Membership Book Review: "Agents of Subversion" by John Delury

“A riveting and important case study. Delury retells this remarkable episode in the history of U.S.-Chinese relations with fire and astonishment, using his flair for narrative and his eye for often surreal detail to describe the desperation in Washington in the wake of the Korean War and the fateful decision to use the fledgling CIA to try to undermine Mao's China.” - Foreign Affairs

“The book is above all a compelling read that dives deep into the complexities of the geopolitics around the Korean War and its uncertain aftermath, which still shapes regional tensions to this day.” - NK News

“John Delury has written a beautifully constructed narrative history that moves back and forth between the US and the PRC; Agents of Subversion is a highly readable and entertaining guide to the failure of the CIA's obsessive disruptive mission in China during the 1950s.” - China Quarterly

Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China reconstructs the disastrous story of a Korean War-era spy mission into Manchuria, showing how it fit in a wider CIA campaign against Communist China and highlighting the intensity—and futility—of clandestine operations to overthrow Mao Zedong.

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

Unraveling the truth behind decades of Cold War intrigue, historian John Delury documents the damage that this hidden foreign policy did to American political life. The US government kept the public in the dark about covert activity directed against China, while Downey languished in a Beijing prison and his mother lobbied desperately for his release. Mining little-known Chinese sources, Delury sheds new light on Mao’s campaigns to eliminate counter-revolutionaries and his use of captive spies in diplomacy with the West.

Agents of Subversion is an innovative work of transnational history, and it demonstrates both how the Chinese Communist regime used the fear of special agents to tighten its grip on society and why intellectuals in Cold War America presciently worried that subversion abroad could lead to repression at home. A work of history, Delury’s book teaches lessons still relevant to the US role in East Asia, including on the Korean Peninsula.

See Delury's book launch event with the Korea Society here

About the Author

John Delury is Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) in Seoul, Korea. For the current academic year, he is on sabbatical in Italy as the inaugural Tsao Fellow in China Studies at the American Academy in Rome.

On Yonsei faculty since 2010, he also serves as Chair of International Studies at Yonsei’s Underwood International College (UIC). He teaches modern Chinese history, US-China relations, North Korean history and politics, and an introductory course on international studies.

Delury is the author of Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China (Cornell University Press, 2022) and co-author with Orville Schell, of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2013). His articles can be found in Asian Survey, Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Cold War History, and Late Imperial China, and his commentaries appear in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, Washington Post, and 38 North. He contributes book reviews for the quarterly journal Global Asia, where he is associate managing editor.

John is a longtime member of the National Committee on North Korea, senior fellow of the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations, public intellectual fellow of the National Committee on US-China Relations, board member of the Pacific Century Institute, leadership council member of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and non-resident fellow at Sejong Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is also a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, Association of Asian Studies, American Historical Association, and Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He is invited to offer his analysis on Asia Pacific affairs with governments, think tanks, corporations, and civil society organizations globally.

John received his BA, MA, and PhD in history from Yale University.