The story of the longest held American POW

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tags: CIA, POW, John T. Downey



Andrew Burt is a Knight Law and Media Scholar at Yale Law School. His book on the history of American political extremism will be published in 2015.

America was riding high in June 1951, and so was John T. Downey, a 21-year-old English major and football star, as he stood in the courtyard of Yale’s old campus one Monday morning beside his beaming mother. Downey had graduated from one of America’s most elite institutions, just as the Korean War turned 1 year old, with U.S. forces then pushing back a Communist offensive by the North Koreans and the Chinese. Armistice talks would begin as a result. The United States might soon be bringing its boys home.

But such hopes were premature. Two long, bloody years would pass before the war ended, and by that time John Downey would find himself shackled in a Chinese prison cell, confessing his status as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, which, along with the rest of the U.S. government, now presumed him dead. He would remain there for more than 20 years, making him the longest held captive of war in American history.

John Downey’s story has been told in bits and pieces since his release. In December 1978, five years after returning to the U.S. and then 48 years old, Downey gave his first major interview, to People, but relinquished only a few brief facts about his time in prison. Thirty years later, he entrusted more details to CIA historians for an internal CIA documentary on the mission that led to his imprisonment. Otherwise, Downey has largely kept his story to himself, abiding by his “self-imposed silence,” as the reporter for People described it in 1978, refusing in-depth interviews, book offers, and other chances at the limelight.

I first met Downey in the spring of 2013, in the chambers of a New Haven, Connecticut, courthouse. Having just finished my second year of law school, I had heard about the man who spent more than two decades in a Chinese prison; had been a CIA spy in the early days of the agency’s existence; and was now, improbably, working as a judge. At first, I just wanted to meet the man. But as I got to know him better, and began meeting with him more frequently, discussing, among other topics, my experience as a law student and my own professional ambitions, I asked him if he might share the details of his life and career with me, and allow me to recount his story for publication. It took some persuading, but Downey eventually agreed.

What follows is based on a year and a half of interviews between John Downey and myself, much of it recounted from the living room of his home. It marks the first time he’s sat down with a reporter to tell his story in full...





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