FE files, lot 55 D 128

Memorandum by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Johnson) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State (Matthews)



  • Handling of Pro-Communist POWs

The recent Pongam incident1 probably marked the beginning of a decline in support of our position on non-forcible repatriation which reached its climax with the passage of the Indian resolution in the GA. We must recognize the great propaganda success which, in spite of our best efforts, the Communists achieved by this incident. On the basis of conversations with our Allies, I am satisfied that although they are very restrained in their comments, the incident served to a degree to shake confidence in our handling of POWs which had been slowly reestablished since the earlier Koje incidents. While the Arab-Asian abstention on the December 212 Soviet resolution on Pongam can be explained on broad political grounds, doubts concerning our handling of the Pongam incident undoubtedly was a factor in their attitude. This could hardly help but be the case in view of even the U.S. publicity on the subject. Clark’s immediate statement3 regarding the incident was good and as persuasive as possible. However, since then photographs of bedraggled, dispirited-looking POWs, huddled between barbed wire or staggering down a line of American bayonets under the weight of their wounded, has greatly dispelled the effect of Clark’s release. (In addition to the still pictures, last week I saw a U.S. newsreel along these lines that could not help but raise some of the traditional American sympathy for the underdog—the effect abroad of such photographs would of course be infinitely greater.)

I do not, however, believe that the problem is entirely one of propaganda handling, serious though that be, because whatever the circumstances the picture that remains is of U.S. troops and troops under U.S. command shooting unarmed prisoners inside their compounds who for [Page 719] some incomprehensible reason insist on singing and marching. This is not to say that the action of U.S. officers at Pongam was not entirely reasonable and justified. I have carefully studied the detailed report4 we received from the UNC on the incident and given the resources and means at his disposal and the situation with which he was confronted I feel that the action taken by the U.S. officer in charge was probably entirely correct. (We still have to receive a detailed report on the October 1 incident at Cheju-do.)5 However, it nevertheless played well into the Communist hand and they can be expected to exploit their success to the maximum in similar incidents in the future.

Public relations handling is only a small part of the answer. The largest part of the answer must be found in making available to the men on the spot techniques and resources which will enable them to handle incidents such as those at Pongam and Cheju-do without inflicting major loss of life upon the POWs. I do not know what those techniques or resources could be, but it seems to me that they should not be beyond the bounds of ingenuity of this Government. We must recognize that we are probably in for a long pull, during which our handling of POWs is going to continue to be a major factor in the entire Korean situation and we must be prepared to treat it as such.

I suggest that at the earliest opportunity we frankly and fully discuss the situation with the JCS, probably somewhat along the foregoing lines, with a view of stimulating their attention and interest in the problem.6

  1. See the second editorial note, p. 712.
  2. Ten nations abstained on the vote defeating the Soviet resolution condemning “mass murder” at Pongam-do.
  3. A text of Clark’s statement can be found in telegram C 60412 to the Department of the Army, Dec. 21, 1952, not printed (FE files, lot 55 D 128).
  4. Not printed, but see the second editorial note, p. 712.
  5. The incident at Cheju-do was similar to that at Pongam-do. Chinese POWs refused to stop demonstrating and attacked U.S. troops sent in to restore order with rocks and makeshift weapons. The U.S. troops opened fire on the POWs killing 45 and hospitalizing 75. Only 2 U.S. personnel were injured, and they only slightly (telegram CX 56181, Clark to JCS, Oct. 1, 1952; FE files, lot 55 D 128).
  6. At the bottom of the source text the following note was written by Matthews: “Jan. 6. Mr. Johnson and I discussed this problem today with General Bradley. He well understands it and will study with JCS possible ways and means to remedy the situation. HFM”