Reissued: July 27, 2018
Anyone who has been following the Korean War, going into its 68th year even despite the 1953 Armistice, knows that more surprising than any of its 150-plus skirmishes, is the recent meeting between United States President Donald Trump and Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea et. al. Indeed, the “Dotard,” as Kim had up until the meeting called Trump, and “Rocket Man,” as Trump likewise called Kim, both hailed their summit as a historic break-through, though to what, exactly, isn’t clear. Yet no one would be more astonished at their having met at all, than President Harry Truman to his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, the original two architects of American involvement in Korea – who, some seven decades ago, set out to stop those Northern Korean “sons of bitches” from invading South Korea. This letter tells that story.
Between the glory of victory in the Second World War, and the agonized debacle of the Vietnam one, was Korea: a war, now forgotten, that ended in deadlock. Euphemistically labeled a U.N. “Police Action”, the Korean War lasted three years, cost 33,686 American lives and, even as it ended on July 27, 1953, started something that would last for thirty-five years: the Cold War. How that conflict began, three years before, on June 25, 1950, is memorialized in this historic autograph memo from President Harry Truman to his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson – written, in fact, as American troops were attempting, vainly, to stave off the first onrush of North Korean troops…
He hadn’t been home since Christmas and now, the President said, he just wanted to sit quietly on the back porch and do nothing. It was a hot day in Independence, Missouri, June 24th, 1950, and Truman was happy to stay indoors, lazing about the house. His wife and daughter went to a wedding; his nephew dropped over to visit; dinner with the family at 6:30, and then the President got his wish: he sat on the newly screened-in back porch and chatted, idly, before going inside, around nine, to get ready for bed. Because he was still on Washington time, for him it was past eleven: it had been a long day, but just what he wanted. So when the phone rang in the hallway, at 9:20, he hardly expected that a crisis which would dominate his administration, derail his domestic agenda, and cause the Democrats to lose, resoundingly, in the next election – was waiting on the other end of the line. “Mr. President,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson began, “I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea.”
What Truman feared that night, was that World War III was starting – though what started was something else entirely: the Cold War, which would last thirty-five years. Fought, by proxy, between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Korean War would be the first of those international stand-offs that defined the post-World War II political landscape. But at 9:20 on June 24th, in Western Missouri and in Washington, it wasn’t so clear what was happening, and although Truman wanted to fly back to Washington immediately, Acheson urged patience. He explained that he had already taken the precaution of asking the Secretary General of the United Nations to call a meeting of the U.N. Security Council for the very next day, and expressed his concern, too, that Truman flying back in the middle of the night could alarm the country: what they needed now, he counseled, was to wait for information. On Sunday morning, then, while Truman visited his brother and inspected a new electric milking machine, Acheson gathered reports, drafted a resolution to be presented to the U.N. Security Council, and thought. When he felt he knew enough, he called the President a second time, at half past noon, to confirm that the surprise attack was a full-scale invasion. “Dean,” the President replied, “we’ve got to stop those sons of bitches no matter what.”
As Truman flew back that afternoon to Washington, the Security Council met and adopted, unanimously – the Soviet Ambassador being absent – the American resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of the North Korean forces back to the 38th parallel. And by the time the President’s plane set down, Acheson had convened all the top national security officials at Blair House where, after what the unfailingly urbane Secretary recalled as an excellent dinner, the decision was made to send troops to push the Communist aggressors back into their own country. This “policing action” – the Korean War – would last three years, end deadlocked, cost millions of Koreans their lives, and result in the deaths of 33,000 American soldiers.
Some three weeks later, on July 18th, at Taejon, ninety miles south of Seoul, units of the Twenty-Fourth Division began their attempt to stave off the onrush of North Korean troops. Perhaps that was why Truman, savoring a victory, wrote this laudatory statement the next day, to commemorate Acheson’s decisive role in the War.
“Regarding June 24 and 25 – Your initiative in immediately calling the Security Council of the UN on Saturday night and notifying me was the key to what developed afterwards. Had you not acted promptly in that direction, we would have had to go into Korea alone. The meeting Sunday night at the Blair House was the result of your action Saturday and the results obtained show that you are a great Secretary of State and a diplomat. Your handling of the situation since has been superb.”
But the victory hoped for, prayed for, so seemingly at hand, did not take place. Taejon, after two days of ferocious fighting, was a cruel defeat. The American commander was captured; the shattered remnants of the Twenty-Fourth were forced to retreat. Truman later said that sending troops to fight in Korea was the most difficult decision of his presidency: Acheson, this handwritten memo attests, was the person who made that decision possible.
HARRY S. TRUMAN. 1884-1972. The 33rd President of the United States.
Autograph Note Signed, as President, entitled “Memo to Dean Acheson”, 2 separate pages, octavo, The White House, Washington, July 19, 1950. To Secretary of State Dean Acheson.