The Secretary of State to the President

top secret

I am attaching a copy of a message which Prime Minister Attlee has sent to you via the British Embassy. This is the message which I discussed with you over the telephone this evening. I am also attaching a copy of my message to Mr. Bevin1 which is referred to in the message Mr. Attlee has sent you.

We will endeavor to have a reply prepared for your consideration tomorrow morning and will coordinate our efforts with the Department of National Defense.

D[ean] A[cheson]

The British Prime Minister (Attlee) to President Truman

Dear Mr. President: I am greatly disturbed by present developments in the Far East, and feel that I should open my mind to you in order that there may be no possibility of misunderstanding between our two Governments.

My colleagues and I have been basing their policy on the assumptions that we should fight it out in Korea and try to localise the conflict. This was my understanding of the common position which we reached together in Washington in December. It is on these assumptions, and on the assumption that if we could hold a line and build up a position of strength in Korea the Chinese might then be in a mood to respond to a suggestion for a negotiated settlement, that His Majesty’s Government have been pressing that the possibility for a negotiation with China should be kept open. This accounts for our attitude on future action in the United Nations. It now appears from the information we are receiving that the intention of the United Nations Command is to evacuate rather than fight it out. I feel compelled to ask you to give me an authoritative indication of the intentions of the United States Government in this respect. I am left with the impression, particularly from Secretary Acheson’s message to [Page 38] Mr. Bevin of the 5th January, that the United States Government may wish to substitute for a policy of localising the conflict in Korea, a policy aimed at developing limited action against China.

It may be that it is militarily impossible to hold on in Korea. This possibility was recognised between us in Washington last month. Moreover, we are not blind to that possibility that China may intend to spread hostilities in the Far East. But looking at the world situation as a whole, and bearing in mind that the Soviet Union is the principal enemy, we think it unwise to provoke China unnecessarily to further aggression. The wiser course, it seems to us, is to harbour our forces and build them up in order to meet Communist attacks where ever they may come. It is true that Mr. Acheson, in his message of January 5th, states that the United States intend to do everything they can to prevent hostilities spreading from Korea to wider areas in the Far East. But the kind of action against China for which the United States Government appear to be pressing at the United Nations will, in our view, almost certainly provoke China to extend hostilities. There can be little doubt that, for example, a campaign of subversion or guerrilla warfare against China involving the use of Chiang Kai-Shek’s men would certainly have that effect. I do not know whether such a project is intended by the United States Government, and I should like to know whether they would intend to recommend such action by the United Nations after China had been declared an aggressor.

It was for all these reasons, which I have felt bound to explain to you frankly, that we have been opposing the introduction at this stage of a resolution in the United Nations condemning China as an aggressor and calling on the Collective Measures Committee to consider what measures should be taken.

In any case we consider it desirable, in order to consolidate opinion in the United Nations which is at present disarrayed, and ensure the greatest measure of support on the part of the free world, that an immediate step should be taken at the United Nations which, while recognising the facts of the situation in Korea, would show that all concerned were prepared to go to the utmost limit in giving the Chinese a chance to reach a peaceful settlement. Such an immediate step might take the form of a resolution based perhaps on the latest set of principles drawn up by the Cease-Fire Committee. This might include a clause condemning Chinese intervention in Korea and might lay more stress on the 5th point of the principles. There was a good deal of support among our Commonwealth friends here for the notion that the Big Powers have a special responsibility in this crisis.

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It would be of the greatest assistance to me if you could possibly let me have a reply in time for tomorrow’s meeting.

With all good wishes

C. R. Attlee

  1. See telegram 3283, January 5, to London, p. 27.