History Korean History

The Continuum: How (Else) to Screw Up an Occupation

hodge-1945.jpgA frequent criticism of the American occupation of Iraq was the “decision” to disband the Iraqi Army.  It’s been said in response that there wasn’t much to disband by the time we reached Baghdad, anyway, and that decision was distinct from (though not unrelated to) our failure to prevent Iraqis from looting their own capital. 

What if we’d done things badly in exactly  the opposite  different way?  Time’s wonderful archives take us back to events  that have  brought us  grief ever since  —  that very  brief interlude of joint U.S.-Japanese occupation in Seoul:

Meanwhile, Lieut. General John R. Hodge, unbriefed on Korea, landed there. The directive he had not seen told him to replace Japanese officials immediately. Hodge retained the Japs, including the notorious General Nobuyuki Abe [picture, wiki], ex-Governor of Korea, whom he thanked publicly for making the U.S. occupation “simple and easy.” Hodge also kept the Japanese police, holding that Koreans were “too excited” to perform police duty and that they were “the same breed of cat as the Japanese.” Koreans roared and rioted (Japanese soldiers machine-gunned one throng, killed two, wounded ten.)

Even before Hodge arrived they had been in a ferment. U.S. planes had dropped leaflets with Korean translations of the Cairo declaration promising Korea independence “in due course.” The Korean translation of “in due course” meant “in a few days.”

After 35 years of complete Japanese domination, Koreans were falling over themselves with pent-up political activity. One small boat met the U.S. convoy 20 miles offshore. In it was a Korean who nominated himself for Finance Minister.  [….]

In Seoul, General Hodge heard from General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo (which had heard from Washington). Hodge changed his policy, dismissed Abe and other high Jap Army officials.

U.S. prestige in Korea–and elsewhere–had suffered. Said the N.Y. Times: “A major error of political strategy and principle.”  [Time, Sept. 24, 1945]

I take several things from this, and the first is the great flaw of hindsight, the fact that  it never shows you  how badly things might have gone had you chosen a different course, or whether a good one even existed. 

The other thing I take from this is that General Hodge was an ass who  came to Korea with little knowledge of, or use for, Korea or its people.  Hodge’s ignorance sowed grudges that are held against America to this day.

Photo:   LTG Hodge with a Korean official, 1945, from dok1’s must-see flickr page.


  1. I’m with you on the basic idea presented here, but aren’t you, in a way, commiting the same sin with your final paragraph as you so artfully skewered but a moment earlier?

    Furthermore, at some point Koreans need to get over it–blaming this guy (even if he does deserve it and more) doesn’t excuse them for their present-day behavior. It’s of a piece with blaming present-day white Americans for the ill-will many blacks still feel about slavery, etc.

    Other than that, good post.


  2. I recommend reading The Coldest Winter where the book talks quite a bit about Hodge. Hodge probably wasn’t the best person to send to Korea but he had continually tried to get guidance and assistance from MacArthur on Korea and MacArthur kept blowing him off.

    Korea was really just an afterthought with little focus or attention from the US government. Japan was getting the bulk of the US’s attention where Korea was simply left to the whims of Syngman Rhee who Hodge absolutely detested. Hodge had actually tried to get MacArthur to reign in Rhee but once again he was blown off.

    After reading that book I think MacArthur is definitely more to blame for flawed early Korea policy then Hodge.



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