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Detained crew echoes similar problem 30 years ago
April 5, 2001
Web posted at: 11:19 AM EDT (1519 GMT)
By GEORGE GEDDA
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Almost 30 years ago, President Nixon grappled with the same problem President Bush now faces in trying to win freedom for Americans detained in China.
Newly declassified documents released Thursday at the National Archives show that the detention of several American servicemen by the Chinese was a high-priority issue for Nixon as he prepared for his groundbreaking February 1972 visit.
"You will want to be extremely circumspect in dealing with the prisoner issue to avoid giving the Chinese the impression that we are trying to push them," Nixon was told in a top secret memo prepared by his national security team.
The document was among 100,000 papers released that deal mainly with top foreign policy matters in the Nixon White House, including his trip to China, the Vietnam War and his visit to Moscow in May 1972.
The undated trip briefing memo about the China trip said, "Anything they (the Chinese) do has to look as if the initiative comes from them and that they are acting spontaneously out of sheer generosity."
Nixon was going to China to open relations with that communist nation for the first time in more than 20 years. A handful of Americans were being detained at the time by the Chinese, including pilots shot down during the Korean War.
The memo highlighted Nixon's lack of leverage in his efforts to secure their release.
"Legally, they have a case against all the detained Americans," the document said. It added that the best time to bring the matter up would be when other matters have been broached.
"Your approach should be very low key," the document advised. It also recommended that the issue not be brought up in a formal meeting but rather in some informal situation such as a dinner conversation.
The most prominent of the detainees was John T. Downey, who was shot down during the Korean War on Nov. 29, 1952.
"Downey is a confessed spy, and the PRC (People's Republic of China) has been very lenient in commuting his life sentence to five more years," the memo said about Downey, who was released in March 1973, 13 months after Nixon's visit to China.
Downey was released after Nixon admitted he was on a CIA spy operation. For years, the State Department had insisted Downey had no ties to the agency.
Nixon was also concerned about Maj. Philip Smith, whose F-104 jet fighter was shot down in the Gulf of Tonkin in September 1965 as part of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Smith, who spent 71/2 years as a prisoner of war in China, was initially held on the Chinese island of Hainan. This is the same location where 24 American crewmen are being held after their spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter last Sunday over international waters off the Chinese coast.
(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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