Korea, the Cold War and the end of American journalism’s ‘golden age’

Oliver Elliott

4 May 2018


Syngman Rhee Welcome Ceremony, 1945 (©Don O’Brien)

In the American public imagination, World War Two is usually remembered as the ‘good war’, fought to liberate Europe and Asia from Nazi and Japanese tyranny. It is also often remembered as a golden age for American journalism- a time when war correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Ed Murrow faithfully and movingly recounted the experiences of America’s fighting men and the civilians caught in war’s path. Together, American soldiers and reporters shared a common belief in the importance of restoring freedom and democracy to those nations trapped under fascist tyranny.

In recent years, however, historians have increasingly challenged aspects of this heroic narrative. One significant strand of revisionism has focused on the experience of occupation and liberation for those Europeans and Asians on the losing side of the war. Nowhere was this history more traumatic than Korea, a country annexed by Japan in 1910 and then occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the Allies had promised to restore Korea’s independence in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the liberators did not believe Korea was ready for independence after forty years of Japanese occupation and Koreans north and south of the 38th parallel thus once again found themselves under the authoritarian rule of foreign powers.

The poorly resourced U.S. military occupation government struggled to restrain Korean political agitation from leftist and rightist groups seeking self-rule. As social and economic conditions deteriorated, Korean society became increasingly polarised. By 1948, the year the United States finally allowed its zone of occupation to declare independence, rightist forces had installed themselves as the hegemonic force in South Korean politics. Although the new South Korea state was ostensibly a democracy, between 1948 and the end of the Korean War in 1953, President Syngman Rhee’s regime brutally repressed critics of his rule and executed tens of thousands of civilians suspected of harbouring communist sympathies.

In my presentation at the recent IAMHIST masterclass in New Orleans, I explored the question of why, after World War Two, when many journalists still clung to idealistic notions regarding the role of the United States in building a better, more democratic world, these disturbing developments did not garner more significant attention in the American press. Indeed, the derailing of American ideals in South Korea, one of the first test cases for American democratic nation-building in the post-colonial world, received mostly intermittent and restrained coverage in American newspapers. Even after the country was thrust into the global spotlight following the onset of the Korean War in 1950, the authoritarianism of President Rhee became less and less discussed even as his violations of the constitutional order became more egregious.

In my research, I found evidence that a reliance on simplistic and racialised journalistic narratives played a profoundly important role in shaping coverage of Korea. In the early stages of the American occupation, racial assumptions regarding Korean backwardness prevented the handful of American correspondents from noticing or acknowledging the problems in the American occupation zone. While stories about South Korean authoritarianism did begin to filter into the mainstream press by early 1950, this liberal critique virtually disappeared with the onset of the Korean War in June 1950. Once the United States had committed itself to defending South Korea as part of the global struggle against communism, a Cold War narrative took hold which left little scope for journalists to question the legitimacy of their ally.

While these two narratives heavily shaped much of the reporting of Korea during this era, they were not the only constraints. The tiny press corps based in Seoul before 1950 was dominated by press agency reporters with a fixation on ‘objective’ journalism. This professional norm encouraged journalists to treat official government sources as the only legitimate basis for news stories. Indeed, press agency dispatches from Korea often read like official press releases. The American military government made every effort to get local journalists ‘on side’ and obstruct outside observers from bringing attention to the failures of the occupation. Attempts by a group of Tokyo-based journalists to publicise the growth in right-wing forces in South Korea were effectively suppressed by U.S. military authorities until the end of the occupation in 1948.

The South Korean government also played a significant role in managing its image in the United States. President Syngman Rhee, a nationalist who had spent almost forty years lobbying for Korea in the United States, fervently believed that getting the support of the American public was the key to unlocking American support for the reunification of Korea under his rule. He established a Washington-based publicity organisation, run by a mixed American and Korean staff, which effectively presented South Korea’s case to newspapers across the United States. After the onset of the Korean War, efforts by Rhee’s media advisers in South Korea to win over the support of visiting war correspondents further helped to keep controversial stories from filtering back to American newspapers.

While there were many reasons for why the press failed to report on South Korea’s descent into authoritarianism, this failure was not inevitable. For a brief period between the end of the occupation in 1948 and the onset of the Korean War in 1950, liberal criticism of the South Korean regime did receive mainstream attention in the United States. Visiting correspondents for a diverse group of newspapers, including the New York Times, the Chicago Daily News and the New York Herald Tribune, warned that South Korea was turning into a police state. This critical narrative would almost certainly have continued if not for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950.

In fact, we can see the Korean War as a crucial turning point in the way the American press perceived American support for authoritarian allies. Prior to the war, liberal criticism of such governments could be found throughout the mainstream press. After 1950, however, this scrutiny vanished. The press offered little to no pushback as the United States forged closer ties with a series of right-wing dictatorships. American journalism had completed the transition from the liberal idealism of World War Two to the grim realpolitik of the Cold War.

Now, with the future of the liberal world order once again looking uncertain, it is vital that both the press and media consumers learn from this experience. Western media must preserve its core commitment to the defence of liberal democracy and pay attention to the global shift towards authoritarianism. But just as fundamentally, journalistic narratives and assumptions need to be constantly challenged. Diverse sources and voices must be sought out. Only through an awareness and understanding of dissenting and critical perspectives can the media avoid repeating the kinds of mistakes that were made in covering Korea.

Oliver Elliott’s new book The American Press and the Cold War: The Rise of Authoritarianism in South Korea, 1945-1954 will come out later this year with Palgrave Macmillan [link].

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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