The Hijacked War
The Story of Chinese POWs in the Korean War
David Cheng Chang



ON THE MORNING OF JANUARY 20, 1954, a blaze of red, white, and blue emerged on the distant horizon at the 38th parallel, Korea. Along the frozen dirt road from Panmunjom to the southern boundary of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a contingent of Chinese prisoners of war (POWs) marched in columns of five, holding Chinese Nationalist “Blue Sky, White Sun, and Red Earth” flags and portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. As the marching feet drew closer to the newly erected Freedom Gate that separated the DMZ from South Korean territory, the prisoners’ singing of the Nationalist anthem grew louder.1

“Here they come,” US Marines waiting near the gate muttered. “Everybody get back and keep this road clear!” their captain shouted. “These guys have been waiting a long time for this.”2 Indeed, these former Chinese Communist troops had been held in United Nations Command (UNC) prisons for two to three years or more. Their refusal to return home to China had prolonged the Korean War for fifteen months and extended their own captivity for another 180 days after the armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.

“Dear Anti-Communist Heroes (fangong yishi), we have come from Taiwan to welcome you,” a Chinese Nationalist officer announced over a loudspeaker as the prisoners reached the gate at 8:52 a.m. “You are free now. Congratulations!” The POWs and the welcoming crowd erupted into jubilant cheers. Dozens of smartly dressed Nationalist officers, civilian dignitaries, and reporters greeted the prisoners with salutes and handshakes, with a giant portrait of Chiang Kai-shek smiling approvingly in the background.3

“Attention! Follow the UNC’s orders,” boomed a loudspeaker, “and fully cooperate with the American troops.”4 The prisoners were promptly guided to a loading area nearby, where hundreds of ten-wheel GMC trucks stood ready, and a US Army band played march music.

At 9:31 a.m. the first convoy, carrying 421 men, led by a jeep of the US Eighth Army, rumbled down the winding road toward Seoul and then Inchon, where fifteen US ships awaited. Braving frigid winds, exuberant prisoners pulled down the trucks’ canvas covers so that they could wave flags, sing songs, and shout cheers to throngs of South Korean and Chinese diaspora well-wishers lining the route. This scene was repeated over the next eighteen hours until the last of the 14,220 Taiwan-bound prisoners left the demilitarized zone at 2:45 a.m. on January 21.5

Zhang Yifu, a veteran Communist army doctor, reached Freedom Gate shortly after 4:00 p.m. First he saw the word “Welcome” in English and Chinese painted on the gate and then broadly smiling Nationalist officers and military policemen. “Words cannot describe my joy,” Zhang recalled. “My three-year prison life finally came to an end.”6

FIGURE 0.1. More than fourteen thousand CPV prisoners carry Nationalist flags and portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek as they march out from the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom, January 20, 1954. US National Archives.

As daylight gave way to darkness, hundreds of bonfires were lit in empty gasoline drums placed every sixty feet along the road from Panmunjom. “It was a spectacular sight, just like an airstrip illuminated at night,” marveled Chen Juntian, a young Nationalist military school cadet in the welcoming delegation and the painter of the giant Chiang portrait. As the night wore on, fierce wind and drizzling rain put out many bonfires; in their place, dozens of US jeeps and trucks were deployed with headlights beaming onto the road.7

In sharp contrast to the festive mood in the sunny morning, the prisoners now were walking or loping, weighted down with anxiety and fear. “They didn’t know what might happen after dark,” Chen reasoned, “as the Communists had threatened to sabotage their release.” Chen and fellow officers walked past the gate into the DMZ to comfort the POWs. When some prisoners saw the Nationalist emblem on Chen’s cap up close, they embraced him and broke into sobs, “We haven’t seen our officers for so long!” Chen could feel their tears and sweat despite the icy temperature. “Don’t be afraid,” he reassured them. “You’re safe now. Come this way.”8

FIGURE 0.2. Behind a row of barbed wire and US Marines, a giant portrait of Chiang Kai-shek bearing the slogan “Long Live President Chiang” greets POWs. The painter Chen Juntian, a Nationalist political school cadet, stands on a makeshift platform waving a Nationalist flag. US National Archives.

“The entire operation has gone extremely smoothly, and no untoward events are expected,” the Nationalist embassy in Seoul cabled Taipei in the early afternoon of January 20. “A decisive victory has been won in this political battle,” it declared.9 Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek agreed. “The Communists dare not intervene,” he recorded in his evening diary entry with calm brush strokes. He noted, “Upon its completion, this event will amount to a major victory for the anti-Communist coalition.”10

At 8:05 a.m. the next day, the first batch of five tank landing ships (LSTs) carrying 4,686 prisoners left Inchon harbor for Taiwan with the high tide, followed by a second batch of 4,517 men an hour later. The last group of 4,875 men set off at 3:45 p.m.11 To prevent a possible naval attack, US 7th Fleet warships escorted the convoy and the 5th Air Force provided air cover. As it turned out, the 900-mile, 88-hour voyage was uneventful—other than the accidental drowning of one man on the high seas.12

While they were on the East China Sea en route to Taiwan, at one minute after midnight on January 23, General John E. Hull, the UNC commander in chief, announced that these former prisoners “now have civilian status” and are “free men.”13 Although the Armistice Agreement specified that January 22, 1954, was the last day that the Neutral Nation Repatriation Commission (NNRC) had legal custody over prisoners refusing repatriation, the NNRC, led by India, had returned two days ahead of schedule 14,220 Chinese and 7,574 North Korean prisoners to the UNC, which immediately transferred them to the governments of Taiwan and South Korea.14 On January 23, the UNC formally completed the transfer ex post facto in a ceremony in Seoul.15 On the same day, 142 seriously ill and wounded Chinese POWs were flown to Taipei.16

The total number of Taiwan-bound Chinese POWs reached 14,342 as of June 1954.17 In the other direction, 7,109 men and one woman were repatriated to China, including 1,030 sick and wounded exchanged during the “Little Switch” in April 1953, 5,640 who were returned during the “Big Switch” in August and September, and 440 who were originally classified as non-repatriates but sought to return in the “Explanation” process from October to December 1953 and during the final release in January 1954.18 Among the last group of 440 men, 70 were those who asked the Indian Custodian Forces for repatriation to China on January 20 and 21, 1954. Also on these two final days, 12 other Chinese prisoners along with 74 North Koreans and 2 South Koreans chose to go to neutral nations.19

Events on January 23, 1954, marked the denouement of the two-year ideological, diplomatic, and military contest over the repatriation of prisoners, which had dominated the Korean War since early 1952 and continued for another 180 days after the armistice. The United States prevailed in upholding the policy of voluntary repatriation (or non-forcible repatriation) despite vehement opposition from the Chinese Communists. In the end, two-thirds of some 21,000 Chinese prisoners went to Nationalist Taiwan (the Republic of China, or the ROC), and only a third returned to Communist China (the People’s Republic of China, or the PRC).

More than 14,000 anti-Communist POWs went to Taiwan under the slogan of “Returning to Taiwan!” Among them, however, only two were Taiwanese; coincidentally, among the 7,110 repatriates to China, one was Taiwanese. Why did the Chinese prisoners make such starkly different choices? Why did some 14,000 men reject home and “return” to a place to which they had never been? Who were these men? Under what circumstances did they make their choices? Did they actually have a free choice as the term “voluntary repatriation” suggests? This book seeks to answer these questions.

The consequences of the Chinese prisoners’ choices and US policies were grave. In the last two years of the war, 12,300 Americans and at least 90,000 Chinese soldiers were killed in Korea, and at least 140,000 North Korean civilians died from escalated American bombings.20 It may be argued, although in an imprecise fashion, to secure one Chinese prisoner’s “freedom” not to return home but to go to Taiwan, nearly one American GI lost his life. On the other side, to deny such a “right” to one individual Chinese prisoner, more than six Chinese soldiers, ten North Korean civilians, and an unspecified number of North Korean troops were killed. These unsettling equations have apparently never entered the collective memories of Americans, Chinese, Taiwanese, or Koreans in the past six decades.

Remembered and Then Forgotten

Chiang Kai-shek woke up one hour later than usual on the morning of January 24, 1954. Apparently comforted by a flow of good news, he had enjoyed “the soundest sleep in recent years”—a decent nine hours for the sixty-seven-year-old, who had been troubled by insomnia for years.21 Following Chiang’s morning prayers, his son Ching-kuo—Taiwan’s de facto intelligence chief—came to report the safe arrival of the sick and wounded prisoners by air and the reception he had arranged for those coming by sea.

Over the next three days, 14,077 men completed their odyssey and disembarked at the port of Jilong.22 A rapturous reception was staged for these so-called “Anti-Communist Heroes,” one so grand and emotional that “only the V-J Day celebration of 1945 could match,” remarked General Lai Mingtang, who oversaw the prisoner transfer from Korea to Taiwan.23

Leading the welcoming crowd was Chiang Ching-kuo, the mastermind of the entire prisoner defection operations dating back to early 1951. In a mass rally on the dock, the prisoners presented to him seventeen Nationalist flags painted with their own blood. Chiang raised the flags and called out through a loudspeaker, “Treasure these flags painted with blood! Take them back to Nanjing! Take them back to Beiping!” The prisoners responded in unison, “Fight our way back to the mainland!”24 The Generalissimo’s son was seen wiping tears from his eyes.25

Chiang Kai-shek noted in his diary that the arrival of the prisoners constituted “a major victory in the struggle against Communism in the past two years.” In his “reflections of the week,” Chiang upgraded his assessment to “a significant psychological victory in the struggle against the Russians in the last five years.”26 He further elevated his claim in a cable to US president Dwight Eisenhower, calling it “the first significant victory of the democracies in their ten-year struggle against international Communism.”27

Chiang’s glowing assessment found an echo in Washington. In a National Security Council meeting on January 21, Allen Dulles, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the younger brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, remarked that the release of prisoners “constituted one of the greatest psychological victories so far achieved by the free world against Communism. Conversely, it amounted to a great loss of face for the Communists, particularly in light of their threats and warnings prior to the event.”28

Facing this humiliating outcome of the Korean War, the Chinese Communists could do nothing but fume with rage. In an editorial entitled “The Utter Failure of American ‘Psychological Warfare’”—with no irony intended—the Communist mouthpiece People’s Daily blustered: “The American aggressor’s barbarity and cruelty have far exceeded that of its predecessors, the German fascists. Now no one has any doubt about that.” It predicted that “since mankind’s court of justice did not spare the German fascists, certainly it will not spare the more vicious American aggressor.”29 Two days after the completion of the prisoners’ transfer to Taiwan, Premier Zhou Enlai issued a statement condemning the “complete political and moral bankruptcy of the United States.” He vowed, “No matter where these prisoners are forcibly detained, as long as the Americans do not retrieve them, we will not give up our prosecution of this crime!”30

Indeed, Beijing continued to pursue the issue well into the spring of 1954, when a conference was convened in Geneva to settle issues on the Korean peninsula and in Indochina. Zhou repeatedly raised the demand of retrieving POWs from Taiwan and South Korea, but found no sympathy among friends and foes alike. The North Korean foreign minister Nam Il—formerly the Communist chief delegate during the armistice talks at Panmunjom—made only perfunctory mention of the prisoners in his lengthy speeches.31 Coming to terms with the futility of their demand to reopen this issue, Chinese diplomats dropped the matter for good. Domestically, the Korean War prisoners, once prominently featured in official media between 1952 and early 1954, soon thereafter disappeared as if they had never existed.32 For a regime that has systematically used “national humiliation” (guochi) to mobilize the masses, Beijing decided not to remind its people of this particular case of indignity. Apparently, even for the master propagandists in Beijing, the history and memory of the Korean War prisoners have been too difficult and too sensitive to handle.

For Chinese Communist leaders, especially Zhou, however, the outcome of the war over prisoners was painful to swallow and too humiliating to forget. When US president Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972, his remark about North Vietnam’s detention of American POWs touched off Zhou’s outpouring of bitter memories. “In talking about prisoners of war,” Zhou interjected, “I want to mention something.” He reminded Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s vice president in the final year of the Korean War, that “the number of our prisoners who were coerced to go to Taiwan was not in [the] thousands, but up to ten thousand or more.” He pointed out that “we could have made a big issue . . . but we tolerated that” because “we thought it was not good to insist that the war continue over the question of prisoners”—a disingenuous claim that the North Koreans would certainly disagree with, as Chapter 10 will demonstrate. “It is a matter of history,” Zhou concluded, “but something very much in our hearts.”33 This apparently spontaneous emotional outburst from the premier, who was known for his steely self-discipline, reveals the severity of this unspeakable wound.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, Chiang Kai-shek—“the deadly enemy of the Chinese people” in Communist lingo—emerged victorious from the Korean War. The rise of Chinese anti-Communist prisoners in Korea enabled Chiang to play a pivotal role in the war without contributing a single troop on the ground. As it turned out, Taiwan became the main beneficiary of a war with no clear winners. Chiang’s once bankrupt and moribund regime was revitalized and renewed. The “defection” of 14,000 Communist prisoners to Taiwan provided a much-needed shot in the arm, boosting morale among the population and adding legitimacy to Chiang’s claim that the ROC was the only lawful government of China.

“These stout-hearted made history when they rejected Communism in favor of freedom at the risk of their lives,” Chiang said in a statement welcoming the “fourteen thousand brethren coming back from Korea.” Their choice “leaves no room for doubt,” he asserted. “Were the people on the mainland given the same chance, they, too, would not hesitate to fight for their freedom in the same heroic manner as has been demonstrated by these compatriots.”34 Nationalist foreign minister George K. C. Yeh made a similar case in the UN General Assembly in September: “That 80 percent of the Chinese prisoners of war should have decided to choose freedom at the risk of their own lives and those of their families is the strongest attestation of how the puppet Communist regime in Peiping is repudiated by the Chinese people behind the Iron Curtain.”35

This large-scale “defection” of Communist soldiers was a spectacular propaganda coup. Referring to them as “Fourteen Thousand Anti-Communist Heroes” or “Fourteen Thousand Witnesses” (of Communist tyranny), the Nationalist government repeatedly cited this episode to justify its UN representation in place of Communist China. For Beijing, it was not merely “a great loss of face,” but a major setback to its claim to legitimacy and popular support. Moreover, the Chinese Communists’ winning streak against the Nationalists ended here. “This is the one battle the Communists did not win,” Yeh declared.36 To remind its population of this victory, the Nationalist government made January 23 the “123 Freedom Day.” Throughout the Cold War, this day was commemorated each year with much fanfare in Taiwan.

In the United States, however, this supposedly moral victory went uncelebrated and was summarily forgotten. When the anti-Communist prisoners were released in January 1954, other than a short proclamation by UN commander General Hull in Tokyo praising these men as “living symbols providing hope of freedom to millions who still suffer under Communist oppression,” the US government was conspicuously silent.37 President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made no public statement. The aforementioned celebratory assessment by CIA chief Allen Dulles was unpublicized.

In the voluminous memoirs of President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson—the ultimate advocates of the voluntary repatriation policy—no mention was made of the prisoners’ final release.38 Their silence is puzzling especially given Truman’s self-righteous declaration in May 1952 that forcible repatriation “would be repugnant to the fundamental moral and humanitarian principles which underlie our action in Korea. . . . We will not buy an armistice by turning over human beings for slaughter or slavery.”39 Truman’s insistence on giving Chinese and North Korean prisoners the choice of not returning home effectively foreclosed any prospect of a timely armistice, prolonged the war, and eliminated any hope for his reelection. The stalemate in Korea devastated the Truman presidency, but in the end, his lofty principle prevailed. U. Alexis Johnson, then deputy assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, lauded Truman’s stand as “one of the greatest acts of moral courage” he had “witnessed in any President.”40 If so, why didn’t Truman celebrate—or at least acknowledge—this final moral victory? Given the fact that over 12,000 GIs had been killed since negotiations began and the only visible winner of the prolonged war was Chiang Kai-shek, Truman perhaps did not wish to be remembered for this final outcome of the war.

Neither did Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower claim victory in January 1954. Half a year earlier, however, he nearly did so. On the evening of July 26, 1953, Washington time—July 27 in Korea—Eisenhower made a radio and television address announcing the armistice. He first paid tribute to killed and wounded American soldiers who had sacrificed to “keep freedom alive upon the earth.” Then he went on to speak of American POWs: “Our thoughts turn also to those other Americans wearied by many months of imprisonment behind the enemy lines. The swift return of all of them will bring joy to thousands of families.” The next paragraph in his original prepared statement continued: “We think, too, of the enemy prisoners in our hands. We have steadfastly sustained their right to choose their own future, to live in freedom if they wish.” These last two sentences, however, were omitted from the actual address for unexplained reasons.41 Most likely, Eisenhower was advised to delete any reference to enemy prisoners that might lead the American public to perceive voluntary repatriation as an “exchange of Chinese lives for American lives.”42 Unfortunately, that very exchange is precisely what happened.

Admiral C. Turner Joy, senior delegate of the UNC armistice delegation, admitted in his 1955 memoir that the US policy of “voluntary repatriation” had “placed the welfare of ex-Communist soldiers above that of our own UNC personnel in Communist prison camps, and above that of our UNC personnel still on the battle line in Korea.”43 Had this realization dawned on the American public, not only would their support for the war have collapsed much earlier, but they would have questioned the entire war effort and the postwar commitment to Korea.

The US government chose not to remind the American people of the fact that enforcing voluntary repatriation had prolonged the war by fifteen months and increased its cost in terms of casualties of American and other UNC troops—45 percent of all American casualties occurred in the last two years—and longer captivity of UNC prisoners in enemy hands, during which more UNC prisoners died.44 Any suggestions linking enemy prisoners’ freedom to American prisoners’ extended captivity and additional casualties had to be avoided. This aversion is most clearly manifested in what was deleted from Eisenhower’s speech. It is also palpable in the suppression of Joy’s revelatory book on the Panmunjom negotiations, as General Matthew B. Ridgway, UNC commander in chief and Joy’s direct superior during the truce talks, observed that “there occurred an apparent concerted effort severely to limit public distribution and particularly to curtail its circulation among policy-makers in the Executive branch of our government.”45 In a supposedly democratic society with a free press, the US government managed to obscure the true casus belli for the second half of the war. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Korean War became “the forgotten war.”

The limited Western scholarship on Korean War POWs consists mostly of diplomatic history accounts relying on US diplomatic and military documents, while the Chinese and Korean prisoners themselves—the central subject in the second half of the war—remain nameless, faceless, and characterless masses. Only in recent years, the works of Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, and Monica Kim began to give more focus to the prisoners.46

The prisoners have fared no better in Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean scholarship. The POW issue has remained off limits to scholars in the PRC as Beijing has regarded it as a major humiliation, even to this day. In authoritarian Taiwan and South Korea, the POW issue was also too sensitive to be freely examined. In the post-democratization era, it has largely been forgotten as a subject of the bygone era of Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee.

This scholarly neglect is a reflection of a larger amnesia: the Korean War over prisoners has been virtually forgotten by all belligerent countries, politicians, and scholars alike. Is this historical amnesia a result of the Korean War having become a “forgotten war?” Or has the war over prisoners been willfully forgotten, and perhaps even the very reason why the war became forgotten? This book suggests the latter. Forgetting, Nietzsche remarked, “is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression.”47

Most ironically, the United States and the PRC—the two sworn enemies in the Korean War and the ensuing Cold War—were unwitting accomplices in creating and maintaining this amnesia through their respective obfuscations, distortions, cover-ups, and censorship. The only place where the anti-Communist prisoners were once remembered was Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, but that memory was also tightly managed and censored.

Two Korean Wars: The First over Territory, the Second over Prisoners

In Korean War historiography the POW issue is invariably identified as the central bone of contention in the second half of the war, but surprisingly little attention has been paid to this half of the war. Many scholars have examined the origins of the war, yet the vast majority of both scholarly and popular history books concentrate on the first half—from the outbreak of the war to China’s intervention, and to General Douglas MacArthur’s dismissal—as epitomized by David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, whose narrative ends with the Truman-MacArthur controversy.48 Bruce Cumings has noted that American historians’ varying interpretations of the war largely agree on a split verdict: “the first Korean War, the war for the south in the summer of 1950, was a success. The second war, the war for the north, was a failure.”49 This understanding—leaving out the last two years of the war—highlights a collective amnesia.

This book suggests a new two-war formulation. The first Korean War was fought over territory, including the war for the south from June 25 to September 1950, the war for the north from October to December of 1950, and the war above and below the 38th parallel from January to June 1951. The second Korean War was fought over prisoners from late 1951 to July 1953—a period of negotiating while fighting, as the fate of the POWs quickly emerged as the main stumbling block in the armistice negotiations.

The Korean War lasted for three years, one month and two days, but the armistice negotiations occupied more than two of those years, from July 10, 1951, to July 27, 1953. In the last two years, after 575 meetings at the negotiating table and a tremendous number of casualties on both sides, the final armistice line barely budged a few miles north or south from the battle line of July 1951. What prevented an agreement for so long was the deadlock over the repatriation of the 21,000 Chinese prisoners, especially the some 14,000 anti-Communist prisoners. The North Korean POWs, numbering some 150,000, were less of an issue, as Kim Il-sung had begun to seek an end to the hopeless war in early 1952, only to be overruled by Mao Zedong and, ultimately, Joseph Stalin. If not for the Americans’ insistence on voluntary repatriation—or more precisely, their inability to return a sufficiently large number of Chinese prisoners to Communist China—the war most likely would have ended by early or mid-1952. In early February 1952, Acheson belatedly realized that POW repatriation “will shortly become the sole remaining fundamental issue in the Korean armistice negotiations.”50

From late February 1952, when Truman made his final decision to uphold voluntary repatriation, to early June 1953, when both sides signed the Terms of Reference on prisoner exchange, fifteen months of war—and the sudden death of Stalin in March 1953—were required to force the Chinese Communists to accept voluntary repatriation.

To justify the extension of the war and its resultant additional costs in lives and treasure, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asserted after the war that the United States and its allies had fought for two principles in Korea: “to throw back the aggressor to his original boundaries or beyond; and the non-forcible repatriation of prisoners and political asylum for those not wishing to return.”51 The first objective had been accomplished by mid-1951, but it took fifteen months to impose the second principle on the Communists and another 180 days to grant the prisoners political asylum.

Contrary to the Communist allegation of an American conspiracy, the two final outcomes of the war over prisoners—the fifteen-month extension of the Korean War and the “defection” of some 14,000 Chinese POWs to Taiwan—were unintended and unplanned by Washington. Instead, they were the result of major policy blunders made by the Truman-Acheson administration and inherited by Eisenhower. There was no American conspiracy, as conspiracies would have required substantial knowledge, foresight, and planning, all of which were largely absent from US POW policies—from their conception to implementation and conclusion.

The Truman-Acheson administration’s arrogance, ignorance, and negligence led the United States to adopt inherently self-contradictory policies. While the US government was seeking peace through the Panmunjom talks, two other policies at cross purposes were being implemented: prisoner reindoctrination and voluntary repatriation. These two policies—the first being covert and the second overt—were separately conceived, but became fatefully intertwined.

The US government became hostage to its own moralistic but ultimately hypocritical policy of voluntary repatriation and to Chinese anti-Communist prisoners, whose ascendancy in UNC prison camps was the direct result of the runaway “success” of American psychological warfare programs. By the time top US officials belatedly realized the gravity of the prisoner issue, the United States found itself riding a tiger of its own making, from which it was impossible to dismount. In the end, only Chiang Kai-shek could tame the tiger by taking it to Taiwan in triumph. In a sense, the brightest minds of the mightiest power on earth were taken captive by the captives—a reality so embarrassing that the US government had to hide it from the American people.

The curious history of the policy of voluntary repatriation has been scrutinized by a handful of scholars.52 Less studied are the prisoner reindoctrination and exploitation programs as part of the larger US psychological/political warfare project against the Soviet bloc.53 The interplay of the two policies remains unexamined, but it is the key to the question of how the United States dug itself into such an inextricable hole on the prisoner issue.

Predating the voluntary repatriation policy, the prisoner reindoctrination program was a natural offshoot of the political/psychological warfare programs that American Cold War architect George F. Kennan and China Hand John Paton Davies had advocated since the late 1940s. In early September 1950, it became a national policy mandated by National Security Council (NSC) document 81/1 as a corollary policy of the rollback strategy to unify Korea and also a part of the global psychological war against Communism. It was drafted mainly by the State Department, approved by Truman, enthusiastically supported by Acheson, and energetically implemented by MacArthur and his successors, Matthew B. Ridgway and Mark W. Clark.

President Truman approved NSC-81/1 on September 11, 1950, four days before the Inchon landing (see Chapter 4) and well before the Chinese intervention in late October. The prisoner reindoctrination/exploitation program’s original targets were the North Koreans. However, the program was expanded in spring 1951 to cover Chinese POWs—a decision arrived at as if by default and supported by both military and civilian leaders, including Acheson. It was only after MacArthur’s dismissal in April 1951 that the prisoner reindoctrination program was implemented on a large scale and included Chinese POWs. So effective was the program in converting prisoners into “avowed anti-Communists” that the majority of Chinese POWs refused repatriation and demanded to be sent to Taiwan—a logical outcome anticipated by none of the policymakers in Washington.

The greatest surprise in the second half of the Korean War came in April 1952, when some 19,000 Chinese POW were interviewed, more than 14,000 declared that they would violently resist repatriation. While Communist negotiators were stunned by the result and cried conspiracy, the Americans were equally shocked but feigned nonchalance in public, lest their surprise betray their ignorance, miscalculation, and mismanagement of the prisoner issue.

Remarkably, American, Chinese Communist, and Nationalist intelligence sources independently arrived at the same estimate that 3,000 bona fide Chinese anti-Communist prisoners dominated and controlled the rest of the alleged anti-Communist prisoners. What can explain the fact that this small core of anti-Communist prisoners defeated more than 7,000 Communist Party and Youth League members, and dominated the Chinese camps?54

The Chinese Prisoners Who Hijacked the Korean War

One popular explanation is that most Chinese prisoners were former Nationalist troops captured by the Communists and pressed into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949. When Mao sent these conscripts to Korea as cannon fodder, it was thought they would naturally attempt to escape, and their capture or surrender in Korea would present a rare opportunity. In fact, Nationalist military service history did not dictate prisoners’ repatriation outcome. Prisoners with similar experiences made divergent choices.

Conspiracy was the Communists’ explanation. They consistently alleged that the United States plotted with Taiwan and South Korea to intimidate and coerce Communist prisoners. The Americans had “made use of the Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee special agents to perpetrate all kinds of criminal activities in the prisoner-of-war camps,” Chinese negotiator Chai Chengwen charged in Panmunjom.55 Assuming the worst of the Americans, Chai asserted that “the only possible explanation” for the insistence on voluntary repatriation was an American scheme to use it “as a guise” to retain prisoners and to “turn them over to the Chiang Kai-shek brigands on Taiwan . . . for the purpose of enlarging the war and get[ting] more cannon fodder.”56

From the Chinese Communists’ perspective, judging from the sequence of events, this conclusion made perfect sense. They could neither believe in Truman’s desire for peace nor appreciate the predicament he was facing. This book will demonstrate, however, that Truman made his decision on voluntary repatriation independently, without considering the US Army’s psychological warfare proposal dated July 5, 1951, five days before the armistice negotiations commenced, whose timing naturally raises suspicions of a conspiracy. The proposal’s defining feature—the disposition of some Chinese prisoners to Taiwan—was never discussed by Truman or Acheson at any point throughout their tenure, even though Taiwan was the only possible destination for a large number of Chinese anti-Communist prisoners. This absence of any discussion on the final disposal of Chinese anti-Communist POWs was one of the most striking absurdities of Truman-Acheson policy making.

This book demonstrates that, contrary to conspiracy theories, the lack of American planning and foresight was the very reason for the rise of anti-Communist prisoners. First and foremost, Truman and Acheson’s visceral antipathy for Chiang Kai-shek precluded the possibility of an American conspiracy to send Chinese prisoners to Taiwan, as doing so would only vindicate their Republican critics. The American chief negotiator Joy once observed that the Chinese Communists’ hatred of Chiang was “so intense as to border on psychotic.”57 Yet the same remark could also apply to Truman and Acheson’s loathing of the Generalissimo. In fact, precisely because of Washington’s aversion to being associated with Chiang, throughout the war the United States made no promise to prisoners that they would be sent to Taiwan. Therefore, a bizarre phenomenon emerged: while on the one hand, the United States was carrying out a rigorous prisoner reindoctrination program designed to convert POWs into “avowed anti-Communists,” on the other, it planned, at least initially, to send these new converts back to China, with an eye on their “future use as a nucleus for democratization.”58

Such contradictory policies put all Chinese prisoners in an increasingly precarious situation. All prisoners feared Communist reprisal after repatriation, including not only hardcore anti-Communists, who had risked their lives to defect on the battlefield, but also Communists and neutrals, who had been coerced by anti-Communist prisoners to participate in anti-Communist activities. Impelled by this fear, many Communist and neutral POWs opted to go along with the dominant faction, taking a chance on their uncertain future in UNC prisons and thereafter.

In the end, the very success of US psychological warfare—symbolized by the “defection” of 14,000 Chinese prisoners to Taiwan—gave a new lease on life to Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, whose demise Truman, Acheson, and Davies had long predicted and, in fact, eagerly anticipated. That is one of greatest ironies in the history of US-China relations and the Korean War.

Second, the policy of voluntary repatriation had largely dominated the war agenda by early 1952, three months after Truman first indicated his preference for it in late October 1951. Strangely, at no time during 1952 did Truman and his advisors discuss the obvious contradictions inherent in this policy. The very concept of prisoners making free choices is self-contradictory by definition. Needless to say, prison is not a democratic institution where individuals can freely express their will. Chinese negotiator Chai rightly challenged the Americans: “Under your military control, how could there be the conditions for expression of free will and purpose?” He went on to assert, “I think that in your hearts you yourselves are also aware that your proposition is in no way justifiable.” Chai’s suspicion was not unwarranted. UNC chief negotiator Joy conceded after the war: “To require prisoners to make a highly important and permanent choice under the conditions of imprisonment was to ask of them a decision they were probably not best prepared to make.”59 Similarly, General Boatner, an Old China Hand and the UNC prison commandant in summer 1952, considered it “unrealistic to expect a free and voluntary decision from men being held prisoner by those they had been fighting only a few months earlier,” and all the more so when these men “had never had the experience of choosing a political leader or a form of government.”60 When prisoners were totally dependent on their captors for food and survival, their decisions were highly susceptible to influences from the prison authorities, whose own position was far from neutral. Yet, no documentary evidence indicates that Truman’s advisors alerted him to these obvious complications, even though some of them were aware of the endemic coercion, violence, and anarchy in UNC prisons.

Truman’s lack of intellectual curiosity and his penchant for simplistic moralizing, coupled with the inattentiveness and subservience of his advisors, Acheson in particular, led him to adopt a self-righteous moralistic policy that, once announced, immediately became irrevocable. By the time top officials in the State and Defense departments realized the complexity and gravity of the issue, it was already too late to reverse course. Rather than informing Truman of the unpleasant truth and admitting their neglect and miscalculation, these officials withheld key facts from the president. Nor did Truman ask for details. Shielded from the stark facts in UNC prisons, Truman was spared the agony of facing the moral dilemma that full knowledge would have thrust upon him. With ignorance and certitude substituting for evidence and analysis, Truman upheld voluntary repatriation.

By framing the prisoner repatriation issue as a matter of moral principle, the US government sought to extract a propaganda victory—as a substitute for a military victory—out of a morass emanating from a series of blunders, as historians Barton Bernstein, Rosemary Foot, and Charles Young have argued.61 To impose America’s will on the Chinese Communists, Truman and Eisenhower brought America’s military might to bear on Communist troops and North Korean civilians. While ostensibly promising freedom to Communist prisoners, voluntary repatriation mainly served to cover up US policy predicaments. It not only prevented the early return of American and other UNC prisoners, but also resulted in horrendous casualties on all sides, especially among North Korean civilians. All these tragic consequences, however, were unnecessary and could have been avoided had Truman and Acheson understood the Chinese Communists’ extreme sensitivity to the POW question and the residual appeal of the Chinese Nationalists among a significant minority of the Chinese population. Ironically, Truman’s National Security Council staff dismissed the prisoner issue as an unimportant, nonpolitical question from the outset.62

This book reveals the reality beneath historical fiction: the US policy of voluntary repatriation promised freedom to Chinese prisoners, but it actually denied the right of many to return home. In peace talks, Washington’s initial toying with voluntary repatriation quickly hardened into an irreversible moralistic principle; on Koje Island, prisoner reindoctrination enabled some 3,000 Chinese diehard anti-Communists to hijack fellow POWs. The lopsided screening results in April 1952 presented Washington with a fait accompli that it found impossible to disown. In May Truman presented this fait accompli to the Communists, who in turn rejected it. In short, to the Americans’ great surprise and chagrin, the mighty US government’s control over the war agenda was wrested away by a bunch of prisoners and Chiang’s tottering regime in exile. The Chinese anti-Communist prisoners had thus effectively hijacked the Korean War.


This book’s two main sources are archival documents and oral history interviews. The US National Archives’ extensive collection of diplomatic, military, and intelligence documents related to Korean War prisoners includes the complete rosters of 21,000 Chinese POWs, in-depth interrogation reports of more than a thousand individual Chinese prisoners, and dozens of investigation reports on incidents including murders, assassinations, and riots. Multiple archives in Taiwan are a rich source of diplomatic and military documents that shed light on the clandestine operations waged by Chiang Kai-shek and his agents in Korea.

In the PRC, though archive access remains extremely restricted, nonofficial sources have proved to be a treasure trove. Repatriated prisoners have published extensively since the 1990s. The most valuable source is an unpublished three-volume document compiled by a former senior editor of the PLA Literature and Art, containing the dossier entries and oral histories of approximately four hundred Communist prisoners, including all the leaders, all of whom have passed away.63

Since 2007, I have interviewed eighty-four former prisoners, including twenty-nine in the PRC, fifty in Taiwan, one in the United States, and four in Argentina and Brazil (one Chinese and three North Koreans). I have also interviewed a former interrogator in Taiwan and a translator and a prison guard in the United States. Many interviewees also shared letters, diaries, memoirs, and photos.

For eighteen of the eighty-four interviewed former prisoners, I have full interrogation records produced by the UNC between 1950 and 1952. Upon careful comparison, I found their recent oral history accounts highly consistent with their interrogation narratives. The possibility of a former prisoner producing consistently false narratives sixty years apart is slim.

Benefiting from multiple sources for most interviewees, these oral history accounts provide meaningfully detailed substantive information. Interviewees include eyewitnesses to several major incidents: the collapse of the Chinese 180th Division and its commanders’ cowardly escape in May 1951, the murder of a former college student and pro-Communist on the eve of the prisoner screening in April 1952, and the bloody crackdown on Communist demonstrations on October 1, 1952, which resulted in fifty-six deaths, as told by Private Patrick Vigil, who had fired into the crowd.

The history of Chinese POWs in the Korean War grows out of several interconnected stories. First is the tale of young men caught up in the Civil War on mainland China between the Nationalists (KMT) and the Communists (CCP) that waxed and waned for more than two decades, beginning in the late 1920s—with an uneasy interlude of a united front during the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance from 1937 to 1945—and reaching its apogee in the years immediately following World War II. Second is the story of the troubled relationship between the United States and China during and after World War II, culminating in the defeat of the Nationalists and triumph of the Communists in 1949 and the latter’s intervention in the Korean conflict a year later. Third is the development in the United States of a psychological warfare strategy designed to undermine support for Communism abroad in the midst of the escalating Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, manifesting in the form of prisoner reindoctrination programs—or brainwashing, American style. Finally, there is the story of a flawed decision-making process in Washington that produced an ill-informed, misguided policy on the disposition of Korean War prisoners known as “voluntary repatriation.”

This story of Chinese POWs unfolds shortly after VJ Day.


1. The following description of the event is based on multiple sources: NYT, Jan. 20–21, 1954; Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 20, 1954; South China Morning Post, Jan. 21, 1954; Time, Feb. 1, 1954; Life, Feb. 1, 1954, 8–11; Lai Mingtang, “Report by Liaison Team for the reception of Non-repatriates in Korea,” in FGSL, 1:324–45, 375–78; Fang, Wo sheng zhi lu, 109.

2. Time, Feb. 1, 1954.

3. Ibid.; NYT, Jan. 20, 1954, 1; Life, Feb. 1, 1954, 8–11; FFDS, 221.

4. FFDS, 221.

5. FGSL, 1:336.

6. Chang, “Zhang Yifu’s Oral History Records,” 148.

7. Chen Juntian interview, June 4, 2015.

8. Ibid.

9. Nationalist embassy to Taipei, telegram, Jan. 20, 1954, 633.43-0008-532805, TWJSS.

10. CKSD, Jan. 20, 1954.

11. FGSL, 1:337–38.

12. Ibid., 344. In a separate collision in Inchon, twenty-eight US Marines were drowned and killed. See Time, Feb. 1, 1954.

13. NYT, Jan. 23, 1954.

14. The number of North Koreans is from Time, Feb. 1, 1954.

15. FGSL, 1:341–42.

16. Ibid., 339–40.

17. Chiang Ching-kuo to Chiang Kai-shek, June 1954, 0001238900090052w, TWGFB.

18. Hermes, Truce Tent, 514–15. On “Explanation,” see Chapter 14.

19. FGSL, 1:342.

20. Acheson, Present at the Creation, 652. The Chinese death figure is a minimum estimate that equals half of the total deaths of 180,000 (see Xu, “Zhongguo xisheng,” 83). The Korean civilian death toll is a minimum estimate that equals half of the total deaths of 280,000 (see Memorandum by USSR embassy to North Korea, Mar. 1954, in CZED, 1341).

21. CKSD, Jan. 24, 1954.

22. FGSL, 1:384.

23. Lai Mingtang Oral History (Taipei: Academia Historica, 1994), 169.

24. FFDS, 234. In 1928, Beijing (“Northern Capital”) was renamed “Beiping/Peiping” (“Northern Peace”) by the Nationalist government, whose capital was Nanjing/Nanking (“Southern Capital”).

25. Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son, 219.

26. CKSD, Jan. 24, 1954.

27. FGSL, 2:327.

28. FRUS 1952–1954, 15:1730.

29. RMRB, Jan. 25, 1954.

30. Ibid., Jan. 30, 1954.

31. Ibid., Apr. 30 and May 5, 1954; Chaoxian wenti wenjian huibian, 2:290–432.

32. After mid-1954, the Korean War POW issue rarely was mentioned in People’s Daily. The last time was October 27, 1957.

33. FRUS 1969–1976, 17:774.

34. FGSL, 2:336–37.

35. Yeh’s speech, Sept. 27, 1954, 633.05–0006-445388, TWJSS. Yeh inflated the percentage.

36. Ibid.

37. NYT, Jan. 23, 1954, 1.

38. Truman, Memoirs; Acheson, Present at the Creation and The Korean War.

39. Truman, “Statement by the President on General Ridgway’s Korean Armistice Proposal,” May 7, 1952, in Woolley and Peters, American Presidency Project,

40. Johnson, The Right Hand of Power, 130.

41. Eisenhower, “Radio and Television Address to the American People Announcing the Signing of the Korean Armistice,” July 26, 1953, in Woolley and Peters, American Presidency Project,; Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 190–91.

42. The expression is from NSC staffer Mallory Browne, “The Strategic Significance of Involuntary POW Repatriation in Korea,” Feb. 1952, Psychological Strategy Board Files, TL, cited in Young, Name, Rank, and Serial Number, 177.

43. Joy, How Communists Negotiate, 152.

44. Acheson, Present at the Creation, 652.

45. Joy, Negotiating While Fighting, vii.

46. Major works focusing on the POW issue include, Bernstein, “The Struggle over the Korean Armistice”; Foot, A Substitute for Victory; Young, Name, Rank, and Serial Number. Other works that contain chapters on the issue: MacDonald, Korea; Stueck, The Korean War. In Brothers at War, Jager devotes a chapter to the Korean as well as UN POWs; Morris-Suzuki, “Prisoner Number 600,001”; Kim, The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War.

47. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 57–58, quoted in Cumings, Origins of the Korean War, 2:767.

48. Cumings, Origins of the Korean War, 2; Shen, “Sino-Soviet Relations and the Origins of the Korean War”; Halberstam, Coldest Winter.

49. Cumings, The Korean War: A History, 229.

50. FRUS 1952–1954, 15:35.

51. Ibid., 1506.

52. Bernstein, “The Struggle over the Korean Armistice”; Foot, A Substitute for Victory; Stueck, The Korean War; Young, Name, Rank, and Serial Number.

53. Foot, A Substitute for Victory, 108–18; Robin, The Making of the Cold War Enemy, 124–61; Tovy, “Manifest Destiny in POW Camps.”

54. According to Nationalist statistics, 4,628 Taiwan-bound POWs renounced their membership in the Communist Party or the Youth League (Whiting, “The New Chinese Communist,” 593). Of the 7,110 POWS repatriated to China, 2,900 were CCP members (He, Zhongcheng, 138).

55. Joy, How Communists Negotiate, 140.

56. Joy, Negotiating While Fighting, 333.

57. Ibid., 335.

58. Glavin to McClure, Feb. 28, 1951, Box 19, Special Warfare, RG 319, NA.

59. Joy, How Communists Negotiate, 141, 151.

60. Haydon L. Boatner, “Prisoners of War: Have U.S. Policies Protected Americans in Asia?” (c. 1967), unpublished typewritten draft, 19, Box 2, Boatner Papers, Hoover Archives.

61. Bernstein, “The Struggle over the Korean Armistice,” 282; MacDonald, Korea, 144; Foot, A Substitute for Victory, 126–29; Young, Name, Rank, and Serial Number, 177.

62. Gordon Gray, “Preliminary Report on the Situation with Respect to Repatriation of Prisoners of War,” Oct. 19, 1951, CIA-RDP80R01731R003200010023-5, CIA-FOIA files.

63. “Andeshe.”