Memorandum by the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Bowie) to the Secretary of State1

top secret


  • Proposed reply by the President to President Rhee
[Page 1663]
NSC 167/1, paragraph 2, stated that “the United States should seek to obtain from Rhee a formal assurance in writing that he will not initiate unilateral military action at any time against the Communists in or north of the demilitarized zone.” In an attempt to obtain such an assurance, the President wrote Rhee on November 4 a letter which was delivered by Vice President Nixon.
The President stated: “I must have explicit confirmation from you (of loyal cooperation) in order to reach my own decisions and to be able to answer the questions which the Senate and the Congress will properly ask …”
With regard to the Mutual Defense Treaty, the President said: “If I should be forced to conclude that after the coming into force of the treaty, you might unilaterally touch off a resumption of war in Korea, I could not recommend its ratification and I am certain that the Senate would not ratify it. When I formally submit the Treaty to the Senate next January, I must be in a position personally to give a clear assurance on this point.”
With regard to economic assistance to Korea, the President said: “If I believed these funds would merely create new targets in a war renewed by you, I could not, consistently with my duty, request Congress to authorize this appropriation.”
The President stated: “If you were to plan to initiate military action while the Communist forces are complying with the; armistice, my obligation as to both U.S. forces and other U.N. forces would be to plan how best to prevent their becoming involved and to assure their security.”
President Rhee, in his letter of November 16,2 does not give any explicit assurance that he will not renew hostilities.
Rhee says: “… there is no question about our willingness to cooperate with you in every way possible. So long as the U.S. Government pursues the policy of justice at any cost, instead of peace at any cost, and decides to unify Korea either by peaceful means or by other means, there is no reason why we should hesitate even a moment to cooperate with the UN member nations in general and the U.S. in particular. I know that we will work together to get the Chinese invaders now in Korea to evacuate at the earliest possible moment.”
Rhee says: “In reply to Mr. Nixon’s question put to me just before his leaving, I said that if everything should go contrary to our expectation and the worse comes to the worst, I would feel compelled to take a unilateral action, which I earnestly hope would never happen. I added, however, that I would inform you before making any such move.”
Rhee also states: “I told Mr. Nixon further that we should keep this understanding strictly in confidence.”
Although neither Rhee’s letter nor his oral statements to the Vice President contain any explicit assurances that he will not act unilaterally, Rhee did in his talks with Mr. Nixon make statements to the effect that he realized that Korea could not possibly act alone and that he had to act always with the United States. Rhee told the Vice President: “We must fix our goal and travel together. We are the last people in the world who will disagree with the United States. We realze that we will get everything as long as we travel together and that we will lose everything if we don’t.” The Vice President states that “as a result of the President’s letter, the firm statements I made to him during our conversations, and his own recognition of the hard fact that he simply is not capable of going it alone, I believe that Rhee, as of now, has no intention to act unilaterally.”
The present situation appears to be that the President’s letter and Nixon’s statements, together with the representations previously made by us to Rhee, have convinced Rhee that the U.S. does not intend to support or to become involved in hostilities if he should renew them unilaterally. Our representations may have convinced him that we are capable of keeping ourselves from becoming involved in any hostilities which he might initiate as well as being determined to avoid involvement. If the conviction is fostered and maintained in Rhee’s mind that the U.S. is capable of avoiding and determined to avoid involvement in any hostilities that he might initiate, it is highly probable that Rhee will not in fact start fighting. If however he comes to believe that the U.S. is not adamant against involvement, or that it could not keep from becoming involved even against its own wishes, it is highly possible that Rhee will initiate hostilities.
In this situation, there are three alternative courses of action that the President might follow with regard to Rhee’s letter:
Make no reply at all;
Reply with insistence that Rhee provide formal written assurance that he will not take unilateral action;
Reply to Rhee with a letter which interprets the combination of his letter and his talks with Nixon as providing satisfactory assurance that he will not act unilaterally.
If the President makes no reply to Rhee and goes ahead with formal recommendations to the Congress on economic assistance and the treaty:
Rhee might construe this as a retreat from the position taken in the President’s original letter and possibly as a softening of U.S. resolution not to support or become involved in hostilities.
If the President gave any assurances to the Congress with regard to unilateral action by Rhee, the President would be open to possible attack on the grounds that he had given such assurances in the face of a letter which could be construed as putting him on notice that under certain conditions Rhee would act unilaterally.
If the President replied to Rhee with renewed insistence that Rhee give formal written assurance that he will not take unilateral action, the President would have to take the line that Rhee had not satisfied the President sufficiently to justify recommending either the treaty or the economic assistance program to the Congress. If Rhee should respond with the requisite assurances, all would be well. But it is highly improbable that Rhee would be willing to incur the great loss of face involved in backing down, under obvious pressure, from a position which he has publicized so thoroughly. In that case an impasse would result from which neither the U.S. nor the ROK would have any good way of extricating itself, and a dangerous breach could be expected between the Koreans and ourselves.
If the President replies to Rhee and interprets Rhee’s letter and Rhee’s statements to Nixon as satisfactory assurance that Rhee will not act alone, it would be necessary to build somewhat on what Rhee actually said, but this could be done without actual distortion of Rhee’s statements. It would be difficult for Rhee to challenge the President’s interpretation without risking serious dispute. If Rhee allowed the President’s interpretation to stand unchallenged, the President would have a basis for reporting to the Congress that he was satisfied that Rhee would not take unilateral action, and that it was wise to proceed with the treaty and economic assistance.
On balance, it seems that the last course of action, that of interpreting Rhee’s letter and statements to Nixon as satisfactory assurance against unilateral action, is the best, or at any rate the least undesirable alternative. A draft letter along this line is attached.3 In sum, this letter takes Rhee’s letter and statements to Nixon as assurance to the President that Rhee will not take action except by mutual agreement, and agrees to keep the exchange of letters confidential, but reserves the right of the U.S. to make its position clear on unilateral renewal of hostilities whenever it seems advisable.
NSC 167/1,4 paragraph 2, states that if Rhee refuses to give formal assurance in writing that he will not initiate unilateral military action at any time “the U.S. should inform him immediately that the UNC reserves all rights to take whatever action it deems necessary to preserve the security of the UNC forces.” This draft letter would not precisely fulfill this directive since Rhee has not given formal assurance in writing. The President’s previous letter, however, has in effect already notified Rhee that the President will reserve all rights to take action necessary to preserve the security of the UNC forces. In a letter [Page 1666] which interprets Rhee’s statements as satisfactory assurance, it would seem best not to repeat the warning.
If the President sends this letter to Rhee, the letter should be considered as only one step in a continuing series of moves by this Government to foster and maintain a conviction on Rhee’s part (a) that the U.S. is determined not to become involved in any hostilities which he might initiate; (b) that we are capable of avoiding any such involvement; and (c) that he really would be going it alone if he took unilateral action. The actions outlined in NSC 167/1 should be vigorously pursued. In particular, we should proceed—
to redispose our forces;
to make clear our intentions to other ROK leaders; and
to plan and prepare for the contingency of unilateral action by Rhee.
  1. According to a covering note by Bowie, the attached draft letter, sent Jan. 2, 1954, p. 1685, was revised in light of discussion between Dulles, Robertson, and Bowie and then approved by Dulles. There is no indication of what the revisions were on the source text.
  2. Not found, but see footnote 2 p. 1615.
  3. This draft, which is not printed, was approved as drafted and was identical to the letter from Eisenhower to Rhee, Jan. 2, 1954, p. 1685.
  4. For text, Nov. 2, see p. 1583.