[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview
Opened August, 1978
Oral History Interview with
MCKINZIE: Ambassador Johnson, I think that the postwar period really began for you, did it not, when you were assigned to an Army Civil Affairs Training School in 1944, to participate in the postwar period. I wonder if you recall how you happened to be assigned to go to Chicago in 1944, and what you anticipated doing in the postwar period as a young Foreign Service officer.
JOHNSON: I'm trying to remember who was in charge;
let's see, Dr. [Stanley Kuhl] Hornbeck was still in the Department. In any event, I was in Rio at that time. I had to come back to the States because of the death of my father in 1944. While I was out in California in connection with that, I got a call from H. Merrell Benninghoff, who was dealing with postwar policy toward Japan, asking me to come back to Washington to talk about going to the Civil Affairs Training School. I asked, what was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to be a teacher or a professor, or was I supposed to be a student? What was the whole idea? And they said they didn't know (neither they nor the Army); the whole idea would be that I would go out to Chicago and see what there was to be done. As it turned out, I was a little bit of both. When it came to military
subjects, naturally, I was a student; when it came to talking about Japan, why, naturally, I was at least an instructor. However, I lived and worked as a student. And living with the group of students, I think, probably was of the most value to both of us. So far as I know--I haven't done any research on it--I think that that was the first time that any civilian, particularly a State Department civilian, probably ever went to any military school. And I think it was sort of a test-tube case for what developed in the postwar period of our students going to the National War College and our participating in almost all of the service schools. My assistant out here now is going to carry on a program that I initiated when I was in the Department of going to Annapolis, for example, for a year as an instructor in Soviet and Eastern European
Well, that's how I got into it.
MCKINZIE: But at that time people were anticipating that the war was going to last considerably longer than it did, and your assignment to a Far Eastern post came, I take it, a little earlier than you might have anticipated.
JOHNSON: Oh, yes, it did. The concept was that perhaps I could contribute something to the whole concept of military government in Japan as it was then known, and then see what happened; we didn't talk about future assignments of any kind. And then while I was at the school, the invasion of the Philippines took place, and I was assigned to go out to Manila to open a consulate with Paul Steindorf--as a junior officer at the
time. And we actually went into Manila, into the Philippines, at the end of February or first of March. We landed in Leyte first, before Manila fell, and then when Manila fell we went up to Manila.
The first night I was there, standing in a chow line--GI chow line, of course, in an officer's quarters--a fellow, seeing that I was a civilian, started talking to me. His name was Colonel Ginsburg, and he said they were trying to screen the people at Santa Tomas and Los Banos in the prison camps, and they were having a lot of difficulty with it. They didn't know what it was all about, and would I come out and see if I could give them a little hand? So, I said I would do so.
That led to my taking over the screening,
if you will, from the Army, to determine nationality, where people would go, and all this type of thing that is, as you know, part of our life as Foreign Service officers. But to an Army officer it was a very strange and baffling business. And that led to the request, at the surrender of Japan, that I go up with MacArthur's headquarters and do the same thing in Japan.
MCKINZIE: I wonder if you recall your first contacts with Japan? I read that you traveled extensively throughout the islands before they were effectively occupied, except in the Tokyo, Yokohama area.
JOHNSON: Well, yes, I did. I was assigned a C-47 and a crew, and I had the map of the prison camps, of the civilian internee camps and our prison camps as well. And so I went
around the country with a C-47, landing where we could land and then getting Japanese to drive me up to the camps, making contact with our camps and with the prisoners and the local Japanese, and then making contact with the task forces that came in to evacuate them--primarily the naval task forces at Wakkanai and also at Nagasaki. I wasn't in charge; I don't want to overstate my role in it. But in most of these places, I was the first American in and the first American to make any direct contact with the Japanese, because the headquarters, you see, was handling this through Japanese command channels, and the headquarters, apart from myself, had nobody there.
So, you know, we'd land on a field, and the Japanese would come running out, and they were scared and my crew was scared. I wasn't
so much. I don't know; I think I sort of had a sense that when the Japanese surrendered they were going to surrender completely, and I never was particularly concerned in that regard. But they'd come running out and I was able, of course, to speak to them in Japanese, and that always relaxed things a lot. I would arrange to get a car and take my map and go to the camps and make contact with people. So, for a young FSO, you know, this was very heady business. As a matter of fact, in Nagasaki I had the pleasure of welcoming the Marines ashore. The commander was the officer who had been an attache in Rio during the time I was in Rio. I came in over the hill and saw the task force steaming into the harbor, and then watched where they were headed for. I then had my driver drive down to the area they
seemed to be headed for. They threw over their landing boats and came boiling up to the pier, and I was standing on the pier to welcome them. So, this gave me a little emotional satisfaction. Of course, they were naturally somewhat taken aback to see an American standing on the pier. But I enjoyed it. I had been out about a week then, without a bath or anything else, and the commander took me out to his flagship and gave me a bath and a night's sleep and something to eat.
MCKINZIE: One of the things that historians today are constantly curious about is the relationship between the State Department and General MacArthur's organization, and you were among the very first to have that relationship. Without belaboring that unduly, I really wish
you could talk in some detail about the relationship you had with SCAP and how that State-Army relationship evolved during the period you served in Japan.
JOHNSON: Well, I was in a fortunate position from that standpoint, in that I was not there in any formal way representing State. Although no papers were ever formally exchanged or anything, in effect I was what the British would call "seconded" to the headquarters. And I got well-acquainted with the officers around; MacArthur knew me, and I knew him. But more particularly, [Richard K.] Sutherland was then the Chief of Staff, Charles Willoughby was G-2, and so on. I knew many of these people at various ranks. In what I was doing down in the Philippines I had become acquainted with a lot of these officers,
and they, particularly junior officers, found me very useful, because, being a civilian--and the only civilian in headquarters, in effect--I didn't have to be concerned about command channels and the proper hierarchy. I could go around and see people without regard to these things to get what I wanted done, and when it coincided with what they wanted done, why, we could each use the other. I was able to do favors for some of them, and they were able to do favors for me. We first landed in Japan, with the surrender, out at Atsugi, of course, and came into the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, and we'd been there a couple of days. I can't remember if it was before I undertook this going around to these prison camps, or afterwards. I think maybe it was before. Yes it was right at the very first. General Sutherland
asked to see me, and said that General MacArthur wanted a consulate established in Japan as quickly as possible.
It just so happened that a couple of hours before that I had been over to see our consulate building in Yokohama, which is right on the waterfront and was being protected by the Swiss. The Swiss caretaker told me that General [Robert Lawrence] Bichelberger, commander of the Eighth Army was moving in there that afternoon. So I said to Sutherland, "If you want a consulate established here, we're going to have some facilities, and I've heard that General Eichelberger is moving in there this afternoon."
Sutherland rang a bell and gave instructions that General Eichelberger was not to move in
there that afternoon, and, in fact, put GHQ MP's around the consulate to keep Eichelberger out--and, incidentally, kept me out too, but that didn't bother me, particularly.
Well, then I went over to Korea; I was asked to go over there also on the prisoner business. And then eventually the Department asked me to come back and open up the office in Yokohama. I didn't have any thought of doing so at the time.
A few days later, it was right in these early days, in the first weeks or so, an item had appeared in the Stars and Stripes or whatever we had--I don't think the Stars and Stripes were published. Well, I guess maybe it was; maybe it was being sent up from the Philippines then. In any event, it was to the effect that a man called Dean Acheson had made a speech
out in San Francisco saying the United States Government was going to be running the occupation. This was very ill-received, very obviously, around the headquarters. A couple of days later, Sutherland called me in again and said, "We received a telegram that Acheson is coming out here as Political Adviser."
And I said, "Oh, that's interesting." And I said, "You know what Acheson?"
He said, "George Atcheson."
And I said, "George Atcheson?"
Well, he said to me, "We don't like this at all," and referred to Dean Acheson's speech in San Francisco. And I explained to him that George Atcheson was an old China hand, was a different man than Dean Acheson.
MCKINZIE: They did not know that.
JOHNSON: No, they did not know that. I don't
know all the details of exchanges that went on, but the whole idea of a "political adviser" to MacArthur was very ill-received. But, of course, he had no choice, really, but to accept it. And George Atcheson did come out, and they put him over in a building well removed from headquarters and he had his staff. But, gradually, George established a reasonable working relationship. He could never get any independent communications; communications all had to go through MacArthur. But he established a reasonable relationship, and it was agreed early in 1946 that we should think about a peace treaty and what was going to be done. In any event, it was agreed that George Atcheson would go back to the United States with a couple of officers from headquarters and talk about
plans for the future.
They were given Sutherland's plane, the Chief of Staff's plane, which was a converted B-l7, and I went down to see George off the morning that he left. He had to climb up in the bomb bay to get into the passenger compartment there. And I, of course, well remember that this is a pretty hazardous place to ride, and as you know, he was killed and the officers along with him, as a result of the pilot--I forget the name; well, I won't mention it in any event--simply overflying Johnston Island and failing to refuel. It was theoretically impossible for him to make the flight, and he simply ran out of fuel short of Hawaii. The pilot and the crew were saved, but those in the bomb bay were all drowned.
MacArthur and the headquarters looked
upon everybody outside of the immediate coterie as an enemy or a potential enemy, and this included his own commanders. You know, it harks back some to recent events here in Washington, attitudes at the White House here in Washington; I'm very much reminded of it, often. I got along because I represented no threat; I could be helpful, and when I did establish a consulate I could be helpful. I was not representing any threat, you might say, to MacArthur or those around him. Thus, I was always able to maintain a very good relationship, not through any particular virtue of my own, but rather through the circumstances. But anybody from Washington, to begin with, was always suspect. And officers assigned from Washington were given very short shrift, unless MacArthur had asked for them.
I remember a military government officer; I forget his name, but he was the general officer who was sent out there in the early days to assist in establishing SCAP and military government. And he lasted only a few weeks, because he quite clearly was just frozen out. The State Department represented probably the greatest threat of all, and the speech of Dean Acheson's at the early stage, that the U.S. Government was going to run this, was always remembered; they looked upon this as a threat to their position.
And, as you know, he was very reluctant to give any credit to his commanders, and his commanders resented it very, very much. I remember once coming back from Tokyo when I was in Yokohama; this was some months later. General Bichelberger and the Eighth
Army were in Yokohama at the time, and I had a very good relationship with Eichelberger; and he never missed any chance to take a dig at MacArthur. He asked me, "How's that man that walks on water doing?"
And I well remember the July 4, 1946 march past review, in which MacArthur had General Eichelberger and the Eighth Army staff march past the reviewing stand, MacArthur taking the salute from them. And this was, according to Eichelberger, the first time in history a four-star general has ever been asked to march past, so it was very, very ill received.
MCKINZIE: What was your relationship to George Atcheson, so far as political reporting about events in Japan? I read that neither George Atcheson, nor even William Sebald
when he took over the post, had very much contact with former Japanese leaders; that because MacArthur and his top staff had so little to do with Japanese themselves there was a generally understood prohibition upon that sort of thing.
JOHNSON: Yes, that was fraternizing, and fraternization by anybody and everybody in the headquarters, including the political advisers, George Atcheson and his staff, was frowned upon. It's entirely correct; he had very, very little contact. The one contact that was maintained, was maintained by General Whitney, in the so-called Government Section, who insisted that they be the sole channel of any official contact with the Japanese Government and Japanese officials.
And in those days, at least, there was some contact with Japanese; some of them used
to come in to see old friends. George had some very good people on his staff, of course; he had John Emmerson, who was one of our great Japanese experts and very fluent in Japanese; Jack Service; Max Bishop. He had a good staff up there who maintained a very cautious and very careful relationship with the Japanese because of the concern over the reaction of headquarters, in large part. And, of course, they had no independent reporting capability. Now and then, they sent letters back, obviously, through various channels, but there could be no telegraphic reporting or analysis. I think within the sphere of the restrictions that they were under, they did about all that could be done, but it was quite clear that their work was not welcome in the headquarters.
MCKINZIE: How did you handle your reporting?
JOHNSON: Oh, to the degree that I reported, I handled mine by letter. In general, I didn't seek to report; I'm talking now about after I came back and we opened the office in Yokohama. I was overwhelmed with just plain consular work down there, and I didn't have occasion to do much reporting. The only real reporting I did do was after periodically sending an officer down to Okinawa to do consular work down there. I would send officers from Yokohama around to various places in Japan to register births and marriages and issue passports and all that type of thing. The first officer I sent down to Okinawa I think was Doug Overton. He came back with an absolutely appalling
story of the situation in Okinawa, the situation of the population, the relationship of the population to the forces. And I well remember that I had him write a full account of his personal observations on this, and I sent this in myself (I gave a copy to George Atcheson, of course, as I wasn't doing it behind his back). I forget exactly how I mailed it, but I just sent it in on my own to the Department. I'm sure it was one of the first reports on Okinawa.
MCKINZIE: About this time, when you were into the full swing of that consular work, there started to be a number of missions in Japan, not always military missions. Particularly by 1947, the Department got very upset that Japan was an economic drag upon the United
States, and there was a need to rebuild Japan for purposes of a new world. I was wondering what contact you might have had with any of those missions.
JOHNSON: None formal and official. I would see them socially and we would know each other, but I had no formal official contact with any of those missions--for example, the Dodge mission.
MCKINZIE: I thought perhaps some of those might have sought you out to ask your opinion on something.
JOHNSON: Oh, yes, they talked to me, but not in a formal, official way. I didn't try to maintain any posture of being the political authority on Japan. I was sticking to my knitting. The first person I really talked
to, I guess, on that was George Kennan. I can't remember when George came out; he came out with Marshall Green.
MCKINZIE: March of '48.
JOHNSON: Oh, it was that late, was it?
MCKINZIE: Yes. It was when they were in the process of turning the economic policies around.
JOHNSON: Yes, that's right. I had a long talk with George; he sought me out. But I don't recall anybody else seeking me out, as such, nor do I recall my volunteering much, except what I would on occasion do. I maintained a social life and social contact up in Tokyo, with people up there, and you obviously had the social conversation and party talk, but nothing beyond that, as far as I was concerned.
MCKINZIE: But as a student of Far Eastern affairs, a man who is knowledgeable about the culture and history and about power problems in the Far East, were you concerned about Japan's "peonage" being prolonged during this period? Were you yourself convinced that a speedier reconstruction should have taken place, or that reconstruction should have occurred along slightly different lines? Were you a critic?
JOHNSON: Yes, I suppose I was a critic, in many ways. A person like myself that had lived there and spoke the language and all that couldn't be but struck by the interface, if you will, and the utter lack of communication almost, you might say, between Japanese and the senior military officers involved. They were living in two different worlds, with the naivete, it seemed to me, with which many
things get approached--SCAP's attitude towards things, some of the reforms I remember them questioning very much. And I sensed that while motives were good, of course, on our side, unless the proper moment was chosen the relationship, which was essentially good, could be easily turned sour.
The other thing I sensed that very much concerned me was the degree that I felt the Japanese, if you will, took them into camp. Now, having served in Korea under the Japanese in North China and Manchuria, and having been a "guest" of theirs so to speak in Manchuria at the first part of the war, I don't think I harbored many romantic illusions about the Japanese. But what struck me was that those officers--and this applied to some of the military government officers that I had known; majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels,
and so on--who were most vehement in their attitude towards the Japanese during the war tended to go overboard the other direction once they got in Japan. A few geisha parties and the weekends in a hot springs resort and, well, let's say, some of the flattery of which Japanese are very adept, and they turned completely around, you know, very dramatically. It seemed to me they lost their sense of proportion with respect to the Japanese.
Now, I'm putting this as a generalized statement; obviously, there were exceptions to it. But obviously, there was an optimum point for the occupation, and it was important that that optimum point not go by. Well, all of us felt that way, I'm sure.
MCKINZIE: You mentioned that you had some contact
with Joseph Dodge when he came to Japan in 1948 to reform the financial structure of the country.
JOHNSON: Yes, but at that time primarily social. There wasn't much substance in our contact. We knew each other. I don't think I really could comment; as far as the substance of his mission was concerned, I really wasn't involved.
MCKINZIE: Did you have any contact with SCAP or with people who were involved in what they called the "deconcentration" program, restructuring the ownership of the Japanese corporations?
JOHNSON: No. No, not really. No, I wouldn't say that I had any influence on it.
I, of course, kept close contact with
our office in Tokyo, the Political Advisers Office, and we saw each other frequently. Most of these things came as bolts out of the blue; they were worked up, particularly in the Government section, in great secrecy. And for most of us, including myself, most of the time these things just appeared full blown.
MCKINZIE: The reason I asked was that William Sebald, in his book, gives you specific recognition as being a person who kept him informed of what was going on; cooperation, I think, is the word he used.
JOHNSON: Yes, well, we had a good relationship and we chatted a lot, of course, and I kept him informed. We exchanged views and I gave him my ideas, and we discussed things. Of
course, I was also--I think we called it--executive officer up at headquarters for about, oh, five, six months. Beppo Johansen was the executive officer and died of a heart attack. This was in early '46, and for some months I commuted between Yokohama and Tokyo, carrying on that job up there as well as carrying on this job down in Yokohama. So I was intimately associated with our office up there, and we did talk about those things. But when it comes to something like the deconcentration program, or something like the gold purchase, or the Joe Dodge economic mission, yes, Bill and I would talk about these things. And I'd talk with others and I'd talk with Joe Dodge and see him, but my point is I had no formal, official relationship at all.
MCKINZIE: When you went back to the Department in 1949, in the summer, did you know that you were going to be deputy director of Northeast Asian Affairs at the time?
JOHNSON: As a matter of fact, another position had been mentioned to me. Well, they told me before I came back. You see, Walt [W. Walton] Butterworth was Assistant Secretary then, and, as I recall it, I had a letter from him saying he wanted me to take the job. And I said obviously I'd do whatever I was asked to do. I might say, just as a footnote in this, my predecessor in that job commiserated with me when I got back, because he said there was nothing to do. This was still during the time of the occupation; MacArthur out there, and he said there was nothing to do and it was a dead end. He'd gotten out of the job, and
he was sorry that I was the one that became the victim and had to take it on. That shows the difficulty.
MCKINZIE: That anticipates, in fact, what I was going to say. You hear everyone talk about the Europe-first foreign policy of the United States and in 1949, when you came back, if such existed it was at its peak, with the Marshall plan going the way it was and with the Berlin airlift winding down. You, too, had been conditioned by four years of SCAP, in which the dominant view was that the Orient should be America's new frontier, and all that. I wonder if you felt that somehow the emphasis was misplaced, to the point of having adverse effects?
JOHNSON: Well, I would say I was probably too
ill-informed about what was going on elsewhere to really reach such a judgment. As a matter of fact, you see, I didn't take on the job when I initially came back; I was assigned to the first selection boards, and I was on selection boards for several months. And, as I recall, it was around February or March before I took on the job of Deputy Director in fact, although I was carried on the books as such. Then, of course, by June '50 Korea happened, so there wasn't much time for me to philosophize about it.
MCKINZIE: Yes. Everyone seems to say that on June 25th, 1950, what happened in Korea was a horrendous surprise and shock. But even though you were in the Department a short time, did you anticipate that something like that could happen?
JOHNSON: No. Very honestly, I would say it came as a complete surprise to me. I did not, at the time, have any background of my own (and very imperfect background, otherwise) on the Soviet Union and on the Communist Chinese. And, in fact, I was pretty self-centered, I think, as far as these things were concerned over in Japan. I mean there wasn't much literature, there wasn't much exchange, there wasn't much being published, and that I was enormously surprised is all I could say of Korea. I didn't anticipate anything of that kind--although, I should say, of course, that I joined, along with John Allison, Dean Rusk, and Walt Butterworth, also at that time, in the effort to try to retain the remaining regimental combat team, American RCT, in Korea, because I think we
all recognized the importance of the symbolism of it. And to the degree that we fought to do that and the degree that I participated in that, I recognized, of course, that there was a potential threat there, and the purpose of keeping the RCT there was to defend against that threat. But as far as war actually breaking out, it was pretty far from my thoughts.
MCKINZIE: What were you doing on June the 25th of 1950? What were your subsequent actions?
JOHNSON: The weekend of June 25th, 1950, for the first time since I returned to Washington, I'd agreed to take my two sons and their Boy Scout troop out on an overnight camping journey to the Blue Ridge. I took them in my stationwagon. Let's see now, it was Sunday morning. Yes, that's the date that we use, because of
this time gap; it's like December 7th and December 8th. I forget exactly.
On the morning of June 25th, we camped out and slept out up there in the Blue Ridge. We started out on a hike to go move on someplace else, and the Ranger--I guess this is 8, 9 o'clock in the morning--came up to me and asked me if I was Alexis Johnson. I allowed that I was, and he said, "Come with me."
And I said, "Gee, now, what have I done?" He said, "The Chief Ranger has been trying to reach you, find you, all night," and he didn't know what it was about.
I said, "Well, what's happened?"
He said, "I don't know; I don't know what's happened."
So, I got to a phone, a Ranger phone, and he said the State Department had been
trying to reach me. This was a forest Ranger phone and wasn't very satisfactory. Well, I called my wife first, and she told me, as I understood it over this poor phone circuit, that there was to be a Security Council meeting in New York that afternoon, and that I was supposed to be there.
Well, I knew that, like women are prone to do, she had gotten things utterly mixed up some way or the other; there couldn't possibly be a Security Council meeting on a Sunday afternoon, in the first place. And in the second place, if there was, it couldn't possibly have anything to do with me; this was my reaction, you see. I guess she tried to tell me, but I didn't understand clearly, you know, that Korea had been attacked; I didn't get that clearly. So, I called the office.
I could hear a lot of background noise, and I could hear a lot of things were going on, and the fellow who answered also said that I was supposed to be in New York to attend the Security Council meeting that afternoon.
Well, I talked to the Rangers. We discussed how I could get there, possibly getting a plane, but the problem was I was the sole driver of the sole car. I had no choice but to drive the group back to Washington. So I drove back to Washington. Let me say, I did not catch over the phone that North Korea had attacked South Korea, and I had no radio in the car. It's only when I drove home, got to the house, that I asked my wife what had happened. She said for the first time for me to hear clearly that North Korea had attacked South Korea.
MCKINZIE: You must have been in some state of agitation while you were driving up from this Boy Scout camp.
JOHNSON: Well, I was, obviously, not knowing what was going on. But the idea of North Korea attacking South Korea hadn't crossed my mind. What a Security Council meeting could have been about was utterly beyond me. I thought things had got confused, but obviously there was a Security Council meeting. Well, I washed my face and got down to the Department; as I recall it, I didn't get home again for about three days.
MCKINZIE: You were at the Security Council through both sessions?
JOHNSON: No, no. Let me say, I obviously never got there. It was 4, 5 o'clock in the afternoon
before I got back to Washington, driving as hard as I could. As I recall it, Niles Bond, who was what we'd call the Korean desk officer, went up to the Security Council meeting. So, I was not present at the Security Council.
MCKINZIE: Were you kept informed as the President made the decisions to give air cover and to give naval support?
JOHNSON: Oh, yes. You see, Dean Rusk was Assistant Secretary by then, and I was right in his office and immediately got right into the middle of things--I mean, being informed of what was happening. And the sole contribution I made during the course of that evening, insofar as I recall, was to draft a message and get Rusk to approve it, to John Muccio, our Ambassador. I didn't put it, "don't be stupid," but I said,
"Don't try to stay behind in Seoul; if Seoul's going to be captured, get out of there and don't get yourself captured," because there was some message from him that gave the impression that he was planning to stay on to the bitter end at that time.
Well, he could see things were going badly as of that time, of course, and I drafted a message telling him to be sure to get out and not get captured. That, as I recall, was my sole contribution to the Korean policy as far as that day was concerned.
MCKINZIE: That was a considerable contribution, because those people who stayed behind did get into some considerable troubles.
JOHNSON: Oh, yes, very much so.
MCKINZIE: Well, when the war started, this job
which someone consoled you about, which had no substance, must have become a 24-hour a day job then.
JOHNSON: Oh, yes, it did.
MCKINZIE: With what were you initially and continually concerned, then, until you became involved in the negotiations for a truce? There were a number of meetings with General MacArthur; were you concerned with MacArthur at all through that period?
JOHNSON: Yes, very much so. To go back, of course, the reason that I got thrust in was that John Allison, who was director of the office, was with [John] Foster Dulles. Foster Dulles was out in Japan at that time working on the treaty, and John had been assigned to work with Foster on the treaty, so he was out in
Japan and Korea, of course, just immediately prior to that. So that left me, you might say, acting, as far as that job was concerned. So that thrust me right directly into working with Dean Rusk. Livy [Livingston] Merchant was Deputy Assistant Secretary at the time, and, on the whole, Livy kept the rest of the bureau going. He was not concentrating so much on Korea. Dean Rusk was the one who was following Korea, and then I tended to be, somewhat, Dean Rusk's man Friday, you might say, as far as the Korean side was concerned.
Well, now, during those days, yes, I was intimately involved during that whole period, and, of course, in those first days with the whole question of whether or not we were going to be able to maintain a foothold of any kind. Politically, we didn't at that time sense
any panic--well, put it this way, we felt that MacArthur was doing everything he possibly could to try to maintain a position there, and there was no sense of any criticism of him. It was just a sense of concern, of what we could do and how we could help.
Now, at that time, simply through the force of circumstance, we were forced into meetings with the Joint Chiefs. I think Dean Rusk is, in large degree, responsible for this, and Dean Acheson went along with it. But we met, oh, several times a week with the Joint Chiefs. I would normally accompany Dean Rusk to those meetings, and we would have, you might say, working sessions-- to a degree policy sessions also, but working sessions, exchange of information, and maintaining an intimate contact, which was quite different from anything that
existed in World War II, of course. And really there, I think, is the first step towards establishing that kind of intimate contact between the uniform services and State that has grown to the degree that it has. Dean Rusk was very, very interested in this. If I can say so, my interest in it was stimulated from that period, and I saw the value of this type of thing and many of the things that have been done since then, in which I have participated and taken the lead; I'm not the only one, of course, but I did see the value and the importance of it.
I'm trying to remember some of the telcons. You see, your primary type of communication at that time was teletype-telcons that would be thrown on a screen. Dean Acheson went to some. Dean Rusk was always involved, and I
went with Dean myself, in some of those first few, really critical days, to these telcons with MacArthur. Now, those have all, I think, been printed in the MacArthur hearings and so on; there's nothing particularly new now to be said of them, except to say that I was informed and involved and obviously threw in my own ideas through Dean Rusk. Dean Rusk, of course, was the focal point and, I don't need to say, an indefatigable worker; he was really the center. Of course, the President and Dean Acheson were on the policy side, but as far as the operational side and calling attention to the policy problems, Dean Rusk was the center of it, and it was my privilege to be close to him while this was going on.
MCKINZIE: Well, of course, even after the Inchon landing, things very quickly became political.
JOHNSON: Oh, you had the question of the crossing of the 38th parallel. Yes, things become political very fast, of course. After the Inchon landing succeeded and we were advancing north, the first big political issue, of course, was the whole question of whether to cross the 38th parallel or not.
Now, prior to this time, you will recall that we had obtained contributions from various allies and we had what we called the Group of Sixteen. And Dean Rusk used to meet regularly with them (depending on the course of events) and discuss the situation and brief them and keep them involved. They were primarily the Ambassadors here, or the Charges; it was at the Chief of Mission level here in Washington. And I would always participate with him in those meetings with the Sixteen.
Now, when the questions of going across the 38th arose, this Group of Sixteen, you might say, was the focal point for political consultations with the allies. Obviously, there were many different points of view and, obviously, it was a very, very active group at that time. And then when our forces began to approach the Yalu, this again was a very, very active time, not only with our allies, but, of course, here in Washington.
Now, going back, I recall the very first directives that we wrote right in the first week of the war. I think George Kennan was largely responsible for including in the basic orders to MacArthur an item on not having American forces approach the Yalu River, the border, this to be done only by Korean forces. This was in the very, very
early days, when we were still hanging on down at Pusan.
MCKINZIE: If that directive had gone out, that would have anticipated crossing the 38th parallel.
JOHNSON: Yes, it did; you can say there was an implication in there. But this was the next step. At that time, crossing the 38th parallel was not as much a domestic issue as it was an international issue up at New York, and an issue with the allies. But approaching the Yalu was very, very much a domestic issue. And when our forces started advancing north, we'd get the operational reports showing what was going on. In our meetings of the Joint Chiefs (I recall this very, very vividly), Dean Rusk would raise the problem, you know, what's going on here?
Remember the original orders. The Chiefs were very, very reluctant to try to "beard," if I can use that term, MacArthur on this. I remember some message going out, saying, you know, "You will recall the instructions about not approaching the Yalu"--or approaching the borders; it wasn't expressed in the terms of the Yalu. "What are you doing to implement it?" I forget the language, but that's all contained in the MacArthur hearings, of course, too; there's nothing new in that. And I remember his coming back, in effect saying, don't worry your little heads back there about this; I've got the situation in hand.
It was at this period that political consultations among the Sixteen became very active. It was later on, of course, when MacArthur started making his public statements
and so on, and, of course, things became very active. But my point is in talking about Dean Rusk, that these things were going on, the allies were getting terribly nervous at the statements coming out of Tokyo. We'd have one of these meetings with the Sixteen, and, obviously, Dean Rusk was in a very, very tough spot. We didn't have answers, really. But Dean was an absolute master at handling these matters. You could just feel the air almost electric as we'd go into the meeting, with the hostility around the room. And Dean would start talking; he would talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, and you could sort of feel them relax. Everybody would smile, a few questions would be asked, and they would all walk out. In about 20 minutes, my phone would start ringing, and it would be
this Ambassador or that Ambassador or this Deputy Chief of Mission saying, "You know, we're doing our telegram now; what exactly was it that Dean Rusk said?" It was a masterful job in a very, very difficult situation.
MCKINZIE: In the midst of all of this, while you were dealing with the Sixteen and while the war itself was progressing from the south to the north near the Yalu, MacArthur made a trip to Formosa to consult with Chiang Kai-shek. There was, as I understand it, some difficulty in the State Department, knowing what he was doing and why.
JOHNSON: Oh, there was, I would say, almost consternation here, not only in the State Department, though. We had no notion, we had no knowledge of the plan for the trip. And, as I recall it, I don't recall that we even had any prior
notice; effectively, there wasn't any real prior notice, as I recall. Now, I don't know quite what the record will show on it, but that's just my subjective impression that we had very little, if any, prior notice, much less any information about what he was up to. And, of course, this concerned not only State Department, but also concerned the President, very obviously.
MCKINZIE: Well, shortly after this, there was a meeting at Wake Island with the President and General MacArthur, and everyone seems to be of a different mind as to what transpired there. From your perspective, what did transpire at Wake Island? Did that affect the course of your work at all? How did you understand what went on there?
JOHNSON: Well, now, I didn't go myself to Wake
Island. Phil [Philip C.] Jessup did. Did Dean Rusk go?
MCKINZIE: I don't think Dean Rusk was down there. Averell Harriman went there, didn't he?
JOHNSON: I guess so; I can't quite remember. Jessup was, as I recall, the State Department principal, but I think Averell Harriman and Dean Rusk were also there. But I find it hard to recall any specific, you might say, operational impact at that time. I don't say there wasn't; for the moment, nothing comes to mind on that.
MCKINZIE: Again, these events seemed to come cascading one over the other during this period. You took a little time off to go out to San Francisco and be an adviser to the U.S. delegation.
JOHNSON: Oh, on the Japanese peace treaty. Now, the peace treaty conference came when?
MCKINZIE: It was September of '51.
JOHNSON: Yes, well, I'm trying to recall a relationship with what was going on in Korea at the time; that's what I don't remember.
MCKINZIE: Let's see. Of course we were in stalemate by that time, along the . . .
JOHNSON: Yes. Let me say, my role on the Japanese peace treaty was not large or substantive. As I said, John Allison had worked primarily on that. I had contributed some things and been involved in some things, but not in an intimate way. And I think it was as much a courtesy towards me for me to go to San Francisco as it was for anything really
substantive. I did a few substantive things, but I did not have a major role in it.
It was then I did become acquainted with Foster Dulles. I talked to Foster Dulles at considerable length about Japan, I recall, and I talked to him about the treaty; I remember doing so in his office. I remember going up to New York in connection with some social occasion, and his inviting me to stay at the house with him. And we had a talk late at night about Japan, events, but this was just a general talk. I don't recall anything specific, but it was my first acquaintanceship with Foster Dulles.
MCKINZIE: Did you have the feeling that he had a grasp of Far Eastern realities?
JOHNSON: Yes, I did. I was very favorably impressed with him. As far as the treaty was
concerned, my bureaucratic mind wanted to have as many things settled as possible. I particularly remember the problem of claims; having dealt with American citizens and all these messy things, I was very conscious of these kinds of issues, and a little unhappy that he wouldn't, you know, try to tie everything up in a neat package. But, obviously, his approach was the right one.
MCKINZIE: You know, General MacArthur used to say that Japan was going to be "the Switzerland of Asia;" that it was going to be neutral politically.
JOHNSON: I don't recall his using Switzerland. Of course, Switzerland is heavily armed. The reason Switzerland is neutral is that
it's always been too prickly for anybody to take it on; whereas, as far as Japan is concerned, of course, you had the whole peace constitution and MacArthur's role in that--a disarmed Japan, which was, you know, impossible to understand.
MCKINZIE: Even for you at that time?
JOHNSON: Oh, yes, yes. The philosophy of the headquarters, SCAP, was a very peculiar, in many ways contradictory, blend of what I might call great conservatism on the one hand and radical reform on the other hand. And, of course, the peace constitution was utterly and impractically visionary. It's very, very hard to fit the idea of an armed Japan into a constitution in which they utterly renounce all armed force of any kind for any purpose at all. It's hard to imagine
anything more visionary and more surprising to come out of the supposedly conservative military headquarters.
MCKINZIE: Ambassador Sebald had a statement that I was going to ask you about. He said that the consensus was that the Japanese society constituted a self-perpetuating instrument of imperialism. Therefore, the framework of society had to be destroyed to prevent a revival of imperialism. This belief automatically meant that reform must be as thorough as possible, regardless of the consequences.
JOHNSON: I don't recall that in his book. Is he putting that forward as his own view at the time or as the headquarters view?
MCKINZIE: As the headquarters view.
JOHNSON: I was going to say, yes, to the degree that there was a philosophy, I would agree that that was the approach.
MCKINZIE: Now, certainly John Foster Dulles didn't have that view.
JOHNSON: No. By this time, of course, the Korean war had broken out and people's ideas had changed, of course, even in the headquarters. And they had to go through this process of establishing euphemisms for the military force in Japan, and it was from that time, of course, that you have the self-defense forces; they do not call them Army, Navy, or Air Force.
MCKINZIE: You have been described, sir, as an architect of the truce negotiations in Korea. I wonder if I might get you to discuss your
part in the evolution of these?
JOHNSON: Well, obviously, the basic policy decisions were arrived at after much discussion within the Government. I'm not trying to disclaim responsibility, but I'm not trying to claim too much credit. "Architect" is probably a little too strong a word, except for the fact that I was with them from the very beginning up to the end, and, obviously, to the degree that I put stones and mortar and designed doorways and windows in the structure, yes. In that, I was intimately involved right from the very beginning. And, of course, the story on that begins, in effect, with the call by MacArthur for surrender, which cut right across what we were doing back here in trying to establish a consensus among the allies, if you will, and among ourselves on
how we were going to approach on armistice or a cease-fire, whatever term you want to use. In any event, I took on a more active role with the Chiefs also. I used to meet alone with them. By "alone," I mean I'd be the principal that would meet with them on many of these things. I can comment on a couple of things. First, I well recall, Dean Acheson himself, Dean Rusk, and, I know, I myself emphasized it often with the Chiefs that if we were going to achieve a cease-fire within a reasonable period, it was very important that we maintain our military pressure. And from the political side we said, on the one hand, "We do not urge that you do anything solely for political purpose, but we also urge that you not stop doing anything that you would otherwise do for military purpose, for a political purpose." That would work contrary to the
political purposes, of course, and we emphasized that very strongly. I recall the discussion at the time, the great difficulty of asking a man to do battle and to be killed if, the next day, you're going to have a cease-fire. And this is a theme that runs through all the early period of the armistice negotiations --the dilemma, you might say. And it's a good honest dilemma, of course, of what do you do in a situation of that kind, militarily, and what is military and what is political. And, of course, as it turns out, you can't say that there's anything that's purely military and you can't say there's anything purely political. And still we gradually and slowly learned this, because this is one of the lessons of the Korean war, if you will.
During World War II, there was still the
philosophy that somehow or other you could separate political from military, particularly among our own people, and that introducing political elements into military operations was somehow unclean--introducing extraneous factors that should not be introduced into a purely military situation. Of course, in this you have the whole conflict with Churchill; I'm no authority on World War II, but Churchill's approach was a much more military-political approach to the war than ours tended to be. And you have such things as the decision not to occupy Prague, not to go into Berlin, and these things.
But, coming back, the inseparability of political and military factors was truly brought home to both the political and the military side of our Government during the
armistice negotiations, I would say. I won't try to trace these through.
The negotiations, of course, were conducted under the worst possible circumstances, in the sense that they were public. One, they were public, and two, they were being conducted by military officers, but the theory from the beginning sort of was that this was a military cease-fire being negotiated between military officers, when, in fact, it was an arrangement of the highest political sophistication and importance. And part of the problem was it was being conducted through military channels of command as well. Putting personalities aside and putting aside whether it's a civilian or a military man doing it, it was difficult to introduce subtleties into the negotiations. Well, that's one thing that we were always
MCKINZIE: Did you make an effort to change that, sir?
JOHNSON: Well, no. The structure was established and there was really no way to change the structure. I took the structure as given. Now, I can't recall the exact circumstances, but it was during this period that I first began to have a personal contact and personal association with President Truman. Prior to this, I had attended meetings, of course, at the White House off and on, not as a principal from State but accompanying Dean Acheson and/or Dean Rusk. Dean Rusk resigned in the middle of '52 or so. In the meanwhile I had been appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary; I had taken Livy Merchant's place as Deputy
Assistant Secretary. John Allison came in as Assistant Secretary. John had not been involved in the Korean affair or in the negotiations very much, and so I tended to become more a principal than I had in the past. And we had these negotiations going on. Admiral [Charles Turner] Joy was our representative out there, and they were going on every day. We gave general guidance to begin with, but then when you got down to more details, the nitty gritty, we had the problem of getting instructions out to him. And due to the time differences and the fact that meetings were taking place daily out there, it meant, in general, that before the close of business here, during the course of the day, you had to get something back to him. This presented real bureaucratic difficulties. To whatever degree I achieved
an ability to work in this bureaucracy I had to develop at that time, to get things done. What I'm coming up to is President Truman, and I learned to appreciate this quality of his even more in later years with subsequent Presidents. Whenever we'd have a meeting with the President on some of these issues, it would end up usually with "Alex, draft a telegram." And I seldom had any trouble drafting a telegram, because after the meeting was over the President had spoken and said this was his decision on the question. I had a clear idea what the decision was, and everybody else in the room did, and I had the minimum of bureaucratic difficulty, you might say, in translating this into instructions to the field. This is quite in contrast with what happened in the next administration, but we aren't discussing that.
But I grew to have a great deal of admiration for the way he would decide things, make clear that this is the way they were decided--what to me was the plain commonsense that he brought to it. Now, to me, the most important and notable event of the negotiations--I'm talking now about during President Truman's time in office--was the issue of prisoners of war and voluntary repatriation. It was only as the negotiations developed that it gradually began to dawn back here that we had a problem maybe. This occurred as there were the riots in the prison camps in Korea, first in the Chinese prison camps, and then the Korean prison camps. On Koji-Do, the island where most of the camps were located, the riots were both by North Koreans attempting to create trouble in the camps and those of South Korean
persuasion. It was the struggle between North and South Korea, you might say, in the camps, plus the struggle of the Chinese in the Chinese camps (those who were objecting to going back to the mainland).
As this developed and more and more hit the press, Chip [Charles E.] Bohlen became involved and became very active on the subject. Chip was then an advisor on Soviet affairs. Chip had gone through the whole trauma of the forced return of Russians to the Soviet Union from Western Europe at the end of the war and called attention to the similar rising problem in Korea. He recalled the enormous difficulties and trauma, bloodshed, involved in sending the Russians back that objected to going back to the Soviet Union and what happened to them after they got back. And he
began to talk about this issue here in the Department. He raised the issue, if you will--got the issue raised.
Up to that time, the assumption was that, of course, you sent all the prisoners back. And in fact, the 1948 Red Cross Convention, in which we had participated very actively in drafting, was very categorical about it; at the end of hostilities you sent all prisoners back, period. And this was an assumption under which everybody was working. The military in particular--I don't say just the military, but in particular I say our military--naturally thinking in terms of doing the maximum to get our men back, also thought in terms of everybody being returned from both sides. And they did not in general take very kindly to anybody even questioning
the principle. As far as the prisoners we had captured--after all, we had captured them fighting us, they were shooting at us--the military felt under no obligation to give them the opportunity to express their wishes, much less give the other side any pretext under which to retain Americans. It was a good, solid, honest issue.
We had great difficulty getting information about what the facts were in this thing out there, and it was very, very difficult. All reports, of course, filtered through command channels and so on, so, again, it was very hard to understand exactly what was happening. We had a meeting over at the White House, and, as I recall, this was a meeting of what's called the Armed Forces Policy Council, a rarely used institution.
The Armed Forces Policy Council is formed of the statutory members of the NSC, the NSC as such, but also includes the service Secretaries and the service Chiefs--not just the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. And there was a very, very vigorous discussion of the pros and cons on this. Chip presenting his view and, as I recall it, General Vandenberg of the Air Force being probably the most vocal spokesman for the other point of view.
This all ended up with the decision that John [Edwin] Hull, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army (Joe Collins was Chief of Staff), and I would go out to Korea and see what we could find out. We stopped in Tokyo and had a meeting with MacArthur. Nothing really developed out of that. Then we went on over to Korea. I
felt it important to go down to the camps and see the camps and talk to the camp commanders and try to get a better feel of the situation. Ed Hull, for whom I have great respect (who just passed away this last week, as a matter of fact), felt a little more respect for the chain of command--I always had the advantage of not having to worry about the chain of command--and was a little more doubtful about this. As it worked out, he went up on the line and talked to people up there, and I went down to Koji-Do and to the camps and talked to the camp commanders and saw the prisoners, and just tried to get a feel of the situation.
Ed and I came back to Washington and we all agreed we had a problem and a very serious problem. It was quite clear that as to the
Nationalist Chinese--let's say the Chinese who didn't want to go back to the mainland; I call them Nationalists--probably we'd have to use very, very considerable force, and there'd be very considerable bloodshed if we'd sought to send them back. And this was true of many of the Koreans, as well. Well, we agreed we had a problem; General Hull and I both agreed on that. So, we came back here and had another Armed Forces Policy Council meeting in the presence of the President, alone. It was made clear to him, one, that we had a problem.
I'm afraid maybe I'm a little bit out of order here. I think prior to this we had already put forward the proposition of voluntary repatriation, but we hadn't made it a do or die issue in the negotiations, and
really the purpose of this trip, these meetings, was to know: Were we really going to stick with this or not? We had this long meeting. General Hull and I made our report at the meeting, we had a discussion, and, in brief, it was put to the President pretty clearly that if we were going to insist on voluntary reparation, the hope of any early agreement on armistice was probably out of the question. I mean, the Communists were going to resist this so strongly that this would indefinitely postpone the ability to achieve an armistice. Now, this was in the summer of '52. It was not too far prior to the election. Four or five months is my general recollection, but I do remember very clearly that it was not too far prior to the election, and, of course, Korea, by that time, was emerging as the issue in the election,
very much. So, as it was put to President Truman, if he did not insist on voluntary repatriation, we probably could get an armistice fairly quickly and end the Korean war. But if he continued to insist on voluntary repatriation, it would not be possible to achieve an armistice, probably, prior to the election. I may be oversimplifying a little bit, but not much. It emerged very, very clearly.
As I say, the debate was vigorous. It was an issue on which honest men can honestly differ. It was an issue on which the law, if you will, was very much against, in many ways, voluntary repatriation. It did not provide for it at all in the Red Cross Convention.
So, it was a tough, hard issue with an enormous amount of political content in it, obviously, as well. And against that background, Truman made, at the meeting, a very clear, unequivocal decision that he expressed to everybody there, that we were going to stand for voluntary repatriation, because that was the moral and the right thing to do.
I have cited this sometimes as the greatest act of political courage by a President that I witnessed while I have been in the employ of the Government. And it's one thing above all for which I remember President Truman.
MCKINZIE: At a hearing one time, when you were being confirmed for an ambassadorial post, you said, "I'm not much of a philosopher when it comes to foreign affairs. I have been dealing with it for some years, and I suppose
you'd have to call me more of a pragmatist, dealing with problems as they come along." Is that a good explanation of your view at that time, as well as now?
JOHNSON: I think that's a fair statement; I tend to be more an operator than I do a philosopher. I'm a great believer of, shall I say, getting things done, going to the core of the problem. It's been very, very rare in my career that I ever write a memorandum to anybody or do a "think-piece" about something. I always say to officers in the Service, and I say to people when I'm talking about foreign affairs, "If you have an idea that you think is worth something, there's one clear--not easy--way to test the idea, and that is to sit down and write the telegrams of instructions to the Ambassador in the field. What is he
to say and to whom? And when you do that, this is the best test of your idea." I like to sit down and write the telegram.
MCKINZIE: And not the philosophical . .
JOHNSON: And not the, you might say, the philosophical background for it, yes.
MCKINZIE: Well, Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.
List of Subjects Discussed
Allied POW’s in, screening of liberated, 6-8
Johnson, U. Alexis, as U.S. Consul in, 12-31
MacArthur, Douglas, occupation policy in, 10, 15, 16-17, 45, 47, 51, 53, 54, 58, 74
peace treaty with U.S., 1951, 56-58
reconstruction after World War II, 23-26, 29, 60
relations between U.S. occupation officials and Japanese people, 26-28
SCAP - State Department relations in, 10-11, 14-21
Japanese Peace Treaty, 1951, 56-58
Jessup, Philip C., 55
Joint Chiefs of Staff - U.S. State Department Conferences, Korean War, 45, 50, 63
Joy, Charles Turner, 68
Los Banos, POW Camp, Philippines, 5
Prisoners of War, Allied: 70-79
Santa Tomas POW Camp, Philippines, 5
Vandenberg, Hoyt S., 74