared that the Chinese government would take
the resolution as an affront and would cool to any further negotiations. To avoid this
unfortunate fate, the Secretary-General made the controversial decision to deal with the
prisoners by traveling to Beijing to meet directly with Foreign Minister Zhou. Tossing
out the mandate of the GA resolution, Hammarskjold made clear he was traveling to
China under the authority exclusively of the UN Charter, which made him responsible for
resolving any international conflict. Such a neutral strategy, dubbed Hammarskjold’s
“Peking formula,” would hopefully encourage Zhou, whose government the UN did not
officially recognize, to speak and negotiate openly with the Secretary-General.72
The United States delegation had, in fact, wanted to use a more forceful tone in the
resolution, but it was clear that such language would cost the U.S. support in the UN.
Richard Miller, Dag Hammarskjold and Crisis Diplomacy (Oceana Publications, 1961),
The Soviet delegation opposed the resolution and the Indian and Yugoslavian
delegations were among those abstaining.
Peter B. Heller, The United Nations Under Dag Hammarskjöld, 1953-1961 (Lanham,
Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001), 41; Joseph P. Lash, Dag Hammarskjold:
Custodian of the Brushfire Peace (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,
1961), 61.
The proposed meetings were not only controversial, they were also risky. Since
the UN had failed to resolve the Korean conflict before it had erupted into a full-scale
war, the international body lacked the credibility that many had perceived at its inception
in 1945. A failed attempt at securing the American prisoners would thus bury the UN
deeper in its own powerlessness. Increasing that potential for failure, many diplomats
feared that the Chinese Communists, in light of their exclusion from the international
body, would immediately reject any motions by the UN.
On the flip side, however, many argued that Hammarskjold had an obligation to
free the prisoners. Lodge contended that the UN could not continue to function if it
failed to support the American men who had fought under its auspices.73 Furthermore,
Hammarskjold’s mission provided the UN with the opportunity to project itself back on
the international scene in dramatic fashion. Optimistic officials even felt that since
membership to the UN was of prime importance to the Chinese government, the Chinese
would embrace Hammarskjold’s efforts. The Chinese, the argument went, were more
likely to welcome and respond favorably to Hammarskjold’s “Peking Formula” than they
would to a condemnatory UN resolution. Clearly, the end results of the Hammarskjold
mission were not a given at the time of his departure nor were they a matter of trivial
In spite of Hammarskjold’s approach to the prisoner issue, once he had made the
decision, the Secretary-General maintained Washington’s support for the duration of his
mission. This support, however, is surprising when one recognizes that Hammarskjold’s
fundamental strategy in his Beijing Mission and the language of the GA resolution itself,
Thomas J. Hamilton, “U.S. is Urging U.N. to Score Peiping,” New York Times, 3
December 1954, 2.
were somewhat contrary to the policy of American officials to that point. Though he had
discarded the inflammatory language of the resolution, Hammarskjold maintained its
basic agenda: freeing the eleven Air Force men.74 This meant that Hammarskjold would
not even attempt to free the American “civilians” – Downey and Fecteau. Justifying his
decision, Hammarskjold claimed it was the Air Force men who had, without a doubt,
been involved in a UN-sponsored mission at the time of their capture, and thus they were
the only individuals whose releases he felt obligated to secure.
It is surprising, therefore, how supportive American officials were of
Hammarskjold’s coming mission. In his 1955 State of the Union Address, Eisenhower
made clear his commitment to “support and strengthen” the UN, citing Hammarskjold’s
mission (taking place at the time of Eisenhower’s speech) as evidence of the international
Hammarskjold’s action and American policy, Lodge announced that the United States
“had not asked for United Nations action concerning [the] two civilian employees of the
Army [Downey and Fecteau].”76
And Dulles, in a direct contradiction to earlier
statements, informed the press that Downey and Fecteau “had not been under United
Nations Command and therefore, they were not within the compass of United Nations
PPDH, Volume II, 417.
“Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” 6 January 1955, PPDDE,
1955 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1959), 10.
Lodge had clarified this point early on at a meeting with representatives of sixteen
nations shortly before he brought the prisoner issue to the UN. Lodge to Dulles, 2
December 1954, 611.95A241/12-254, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886;
Hamilton, “U.S. is Urging U.N. to Score Peiping,” New York Times, 3 December 1954, 2;
Dulles, Press Conference of 18 January 1955, John Foster Dulles Papers, Speeches,
Statements, Press Conferences, etc., Box 333.
With their initial support of the GA resolution and by explicitly defending
Hammarskjold’s Beijing agenda, American officials were backing away from their
original insistence that all thirteen men had been on UN-sponsored, legitimate missions at
the times of their capture. While State Department officials had touched on such a
distinction between the two flights in McConaughy’s State Department memorandum one
month earlier, that same memorandum had concluded that the best course of action would
be “to assert specifically that these men [Downey and Fecteau] come within the category
of ‘UN personnel’.”78
While maintaining this stance would have proved difficult,
American officials, initially, had appeared willing to try. Thus, the statements of Dulles
and Lodge represented a significant shift in American policy on the prisoner issue.
Moreover, by intentionally closing the one channel that seemed to offer the most hope for
the prisoners, the policy change reinforced the inherent ambiguity and weakness of
American action on the two “civilians.”
In response to Hammarskjold’s proposed mission, the Chinese surprised many
observers as well when Zhou invited the Secretary-General to his country in the “interest
of peace and relaxation of international tension.”79 On January 5, 1955, Hammarskjold
arrived in China to commence his meetings with Zhou. The meetings as a whole were
amicable and the men made good impressions on one another. Keeping to his proposed
agenda, Hammarskjold focused all his attention on the eleven airmen in Arnold’s crew.
In his attempt to secure their releases, Hammarskjold did not deviate much from the basic
American position, insisting that the airmen’s mission had been part of the UN-led
Memorandum on “Treatment of Cases of Downey and Fecteau” Walter P.
McConaughy to Walter S. Robertson, 9 December 1954, 611.95A251/12-954, RG 59,
North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2887.
“Cable from Chou-En Lai, Peking, December 17, 1954,” in PPDH, Volume II, 423.
offensive in Korea. Under the Korean Armistice Agreement, his argument continued, the
Chinese should return the men to the United States.
In his effort to maintain an
appearance of neutrality, however, Hammarskjold stressed that his conclusions were
based on his own independent study, and implicitly not on the persuasive convictions of
the U.S. government.80
According to Hammarskjold, who returned from the meetings optimistic, the talks
produced two positive and significant results.
First, the Secretary-General accepted
Zhou’s pledge that the Chinese policy of leniency was still intact and he firmly believed
that the Chinese would release the airmen in the near future. Second, Zhou complied
with Hammarskjold’s request for substantive information on the condition of the
prisoners. To this end, Zhou produced films and photographs of the prisoners displaying
their good health, which Hammarskjold brought back to New York.81 More significantly,
Zhou offered to allow the prisoners’ families (including the Downeys and Fecteaus) to
visit China so they could “see for themselves how well [the prisoners] were treated,” a
major concern of both the Eisenhower administration and many Americans.82
Before most Americans could even learn of Hammarskjold’s accomplishments,
Secretary Dulles put an end to any hopes raised by the Secretary-General’s mission. In
late January 1955, in response to Zhou’s visa offer, Dulles decided that the United States
“should deny passports to those relatives who may wish to visit American prisoners in
PPDH, Volume II, 437.
Ibid., 439.
Lodge to State Department, 13 January 1955, FRUS, 1955-1957, Volume II, 26-30.
Communist China.”
While he conceded that the decision “was not necessarily
permanent,” the “tense” situation in China made it “imprudent” at that time to grant the
relatives an exception to the general American travel policy. Dulles feared that in a flurry
of chaos and violence the relatives might “be grabbed and held as a second set of
hostages.”83 Not only was Dulles concerned for the relatives’ physical safety, but he
likely shared the common American fear of communist propaganda and brainwashing as
Anticipating disappointment from Americans with personal ties to the prisoners,
Dulles sent letters of “sympathy and concern” to the men’s families explaining that his
decision was “in the best interest of our nation” and informing them that Hammarskjold
was optimistic about the prisoners’ eventual releases.84
Further, Hammarskjold and
Dulles distributed to the families the films and photographs of the American prisoners
that showed the men “in reasonably good health.”85 Even with future reports, which
would publicly corroborate this positive assessment, the prisoners’ relatives could hardly
have been satisfied with their government’s decision.
While Zhou’s invitation appears to have presented an opportunity to secure the
releases of the prisoners – or at least ease the tension of the prisoner affair – one cannot
Dulles made these statements during a meeting with other high-level State Department
officials on 25 January 1955, 611.93241/1-2555, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153
Roll #10.
“Department Not Issuing Passports for Visits to Communist China,” text of letters from
Dulles to families of U.S. fliers imprisoned in China, 27 January 1955, Department of
State Bulletin, Volume XXXII, No. 815, p. 214.
Minutes of meeting on relatives’ visits to Communist China, 25 January 1955,
611.93241/1-2555, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10. Some of the
pictures showed the prisoners (the Arnold crew, Downey and Fecteau) playing volleyball
and eating dinner. From Steve Kiba’s website, <http://webpages.charter.net/kibasflag/>,
“Propaganda Photos,” accessed 7 June 2004.
blame Dulles alone for his decision.
First, Dulles’s decision was in line with
Washington’s accepted policy on travel to the PRC; his decision, therefore, was
somewhat automatic. Second, there was no guarantee that allowing these relatives to
visit the prisoners would have any real impact on the eventual releases of the Americans.
To this point, Zhou had opted not to release any of the thirteen prisoners and past
relations with the Chinese Communists had shown them to be hostile to American
interests. The degree of mistrust between the two nations was exceptionally great and
thus revamping American travel policy in response to a Chinese proposal would have
required an enormous, and possibly unrealistic amount of faith on the part of the
Despite these caveats, the explanation that Dulles gave for refusing to
distribute passports seemed disingenuous. In light of the unusual nature of the prisoner
ordeal, Washington could have easily provided the families passports to China while still
maintaining the general ban on such travel. Granting such an exception would have
allowed the United States to test China’s receptiveness to Sino-American cooperation
without fully reversing America’s position on Asia during the Cold War. If the Chinese
proved to be sincere in their efforts to end the prisoner ordeal and the trips proceeded
smoothly, the United States could have pursued such channels further. If, on the other
hand, the Chinese reneged on their invitations or exploited the families’ visits for political
reasons, American officials would have a more solid foundation on which to execute an
aggressive course of action on the prisoner issue.
Instead of proceeding in such a
manner, however, Dulles was content to shut the door on any travel possibilities,
immediately using Downey, Fecteau, and the other prisoners as “pawns” to show both
Chinese contemptibility and America’s resolve to defend its citizens from such
Exposing further the rashness of Dulles’s decision, some individuals, including
Hammarskjold, felt that allowing relatives to visit the prisoners might have a “good
effect” that went beyond any personal relief the visits would provide for the families.
Hammarskjold had been enthusiastic upon his return from China, confident that in
Zhou’s invitations to the prisoners’ families, he had found a way to secure the men’s
Based on his own experience with political prisoners and with Beijing,
Hammarskjold believed that Chinese officials were likely to respond more favorably to
private appeals – made by relatives during their visits to China – than they would to
demands from the U.S. government.86 Responding to such personal pleas would allow
the Chinese to put an end to the prisoner issue without “losing face.”
Hammarskjold believed that Zhou had “intended” the invitations “to be so regarded.”87 If
Hammarskjold’s assessment were correct, then Dulles’s decision to deny passports to the
prisoners’ families shut the door on the greatest opportunity to that point to secure the
men’s releases.
The Secretary-General’s candid comments on the possible benefit of American
visitors to China were cause for alarm throughout Washington. Though Dulles’s decision
was merely one component of an accepted American travel policy, if the American public
Memo on “US Fliers Detained by Red China,” Lodge to Dulles, 2 February 1955,
611.95A241/2- 255, RG 59, North Korea Files 1955- 1959, Box 2587. Hammarskjold also
voiced his feelings on the relatives’ visits in a telephone conversation with Ambassador
Lodge. Noted in Lodge-Dulles telephone conversation, 17 January 1955, 9:05 a.m., John
Foster Dulles Papers, Eisenhower Library 1951-1959, Telephone Conversation Series,
Box 3, Folder 10.
Memo on “US Fliers Detained by Red China,” Lodge to Dulles, 2 February 1955,
611.95A241/2- 255, RG 59, North Korea Files 1955-1959, Box 2587.
believed that such a policy was now prolonging the imprisonments of Americans in
China, the Eisenhower administration – regardless of its intentions – would suffer
To prevent this potential predicament, Ambassador Lodge secured from
Hammarskjold a pledge to “play the whole thing down,” in reference to Zhou’s visa offer
and any “good effect” it could possibly produce.88 In addition to the Secretary-General’s
promised reticence, Dulles hoped to “bury” the visa story in the American press. The
two major stories in early 1955 regarding the prisoners were the films and photographs of
the men that Zhou had provided for Hammarskjold and Zhou’s visa offer. Obviously, the
former story was more politically attractive to Dulles, and he made sure Hammarskjold
released it before Zhou did the visa offer, in order to “blanket” the potentially dangerous
second story.89
As demonstrated by the visa offer, Foreign Minister Zhou was approaching the
prisoner affair in a very different manner than Secretary of State Dulles. While neither
side wanted war, the Chinese made clear that they did not want a prolonged international
fiasco either. Thus, as Secretary Dulles was busy “playing down” the prisoner issue in
order to maintain American integrity, Zhou worked toward ending the affair in a speedy
and moderate manner.
Zhou’s leniency “impressed” Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold when the two
met in January. According to Hammarskjold, while Zhou felt his case was solid, the
Lodge to the Department of State, 13 January 1955, FRUS, 1955-1957, Volume II, 29
Lodge-Dulles telephone conversation, 17 January 1955, 4:06 p.m., John Foster Dulles
Papers, Eisenhower Library 1951-1959, Telephone Conversation Series, Box 3, Folder
Chinese government was willing to “back down” so long as American policy or rhetoric
did not force Chinese officials to act otherwise. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru,
often the liaison between American and Chinese officials in the 1950s, corroborated the
Secretary-General’s assessment, insisting that the Chinese were prepared “to reduce or
commute the sentences” of the American prisoners as long as officials in Washington did
not “bluster” with the Chinese.
“If [the] US engaged in ‘bluster’,” however, or if
Washington insisted on stepping up its support of Jiang Jieshi and the GMD, the Indians
were sure the Chinese “w[ou]ld never release the fliers.”90 While the United States had a
recent history of not fully trusting the Indian government regarding Chinese affairs,91
Hammarskjold verified to American officials Zhou’s ultimatum. The “main grudge” of
Zhou and the entire Chinese government, according to Hammarskjold, was “the
[American] treaty with Chiang [Jiang].”
Hammarskjold intimated that while Zhou
preferred “not…to make it too difficult to release the prisoners,” U.S. cooperation with
the GMD would surely test his flexibility.92
Zhou’s desire for leniency appears sincere. The Foreign Minister stressed that
while he was confident the death penalty was “completely justified” in Downey and
Fecteau’s cases (it should be recalled that the Chinese executed four of the Chinese
defendants associated with the Americans’ mission), the two men would “come back
Lodge to Department of State, 20 December 1954, FRUS, 1952-1954, Vol. XIV, Part I,
Washington officials had repeatedly ignored Indian warnings that the Chinese intended
to intervene in the Korean War. American officials felt that Prime Minister Nehru and
the Indian government were far from neutral on the subject of Chinese intervention and
tended toward being communist sympathizers. U. Alexis Johnson with Jef Olivarius
McAllister, The Right Hand of Power (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.,
1984), 101.
Lodge to State Department, 13 January 1955, FRUS, 1955-1957, Volume II, 26-30.
home one day.”93 In light of the fact that the Chinese had already handed Downey a life
sentence, this concession on the part of Zhou was significant indeed. The greatest sign of
Chinese leniency and readiness to negotiate with Washington, moreover, came on August
1, 1955, when the Chinese released Colonel John Arnold and his crew from prison.94
Zhou’s motive for releasing the Air Force men was not entirely humanitarian. As
Chinese Ambassador Wang Ping-nan acknowledged following the announcement, he
hoped the crew’s release would “have favorable effects on the present [Sino-American
Geneva] talks,” which began in early August.95 Regardless of this ulterior and political
motive, it is significant that persuading American officials to discuss the status of Taiwan
and Sino-American trade – the two main issues the Chinese hoped to resolve at Geneva –
occupied more importance to the Chinese than holding Americans in prison. Such a
priority, regardless of its political undertones, should be acknowledged.
Some were receptive to Zhou’s actions. Aside from the understandable attention
paid to stories of Chinese mistreatment of the prisoners – an apparent side effect of the
Air Force crew’s release – the American press hailed the event as evidence of a
developing, peaceful relationship between the United States and China.96 Likewise, the
Ibid.; Lodge to Department of State, 20 December 1954, FRUS, 1952-1954, Volume
XIV, Part I, 1041-42.
None of the Air Force men, whom the Chinese had sentenced to terms ranging from
four to ten years, had served out his entire sentence when the Chinese announced their
Dispatch # 239, Johnson to Dulles, 1 August 1 1955, 611.93/8-155, RG 59, China Files
1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.
Butterworth to Dulles, 2 August 1955, 611.93/8-255, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959,
LM153 Roll #2.
Indian press, traditionally more supportive of Beijing than of Washington, considered the
release of utmost importance. Not only did the Indians agree the release was a harbinger
of future Sino-American détente, they also insisted that the release was so monumental a
step that the American government needed to reciprocate with an act of equal import.
Such a move would have to go “beyond present reciprocal action regarding return of
Chinese students”;97 the Indians suggested granting China recognition, admitting China
into the UN, or reducing American support of Jiang.98
Despite the upbeat response from both the American and Indian press, many
Americans – including influential administration officials – refused to recognize the
release of the Air Force men as a positive step. Surprisingly, it was not the stories of
mistreatment, torture, and brainwashing in Chinese prisons that contributed to this
negative reaction. In retrospect, Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson pointed out “that such
stories had to be expected.” Dulles, too, recognized the public outrage over the stories as
the “inevitabl[e]” result “whenever prisoners are returned” to their home country.99
Furthermore, Dulles – correctly recognizing that a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment
following the Arnold crew’s release might “freeze up the Chinese Communists about
letting the other [prisoners] out” – encouraged American officials to dilute any further
such anti-China stories. What concerned the Eisenhower administration more was the
Chinese government’s apparent exploitation of the release. Americans suspected the
This is in reference to the hundreds of Chinese students who, during the Korean War,
had been prevented from returning to the Chinese mainland. After the war’s conclusion,
however, the U.S. government lifted all restrictions and the Chinese students were free to
travel. Johnson, Right Hand of Power, 235.
From Hisdustan Standard, quoted in Cooper to Dulles, 3 August 3 1955, 611.93241/8355, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10.
Johnson, Right Hand of Power, 255; Dulles to Johnson, 16 August 1955, 611.93/81655, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.
Chinese had set the men free only to make a case for their own magnanimity. The
concern certainly had merit.
For one, the Arnold crew, while not on an entirely
benevolent mission at the time of their capture, appears to have been over North Korea
when the Chinese had attacked them; the consequent imprisonment was thus in violation
of the Korean Armistice Agreement. By releasing the Air Force men, therefore, the
Chinese were merely doing what they should have already done. Further, Ambassador
Wang readily acknowledged that there existed ulterior motives behind the release,
namely the advancement of the proposed Sino-American Geneva talks. Keenly aware of
these aspects of the release, American officials resented this resort to propaganda lest the
international public forget that the Chinese had illegally captured and detained the
American prisoners in the first place.100 More fundamental than their concern over
Chinese propaganda, many American officials felt the release of Arnold’s crew was
simply not enough. As long as the Chinese were still illegally holding Downey and
Fecteau, among others, in prison, many could not bring themselves to view the release of
eleven prisoners as being a truly significant or commendable action.
While Dulles concurred with this negative assessment of the crew’s release for the
most part, he welcomed it in one respect. With the release of Arnold’s crew, Dulles
believed he had found a way to free Downey and Fecteau. By releasing the Air Force
men, Dulles argued, the Chinese had undercut their case against the two “civilians.” Up
until the 1955 release, the Chinese had held all the prisoners on similar charges of
espionage, but with the release of Arnold’s crew the Chinese appeared open to the
possibility of releasing American “spies,” destroying “any basis for differential
Dispatch #240, Johnson to Dulles, 1 August 1955, 611.93/8-155, RG 59, China Files
1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.
Downey and Fecteau’s continuing imprisonments, the argument
continued, suddenly took on arbitrary and wholly unfair characters.
Dulles’s strategy was certainly valid. The charges against the Arnold crew were
remarkably similar to those against Downey and Fecteau, and thus there was logic behind
using the Arnold crew’s release as a key to free the two “civilians.” But on the matter of
freeing American prisoners – especially prisoners that Dulles knew to be guilty – such
merit seemed beside the point. The strategy was doomed to fail because it insisted on
alienating the one government that would make the ultimate decision on the fate of the
prisoners. Instead of accepting the Air Force crew’s release as a beneficial gesture that
pointed toward future détente, and using it as a springboard to negotiate the releases of
Downey and Fecteau, Dulles saw it both as a way to rebuke further the Beijing
government and to avoid any cooperation with the Chinese.
In addition to giving Dulles ammunition to attack further the “unjust”
imprisonments, the Air Force crew’s release indirectly shed light on the true nature of
Downey and Fecteau’s mission and the lengths that American officials would go to deny
it. During the numerous debriefings by CIA, U.S. Air Force, and State Department
officials that commenced following the crew’s return to the U.S., the Air Force men
openly discussed Downey and Fecteau and inquired into their status and fate. Like many
other Americans, the Air Force men were curious as to why the Chinese had released
them but not the “civilians.” Unfortunately, American officials – following closely the
suggestions laid out in the 1954 McConaughy memorandum – denied the crew members
the “fuller description” they requested. Further, according to Steve Kiba, the radio
Dulles to Johnson, 4 August 1955, 611.93/8-455, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959,
LM153 Roll #2.
operator in Arnold’s crew, U.S. officials told the Air Force men “to remain silent” in
regard to Downey and Fecteau and “to forget…the whole touchy mess.”102
Coming nearly a year after China’s November broadcast, the intense desire for
silence was certainly not an attempt to hide from the American public news of Downey
and Fecteau’s presence in China. Instead, the concern of American officials centered on
the fact that Kiba, along with the others in Arnold’s crew, had come to know Downey
and Fecteau during their time together in the Beijing Prison and had learned the truth
regarding Downey and Fecteau’s employment. Further worrying U.S. officials, Kiba was
certain that all it would take to secure the men’s releases were official concessions of
guilt and a public apology by the President.103
If Kiba spread such information
throughout the country the credibility of the Eisenhower administration would likely
suffer. The stern warnings thus appear to be part of an attempt to hide from the public
proof both of Downey and Fecteau’s guilt and the potential simplicity of their releases.
Immediately following the Arnold crew’s release, American and Chinese
ambassadors made another attempt at diplomatic settlement, meeting in Geneva to
discuss the remaining prisoners in China. Previous diplomatic efforts by the UN –
already weakened by the apparent failure of Hammarskjold’s Beijing Mission – ended
officially as these Geneva meetings commenced. Secretary-General Hammarskjold did
not object to this shift in jurisdiction; in fact, he felt it was not his place to “butt into” the
prisoner issue if American and Chinese ambassadors would be discussing the same topic
Kiba, The Flag, 273-274.
Kiba, The Flag, 278
themselves. In press conferences on the subject, Hammarskjold regularly commented
that conducting multiple, simultaneous negotiations on the prisoners would be
detrimental to the ultimate goal and thus he opted to step down his efforts toward
securing the remaining prisoners’ releases.104 Hammarskjold’s “step down” was not
entirely of his own choosing. The Secretary-General, with the support of Washington,
had always maintained that he was responsible only for the releases of UN personnel and
thus with the Air Force men out of jail, the UN no longer had a reason to involve itself in
the prisoner affair. It was thus left to Chinese and American ambassadors, outside the
auspices of the UN, to resolve the sticky issue of civilians still remaining abroad.
The Sino-American meetings at Geneva between Ambassadors Wang Ping-nan
and U. Alexis Johnson stemmed from the Geneva Talks of 1954, which had dealt with
the unresolved issues of the Korean War. While Secretary Dulles initially did not want
Johnson to discuss directly with the Chinese the issue of American prisoners in China, he
finally acquiesced. Dulles’s eventual compliance stemmed in small part from China’s
decision to release Colonel Arnold’s crew – a result that Zhou and Wang had anticipated.
More integral to Dulles’s decision, however, were his desires to quiet European criticism
of American Chinese policy and to discourage any possible plans of Chinese aggression
against the offshore islands.105
On August 1, 1955, after several months of preparatory work, the Geneva
meetings commenced. The agenda for the meetings (there was no agreement, or even
expectation, on how long the talks would last) was twofold: (1) “The return of civilians of
“From Transcript of Press Conference, UN Headquarters, New York,” 5 September
1957, in PPDH, Volume III (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 656.
Gordon H. Chang, Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet
Union, 1948-1972 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990), 156
both sides to their respective countries”; and (2) “Other practical matters at issue between
the two sides.”106 Such “practical matters” referred mainly to Sino-American trade and
the ambiguous status of Taiwan. Despite Wang and Johnson’s agreement on the agenda,
it was clear from the start that the Americans placed more importance on the first item
while the Chinese emphasized the latter. American politics dictated both the importance
of securing the prisoners’ releases and maintaining the status quo on Sino-American
relations. The Chinese, on the other hand, recognized that matters such as Taiwan and
Sino-American trade were more vital to their interests than the return of Chinese
nationals remaining in the United States. This disagreement on priorities, while present
from the start, did not greatly burden the talks for the first several weeks.
disagreements, however, emerged quickly and with disastrous results.
The first such disagreement erupted over who would be included under the
“civilian” category established in the agenda’s first item. Johnson was most interested in
forty-one Americans who U.S. officials knew the Chinese were holding in prison. Wang
chose to focus on all Chinese nationals living in the United States – some 117,000 – who
he alleged were not free to return to the Chinese mainland. Understandably, this initial
discussion produced discord between the ambassadors. Wang insisted that while the
Chinese nationals in the U.S. were not technically in prison, they were just as restricted
from returning home as the imprisoned Americans were from leaving the PRC.
Intimidation and suppression of information, Wang explained, resulted in the Chinese
being “forced” to remain in America. Johnson responded that since American officials
placed no explicit travel restrictions on the Chinese nationals it was illogical and unfair to
Dispatch #235, Johnson to Dulles, 1 August 1955, 611.93/8-155, RG 59, China Files
1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.
place them and the American prisoners in the same category.107 Wang likely understood
that Johnson would never agree to group the thousands of Chinese with the handful of
American prisoners, and thus China’s action reinforced that a settlement on the prisoner
issue would not come easily or quickly.
Despite, or possibly because of this initial harbinger of failure, Wang and Johnson
set out, in mid-August, to formulate explicit declarations that the two countries would
repatriate all of the other nation’s citizens within a specified timeframe.108 On September
10, after much heated debate over the specific language of the declaration, Wang and
Johnson released an “Agreed Announcement.”109 According to the declarations, the
governments of the United States and China agreed that all citizens of the other nation
“who desire to return” to their home country “are entitled to do so.” Furthermore, the
According to Johnson, American officials had, during the Korean War, restricted
some Chinese nationals in America from returning to the PRC. The policy was carried
out on the grounds that certain individuals with technical training in nuclear energy,
rocketry, and weapons design, would be a great asset to the PRC and thus a threat to UN
forces. The number of such individuals was small, however, and American officials
never restricted them from traveling within the United States. Johnson, Right Hand of
Power, 235.
To prevent the ambassadors from signing one declaration together – a political faux
pas during the Cold War – Johnson and Wang constructed two identical, but separate,
The main disagreement arose over the description of the speed at which American and
Chinese nationals would be returned to their home country. Ambassador Johnson hoped
to use the word “promptly,” while Ambassador Wang preferred the phrase “as soon as
possible.” Johnson felt that the Chinese choice did not express enough rapidity while
Wang felt the American choice connoted a demand. Due to this disagreement the two
ambassadors eventually settled on the term “expeditiously.” Dispatch #616, Johnson to
Dulles, 25 August 1955, 611.93/8-2555, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.;
Dispatch #624, Johnson to Dulles, 25 August 1955, 611.93/8-2555, RG 59, China Files
1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2; Dispatch # 625, Johnson to Dulles, 25 August 1955,
611.93/8-2555, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.
two countries arranged to “adopt appropriate measures so that they [the foreign nationals]
can expeditiously exercise their right to return.”110
To some extent the Agreed Announcement was a monumental achievement. The
Announcement would mark what was to be the last formal agreement between the
Chinese and Americans until the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972. Furthermore, the
Announcement seemed to bear fruit immediately as the Chinese, upon the conclusion of
the September 10 meeting, announced the release of ten Americans from China. The
United States, too, quickly moved toward fulfillment of the Announcement’s stipulations.
Since the Chinese nationals with whom Wang was primarily concerned were American
residents, not prisoners, the question was not whether they could legally return to China,
but whether American officials or American policy were obstructing their return in any
way. To assure the Chinese government that this was not the case, American officials
advertised (in Chinese and English) the Agreed Announcement on radio, television, and
in the 35,000 post offices throughout the country, informing Chinese residents who felt
“imprisoned” to register their complaints with the State Department or the Indian
Embassy.111 Possibly due to the widespread information campaign, over 200 Chinese
returned to the mainland by the end of 1956; no Chinese, however, ever registered with
State Department or Indian officials complaints of American interference.112
“Release: Re ‘Agreed Announcement of the Ambassadors of the United States and the
People’s Republic of China,’ Geneva,” 10 September 1955, John Foster Dulles Papers,
Speeches, Statements, Press Conferences, etc., Box 339.
Due to amicable relations between the PRC and India, the Chinese government
selected the Indians to be their “third party” on the prisoner issue. In China, the U.S.
government relied on the British to oversee the progress on repatriation.
Johnson, Right Hand of Power, 257; Memorandum on “American Prisoners in
Communist China,” Dulles to all American Diplomatic and Consular Posts, 29 January
1957, 611.93251/1-2957, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10.
This period of goodwill and compliance ushered in by the Sino-American
agreement, however, was not to last. From late September 1955 this apparent accord
faded quickly. Wang was not entirely placated by American action. Despite his lack of
evidence to support the charge, Wang insisted that Washington policy still restricted
Chinese nationals from returning to the mainland. More legitimately, Johnson and other
American officials were frustrated that a week and a half after the ambassadors released
the Announcement nineteen Americans (eighteen of them prisoners) still remained in
China with no sign of imminent release.
This lingering fact greatly “disturbed” Johnson, who had expected the word
“expeditiously” to guarantee a more rapid delivery of the remaining Americans.113 Much
to Johnson’s dismay, Wang now insisted that the Americans still remaining in the PRC
had violated Chinese law and officials thus needed to review each of their cases
individually before decisions on their releases could be made.
Frustrated, Johnson
responded that Wang had not brought up this crucial exception during their earlier talks
and that the Chinese government was reneging on the agreed terms of the September 10
Announcement. Wang, in turn, countered that by forcing the Chinese government to
release the American prisoners, American officials were “interfer[ing] in [the] juridical
processes and violat[ing]…[the] sovereignty [of] China.”114
From the start, Wang
contended, the Agreed Announcement had obviously applied only to the “return of
Dispatch #772, Johnson to Dulles, 23 September 1955, 611.93/9-2355, RG 59, China
Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #2.
civilians,” not the “return of persons who had committed crimes.”115 This exception, of
course, meant that Downey and Fecteau, among others, would remain in Chinese prison.
With a stalemate forming in late 1955, the Sino-American talks dragged on with
no visible results. On September 20, around the time the Agreed Announcement began to
splinter, Johnson grudgingly agreed to move on to the second item on the agenda – “other
practical matters” – with the understanding that he could still refer back to, and demand
implementation of, the first item. As the talks went on, the Chinese released several more
prisoners so that by the year’s end only thirteen Americans remained behind Chinese
After December, however, the slow trickle of releases from China stopped
completely. The talks continued, but made little to no progress; in December 1957, after
seventy-three sessions, the ambassadorial talks were finally suspended.116
The talks in Geneva reinforced just how difficult it was for the United States and
China to trust one another and cooperate with each other. Despite the fact that the SinoAmerican talks were an example of diplomacy between the two nations they also served
as evidence that the Sino-American conflict was not waning. The fallout in Geneva also
had repercussions for Washington’s approach on the prisoner affair. Aside from the
obvious fact that Geneva’s failure meant prolonged prison terms for the two men,
following the September agreement Washington shifted its strategy on the Downey-
That Wang brought up this crucial exception should not have been a great surprise to
Johnson. While Johnson was correct in saying that the two ambassadors had not
enumerated such an exception in the Agreed Announcement, Wang had brought up such
a proposal during earlier talks. Ibid.; Johnson, Right Hand of Power, 245.
The two governments did not wholly abandon the idea of Sino-Am
erican talks as they
were transferred in September 1958 to Warsaw, Poland, where American and Chinese
ambassadors would meet until 1964. Wang Ping-nan remained as China’s ambassador to
the Warsaw talks, but Ambassador Jacob Beam replaced Johnson as America’s
Fecteau case. Instead of demanding that Downey and Fecteau be released under the
provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement – the policy that had loosely prevailed
since November 1954 – American officials now insisted that the Chinese release Downey
and Fecteau under the provisions of the September 10 Agreed Announcement. This shift
reinforced what had clearly begun at the time of Hammarskjold’s Beijing mission, when
American officials had surprisingly backed away from their earlier association of
Downey and Fecteau with the UN-led mission in Korea. Moreover, the shift was logical
in light of the ever-present ambiguity surrounding Downey and Fecteau’s status; it was
not always clear (to the Chinese or Americans) if the Korean Armistice Agreement had
ever applied to men who were not members of the U.S. military and were possibly spies.
The Agreed Announcement, on the other hand, was more specific to the two American
prisoners and it did not, at least according to American officials, contain exceptions for
any of the civilian prisoners in China. Therefore, even more so than pointing to the
Korean Armistice Agreement, referring to the Agreed Announcement would directly
place the blame for the men’s continuing imprisonments on the Chinese.
With no resolution at Geneva, Foreign Minister Zhou appealed to Secretary of
State Dulles’s senses in early 1957, when he proposed to Dulles a direct offer to release
the prisoners. In exchange for the U.S. government sending American newsmen to report
on the social and economic progress of the PRC, Zhou would release Downey and
Fecteau. This specific exchange offer emerged in February 1957, but according to Dulles
the Chinese had forwarded a similar offer in 1955 in regard to the Arnold crew.117
Zhou’s earlier offer and Dulles’s rejection of it had gained little attention due to the Air
Force crew’s subsequent release that summer, but Zhou’s 1957 offer, much to the chagrin
of Dulles, maintained public prominence and attention. After word got out that Zhou was
again willing to swap prisoners for American correspondents, reporters routinely brought
up the topic at press conferences. Questioning Dulles’s “philosophy about the [travel]
policy,” the reporters’ frustration seemed to center more on their own inability to visit
China than the uncertain fate of the American prisoners.118
Selfishness aside, the
reporters’ interest melded Zhou’s exchange proposal and the general American travel
policy for correspondents together, guaranteeing more attention for the Chinese offer than
it may normally have received. Regardless of the publicity it gained, Dulles was no more
willing to consider Zhou’s offer in 1957 than he had been in 1955.
Either refusing to accept the offer as sincere or simply rejecting any offer
forwarded by the Chinese, Dulles publicly snubbed the Chinese plan as “blackmail,”
refusing to make American citizens “subject for that kind of barter.”119 Supporting
Dulles’s decision in more moderate language, President Eisenhower informed reporters
that the U.S. government could not go along with this “quid pro quo arrangement” until
the Chinese “carried out their promises [likely referring to the September 10 Agreed
Dulles refers to this offer in his press conference of 5 February 1957, John Foster
Dulles Papers, Speeches, Statements, Press Conferences, etc, Box 353.
Examples of reporters’ questions on U.S. travel policy to China can be found in
transcripts of the press conferences of February 5, March 5, and March 26, 1957.
Department of State Bulletin, Volume XXXVI, Nos. 922, 926, 929.
Press Conference of 5 February 1957, John Foster Dulles Papers, Speeches,
Statements, Press Conferences, etc, Box 353.
Announcement at Geneva].”120 Even if Dulles had accepted Zhou’s sincerity, he likely
would have rejected such an offer due to its origins. Dulles had insisted, and would
continue to insist, that the Chinese were holding American prisoners in violation of
international law, and even if it promised an end to the exhausting prisoner ordeal, he
could not allow the Chinese to use “human beings for political purposes.”121 The irony –
whether or not Dulles perceived it as such – was that the United States, in rejecting
Zhou’s offer, was doing exactly that. In his response to the exchange offer, Dulles
reinforced that his resentment toward the Chinese would take precedence over action
beneficial to both the American prisoners and Sino-American relations.
As was the case with Zhou’s visa offer, Dulles’s decision was in line with
American policy. American reporters were prohibited from traveling to the PRC and
while a few determined newsmen made their way to China, the United States refused to
condone such travel. In tethering himself to existing American policy, however, Dulles
missed an enormous opportunity, not only for the prisoner issue but also for SinoAmerican relations in general. The newsmen-prisoner exchange offer, along with Zhou’s
invitations to the prisoners’ families in 1955, exemplified Beijing’s attempt to bring
about a peaceful, quick end to the prisoner situation. Further, these episodes appear to be
part of a general trend of Chinese policy, between 1955 and 1957, which pursued
improved Sino-American relations.
In the few years following the Korean War,
Chairman Mao Zedong rightfully recognized the military and economic superiority of the
“The President’s News Conference,” 6 February 1957, PPDDE, 1957 (Washington,
D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1958), 130-31.
Dulles, Memorandum on “Americans Imprisoned or Detained in Communist China,”
18 July 1955, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Papers (Ann Whitman Files), DullesHerter Series, Box 4, Folder 6.
United States; to avoid another conflict with the Americans, he opted to pursue a more
moderate foreign policy.122 Dulles even appeared to be conscious of this development.
At a press conference in July 1955, he conceded that there had recently been a reduction
in the “warlike activities” and “belligerent Communist propaganda” that so defined
earlier Chinese action.123 Regardless of Dulles’s consciousness of moderate Chinese
policy, American action between 1955-1957 – while reflecting the lull in hostilities
between the Americans and Soviets – showed American officials to be utterly opposed to
Sino-American cooperation and set on toppling the new Chinese regime.124 Dulles,
moreover, carried this general policy into the prisoner issue, as demonstrated by his blunt
rejections of Zhou’s proposals. Many years later in reference to Dulles’s rejection of the
newsmen-prisoner exchange, but surely applicable to all his actions on the prisoner issue
to that point, one New England newspaper pointedly noted that the Secretary of State had
opted “to sacrifice the lives of two young men, whether they be innocent of the charges
or patriotic Americans risking their all for their country.”125
In addition to learning of Dulles’s rejection of Zhou’s latest offer, the American
people also gained more information, in 1957, about the true nature of Downey and
Fecteau’s employment. As this information came from private citizens, not Washington
Chang, Friends and Enemies, 162; Schaller, United States and China in the Twentieth
Century, 149.
“Statement by Secretary Dulles,” press conference of 26 July 1955, Department of
State Bulletin, Volume XXXIII, No. 841, p. 220.
In United States and China in the Twentieth Century, 149, Schaller notes the “rigid
stance” of the United States during these years, pointing specifically to American
rejection of citizen and journalist exchanges with the Chinese.
“Mr. Downey’s Fate,” Bridgeport Post, 19 December 1971.
officials, its dissemination only brought more confusion to an already uncertain case. In
early 1957, Charles Edmundson, a former aide to the United States Information Agency
in Korea, announced during a television interview he was certain the Chinese
Communists were correct in their accusations against Downey and Fecteau. Secretary
Dulles’s adamant rejection of Zhou’s newsmen-prisoner exchange offer further
convinced Edmundson of the men’s guilt. The Secretary’s rejection, according to
Edmundson, stemmed from his fear that American correspondents “might discover that
some of the [prisoners] were United States intelligence agents.”
State Department
officials had thus denied their travel in order to uphold better the “fantastic and
conflicted” reality they were offering to the American public.126
While one could brush off Edmundson’s testimony as conjecture by an individual
no longer involved in the American government, the report of several American students
visiting Downey and Fecteau in September 1957 could not be ignored so easily. The
Chinese invited these ten students, who had just attended the Moscow Youth Festival in
the Soviet capital, to visit the PRC and the American prisoners. For much of their report,
the students discussed the mundane details of Downey and Fecteau’s lives, describing
their cells, their meals, and their recreation. Commenting on their health, the students
recalled that both men appeared physically and mentally fit. Fecteau even boasted to the
Associated Press, “2 Captives of China Called U.S. Agents,” New York Times, 25
February 1957, 46; Charles Edmundson, “The Dulles Brothers in Diplomania,” The
Nation, 9 November 1957, vol. 185, p. 315-318.
students that he was receiving “better meals than Chinese fellow prisoners, including
bread instead of rice.”127
The students’ comments on the prisoners’ health were good news to those
concerned about the men, especially Downey and Fecteau’s families, who the U.S.
government still prohibited from traveling to China. But in a more controversial section
of the report, the students surely shocked Americans when they reported that Richard
Fecteau had admitted he worked for the CIA. According to their report, Fecteau told the
students he had first joined the merchant marine and then enrolled in Boston University,
hoping to become a football coach. It was his desire to earn a better salary, however,
which eventually pushed him into the intelligence agency.128
Edmundson’s statements and the students’ report marked the first public
American accounts that rejected outright Washington’s official story on the two
prisoners.129 If informed men and eye witnesses believed that Downey and Fecteau were
spies, many Americans began to wonder – as Ruth Boss had years earlier – who was
lying. Confusion aside, the public revelations did nothing to change American policy.
The State Department and CIA made no comment on Edmundson’s statements and while
national newspapers thoroughly covered the students’ visit, no one within the Eisenhower
administration discussed it. The only effect of the new information was to bewilder
further many anxious and concerned Americans.
Frederic Grab, “Visitors in Peiping Report 2 Americans in Prison Are Well,” New
York Times, 8 September 1957, 12; Reuters, “U.S. Visitors Tell of 2 Held in China,” New
York Times, 9 September 1957, 7.
Reuters, “U.S. Visitors Tell of 2 Held in China,” New York Times, 9 September 1957,
While Steve Kiba had assured American officials that the two men were agents of the
CIA, his statements were never made public.
In light of the perplexing series of events in early 1957, Ira D. Cardiff, a private
citizen of Yakima, Washington found himself utterly confused about the facts
surrounding the Downey-Fecteau case. Hoping for a fuller explanation of Washington’s
vague policy, Cardiff began writing to government officials, apparently annoying and
worrying them in the process. By early 1957, Cardiff had sent at least two letters to
Congressman Hal Holmes of Washington state, but upon receiving no satisfactory reply
from Holmes, Cardiff redirected his inquiries to the State Department. Through his
letters, Cardiff (unknowingly) did a great deal more than reveal the ambiguity of the case;
even more than Ruth Boss’s 1954 letter, Cardiff’s correspondence helped to expose the
lengths American officials would go to uphold their official story regarding Downey and
Fecteau. Similar to the experience of Steve Kiba upon his return to the U.S., the Cardiff
affair demonstrated that American policy was meant not only to “play down,” but also to
cover up the truth about the prisoners.
In the first of his three letters to Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional
Relations Robert Hill, written in March 1957, Cardiff questioned the “capacity of
employment” of “the two ‘army civilian employees’ [Downey and Fecteau]…previous to
their” imprisonment.130
Evidently the official succinct statement that Downey and
Fecteau were simply civilians working for the Army Department had not satisfied
Cardiff’s curiosity. Upon receiving no reply, Cardiff sent the same letter again on April
20, and then again two and a half weeks later. Finally, on June 7, 1957, eleven weeks
Ira Cardiff to Hill, 21 March 1957, 611.93241/3-2157, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959,
LM153 Roll #10.
after his original letter to Hill, Cardiff received his long awaited reply. In what was
certainly a disappointment to Cardiff, John Meagher of the State Department informed
him that records in Washington “do not contain any further details of the employment of
the two American civilian employees of the Department of the Army.”131
The length of time it took for officials to send Cardiff a reply does not imply
anything about the validity of its contents or a conscious unwillingness to deal with the
Furthermore, the reply itself, while predictably vague, was not particularly
incriminating. Washington officials, however, had been concerned with Cardiff’s letters
since they received the first one in March and it was their reaction to the letters within the
State Department that is especially telling.
Upon receiving the first of Cardiff’s letters to the State Department Marian Evans,
working in the Public Services Division, noted to her superior that it would be ideal to
“file the attached letter…without reply.” Evans rightly anticipated, however, that Cardiff
would not stop sending letters until he received an answer, and she questioned whether
there was not some way to respond to him “without getting too involved.” Furthermore,
Evans wrote that to “avoid giving Mr. Cardiff another person to write to” – a strategy
Cardiff had apparently used to get in touch with Assistant Secretary of State Hill – any
correspondence to Cardiff would be signed in the Public Services Division, not
forwarded to other State Department offices.132 A week later, during an interoffice
John P. Meagher to Cardiff, 7 June 1957, 611.93241/5-757, RG 59, China Files 19551959, LM153 Roll #10.
Marian Evans to Aylward, 10 May 1957, 611.93241/5-1057, RG 59, China Files
1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10.
conversation held solely to discuss Cardiff’s letters, high-level State Department officials
agreed to Evan’s proposed approach.133
While all agreed that any reply to Cardiff – for the sake of ending his barrage of
inquiries – would come from the Public Services Division, officials throughout the
government contributed to its construction. One State Department official had scribbled
in the lower left corner of Cardiff’s third letter a note stating that Assistant Secretary Hill
“requests [r]eply be coordinated with CIA,” demonstrating the intelligence agency’s
interest in the Downey-Fecteau case.134 Further, on May 17 Ralph Clough, Deputy
Director of the Office of Chinese Affairs, produced a “suggested reply” for Cardiff. It
was John Meagher of the Public Services Division who wrote the eventual reply noted
above, but it followed Clough’s suggestion verbatim, and presumably was acceptable to
the CIA and Secretary Dulles. It was an ambiguous, weak response that merely restated
what Cardiff already knew.135
While Cardiff himself got little out of this overdrawn letter fiasco in Washington,
the episode emphasized just how intricate the government cover-up was. The number of
hands through which Cardiff’s letters passed, the amount of time spent on picking the
exact words for a reply, and the degree of coordination between the State Department and
the CIA reinforced how important it was to uphold the official U.S. story regarding the
two men and how crucial it was to deny the truth from the public. In this way, the
Cardiff affair epitomized the American course of action that had prevailed since
Memorandum on “Letter from Ira D. Cardiff,” E.R. Hipsley to John Meagher, 17 May
1957, 611.93241/5-1757, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10.
Note written on letter from Cardiff to State Department, 7 May 1957, 611.93241/5757, RG 59, China Files 1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10.
Ralph Clough to Marian Evans, 17 May 1957, 611.93241/5-1757, RG 59, China Files
1955-1959, LM153 Roll #10.
November 1954; despite officials’ implicit and at times frank acknowledgements of
Downey and Fecteau’s employment by the CIA behind closed doors, they would
continue to insist on a policy of ambiguity and outright deceptiveness when discussing
the issue with the public.
This evasive policy was exactly what State Department
officials had in mind when Walter McConaughy had written his 1954 memorandum.
By the end of 1957, with the ineffective policy of 1954 still intact, American
officials had clearly abandoned the possibility of working with the Chinese to secure the
release of the prisoners. Zhou’s 1957 newsmen-prisoner exchange offer marked the last
substantive opportunity to secure to the release of the prisoners. Further, by that time the
UN had long since abandoned the issue and Ambassadors Johnson and Wang had
suspended their talks in Geneva. By 1957 it appeared that the Chinese, too, had closed
the door on cooperation with Washington. This was due in part to China’s continuing
frustration over the still lingering Taiwan issue. Mao was convinced that improving
Sino-American relations in order to resolve the Taiwan issue was neither possible nor
desired. More integral than Taiwan was the commencement of China’s “Great Leap
Forward.” With this new era in China, Beijing officials distanced themselves both from
Russia – whose style of communism Mao viewed as lacking in revolutionary fervor – and
from the West.136 The successful Russian satellite, Sputnik, furthermore, provided the
Chinese with the confidence necessary to embark down this new path. Thus 1957
marked the climax, to some extent, in the Downey-Fecteau case. Until Richard Nixon
moved into the White House, ushering in a new era of Sino-American relations, it
appeared that little could be accomplished on the prisoner issue.
Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of
North Carolina Press, 2001), 172.
Chapter 2: Onto the Backburner; 1957-1968
While 1957 marked what was to be the last official opportunity to secure the
release of the prisoners until the 1970s, that year also saw the beginning of a series of
initiatives by private citizens that would have a significant impact on the prisoner affair.
Aside from approaching the prisoner affair with compassion, mercy, and openness –
techniques that were lost on American officials – these private citizens laid the basis for a
policy that would secure the releases of John Downey and Richard Fecteau after
government officials finally adopted it in the 1970s. Aside from these private initiatives,
however, 1957-1968 marked a low point in the Downey-Fecteau case. For the remainder
of Eisenhower’s administration, Secretaries of State John Foster Dulles and Christian
Herter maintained the policy developed in 1954.137 Further, the Kennedy and Johnson
administrations, busy with other, more pressing matters, and vulnerable to attacks from
the Right, also did little to change course on the prisoner issue. The Chinese, as well,
seemed to lose interest in the prisoners as they backed away from the lenient, moderate
approach that had characterized their policy from 1955-1957. As a result, the prisoners’
fates ceased to be a high priority in Washington and Beijing; Downey, Fecteau, and
concerned Americans found themselves again, forced to wait.
In April 1959, a month before his death, Dulles resigned as Secretary of State. Under
Secretary of State, Christian Herter, replaced Dulles and held the position for the
remainder of Eisenhower’s presidency.
Prohibited for years from traveling to China to see her son and plead for his
release, Mary Downey had discovered the difficulty in making any progress on the
Despite her meetings – conducted in the few years following the Chinese
broadcast – with Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, Ambassadors Henry Cabot
Lodge and U. Alexis Johnson, Senator William Knowland, and Indian UN Representative
Krishna Menon, Mrs. Downey often felt ignored and helpless. Commenting on his July
1957 meeting with Mrs. Downey, Ambassador Johnson recalled he “was not able to do
much to relieve the very understandable anxieties and fears of a deeply distressed
Helping Mrs. Downey toward her ultimate goal of seeing her son again, the
United States, in late 1957, lifted its nearly three-year old prohibition of travel to the PRC
for relatives of the prisoners. Almost immediately Mrs. Downey began organizing her
trip to China to visit John. Planning to join Mrs. Downey on her trip were her other son,
William, Richard Fecteau’s parents, and Ruth Redmond, whose son Hugh139 was in a
Shanghai prison.140 In allowing the relatives to travel, the U.S. had abandoned, to some
extent, its general travel policy on China, which had prohibited all such visits. Further,
officials helped the relatives prepare for their trips. This assistance consisted mainly of
issuing passports to the families and expediting the naturalization process for Mrs.
Johnson to State Department, 5 July 1957, 611.95A251/7557, RG 59, North Korea
Files 1955-1959, Box 2587.
In April 1951, Redmond, a representative of an American import-export company in
Shanghai, was convicted of espionage and imprisoned.
According to Gup, The Book of Honor, 104, John Downey’s father opted not to travel
to China because “he was unsure that he could control his anger.”
Fecteau, who required American citizenship in order to receive a passport.141 American
action in this regard should be commended, but despite this significant decision,
America’s anti-Chinese travel policy was still visible. Remnants of such policy could be
seen most clearly in Dulles’s decision to express the American “two-China” policy on the
relatives’ passports.142 In doing so, Dulles made clear that his decision to allow the
relatives to visit China represented an exception to American policy, not a harbinger of
fundamental and permanent change in the near future.
Regardless of the decision’s implication on future policy, the families’ trip to
China proceeded. The relatives hoped to visit the prisoners over the Christmas holiday,
but the three families could not coordinate such a trip quite so quickly.143 It was on New
Year’s Eve that Mary and William Downey met Phillip and Jesse Fecteau in New York
to begin their trip. Mrs. Redmond joined the group the next day and the five of them
commenced their journey, first to San Francisco, then to Hawaii, then to Tokyo, and then
to Hong Kong. At the Hong Kong-Chinese border the trip nearly ended abruptly when
Chinese guards objected to certain words in the American passports that questioned PRC
sovereignty. The objection, provoked by Dulles’s insistence that America’s “two-China”
policy be explicit, delayed entrance and frightened Mrs. Downey into thinking her
Mrs. Jessie Fecteau, a native of Newfoundland, had not yet been naturalized when
Dulles announced his decision to allow her to travel to China. Instead of the normal
thirty-day delay between application and naturalization, United States officials processed
and approved Fecteau’s application in five days; Dana Adams Schmidt, “U.S. Captives’
Kin Ask Chinese Visas,” New York Times, 17 December 1957, 10
While American officials had come to recognize the permanence of the Beijing
government, officially they would recognize only the Nationalist regime in Taiwan as the
true Chinese government. This “two-China” policy would remain intact until the
development of Sino-American détente in the 1970s.
Schmidt, “U.S. Captives’ Kin Ask Chinese Visas,” New York Times, 17 December
1957, 10.
“journey had been in vain.”144 Fortunately, the matter was resolved and the five travelers
entered China. From the border, the Americans took a lengthy train ride west to Canton,
from where the Downeys and Fecteaus took a plane to Beijing. Mrs. Redmond traveled
alone by plane to Shanghai, where her son was imprisoned.145
The Downeys and Fecteaus spent a total of eighteen days on this initial visit to
China after the Chinese granted the families an extra week’s stay in the country.146 The
Chinese permitted the families to see the prisoners every other day, for two hours at a
time, giving them a total of seven meetings together.147 The sessions provided the
families with the much needed time to enjoy John and Richard’s company and showed
the prisoners to be in good shape both physically and mentally.
Mrs. Downey
commented, “Jack looked well…his spirits were good…he never showed signs of
To culminate their time together, on their seventh and last session with the
prisoners, the families organized a good-bye lunch for the men. In preparation, the two
mothers “dashed around,” buying American-style food for their sons. In the end, the
lunch consisted of steaks, vegetables, coffee, and a great deal of ice cream that provided
John Downey with fond memories of home. The American feast was surely a welcomed
Mary Downey as told to J. Robert Moskin, “A Mother’s Story…My Son Is a Prisoner
in Red China,” Look, 6 December 1960, vol. 24, p. 72, 75-79.
While Redmond was imprisoned in a different prison than Downey and Fecteau
indications are that his experiences had been quite similar to the other two men.
Drumright to Dulles, 17 January 1958, 611.95A251/1-1758, RG 59, North Korea Files
1955-1959, Box 2587.
During their time away from the prisoners, the relatives went sightseeing throughout
China as guests of the Chinese Red Cross. Drumright to Dulles, 27 January 1958,
611.95A251/1- 2758, RG 59, North Korea Files 1955-1959, Box 2587.
Downey, “A Mother’s Story…My Son Is a Prisoner in Red China,” Look, 6 December
1960, vol. 24, p. 72, 75-79.
change from the “dull” food to which the men had grown accustomed.149 The lunch was
also the first time that Mary and William Downey had met Richard Fecteau and it was
likely the first encounter between Jessie and Phillip Fecteau and John Downey. John and
Richard, in fact, had only seen each other three times since their imprisonment,150 and
thus the celebratory lunch was a rare treat for the two prisoners as well.
In addition to serving as a family reunion, the trip provided the relatives with the
opportunity to confront the Chinese directly and plead for the men’s releases. Mary
Downey, who had already conducted such meetings in the U.S., took advantage of this
opportunity, petitioning Foreign Minister Zhou for John’s freedom. Though the Chinese
assured Mrs. Downey that Zhou understood “the feelings behind” the appeal and that
John’s good behavior could still bring about an earlier release, in the end, they denied her
While the Downeys claimed to be “surprised” by the “speed of [the]
rejection,” Mrs. Downey also commented that release of John at that point would have
been a “miracle.”152
Like his mother, William Downey used his time abroad not only to see his brother
but to try to secure his release as well. William knew that John was guilty of the Chinese
Ibid.; Drumright to Dulles, 27 January 1958, 611.95A251/1-2758, RG 59, North
Korea Files 1955-1959, Box 2587.
Downey and Fecteau had been together for a photo session with the 11-member
Arnold crew, on a tour of China, and most likely in 1957 when the American students
came to visit both men. Drumright to Dulles, 27 January 1958, 611.95A251/1-2758, RG
59, North Korea Files 1955-1959, Box 2587.
Downey, “A Mother’s Story…My Son Is a Prisoner in Red China,” Look, 6 December
1960, vol. 24, p. 72, 75-79.
Ibid.; Drumright to Dulles, 27 January 1958, 611.95A251/1-2758, RG 59, North
Korea Files 1955-1959, Box 2587.
charges and thus his efforts to free his brother, like those of Mary Downey, relied on
compassion, not on proving John’s innocence.153 Differing in technique from his mother,
though, William attempted to free John through the Chinese legal system – the institution
that many in America blamed for the prisoners’ captivity. In July 1959, after visiting his
brother in China, William Downey, with the help of Hong Kong lawyer Percy Chen,
commenced the process of appealing John’s sentence. On October 1 William submitted
to the Chinese Supreme People’s Court an appeal for the release of John Downey.
Compared to the initiatives of the U.S. government, the appeal was quite
remarkable. First, it carefully stressed the private nature of the lawsuit. A criminal case
such as Downey’s, the appeal insisted, “is purely a matter within the domestic
jurisdiction of a state.” As such, there was no room for outside involvement from any
“foreign country [clearly referring to the U.S.] or…the United Nations.” Second, the
appeal did not harp on international settlements such as the Korean Armistice Agreement
or, implicitly, the Sino-American Agreed Announcement made at Geneva.154 Third, the
appeal made clear that the Downeys were protesting “against the sentence and not against
[the] conviction.” Implicitly accepting John Downey’s guilt, the appeal argued that a life
In January 1958, during one of William’s visits with his brother, John remarked that
“he [was] getting what he deserved.” Coming during one of William’s meetings with
John in the Chinese prison, the remark was never made public, but its occurrence surely
struck a blow to William’s personal belief that his brother was innocent. Drumright to
Dulles, 27 January 1958, 611.95A251/1-2758, RG 59, North Korea Files 1955-1959, Box
“Petition by way of Appeal of John Downey against sentence of life imprisonment
passed on him by the Military Tribunal of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s
Republic of China on 23rd November 1954,” attached to Jacobson to American Consulate
General in Hong Kong, 11 August 1960, 293.1111-Downey, John Thomas, RG 59, China
Files 1967-1969, Box 258.
sentence was far too harsh in light of the prisoner’s youth, the precepts of socialism, and
China’s “traditional…spirit of humanitarianism.”155
While William and his mother differed in their specific tactics, both strategies
sought mercy and closure and were, in that respect, stark contrast from Dulles’s calls for
“punishment” and “compensation.”156 Despite the Downeys’ refreshing approaches, in
the end, their appeals failed. The Chinese court rejected Will Downey’s appeal and Mrs.
Downey’s initial trip abroad ended with John still in jail and no release on the horizon.
Further, aside from any personal relief that the 1958 trip brought to the Downeys and
Fecteaus, this initial visit appeared to have done little to advance the ultimate goal of
releasing the men. Secretary-General Hammarskjold’s hopes, in early 1955, that visits
and personal appeals from family members would expedite the release process, never
Part of the reason that these early private initiatives had little success was that
they were not supported, in any significant way, by a shift in official American policy.
Throughout the whole of Eisenhower’s administration the precedent set by Secretary of
State Dulles held strong. Moreover, the election of 1960, which ushered in nearly a
decade of Democratic leadership, did practically nothing to reverse this course. In part,
this was due to the relative continuity between the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson
administrations. Over a dozen high-level Eisenhower officials, throughout the State
American Consul Geneva to American Embassy London, 25 November 1954,
611.95A241/11-2554, RG 59, North Korea Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Department and White House, found themselves with influential positions in the
Democratic administrations. Several, including Walter McConaughy, Ralph Clough,
Edwin Martin, and U. Alexis Johnson, had been directly involved in constructing
American policy on Downey and Fecteau.
Just as important to the continuation of Dulles’s policy in the 1960s were
international relations, and their impact at home. With the Cold War still going strong in
that decade and with American distrust and animus toward the PRC still intense,
Democratic presidents saw little political benefit in altering the inherited policy on the
prisoner issue. Furthermore, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson carried
the extra burden of being members of the party that had, according to leading
Republicans, “lost” China and contaminated the State Department with communist
sympathizers. It had been Dulles and his conservative allies in Congress, moreover, who
were responsible for many of these accusations. This stigma, largely unfair yet present
nonetheless, made relative consistency with the Eisenhower administration, specifically
on relations with China, especially appealing to the vulnerable Democratic
administrations. Even without this stigma, monumental events such as the Bay of Pigs
disaster, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the creation of the Berlin Wall, and the ever-escalating
Vietnam War, monopolized the attention of Kennedy and Johnson; the fates of Downey
and Fecteau were dwarfed by comparison.
Changes in China, too, are responsible for the failure to resolve the prisoner issue.
With the commencement of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s the Chinese further
abandoned the moderate foreign policy they employed in the previous decade. With the
launch of Russia’s Sputnik in 1957 and the Chinese acquisition of an atomic bomb in
1964, the Chinese enjoyed the confidence necessary to carry out a more revolutionary
and anti-American foreign policy. Refusing to cooperate with the United States, the
Chinese made even more difficult any resolution on the prisoners.
China’s new course of action reinforced to American officials the importance of
standing firm on Cold War policy. Thus, without any sufficient reason to shift American
policy on the prisoners – and with significant reasons not to – Kennedy and Johnson
followed, for the most part, the blueprint that Dulles had developed. Just as Washington
officials had throughout the 1950s, Kennedy and Johnson responded to passionate calls
for the prisoners’ releases from relatives, concerned citizens, and American politicians
with familiar assurances that the U.S. government was “actively and continuously
concerned” with the fates of Downey and Fecteau.157 Furthermore, American officials
continued referring to the September 10 Agreed Announcement – which, according to
American officials, had yet to bring about the desired or intended results – as evidence
that it was the Chinese, not the Americans, whose inaction was prolonging Downey and
Fecteau’s imprisonments.158
More than just representing an absence of change, the policies of Kennedy and
Johnson marginalized the prisoner issue. During the 1950s President Eisenhower and
Secretary of State Dulles had regularly dealt with the prisoner affair in public. Both men
spoke about Downey, Fecteau, and the other prisoners at several press conferences a year
This phrase was part of a standard reply letter that can be found in Frederick G.
Dutton to Senator Magnuson, 8 January 1962, 611.93251/1-862, RG 59, China Files
1960-1963, M1855 Roll #126; and Dutton to Congressman Bates, 30 April 1962,
611.95A241/4- 1762, RG 59, North Korea Files 1960-1963, M1855 Roll #133.
Such a argument was laid out in “Americans Imprisoned in Communist China,”
attached to David Dean to Shepherd, no date, POL 7-1 US-CHICOM/Downey, John
Thomas, RG 59, China Files 1967-1969, Box 258.
and Eisenhower referred to them in two State of the Union addresses. Further, it was the
Eisenhower administration that had initially brought the prisoner issue to the floor of the
Conversely, while curious and concerned Americans prevented Kennedy and
Johnson from completely dismissing the prisoner issue, the 1960s marked a significant
decline in the publicity of the Downey-Fecteau case.
Unlike the frequent – yet
ineffective – attention given by Eisenhower and Dulles, Kennedy spoke publicly about
the men only four times, and Johnson never mentioned them at all.
The decline in interest can be blamed in part on the consistently malevolent nature
of Sino-American relations and in part on the stalemate on the prisoners that had
developed by the end of 1957. With diplomatic efforts having expired and American
presidents refusing to cooperate with the Chinese, American policy presented little hope
of bringing the prisoners home. In China, as well, the brief period of conciliation with
the U.S. beginning in 1955 ended in 1957, making resolution on the prisoner issue more
difficult.159 This decline of both progress and opportunity effectively turned the fates of
Downey and Fecteau into non-issues as both countries seemed content to leave the
prisoner question on the backburner for the time being. It would take the dramatic shift
in Sino-American relations upon Richard Nixon’s election to reinvigorate public and
governmental interest in Downey and Fecteau.
Serving as exceptions to the fatigue that washed over the American public in the
1960s, a series of international events during the decade sparked a resurgence of interest
Chang, Friends and Enemies, 162
– albeit short-lived – in the Downey-Fecteau case.
In 1962 the Russians released
American pilot Gary Powers, who had been in prison since May 1, 1960 after Soviet
forces shot down his U-2 spy plane over Russia.
That same year the new Cuban
government released from prison over 1,000 Cuban exiles who were involved in a CIAled attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime in April 1961. Finally, in late
1968 the North Koreans released the crew of the USS Pueblo, the members of which had
been imprisoned in January of that year for attempted espionage.
More significant than the news of the prisoners’ releases was the manner in which
the U.S. secured them. While the Russians maintained that they released Powers as a
good will gesture, he likely was swapped for a Russian spy being held in a U.S. prison.
The release of the Cuban exiles unquestionably was the result of a $53 million ransom in
food and medical supplies paid to the Cuban government from various sources in
America. Finally, the Pueblo crew’s release appears to have been the result of American
diplomacy and an official apology to the North Koreans.160 While certainly pleased by
the release of the prisoners, many Americans could not help thinking that their
government could and should take these same actions to secure the releases of Downey
and Fecteau.
To this end, several American politicians and private citizens wrote to
Washington officials demanding that Downey and Fecteau be given the same attention as
the other prisoners. It was the release of the Cubans that appeared most promising to
concerned Americans.
Congressman Thomas Lane, for one, hoped that the Cuban
While Americans agreed to sign a confession, it was understood by both the
Americans and the North Koreans that American officials would immediately repudiate it
as “complete fabrication,” Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the
President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), 466-67.
example “offers hope that Communist China will be receptive to similar negotiations.”161
Further, at the few press conferences in which Kennedy was forced to address Downey
and Fecteau, it was usually in response to questions regarding a food-for-prisoners
exchange with the Chinese.
Unfortunately, as President Kennedy pointed out, the
Chinese government had never requested such aid from the United States, meaning that
an exchange offer was certainly not on the table. Kennedy’s unwillingness to exchange
food for prisoners was not, however, simply due to the lack of Chinese initiative. In
language reminiscent of Dulles several years earlier, Kennedy assured the public that
even if the Chinese had made such an offer, the United States would likely pass since he
was still soured by Downey and Fecteau’s unjust imprisonments.162 Rejecting outright a
proposal that had yet to be made, Kennedy’s statement reinforced the staying power of
Dulles’s stubborn policy.
In the 1960s, with almost no action from the Chinese or American governments,
the only significant developments on the prisoner issue came in the form of private
initiatives. Following her trip in 1958, Mary Downey, often accompanied by her son
William, revisited John five more times before he was released. Despite the seriousness
and unusual nature of the situation, Mrs. Downey’s trips to see John fell into a kind of
routine. The Chinese allowed Mrs. Downey to visit with her son for several two-hour
Thomas Lane to Dean Rusk, 27 December 1962, 293.1111-Fecteau, Richard/12-2762,
RG 59, China Files 1967-1969, Box 258.
Kennedy was responding to a Peace Corps official’s question on the potential of
sending food to the PRC. “Remarks at a Meeting with the Headquarters Staff of the Peace
Corps,” 14 June 1962, Public Papers of the President of the United States, John F.
Kennedy, 1962 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963), 487-88.
sessions during her stay and she was able to bring gifts for John and Richard.163 Her
visits would usually bring her a sense of relief as she found her son in good shape and
good spirits but, despite Chinese assurances that John’s sentence could be shortened,
Chinese officials consistently rejected her pleas for his release.164
As the frustrated Downeys were traveling to and from China, a college
acquaintance of John Downey, Jerome Cohen, was also busy developing an ingenious
strategy meant to secure his old friend’s freedom.
Since 1966, when Downey’s
imprisonment was the hot topic at Cohen’s fifteenth year Yale reunion, Cohen had been
actively involved in the case. At the reunion the class of 1951 selected Cohen, a legal
scholar specializing in Asian law, to head any action on behalf of Downey’s release.
Even before taking on this new responsibility, Cohen’s profession forced him to
spend a great deal of time corresponding and meeting with Chinese diplomats and
government officials. With no official diplomatic relations between the United States
and the PRC throughout Downey’s imprisonment, however, Cohen frequently found
himself in Ottawa meeting with China’s Ambassador to Canada, Huang Hua.
Throughout the two men’s numerous discussions, on all aspects of Sino-American
relations, Downey’s case often made an appearance. In the course of these meetings,
Mrs. Downey mentioned that she brought cigars, cigarettes, and magazines for
Fecteau but she was not able to see him. “U.S. Woman Visits Son in Peiping Jail,” New
York Times, 17 August 1960, 11.
Examples of such assurances by the Chinese can be found in “Mrs. Downey Hopes
China Will Free Son,” New York Times, 26 August 1960, 2; Associated Press, “Mrs.
Downey Home From China,” New York Times, 27 August 1960, 3; Reuters, “Mrs.
Downey Fails in Plea to Red China to Free Son,” New York Times, 27 May 1962, 14;
Associated Press, “China Said to Review Jailed American’s Case,” New York Times, 15
November 1971, 13.
Cohen regularly brought up a “face saving” plan to expedite Downey’s release, a plan he
would continue to press for until the Chinese eventually set Downey free.
Like others involved in the case, Cohen knew that Downey was a CIA agent; he
clearly remembered representatives from the new agency “recruit[ing]” Downey several
years after it had been established.165 Cohen suggested to Huang that if the United States
would simply admit this to China, the Chinese could release Downey without appearing
weak. Though Cohen was the first American to advocate outright such an idea, the
strategy was not new. Upon his return to the U.S, Steve Kiba had informed American
officials that the Chinese would certainly welcome such an approach. Further, Cohen’s
“face saving” plan was based on the same rationale as Hammarskjold’s proposal in 1955
to send the prisoners’ families to the PRC; both gave the Chinese a way to release the
prisoners without losing credibility and strength on the international stage.
Huang regularly was noncommittal to Cohen’s proposal. Like Kiba, Huang was
sure that the Chinese would accept such a deal, but the Ambassador held no authority to
execute such a policy and thus he was not able to give Cohen any guarantees.166 Cohen,
as well, had no official affiliation with the American administrations of the 1960s and
thus his initial proposal had no governmental backing. With high-level American and
Chinese officials keeping their distance from Cohen’s strategy during the 1960s, the
“face saving” scheme, like others before it, was unable to achieve its goal.
The details of Downey’s recruitment were very similar to those of other college
students whom the CIA selected in the early years of the Cold War. CIA recruiters
visited prestigious universities throughout the country recruiting bright young men
seeking adventure. According to Jerome Cohen, out of the thirty Yale students interested
in the job, the CIA accepted only six. Leary, Perilous Missions, 139; Breuer, Shadow
Warriors, 216; Jerome Cohen interview, 2 December 2003.
Cohen interview.
Regardless of its initial failure, Cohen’s actions continued on the heels of what
Mary and William Downey had begun years earlier, and in this way his initiative was
significant. Further, when the Chinese finally released Downey in 1973, it was due to
Nixon’s admission that Downey and Fecteau had been working for the CIA when the
Chinese had captured them two decades earlier. Thus, if nothing else, Cohen’s meetings
highlighted just how easy it would have been for American officials to secure Downey
and Fecteau’s releases earlier than they did. Had officials in the Eisenhower, Kennedy,
or Johnson administrations simply acknowledged the truth regarding the two men’s
employment, the course of Downey and Fecteau’s imprisonments might very well have
worked out differently.
Chapter 3: Clearing the Slate; 1969-1973
That John Downey and Richard Fecteau could never receive the government
attention and action they required as long as Sino-American relations remained
unfriendly reinforced how closely linked the prisoners’ fates were to the Cold War as a
whole. It made sense, therefore, that a true shift in American policy on the prisoners
emerged only with the election of Richard Nixon and the commencement of SinoAmerican détente.167 With Sino-Soviet tensions at a high point and American success in
Vietnam being consistently frustrated, Chinese and American officials saw advantages to
a more conciliatory relationship between their countries.168 In the 1970s both nations’
governments loosened restrictions on travel and trade, and Nixon provided the PRC with
a degree of respect and legitimacy that previous presidents had intentionally and
adamantly withheld. It was only in this unprecedented period of rapprochement that both
countries could agree upon terms of release for the remaining American prisoners in
In February 1972, in order to reinforce symbolically his commitment to SinoAmerican détente, Nixon, after stepping off his plane in China, “made a point of
extending [his] hand” in order to shake Zhou Enlai’s hand. Such a gesture was meant to
placate Zhou, who had been insulted by Secretary Dulles at the Geneva Conference in
1954 when the Secretary refused to shake the Foreign Minister’s hand. Richard Nixon,
The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 559.
Nixon hoped to intimidate Hanoi officials into negotiating by increasing his
cooperation with Beijing. Schaller, United States and China in the Twentieth Century,
In addition to Downey and Fecteau, the Chinese were also holding Major Philip E.
Smith of the Air Force, Lieutenant Commander Robert J. Flynn of the Navy, and Mary
Ann Harbert, an American civilian. Smith was shot down and captured by the Chinese in
1965, as was Flynn in 1967. Both men had been fleeing from North Vietnamese fighter
jets when they crossed into the PRC. Harbert’s yacht had accidentally crossed into
Chinese water when the Chinese captured her in 1968. The Chinese released Harbert in
December 1971 along with Richard Fecteau, and released Smith and Flynn on March 15,
Throughout 1971 and early 1972, in light of Nixon’s coming trip to the PRC in
February 1972, politicians and private citizens bombarded the President with letters
urging Nixon to work out a release for Downey and Fecteau during his visit. Like earlier
correspondence to the Eisenhower administration, these letters expressed personal
sympathy with the two prisoners and a strong desire to see their return to the U.S. They
differed significantly, however, in their lack of inflammatory accusations – so common in
earlier letters – which blamed the Chinese alone for the imprisonments.
What occupied most of the letters instead was praise for Nixon’s proposed trip as
a step toward world peace. In this way, some saw negotiations on the release of the two
prisoners, also, as a step toward this eventual international harmony. As Connecticut
Congresswoman Ella Grasso noted in a letter to Nixon, the release of Downey and
Fecteau “would serve as a beacon of hope and a symbol of trust both to people of our
country and throughout the world.”170 The contrast between Grasso’s letter and that of
Connecticut Congressman Thomas Dodd in 1954, in which Dodd insisted that the United
States “move beyond…diplomatic protest” if Downey and Fecteau were not released, is
1973. Footnote to “Press Conference Remarks,” Public Papers of the President of the
United States, Richard Nixon, 1973 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government
Printing Office, 1975), 63 (hereinafter PPRN, and year); Henry Tanner, “Senator Scott
Foresees Vietnam Pullout by May,” New York Times, 19 July 1971, 1, 10; R. W. Apple,
Jr., “U.S. and China Will Soon Set Up Offices in Capitals for Liaison; Peking to Free
Two Americans,” New York Times, 23 February 1973, 1, 15; Associated Press, “Chinese
Release Fecteau but Keep Downey in Prison,” New York Times, 13 December 1971, 1,
Ella Grasso to Richard Nixon, 19 July 1971, TR24C034-2, Nixon Presidential
Material, White House Central Files (hereinafter WHCF), Trip Files, Box 58.
striking.171 Change was also apparent in Nixon’s responses to the letters. In his replies
Nixon, like Dulles before him, acknowledged the problem and made clear his
determination to secure the release of the men. Differing from the Secretary of State,
however, Nixon made clear that if he pursued the prisoner issue during his February trip,
the men’s releases, not the punishment of PRC officials, would be his main concern.172
Clearly, American politicians had rearranged their priorities in accordance with SinoAmerican détente, now placing the releases of the two Americans above (or squarely
within the new) Cold War politics. If securing the freedom of Downey and Fecteau were
merely a political tactic to better Sino-American relations or simply a side effect of
détente, at least American Cold War policy in the 1970s was compatible with ending the
Americans’ imprisonments.
More significant than Nixon’s correspondence, American officials were inching
toward a total admission of guilt in the prisoner affair. Helping it on this path was
Downey’s college acquaintance, Jerome Cohen. Still set on securing Downey’s release,
Cohen continued to push his “face saving” plan on anyone who would listen. He had
struggled in this quest throughout the 1960s (only Chinese Ambassador to Canada,
Huang Hua, listened extensively), but in summer 1971 Cohen found a willing ear when
he addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a legal expert on the PRC
Cohen, along with two other China experts, testified to Senator William Fulbright’s
committee on current Sino-American relations.173 During his address, Cohen delved into
Dodd to Eisenhower, 30 November 1954, 611.95A241/11-3054, RG 59, North Korea
Files 1950-1954, Box 2886.
Nixon to Francis W. Sargent, 8 October 1971, TR24 JL3 C034-2, Nixon Presidential
Material, WHCF, Trip Files, Box 59.
Barbara Tuchman and Arthur Galston testified along with Cohen.
the still unresolved case of Downey and Fecteau. Cohen’s testimony was very blunt; he
informed the Senator that the truth of the case was very much as the Chinese had been
alleging since November 1954. Seeing the facts of the case as “rather clear,” Cohen
could not understand why the United States government had not confessed years earlier.
Using the notable Pueblo incident of 1968 as an example, Cohen noted that even though
that situation involved a “more ambiguous…violation of international law,” American
officials quickly had made both an “apology and confession.”174
The solution, as Cohen saw it, was for American officials to carry out his “facesaving” plan. He explained that the 1970s were “a very different era” in regard to SinoAmerican relations, and if the United States government would both “admit that the facts
are as stated by the Chinese” and display “regret for the whole incident,” it was likely
that the Chinese would release the prisoners.175 Senator Fulbright’s response to Cohen’s
address, while not remarkable, was significant in its distinction from earlier official
statements. There was no mechanical return, on Fulbright’s part, to the official story
prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. Further, there was no resort to the ambiguity, brevity,
or deceit proposed in the 1954 McConaughy memorandum. While the senator appeared
somewhat unfamiliar with the details of the Downey-Fecteau case, he seemed more than
willing to use any strategy necessary to hasten the prisoners’ releases.
Testimony of Jerome A. Cohen, 25 June 1971, Hearings Before the Committee on
Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 92nd Congress, 1st Session, United States
Relations with the People’s Republic of China (Washington: Government Printing Office,
1972), 153.
concluded his dialogue by assuring Cohen that he would recommend the “face-saving”
plan to the State Department.176
In addition to Cohen’s testimony, secret meetings between Nixon’s National
Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai in summer 1971
foreshadowed significant change in American policy on the prisoners. Beginning in July,
the talks were a means of commencing a diplomatic and civil relationship between the
two countries, and while the main objective of the meetings was to resolve, or at least
discuss, the Taiwan issue, Zhou and Kissinger exchanged words on the remaining
American prisoners in China. During the talks, Kissinger’s demeanor was humble and he
repeatedly made clear that the American government no longer maintained that the
imprisonments had been a violation of international law; releasing Downey, Fecteau, and
the other Americans would be “a favor,” and “an act of mercy.”177 This new approach
was reminiscent of private attempts, made a decade earlier, which stressed the importance
of compassion and not necessarily justice. Further, by stressing that the Chinese had
never violated international law by imprisoning the Americans, Kissinger was rapidly
moving toward total admission of guilt.
America’s new approach to the prisoner issue seemed to pay off immediately; in
December 1971, two months before Nixon departed for the PRC, the Chinese released
forty-four year old Richard Fecteau, after the American had served seventeen years of his
twenty-year sentence. In addition, the Chinese announced they had commuted John
Memo on “U.S. Prisoners of War,” 11 October 1971, Nixon Presidential Material,
NSC Files, Box 1034.
Downey’s sentence to five remaining years, placing his expected release late in 1976.178
The Chinese action marked the first positive development in the prisoner affair since the
Chinese had released John Arnold’s crew in summer 1955.
Unlike the American
response at that time, however, Nixon officials recognized the 1971 release and
commutation as a “good-will gesture” on the part of the Chinese.179
The excited atmosphere surrounding both Sino-American détente in general and
progress on the prisoner issue in particular, could easily blind one to the fact that
Washington officials in the early 1970s had not yet abandoned completely the policy of
prior decades. The Chinese decisions to release Fecteau three years early and to reduce
Downey’s life sentence signified, for the most part, Sino-American détente, not total
American disclosure of the truth about the prisoners. While Fulbright’s response to
Cohen and Kissinger’s private comments to Zhou were large steps forward, newspapers,
government memoranda, and Washington officials in the early 1970s still referred to
Downey and Fecteau as “civilian Army employees,” and their fateful mission as a
“routine flight from Korea to Japan.” The State Department, as well, “still refused to
concede” that Downey and Fecteau had been CIA employees.180
Even Nixon’s
correspondence on the prisoner issue – while lacking the adamant rejection of guilt that
had characterized earlier government documents – in no way professed America’s
“A Present From Zhou,” Newsweek, 27 December 1971.
“Chinese Release Fecteau but Keep Downey in Prison,” New York Times, 13
December 1971, 1, 25.
Associated Press, “U.S. Won’t Concede Or Deny Fecteau Was on Spy Mission,”
Washington Post, 15 December 1971, 27.
Fortunately for Downey, these remnants of decades past faded fast. In addition to
reviewing Cohen’s “face saving” plan, the State Department had, by 1971, “modified” its
own response to questions surrounding Downey and Fecteau’s employment in the CIA
from one of adamant denial to one of dispassionate silence. Still not admitting outright
the men’s guilt, officials insisted they would “no longer deny the charges” either.181
While this taciturn response could hardly be taken as admission, the modified approach
was, nonetheless, a refreshing shift from the hostile and overly defensive policy of
Secretary Dulles.
Even more remarkable was Nixon’s statement on January 31, 1973, in which he
admitted for the first time that there was some connection between the CIA and Downey
and Fecteau’s 1952 mission. Asked by a reporter about the possible release of Downey
from the Chinese prison, Nixon responded that Downey’s was a “different case” since it
“involves a C.I.A. agent.” Nixon further commented that any release of Downey must be
up to the Chinese, and “bellicose statements” emanating from Washington would not
help “in getting his release.”182
Despite the monumental importance of Nixon’s
acknowledgement of Downey and Fecteau’s employment in the CIA and was certainly
not an admission to Washington’s complicity in and cover-up of their espionage
While most newspapers took the President’s statement to be a complete
admission to Downey and Fecteau’s involvement in the CIA, his indirectness led one
New England newspaper to question whether Nixon’s response had been intended, or
Nixon, “Press Conference Remarks,” 31 January 1973, PPRN
, 1973, 62-63.
merely “a slip of the tongue.”183 Further, the brevity of Nixon’s response raised the
possibility that he had not been intending to make a prepared, definitive statement
regarding Downey’s employment.184
Any thoughts that Nixon’s press conference statement had been unintended or
intentionally vague were made moot in the following weeks.
Following the news
conference, Nixon made no attempt to deny his implication of a Downey-CIA link.
Furthermore, one New York Times article possibly misinterpreted Nixon’s response on
Downey’s employment; the article reported that Nixon “conceded…that [Downey] was
an agent of the C.I.A.”185 As the transcript makes clear, Nixon made no such clear-cut
statement. In light of the fact that there was no backlash on the part of the Nixon
administration against the Times’, however, it appears that the disparity between the
newspaper report and Nixon’s actual statement was one of semantics, not fundamental
Cohen’s testimony to Fulbright’s committee, Kissinger’s talks with Zhou, the
slight shift in State Department policy, and Nixon’s admission all showed that American
priorities had changed; no longer was making the Chinese look like international enemies
of greater or equal importance than securing the release of the remaining Americans.
Further, as U.S. and PRC officials continued their efforts to secure a hospitable
relationship with each other, it became casually accepted that the CIA had employed John
Robert Waters, “Nixon’s Reference to Downey – A Slip or a Message to China?,”
Hartford Courant, 10 February 1973.
This possibility was amplified due to Nixon’s error when discussing Downey’s prison
sentence. When discussing China’s commutation of Downey’s sentence, Nixon
incorrectly stated that Downey’s sentence had originally been thirty years. Nixon, “Press
Conference Remarks,” 31 January 1973, PPRN
, 1973, 63.
Apple, “U.S. and China Will Soon Set Up Offices in Capitals for Liaison; Peking to
Free Two Americans,” New York Times, 23 February 1973, 1, 15.
Downey (and by implication Richard Fecteau), and had orchestrated the doomed 1952
mission – two facts that the Chinese and numerous Americans had known since the
1950s.186 By 1973 national newspapers, which had previously been careful to preface
Downey and Fecteau’s involvement in the CIA with phrases such as “according to the
Chinese,” and “allegedly” now explicitly described Downey as “an agent of the Central
Intelligence Agency,” and a “C.I.A. prisoner.”187 Clearly, United States officials and the
American public had accepted the actuality of Downey and Fecteau as CIA agents and
were ready to use that concession to secure Downey’s release.
While Sino-American détente and constructive efforts within Washington and
Beijing made Downey’s release inevitable, it was the ailing health of Downey’s mother
in March 1973 that supposedly served as the main impetus for immediate action. With
the help of Governor Thomas J. Meskill of Connecticut, a boyhood friend of Downey,
Nixon worked out an agreement with the Chinese to hasten Downey’s release. In light of
In addition to Secretary of State Dulles, top CIA officials certainly knew of the
prisoners’ guilt as well. CIA Director Richard Helms, testifying before the Senate
Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities in 1973 used Downey and Fecteau as
examples of how the CIA dealt with agents captured abroad. He explained that during
their imprisonments “their salaries were paid just as though they were on our rolls, so
when they came out they had quite a tidy piece of money to take care of them for
whatever period of time they wanted to use it for.” Testimony of Richard Helms,
“Hearings Before the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the
United States Senate,” 93rd Congress, 1st Session, Presidential Campaign Activities of
1972 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), 3277.
Such labels can be found in Apple, “U.S. and China Will Soon Set Up Offices in
Capitals for Liaison; Peking to Free Two Americans,” New York Times, 23 February
1973, 1, 15; “China to Free Downey of the C.I.A. Monday,” New York Times, 10 March
1973, 1; and Lawrence Fellows, “Peking’s 20-Year C.I.A. Prisoner: John Thomas
Downey,” New York Times, 10 March 1973, 10.
Mary Downey’s health, Foreign Minister Zhou promised to release John Downey, now
forty-two, on March 12, 1973.188 The Nixon administration welcomed the announcement
with celebration, and Washington officials rightfully recognized the Chinese for their
integral role in the release.
Regardless of the cover story, however, Mrs. Downey’s health was not the true
reason for John’s release; claiming that it was cast the Chinese as a philanthropic people
and allowed American officials to sidestep, yet again, the ugly political reasons behind
Downey’s twenty-year imprisonment in the first place. The actual decision to release
John Downey had come before his mother fell ill, during additional Zhou-Kissinger talks
in February 1973. At that time Zhou made it clear to Kissinger that while Downey would
certainly be freed, his release “would be expedited” if the Americans were to give the
Chinese “a compassionate reason” to do so. Such a reason emerged one month later with
Mrs. Downey’s failing health.189 But Kissinger and Zhou both knew that the true reason
behind the release was Nixon’s admission that Downey and Fecteau were indeed CIA
agents – a concession that, unlike Mrs. Downey’s failing health, could have easily come
twenty years earlier.
Whatever China’s actual reason for the release, on March 12 a “smiling” John
Thomas Downey crossed over the Chinese border into Hong Kong. Newspapers reported
him to be “in good shape” and he appeared thrilled and appreciative regarding his release.
From Hong Kong, Downey flew to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where his
brother William greeted him.
Together the two brothers then flew to Hartford,
In addition to releasing Downey, Zhou promised to release Major Smith and
Lieutenant Commander Flynn on March 15, 1973. United Press International, “China to
Free Downey of the C.I.A. Monday,” New York Times, 10 March 1973, 1.
Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982), 70.
Connecticut to spend time with their critically ill mother.190 With the release, Kissinger
later commented, Beijing and Washington had cleared “the slate at last of the human
legacies of the period of hostility between” the two nations.191
Upon their returns, both Richard Fecteau and John Downey attempted to live
normal lives, acknowledging their pasts but looking toward their futures.
rejoined the CIA, where he remained until 1976. The next year he accepted an offer to
work as the assistant athletic director at his alma mater, Boston University, a job he kept
for twelve years.192 In 1973 Downey retired from the CIA and applied to law school,
twenty-two years after graduating from college. With the assistance of his friend, Jerome
Cohen, now a professor of law at Harvard, Downey entered Harvard Law School and
upon graduation joined a small law firm in Connecticut.193 Starting in 1978 he tried his
luck at politics, running unsuccessfully for the lieutenant governorship and a seat in the
U.S. Senate. In 1987, following his failed political bids, Governor William O’Neill of
Connecticut appointed Downey a state court judge, a position he holds to this day.194
“Downey, Released By China, Crosses Hong Kong Border,” New York Times, 12
March 1973, 9; Henry S. Bradsher, “Free After 20 Years,” Evening Star and Daily News
(Washington, D.C), 12 March 1973, 1.
Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, 70.
Daniel, “Former POW Finds Freedom by Making Peace With Past,” Boston Globe, 11
July 1999, 1; Bill Peterson, “Making Up For 20 ½ Lost Years,” Washington Post, 19 July
1978, 1, 11.
According to Cohen, he recommended Downey’s admission on the friendly
understanding that once a year, Downey would discuss his twenty-year ordeal with
Cohen and law students. Cohen interview.
Peterson, “Making Up For 20 ½ Lost Years,” Washington Post, 19 July 1978, 1, 11;
Richard Madden, “Former C.I.A. Agent May Seek Weicker’s Seat in U.S. Senate,” New
York Times, 15 April 1981, B-2.
In an effort to move past the divisive prisoner issue, or at least to lessen its
volatility, the Chinese government, in September 1983, invited Downey to visit the PRC
in what would be his first visit to the country since his return to the United States. The
Chinese intended the trip as a good-will gesture and Downey took it as such, adding that
he “felt no bitterness” toward Chinese at that time, nor had he ever felt bitterness toward
them throughout the ordeal.195 Aside from the “good will” aspect of the trip, Downey’s
visit allowed him to speak with Chinese officials and gain a better understanding of the
details surrounding his capture and imprisonment.
While the Chinese appeared to be reaching out to the U.S. in regard to the stilllingering prisoner issue, American officials seemed content reverting to a policy
reminiscent of decades past. This can be seen most clearly in the events of June 25,
1998, when CIA Director George Tenet hailed both Downey and Fecteau as heroes,
implicitly vilifying the Chinese in the process. In a private ceremony, Tenet called the
men “True legends,” and presented them with the Director’s Medal for their
“heroism…during those dark days of captivity.”196
The medal of recognition was
certainly not an apology to the two Americans for being sacrificed for twenty years for
the sake of Cold War politics. Nor did the ceremony acknowledge the integral role of the
Richard L. Madden, “Ex-Prisoner to See China, by Invitation,” New York Times, 28
August 1983, 41; Downey quoted in Associated Press, “Ex-C.I.A. Man Accuses Dulles,”
New York Times, 6 September 1983, 11.
Associated Press, “With Curious Timing, CIA Honors Spies Who Survived Chinese
Prisons; ‘True Legends’ Actually Won Their Freedom in the ‘70s After Nixon’s Visit,”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 July 1998, B6
Chinese, specifically Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, in the eventual releases of Downey
and Fecteau. In fact, Tenet mocked the Chinese legal system and referred to the PRC
pejoratively as “Red China.” Similarly, in response to the award one congressman
arrogantly noted it was “This Nation [the United States]” that “ultimately did not fail
[Downey and Fecteau]” and it was “we [again the U.S.],” that “finally obtained the
release of Dick Fecteau….[and] Jack Downey.”197
Further, in his speech Tenet distorted the truth surrounding the case, recreating
events so as to get around Washington’s guilt in the affair. He insisted that Mary
Downey’s health was “the basis for [John’s] eventual release,” (a fabrication that
Kissinger had debunked sixteen years earlier in his memoirs), and implied – with the
word “ambush” – that the Chinese alone were responsible for Downey and Fecteau’s
doomed mission.198 United States officials, in bestowing this honor unto Downey and
Fecteau thus proved to have successfully sidestepped one of the persistently unresolved
issues of the case. While American officials had by now unequivocally conceded that
Downey and Fecteau were CIA agents,199 there still had been no admission of
Washington’s well-organized, twenty-year cover-up of that fact and the disastrously
Congressman Porter J. Goss, Congressional Record – House, June 19, 1998, Volume
144, Part 9, 2d Session, 13021-13022.
Tenet summarized Downey and Fecteau’s mission: “to swoop down and snatch out
our imperiled agent. It is the story of an ambush – of a crash landing – and of capture.”
“Remarks of the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet on Presentation of the
Director’s Medal to John T. ‘Jack’ Downey and Richard G. Fecteau,” in CIA Press
Release, 25 June 1998, from the Central Intelligence Agency website, <www.cia.gov>,
accessed 16 June 2004.
Years before the CIA ceremony, during the Senate Watergate hearings, CIA Director
Richard Helms commented that it was “now public knowledge that Mr. Downey and Mr.
Fecteau were working for the CIA.” Helms testimony before Select Committee on
Presidential Campaign Activities of the United States Senate, 93rd Congress, 1st Session,
p. 3277.
prolonging effect it had on the two men’s imprisonments. Judging from the CIA
ceremony, moreover, American officials were not moving toward that type of concession
in the future.
As the events in recent years attest, the twenty-one year ordeal, though technically
over, lingers on. While President Nixon’s January 1973 press conference statement had
resolved some of the case’s major issues – including the true nature of Downey and
Fecteau’s employment – other questions of the case remained unanswered. Why had
Downey and Fecteau’s releases come two decades after their initial imprisonments? Why
had American government officials refused to admit for twenty years that Downey and
Fecteau had been employees of the CIA when it was clear high-level officials knew they
were? And after such an admission had been made, why had American officials still
refused to admit that Washington’s cover-up had most definitely prolonged the
imprisonments of Downey and Fecteau? Finally, why did American policy seem to take
precedence over Downey and Fecteau’s individual freedoms?
Suggesting one answer to these questions in a letter to Henry Kissinger following
Downey’s release, South Carolina resident Dorothy Moore commented that it was “just
too bad” that Nixon and Kissinger had not occupied the White House twenty years
earlier. She believed that had history played out in that way, Downey and Fecteau would
have never remained in Chinese prison so long.200 Her comment, surely representative of
many Americans’ sense of gratitude toward the President and his administration, to some
Dorothy Moore to Kissinger, 12 March 1973, POL 27-7 KORN-US, RG 59, North
Korea Files 1970-1973, Box 2423.
extent gives too much credit to Nixon and too sharply criticizes Eisenhower officials.
Had Nixon been president and Kissinger National Security Advisor in 1954, the outcome
of the Downey-Fecteau case would not necessarily have been different. (After all, Nixon
had been Vice President under Eisenhower). The power of the Cold War on American
officials was incredibly strong, and the continuation of Dulles’s policies by the Kennedy
and Johnson administrations is surely evidence of this.
This leads to another possible explanation of the prisoner affair. The Cold War,
specifically in its effects on Sino-American relations, appears to be the simplest way of
comprehending Downey and Fecteau’s imprisonments. Such an explanation, while not
comforting, successfully explains the shift from hostile American protest of the Chinese
charges in the 1950s to talk of Sino-American cooperation and full disclosure in the
1970s. Clearly, Washington officials’ knowledge of Downey and Fecteau’s involvement
with the CIA did not increase drastically during those twenty years, nor did the guilt or
innocence of the men themselves change. Thus, one could look to outside influences –
the Cold War – to explain the shift in policy.
Again, however, blaming the Cold War does not provide a satisfying conclusion
to the ordeal. While there is no doubt that the Chinese capture and imprisonment of
Downey and Fecteau, the American refusal to admit fault in the affair, and the eventual
releases of the two men were all carried out by individuals with Cold War mentalities,
one must find fault with these individuals, not the abstract ideas they espoused.
Furthermore, the fact that opportunities to end the prisoner affair did emerge throughout
the 1950s is further evidence that blaming the Cold War is not sufficient.
John Downey appeared to have the answer in 1983, following his return from
China. During his stay in China Downey had learned the entire story behind his capture
and imprisonment, and he was shocked to discover that he “could have been free 16 years
earlier,” referring to Zhou’s newsmen-prisoner exchange offer.
Downey understood
Secretary of State Dulles’s role in rejecting that particular offer and realized that the
Secretary’s zealous anticommunism and rigid moralism had clearly motivated his
ineffective actions. Frustrated, Downey regretted that he could not “confront” the late
Secretary of State to discuss his and Fecteau’s unnecessary imprisonments.201 Downey’s
analysis seems accurate; one must look to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to
understand fully the complex and disappointing course of the prisoner affair. It was
Dulles who had immediately lashed out against the Chinese for the “trumped up” charges
of espionage. It was Dulles who had refused to distribute passports to the prisoners’
families in 1955, insisting that the Chinese were an irrational, evil people who could not
be trusted. It was Dulles who had refused Zhou’s offer to release the prisoners if the
United States would send American newsmen to the PRC, by far the best opportunity to
that point to secure the releases of Downey and Fecteau. Finally, it was Dulles who set
the precedent for American policy on the prisoner issue, making it risky for future
Democratic presidents to change course. It was Dulles, the man, who had done all these
As Downey likely recognized, the Secretary’s extraordinary animosity toward the
Chinese Communists and communism in general, combined with his tendency toward
oversimplification and exaggeration, precluded him from cooperating with the Chinese.
Associated Press, “Ex-C.I.A. Man Accuses Dulles,” New York Times, 6 September
1983, 11.
A moralist to the end, Dulles consistently saw the Downey-Fecteau case as a fight
between good and evil, between right and wrong, and thus compromise was never a
realistic possibility. Further, Dulles’s strong allegiance to the conservative China Lobby
and McCarthyites in Washington gave his moral revulsion to the Chinese a degree of
political legitimacy.202
While these characteristics may have been common among
American officials during the 1950s, as Secretary of State (and one with the unflinching
trust of the president), Dulles’s personality had extraordinary influence on American
policy and action.
Thus it was the unlucky, but not coincidental, fate of John Downey and Richard
Fecteau to be imprisoned for two decades after flying covertly over China at the height of
the Cold War, with a stubborn, anticommunist, anti-Chinese figure serving as the
American Secretary of State.
The event tells a great deal both about the lengths
American officials were willing to go to maintain their military and political course in the
Cold War, and the lengths they were willing to go to conceal that course of action from
the public in order to preserve international and domestic strength and legitimacy.
Richard H. Immerman, John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S.
Foreign Policy (Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 1999), 44; Chang, Friends and
Enemies, 144.
Unpublished Government Documents
National Archives II, College Park, MD:
RG 59: Records of the Department of State
North Korea Files
China Files
Nixon Presidential Material
White House Central Files
Trip Files
NSC Files
Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
John Foster Dulles Papers
Speeches, Statements, Press Conferences, Etc.
John Foster Dulles Papers, Eisenhower Library 1951-1959
Telephone Conversation Series
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Papers (Ann Whitman Files)
Dulles-Herter Series
Published Government Documents
Congressional Record – House. Volume 144, Part 9, 2nd Session.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower. 1954, 1955,
1957. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1958-1960.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy. 1962.
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon. 1973. Washington,
D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975
U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers,
----------. FRUS 1955-1957.
U.S. Department of State Bulletin. Volumes XXXII, XXXIII, XXXVI.
U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations. United States Relations with the People’s
Republic of China. 92nd Congress, 1st Session, 1971. Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1972.
U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Presidential
Campaign Activities of 1972. 93rd Congress, 1st Session. Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1973.
Correspondence and Interviews
Jerome Cohen interview, 2 December 2003.
Steve Kiba to author, 7 February 2004; 16 February 2004.
Books and Articles
Breuer, William B. Shadow Warriors: The Covert War in Korea. New York: John Wiley
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Brown, Wallace. The Endless Hours: My Two and a Half Years as a Prisoner of the
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Chang, Gordon. Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union,
1948-1972. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990.
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Clifford, Clark with Richard Holbrooke. Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New
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Cohen, Jerome Alan and Hungdah Chiu. People’s China and International Law: A
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Electronic Resources
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