Oral History Interview with
Special Representative of the President to Korea, 1948-49; Ambassador to Korea, 1949-52;
John J. Muccio
Envoy Extraordinary to Iceland, 1954.
Washington, D. C.
February 10, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Muccio Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Ambassador John J. Muccio
Washington, D. C.
February 10, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, Ambassador, to get under way, would you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born and raised, where were you educated and what are a few of the many, many positions and posts that you have held?
MUCCIO: I was born in Italy, 1900, March 1900, and brought to the United States when I was five months old. My father was already here. And I went to one grade school, one high school, one college, and had one job for forty-two years of my life, and that was in the Foreign Service as a Consular Assistant, this was in the Consular Service before the Consular and Diplomatic Services were joined under the Rogers Act of 1924. It wasn't until '35 that I had experience
in the diplomatic side of the Service and that was in La Paz, Bolivia. I spent most of my time in the Service between the Far East and Latin America. Finally retired in 1962.
Do you think that is enough?
HESS: That's fine. Now moving into the Truman administration, you were a member of the American Mission to Germany from May of '45 until 1947, correct?
HESS: Would you outline a few of the duties that you had while a member of that mission, some of the problems that may have arisen, some of the methods that you may have used in solving those problems?
MUCCIO: Before getting into that I'd like to mention that the first time I saw President Truman face to face was at Potsdam in July 1945. He had been President of the United States for a few weeks only. He was playing international poker with two outstanding experts, "Uncle Joe" [Joseph] Stalin and [Winston S.] Churchill. Potsdam at that time was hot, soggy, stenchy, full of mosquitoes and flies. And Truman very clearly was ill at ease, having only been President a short time and having so many crucial issues thrown at him, and having
to rely on James Byrnes, who was Secretary of State, as his principal adviser.
The next time I saw the President face to face was in July 1948, just prior to taking off for Korea as Ambassador. Truman had just come back from Florida. He had a wonderful tan, was very exuberant, brightly dressed, he looked like a completely different person from the one I had seen at Potsdam. And mind you, that was before he was elected on his own, which came up . . .
HESS: The following November.
Do you recall if when you saw him in July of '48 if this was before or after the convention, the Democratic convention in Philadelphia of that year?
MUCCIO: I'd have to--I don't recall exactly. But after he was elected on his own, the man . . .
HESS: One question about James Byrnes who was the Secretary of State at the time of the Potsdam Conference. There are those that say that Mr. Truman appointed Mr. Byrnes as a consolation prize because Mr. Byrnes had also been in the running for the vice-presidential nomination in 1944 for Mr. Roosevelt's
fourth term, and since he did not get it and Mr. Truman did, that upon the death of Mr. Roosevelt Mr. Truman appointed Byrnes to the highest spot in the Cabinet as more or less a consolation prize because he was not the top man. Have you ever heard anything on that?
MUCCIO: Well, I've read accounts of that in several places, but there are much better authorities on that than I.
HESS: How effective was James Byrnes as Secretary of State?
MUCCIO: I'd prefer to let that sort of thing go by because I was never in Washington at that particular time. I was in the field most of the time. And my opinion of the man at that particular time is not too pertinent.
HESS: Okay. All right, moving back to your duties as a member of the American Mission to Germany?
MUCCIO: I was on Bob Murphy's staff during my two year stay in Germany, May of '45 until April of '47.
HESS: Do you recall any particular problems that came up, your duties there at that time?
MUCCIO: Well, can we later talk about--I mean there were
many issues, like denazification, so damn complex and controversial. You had the U.S. Control Commission, which was part of the Allied Control Council bogged down from the outset. I think if we get into a lot of these things it will be an interminable interview. Could we try to focus on . . .
HESS: All right. All right, would you like to focus on the matters on Korea?
MUCCIO: Why, I think we'd better . . .
HESS: All right.
MUCCIO: . . . move up.
HESS: All right, moving into matters pertaining to Korea, you were appointed, I believe, as Special Representative of the President to Korea in August of '48, is that correct?
HESS: Do you have an observation on why you were selected for this particular position?
MUCCIO: Well, I'd been with the Service a good long time. I was still a bachelor and in rugged good health. Undoubtedly the experiences that I had had in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, Germany and Panama, was a key factor. All involved active international situations with a heavy United States military presence. My
long association with the U.S. military had an influence in my selection.
HESS: What were the first problems that you were presented with when you arrived at your new post in Korea?
MUCCIO: Well, the Government of Korea was inaugurated August 15, 1948. U.S. military government and all of its ramifications still intact. My immediate concern was the transfer of all the functions of military government to the new government set up by the Koreans, under the direction of President [Syngman] Rhee. We transferred the police force, the whole police establishment, on the llth of September of 1948. And between that and December 12th, when we finally transferred the bank account to the new authorities, there was a constant transfer of responsibility from U.S. Military Government authorities to their new Korean counterparts. It was very intricate.
One interesting and complicating factor that plagued me during this period was the struggle between the Koreans that had come to the fore under U.S. Military Government and these appointed by the new government. The former came forward from 1945 to 1948, and later as the United States authorities set up what
was called the interim government, when Koreans were placed in authority with Americans as advisers. These Koreans who first worked with the Americans were sneeringly referred to by other Koreans as the "interpreter government." We must admit that their ability to understand and know some English had had a great deal to do with their selection.
Rhee did a thorough job of ignoring practically to a man those that had come to the fore during military government days. He set up his own hierarchy. And there's no love lost between the first group who considered themselves indispensable and the Koreans who were about to take over. That was the basic problem we faced at that particular time.
HESS: And you were appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Korea the following year in 1949.
MUCCIO: Yes, right.
HESS: During this period of time, the number of U.S. troops in Korea was being reduced, is that correct?
MUCCIO: Well, that raises the intriguing problem of the evolution of the U.S. position in Korea. The early days 1945 to 1947 are known better to other individuals. From '48 on, it might be of interest to recall, the U.S.
military, principally General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, Army Chief of Staff, and General Douglas MacArthur, CINCFE [Commander in Chief, Far East) were first to raise the question as to the validity of our position in Korea, and that militarily, it was better to get out of Korea. And, in the summer of 1947, it was one of the very first U.S. international problems handled under the new mechanism of the National Security Council. And the Korean position was elaborated and set forth in the National Security Council and issued by President Truman, I forget the exact date, but it was in August, July or August 1947. We threw the problem, after one last try with dealing directly with the Russians, into the agenda of the General Assembly of the United Nations meeting in the fall of 1947. Our resolution was passed-by the United Nations, and since that time there has been a United Nations presence in Korea, since the end of that General Assembly in 1947. There still is a UN presence there.
HESS: At this particular time in history which of the officials of the State Department did you work with the closest? Was Dean Rusk Assistant Secretary of
State for Far Eastern Affairs at that time?
MUCCIO: Walt [W. Walton] Butterworth was Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs. He was appointed Ambassador to Sweden, and Dean Rusk was placed in charge of the Far Eastern...
HESS: Did those men give you the necessary assistance and aid that an Ambassador would need; the man on the spot in Korea?
MUCCIO: They gave me excellent direction and support. I was told when I left Washington after numerous conferences at State and with the defense establishment and intelligence agencies, that this was the first time that the transfer of military government functions to a civilian agency had taken place after World War II. I would undoubtedly face problems they didn't have ready answers to, but for me to use my judgment and they'd back me up to the hilt. And I must say that they gave me superb backing.
HESS: As an official of the State Department, did you have any particular problems with some of the United States military commanders, officials of the Defense Department who may not have seen eye-to-eye on some of the things that you thought should take place in the switch over of the powers?
MUCCIO: Well, there were a few. A good example was the visit in late '48 of the Secretary of the Army, accompanied by General [Albert C.] Wedemeyer. I escorted the two to President Rhee and they presented to President Rhee U.S. thinking about the Korean situation with stress on Korean needs in defense matters.
When they reported in Washington, they proceeded on the assumption that Rhee had agreed to this U.S. proposal. My report was to the effect that Rhee had said, "Yes, yes, yes," to all of the things that we offered Rhee for his military needs, but that he had never said, "Yes," and he never said, "No," to the suggestion that the time had come for the withdrawal of the U.S. military forces.
HESS: Was Kenneth Royall Secretary of the Army at that time?
MUCCIO: Royall was Secretary of the Army. And the Secretary, General Wedemeyer, and I went and spent a long time with Rhee on this one problem. I was summoned back to Washington, over night, to discuss compatibility of my reports with what the Secretary of the Army and General Wedemeyer had reported.
;HESS: How was the problem of your reports solved? Did you get together with General Wedemeyer and...
MUCCIO: It was decided during my visit to Washington to defer a bit proceeding with the general plan, and nothing was to be said about it until after I had had a chance to work over some of the issues with President Rhee. Under the elongated schedule the final U.S. armed military unit left Korea on June 29, 1949, at which time we set up and left behind, a 500 man unit, KMAG, Korean Military Advisory Group, to help organize and train the Koreans.
HESS: Did you have any particular difficulty of presenting the United States' view to President Rhee at this time, of removing the troops?
MUCCIO: Well, President Rhee, at that particular time, was devoting most of his considerable talents towards forcing us to keep U.S. military presence in Korea and very little time to establishing his own governmental apparatus, and thinking of leadership and progress for his own people. He was more interested in keeping the United States tied up there.
HESS: And yet we removed our troops at that time, correct?
HESS: Did you have any particular difficulty explaining why we were removing our troops to him, or what did he say to you?
MUCCIO: The Wedemeyer plan was for our military to be out of Korea by the 31st of March, 1949. I urged Washington not to say anything about this until I had a chance to work on Rhee. When I got back to Korea the first thing I did was start pointing out to Rhee the wonderful progress (and they were making good progress), the new Korean constabulary was making.
HESS: Developing their own forces.
MUCCIO: Developing their own forces. Soon Rhee got up several times and publicly said that his boys were doing mighty well and could take care of the situation. Once he publicly committed himself that way, then I started working on him on, "Well, it's about time we get our forces out of the way." He didn't like that a damn bit but could not back out.
HESS: He began to backtrack a little bit.
MUCCIO: Well, backtrack, and he sparked demonstrations all over Korea, which were similar to what is going on in Vietnam today. Both misused U.S. presence to their full ability, but when time came for us to get out of the
way--you are capable of running your own show--then they look at it w