Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Johnson)1

top secret


  • Trials of Communist POWs


  • Mr. Sullivan, Office of the Secretary of Defense
  • Mr. Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs
  • NA—Mr. Treumann

Mr. Sullivan, at his request, came to see me to ascertain our present thinking about the trial of Communist POWs who have committed post-capture offenses. He referred to Army message CX 611352 in which General Clark had again urged that immediate trial machinery be established to try POW offenders. Mr. Sullivan stated that this subject would probably be discussed at the JCS meeting of February 6.

In acquainting Mr. Sullivan with our thinking, I briefly outlined the entire POW situation. I stated that problems concerning POWs could roughly be divided into three categories: 1) UN POWs and their treatment by the Communists, 2) Non-repatriable POWs under UNC control, and 3) Repatriable POWs under UNC control. With regard to this latter group, the following issues have to be resolved: 1) The advisability [Page 736] of trials, 2) The propaganda and publicity problems caused by POW riots, 3) The control of POWs, i.e. the use of new type weapons; segregation of fanatics; etc., and 4) The political problem as to whether other countries, such as the UK, should participate in the control of POWs. I added that I felt that these issues might well be studied by the newly established State–Defense Committee of which Mr. Nash and I are to be members, while the problem of non-repatriable POWs might well be handled through the usual State–JCS channels.

I then outlined my thoughts about the advisability of trials for post-capture offenders. I stated that POW offenders can be divided into two groups: 1) POWs who have instigated and taken part in riots, demonstrations and acts against other POWs, 2) individual POWs who have engaged in recent, flagrant attacks against members of the UNC security forces. With regard to trials of the first group, I stated that I had reached no definite decision but that I was not certain that they would provide the necessary deterrent against future riots. I stated that regardless of trials, remedial measures, such as solitary confinement, are available to the United Nations Command and that the only more severe penalty that a criminal trial verdict can impose is the death penalty. The imposition of the death penalty would entail additional political, legal, and publicity problems, might make martyrs out of the offenders, and therefore provide incentives for additional riots. Moreover, the question of reprisals against UNC POWs in Communist hands must also be considered.

Different considerations apply to the second group, whose offenses are of such serious import that immediate action, such as trials, might be required.

I then stated that perhaps the solution to the problem of POW riots lies in the proper identification and classification of prisoners and the segregation of possible offenders and fanatics, since riots can be averted only after the relatively small group of trouble-makers is physically separated from the vast majority of pliable POWs. Control measures such as the application of the new type of vomit-gas, which is being used with great success by the UNC, might provide further deterrents against POW riots.

Mr. Sullivan indicated that he was in substantial agreement with the foregoing.

U. Alexis Johnson
  1. This memorandum was drafted by Treumann of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs.
  2. Dated Feb. 4, p. 732.