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John J. Muccio Oral History Interview, December 27, 1973

Oral History Interview with
John J. Muccio

Special Representative of the President to Korea, 1948-49; Ambassador to Korea, 1949-52;
Envoy Extraordinary to Iceland, 1954.

Washington, D. C.
December 27, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Muccio Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]


Notice
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. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview..

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 May, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Muccio Oral History Transcripts | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


Oral History Interview with
John J. Muccio

Washington, D. C.
December 7, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

 

[1]

MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, in the previous interviews you granted to the Truman Library, you talked some about the evacuation of American civilians from Seoul on Sunday, June the 25th and the next day on the 26th. There had been an account of that written by T.R. Fehrenbach in a book called This Kind of War. The subtitle of that book is "A Study in Unpreparedness." Would you indulge me and allow me to read a page out of that book and then would you react to what this man says, because there may be some points which you'd like to

[2]

correct. He says that:

At four o'clock on Sunday afternoon Ambassador John J. Muccio went on the air over embassy radio station, WVTP, to reassure the American colony. He stated that there was no reason for anyone to be afraid and that the ROK Army had already contained the Communist offensive. There was to be no evacuation. But KMAG officers, who were getting frantic reports by telephone from the length of the 38th parallel, were hardly so sanguine. They began to argue with the ambassador, who was still in command. At least the women and children should be flown out, many of them said.

All afternoon and far into the night, an argument raged. Ambassador Muccio cannot be blamed for his attitude. A diplomat, he was suddenly in command during a military disaster, with no instructions from home, no clear-cut policy, no idea of the course the United States should follow. Muccio felt he must continue to show confidence, and at the same time he sincerely believed that the United States would not become involved, at least not directly.

At midnight, Muccio suddenly yielded to the pleading for evacuation. But he would not listen to a plan for removal of American civilians by air; Communist planes were in the air, and if one of them should shoot down a plane loaded with refugees it would become an international incident.

There was a small Norwegian ship at Inch'on, and all the 682 women and children would have

    [3]

     

    • to sail for Japan aboard this. The Norwegian ship carried a full load of fertilizer, and it had accommodations for only twelve passengers.

      On this point Ambassador Muccio, a tall, dark, bespectacled man, given to wearing bow ties, was adamant. Generally, too, he was set against any evacuation, since he felt that even if the Inmun Gun should by some miracle capture Seoul, the Americans there would be granted diplomatic immunity by the Communists. The British, who had recognized Red China, also planned to keep their diplomatic staff in Seoul.

      The British, some of whom would not live to see England again, also did not fully understand the nature of the Communist foe.

      Radio station WVTP ordered all dependent American women and children to assemble at certain designated locations to be picked up by embassy buses for the trip to Inch'on. From there the tiny, freighter Reinholt would take them to Kokura, Japan.

      Three days later, when the Reinholt docked, fifty of its passengers had to be removed to hospitals by stretcher. Exposure, lack of food, crowding, and the horrible odor of commercial fertilizer had prostrated the majority. But at that the women and children were lucky.
    That's a lot to read, but I wonder if you might care to comment on any parts of that, particularly

    [4]

    the business about arguments raging between you and your staff on the subject of evacuation.

    MUCCIO: One thing, we had an evacuation plan which had been coordinated and drawn up jointly by the Embassy, and CINCFE. There was never any question in my mind about evacuating. It was a question of the timing of the evacuation and the best method of getting the Americans and other non-Koreans, out.

    Sunday night it was decided to assemble the women and children at Ascom City, which was an Army installation about two-thirds of the way between Seoul and Inchon and at the same time quite close to the road leading south through Suwon, Taejon and Taegu. So it was a good place to have the women and children, because they would be close to Kimpo in case we used air. It would be close to the road to Pusan if it was

    [5]

    decided to go out through Pusan. And it was very close, right next door, to Inchon.

    MCKINZIE: You were not, then, opposed to the use of air?

    MUCCIO: Not opposed to any of the various means that we had discussed and had in our plans for evacuation. It was just a question of timing. If we started running, as pointed out earlier, if we had moved too early, there would have been no resistance whatsoever on the part of the South Koreans. It was a question of staying there and encouraging the entire Korean military forces to face up to the Communists onslaught without, at the same time, our being caught.

    I was baffled when I got a telegram out of Washington indicating that they thought I had already decided to stay on in Seoul, which was never my intention, never. But I couldn't go

    [6]

    around saying we were about to evacuate, but approved plans. The thing I was particularly proud of was that we evacuated all the American civilians and military plus the United Nations personnel, all diplomatic personnel who wanted to leave; all of whom left without a bloody nose in the whole operation.

    I was particularly relieved when I found that the women and children had been placed on board this Norwegian freighter. Now, it was not luxury accommodations. It wasn't a cruise ship, but it was the best available. When I got word back that all the women and children were on board that freighter and that the freighter had pulled out that same night, I was very, very relieved to know that they were on their way.

    Later that same evening we sent word to CINCFE that we wanted an airlift in the morning to take all the remaining female members of the staff of

    [7]

    the mission and of AID and USIA and KMAG, who to a man (or to a woman), all decided to stay on. They didn't want to leave. I had previously given them the opportunity to volunteer and had told them I would feel relieved if as many as possible would go.

    Towards midnight that night we got word that the Communists were approaching Seoul. I thereupon ordered the evacuation of all females and wired Tokyo to have a sufficient number of planes available to remove all the women--I've forgotten the exact number. Three or four hours later, as the situation worsened, we increased the number of planes requested to include all men in addition to the females, except for four that were to stay behind with my deputy, Drumright, and four that stayed behind with me. We had decided that we would make our way down south through the interior to maintain contact with the Korean Government and

    [8]

    the Korean military. Let me repeat, there was never any intention on my part of staying on in Seoul when the Communists got there.

    MCKINZIE: Is Fehrenbach correct in his statement that you did not expect the United States to become involved?

    MUCCIO: U.S. policy since 1947 was against getting involved militarily.

    MCKINZIE: I wonder if you could amplify what you previously said about the effect of President [Syngman] Rhee's evacuation on Seoul? You have indicated that he left on the night of the 26th; that he had two trains which were used.

    MUCCIO: Well, it was Tuesday morning, the 27th around 4 o'clock in the morning that I received word that Rhee and most of the Korean Government had already left.

    MCKINZIE: Did you notice any appreciable affect upon

    [9]

    the morale of the South Korean troops when the government left Seoul?

    MUCCIO: Oh, by that time the Communists were, on one side, right at the gates of Seoul.

    MCKINZIE: I guess the bluntest way I can ask the question is: When the government withdrew from Seoul, did that cause the South Koreans to flee in disarray?

    MUCCIO: Now we're getting involved in matters that are inexplicable unless you spend months. There was considerable fighting still going on in the Haeju Peninsula, there was fighting around Changnyong, Kaeson was overwhelmed, but the fact is that some elements of the Communist forces were right at the gates of Seoul when he finally left, but we had everything in readiness to get out of the way.

    MCKINZIE: Maybe this isn't a fair question. Did you feel that once Rhee left Seoul that he had any

    [10]

    real control over his own military forces?

    MUCCIO: Well, you have to bear in mind that the United States during military government days devoted no time at all towards developing the ROK militarily. They did concentrate on a police force aimed towards maintaining internal security, but very little was done in training and organizing military; an army or navy. It wasn't until the evacuation of the last U.S. military fighting unit on June 29, 1949, that the Koreans took seriously the need to develop an armed force. And they had only a year in which they could train the men how to use a rifle. It's one thing to train men to right turn, left turn, etc. in small units, but to handle a regiment or a division requires long-range leadership training. That's what the South Korean forces lacked at the time. They had a few that had had experience with the Chinese Nationalists, they had a few that had had some training with the Japanese, but as you know,

    [11]

    the Japanese wouldn't allow Koreans in their armed forces. There were very few trained South Koreans. So you had really just an organizing, a still organizing ROK army. When you bear that in mind, I think they did remarkably well and they gave us time to come in when it was finally decided to come in. Not a single South Korean unit turned over to the Communists.

    MCKINZIE: The reason I asked the question so bluntly, was that some survey accounts state that the South Koreans retreated in no order whatever, that there seemed to be no leadership anyplace.

    MUCCIO: Well, something held up the Communist forces, because they took off at 4 o'clock on Sunday morning the 25th of June. They should have taken Seoul that afternoon. They didn't get into Seoul until Wednesday the 28th.

    MCKINZIE: You have mentioned in a previous conversation

    [12]

    you had with Jerry Hess that you had seen President Rhee a number of times on the 25th and that you had a very special relationship with him. I wonder if you could amplify on that--how you negotiated, what the art of diplomacy was with President Rhee. You've indicated that he was an old guerrilla fighter; you've indicated that his ideas were formed in the early days of his life and didn't get any more flexible; you have indicated that you had a way of working with Mrs. Rhee. Could you talk about that a little, not only on that day, the 25th, but in subsequent weeks and months?

    MUCCIO: Well, when we left Seoul, we spent the first night in Suwon. Rhee and the Korean Government had already gone on to Taejon. We were all living in a very simple and mobile manner. We soon realized that the formality which you normally have between a chief of state and the representative of another

    [13]

    country could not be maintained. I didn't hesitate to walk in on him at any hour of the day and he was pleased that I kept him informed as far as I could on what was going on.

    Rhee, and particularly Madame Rhee, I'm sure were astounded that we came in and that we came in in time. They were appreciative of the fact that we did come in to support what was going on there. They must have known of our eagerness to get out of Korea that had been decided in '47. It was that decision, prompted by General Eisenhower and General MacArthur, that lead to the review of our basic policy, in July and August of 1947. The change in the policy was incorporated in NSC-7. This called for a renewed gesture to Russia towards settling the Korean question. NSC further provided that if we couldn't agree on what to do, we would throw it into the hopper of the United Nations. The gesture towards Moscow