Prof. Kathryn Weathersby
In the last post, we saw that on 7 November 1947 Secretary of State George Marshall recommended to President Truman’s cabinet that the US “extricate” itself from Korea since local forces could not resist Soviet expansion and the peninsula was not of “decisive strategic importance.”
Three days later Albert Wedemeyer, whose September mission to Korea we discussed in Post #38, informed General Hodge in Seoul and General MacArthur in Tokyo that the Department of the Army was considering a proposal to disengage from Korea in the autumn of 1948 regardless of what the United Nations decided. To evaluate the proposal, he asked Hodge to assess whether this was a reasonable step to take if Moscow rejected the US proposal to withdraw forces simultaneously. Hodge had by this time gained a good understanding of Soviet intentions, as Russian documents have confirmed. He therefore replied to Wedemeyer, who was now director of planning and operations for the Army, that the Soviet Union would never cooperate with the United Nations on Korea or permit reunification. Therefore, the US should supervise the formation of a separate government in southern Korea, create a large constabulary army, and provide economic aid.
While Hodge’s assessment of Soviet aids was realistic, he was overly optimistic about what American economic aid and political supervision could accomplish. He predicted that if the five-year program of rehabilitation formulated the previous September were implemented and overseen by a well-staffed American embassy, “national feeling among the north Koreans may be aroused and sufficient pressure brought to bear upon the Soviets to compel them to permit…an amalgamation of the two areas.”
In fact, as Hodge’s own advisors in Seoul reported to the State Department, Syngman Rhee feared that he might lose elections that were free and therefore intended to use the police and rightist youth groups to guarantee that he would win. More moderate political leaders in Seoul pleaded with the Americans to prevent Rhee’s forces from intimidating voters, but the American Military Government believed it had little ability to do that. Nonetheless, Hodge urged Washington to authorize separate elections without delay, arguing that this was a good time because the arrest and imprisonment of many communists had weakened the far left.
Meanwhile, events at the United Nations progressed quickly. On November 4 the UN political committee approved the American proposal calling for mutual withdrawal of Soviet and American forces after the creation of a provisional government. The General Assembly then passed this resolution on November 14 by a wide margin. The composition of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) pleased the Americans, as six of the nine members had close ties to the US: Canada, Australia, (still Nationalist) China, France, El Salvador, and the Philippines. Marshall was pleased with this arrangement and instructed Hodge to prepare for elections and contact UNTCOK to set a specific date.
In reality, however, many UN members worried about putting giving legitimacy to elections held in the midst of the violence and political instability in the South. Australia’s minister for external affairs, H.V. Evatt, insisted in talks with Marshall that the Korean question must be resolved jointly by the Soviet Union and the US. If that were impossible, the issue should be settled as part of a Japanese peace treaty. Given the failure of Soviet-American negotiations on the issue, the Secretary of State insisted that only international action could resolve the stalemate. He assured Evatt that the US would not abandon Korea, but this pledge failed to persuade the Australian diplomat that it was in his country’s interest to become involved in the complicated Korean issue.
In the next post we will examine continued resistance in the United Nations to the American proposal for elections along with the increased efforts by Syngman Rhee to force the US to hold elections quickly.
[Sources: This post relies on James I. Matray, The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941-1950 (University of Hawaii Press, 1985).]