Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file

The President of the Republic of Korea (Rhee) to President Eisenhower

confidential

Dear President Eisenhower: The signing of the recent agreements concerning economic and military assistance1 can, and I believe should, be a constructive step forward toward the solution of the larger problems in which our two countries are jointly involved.

Korea is now fighting for its very existence in one of the most serious crises in our history. It is only because our survival itself is at stake that I am writing this letter to give you my views on the situation and to ask you to do what you can to help us to save ourselves. Your fair-mindedness and dedication to democratic principles provide the sole remaining hope that we can work together to avert the catastrophe that is rapidly overtaking us.

Militarily our plight is growing desperate. A few miles from where I sit more than one million Red Chinese troops and hundreds of thousands of enslaved Korean troops are getting ready to renew the onslaught against us. Their forty airfields, once pounded into uselessness by the United States Air Force, are fully restored, and hundreds of the latest Soviet jets are based on them. The attack may come at any time, because the Communists are ready, and we are not.

As a consequence of their military superiority, the Reds are increasing their other pressures upon us. The Pyongyang and Peiping radios are broadcasting daily demands that we hold a conference with north Korean leaders and proceed to the unification of Korea under a Red-packed Neutral Nations Commission. As you now know, the Communists have even formalized their diabolical proposals in a cablegram to this Government. They still reject all thought of U.N. supervision of an election. And implicit in all their communications is the threat that if we do not accept unification on their terms, the attack upon us will be renewed.

Meanwhile, enemy infiltration of south Korea has increased to dangerous proportions. Red agents are fomenting unrest and are trying to promote popular support for a Pyongyang Conference at which those loyal to me and to America would be barred. Spies and saboteurs are smuggling in opium, weapons and dynamite from north Korea, China and Japan, in huge quantities. Pro-Communist and pro-Japanese elements are actively plotting and agitating for the overthrow of this Government. Such infiltration and subversion have not yet done much [Page 1938]harm, but the public is definitely affected. There is considerable unrest and great fear that the Communists may descend on us again.

This trepidation has been accentuated by withdrawal of two-thirds of the U.S. and U.N. forces, and by our almost total lack of air defense. New rumors are heard daily. There is wide talk of the “Reds coming down” and of air raids in heavy force.

These facts are doubtless known to you, but I hope you are not being advised to discount their grave importance. We, on our part, do not under-rate the importance of the Korean-American Mutual Defense Treaty. But there are underlying factors which cause our dangerously exposed people to have the utmost concern for the safety of themselves and of our nation.

It must be remembered that some Americans, whom we consider friends of Japan rather than of Korea, have recently been raising once more doubts as to the strategic value of the Korean peninsula. This very doubt was asserted to be the principal reason for the withdrawal of the headquarters of the U.S. Far Eastern Air Force. It is also implicit in some of the broad policy statements to the effect that the United States must not again become involved in any “Korean type” wars, and that in case of any localized Communist attacks, the reaction to them would not necessarily be localized defense, but larger retaliation directed at the centers from which the attack is directed.

Mr. President, you should know that there are two basic reactions to this kind of discussion. Some of our people assume that in case the Communists again attack us, Korea might be abandoned, at least temporarily, while war by air is waged against Red China from bases that the U.S. Command considers to be safer than our peninsula. And still others, made deeply anxious by the Geneva agreement on Indo-China, are convinced that neutralist pressures from your Allies would lead to a decision to yield south Korea to the Communists as another attempt to find a basis for long range “peaceful co-existence”.

You will recall, as we do, that present circumstances parallel significantly the situation that preceded the attack of 1950. At that time, too, the Communists were flooding the airways with demands for a “unification conference”. And also at that time, policy statements emanating from Washington gave the Communists grounds for believing that the U.S. Administration did not believe Korea to be of strategic military importance.

You must know, Mr. President, that the belief is widespread in this part of the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that the United States bases its military and diplomatic policies for the Far East primarily upon the preservation of Japan as the chief center of Asian resistance to Communism. We are conscious of continuing pressures to align ourselves more closely with Japan, economically and militarily. But the totality of our national fears is of such a nature that this whole situation [Page 1939]impels many of our people to consider the possibility of accepting reunification on Communist terms as the only form of safety which they may expect from a renewal of Japanese dominion over our nation.

Our people are also upset by the continued espionage activities of the Communist members of the Neutral Nations Truce Supervisory Commission. These enemy agents have no place in Korea. The ninety-day truce period to which we initially agreed is long since past. The political conference, in which hope was placed by the United Nations, was wholly unproductive, and the Communists have violated both the letter and the spirit of the truce daily with complete impunity. Yet when we wanted to get the Russians (who masquerade as Polish officers), the Poles, and the Czechs out of our country, the U.S. Commanding Officer said he would protect them.

In our view, Mr. President, it is a grave mistake to underrate the military threat to our safety. As yet no provisions have been made to replace the U.N. troops that are being withdrawn. How, then, are we going to cope with the greatly strengthened armies just to the north? [Here follow Rhee’s comments on South Korean military preparedness against the threat from the north.]

In many ways, militarily, psychologically, and economically, Korea is today in a situation similar to that of China when the Reds took over in 1949. Under these circumstances, I have no alternative except to make this personal appeal to you to do all you can to avert a tragedy that would destroy Korea and imperil the security of the United States itself.

[Here follows Rhee’s warning on what he considered to be the grave consequences in Asia for an American pro-Japanese foreign policy.]

We are caught, of course, between our fear of Japan on one side, and of the Communists on the other. Japan has nothing whatsoever to offer the peoples of Asia, either substantively or psychologically. We all have learned by harsh experience the ruthlessness of Japan’s ambitions. On the other hand, the Communists penetrate into our midst with all the wide variety of their methods of psychological warfare. They promise better times to impoverished and disturbed people, and they broadcast daily their ability to restore (on their own terms, of course) the re-unification of our nation—just as they proved that they and they alone could provide a basis for ending the long war in Indo-China. The simple fact of the matter is that we see clearly how many people already have chosen under these terrifying circumstances to align themselves with the Reds. Nor is there any evidence now that this trend is being checked, at least in Asia.

I am afraid that my motives may have been misunderstood as I have made these points. My position is not anti-Japanese; it is pro-American, and as such I must do my best as a Korean and an Asian to help you [Page 1940]and Mr. Dulles to understand the tenor of feeling that helps shape the course of events in this part of the world.

In connection with our own internal situation, a new agreement has been signed and we shall do our best to abide by it strictly, as we always do try to work cooperatively with the United States in a spirit of utmost sincerity. However, it is simply a fact that the difficulties in our economic and fiscal situation have not been solved, and new problems continue to arise. Personally, I do not see how inflation can be checked or basic economic viability restored except through the rapid development of our means of production. Without the tremendous aid which you are generously extending to us, we should be completely helpless. Even though our Governments do not always agree on how the aid program should operate, I want you to know, Mr. President, that my sole aim is to do all I can to insure that the United States aid funds are spent exactly for the purpose for which they are extended—namely, to restore Korea as soon as possible to a position of full self-support.

One additional comment I should like to make. We cannot avoid being disturbed when we are told that it is the American policy to secure two dollars of benefit (one for Japan and one for Korea) from every dollar expended. What this means is that our own recovery is slowed, as we are expected to buy more from Japan, and accordingly to use less to build up our own productive facilities. This has an immediate effect of once more placing our economy at the mercy of the Japanese. It also means that when the American Congress decides it has voted all the funds it can spare for Korean aid, we may not at that time have developed sufficient productive resources to maintain our stability. These are basic questions which will naturally be under continuing examination by your experts and ours. I hope that our point of view will not be misunderstood and that, if we sometimes disagree on details, we shall not for that reason be considered ungrateful or unreasonable.

In regard to our relations with Japan, we are fully as anxious as is your Government to restore a relationship and a feeling of genuine harmony and friendship.

The astounding fact is that, despite its pledges in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Japanese Government has officially laid claim to eighty-five per cent of all Korea’s property. We have been told quietly by some of our American friends that we ought not to take this too seriously, for it is merely a bargaining point. However, we cannot trust a Japanese Government that will bargain with vital matters on which it has solemnly abjured any claim. Recently our Korean Mission in Japan was informed by a Japanese official that the property claims of Japan would be dropped if we would cancel the Fishery Peace Line. Of course, our Mission could not take this offer seriously, because under present chaotic fishing conditions in waters adjacent to our coasts we [Page 1941]have no choice but to extend protection to one of our most vital industries. We have also heard that you and Mr. Dulles have asked Japan to drop its property claims. That would be extremely good news. It has always been our position that the United States should ask Japan to withdraw those claims unconditionally. If that is done, conditions would be much more favorable for a rapprochement between the two countries. Once the property question is disposed of, we would suggest the intercession of the United States in settling other differences. Our suggestions are already minimal, and we feel they offer a fair and reasonable basis for final agreement.

As some of our American friends have suggested, that agreement could include a non-aggression pact among the United States, Korea and Japan. Should any of the three become an aggressor, the other two would combat that aggression. Such an accord, seriously entered into by the three nations, should assure their peaceful and friendly relationship for the foreseeable future. Once this were signed, Korea may be prepared to negotiate a commercial agreement with Japan and enter into amicable social and cultural exchanges. On this basis, the anti-Communist position in north Asia would be greatly strengthened.

I feel sure, Mr. President, that out of your great affection for Korea and the Korean people, and out of your respect for them as democratic fighting allies, you will give my suggestions and proposals your understanding consideration. Since the problems involved are basic to our very survival as a free nation, and to the knitting together of a dependable structure of peace in Asia, I know that they are receiving your own most careful personal consideration.

[Here follows a section in which Rhee wrote frankly of what he considered to be the dangers of peaceful coexistence with communism.]

It is my devout hope, Mr. President, that none of this will come to pass. The prevention of it, however, depends upon adoption of policies that will solve problems that are now being postponed or even ignored. The desperate situation of our people, beset by inflation, uncertainties and military threat, does not allow us much leeway for further trial and error experience. The very survival of our nation rests upon a thin thread. My daily prayer to our God is that together we may work constructively to strengthen it.

With the warmest expressions of friendship for you and for Mrs. Eisenhower, I am,

Most sincerely yours,

Syngman Rhee
  1. The reference was to the agreed minute of understanding, which was initialed on Nov. 17, 1954. For text, see Department of State Bulletin, Nov. 29, 1954, pp. 810–811.