190. Letter From the Ambassador in Korea (Dowling) to the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs (Parsons)1

Dear Howard: Your letter of November 7, 1956,2 refers to several of the questions which I would have hoped to discuss with you in person this month, had the world behaved itself. None of them, to my mind, is susceptive of ready presentation or analysis, and I still hope it may be possible for me to get back to the Department for a brief consultation sometime after the first of the year—which is another way of saying that I feel very much the need of talking things over with you and others in the Department and of having your guidance on some of these matters. I am delighted that we are to have Walter Robertson and Howard Jones here even for a brief [Page 364] visit,3 but I fear that time will not permit raising all the questions on which I need the Department’s views.

With this wordy introduction, here are my comments on the points in your letter.


I find myself somewhere between the Department and Defense on the weapons issue, although I feel the difference is primarily of an optical nature. I should have explained that my plug for Honest John or Nike batteries was based on the popular acceptance in most countries of these weapons as simply guided missiles without regard to their atomic capability. I assume this has something to do with our rather off-hand publicity about missiles, whereas there is considerably more hush-hush treatment (at least by the uninitiated, like me) of the “atomic bomb.” At any rate, it seems to me possible that we might equip our own forces here with the missiles—with conventional warheads—without too much public outcry from anyone except the Communists. And the latter are bound to make the most of any change in the present situation, be it in a musket or in the addition of the latest [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] weapon. I would think that much might depend upon our advance publicity, and how we built up to an announcement of our ultimate decision.

I admit that I could be wrong about this, of course.


On the level of forces, I feel that it would be inappropriate for me to go on record at this time with any recommendation more concrete than that given in my despatch 128.4 General Lemnitzer will argue for every division he now has, and I should do the same in his case—at least until I was sure there was no possibility of getting the necessary funds for their maintenance. There was some difference of opinion on this subject in the Pentagon when I was last in Washington, but I take it from your letter that at least the JCS have reached an agreed view.

Having said as much, I should like to make it clear—informally—that I would be opposed to the maintenance of the present force levels even if adequate MDAP and economic aid funds were available under existing procedures. I would have no argument against the present levels if it were possible in some manner for us to assume [Page 365] the burden of supporting them, less a modest, fixed sum in hwan assessed against the Korean budget for defense purposes, and could thus sterilize the present unhealthy impact on the Korean economy. As I see it, the existing aid laws and regulations were not drawn up with a Korean-type situation in mind, and their application here is bringing results which we had certainly not intended. To illustrate, let’s take the items of “saleables” in the economic aid program, the composition of which has, I fear, been determined as much by what the economy can absorb so as to generate hwan to cover the military budget deficit as by essential import requirements of the economy. I should add, in fairness, that another criterion has been their effect in combatting inflation, but I believe the economists agree that the military budget itself is a major factor making for that inflation.

I do not argue for a change in the laws and regulations to fit our situation here. That, I know, is hardly practicable. Hence my conclusion that we must reduce the force levels, while changing their composition to get the most effective defense possible for the funds which can be made available. My rationalization is that while this may not supply all the defense needed, it will give us all we can afford if we are to have any chance of developing the Korean economy, and that the situation is now sufficiently stabilized for us to take this calculated risk. So long as U.S. forces stand on the front here, I do not believe we shall see aggression against us unless it be part of a global offensive. In this latter case, we should be in a most untenable position here, even with the present forces.

To me, the fundamental decision is whether we shall have here merely an armed camp, or if it is to be our purpose to strike a balance between military and political economic security, and do the best we can in both fields through a judicious apportioning of the available resources.

On the question of succession, I agree that as things now stand, the constitutional processes would be followed, and Chang Myon would take over. There would no doubt follow some months of political confusion, but I do not believe it would result in any serious difficulty for us or the Koreans; this would, in my opinion, be nothing more than the realignment of forces which must be expected.

I should, however, like to sound one note of caution: the Army, on which we have counted as a major element of stability, may not function as we have planned. I am disturbed by the high degree of factionalism which is now rife (the Air Force and Navy seem as yet to be singularly free from this virus), and I am ready to confess that I haven’t the slightest idea how it will all end. As I see it, the infection is fed by the fact that the build-up having been completed, the Army is now finding time heavy on its hands (lack of funds for [Page 366] training, etc.), and especially is this true of the officers who have attained the highest or next highest military rank at such early ages. It is perhaps natural, in this situation, that a realization should dawn of the imposing influence which could be wielded by one controlling the Army, and that dreams of power should follow in the wake of this realization. The struggle seems to be on, in any event, and it may or may not do damage. I can only say that I view with alarm.

One further thought on succession. The Liberal Party is endeavoring to rebuild after the shock of the last national elections, and have demonstrated better organization in several by-elections recently. If they succeed in this reconstruction program, and especially if they should sense that they are re-gaining the confidence of the electorate, they will almost surely attempt to change the rules and exclude Chang Myon from the Presidency. This is something on which we can only wait and see.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, these matters are not susceptible of ready presentation or analysis. After reading over my comments above, I should perhaps amend that statement to say that I am not capable of presenting or analyzing them coherently. There is a great deal more I could say, and I might well want to amend or clarify some of my statements in the light of your questions. But I hope that what I have given you will be of some use.

With best wishes,

Sincerely yours,

Walter Dowling5
  1. Source: Department of State, Seoul Embassy Files: Lot 64 F 22. Top Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. Document 180.
  3. Robertson and Jones visited Seoul, December 18–19, as part of a tour of Far Eastern posts.
  4. Despatch 128, October 25, drafted by Dowling and the senior members of the Embassy staff, was a 12-page assessment of U.S. economic and military programs in Korea. With respect to force levels in Korea, Ambassador Dowling and his aides recommended the maintenance of U.S. forces “at substantially their present strength until unification has been achieved.” For economic reasons, however, they recommended a gradual but steady reduction in the size of the South Korean armed forces by conversion of active into reserve units. (Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 62 D 1, Korea, Objectives and Courses of Action (NSC 5514))
  5. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.