Memorandum by the Secretary of State to the President1

top secret

It now appears likely that the prisoners of war issue will shortly become the sole remaining fundamental issue in the Korean armistice negotiations.

This is a question of the utmost gravity. The decision involves basic principles underlying our entire action in Korea, the fate of some 3,000 Americans and 8,000 other United Nations and Republic of Korea men held as prisoners by the Communists, and the question of whether the hostilities in Korea can be terminated or are continued indefinitely with unpredictable consequences.

Any agreement in the Korean armistice which would require United States troops to use force to turn over to the Communists prisoners who believe they would face death if returned, would be repugnant to our most fundamental moral and humanitarian principles on the importance of the individual, and would seriously jeopardize the psychological warfare position of the United States in its opposition to Communist tyranny.

However, the Communists may not accept an armistice requiring their agreement to the principle of no forcible repatriation, and the maintenance of this principle will inevitably present risks to prisoners held by the Communists and to the achievement of an armistice. Also, [Page 45] while domestic and international public opinion can be expected strongly to support as a principle the desirability of no forcible repatriation, if and when there is a belief that maintenance of this principle requires a continuation and probable spread of hostilities in Korea, support for it, particularly by international public opinion will be much less.

It is possible, but not certain, that courses of action may be devised which will not require, on the one hand, that we accept the use of force to return prisoners of war strongly objecting to repatriation, or, on the other hand, that the Communists accept the principle of voluntary repatriation. Such courses should minimize to an acceptable degree the risks to prisoners held by the Communists, to the achievement of an armistice, and to the maintenance of domestic and world support.

It is therefore recommended that you approve the maintenance of the present United States position, namely that we will not accept Communist proposals which 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 to prisoners of war held by the Communists and to lead to successful conclusion of an armistice. Our key allies will be consulted in implementation of this policy.2

Dean Acheson
  1. This memorandum was drafted by Johnson, approved by Acheson, and cleared by Matthews, Bohlen, and Nitze.
  2. At the end of the memorandum, the following note appeared on the source text in the President’s handwriting: “Approved Feb. 8, 1952 Harry S. Truman”.