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The Fall of South Korean Strongman Syngman Rhee — April 26,1960

Syngman Rhee, a staunch anticommunist and authoritarian, was the first president of South Korea. Backed by the United States, Rhee was appointed head of the Korean government in 1945 before winning the country’s first presidential election in 1950. He led South Korea through the Korean War, but because of widespread discontent with corruption and political repression, it was unlikely that he would be re-elected by the National Assembly. Rhee ordered a mass arrest of opposing politicians; elections were held, with Rhee receiving 74% of the vote.

In March 1960, a protest against electoral corruption took place in Masan. Violence erupted as police started shooting, and the protesters retaliated by throwing rocks. A few weeks later, the body of a student who had disappeared during the riots was found in the Masan Harbor. Rhee’s regime tried to censor news of this incident; however, it was reported in the Korean press along with a picture of the body. The incident became the basis of a national movement against electoral corruption.

On April 19, students at Korea University began protesting against police violence and called for new elections. The protests were again violently suppressed, leading to a demonstration before the presidential Blue House by thousands of students, who dispersed only when police fired point-blank into their ranks. By April 25, the protests had grown even larger as professors and other citizens began to join the students, nearly throwing the country into complete anarchy. Rhee stepped down on April 26 and was flown out of South Korea by the CIA. He died in exile in Honolulu in 1965. (His fall was also immortalized in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”) In these excerpts from his oral history, Marshall Green discusses the chaos of the elections and the student protests, as well as his role in Rhee’s resignation.

Green was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1988. Read other Moments on Korea.


Election fraud and the Masan incident

GREEN:  The story goes back to the time of my arrival. The principal event that we were heading towards at the time of my arrival were the elections, originally scheduled for May 1960, but Syngman Rhee suddenly decided to hold them in the middle of March, which was two months, roughly, after our arrival. The United States was hopeful that these would be free and fair elections to determine who was going to be the next president and vice president. That’s essentially what the elections were about.

The government candidates, the candidates of the Liberal Party, as they called themselves, were Syngman Rhee, who was going in for the fourth term, I believe, and his vice president, Lee Kibung. The opposition party had two principal contenders that belonged to different factions, as I recall it, of the Democratic Party. One was Chang Myun. The other was Cho Pyong-ok. Cho Pyong-ok, who became the principal opposition candidate, had cancer and died in a hospital in Washington shortly after I arrived in Korea. One of the most searing memories I have was of the funeral services that were held for him in the sports arena. All the diplomats were there. I’ll never forget that mournful day in Seoul. The weather added to the general atmosphere of gloom, with cold rains and lowering clouds.

I thought to myself, “Poor Korea, with all that it suffers, now to lose the one man who might have led a successful opposition against Syngman Rhee and his corrupt government.” Rhee was increasingly unpopular, especially with people in the cities and the educated. Cho Pyong-ok had a reputation of being a doer, whereas Chang Myun was regarded as a nice man, but rather weak personally, not the kind of leader that Korea really needed. So that was my initial introduction to the Korean political scene.

Then the elections were held on March 15. I was, by the way, chargé d’affaires at the time when the elections were held. There was a United Nations Commission for Korea, UNCRK, that was supposed to supervise the elections, but they didn’t have enough people. They couldn’t get around. The elections were obviously rigged, and the results were clear in that regard, because Rhee seemed to have won just about all the votes in the country, and we knew perfectly well there was overwhelming opposition to him in the cities, but not in the rural areas. In those days, the great majority lived in the rural areas.

Reports of election fraud were rife, and this contributed to growing unrest, especially on the part of the young people, the students. On April 12, there was an incident in Masan, which is about halfway down the peninsula from Seoul, in which a student had been killed and a photograph of his body, in which there were four pegs protruding from his eyes, was widely published. This grisly photograph touched off such a reaction, especially in the student population of Korea, that clearly Korea was headed towards a real first-rate crisis. The question then arose as to what position we should take in that situation.

Q: Were you still chargé at this time?

GREEN: I was chargé during the elections and for about two weeks after that. As the issue came to a climax, the ambassador was back.

I did a great deal of the drafting. The ambassador did relatively little. He would review drafts in which other sections of the embassy made contributions, but I often brought it all together. My wife used to say I was the thinker and the drafter, and the ambassador was the talker and the doer. We had that kind of relationship.

We reported all these developments to Washington and presented the policy options, but Washington relied very heavily upon us for our advice. Our advice in this situation was to call upon the Korean people to try to maintain order and respect for law and authority, but to call on the government to recognize the justifiable grievances of the people. The phrase “justifiable grievances” is one that I cooked up, and that phrase was to become a very famous one, because when we used it publicly, “justifiable grievances,” identified the U.S. with the people. The minute we used the words “justifiable grievances,” the students were with us. The populace, by and large, especially the better educated people, were also with us.

April Revolution: “The carnage was fearful”

This brings us, then, to the events after the Masan incident, after these things all came out in the open. The demonstrations became more and more frequent, particularly in Seoul. On April 19, 1960, the largest demonstrations Korea had ever seen were about to lead to a very bloody week. The afternoon of April 19, there were probably about 100,000 demonstrators in the streets. The Rhee government, in fearful reaction against the masses, ordered the militia and the palace guard and the police to put down the demonstration. In so doing, there were estimates that between 100 and 200 students were killed and maybe 1,000 or more wounded.

In fact, my wife went to the hospital with two of her friends to see if she could help, and she said that the corridors were jammed with wounded students. The worst thing of all was, she said, the wounds caused by armor-piercing shells. The carnage was fearful. The electricity in the streets that night was very, very high, one of the reasons being that when any student was killed, they would take his body and hold it up on top of a jeep that was weaving through the masses of people, whipping them up into a fury. Obviously, the sentiments of the country were turning very strongly against Rhee.

The ambassador and General Magruder called on Rhee the following day, and they tried to persuade the old man this was a situation that needed to be redressed. This was April 20. They didn’t get too far with him. Rhee made some sounds that this was all caused by troublemakers, and also he was critical of the Japanese, as he always was. He was shaken, but he obviously was still obdurate.

The next several days were relatively quiet. Meanwhile, Chang Myun, the vice president, had resigned on the 22nd of April. But on the 25th of April, since Rhee clearly had not heard the voice of the students and there were some 200 professors who started a procession down the street. I’ll never forget that. They were followed by little kids, primary schoolers, followed by their parents, followed by secondary school-level and, finally, by university students. A tremendous parade down the street. That night I had a feeling of deep apprehension. I got up early in the morning, the morning of the 26th of April, and I drove around the streets in the dark. I could see already there were large formations of students on the outskirts that were about to move in massive phalanxes into the city, obviously to the palace where Syngman Rhee’s offices were located.

Meanwhile, I saw that around the palace and the headquarters of Rhee’s government, tanks were lining up with their barrels facing out towards what were going to be the advancing phalanxes of students. In other words, carnage was impending.

I rushed to the ambassador’s residence. He was asleep. I woke him up, told him what I thought was about to happen. He immediately got on the phone to the Minister of Defense, Minister Kim, and together they called up Syngman Rhee and urged that he meet with them, which he did. As a

result of this meeting and before the students had actually reached the palace, Syngman Rhee had announced that he was going to meet the grievances of the people, and that he was going to consider the question of his continuation in office.

This broke up the student march. They began to cheer wildly. I remember when the ambassador drove back from his meeting with Rhee, the embassy was surrounded by thousands of people cheering the American government, the American people….

[Ambassador] McConaughy was a true Southern gentleman, who, as guest in the country of Syngman Rhee, treated Rhee with proper deference and respect, and listened to him. When the critical moments came later on, when the ambassador, accompanied by the Minister of Defense, called on Rhee, Rhee heeded their advice about resigning. Why did Rhee heed the advice? After all, in 1959, the year before I arrived, Eisenhower had sent Dr. Walter Judd, who was a member of Congress and a friend of Rhee, out to Korea to try to persuade Mr. Rhee to name a successor and step down, grooming his successor for the job. Rhee had simply laughed in the face of Dr. Judd.

But he accepted McConaughy’s advice, partly because of the gravity of the situation, but also partly because he saw McConaughy as being well-informed as to the facts. After all, McConaughy had listened so attentively to what Rhee had said, that he was seen as the repository of wisdom. Any counsel he supplied was based upon knowledge of the facts and therefore was an objective recommendation. All those many hours of painful listening paid off. This was one of the greatest lessons I learned in diplomacy: the importance of attentive listening.