Nicholas Daniloff ’74

Daniloff established himself as a foreign correspondent in Moscow during the 1980s. He now teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston

In 1972, President Nixon was reordering America’s relations with China. He was de-recognizing the Chinese Nationalist government on Taiwan as representing the Chinese people and preparing the ground for diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. This was the year that I applied for a Nieman Fellowship.

When I got the call, I was overjoyed. As a correspondent covering foreign affairs from Washington, D.C., I felt my career was stagnating. China would be my project with hopes that United Press International would send me to Beijing in the not-too-distant future.

On arrival at Harvard, I signed up for elementary Chinese. However, then-curator Jim Thomson, himself an Asia expert, seemed strangely indifferent. Having extracted a major project from all of us Niemans, he set about nudging us away from our original goals and aiming us at Harvard’s many other opportunities and surprises.

He piled on wine and cheese luncheons and guest-speaker dinners making it difficult to keep up with academic pursuits. To regain flexibility, I dropped elementary Chinese and agreed with a Chinese doctoral student at the Law School to learn Mandarin from him. In return, I would edit his doctoral dissertation. The result was he failed to get his doctorate, and I failed to learn Chinese!

I did not abandon China, however. I signed up for a course on Chinese politics taught by the Australian expert professor Ross Terrill, and began teaching newswriting to a Chinese-American student, Milton Chen, who eventually became executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

But the chance encounter that became special in later life was an invitation from professor Jerome Cohen to meet a “mystery guest” one evening at his home.

The guest was John Downey, recently returned from 20 years in Chinese prisons on accusations of espionage. The evening was strictly off the record. Downey explained he had been stationed with the military in Japan in the 1950s and was assisting in sending DC-4s over the Chinese mainland to drop off and retrieve CIA agents. On this particular occasion the DC-4 team was missing a crew member. On the spur of the moment, Downey volunteered to fill in. The mission was to snatch a native Chinese-turned-U.S. spy from a bosun’s seat suspended between two sturdy poles. The plane was to fly in slow, snag the agent, and reel him in like a giant fish.

But it all ended in disaster. The Chinese Communists had intercepted messages, knew what was planned, and shot down the lumbering plane with volleys of rifle fire. Only Downey and his comrade Richard Fecteau survived.

Professor Cohen was well acquainted his friend and Yale classmate Downey and had been pressing U.S administrations for years to work for his freedom. Release came some time after President Nixon’s trip to Beijing in February 1972.

Looking back today, that chance encounter came to mean two things for me: never fear to take copious notes and save them for decades. And second: Never lose heart and never give up.

During the Nieman year, I hardly suspected that 12 years later I would be sitting in prison on suspicion of espionage in Moscow thinking of Downey and Fecteau and how they cheated their death sentences. And in 2008, I published my recollections of that fateful evening at professor Cohen’s in my autobiography “Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent.”