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The Little Emergency that was the Korean War

There was a lot of unfinished business on the Korean peninsula in the 1940’s. It had been ruled by the Empire of Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II, when it was divided by American administrators along the 38th parallel, with U.S. military forces occupying the southern half and Soviet military forces occupying the northern half. The failure to hold free elections throughout the Korean Peninsula in 1948 deepened the division between the two sides; the North established a communist government, while the South established a right-wing government under Syngman Rhee. Cross-border skirmishes and raids at the 38th Parallel persisted until North Korean forces invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The USSR boycotted the United Nations Security Council because the Republic of China, now operating from Taiwan, was chosen to represent China in the UN. Without the Soviet veto, the Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in Korea. The vast majority of “international” troops were American.

When the war broke out, Donald MacDonald, who was stationed in Korea at the time and  discusses, in an interview with Stu Kennedy in 1990, what it was like coming into Korea in June 1948, the relationship between the United States and the Rhee government and the  phone call early in the morning of June 25th that informed MacDonald of the unfolding “little” emergency.

“We Have a Little Emergency”

Q: When you returned to Korea in June, 1948, what was the situation? 

MACDONALD: It was still very confused. It was marginally better than when I had left. Politically it was complicated by the split between the right and left. There were many demonstrations. There had been a couple of major assassinations before I got there. But the situation was not one that put in me in fear for my life and limb. We moved around freely. The bulk of the population were friendly.

A lot of people were complaining about what they thought we were failing to do…. One problem at the time was that the North Koreans on May 15, had pulled the switch on the electric power; the north was the primary source of power for the whole peninsula. In terms of creature comforts, that created some difficulties. Living was poor particularly for the Koreans…

By the time Rhee took over, he had made most of the Americans mad at him. He had a propensity for making all who had worked with him, mad at him. It was extraordinary. He had a single minded conviction of his own unique attributes and qualifications to be able to do anything. This was by no means un-Korean, but he exceeded most Koreans. It was he actually who had insisted on a separate government for South Korea when the Koreans were still hoping for a unified government of the peninsula.

Rhee knew how to manipulate Americans and did so. He was stubborn and mule-headed; he had an aura as the leading nationalist patriot fighter for Korea’s independence. He made Americans quite miserable. None of us liked him although we had some respect for his ability. Furthermore he became increasingly dictatorial. This turned off the junior members of the staff, particularly. I remember vividly trying to include all the criticisms I had heard in my dispatches, which Drumright took out, saying: “Young man, it is your business to report what happened, but not to pontificate”.

The outbreak was a complete surprise. It was not that we thought that there would be no war. There had been elaborate emergency plans drawn up, which were actually followed when war broke out. But for one thing, we were encouraged by the military advisory group to over-estimate South Korean military capabilities. We also underestimated the capacity of the North Koreans. Although the threat was obviously there, it was discounted. Also President Rhee had been crying wolf for so long that when in May, 1950 he and his defense minister began to cite movement of tanks and troops, we dismissed it as an effort to get more military assistance. We were concerned that he would move North; after all, he was

always talking about it. Even though we recognized the threat and were planning for the eventuality of a war, when it actually happened it was a total surprise….

Once I started doing political reporting, I was in touch with government people, but I tended to work through the Embassy’s Korean political assistants more than by direct contact. For one thing, my Korean was still inadequate for conducting business. We all tended to distrust the government anyway. We preferred to go to newsmen, opposition politicians and others to try to get information on what was going on in the country, leaving government official contacts to our seniors….

The first word that I received about the War was a telephone call on Sunday morning, June 25, from Everett Drumright. I was in bed asleep. He said: “MacDonald, we have a little emergency. You’d better get to the office”. I went and never did get home very much thereafter.

The first matter to attend to was to determine whether the invasion was for real. There had been many skirmishes at division level at the front since 1949; it was never completely clear which side started these incidents. Therefore we had to establish the veracity of the reports of the North Korean attacks. It wasn’t until Monday that we actually heard gunfire. Events progressed more or less according to plan for the first day.

We started to segregate classified documents for destruction. We organized people in civil defense ways by designating air raid shelters, appointed wardens, arranged communications and so on. As it became increasingly clear that the South Korean Army was not going to hold, then matters got increasingly frantic. We were burning classified documents on the roof of the Embassy steadily for two or three days. Some of the Marine guards and junior officers were assigned to that detail.

“The North Koreans Are Coming”

Meanwhile, we of course still had to write reports. Ambassador Muccio personally had to hold the hand of the Korean government. The first group to be evacuated consisted of dependents–women and children. They left Sunday night and were put on board a fertilizer boat which had just been ordered to dump its cargo overboard to make room for them. That group left for Japan. The next group consisted of non-essential employees and finally everybody left except a group of volunteers that the Ambassador had requested. I was one of those.

I wasn’t a personal witness, but there seems to be no doubt that there was a disgraceful episode at plane-side Tuesday morning when some of our senior officials were elbowing each other out of the way to get on the plane first with their hunting rifles, their electronic gear and whatever other things that they had taken fancy to and had therefore had to go along with them. It was a mess.

I got home long enough to help my wife pack up one trunk locker and got her off. After that I returned home once before I left with Ambassador Muccio. My last act was to go back to the Embassy on Tuesday afternoon to check it out to make sure that everybody had left…

By Tuesday afternoon, the gunfire was clearly audible. That afternoon, around 4 PM, I drove out of Seoul in the Ambassador’s car. He was driving it because he didn’t want to leave it for the Communists. We drove to Suwon, where a temporary headquarters had been set up, both for the small Embassy team and the military group that was being assembled for assessment purposes.

In Suwon, we were essentially supporting the military and trying to report the situation to Washington using “one time pads”–a coded tear-off pad. These were the days before sophisticated electronics… We set up our headquarters in a former agriculture school that had been built by the Japanese. I can vividly remember General Church, who was the leader of the first reconnaissance party from Tokyo, after looking at maps and listening to reports for several hours, saying: “No one knows where anybody is!” It was in that climate then that on Thursday or Friday someone yelled that the North Koreans were coming.

One of the communication technicians threw a thermite grenade at the communications gear to destroy it and thereby set fire to the entire building, which had been built with well seasoned wood. It burned immediately.

We then set off in the middle of the night for Taejon, where the next temporary headquarters was established. In Taejon, there was little need for normal Embassy work. So I typed intelligence reports for the 24th Division G-2 until I was asked to make a trip through the rest of South Korea to make sure that all the missionaries were evacuated… I did a “Paul Revere ride” around the various missionary headquarters and told them to leave. I wound up finally in Pusan. I never returned to Taejon because in the meantime the 24th Division was defeated and had to fall back to Taegu.

Eventually, I found myself in Taegu where Drumright was in charge of a forward Embassy echelon. Muccio was in Pusan in charge of a rear echelon. Drumright spent most of his time checking up and reporting on the military situation. Muccio was spending his time calming President Rhee and doing what he could to stabilize the situation there… Muccio managed somehow or other to instill enough confidence into the Korean government so that when American assistance arrived in the form of air cover and eventually ground troops, what could be saved was saved. It was very difficult, but had Muccio not taken that firm positive reassuring stance, based on very little evidence, the situation would have been much worse.

A Close Call

Q: What happened after Taegu? 

MACDONALD: Harold Noble has published a book, called “Embassy at War” which chronicles day-to-day what happened, and he cites one hilarious staff meeting in which I announced that I wasn’t doing enough in this perilous hour and if the Embassy couldn’t give me something to do, I would volunteer for active military duty–I was a reserve officer at the time. Partly because of that, they sent me on a mission to North Korea just after word of the Chinese intervention had reached us.

They wanted me to stand on the railroad track running down into Sinanju which was then close to the fighting. I was to interview refugees to see whether they were really refugees or “fifth column” troops being sent to the rear of the UN command. I spent a few very cold days doing that.

Somewhat later, just before the fall of Pyongyang, a team from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department, headed by Richard Scammon, arrived to go to Pyongyang for interviews and examination of captured documents. This was an effort to understand how the Soviet Union had operated in North Korea.  This led to a Departmental report called “A Case Study in Communist Take-over”. I was sent along as a hat-holder and logistics officer.

When the team left, I decided to stay for a while because there wasn’t much else to do, and the commander of the American military government team in Pyongyang was an officer for whom I had worked before, during my military government training. I joined him until orders to evacuate were received.

The colonel told me to leave first because he didn’t want to take responsibility for me. Actually, we spent a night in a school house on the way out. An ammunition dump, which was right next door, exploded and dumped the wall of the school right on us. That is the closest I came to being a war casualty.