Mistrust on Both Sides: On Terry Lautz’s “Americans in China” and John Delury’s “Agents of Subversion”

By Jeremiah JenneMarch 5, 2023

Mistrust on Both Sides: On Terry Lautz’s “Americans in China” and John Delury’s “Agents of Subversion”

Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic by Terry Lautz
Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China by John Delury

IN NOVEMBER 2022, President Joe Biden met with General Secretary Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali. Their conversation was a brief glimmer of light in an otherwise dark period of competition and mistrust between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the world’s two most powerful countries. Renewed concern over espionage, covert activities, and influence operations has made foreign nationals in China and Chinese working and living in the United States the target of investigations carried out in the name of national security. Chinese in the United States also face prejudice, racism, and even violence. Foreigners in the PRC contend with the real threat of being taken hostage by Chinese authorities in retaliation for actions by their home governments. The game of spy-versus-spy, and the collateral damage of ideological paranoia, is a reminder that a Cold War mentality is being maintained by hawks on both sides of the Pacific.

Not since 1989, and perhaps not since China’s Reform and Opening Era began in 1978, has there been such a decoupling. Both countries have hit rough patches before, but three years of Zero-COVID policies that limited inbound and outbound travel to the PRC, the continued difficulty Chinese citizens face when applying for US visas, and ideological retrenchment in both Beijing and Washington have significantly curtailed the people-to-people contacts that, in recent decades, have sustained the US-China relationship through tough times.

The core of this relationship is made up of individual engagement by people from both countries, some with good intentions, others seeking to further their own nation’s strategic interests. In Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic (2022), Terry Lautz grounds US-PRC relations in the lives of 10 Americans—ranging from diplomats, scholars, and lawyers to journalists—who devoted their lives, and in a couple of cases still devote their lives, to work related to China. John Delury’s Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China (2022) deals with some people who fall into this category, but at its heart are different sorts of Americans engaged with China: it begins with a botched covert mission in Northeast China in the 1950s and looks at ongoing CIA clandestine activities to overthrow the CCP.

Both Delury and Lautz use personal stories to illuminate the mosaic of the American experience working with China. Each chapter in Lautz’s book is a biographical sketch of an individual whose life was defined in some way by their connection to China and US-China relations. “[P]ersonal interactions are the flesh and blood that animate the skeleton of state-to-state relations,” Lautz writes.

The nature of these interactions and the lessons taken from them, however, have varied widely. The politician Walter Judd, for example, spent over a decade as a medical missionary in China. It was Judd’s belief, shared by many Americans, that the Chinese would choose democracy if freed from the fetters of tyrannical rulers and “become more like us”—reflecting an evolution of the Christian missionary impulse of the 19th and 20th centuries. Like most on the US right, Judd channeled his disillusion with China into an ideological campaign to support the Nationalist government on Taiwan and oppose relations with the PRC government.

Cold War ideology and institutional racism in the United States made the 1950s and ’60s an especially challenging time for people of Chinese descent attempting to navigate the first era of radical decoupling between the United States and China. C. N. Yang (Yang Zhenning) was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1957 and was a fixture on the campus of Stony Brook University. In an all-too-familiar story, Chinese American scientists were suspected of disloyalty. Whereas Walter Judd became a lifelong opponent to engaging with Beijing, Yang became president of the National Association of Chinese Americans, which lobbied the United States to recognize the PRC. Yang’s dream of normalization was made possible, in part, by the skillful diplomacy of another of Lautz’s subjects: J. Stapleton Roy. Like Yang, Roy believed that indirect diplomacy was more effective than confrontation. Roy would serve as ambassador to China from 1991 to 1995, the last career diplomat to do so until 2022, when State Department veteran and former Hillary Clinton deputy Nicholas Burn assumed the post.

Yang and other Asian Americans faced enormous challenges, but Cold War paranoia and political instability also made life difficult for the few Americans in the PRC during the 1950s and ’60s. US soldiers Clarence Adams and Morris Wills were among a group of American prisoners of war who initially decided to remain in the PRC following the end of the Korean War. Wills was a high school dropout unsure of what he would do when he returned from the war. For Adams, an African American soldier from Memphis, China represented the chance for a better life away from the Jim Crow South. Sid Engst, a dairy farmer, and Joan Hinton, a particle physicist, followed their ideals to China, where they lived, worked, spoke out, and raised a family. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the family continued their work and clung to the ideals of Mao’s revolution. In the Reform and Opening Era, they were also among a handful of international observers of China who challenged the prevailing wisdom that economic development and opening were benefiting ordinary Chinese citizens.

Informal connections and personal ties have long been some of the most fruitful points of engagement between the United States and China. Even in the fraught context of human rights advocacy, the kind of informal and indirect engagement favored by John Kamm, founder of the nonprofit humanitarian Dui Hua Foundation, has led to the release, or at least an improvement in the conditions, of incarcerated political prisoners in the PRC. Kamm was able to maximize long-standing relationships in the Chinese establishment cultivated during his previous career in business. Like Kamm, the legal scholar Jerome Cohen and his wife Joan, a noted expert in the field of Chinese art, used their academic status and their reputation as being a “friend of China” to advocate for legal reform and the rule of law in China. Jerome and Joan first visited the PRC on a delegation in 1972 that included another China power couple from an earlier generation: historian (and part-time intelligence officer) John King Fairbank and his wife, Wilma (another scholar of art in China), who had lived in Beijing in the 1930s.

Fairbank’s shadow is a long one in the field of China studies in the United States, and it is fitting that Lautz includes among his subjects the political scientist Elizabeth Perry, who would later head the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. Like Engst and Hinton, Perry initially approached China as a believer in the promise of Maoism. She was part of the first generation of American scholars since the Fairbank era who could travel to China to do research and fieldwork, and her work on Chinese social movements of the Qing era (1644–1912) and subsequent periods provided important insights into the country’s past while complicating too-neat narratives that had become enshrined in Party mythology. As a researcher, Perry relied on the kind of archival and field research that has in the Xi Jinping era, for both ideological and logistical reasons, once again become difficult for foreign scholars to access.

The inclusion of people from groups not usually represented in earlier diplomatic histories is admirable. Lautz devotes attention to people of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQ+. Two chapters, one on journalist Melinda Liu and another on Shirley Young, the business executive and co-founder of the Committee of 100, bring important Chinese American voices into the narrative. Nevertheless, those chapters seem at times interested more in the events in which these remarkable women participated rather than in their lives. While this delicate balance—narrative versus biography—exists throughout Lautz’s book, I felt that I learned more in those two chapters about journalism in China in the 1980s and ’90s and about General Motors in China than I did about the aspirations, lives, and perspectives of Liu or Young. One figure who might have also been interesting to include would have been Robert F. Williams, the Civil Rights activist, and later China scholar, who lived in Beijing with his wife from 1965 to 1969, and who met with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other Chinese leaders.

Several of Lautz’s subjects make cameos in Delury’s Agents of Subversion. Delury starts with a failed CIA mission into Manchuria in 1952 that, in retrospect at least, seems to have been doomed from the start. The plan involved a harness, two trees, a large rope, and a low-flying airplane trailing a skyhook—hard to imagine what could go wrong. Suffice to say, the plane crashed and two of the survivors, Dick Fecteau and John “Jack” Downey, were arrested by Chinese security forces. John T. Downey, Yale class of 1951, would spend the next 21 years in Chinese custody, much of the time in a prison on a narrow hutong (alleyway) just west of Zhongnanhai, the compound home to CCP leaders.

Delury places this botched action within a larger context of covert activities by the United States to destabilize the regime and overthrow Mao. Delury blends first-rate storytelling—including the fate of Downey, Fecteau, and other captives—with diplomatic history, paying particular attention to the intellectual and academic roots of US foreign policy in Asia generally, and particularly toward China. Part of this is Delury’s early interest in the role that academics and students associated with Yale, as well as other elite universities, played in the development of covert policy toward China. There are also excellent summaries of key writings on international relations by Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan.

Jerome Cohen and Walter Judd naturally figure into this narrative, as does, once again, the ghost of John Fairbank. The rivalry between scholarly understandings of China’s past and present, in addition to institutional rivalries between competing Ivies, spilled over into the halls of power in Washington, DC, as John Fairbank and Owen Lattimore challenged prevailing doctrines of nonengagement while Yale’s David Nelson Rowe counseled a more aggressive intervention even as he assisted in the denunciations of Fairbank, Lattimore, and others before congressional committees.

Meanwhile, one of the central questions of American policy in China was whether (and how) to support a Third Force. There was an obsession with identifying and strengthening potential Chinese leaders and influencers who carried neither the ideological baggage of the Communist Party nor the political stigma of association with the corrupt Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. This Third Force often seemed a projection of wishful thinking onto a situation in Asia that US policymakers could not fully understand, much less control. Whether a lingering example of the missionary impulse that remained convinced China would warm to Jesus if not for the obstinacy and ego of emperors, or the US exceptionalist delusion of the kind mocked by Graham Greene in The Quiet American (1955), the chimera of the Third Force ultimately infected US policy in China and led to disastrous results in Vietnam. It would reemerge later in the flawed and ultimately abandoned attempts at 21st-century nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equally troubling, from the perspective of today, is how covert operations and the need for secrecy led not only to foreign policy failures but also to insidious consequences on the home front in the form of conspiracies (and conspiracy theories), repression, and the rise of a security state. Covert operations in China had the obvious, unwelcome consequence of convincing the already suspicious CCP leadership that the United States was a bad actor when it came to their country, spoiling the well for the development of normalized relations until the 1970s. Delury’s account of the (again, mostly covert) meetings and discussions between the Nixon administration and the CCP reveal the extent of mistrust on both sides.

In the United States, the zeal to protect the country from communist infiltration forced leaders in government and academia to consider the balance between a secure society and an open one, a balance that has become even more difficult to maintain in a post-9/11 United States obsessed with homeland security and currently fixated on China. As Lautz also notes in his book, domestic repression hit hardest those figures who, by dint of professional interest, race, or ideology, might be deemed disloyal by repressive elements in power.

For such an expansive and wide-ranging discussion of US-Chinese relations, Delury should be commended for his attention to detail and commitment to bringing to light sources previously underutilized in US writing on China. A few of the later chapters, however, lack the narrative drive of earlier ones, coming across less as a divulgence of covert operations, or of the experiences of Jack Downey and others, and more as a general history of foreign relations during the latter stages of the Cold War.

With the Chinese government’s abandonment of their Zero-COVID policies, there has been renewed optimism that travel to and from the PRC will become easier in 2023. Will Americans take advantage of these opportunities, or has this period of decoupling and ideological retrenchment already taken its toll on the infrastructure of ideas and exchanges that make possible cross-Pacific people-to-people contacts like those in the biographical sketches compiled by Lautz? Or will we succumb to our darker instincts, as both sides did during the long stretches of ideological competition and covert operations that Delury describes so vividly? The success of US-China relations relies on forging relationships at a personal level. If the ideology and paranoia of the two nations’ leaders make it difficult for people to maintain those connections in the light, then the relationship between the United States and China will only grow dimmer.


Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002, and has taught late imperial and modern Chinese history for over 15 years.

LARB Contributor

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002, and has taught late imperial and modern Chinese history for over 15 years.


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