A Barrier to Armistice: What To Do About Prisoners of War
What would you do if enemy soldiers captured you in war? The question is surreal. But to really understand what it was like for prisoners of war, it is important to step into their shoes. In the prior chapter, Korean War veterans shared their harrowing experiences. They were fortunate to have survived. Roy Aldridge survived, and has some important reflections on this question. [Video: Roy Aldridge – Prisoner of War] Many of his fellow soldiers did not. Astonishingly, forty-three percent of American prisoners of war died in captivity.
In an environment where your comrades are dying around you in such astonishing numbers, would you be tempted to cooperate with your captors? Salvatore Conte resisted that temptation. [Video: Salvatore R. Conte – Propaganda Lectures from the Chinese] Others, like John Roedel Dunn, chose to cooperate because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they didn’t. Many prisoners were brainwashed by their captors and used for propaganda purposes. Some prisoners made speeches railing against the United States, capitalism and western culture. Others went further by appearing in Chinese propaganda movies, ratting out their fellow inmates or even dressing in enemy uniforms. Though many Americans accused those POWs of being traitors, their actions are understandable in the context of what they were forced to endure. And the question of what would happen to POWs after the war was over colored peace negotiations beginning in 1951, resulting in two more years of bloody combat.
By July 1951, the Truman administration, along with U.S. allies, yearned for armistice. The war was terribly unpopular. Forty-three percent of Americans at the time believed that the United States had made a mistake by going into Korea. A full fifty percent believed that with Korea, World War III had already begun. Just twenty-eight percent of Americans approved of Truman’s job performance.
The North Koreans, Chinese and Russians also wanted the war to end. Around July 1, they proposed peace negotiations. On July 10, they offered to stop fighting immediately, withdraw their forces from below the 38th parallel and withdraw all non-Korean soldiers from the entire peninsula. It seemed to some that the end of the war was in sight. However the Americans, not entirely trusting the words of their enemies, became suspicious. Would China really withdraw its troops? Would the fighting really stop after United Nations troops ceased fire?
After just two weeks, both sides agreed to fix a division line between North and South Korea and figure out what would happen with each side’s prisoners of war. Though there was significant disagreement over where the division line would be and how each side would ensure the other complied with the terms of the ceasefire, the POW issue became the biggest sticking point. And a major sticking point it was. The question of whether or not each side had to return the other’s prisoners overwhelmed the negotiations, resulting in two more bloody years of war.
The Geneva Convention, ratified in 1949, appeared to be clear about how to handle POWs after a war: “Prisoners of War shall be released and repatriated (sent home) without delay after the cessation of hostilities.” However, those who wrote that statement didn’t take into account what might happen if prisoners couldn’t go back to their home countries. In this case, at least 60,000 Communist POWs did not want to return to North Korea or China. Many of them feared that they would be hurt or killed when they arrived as punishment for being captured or for cooperating with the United Nations. American officials, including President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, eventually decided that prisoners should only be returned if they wished to be. This idea became known as “voluntary repatriation.”
General Matthew Ridgeway did not agree with voluntary repatriation. He believed that the Communists would accuse the United Nations of violating the Geneva Convention, which would needlessly prolong the war.
Regardless of Ridgeway’s misgivings, and contrary to the Geneva Convention, Truman decided by February 1952 that voluntary repatriation was the only moral solution. How could the United Nations send these prisoners back to North Korea and China, and possibly to their deaths, against their will?
There was another reason for allowing those prisoners who didn’t want to go home to stay in the U.S. If they stayed, they could continue to speak out against the policies of their home countries a valuable propaganda tool. Sending them back would also send a stark message to future prisoners that they shouldn’t share information about Communist goals, ideas or plans with U.N. officials because they would be severely punished if forced to return.
It turned out that General Ridgeway was right. By May, with Truman unwilling to change his mind about voluntary repatriation, it was clear that the war would continue. Truman declared, “[F]orced repatriation… would be repugnant to the fundamental moral and humanitarian principles which underlie our action in Korea.” And so the war raged on, as the North Koreans and the Chinese demanded the return of all Chinese prisoners. Both sides continued to fight, casualties continued to mount on both sides and rifts formed between United Nations allies. Truman himself became a casualty his approval ratings continued to crater as the war dragged on.
The fighting wouldn’t end for another two years. Ultimately, the Communists agreed to voluntary repatriation, as President Eisenhower continued Truman’s policy. 82,500 Chinese and Korean POWs chose to go home, while 50,000 decided to stay in the west. Korea remained divided at the 38th parallel. Since no formal agreement was ever signed to end hostilities, North and South Korea remain in a de-facto state of war to this day.