John W. Powell dies at 89; journalist was tried on sedition charges in 1950s

Associated Press

John W. Powell, a journalist tried for sedition for writing 1950s articles in which Chinese officials alleged that the United States had used biological weapons in North Korea, has died. He was 89.

He died Dec. 15 of complications from pneumonia in a San Francisco hospital, according to his son, Thomas Powell.

The highly publicized case dragged on for five years and made Powell himself the subject of headlines, before the government dropped all charges.

“This case was seminal to molding who he was,” Thomas Powell said. “It took a lot of courage to be critical of the U.S. government in the 1950s.”

The charges behind the 1959 trial stemmed from articles Powell wrote for the English-language China Monthly Review in which he quoted the Chinese government’s allegations that the U.S. had used germ warfare against Chinese soldiers.

Powell was indicted by a federal grand jury in San Francisco on 13 counts of sedition -- inciting resistance to the government. The charges included violation of wartime sedition laws by printing false statements and undermining the loyalty of American troops who read the articles. Each count carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.

Two other editors at the China Monthly Review -- Powell’s wife, Sylvia, and colleague Julian Schuman -- were indicted on one count each.

After an initial mistrial, new complaints were filed, then dropped when the government could not obtain indictments. In May 1961, the remaining charges against the three defendants were dropped, with the approval of Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Born in Shanghai on July 3, 1919, Powell grew up with relatives in Hannibal, Mo., while his father, John Benjamin Powell, remained in China to run the magazine he founded, then called the China Weekly Review.

After studying at the University of Missouri journalism school, the younger Powell returned to China, where he worked during World War II for the U.S. Office of War Information. He then took over his father’s publication until it folded in 1953, when the family left China and settled in San Francisco.

After the sedition charges were dropped, Powell was blackballed and could not find work as a journalist, his son said. Instead, he and his wife remodeled Victorian houses in San Francisco to support the family. Later he managed an antiques business.

He wrote again in the 1980s, regaining national attention with articles about Japanese biological warfare against the Chinese. But to this day, historians have not established whether the U.S. used germ warfare in North Korea.

In addition to his son Thomas, Powell is survived by two other sons, John and William; as well as three grandchildren. Sylvia Powell died in 2004.