A career in counterintelligence

A WashU education helped prepare John W. Davis for assignments in an international world of espionage.

After a career in counterintelligence, John W. Davis, AB ’74, has written two books that reflect his experiences abroad. (Illustration by Monical Duwel)
After a career in counterintelligence, John W. Davis, AB ’74, has written two books that reflect his experiences abroad. (Illustration by Monical Duwel)

The Vietnam War was still raging when John W. Davis, AB ’74, arrived at Washington University in St. Louis with a full academic scholarship from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). It was a challenging time to have ties to the military. 

At the time, students were denied college credit for ROTC, for instance, and they weren’t allowed to wear uniforms on campus. One time though, a uniformed Davis was desperate to turn in a paper. He was spotted by a group of students and outside protestors called Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who were preparing for a demonstration. “I slowed to a walk toward the history department,” Davis says. “With each step, they cried, ‘fascist pig, fascist pig, fascist pig.’ Then someone threw a rock, so I hustled out of there.”

About John W. Davis

Two-time author: Rainy Street Stories and Around the Corner (Red Bike Publications, 2013 and 2018) feature vignettes and reflections about his experiences abroad.

Passion project: Board chair of Global Ties Alabama, a nonprofit partner of the U.S. State Department that works on projects like connecting foreign exchange professional delegations with opportunities to learn from in-state organizations.

Other retirement pursuits: Writing book reviews, articles on security and essays about social justice and equality.

What he remembers most about WashU: Forest Park, the Delmar Loop and the Parkmoor restaurant on Clayton Road.

Since WashU’s ROTC building had been burned in February 1970, Davis trained in a Central West End location about three miles from campus (then known as the Hilltop Campus). That building had also been a target: Someone set off a bomb in its elevator shaft about six months before Davis started classes.

The St. Louis native made it through WashU unscathed, and he was commissioned a field artillery officer in the Army in May 1975, fulfilling his four-year scholarship obligation. But he was not done serving his country. Davis would spend the next 33 years working for U.S. Army Counterintelligence, including 12 years overseas as a liaison officer, investigator and linguist.

He was initially assigned command of an investigative unit in Mannheim, Germany. “They needed a ‘linguist-required’ position filled, and my Spanish showed I had that ability,” Davis says. He had taken four years of Spanish classes in high school and, after testing out of some courses during his first year, completed two more at WashU.

Following several months of studying German and counterintelligence, Davis crossed the Atlantic with his three young sons and his wife, Jane (Tedrick) Davis , AB ’75, whom he met at WashU. “I thought living and raising my family in Europe during real history being lived out near the Iron Curtain would be fascinating,” he says. 

Davis with his wife, Jane (left), and his mother, Rosemary, at his May 1975 commissioning ceremony as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. (Courtesy photo)

Davis and his colleagues were primarily involved in counterespionage, he says, but they also investigated political terrorism. His first case focused on who was behind a rocket attack targeting the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe in 1981. (The answer: West German terrorists.)

After additional assignments in Italy, the Netherlands (twice) and Saudi Arabia, Davis returned home to the States. He spent the last two decades of his career at Space and Missile Defense Command in Alabama, where he worked on counterintelligence-related training, overseas travel briefings and policy planning. 

Davis describes his career in counterintelligence as both intriguing and thought-provoking. “I found it different every day,” he says. “You could study human nature and try to understand how an adversary’s espionage and sabotage are directed against our forces. Our job was to take imaginative measures to counter them.”

“I found the research skills, discussions and ability to find connections and overlaps I’d learned at WashU were beneficial almost daily.”

John W. Davis

The veteran credits his alma mater — and his history degree — with helping him develop valuable competencies. “I found the research skills, discussions and ability to find connections and overlaps I’d learned at WashU were beneficial almost daily,” he says. 

He adds, “I attribute my ability to see others’ worldviews as having started with WashU’s emphasis on fair play, open-mindedness and social justice.”

Davis, who lives with Jane in Athens, Alabama, near their three sons, encourages fellow alums to consider government service. “We need people with the social leavening that WashU provides,” he says. “A young graduate will doubtless have all the technical skills needed: good speaking, writing and presenting abilities. But we also desperately need the open-mindedness that allows for nonjudgmental, indeed wise decisions to preserve our democratic, rule-of-law-based society.”

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