Segment from Mission Accomplished

From Prisoner to Citizen?

Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, discusses the stumbling block to ending the Korean War: prisoner repatriation. Fighting an idea as much as a military threat, the U.S. insisted that Communist prisoners of war have a choice on whether to go back.

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PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, mission accomplished. We’re looking at how wars have ended or not ended in American history. As America came out of World War II, the nation had a new place on the world stage. It was a superpower. And with this new found power to fight, it also had the power to end fights. When it chose to do so.

PETER: In 1950, the United States began its first battle of the Cold War, Korea. The Communist North with backing from China and Stalinist Russia decided to make a move on the southern half of the peninsula to try to take it over. And frankly, the South wasn’t putting up much of a fight. And while America had initially been reluctant to join in the war, the fear of Communist expansion loomed large. And so with UN approval, the US came to the South’s assistance.

BRIAN: By the next year, 1951, somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people were estimated to have died. The two sides realized they were evenly matched, and they decided to negotiate a truce.

GIDEON ROSE: The US generals went along with their dress uniforms. And the Chinese negotiators didn’t have winter clothes. Because everyone expected us to be wrapped up quickly.

BRIAN: This is Gideon Rose, the Editor of Foreign Affairs. He says that negotiations were tough, but both sides plowed through the main issues. For instance, they agreed on a border between North and South. They worked out cease fires, troop withdrawals. All in all, things were going OK. Until they got to the very last item on the agenda. Prisoner repatriation.

GIDEON ROSE: Traditionally what has happened in war is that after the war is over, the prisoners go back. Because once there’s no longer a state of war, the prisoners are no longer belligerent and there’s no big deal about. Korea is different.

BRIAN: And what makes it different is what happened just five years earlier during World War II. At the end of that war, Russian POWs were sent back to Russia. But Stalin, who is famously paranoid, saw them as outsiders. Now they were a threat to domestic stability. So he imprisoned them in the gulags, or he killed them.

PETER: President Truman felt that it was only right to prevent this from happening again. And as an added benefit, withholding prisoners might also serve a political purpose.

GIDEON ROSE: We have this opportunity to allow the Communist prisoners to choose asylum, and it will be both a propaganda coup, if some of them decide to stay, and it will get us out of the difficult position of forcing them to go back against their will if they don’t want to go.

PETER: There’s one kink in this plan. The POW camps are guarded by South Korean soldiers. And it turns out they weren’t particularly interested in Truman’s humanitarianism. They wanted to strike their own blow against Communists.

GIDEON ROSE: They said to people, OK, we’re going to go and have a vote on whether you want to stay or go. And Tuesday, we’re going to come by and ask you. So Tuesday comes. And they have a vote. And they say, OK, everybody who wants to go back, take a step forward. And everybody who wants to stay in the South, stay where you are.

And so, some people step forward. And then guards come out of the woodwork and start wailing on and beating up the people who stepped forward. And after this whole thing takes place, they say, OK, guess what? The actual test is. tomorrow. Not today. So who’s going to do that tomorrow?

BRIAN: The answer is not many. Nearly half of 132,000 prisoners said they wanted to stay. And when the Communists found out, they were visibly shaken. They demanded a return to the traditional all for all swap.

By now, the US couldn’t back down. It had been almost a year of fighting since they first sat down to negotiate. The prisoner swap was no longer a matter of standard military practice. It was now a war for public opinion. The US doubled down.

PETER: The real speed bump in all these negotiations was the man pulling the strings from Moscow, Joseph Stalin. Russia supplied many of the funds and arms to the North Koreans, and it quickly became, “what Stalin says, goes.” That is, until October of 1952.

GIDEON ROSE: Stalin’s death, first of all, removed Stalin, who wasn’t in favor of compromise, and second, puts in place a kind of committee slightly more liberal people who want to liquidate the ongoing conflict and agree to make some kinds of changes. Which picks up negotiations again in the spring.

PETER: With an end in sight, only one man stood in the way of a treaty. South Korean president, Syngman Rhee. In a bid to obstruct the talks, he released the Communist POWs into South Korea. The US panicked. And it was the Chinese who made the next move.

GIDEON ROSE: Finally, the Chinese, after a couple of offensives, which in effect make the South Koreans pay a price for their obstreperousness, agree to go forward with the remaining negotiations on one condition, which is that we, United States, will sign on the line for our Korean ally. In effect, they make us the guarantors of our local allies’ future behavior.

BRIAN: After three years of conflict and the deaths of more than 1.5 million people, the Communists and allies came to an armistice.

GIDEON ROSE: Which is not peace treaty. It doesn’t end the war. It just is a kind of stalemate locked in place.

BRIAN: Yes, we know that from reading the newspapers today.

GIDEON ROSE: And 60 years later, we’re in exactly the same place.

PETER: Rose says that the US could have been in that place a year and a half earlier, if it had originally agreed to an all for all swap of prisoners of war. This may also spared more lives.

GIDEON ROSE: There are more casualties when prisoners are the sole issue than there were prisoners in question. so On a pure utilitarian calculus, this was a dumb and immoral gesture, even if it was partly well-intentioned.

PETER: And yet our desire for a propaganda victory to make Communism look bad prolonged the fighting. And that, Rose says, tells us a lot about postwar America’s newfound power.

GIDEON ROSE: In some ways, it’s precisely our strength, it’s precisely our extraordinary relative power, the strongest position and international system that any state has ever known, that allowed us not only to fight for a relatively unimportant country halfway around the world in the first place, but then to fight over such a geostrategically irrelevant issue as the rights of asylum of the enemy prisoners in our hands. That’s kind of a luxury good. And we essentially continued the war for a year and a half over a luxury good that we had decided to purchase at high price.

BRIAN: Gideon Rose is a former national security official in the Clinton administration, and the author of the book How Wars End– Why We Always Fight the Last Battle.