Oral History Interview with
U.S. Foreign Service Officer, 1937-55, with assignments in Juarez, Mexico, 1937; Caracas, 1939-41; Moscow, 1943-45; Chungking and Nanking, 1945-48; and office of Philippine and Southeast Asian Affairs, 1949-55.
John F. Melby
November 21, 1986
by Robert Accinelli
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Melby Oral History Transcripts]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened October, 1988
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
John F. Melby
November 21, 1986
by Robert Accinelli
ACCINELLI: Professor Melby, can you tell me something about Dean Rusk, with whom you worked?
MELBY: Well, I first knew Rusk when he was named Assistant Secretary for the Far East. He replaced Walt Butterworth, who had the job when it was an office and not a Bureau. Walt had had a lot of trouble getting confirmed in the Senate, which offended him personally, so that he was determined he was going to get his confirmation. But he never liked the job. He didn't know anything about the Far East anyway. He stuck it out until he had a chance to become Minister to Sweden; then he left. At that point, that was when Rusk was brought in.
Well, Rusk never had any particular Far Eastern background, or East Asian background at all to speak of. He had worked on CBI when he was in the Army. There was one story that he was the man who literally had drawn the final parallel between North and South Korea, and did it just in a sort of haphazard fashion. It looked like the easiest place to defend; of course, it turned out to be the worst. Then later on when he was Assistant
Secretary, he had to live with the consequences of that decision, which was kind of ironic.
What he was doing in the Department before he became FE was [that] he had worked on the establishment of Israel as an independent state. It was obviously a very sensitive matter in the Truman Administration, and presumably, so the story went, all the files on how that was handled and why Acheson did what he did in deciding to recognize Israel and support its admission to the U.N., are all in the Rusk files. They presumably were kept in a safe that never anybody else, at that time, anyway, had admission to. What has happened to those files since then I have no idea. But he had done a good enough job on Israel, and the whole Middle East business, that the President, for reasons of his own, decided that he wanted Rusk to come in and take over the FE job. Of course, I got to know Dean very well in those days.
His reputation in the Department -- and this was prior to his becoming Secretary of State much later -- was [that] he was known as the man who never stood up and voted for anything or anyone. He was never on anybody's side; he kept his own counsel. You never knew what he was thinking. He was obviously a man of impeccable integrity, and nobody
ever questioned that. But he was not a man who voted. In fact, it was a reputation that followed him when, after he had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation in the Eisenhower Administration, Kennedy brought him back as Secretary of State. Well, his reputation still continued to be that of a man who never voted. It was not until the Johnson Administration that you began to know what he really thought about anything and that was when he came out completely in support of American policy on Vietnam, and he never deviated from that, to the shock of most of us.
I think we probably misjudged him in his pre-Vietnam days. As he once said himself, "I am a Southerner; I come from Georgia. In domestic matters I am a liberal. I'm all for civil rights, but when it comes to foreign policy, basically I am a conservative." And this is what he turned out to be. He also, as it turned out later, was one of those who was obsessed with the so-called Munich syndrome. You have got to stop aggression wherever it happens, or later on the cost of stopping it is going to be even greater. I think this accounts for a great deal of his attitude in the Korean war, where he certainly was on the side of American involvement in
stopping what was believed to be then, and probably was, North Korean aggression. This is where he had to live with the consequences, with his -- I forget what the number of the parallel is.
MELBY: 38th Parallel decision. I think he as much as anyone had influence with the President in what the President decided to do in committing American power to stopping North Korean aggression. I think Acheson also belonged to his tradition as it turned out: "You've got to stop it wherever it is." And Acheson was one of those to whom China was simply kind of a nuisance. His mind was entirely fixed on NATO and Europe and all that, but it would be in the end, Korea, that would in a sense do him in. I think that Acheson basically went along with American policy on Korea.
Now, as to my relationship and my involvement with Rusk -- he wasn't involved in the White Paper at all. That was Butterworth. But he was involved with Philippine matters, when I, having finished the White Paper, went back on the Philippine desk. He stopped by my office one day and quoted to me a remark that Cowen had made to him
about the Philippines. He was obviously very disturbed by it; namely, Cowen had said something to the effect, on some problem, and I forget what it was, "Don't worry about it with the Filipinos, I can always handle these monkeys." This to Dean indicated, well, sort of a racial attitude that he was disturbed about and he wanted to know what my reaction was. By this time, I was beginning to get to know Myron pretty well, and so I said; "I don't think you need to worry about this; this is just his way of speaking things and I don't think this really reflects his attitude." As I got to know him better and better with the passage of time, I never found that it really did. But it was an unfortunate remark to have made. They were anything but monkeys.
Now, also since the problems with Korea were going to be preeminent and all powerful, and I was finally in charge of Philippine affairs, Dean called me in one day and said, "Look, we've got an awful lot of things we have to do. I'm going to turn the running of Philippine affairs over to you; let you decide what has to be done." This was at a time when our analysis of the situation in the Philippines was that the Huks had -- although
they didn't know it then and perhaps never did know it -- they literally had the military capability of taking over the Government. Our problem was, what do we do about it? How do we deny this to them?
Well, as Myron and I developed our ideas, it seemed to us that the number one problem was going to be Quirino. [It was] that he was just beyond hope, that he was in the clutches of those who were involved in all the corruption in the Philippines and it, was pretty bad at that time, that somehow he had to be replaced. At this time, Magsaysay, who was by now a Senator, was chairman of the Senate Committee on Internal Subversion, or Military Affairs or something, I've forgotten what, and he was showing all the evidence of being the kind of dynamic leader we were looking for. We decided that the time had come to build him up, put him in a place and position where he could in effect, through the electoral process, challenge Quirino and take over the Presidency. This is where we called in for some help from the CIA, who turned out to be one Ed Landsdale, who did a very excellent job on the thing. Also, since we didn't want to seem to be reasserting American control, or even influence, we were working with the Junior Chamber of Commerce. [The Chamber of Commerce]
in Manila was a group of young, dynamic men, terribly concerned about the situation in which the country found itself, but lacking in resources and lacking in even a certain amount of expertise.
So we decided to work through this group and provide them with whatever money they needed, and such advice as they might want. In the end, it was a group that managed to mobilize enough public sentiment and feeling that in the end they were able to win, first, the 1951 midterm election, in which the conservatives had a clean sweep of the Senate, and two years later, make Magsaysay -- who had switched parties -- President. As I say, this was pretty much left up to me, and to Myron, to do as we thought. Dean said, "For heavens sake, let us know what's going on, and what you're deciding. The Secretary wants to be kept informed and so does the President." The President doesn't like to be kept in the dark on such matters, and obviously we knew it was a thing with him. Out of this came the Bell Mission, which had no economic justification, but it was for psychological and political and morale purposes, even though Danny Bell, who was the head of it, said he could write that report before he ever went out, if he decided to go. I said, "I know
you can, I know what's going to be in it, but go ahead anyway."
ACCINELLI: Had a decision already been made to grant to the Philippine Government large-scale economic assistance?
MELBY: No, not under Quirino.
ACCINELLI: Not under Quirino.
MELBY: No. Not at all. In fact, even the military aid we were giving was greatly curtailed. There was a point at which I had to go and talk to Quirino about Magsaysay and tell him that we would like to see Magsaysay named the Secretary of Defense. Quirino said, "Well, you know, of course, you're asking me to commit political suicide." I said, "Yes, I know that, but unless you do it there's no more American military aid forthcoming." You see, I could do that in the sense that I was on the desk in Washington. I wasn't involved in the kind of hassle that the Embassy was always involved in politically, Filipino politics being what they were. So I had kind of detached authority which in most situations even Myron didn't have.
Of course, what I think I mentioned before, what I
didn't know at the time, was that Quirino was by now a mortally ill man. He would be dead within a couple of years. He had obviously given up. He didn't care.
ACCINELLI: How closely did you work with Landsdale and the CIA? Did he keep you abreast of what he was doing?
MELBY: In very general terms, yes. What he was doing was giving advice to Magsaysay on getting the troops out of the barracks and out into the field, and restoring the credibility of the Philippine armed forces as the protectors of the people, and not their oppressors. This, he did a very good job on.
ACCINELLI: Was he involved in providing financial assistance to the Philippine Chamber of Commerce? Was the CIA assisting the Chamber of Commerce in its activities in any way?
MELBY: Well, I don't remember now whether he was doing that or whether Myron was doing it, or both of them.
ACCINELLI: So there would have been money in the State Department itself for that kind of activity?
MELBY: Not in the Department, but there would have been out of the CIA funds.
ACCINELLI: So it could have been channeled from CIA to Cowen directly?
MELBY: Yes. There was some of those things, details like that, that I just didn't want to know. It was better that I not be in a position of having to deny something that I knew.
ACCINELLI: Was it known at higher levels, with Rusk for example, or even higher, with Acheson or perhaps even Truman?
MELBY: Oh, yes. Sure.
ACCINELLI: Well, getting back to the Korean war, we haven't talked at all about your own reaction to the outbreak of the war, and then later to the move north of the 38th parallel, and the Chinese intervention.
MELBY: Well, I think I agreed with the general view held at the time that it was North Korean aggression, and that it probably had to be stopped. On the Chinese intervention, as I may have mentioned before, we were getting
reports in the fall of 1950 that the Chinese were beginning to infiltrate. I remember I was just back from Southeast Asia and I had been invited to a meeting of the Policy Planning Staff at which I was to present a report on Vietnam, Southeast Asia, which I did. They listened politely, and thank you, but I stayed on for the rest of the meeting which was devoted to the Chinese and Korea.
Our Chinese people from the China Desk were saying, "There can't be anything to this. The Chinese have so many problems, they simply are in no position to get involved in a war with the United States or with American troops at this point." I remember thinking at the time, "This somehow doesn't seem right to me; it doesn't feel right." I didn't have the evidence one way or the other. But after all, I had come out of China, and I just simply could not believe that whatever the cost, that if the Chinese felt that they were being threatened with the crossing of the Yalu, that they weren't going to do something about it. We had been warned by the Indian Ambassador in Peking that the Chinese were going to react to that, and we chose to ignore that. Well, of course, the Chinese did react to it, and they did cross the parallel. They did pin us down by the
38th parallel, and there we sat.
By this time I was no longer in a position, since my own problems were beginning to surface, to know the inner workings of why we let MacArthur go ahead and do what he did. I mean I just had to rely on secondary sources on that, on other people's account of it. My own suspicion in the matter is that MacArthur somehow had the kind of mystique with the Joint Chiefs, that anything he wanted to do, nobody dared say nay. Although the Chiefs were opposed to our involvement in a land war in Asia, and always had been, certainly up to that point, though they didn't believe in what MacArthur was doing, I'd say they just didn't have the guts to tell him, "Stop it!" I mean, you obviously can argue that in two areas; one, you shouldn't interfere with the field commander, which is a lesson that we didn't learn in Vietnam, or that they were just so bedazzled by the man's reputation.
ACCINELLI: Well, especially after the Inchon landing, which was such a spectacular success.
MELBY: That's right. You mean it was a spectacular fluke, and it worked. There was no stopping MacArthur after