501.BB Korea/1–348

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Acting Secretary of State 2


Subject: Canada’s Decision to Withdraw from the UN Korean Commission.

Mr. Pearson, in explaining the nature of his mission which was to bring the Prime Minister’s views regarding Canada’s non-participation in the Korean Commission,3 said that he could fully understand our surprise over this decision. The decision had been taken by the Prime Minister following his return from England and after he had had an opportunity more fully to study the Korean Commission and its implications. Given the attitude of Soviet Russia the Prime Minister was convinced that the Commission’s work would be absolutely futile and bring the United Nations into greater disrepute. For this reason he did not wish Canada to be associated with it. Had he been in Ottawa at the time the Commission had been established he would then have not permitted Canada to take part. The Prime Minister felt that the Commission would do far better to meet at Lake Success, determine in advance whether it would be permitted to enter North Korea, and if not, to turn back its mandate to the Interim Commission.

Mr. Pearson continued that he would not, however, be giving us the whole story if he did not indicate that there were deeper considerations than those affecting the Commission itself. The Prime Minister had returned from England apparently greatly influenced by the gloomy description of the present situation which Bevin4 had given [Page 1080] him and by a deep anxiety as to what the immediate future held in store. He felt that the present situation was very grave indeed. Therefore at the time when Canada was assuming its responsibilities as a member of the Security Council, the Prime Minister felt that this was the moment for taking stock and that Canada could not afford at this time to lend itself to a hasty experiment when it was assuming these new responsibilities. It could not all the more do so if the smaller nations were to be made the front men in an effort to utilize United Nations as an instrument of the Western Democracies against Soviet Russia. Mr. Pearson went on to say that in reaching these conclusions, the Prime Minister’s mentality was apparently very similar to that which he had had in 1935 when faced with the threat of the German war. Canada knew it would have to take its share of the consequences but did not wish in any way to be a party to precipitating them.

Pearson said he had been authorized by the Prime Minister to explain that these were his own views. They did not necessarily represent those of all of the Cabinet but at the same time MacKenzie King was still Prime Minister and very much so.

I said that in so far as the futility of the Commission was concerned, I felt that it would be far more marked if the Commission without proceeding to Korea and determining what could be done on the spot, should merely bow the knee as a result of Soviet refusal and without making any effort demonstrate that it was incompetent or unwilling to accomplish the task conferred upon it by the considered judgment of the UN. The Commission should be master of its own decisions. If it proceeded to Korea although it might be blocked from entering the North, it could nevertheless achieve a certain success should it decide to hold elections which would result in the establishment of a democratic Korean Government in the south. Mr. Jacobs subsequently added, in this connection, that after all two-thirds of the Korean population were in South Korea and that the establishment of an elected Government under the aegis of the Commission in that area would mark substantial progress toward the establishment of a truly representative Korean Government. He felt that the Commission would be welcomed in that part of the country and be able to accomplish at least part of its mission.

As to the deeper considerations which lay behind the Prime Minister’s feelings with respect to the Korean Commission which after all was only a precipitate, these were a matter of very real concern to us. Should Canada on the eve of its taking its seat in the Security Council feel constrained to limit its responsibilities, I felt that this would be a very serious decision. It would undoubtedly give rise to speculation both in Congress and in the press that Canada had embarked on a [Page 1081] new course of restricting its role in international affairs. If that were the case, its position as a member of the Security Council and its interests in areas other than Western Europe would have to be regarded in an entirely new light. Consideration of this limited role might bring about discussion of the whole future of UN which could only have most unfortunate results as regards Canada, the United States and the Organization itself. I asked Mr. Pearson whether some way might be found taking into account the susceptibilities of the Prime Minister which we fully understood, which would limit Canada’s participation in the Commission and not give rise to the difficulties and publicity involved in a decision not to take part. The latter was bound to be accompanied by considerable publicity whereas a limited participation would involve probably no difficulties at all. After discussion of this point with Mr. Pearson it was suggested that the President might write a letter making such proposal to take care of the immediate problem of the Commission, which could at the same time indicate an understanding of Canada’s position in the Security Council and its susceptibilities regarding its independent role in that organization. In order that this letter should be more effective, Mr. Pearson felt that he should make a brief call at the White House. It was agreed that I would then take Mr. Pearson to the White House where it would be explained for publication that on his way to New York he had stopped by in Washington for a general discussion and had taken this opportunity to pay his respects to the President.

The meeting adjourned with Mr. Pearson’s and my departure for the White House and to prepare a letter for Mr. Pearson to take back with him.

Robert A. Lovett
  1. Lester B. Pearson, Canadian Under Secretary for External Affairs, was accompanied by Ambassador Hume Wrong; John D. Hickerson, Director of the Office of European Affairs, W. Walton Butterworth, Jr., Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs, Dean Rusk, Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, Joseph E. Jacobs, Political Adviser in Korea, and Samuel Reber, Deputy Director of the Office of European Affairs, were present.
  2. Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King had written Ambassador Ray Atherton on December 31, 1947; see Foreign Relations, 1947, vol. vi, p. 889.
  3. Ernest Bevin, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.