Foreign Friends
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Foreign Friends

Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea

David P. Fields

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Foreign Friends

Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea

David P. Fields

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The division of Korea in August 1945 was one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the twentieth century. Despite the enormous impact this split has had on international relations from the Cold War to the present, comparatively little has been done to explain the decision. In Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea, author David P. Fields argues that the division resulted not from a snap decision made by US military officers at the end of World War II but from a forty-year lobbying campaign spearheaded by Korean nationalist Syngman Rhee.

Educated in an American missionary school in Seoul, Rhee understood the importance of exceptionalism in American society. Alleging that the US turned its back on the most rapidly Christianizing nation in the world when it acquiesced to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1905, Rhee constructed a coalition of American supporters to pressure policymakers to right these historical wrongs by supporting Korea's independence. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rhee and his Korean supporters reasoned that the American abandonment of Korea had given the Japanese a foothold in Asia, tarnishing the US claim to leadership in the opinion of millions of Asians.

By transforming Korea into a moralist tale of the failures of American foreign policy in Asia, Rhee and his camp turned the country into a test case of American exceptionalism in the postwar era. Division was not the outcome they sought, but their lobbying was a crucial yet overlooked piece that contributed to this final resolution. Through its systematic use of the personal papers and diary of Syngman Rhee, as well as its serious examination of American exceptionalism, Foreign Friends synthesizes religious, intellectual, and diplomatic history to offer a new interpretation of US-Korean relations.

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1
The American Mission Comes to Korea
An Army of Nation Builders
American Christian missionaries were agents of creative destruction in the late nineteenth century. They were an army of social entrepreneurs, stirred to action by the ancient commission of Jesus and the belief that their own privileged place in the world as Americans entailed a responsibility to help others.1 Encouraged by the revivals of Gilded Age America and the era’s most famous evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, American and Canadian college students formed the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions to recruit, train, and dispatch university graduates as foreign missionaries. Highly educated, motivated, and idealistic, their numbers included many of the best and brightest of their generation. They expected a life of hardship and sacrifice. They left the comforts of home and the companionship of their families for years and decades at a time.2 They were not wishing to be martyrs, but death from disease, from accidents, or at the hands of those they were trying to convert was not a rare occurrence.
They were unashamed cultural imperialists with strong beliefs in the superiority of their culture and the religion that underlay it. Their goal was disruption. They went out into the world to change it. Subject to universal human frailties, missionaries could be selfish, condescending, narrow-minded, and hypocritical, but they also believed that the Christian religion sincerely applied was “an antidote to the social chaos that they believed threatened all societies.”3 In pursuit of this change they were organized and strategic. Contemporaries used martial adjectives and military metaphors to describe them. John R. Mott, the leader of the student volunteers for a generation, had “the mind of a general,” but also had “that gentleness of spirit and that grace of manner which compel obedience without the necessity of orders.”4 His books such as Strategic Points in the World’s Conquest and The Present World Situation speak to the geopolitical orientation of the movement. Student volunteers gathered by the thousands in mass conferences around the United States and, using maps the size of jumbotrons, devised strategies for completing the “evangelization of the world in a single generation.” Their objective was not just to convert individuals, but also to reform entire societies.
Beneath their explicit and implicit self-assurance was a self-conscious recognition of their own cultural development. They believed that the superiority of their own institutions was not innate and that the changes they were trying to effect in other societies were the same theirs had undergone in the not-too-distant past. In explaining why he refused to use the words “heathen,” “Oriental,” and “Asiatic,” former missionary William Griffis highlighted the historical continuity between East and West: “To the eye of the scholar and the Christian, who knows the history and evolution from semi-brutality of our own savage ancestors, there is no Orient and no Occident…. The student of history, with the eyes of science and imagination, sees in the colonial America of a hundred, or the Europe of five hundred years ago, pretty much everything that is, or only lately was, visible in China, Korea, and Japan. Human nature and the race are one.”5 This realization was the missionaries’ saving grace. It located Western development in a universal narrative of human progress that non-Westerners could write themselves into, at least theoretically, on the basis of equality.
The legacy of Western missionaries is not only, or even primarily, measured in the converts they made, but also in the lives they saved from death and disease. Unlike Christianity the benefits of Western medicine were easily proved to the skeptical, and medical knowledge became their passport into hostile societies. Its utility could overcome the strangeness of their doctrine. So it was in Korea. The first American missionary to Korea was Presbyterian physician Horace Newton Allen. He traveled to Korea to serve as physician, without pay, to the newly established American legation in Seoul. Allen referred to these circumstances as the “ruse” that got him into Korea despite strict laws prohibiting Christianity.6
The timing of his arrival was auspicious. In December 1884, soon after he arrived, he was summoned to the royal palace to undertake the most important medical treatment of his life. The queen’s nephew Min Young-ik had been severely wounded in an attempted coup. He was near death when Allen arrived. He had been slashed seven times, essentially scalping him and exposing his skull and spine. The bleeding had only been crudely stemmed by a German diplomat with no medical training. Allen worked all night in low light to save Min, and though he would need constant treatment for three months, he made a full recovery.7
In this dramatic fashion the first American missionary to Korea ingratiated himself with the Korean court and unofficially “opened” Korea to Christian missionaries. Impressed with Allen’s medical skills, the court asked him to establish the first Western hospital in Korea, a dramatic shift away from the official xenophobia that had characterized Korean society for the previous centuries and earned it the unflattering title of the Hermit Kingdom. Only a few decades before, the Korean state had attempted to stamp out foreign religions and massacred thousands of native Catholics and several French priests.8 Allen’s hospital, elegantly named Kwang Hye Won, or the House of Extended Grace, opened in 1885. For probably the first time, there was a space in Korea where Koreans mixed with proselytizing foreigners under the sanction of the state.9
Word of the medical miracles taking place at Kwang Hye Won spread. Soon desperate souls with tortured bodies began trekking in from the interior by the thousands to seek treatment.10 If Rhee’s biographer Robert T. Oliver and several other Korea scholars are to be believed, Syngman Rhee’s father Lee Gyeong-seon was among them.11 Lee was a member of the yangban class of Korean nobility, but one whose property and resources were not reflective of his social standing. His family was poor and made poorer by his attempts to live the lifestyle of a Korean aristocrat without the means to do so. He lavishly entertained his friends, wrote poetry, and studied his family’s royal genealogy, all with a noble disdain for material concerns. Genealogy was of paramount importance to someone who possessed a noble birth and little else. Lee’s preoccupation with his lineage was augmented by worries about the tenuousness of his own ancestral line. For five generations his ancestors had managed to produce only one son, a circumstance Lee was not able to improve upon. A son had been born to Lee and his wife, but this yukdae dokja, or sixth-generation only-son, had died while still a boy. Two daughters had followed. Then in her forties Lee’s wife bore another son, whom they called Seungnyong, and the family’s fortunes seemed to revive. Coddled from birth as befitting a yukdae dokja, the boy was the center of his family’s attention as well as their hopes and aspirations. Lee’s dream for his son was the dream of all struggling yangban families: that the son could elevate the family’s status by passing the civil service exam and joining the government bureaucracy. As his parents sacrificed to provide the classical education necessary to pass the exam, Lee Seungnyong, whom the world would know as Syngman Rhee, excelled at his studies and mastered several classical texts by the time he was six.12
Disaster struck when Seungnyong was still a small boy. He contracted an illness that left him blind and near death. A pain like a “red hot poker” shot through his eyeballs. His parents were beside themselves at the possibility of once again losing their only son. They tried every remedy and traditional doctor they could find, to no avail. The thread of Lee’s ancestral line appeared to be fraying the day he and his family set out for Kwang Hye Won. They traveled south to Seoul through the mountain passes carrying Seungnyong on their backs—his mother weeping as if he were already a corpse.13
His biographer Oliver claimed Rhee received treatment from Horace Allen.14 He soon fully recovered, and the Lee household was full of joy. Out of gratitude his father sent several dozen eggs to the doctor, only to have them returned with a message to keep them for their still-recovering son. Western medicine had saved the boy’s sight and possibly his life. As he grew and traditional Korean society crumbled around him, Rhee remembered this experience and began to think about the West, Western technology, and Western religion in new ways and to wonder if it was not capable of more than just his personal physical enlightenment. Syngman Rhee would later use his own experiences to trace the trajectory of the American mission in Korea. Rhee claimed to be a product of this mission and would become an important interpreter of it during his ninety years. He was the spiritual and physical fruit of American missionary endeavors. His body had been saved through missionary medicine and his soul through their evangelism. His story encapsulated the beneficent aspirations of the Student Volunteer Movement and was proof that their mission to bring spiritual and material uplift was yielding returns.
That was the narrative Rhee wanted Americans to hear. Most of it was true. As this chapter will show, American missionaries undoubtedly saved Rhee’s life on several occasions, and the education and religion they offered him changed his life. However, at the heart of his story of salvation from blindness is a discrepancy that his biographer was willing to paper over and that scholars of Rhee appear to have missed. In a 1952 promotional piece for the John Milton Society for the blind, Rhee claimed that he was six years old when he contracted smallpox.15 Rhee was born in 1875. Horace Allen did not arrive in Korea until 1884. Oliver was clever enough to recognize the discrepancy and claimed in his biography two years later that Rhee had contracted smallpox when he was nine, thus placing Allen in the country at the time of his sickness. It is possible that Rhee could have misremembered his age at the time of his illness, but more telling is the fact that Rhee never identified Allen in print—he may have done so orally—as the doctor who treated him, despite the fact that he visited the doctor in question after his sight was restored and that he and Allen were well acquainted later in life.16 Rhee’s own 1952 account makes clear that the doctor who treated him was “foreign,” however. If Rhee was indeed six when he contracted the illness and the doctor who treated him was foreign, then that doctor almost certainly would have been Japanese. Japanese doctors were the only known practitioners of Western medicine in Seoul prior to Allen’s arrival. In fact, Allen recorded the presence of a Japanese doctor during his treatment of Min Young-ik.17
The question of who saved Syngman Rhee’s sight is not merely a matter of historical trivia, if in fact it was not Horace Allen. Given the Japanese colonization of Korea that soon followed, Rhee might want to conceal that his sight was restored by a Japanese doctor, lest he be embarrassed by the Monty Pythonesque question “What have the Japanese ever done for us?!” That he would permit his biographer to alter his story to make it possible for Allen to be the agent of healing shows Rhee’s willingness to mold—or have molded—his own personal story in ways that would better appeal to American audiences. For Rhee to be enlightened physically, spiritually, and politically by American missionaries made his story more compelling to Americans and would hopefully instill in them a sense of responsibility to finish the work begun by their missionaries.18
This chapter will examine Syngman Rhee’s encounter with the American mission as a young man, describing how it inspired him, turned him into a radical reformer, sustained him through trying times, and put him on a path toward prominence. Rhee’s experiences gave him the credibility to simultaneously praise Americans for what they had accomplished in Korea through their missionaries while also encouraging them to do more. As this chapter will argue, Rhee had to tread carefully during his early activities in the United States, lest he run afoul of many Americans’ pro-Japanese sympathies and desire to eschew politics to focus on the spiritual and humanitarian aspects of their missionary work. That Rhee was able to walk this line contributed directly to his rise as the preeminent Korean leader-in-exile in the United States and laid the foundation for his future lobbying and diplomacy.
A Change of Vocation
Rhee’s first brush with Western civilization—whether administered by an American or Japanese doctor—was physically transformative but did not give him or his family any reason to forsake the path he had been on: to become a Confucian scholar. After being saved from blindness he strained his eyes studying and memorizing classic Confucian texts in preparation for taking the gwageo—the civil service exam of the Joseon state. Rhee’s political education and transformation began when the Japanese did to him what smallpox could not: end his hopes of taking the gwageo.
In 1895 the political order of East Asia was reversed when the Japanese defeated the Chinese in the First Sino-Japanese War and supplanted Chinese influence in Korea. With Japanese troops occupying Seoul, Japanese diplomats pressured the Korean government into Japanese-style reforms. Among them was the end of the gwageo and its replacement with an exam that privileged more practical forms of knowledge.19 This reform ended what Rhee called in his autobiographical notes “the sacred hope of all the ambitious young Koreans” and the dream that he had spent his young life pursuing.20 In fact it was a blessing in disguise. The administration of the gwageo was so heavily influenced by family connections and gr...

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