Draft Memorandum by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense for the President1

top secret

Final United States Government Position on Voluntary Repatriation of Prisoners of War in Korea

It now appears likely that the question of voluntary repatriation of prisoners of war will shortly become the sole remaining fundamental issue in the Korean armistice negotiations. It is, therefore, urgent that the final position of this Government on this issue be determined.

This is a question of the utmost gravity. The decision involves the basic moral and humanitarian principles which underlie our entire action in Korea, the fate of some 3,000 of our men and 8,000 other United Nations and Republic of Korea men known to their families to be alive in the hands of the Communists, and the question of whether the hostilities in Korea can be terminated upon an honorable basis or are continued indefinitely with unpredictable consequences.

Any agreement which would require United States troops to use force to turn over to the Communists prisoners who have surrendered to us and who would face an almost certain death would be repugnant to our most fundamental humanitarian principles, and would do much to jeopardize our moral position vis-à-vis the Communist world. On the other hand any position on this question entirely unaccepable to the Communists, whatever their reasons may be, will jeopardize the lives of the prisoners held by the Communists and forestall the possibility of attaining an armistice.

Regardless of whatever additional military, diplomatic and public opinion pressures it would be possible to exert against them in the immediate future, it is not probable that the Communists will accept an armistice agreement containing the principle of voluntary repatriation. Their position in this regard is probably based on considerations much broader than their attitude toward the conclusion of an armistice. These considerations involve the unwillingness of any Communist regime to recognize in any way that an inhabitant of its territory voluntarily could choose to escape from its control. Thus, the efforts that have been made in the negotiations to surround the proposal for voluntary repatriation with safeguards of neutral supervision and Communist observation may well have only increased the unacceptability to the Communists of the entire UNC proposal on repatriation. An additional factor may be a genuine belief by the Communists that it is the intent of [Page 36] the United Nations Command so to administer any system of voluntary repatriation that few if any prisoners of war will be returned by the United Nations.

Domestic and international public opinion can be expected strongly to support as a principle the desirability of voluntary repatriation. However, support for the principle, particularly by international public opinion, will be much less if and when there is a belief that its maintenance requires a continuation of hostilities in Korea.

Nevertheless, balancing all of the considerations and weighing all of the risks it is concluded that the world moral and psychological warfare position of the United States in its opposition to Communist tyranny demands that we accept no course of action which would require the United States to use force to repatriate to the Communists prisoners of war strongly opposed to such repatriation and who would probably be subject to reprisals if so returned. However, this policy should be carried out in such a manner as to minimize the jeopardy to prisoners held by the Communists, to retain the possibility of achieving an armistice, and to obtain the maximum of domestic and international public opinion support.

The only course of action that seems to offer any reasonable possibility of carrying out this policy requires the taking of irrevocable actions at the beginning of its implementation regardless of the ultimate consequences to prisoners held by the Communists or to the conclusion of an armistice. It also involves very important considerations of the timing and methods of carrying out consultations with Congressional leaders and the other nations participating in the Korean hostilities, as well as of presentation to the public and the Communists.

This course of action is:

If and when it becomes clear in the negotiations at Panmunjom that voluntary repatriation is the sole remaining fundamental obstacle to an armistice agreement, and Communist agreement thereto appears impossible to achieve, United Nations Command itself immediately screen out by voluntary individual choice all POWs who strongly object to repatriation to Communist control. (An appropriate choice to be presented to each individual would be a firm expression of a willingness to enter the armed forces of the United Nations Command or accept repatriation to the Communists.) Notify the Communists that the names of such persons have been removed from the lists of POWs held by the United Nations Command, and that the United Nations Command is prepared to enter into an all-for-all exchange of POWs only on the basis of the revised lists.

The advantages of this course of action are:

It clearly demonstrates that the United States is not prepared to compromise its basic moral and humanitarian principles for the expediency of obtaining the return of its own men or achieving an armistice.
The Communists are faced with a fait accompli which does not require their agreement to the principle of voluntary repatriation.
The Communists have assurance that a definite number of men will be returned to them.
The action is similar to that which the Communists have repeatedly stated they have taken with regard to the “re-education” and release of personnel captured by them.
The willingness of the United Nations Command to continue negotiations on the basis of the all-for-all proposals of the Communists would force the Communists to take the initiative in any breaking off of negotiations.

The disadvantages of this course of action are:

The Communists may feel obliged to “re-educate” and hold back a similar or proportionate number of United Nations Command prisoners held by them, and there is no effective method of protecting our men against this possibility.
It is possible, but probably not likely, that the Communists would entirely break off armistice negotiations.
If the Communists did break off negotiations on the basis of the action taken by the United States regarding prisoners it is likely that, in spite of our best efforts, there would be little or no support from our Allies for increasing military pressure in Korea or taking military action against China.
While, with careful and proper preparation substantial domestic public opinion support for this course of action can be obtained, it must be recognized that if it should result in a breaking off of armistice negotiations unsympathetic criticism will present the situation in the context of the fate of our men held by the Communists and the casualties resulting from continuation of hostilities versus the fate of men who would still be fighting against us except for the accident of capture.

Successful execution of this course of action will be heavily dependent upon keeping any advance knowledge whatever thereof from the Communists. At the same time, it will be very important that the maximum of domestic and international public opinion support be obtained. Detailed plans for undertaking this difficult task will shortly be submitted if you approve the following recommendations.


It is recommended that:

You approve the adoption of the policy that under no circumstances will the United States accept any proposal in the Korean armistice negotiations that would require the use of force to repatriate to the Communists prisoners of war held by the United Nations Command who are strongly opposed to such repatriation and whose lives would probably be seriously endangered thereby; this policy to be carried out, however, in the manner best calculated to minimize the recognized jeopardy it presents for prisoners of war held by the Communists and to lead to successful conclusion of an armistice.
You approve the execution by the Departments of State and Defense of the course of action along the general lines set forth above to implement this policy.

The Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff concur with this memorandum and the foregoing recommendations.

Secretary of State
Secretary of Defense
  1. Johnson drafted this memorandum and discussed it with Bohlen of the Department of State and Nash of the Department of Defense. It was transmitted by Johnson to Matthews on Feb. 4, 1952. On the source text of the covering memorandum is the following note in the Secretary’s handwriting: “I agree DA”.