No. 176
The Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Robertson) to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Nash)


My Dear Mr. Nash: On December 18, 1953, the British Government offered to make on behalf of the Unified Command an approach to the Chinese Communists at Peiping to seek the return of United Nations Command personnel who may still be in Communist custody. As a result of informal discussions concerning this approach between officers of our two Departments, I wish to review the facts of the matter and to set forth the position of the Department of State.

The Korean Armistice Agreement provides for the return within sixty days from the effective date of the Armistice of all prisoners of war who desire repatriation. However, on September 12, 1953, Communist correspondent Burchett indicated that the Chinese Communists continue to retain in a non-prisoner of war status certain United States Air Force personnel, alleged to have overflown Chinese territory, and stated that their return must be sought through diplomatic negotiations. Subsequent Peiping radio broadcasts have given similar indications. Information furnished to the Department of State by the Department of Defense indicates that there are approximately eighteen United States Air Force personnel known to be in this category.

In the period September to November 1953, the United Nations Command made repeated efforts in the Military Armistice Commission to secure from the Communists an accounting of United Nations Command personnel who may at one time or another have been in Communist custody. These efforts were unsuccessful. In the latter part of November, Ambassador Dean who was then negotiating with the Communists at Panmunjom was authorized to discuss the subject of Americans held in Chinese custody if a suitable opportunity presented itself. Unfortunately, the opportunity for such discussions did not arise. In January 1954 the United Nations Command renewed its efforts in the Military Armistice Commission to seek an accounting for missing United Nations Command personnel, again without success.

The Department of State believes that diplomatic efforts should now be undertaken to attempt to achieve the return of United Nations Command personnel who may be in Chinese Communist custody. [Page 378] The proposed British approach offers at least a small possibility of success because it would not involve a public admission by the Communists that they have violated the Armistice Agreement. Furthermore, in the past year many free-world personnel have been released from behind the Iron Curtain after diplomatic negotiations. The Department of State has carefully studied this matter and finds no legal or political objections to such an approach.

It is therefore proposed that the Department of Defense concur in authorizing the British Government to make on behalf of the Unified Command formal representations to the Chinese Communist authorities at Peiping to secure the return of United Nations Command personnel who may still be in Communist custody.

It should be noted in this connection that the Department of Defense has previously concurred in another approach to the Chinese Communists which is presently being undertaken by the British Government on behalf of eleven non-United Nations Command, United States Naval and Coast Guard personnel missing as a result of two plane crashes off Swatow on January 18, 1953.1

Following Defense concurrence, the Department of State will undertake appropriate consultations with the British and other Governments concerned.2

Sincerely yours,

Walter S. Robertson
  1. These personnel were among the Americans listed in a British note of Feb. 23; see footnote 3, Document 156.
  2. Department of Defense concurrence was conveyed in a letter of Apr. 12 from Vice Adm. A.C. Davis to Robertson. (611.9324/4–1254)