Cold War arrest of US spies offers lesson for Iran diplomacy

Tensions over imprisonment of Americans can open dialogue, if resentment can be set aside

December 28, 2013 7:00AM ET
The family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson received this undated photo of him in April 2011.
Levinson Family/AP

The CIA announced this month that it recently conferred its highest honor, the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, on two officers who spent decades in Chinese prisons during the Cold War. “Their ordeal remains among the most compelling accounts of courage, resolve, and endurance in the history of our agency,” Director of Central Intelligence John O. Brennan said in decorating the two airmen. He did not mention that the U.S. government greatly prolonged their imprisonment by refusing to admit that they were spies.

The case of John Downey and Richard Fecteau is an intriguing footnote to Cold War history. It is also a lamentable example of the American instinct to prolong confrontations rather than seek ways to resolve them. The Downey-Fecteau case gave the United States a chance to moderate its hostility toward what U.S. leaders then called “Red China.” Instead, the case was used to intensify that hostility.

As the U.S. seeks to negotiate a way out of its long conflict with Iran, the story of this case is strikingly instructive. It is about narrow-mindedness, missed opportunities and the danger of allowing emotion to shape foreign policy.

Dulles’ intransigence

On a November day in 1952, Downey and Fecteau boarded a CIA plane on a mission to pick up a courier operating inside China. The courier turned out to be a double agent, and the pickup was a trap. Their plane was shot down and they were captured.

Prime Minister Zhou Enlai tried to use the case as a bridge to the U.S.. He said he was open to discussing the prisoners’ release, and invited their relatives to visit. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rejected his overtures, forbade the visits and denounced China for the “reprehensible” crime of holding Americans on “trumped up charges.”

Zhou then suggested that China would release the two airmen if the United States admitted they had been intelligence agents; there was no response. In 1957 he offered to free them if Dulles would allow a group of American journalists to visit China. Dulles had used his control over passports to prevent any Americans from visiting China, including journalists. He spurned Zhou’s offer as “blackmail,” perhaps fearing that news stories about daily life in China might weaken the paradigm of conflict on which the Cold War depended.

Dulles’ intransigence condemned Downey and Fecteau to long imprisonment. They were not released until the early 1970s, after President Richard Nixon finally conceded in public that they were intelligence officers — the admission that might have produced the same result 15 years earlier.

Spurning the Chinese overtures that emerged from this case in the 1950s may have done more harm than simply extending the imprisonment of two CIA officers. It was also a geopolitical misjudgment. Intransigence and failure of imagination robbed the U.S. of a chance to ease a tense conflict. Dulles, a captive of the militant “China lobby,” allowed his strategic sense to become clouded by emotion. It is a cardinal sin in diplomacy.

“The Secretary’s extraordinary animosity toward the Chinese Communists and communism in general, combined with the tendency toward over-simplification and exaggeration, precluded him from cooperating with the Chinese,” the scholar Daniel Aaron Rubin wrote (PDF) in 2004. “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, anti-communist, anti-Chinese figure serving as Secretary of State.”

The two former prisoners are now in their 80s. A photo released by the CIA shows them looking fit and posing with their medals. The ceremony was private and the honored airmen did not give interviews.

Creative diplomacy

John Downey and Richard Fecteau received their awards at CIA headquarters. (Nov. 2013)

In the 1950s, pushed by Cold War militants like Dulles, Americans came to see China as the face of barbarism. For the last 34 years, Iran has played that role in the American mind. Now the long US-Iran conflict finally appears to be easing. If it does, part of the reason may be that the Obama administration’s response to the arrest of three Americans in Iran in 2009 was far more adroit than Dulles’ response to the arrest of Downey and Fecteau in 1954.

The current negotiations between Iran and the U.S. were preceded by extended secret talks. According to an Associated Press report, "It was efforts to win the release of three American hikers who had strayed across the Iranian border which led to the clandestine diplomacy. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was a key player, facilitating the release of the hikers in late 2010 and 2011 and then offering himself as a mediator for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement."

One of the hikers, Shane Bauer, who spent more than two years imprisoned in Iran, has written of his satisfaction at learning that “our tragedy led to an opening between the United States and Iran.” Without his case, he has speculated, “just maybe, the U.S. and Iran might still be nowhere near a solution to the nuclear issue.”

Comparisons between the capture of Downey and Fecteau in the 1950s and the arrest of Bauer and his companions four years ago are not precise. The hikers were not charged with working for an intelligence agency. Yet the difference in their fates is instructive. Downey and Fecteau spent many years in harsh confinement because of the rigidity of the U.S. government, and became symbols of a frozen conflict. The hikers were not only released after far shorter prison terms, but may have been catalysts for reconciliation.

The connection between negotiations and prisoner releases is especially timely in the wake of revelations earlier this month that an American who disappeared in Iran in seven years ago, Robert Levinson, was connected to the CIA. It would be unwise for American negotiators to link the Levinson case directly to talks on the nuclear issue. If Levinson is alive and in Iranian custody, however, his case could be subject to bargaining as the U.S.-Iran climate improves.

Had Secretary of State Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower been bolder and more imaginative in the 1950s, they might have not only freed two captive airmen, but used their case to explore prospects for a new relationship with China. Their successors have been more adroit. American diplomats have finally been given free rein to engage Iran. By turning the arrest of Americans into an opportunity, they have proven the power of creative diplomacy.

Stephen Kinzer is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq” and “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War.” He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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China, Iran
CIA, US-Iran Diplomacy

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