The subtitle of John Delury’s Agents of Subversion suggests that the book has two main themes: the fate of CIA operative John Downey, who was captured and held captive for decades after his plane was shot down over Manchuria during a resupply mission to covert agents in China; and the nature and extent of the CIA’s covert war in China following World War II. It turns out, however, that Downey’s fate is mostly the backdrop for Delury’s critical assessments of American postwar policy in China and its later policy in Vietnam — assessments that, though sometimes valid and insightful, at times cross over to a portrayal of moral equivalency between the United States and the communist regimes in China and North Vietnam.
Delury’s tale, to be sure, is a cautionary one about post–World War II American hubris in international affairs — a hubris that led to repeated postwar policy failures in Asia. But it is a largely one-sided tale — of U.S. blunders and malfeasance committed mostly, according to Delury, by American anti-communists. Delury condemns those on the American right who supported America’s wartime ally Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Civil War and lauds those on the American left who were anti-Chiang and, in some cases, pro–Mao Zedong. He gives a pass to “China Hands” such as Owen Lattimore, John Paton Davies, John Stewart Service, John King Fairbank, and John Carter Vincent who urged the Truman administration to abandon Chiang and the Nationalists and to reach some sort of accommodation with Mao’s Communists. Delury briefly mentions their association with the far-left Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) and Amerasia magazine (and the notorious Amerasia spy case, which involved the stealing and publication of classified U.S. intelligence reports) but saves his fiercest criticism for David Nelson Rowe, Alfred Kohlberg, and other “right-wing” supporters of Chiang. The fact that the China Hands’ assessments of Mao and the Communists were seriously flawed counts for very little with Delury.
And Delury draws a straight line from anti-communist support for Chiang and the Nationalists to what he characterizes as the totalitarian repression of the Red Scare led by the Left’s perennial demon Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other conservative anti-communists. Delury seems to believe, like many on the left, that domestic anti-communism posed a greater threat to America than did the communists who infiltrated the U.S. government during the Roosevelt–Truman years. The fact that communist “agents of subversion,” to borrow from Delury’s title, operated at high levels in the U.S. State Department, Treasury Department, War Department, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the White House, again, counts for very little with Delury.
Delury, who teaches Chinese Studies at Yonsei University, applauds the American liberals who sought to nurture a so-called “Third Force” in China as a better alternative to Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists, but he also acknowledges that this idea was a delusion that in the end sapped support for Chiang while doing very little to undermine Mao. The harsh reality that Delury never directly deals with is that the U.S. eventually abandoned a wartime ally who helped to defeat Japan and did nothing to prevent a Communist takeover of China. Well, almost nothing.
The United States, as Delury recounts in the book, launched a series of covert operations into China during China’s Civil War, the Korean War, and subsequent years — all of which failed and some of which led to the capture, imprisonment, and sometimes death of American spies and military personnel, including the capture and imprisonment of John Downey, a young CIA agent who graduated from Yale University in 1951. In fact, Yale graduates are all over this book, since the CIA recruited the “best and the brightest” from America’s best colleges and universities.
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The U.S. covert war against China was part of the larger Cold War against international communism. U.S. strategists and policymakers believed that in the nuclear age, it was safer and perhaps more effective to wage political, psychological, subversive warfare against our communist enemies. As Delury notes, this was an aspect of the original containment doctrine explained by George F. Kennan in his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs. Kennan, as the State Department’s director of policy planning, helped formulate the strategy of political, psychological, subversive warfare. Perhaps the biggest proponent of such warfare was the American political philosopher James Burnham, who had worked for the OSS during World War II and thereafter consulted with the CIA in the immediate postwar years. Curiously, Delury makes no mention of Burnham, who is said to have had a hand in the successful covert effort to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and reinstall Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power.
Delury does, however, write about Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Hannah Arendt, foreign-policy “realists” who are the real heroes of this book. He credits them for recognizing the failures of American hubris in China and, later, in Vietnam. These writers, Delury claims, “grappled with the contradiction between the idealism of America’s liberal vision on the one hand, and the realities of geopolitics, risk of hubris, and danger of repression on the other.” They were realists who preached restraint. They understood the limits of American power.
Kennan began distancing himself from containment soon after he wrote the “X” article, in response to Walter Lippmann’s realist critique of the doctrine. Morgenthau, the author of the realists’ bible Politics Among Nations: A Struggle for Power and Peace, became an outspoken critic of America’s overextended foreign policy, especially during the Vietnam War. Niebuhr attempted to reconcile Christianity with foreign-policy realism. Arendt worried that U.S. imperialism could translate into repression at home. They, of course, had the luxury of criticizing U.S. policy without being responsible for conducting actual policy.
In the end, it took President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, two foreign-policy realists, to improve relations with China and negotiate Downey’s freedom. But Delury balances his praise of Nixon and Kissinger with condemnation of Nixon for the “sins” of Watergate, which he traces to the covert mindset of American policymakers. And he warns that the U.S. may be once again abandoning realism and “reverting to Cold War patterns of covert subversion” in its approach to China today. But most of today’s realists acknowledge that China poses a much greater threat to U.S. security today than it did in the immediate postwar years. And the United States is confronted today with China’s global geopolitical challenge, in part, because of the failed China and Asia policies of the Truman administration. That, not Delury’s anti-anti-communism, is the real answer to the question: Who lost China?