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The Lays of Syngman Rhee

Historian David Fields

David Fields examines pro-Rhee poetry and support letters written by Americans during and after the Korean War.

It is often recounted that FDR once said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastazio Somoza “Yes, he is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of bitch.” This phrase is likely apocryphal as it has been attributed to several presidents speaking about several different dictators. It has never been attributed to either president Truman or Eisenhower regarding Syngman Rhee, because although they might have agreed that Rhee was a “son of a bitch,” they both knew no one controlled him. Few allied heads of state have caused as much trouble for the United States as Syngman Rhee.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of his actions that annoyed American policymakers: As early as 1945 he began publically alleging that the late FDR had made a secret deal with the Soviet Union trading a sphere of influence on the Korean peninsula for an earlier entry into the Pacific War. On his return to Korea in October 1945 he immediately attacked the American policy of trusteeship for Korea as a fig-leaf intended to disguise the Soviet domination of the peninsula. He thwarted all attempts at compromise with the Soviet Union during the American occupation. After being elected president of the ROK in 1948 he constantly advocated 북진통일 or marching north to unify the Korean peninsula by force with or without American support.

Once the Korean War started, Rhee tried everything he could to prevent the war from ending until the Korean peninsula was reunified. He refused to send an ROK delegation to the armistice talks, had his small air force drop bombs near the armistice site, and in 1953 released 27,000 communist POWs whose fate had taken two years of painstaking negotiations to settle. This release prolonged the Korean War by several months, costing an additional 35,000 UN casualties.[1]

Yet to many Americans, Rhee intransigence was excusable—even laudable—as it was a consequence of his passionate anti-communism.

As I have written here and here, Rhee’s political views in fact do not map well onto a left/right political spectrum, but few Americans understood that at the time. In Rhee’s surviving papers at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea there are over 2,700 pieces of correspondence labeled as “letters of support.” The authors of these letters represent a diverse cross section of American society. Men and women, students and retirees, New Yorkers and South Dakotans wrote to Rhee. They encouraged him to continue his harangues on communism and even on American policymakers whom they perceived as “going soft” on the pernicious ideology. They wrote Rhee to denounce the UN, to share their own, often harebrained, ideas on how to fight communism, and to send local newspapers clippings praising him. They assured Rhee he had popular American support. Margery Davidson of Syracuse, New York—a self-described “old lady” at 71 years old—told Rhee to ignore the pressure of the likes of Eisenhower and Churchill because “all intelligent patriotic Americans are with you.” Rosemary Macklem assured Rhee the “small people” and “plain folk” were with him.

Some of Rhee’s correspondents went so far as to conduct their own informal polling to find out. These citizen pollsters assured Rhee he enjoyed widespread support in places like Lake Preston, South Dakota and Long Island, New York. Gallup polled Americans regularly on their opinion of the conduct of the Korean War, but they never asked Americans specifically their opinion of Syngman Rhee. However, in June 1953 Gallup did ask “Can we count on the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to cooperate with us, or not?” Surprisingly only 22% of respondents answered “no” while 57% answered “yes,” despite the fact that at that very moment Rhee was publically not cooperating with the United Nations over the armistice or the POW issue.[2] This poll is far from a perfect proxy for American opinions of Rhee, but it does suggest that his intransigence did little to hurt his reputation and may have even been an asset.

Among these 2,700 “letters of support” are 19 pieces of poetry (that I have discovered so far) either written about or dedicated to Syngman Rhee. Much of this poetry is objectively poor. One epic stretches to more than eight dense manuscript pages, detailing the acts of treachery the United States and the United Nations have perpetrated against Rhee and the Republic of Korea. Another with apparent sincerity suggests that Rhee teach his army gospel hymns that they can sing outside North Korean encampments that will release the power of Christ and cause them to defect.

Many of these poems must have stroked Syngman Rhee’s ego tremendously. Godfrey Burns, a future poet laureate of the state of Maryland described Rhee as “unmoved, unbowed, like a redwood tree” in his poem Salutations, Syngman Rhee. Author and journalist Kate Holliday poetically described Rhee as a branch in a tree that is too high for the pruners, waving defiantly in the breeze. Milford Shields, the poet laureate of Colorado, described Rhee as “a diamond well fused in amber flame” and closed his poem with the couplet:

“Yours is the torch that men and stars move by

Your Spirit is Korea flaming high.”

Rhee liked the last line so well that from 1954 on, the annual ROK-published synopsis of his public speeches was entitled “Korea Flaming High.”

Perhaps indicative of how deeply support for Korea and Rhee had penetrated, a mother from Cleveland, Ohio, sent Rhee a letter enclosing a copy of a poem her 11-year-old daughter had written for Rhee as a part of a project for her 6th grade class; a project which also included the girl performing the national anthem of the Republic of Korea as a piano solo for a school assembly. Another poem written by the father of a Korean War veteran who happened to be the same age as Rhee muses on the idea that though he and Rhee were born so far away from each other, they found a common identity in their Christian faith and are really not that different. It is possible that the personal papers of Anastasio Somosa, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Shah of Iran also contain poems of praise from Indiana-6th graders and poets laureate of American states, but somehow I doubt it.

Rhee’s popular support was reflected in the US congress. When Rhee made the most audacious move of his political career – the release of 27,000 non-repatriate POWs in an attempt to kill the armistice negotiations – at least a half dozen congressmen spoke out in support of his action, and one even authored a congressional resolution praising his decision.[3] Congressional support for Rhee likely contributed to General Mark Clark’s decision not to remove Rhee from power following the POW release, despite having a plan in place (Operation Everready).

These Americans were either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the fact that Rhee’s antics were costing additional American lives in Korea, as General Mark Clark would point out in his memoirs. Regardless, their support for Rhee highlights a rather disheartening fact that bears remembering as we reflect on the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War: complex and uncertain times are often fertile ground for simplistic slogans and binary views of the world. By the end of his life, Rhee was a master of both and some Americans loved him for it.

[1] Mark Clark, From the Danube to the Yalu (Harper, 1954), 288.

[2] National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago. Foreign Affairs And Minorities, Jun, 1953 [survey question]. USNORC.530341.R20D. National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago [producer]. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL [distributor], accessed May-31-2019.

[3] Extension of Remarks by Tom Steed, 23 June 1953, Congressional Record 83:1 (1953) A3753; Extension of Remarks by Samuel W. Yorty, 23 June 1953, Congressional Record 83:1 (1953) A3898–99; Extension of Remarks by Thomas J. Lane, 23 June 1953, Congressional Record 83:1 (1953) A4012; see also 83 H. Con. Res. 121 (23 June 1953).

About the Author

Historian David Fields

David P. Fields

Center for East Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison

David P. Fields is the associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the author of Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea.

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