Memorandum for the Record, by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Johnson)

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  • Position on POWs in Korean Armistice Negotiations

A meeting was held on January 22 in Mr. Matthews’ office at which UNA, S/P, P, C, EUR, and FE were represented, at which the status of the Korean armistice negotiations was reviewed with particular reference to the status of the question of the US position on prisoners of war. As a result of that meeting Mr. Johnson was requested to chair a working group to prepare a paper thoroughly examining all possible [Page 33] methods whereby Communist agreement to the principle of voluntary repatriation of prisoners of war could be obtained and, if negotiations were to break off on this issue, how the maximum of domestic and international support could be obtained for various courses of action which might be adopted.

The foregoing paper was completed on January 251 and discussed at a meeting held by Mr. Matthews the same day. It was determined that it would be recommended to the Secretary that he thoroughly discuss the question with the Department of Defense and JCS at the earliest possible opportunity. A meeting of departmental officers with the Secretary was arranged for Monday, January 28 and a meeting for the Secretary with Mr. Lovett and the JCS for Tuesday, January 29.

On January 28 a meeting was held with the Secretary at which G, C, UNA, S/P, P and FE were represented, the basis for discussion being a memorandum of questions prepared by Mr. Johnson.2

On Tuesday, January 29 a meeting was held at the Pentagon in the office of Mr. Lovett at which the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, JCS, the Secretary of Navy, Secretary of Air Force, General Carter, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bohlen, Mr. Nitze, and Mr. Johnson were present. At the request of Mr. Lovett, General Collins reviewed the present status of the armistice negotiations at Panmunjom and it was the general sense of the meeting that the question of prisoners of war was likely to become the major unresolved issue. At the request of the Secretary of State, General Bradley, and subsequently General Collins and General Vandenberg, reviewed the military situation with particular reference to the desirability of obtaining an armistice, with the conclusion that it was in the US military interest to achieve an armistice. There was some general and inconclusive discussion of possible methods of handling the prisoner of war question during which the Secretary of State tentatively suggested the procedure of immediately screening and releasing POWs whose lives would be endangered if returned to the Communists, thereafter expressing to the Communists a willingness to enter an all-for-all exchange on the basis of revised lists of POWs held by the UNC. At the close of the meeting it was agreed that the same group should meet in two or three days further to discuss the matter. In the meanwhile Mr. Johnson and G–3 of the Army would further explore the question of possible solutions.

A meeting was held in the Secretary’s office on January 31 at which G, C, UNA, P, and FE were represented, at which the question of proposing [Page 34] at Panmunjom referring the POW question to the ICJ prior to undertaking the release of POWs was discussed and the decision reached that the action was not desirable on the grounds that public opinion value was doubtful and it would appear to build the issue up with decreased possibility of resolution. There was further discussion and development of the course of action involving release of POWs so as to face the Communists with a fait accompli not requiring the acceptance of principle of voluntary repatriation. It was agreed that a meeting with Mr. Lovett and the JCS would be requested for the following day and in the meanwhile Mr. Johnson and G–3 at Army would develop a draft telegram to General Ridgway as a basis for discussion.3

On February 1, a meeting was held at the Pentagon in Mr. Lovett’s office in which the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, Under Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army, General Bradley, Admiral Fechteler, General Collins, Mr. Frank Nash, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bohlen and Mr. Johnson were present. The entire question of the US position on prisoners of war was freely and thoroughly discussed with particular reference as to whether the US could accept the position requiring forceful repatriation and if not, possible courses of action which would the least harm the objectives of protecting prisoners held by the Communists and obtaining an armistice. It was the conclusion of the meeting that the US should not adopt any policy which would require the forceful repatriation of prisoners and that the course of action of releasing prisoners who would be endangered by repatriation, thus facing the Communists with a fait accompli, should be developed. It was concluded that as the decision involved a question of fundamental national policy, recommendations of the Departments of State and Defense should immediately be put to the President for his decision and that the message should not therefore at this time be sent to General Ridgway pending that decision. Mr. Nash and Mr. Johnson were requested to draft a memorandum for submission to the President by the Secretaries of State and Defense.4

  1. The 14-page paper, not printed, entitled “Measures to Achieve a Korean Armistice on Present UNC Terms and Alternatives Thereto”, was prepared by the working group and transmitted by Johnson to Matthews on Jan. 25 (795.00/1–2525).
  2. The 6-page memorandum of questions, sent by Johnson to Matthews on Jan. 28, not printed (795.00/1–2852), was subsequently modified into three pages of notes for use by the Secretary in his discussion with the JCS on Jan. 29. These notes were sent by Johnson to Matthews the same day, not printed (695A.00/1–2852).
  3. A draft telegram to Ridgway was prepared by Johnson and the Army and sent to the Secretary of State on Feb. 2 for use at his meeting with the Secretary of Defense and the JCS that afternoon. In the telegram, which was never sent, Johnson summarized high-level thinking on the prisoner-of-war question and specified the alternatives under consideration. It seems likely that this is the draft telegram referred to here; therefore either the date of the draft to Ridgway or Johnson’s recollection of the date of the meeting with Lovett and the JCS is incorrect. The draft telegram is not printed (695A.0024/2–252).
  4. Infra.