Gregory Henderson Reporting on a Massacre

I’ve recently been looking through 한국전쟁과 집단학살 (Organized Massacres and the Korean War) by 김기진. The work focuses primarily on crimes against civilians carried out by United States forces or Korean forces and has a large section which reproduces, in a regretfully somewhat badly edited form, a lot of US archival documents found at the National Archives.

My impression, and that is all this is since this is not my area of expertise, is that the documents themselves don’t really reveal anything earth-shatteringly new. A lot of the documents included reproduce contemporary media reports of atrocities and consist of internal debates about investigations into whether the accusations are true, or are responses to letters by the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

I was interested in these conveniently collected documents for a number of reasons, but one of the documents in the collection that may be of interest to readers here was responding to a report submitted by Gregory Henderson on an alleged atrocity against forty captured “Communists” many months before the opening of the most violent stage of the Korean War in June of 1950.

Gregory Henderson

Henderson had a long career working in the Foreign Service in Korea and later became one of the leading Korea scholars in the United States, most famous for his work, The Politics of the Vortex. He passed away in 1988. In addition to his government service and scholarship, he was also an avid collector of Korean art, which became an issue of some controversy for a time.

When the North launched a full invasion in 1950, Henderson was US Vice Consol but his imprint can be seen all over US diplomatic records in the years before and long after the Korean war. Two quick examples: when I was looking through RG59 State Department records at the National Archives a few years ago I found a summary of discussions between Henderson and Kim Koo in a March 8th, 1949 RG59 report sent back to the US. The report noted in its conclusion of Henderson’s encounter that, regarding Kim’s ambitious efforts to pursue dialog with the North, “The general consensus among high Korean officials is that Mr. Kim Koo is a pure opportunist and capable of resorting to any kind of machination to achieve power.”

Henderson was certainly no friend to Communism and knew what their forces were capable of. In one report included in 김기진 collection, he reports on the “Communist Conviction Machine” and the horrible executions carried out in areas occupied by North Korean forces.1 He also saw Communists in strange places. Many years after the Korean War, in a report he prepared for the CIA, entitled “A Study On The Influence Of Communists On The Korean Government” he came very close to suggesting Park Chung-hee and many of his associates were either Communists or fellow travelers. The accusations seem strange now in retrospect but in his claims in the report we see some stretching of the facts on Henderson’s part, which might be good to keep in mind when reading other documents by him.

Over 100,000 Killed

One of the things that Henderson gets mentioned the most for online and in various publications is for a statement he made about the violence in the early stage of the Korean war by forces of the South, claiming that “probably over 100,000” people had been killed without appropriate legal process. I have never read the full original quote by Henderson so it is always unclear to me exactly how the number is delimited and situated in time and context.2

I find the almost obligatory mention of this quote in most accounts of wartime atrocities by the US and South Korean forces frustrating. Using it out of context and without any further backing is just lazy scholarship aiming to imprint a large number on the reader. It can detract from other more persuasive evidence that can be found in the archives. I was pleasantly surprised to come across a bit more detail of Henderson’s observations before and during itself in 김기진’s book and quote one of these documents in full below.

From the document we learn that Henderson has passed on a shocking anecdote about the killing of forty “Communists” and an equally disturbing quote by a Lieutenant on the scene in the fall of 1949 (before the North’s invasion). If the story is true, it is a damning example of the use of “People’s Courts,” usually associated with Communist occupations, by South Korean forces, depending on the identity of the “Communists” involved, military participation in a case of civilian massacre. If the “Communists” were all armed guerrillas, the incident would hardly redeem the forces involved and would join dozens of similar incidents taking place in Cheju and all over Korea, especially from 1947-1953.

It is also worth noting that, if true, this anti-Communist “people’s court” was set up about a year after similar courts set up by pro-Communist mutinous forces in the Yŏsu Rebellion came to dominate the headlines in the South Korean media in October 1948 but before the most infamous people’s courts set up by North Korean forces in Seoul and all over the south when they occupied most of the peninsula through the summer of 1950.

Also interesting in this report is the US “investigation” into the accusation. This report may not include a complete summary of the investigation, but if it is, then it is very dissatisfying attempt to get to the truth of the matter.3 It is hard, of course, to make any hard conclusions about the incident without knowing more about how Henderson got the information about the incident beyond the quote of the Lieutenant, or without other independent sources.

Here is the full document as quoted in 김기진’s book on p418:

RG 3384 , Box 24 File 338-3006

United States Military Advisory Group to the Republic of Korea
Office of the Chief | 7 October 1949
Memorandum to American Ambassador:
Subject: Report of Gregory Henderson dated 6 September 1949

On September 6, Henderson’s report to you entitled “Conditions at Odaesan” I find that he made this statement:

“Some weeks ago, around July 20th, some forty Communists had been captured by the Army as a result of a joint operation of several units. A local ‘people’s court’ had been allowed to ‘try’ most of them. The inhabitants had shown their anti-Communism by condemning all of them to death. “They were used,” the Lieutenant reported zealously, “as targets to increase the courage of our soldiers.” Apparently bayonet practice is taken up rather seriously by this unit.

“The Lieutenant was proud of his work and of his unit. The men were now, he said, engaged in picking out good positions for the winter.”

This did not smell very good and the letter was addressed to the Senior Adviser, 8th Division, to investigate it. A formal investigation was made. Results of that investigation are as follows:

Briefly the company concerned was on 20 July located at Hajinburi. Lt. Kim, the commander, stated he did not make the statement quoted above, had no knowledge of forty Communists being captured by the Army and no knowledge of People’s courts and that his company did not execute prisoners. The chief of police stated that he was stationed at on 20 July but it’s not have any knowledge of 40 Communists being captured by Army and that they did not have any peoples courts or executions there. As two records, the 10th Regiment revealed nothing of this incident. To the best knowledge of the 10th Regiment, 40 Communists have never been taken at any one time.

  1. See pages 43 and 259 in 한국전쟁과 집단학살.  

  2. Is this statement made in his The Politics of the Vortex, Cambridge, Mass., 1968, p. 167? I have seen one footnote pointing here but I don’t have the book.  

  3. There is, for example, no mention of an attempt to interview locals at Odaesan about the incident.  

  4. National Archives Record Group 338 is “United States Army Commands, 1942- ”  


  1. Interesting historiographical puzzle there: a clear, detailed story, with no documentary support. Under the circumstances, it would be interesting to see if you could figure out just how good the record-keeping of the Army and police during those years was: is their lack of documentation at all dispositive?

    The line about “bayonet practice” is chilling, indeed.

  2. I unfortunately don’t have time to pursue it but as a warning to anyone who does, it could well be that this is the only fragment out there on this incident. Many Korean scholars interested in US/South Korean atrocities to assume from the absence of report A, B, or C in the US national archives that there is some cover up, but, as a military archivist at NARA explained to me, for a lot of records, what is actually preserved in hte archives may only amount to 5% of the total paper initially generated by military and government sources. That doesn’t bode well for putting together the pieces of any individual story with a small paper footprint and it is always exciting when it actually succeeds.

    The same goes for the RG242 captured North Korean documents I really loved going through. Despite their huge number, soldiers apparently dumped huge amounts of materials on tables, grabbed anything that looked like it might have some value, and left behind a large amount of material.

  3. The original quote indeed comes from “The Politics of the Vortex,” p. 167:
    “Such traditions [of summary trials] died hard. The Korean War stimulated the process by bringing floods of cases against those
    arrested on charges of collaboration with the Communist occupiers. … Additional tens of thousands – probably over 100,000 –
    were killed without any trial whatsoever when ROK soldiers and the Counter-Intelligence Corps recaptured such areas of leftist
    repute as Yonggwang …”
    A note at the end of this paragraph refers to “UNCURK, which detailed many [problems in the administration of justice] in GAOR,
    sixth Session, Supplement No. 12 (A/1881), 1951, pp. 20-22.”
    I don’t know what these acronyms stand for; in any case, there is clearly no further information as to how he arrives at
    these figures.

  4. A good post. I always get suspicious of round numbers, and 40 is suspiciously round. The context, as noted above, is also missing. When reports are entered into intelligence channels, there is supposed to be an effort to qualify the information by laying out the reporter’s level of access to the information, their motive for reporting it, and their assessed reliability. Unfortunately, not all information entered into official channels is subjected to this scrutiny. Often competing staff sections will receive different reports, which they push into the system for their own purposes. Here we have the Vice Consul (Dept of State) receiving a report from a Host Nation military source, which properly should have gone to his Military Attache (Dept of Defence, but working directly for the Ambassador), which was duly pushed into military channels (The Divisional Advisory Detachment, which was under KMAG, a military headquarters responsible to a military chain of command). Small wonder that finding related documents has proven difficult. The line about bayonet practice conjures up images of the Japanese Imperial Army at Shanghai. It may even be true, but Henderson does not clarify whether or not these words are the source’s, or his own “obiter dicta”.

  5. I agree with all the problems you mentioned. I am, however, not familiar with all the procedures you have described, which is certainly helpful clarification. It shows that having a more intimate understanding of the appropriate channels of communication within an institutional structure can be important for historians to make the most out of these kinds of documents. Thanks very much for your contribution.

  6. One more point I was unaware of. Henderson, as Vice Consul, was not a “diplomat” under the strict interpretation of that term. He may have enjoyed diplomatic immunity, but his day to day duties would have involved dealing with U.S. trade, visas, and citizenship issues, as opposed to the heavier “diplomatic” issues handled by the Ambassador, his Chief of Mission, and those assigned “diplomatic duties” within the Embassy. That he was interested in Korea is undoubted, as he left a valuable collection of Korean celedon to Harvard University’s museum.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.