(23) John Hodge: first US forces commander in Korea
By Andrew Salmon
On Sept. 8, 1945, a fine autumn day, a lean-faced, fair-haired figure in starched fatigues stepped onto Korean soil at the port of Incheon. He was Lieutenant General John Hodge, United States Army, the man tasked with carrying out “Baker 40” ― the field order for the occupation of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula.
A professional soldier, Hodge had served with distinction in the greatest war in mankind’s history ― a war which had finished six days previously when Emperor Hirohito had surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri. Now, with the fighting over, there were some very messy loose ends whipping in the political winds gusting across East Asia. It would be left to the armed forces of the victorious allies ― the only instruments equipped and available for this very large, very complicated job, though not necessarily the best ones ― to tie them up.
As he entered Korea with the men of his XXIV Corps, driving through streets packed with cheering Koreans waving banners scrawled with grandiose statements such as “Welcome Apostles of Justice U.S. Army!” the 55-year-old American was advancing into a situation for which his prior training and experience left him woefully unprepared. It would not be resolved to the full satisfaction of any related party, but would begin an association between the U.S. Armed Forces and South Korea that endures to this day.
America’s man in Korea
John Hodge, a blue-collar native of Golconda, Illinois, had entered the U.S. Army in World War I, rising to the rank of captain, though achieving no great distinction. Between the wars, he served in a variety of infantry regiments and rose through the Army’s staff and war colleges. In June 1942, he was posted to Hawaii. That would be the launch pad from which he would take part in arguably the most murderous combat ever experienced by U.S. fighting men, as they battled from island to island to evict a foe who neither asked for nor gave quarter, and for whom death was preferable to surrender.
His battle record is a roll call of Pacific carnage. He served on Guadalcanal then took temporary command of a leaderless division on New Georgia. Next it was divisional command on Bougainville, then command of XXIV Corps on Leyte and Okinawa. By the end of the war, Hodge wore a Legion of Merit, three Distinguished Service Crosses, an Air Medal and a Purple Heart.
This was a formidable war record for any officer, but offered little experience in the role Hodge would be playing in Korea ― a role that fell somewhere between statesman, politician, arbitrator, economist, judge and policeman.
Commander in Chief of all U.S. Forces in the Pacific region was Hodge’s World War II boss, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, installed, post-surrender, as a virtual neo-shogun in Tokyo. From there, he issued a proclamation to the Korean people, who had suffered as colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire since 1910. The declaration called for calm and said that the incoming Americans would repatriate Japanese, preserve peace, law and order and freedom of religion. In due course, Korea would become “free and independent.”
Korea had disappeared from the map in 1910, swallowed whole by Imperial Japan. Korea’s fate had hardly been a priority for the Allies fighting to liquidate the Axis scourge in campaigns that raged from Northwest Europe to the South Pacific and from Southeast Asia to the Russian steppes.
Though Hitler and Hirohito were allies, Tokyo maintained its April 1941 neutrality pact with the Soviet Union ― even when Stalin was reeling as the Wehrmacht advanced upon Moscow in winter 1941. Had the Japanese abrogated their agreement and invaded the Russian Far East at that time, the U.S.S.R. might well have collapsed, with incalculable ramifications for the rest of the war, and for the world we live in today.
The Japanese, however, stayed true to their word, striking against European and American colonies in Southeast Asia instead. Under Allied pressure Stalin agreed to break the pact after the war in Europe was won. On Aug. 9, the Red Army stormed into Manchuria and Korea, traditionally seen as “a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.” But with the atomic bombs obviating an invasion and with the United States determined to occupy the island nation, Korea suddenly mattered.
The Americans suggested the 38th parallel as the halt line for the Soviet offensive. Somewhat to American surprise, the Soviets agreed. By the time Hodge and his men landed, the Soviets had already been in Korea for a month, and a range of provisional Korean government movements had been vying for attention since Aug. 15 (the day Japan formally announced its surrender by radio; the signing did not take place on the Missouri until Sept. 2).
The Soviets astutely absorbed the Korea People’s Republic (KPR) ― a loose, national collection of “people’s committees” established by Koreans ― into the government that would eventually take shape under Kim Il-sung. In the South, the Americans were not nearly so ready to do business with groups they saw as communist; the people’s committees would be outlawed.
So this was one challenge for Hodge: On the international relations front, his task was complicated by the fact that he would be governing just as the Cold War started to heat up. The other challenge was intra-Korean, for various local personalities and factions (understandably) wanted to play a role in their national government, but had been polarized during 35 years of colonization. Come 1945, these individuals and groups had widely differing ideas, aims and agendas.
Prior to Hodge’s arrival, the Japanese commander in Seoul, Yoshio Kozuki, had already been in touch with the Americans in Japan, warning them of the dangers of communism and suggesting that the Koreans were getting restless. Hodge’s first priorities were law, order and the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese. By the year-end, nearly 400,000 had left; only 1,000 technical employees remained.
More difficult was the issue of establishing governance through Koreans. Hodge had to deal with the KPR. His orders from Washington were not to back any government. The KPR ― a left-leaning organization, perhaps, but hardly the communist body the Americans believed it to be, would be banned outright in December.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was established. Early moves by USAMGIK to hire prominent figures who had served the hated Japanese authorities caused an uproar, but with the only trained civil servants members of the former colonial administration, hostility inevitably set in. Hodge himself, once described the Koreans “the same breed of cat” as the Japanese, which did not win him any local friends.
Moreover, the Americans, having dismissed the KPR as a political force, hired heavily from the Korean Democratic Party many of whom spoke English, but the party represented the landlords and wealthier class, and (inevitably) pro-Japanese collaborators. Although USAMGIK did, cut the hated police force by 60 percent, for many ordinary Koreans, looking on, it must have seemed as if they had exchanged one band of occupiers for another.
Meanwhile, various nationalists were returning home from their long struggles abroad. Syngman Rhee and Kim Ku arrived in, respectively October and November. Neither proved amenable to the U.S. general, partly because of their strong interest in overall peninsula affairs, rather than in the governance of the southern half which he was attempting to administer.
Both Koreans were also opposed to the U.S. State Department’s concept of an international trusteeship for Korea (a project that neither Hodge nor MacArthur agreed with either). Hodge’s relations with Rhee cooled and he threatened to kill Kim, who had announced he was taking over the government; Kim backed down. Hodge would later be accused by Rhee of being “a communist.” In this highly emotive and dangerous atmosphere, Hodge would write of the dilemma of creating a non-extremist polity in the South: “How in the dickens are you going to get political-in-the-middle-of-the-road out of this mess?...I don’t know, I wish I did.”
Meanwhile, a flow of refugees from Manchuria and north of the 38th parallel were swelling the population, while the uncooperative Soviets in the North controlled most of Korea’s power supply. To its credit, USAMGIK curbed a cholera epidemic and overcame food shortages, upgraded educational materials and established labor laws. But it could not resolve increasingly violent politics and had already been accused in the U.S. press of fostering a right-wing police state.
In autumn 1946, a strike broke out among railway workers in Busan. It spread to Daegu, then across the south. It was suppressed by the police force and the USAMGIK-established constabulary ― the force which would form the basis of the Republic of Korea Army ― assisted by U.S. advisors. It was a brutal process and it formed a groundswell of anti-USAMGIK and anti-rightist opinion across much of the south. The only place where the people’s committees remained were on Jeju Island ― and their day of reckoning was not far off.
But when that happened, the USMGIK era was coming to a close. One of its last acts was a land reform in March 1948, but advised by the landowning classes of the KDP, the reform was only partial. On the global stage, the major powers had failed to reach an agreement on a full Korean plebiscite. U.N.-overseen general elections were carried out in the South on May 10, 1948. The Republic of Korea was established on Aug. 15 with Rhee as president. On Sept. 9, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the north, with Kim Il-sung as president.
Rhee’s state already had an insurgency on its hands. There had been protests on Jeju Island protesting USAMGIK policy and violence by police and right wing paramilitaries; in April, police posts had been attacked. In September, massive counter-insurgency operations were launched. The end result was perhaps 30,000 islanders killed and over half Jeju’s villages destroyed. In October, further fighting flared in Yeosu as military units rebelled.
But this chaos was not for John Hodge to resolve: He had departed Korea on Aug. 27, 1948. Later that same year, the Soviets withdrew their main force troops from Korea; in June 1949, the Americans did the same (though both left behind advisory bodies). With separate nations now established on both sides of the 38th parallel, tensions rose ever higher. Those tensions would explode on June 25, 1950. Troops from across the world would be sucked into the resultant vortex.
A South Korean general who lived through the events covered above ― a general, who is, it should be stated, hardly anti-American ― once told this writer, when speaking of USAMGIK, “The Americans made terrible mistakes here.”
And yet it is difficult to say ― with the experience, the guidance and the resources Hodge had at his disposal, and in the Cold War environment in which he was operating ― quite how he could have done a better job. He came; he totally removed the Japanese colonial power apparatus; he stabilized; he administered; he established a government; he left. Much of this was well above his pay grade and he was out of synch on some Washington policies that he was beholden to implement. Yet he did it all within the space of three years, after a 35-year colonial period in which intra-Korean polarities had built up explosive passions, and in an atmosphere of growing international tension.
Have things improved since? As recent US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, even with far greater resources than Hodge ever had, and with much more of the Washington brain trust focused thereon than was ever the case with Korea, there is no “right way” to take over and administer a suddenly leaderless nation. The pitfalls are immense.
John Hodge was not the most famous U.S. soldier to command on the peninsula but he was the first American troop commander in Korea ― a sensitive relationship that continues to this day. USAMGIK’s distant descendent, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), is one of the key components in today’s bilateral relationship.
Obviously, they have been key in keeping the peace since the Korean War, but in an era when only a very few, privileged Koreans could travel abroad ― an era that only came to an end in the early 1990s ― USFK personnel were influential in a different way.
Their radio station was a key channel bringing American popular music to Korea, their TV station provided a window on American life and language, and eateries catering to U.S. soldiers, both on- and off-base, were among the first to offer U.S.-style fast food.
On the converse, the attitude of arrogant U.S. soldiers, and the drunken and sometimes criminal behavior of GIs have caused friction with local hosts, hosts who have, for most of the post-1945 Korean-American relationship, been very much the junior partners.
Much of the latter negativity has ameliorated as USFK’s numbers have dwindled and Korea’s prosperity has risen: While GIs might have looked down on Koreans from the 1950s to the 1980s, they are unlikely to do so today, given this country’s prosperity, sophistication and success. In fact, it would be difficult to think of a better-behaved or more public affairs-conscious overseas garrison than 21st century USFK: GIs in Korea face far more restrictions on their after-hours activities than do other expatriates (or, indeed, Koreans themselves). Moreover, the visibility of GIs has been diluted by the ever-expanding expatriate population.
Yet ironically, the role has become increasingly politicized in their host country, to the extent that USFK is a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment ― a sentiment much on display in 2002.
None of this has anything to do with John Hodge, who died in 1963 at the age of 70. He never served in the Korean War, where the most iconic American figure would be his former boss in Japan, MacArthur. Yet as the first commander of U.S. troops in Korea in the post-1945 era, Hodge’s name will continue to be associated with American soldiers on the peninsula until the last “Yankee” finally “goes home.” Given the strategic situation in both Korea and Northeast Asia, that day looks far off.
Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history: “U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 ― the Present,” “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951,” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”