war on the rocks

How Does Syngman Rhee’s Friendship with America Still Matter Today?

July 22, 2019

David P. Fields, Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea, University Press of Kentucky, 2019

South Koreans are generally happy to see the United States and North Korea holding summit talks, rather than exchanging threats of war, as they did in 2017. Still, the alliance between Seoul and Washington has seen better days: The current U.S. administration has forced the South to pay more for its own defense, renegotiate the free trade agreement between the two countries, and scale back the “very expensive” joint military drills designed to deter inter-Korean conflict. Donald Trump claims to speak for the forgotten American — supposedly neglected by previous administrations in a focus on free trade and foreign aid, and America’s Korean partners have borne the brunt of his “America first” focus.

Many Korea watchers see the Trump administration’s transactional mindset as short-sighted and inconsistent with the approach that has prevented war on the peninsula since 1953. Furthermore, Trump’s personal rapport with Kim Jong-un, Mohammad bin Salman, Xi Jinping, and other authoritarian leaders has called into question his commitment to American ideals, namely the defense of democracies such as South Korea.

How, then, did the United States enter into this alliance in the first place? And was the decision driven by pragmatism, idealism, or some combination thereof? With David Fields’ excellent new book, Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea, we see how Americans have struggled to reconcile their ideals and their self-interest for decades, often to the frustrations of their Korean counterparts. At the end of the 19th century, with America’s imperial power growing and the idea of “American exceptionalism” gaining popularity, American traders, statesmen, and missionaries all took an interest in the Korean peninsula. As Korea’s larger neighbors began to threaten the state’s independence, Koreans attempted to leverage this interest into an active defense of their sovereignty, with limited success.

Fields’ book largely follows the activities of Syngman Rhee from his early life until World War II’s end. Though he is best known today as South Korea’s first president, and most infamous for his forced exile in 1960 as a result of a popular uprising, Rhee throughout most of the pre-war period was a mere advocate for a nation-state not permitted to exist. Yet, while the book features Rhee’s name in its title and his face on its cover, it is far from a biography. Instead, it is a history of U.S.-Korea relations, starting with how “American exceptionalism” impacted Rhee personally, then moving to how he leveraged that exceptionalism’s political and religious overtones to secure the salvation of his country. Rhee ultimately succeeded, but only in part; he secured his vision of an independent liberal democracy with American help, but only south of the 38th parallel.



“American exceptionalism” was not a new idea. As Fields notes, the Christian settlers of North America envisioned their new home as a “city upon a  hill” long before the United States of America itself existed. By the time of Rhee’s birth in 1875, the “American mission,” a related concept, had more than just religious implications: In order to win Korean souls, American Christians supported an independent Korea set apart from the non-Christian empires of Japan and China. Through a missionary-run school operating near the end of the 19th century, these missionaries introduced Rhee to the loftier ideas in circulation in the United States. He ultimately used this to his own, and his people’s, advantage.

This is a useful corrective because it is not how the story is typically told. Instead, U.S. actions are framed in pragmatic, if paternalistic, terms centered around a Cold War military logic: World War II was coming to an end, the Soviet Union was bearing down on Japan’s colonies in the Far East, and the United States sought to prevent complete Soviet domination of Korea. With no faith in the Koreans’ ability to self-govern, and concerned about potential conflict with the Soviets, two U.S. Army lieutenant colonels had to quickly define which part of Korea the United States would administer after the war. Ultimately, they used a copy of National Geographic to divide the peninsula down the middle.

Though one of these officers, Dean Rusk, eventually became secretary of state, the two had little knowledge of Korea, and this division involved no consideration of Korean geography or popular sentiment. Thankfully, the Soviets accepted the arrangement in exchange for their own foothold on the Korean peninsula, but the unsustainable division ultimately produced the devastating Korean War, and an uneasy armistice that has endured ever since.

And thus, much existing scholarship indicates that the United States wanted to play a role on the Korean peninsula but had little interest in the perspectives of Koreans themselves. To be clear, the conventional narrative is not false. However, it does not answer the question of why the United States would insist on having a role in the Korean peninsula at all. Fields reveals that the decision to defend Korea was a political calculation by the Truman administration, not one driven by Cold War military strategy:

Before the 38th Parallel was a compromise between the Soviet Union and the United States, it was first an internal compromise between American policymakers in the executive branch who felt American action on Korea was crucial, and American military leaders who did not.

This calculation took place because, thanks largely to Rhee’s efforts, enough Americans in politics and civil society, especially in churches, became invested enough in Korean independence to convince the Truman administration that abandoning them would be politically costly.

And perhaps it took the efforts of someone like Rhee to nurture such sentiment among Americans. The book begins with his upbringing, his breeding, if you will, as a traditional Confucian scholar and calligrapher. However, Rhee’s encounters with a Christian missionary school as a young man led him to embrace the distinctly non-Confucian ideas of social reform, Korean nationalism, and eventually Christianity. With Korea trapped between the larger, though declining, empires of China and Russia and a rapidly rising Japan, the young Rhee believed that his country needed not only independence but also reform of its “creaking monarchy.”

Rhee’s character flaws were numerous and are on full display throughout the book. Fields documents how a young Rhee, displaying more passion than sense, directly challenged the monarchy as an editorial writer for an independence-minded newspaper and as an agitator for the bluntly named Independence Club. When these activities ended in his arrest, his fervor then led to an ill-considered escape attempt that resulted in the death of a jailer, the sentence for which was solitary confinement and torture. Yet even after this, his reputation not only for intelligence but fervor for Korean independence followed him. In 1904, Rhee’s enemies in the Korean monarchy plucked him from prison and sent him to the United States. It was clear that a great victory for Tokyo was pending in the Russo-Japanese War, and the monarchy hoped Rhee’s familiarity with Americans, English language competency, and passion for national independence would inspire Washington to uphold Korean liberty against growing Japanese hegemony.

They were wrong. Rhee did go to the United States as an unofficial emissary and even met with President Theodore Roosevelt to advocate for Korean independence. However, he also brought with him 19 letters of recommendation from American missionaries he had known in Korea so that he might pursue a U.S. education. In Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical, Chong-Sik Lee writes Rhee, by this point, anticipated that the kingdom was “too far gone for outside help.” In other words, the United States would not come to the underdeveloped Korea’s defense against modernized Japan despite an 1882 treaty seemingly requiring Washington to do so. So, while in America, Rhee pursued self-development in the hopes that it would make him a more effective advocate.

He was correct on both counts. America did nothing when Japan first placed Korea under a protectorate in 1905, stripping it of much of its sovereignty, then proceeded to annex Korea outright in 1910. Meanwhile, Rhee earned a bachelor’s at George Washington University (1907), a master’s from Harvard (1908), and a doctorate in politics from Princeton the year Korea became a Japanese colony (1910). At Princeton he made acquaintance with the university president, Woodrow Wilson, who praised Rhee’s public speaking skills and insights into East Asia.

After his graduation, Rhee briefly served as a Christian leader in Japanese-occupied Korea but returned to the United States in 1912. Rhee lived most of the next three and a half decades in the United States, promoting his country’s cause and seeking allies. As the United States entered World War I and Wilson, now president of the United States, called for the “self-determination” of imperial colonies, Rhee and independence advocates in Korea took heart. Rhee wrote multiple appeals to Wilson, along with Wilson’s associates and family. But when the Japanese colonial authorities ruthlessly suppressed the March 1st Movement of 1919, which called for Korea’s liberation, those who survived learned the limits of Wilsonian platitudes. “Self-determination” was for the defeated Central Powers’ colonies; Japan had chosen the right side of the Great War and would keep its ill-gotten gains.

This turn of events is not new to scholars of Korea, but others rarely discuss the inter-war activities of Koreans living in the West. Rhee doggedly pursued his nation’s cause prior to U.S. entry into World War II. This required a single-minded focus on that crusade, but also the nurturing of loyal supporters in the United States. In retrospect, not all of this support warms the heart. Fields introduces readers to Valentine S. McClatchy, founder of The Sacramento Bee, whose virulent anti-Japanese sentiment and opposition to Asian immigration made him willing to ally with Korean independence activists. After all, Korean advocates also despised Japan and only wanted to return to their own, independent country. Fields also writes of Fred Dolph, a lawyer who served as the blunt-spoken Rhee’s more diplomatic ghostwriter. A failed marriage had sullied Dolph’s name, so he opportunistically used Rhee’s cause as a “fresh start.”

During the 1920s, Rhee, briefly appointed president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile, battled other Koreans living abroad over the right to serve as the face of the independence movement. He also sparred with Americans broadly supportive of Japan’s “civilizing” role in Asia. Rhee was not only combative, however; he was also pragmatic. As president he would lead one of the most firmly (and violently) anti-communist administrations imaginable, but as late as the 1930s, Rhee willingly built bridges with American socialists who were racially progressive and sympathetic to his cause. He even traveled to Moscow in 1933, apparently to broker a U.S.-Soviet-Chinese alliance against Japan (that, like many of his efforts at the time, failed).

In 1941, Rhee published Japan Inside Out: The Challenge of Today. The book contained full-throated anti-Japanese statements. Rhee dubbed the Japanese “a small folk, small in body and brain, circumscribed in their small island world for centuries.” The book also appealed explicitly to American founding ideals and criticized Americans for failing to live up to them. Fields writes:

Rhee declared that America’s failure to confront totalitarianism not only put the nation at risk, it also denied the principles on which the United States was founded, for the Spirit of ’76 that animated revolutionary America was not solely about securing liberty for the American people, but also about encouraging it among “all the oppressed peoples of the world.”

Then, in December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Rhee could finally claim vindication, and he spent the rest of the war highlighting Washington’s betrayal of its promises to Korea in 1882 and its responsibility to Korean independence. Fields attributes Korean independence to Rhee’s advocacy and some of the more extreme anti-Japanese tactics of independence fighters in Korea. Koreans had, during this time, changed their reputation from passive to “pioneer Jap haters” and “the world’s deadliest terrorists” (and this was meant as a compliment). They also benefited from a committed coterie of pro-Korea, largely Christian Americans.

When, in 1945, Rhee accused the United States of planning to hand the Korean peninsula over to the Soviets at the war’s end, a flood of letters from Protestant Christians to “Truman, the State Department, and their congressmen” asked that “Christian Korea” not be traded away. Catholic laypeople and clergy also threw their weight behind Korea, as did a number of congressmen and senators. It was these groups that convinced the Truman administration that the United States had to assist in founding a liberal democracy in Korea, and that this democracy would not go undefended.

Could letters from Christians and few indignant members of Congress shift U.S. policy as it relates to Korea? Niles W. Bond, the assistant chief for East Asian affairs in Truman’s State Department, later wrote, “The Koreans, of course, were very good at playing on this feeling, on this moral responsibility of ours.” In his memoir, As I Saw It, Dean Rusk said that the Korean peninsula was not divided for strategic reasons, but “symbolic” ones. Another State Department official advised the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time that Korea was “important politically to the United States.” The primary sources do not spell out the reasons for this importance, symbolically or otherwise. However, Fields, from these sources and the sentiments of pro-Korea Americans, arrives at the conclusion that Rhee’s activism was more successful than scholars have acknowledged. True, the Soviet Union would occupy the top half of the Korean peninsula, very much against Rhee’s wishes; but, by staking a claim to the bottom half, the Truman administration seems to have felt it could appease Rhee’s American supporters while not provoking direct conflict with Moscow.

If this book has a flaw, it would be that Fields draws few comparisons between Rhee’s conduct during the inter-war period and his behavior later as president. Fields notes that few people who allied with Rhee during his wilderness years managed to do so without at least one serious falling out, and some of these squabbles led to permanent rifts. He notes that Rhee, ostensibly a liberal reformer, also had deeply paternalistic tendencies and a willingness to engage in crude stereotypes of the Japanese. Fields could have drawn direct correlations between such behavior and Rhee’s often tempestuous relations with his American advisors, his stubborn and sometimes lethal grip on the presidency between 1948 and 1960, and his refusal to accommodate U.S. entreaties that South Korea settle differences with Japan. Those knowledgeable of Rhee’s presidency will surely make these connections as they read this book, but Fields makes only a brief mention of them in the epilogue, largely leaving it to the readers to establish those connections.

All in all, though, the book is a masterful addition to the scholarship about Rhee, especially during the inter-war period, as well as of U.S.-Korean relations and the Korean independence movement. Fields previously edited The Diary of Syngman Rhee, 1904-34, & 1944 as well as co-edited The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Foreign Friends is a book that probably only a scholar of both U.S. and Korean history could have written. Rarely, if ever, have scholars written in such detail about either the influence of American ideals on Rhee’s thinking or his inter-war efforts to build the U.S.-South Korea alliance and to rally Americans to the Korean cause. The net effect of these additions should provoke a new set of conclusions about Rhee’s efficacy as an independence campaigner.

The book’s release is also timely: the U.S.-South Korean alliance has entered a trying new phase, with an American president who seems to consider the U.S. role in Korea a favor for which the United States has received neither compensation nor appreciation. However, this book shows that the boundaries between self-interest and idealism are not so clear-cut: The United States played down its past commitments to Korea for the sake of realism, first in 1905, and later after Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Though designed to prevent further conflict and serve American interests, the attack on Pearl Harbor ultimately showed that these decisions did neither.

And while the current American administration may see the downgrading of the U.S.-South Korean alliance as putting “America first,” the degradation of this pact looks unlikely to serve the United States well in the long run. This is especially true as the contest with China for the future of Asia escalates, North Korea resists disarmament, and, rather than building a united front, Trump takes a hands-off approach while Seoul slips into a new cold war with Japan. One day those who remember such choices may have a new appeal to make to the American conscience, just as Christians once did to the Truman administration.



Rob York is a production editor at The South China Morning Post and the former chief editor of NK News. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is presently working on his dissertation on the history of South Korean journalism in the 1950s-60s.

Image: Gen. Douglas MacArthur and President Syngman Rhee, U.S. government