The Historian, Winter 1998, Reprinted with special thanks to
Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.
http://www.phialphatheta.org and http://www.aiipowmia.com
"The 21 Turncoat GIs:
nonrepatriations and the political culture of the Korean War"
by Adam J. Zweiback
On 27 June 1953, the United Nations Command (UNC) and Communist forces signed an armistice ending three years of fighting in Korea. Although the American-led UNC failed to win the entire peninsula, it successfully repelled Communist attacks south of the 38th parallel. Moreover, though contrary to the 1947 Geneva Convention, which mandated the wholesale exchange of all POWs, President Truman's policy of voluntary repatriation proved highly successful: 47,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war struck a propaganda blow against their Marxist governments by choosing not to return to their homelands. In September, however, 23 American POWs also refused repatriation, sparking a nationwide debate among journalists, politicians, military officials, psychiatrists, and the soldiers themselves. During a 90-day cooling off period, the GIs were held in the neutral zone at Panmunjom, but only two changed their minds in response to entreaties by U.S. officials and letters from the GIs' families. Although the 21 GIs who ultimately journeyed to China have largely been ignored by historians, embedded in the controversy over their actions are important assumptions about race relations, gender roles, and the nature of Communism. Thus, this nearly forgotten event offers a unique window into American social and political culture during the mid-1950s.
The most common explanation for the nonrepatriations was that the men were "brainwashed," a term coined by Edward Hunter in articles written for the Miami Daily News and New Leader magazine in 1951. Although Hunter was not a psychiatrist, and may in fact have been a propaganda operator for the CIA, his claims that the Chinese were practicing powerful new techniques of mind control were readily believed. Brainwashing, a literal translation of the Chinese colloquialism hsi nao, provided a pseudo-scientific explanation for what Americans who had lived through a decade of both Democratic and Republican red-baiting already assumed: Communism was inherently evil and unnatural, and Marxist enemies would try anything to turn Americans against their fellow citizens.(1)
Confirmation seemingly came in April 1953, when 149 Americans released in the pre-armistice prisoner exchange known as "Little Switch" reported that their captors had waged a systematic effort to break down their beliefs and entice them to collaborate. In June, the New Republic asked, "Communist Brainwashing--Are We Prepared?" Although the magazine bitterly opposed the McCarthyite harassment of innocent Americans, it nonetheless feared "the scrubbing of the mind clean of previously held conviction" by communists.(2) When it was announced that some two dozen GIs had chosen to live in China, the specter of brainwashing loomed even larger in the American consciousness. A reporter from the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal felt a "sinking in the pit of the stomach" when GIs arrived at the neutral zone singing the Communist Internationale. He noted that while World War II seemed at the time to have destroyed all standards of human decency, the world now had to contend with "psychological surgery, the perversion of loyalties."(3)
Since the vast majority of American POWs did not go over to the Communists, many newspaper and magazine articles looked for quirks in the backgrounds of the "turncoats" that made them particularly susceptible to Chinese mind-control techniques. The 26 October 1953 issue of Time cited one unnamed soldier's upbringing in a city slum. His family's history was checkered with unemployment, alcoholism, and crime, as well as with syphilis, polio, and cancer. The clear implication was that the soldier's defection was not caused by problems within the United States itself, but rather by a series of setbacks rendering him psychologically vulnerable to Communist manipulation. A Newsweek article published the following January recounted the story in its Medicine section, implying that the soldiers were diseased for choosing to defect. Journalist Virginia Pasley began each chapter of her 1955 book, 21 Stayed, by listing the IQ of the soldier in question, blaming low intelligence for malleability and high intelligence for rebelliousness. Corporal Claude J. Batchelor and Sergeant Richard G. Gordon, non-commissioned officers who appeared the brightest from their Army records, were often portrayed as the leaders who kept the rest in line while taking orders themselves from the Chinese.(4)
Sometimes the men were dismissed simply as traitors, as illustrated by a blunt Newsweek article, "Korea: The Sorriest Bunch." It referred to an unnamed Indian general at Panmunjom, their chief U.N. custodian during the waiting period, who described the 21 Americans, one Briton, and 327 South Koreans, all of whom rejected repatriation, as "about the sorriest, most shifty-eyed and groveling bunch of chaps he had ever seen.(5) Supposedly these men had betrayed their comrades to curry favor from their captors, and now were afraid to return to America to face expected punishment. Some had even "[fallen] in love with Chinese women.(6) For American readers this last sin was doubly grievous, for the women were both Communists and non-Caucasians.(7)
Indeed, race played an important role throughout the nationwide debate. The Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent black weekly with a national readership, opposed Communism and agonized over POWs who were swayed by their captors. While Americans were encouraged by Edward S. Dickenson's 20 October decision to return and Claude J. Batchelor's similar change of heart on 1 January 1954, the Courier lamented that the three blacks, Clarence Adams, William C. White, and Larance Sullivan, showed no indication of following suit. A front-page article on 2 January reported that "[h]opes of the families of three Negro prisoners of war were jolted" when an escaped Korean internee discounted the likelihood that others would request repatriation.(6) Although the Courier consistently protested racial discrimination in American society, it nevertheless joined the vast majority of blacks who opposed Communism as a solution.
Discussion of the black nonrepatriates in the white press highlights public perceptions of Communism and civil rights in the mid-1950s. For example, many publications noted the special effort the Chinese had made to woo black American soldiers, how they had stressed that in their Marxist nation all members of society were treated equally. As the Saturday Evening Post reported in March 1954, "The Chinese used not only such points of dissension as segregation and second-class citizenship but also lynchings, unfair labor practices and a host of other complaints." The article, however, did not treat these issues in order to lament a lack of true equality in America; rather, it emphasized that only three black soldiers refused repatriation: "It can be positively stated that the commies drew the worst blank of their ideological warfare among the American Negroes held in the POW cages."(7) U.S. News and World Report similarly trumpeted, "American Negro soldiers did not swallow the Communist line on racial equality."(8) Such statements implied that there was no real disadvantage to being black in America, but that the dissimulating Chinese were utilizing false propaganda about American race relations. Further, they implied that black soldiers saw through this ruse because they knew first hand that racial inequalities did not exist.
Just as notions of race relations were imbedded in responses to the turncoat GIs, so too was ambivalence about the nature and role of women in American society. A California chapter of the American Legion proposed in September 1953 that the mothers of the 23 soldiers be flown to Korea to convince their sons to return. But this view of women as nurturing and beneficent, capable of persuading their sons to return to the American fold, was exactly the sentiment excoriated by popular author Philip Wylie. Wylie blamed the "cult of momism" for draining the nation of its manly virtues. In Generation of Vipers, which underwent 20 printings between 1942 and 1955, Wylie argued that while in the past the American mother had kept busy raising a large family and keeping house, the modern era of home appliances provided women more time to dote upon fewer children, creating "mamma's boys" who lacked the emotional and physical toughness that made America great. Although Ruth Cowan has argued that technological changes actually resulted in "more work for mother," Wylie forcefully proclaimed that "the machine has deprived her of social usefulness.... I give you mom. I give you the destroying mother."(9) Wylie cannot be dismissed as a solitary crank; writer Aldous Huxley, former secretary of the interior Harold Ickes, and radio commentator Walter Winchell all endorsed Vipers, and his claims were further buttressed by his popularity and reputation as a Cold Warrior. During the Korean War, Wylie was an adviser to the Commission on Atomic Energy and a strident advocate of building the hydrogen bomb.(10)
As Betty Friedan later lamented in The Feminine Mystique, during the 1950s many Americans embraced Wylie's notion of momism. With the backing of Freudian psychology, "mother" was blamed for all manner of social ills, including alcoholism, suicide, schizophrenia, neurosis, impotency, homosexuality, and promiscuity. Furthermore, Friedan continued, Army analysts and the popular press during the 1940s and 1950s agreed that "millions of American men were psychologically incapable of facing the shock of war, of facing life away from their `moms.'"(11) Such assumptions were evident in an article in the Saturday Evening Post, which quoted an Army sergeant's explanation for POWs who collaborated during the Korean War: "`These spoiled and pampered kids.... No guts here'--Pate pointed to his belly `or here'--he pointed to his head. `Too much mamma,' he finished laconically."(12) Critics of overbearing women thus made scapegoats of a caricature and avoided addressing actual social and economic gender discrimination in America.
If anti-subversives decried manly women in American society, they also condemned womanly men. In 1954, Newsweek reported rumors--denied by the nonrepatriates--"that about half the Americans were bound together more by homosexualism than Communism."(13) This statement was credible to Newsweek's readership, for the notion that leftist politics were deviantly unmasculine was preached from the loftiest towers of American academia in the 1950s. Eminent historian and former Army intelligence officer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called totalitarian politics "something secret, sweaty and furtive like nothing so much, in the phrase of one wise observer of modern Russia, as homosexuality in a boys' school."(14)
Finally, to most in the popular press the nonrepatriations were an assault on the twin pillars of American society: capitalism and Christianity. In January 1954, Senior Scholastic published letters from its high school readers to convince the soldiers to come home. Barbara Smith, from Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin, stressed the economic advantages offered by America, "the land of plenty," and the security of the soldiers' hometown friends and families. Vincent Lozano, writing from Corpus Christi, Texas, reflected the long-held American fear of atheistic Communism. "For the love of God," he pleaded, "who believes in you even if some of you don't believe in Him, come back!"(15) These ingenuous appeals mirrored the major publications. When a black soldier credited religion for helping him survive captivity, the Pittsburgh Courier celebrated with the headline, "Fear of God Kept Me Free of Joining Up With Communists."(16)
While mainstream publications nearly unanimously painted the Chinese as evil and the nonrepatriates as traitors, the radical Daily Worker predictably offered an opposing view. William Z. Foster called "farfetched" explanations ranging from intimidation, treachery, and weak minds to "some strangely sinister `brain-washing' which has `depersonalized' them, whatever that may mean." A former chairman of the American Communist Party, Foster lamented the fact that the soldiers were resettling in China, but only because he wished they would return to America to help fight against Wall Street's capitalism. Although Foster missed the mark widely in predicting that 30 percent of the American public would embrace Communism during an impending economic crisis, his reading of the popular media was quite accurate in retrospect: "The idea behind all this absurd blather is to create the impression that capitalism in this country is so wonderful that normal Americans cannot possibly prefer a different system."(17) Indeed, two common assumptions underlay virtually all of the explanations offered by the mainstream press: Communist ideology was necessarily illegitimate, and the 21 had been duped.
In addition to professional journalists, a host of prominent government officials also leapt into the debate over brainwashing and repatriation. As early as 7 May 1953, Republican Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts expressed her anger over the proceedings at Valley Forge, where psychiatrists detained and examined POWs returned in Little Switch. Rogers was upset that soldiers were being stigmatized as victims of brainwashing and probed for signs that the Communists had perverted their loyalties. House Democrat Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota drew similar conclusions regarding "debrainwashing" the following week, complaining that "the whole operation begins to look more and more like an atrocity perpetrated by our own officials." He derisively questioned a psychological warfare program that "calls for us to be `fanatics.'"(18) McCarthy was echoed two weeks later by The Nation, which decried the Pentagon's utilization of "political psychiatric therapy" and quoted an army physician who, angered by press reports of brainwashing, stated, we're not running a damned laundromat here."(19)
A second phase of congressional reaction to prisoner repatriation began in June, when Americans learned that tens of thousands of Chinese and North Korean POWs steadfastly refused to return home. Recognizing the potential for propaganda, House members of both parties crowed loudly that the defections validated the superiority of the American way of life. Republican Charles J. Kersten of Wisconsin announced that nearly 50,000 UNC-held soldiers had rejected Communism, and Democrat Thomas J. Lane of Massachusetts celebrated "the right of a prisoner to seek asylum in a foreign land."(20) In the face of diabolical Communist efforts, democracy had triumphed.
Yet that fall, reports of the nonrepatriations greatly altered perceptions of the POW exchange. By the time Congress reconvened in January 1954, the Army was considering punitive action against the soldiers, and elected officials from both parties exploited the issue to strengthen their anti-communist credentials. Republican William C. Cole of Missouri rose in the House on 21 January to warn that "every last one of these twenty-one ungrateful wretches may receive all of the benefits provided by law for our war veterans who have served our country honorably."(21) Cole was mortified that these men, if granted honorable discharges, would be eligible for pensions, housing grants, and burial in military cemetaries, or might even return and utilize the G.I. Bill for education. Representative Robert L. F. Sikes, a Florida Democrat, led the call for court-martial proceedings against the two who changed their minds during the 90-day waiting period. While President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles made biblical allusions to the prodigal son and lost sheep, Sikes considered "the fawning publicity that a few reconverted pro-Red American POWs from Korea have been getting just a bit sickening."(22) And although Representative William C. Wampler called fellow Virginian Dickenson a "mere country boy victimized by a shrewd propaganda technique"(23) and offered to intercede with Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens, the hard-liners won out. With the other 21 still in the neutral zone about to make their final decisions, the Army gave Dickenson and Batchelor 20- and 10-year sentences, respectively, for desertion and differing levels of collaboration; they were not released until 1959. The 21 who stayed were given dishonorable discharges in absentia. Ironically, this meant they could no longer be court-martialed on return to the United States.(24)
Predictably, politicians used the related issues of brainwashing and voluntary repatriation for their own political ends; Rogers, Kersten, Cole, and Sykes all had a long-standing interest in the military and in combatting communism. Institutional turf wars also surrounded the issue, as Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson blamed the Army's hasty court-martials for having "upset a last-ditch psychological warfare campaign"(25) to induce the remaining GIs to return. But more importantly, the debate in Washington illustrated the depth and breadth of response to the nonrepatriates. As members of both the liberal and conservative press were shocked by what appeared to be a renunciation of American values, so too were representatives from both sides of the political aisle in agreement that GIs embracing Communism inherently threatened the United States.
In addition to journalists and politicians, military officers also voiced their opinions on the nonrepatriations. Retired Rear Admiral D. V. Gallery argued that fear of stiff prison sentences naturally dissuaded the 21 from reconsidering their decision. Gallery also criticized the ineffectual waging of war that allowed the Communists to hold American POWs for such along time: "[We] fear that we might touch off World War III, and thus get hurt ourselves. We try our soldiers for cowardice--after a war we didn't have the guts to win!" He even advocated permitting GIs seemingly to confirm the lies of their captors under torture; for then confessions of American germ warfare or Wall Street's domination of foreign policy could be dismissed as having been made under duress.(26)
Other military men who stopped short of Gallery's public criticisms of the Army agreed nevertheless that the United States had badly miscalculated its policy of voluntary repatriation. Brigadier General Haydon L. Boatner, famous for crushing the 1952 insurgency of Chinese and North Korean prisoners on Koje-do island, later judged that attempts to win over Chinese and North Korean dissenters unnecessarily jeopardized American prisoners and prolonged the war. Boatner noted that of the three years and 32 days of fighting, "two years and 17 days were spent holding 575 cease-fire meetings at Panmunjom, during which 18,000,000 words were recorded--most of them dealing with the prisoner exchange issue."(27) A no-nonsense general, "Bull" Boatner disdained propaganda machinations, particularly the Administration's refusal to return Communist soldiers to China and North Korea against their will. After the uprising at Koje-do, in fact, Boatner curtailed American efforts to induce Communists to refuse repatriation. Boatner discounted Communist brainwashing and later acknowledged that U.S. troops had practiced similar methods of indoctrination to convert German prisoners during the Second World War.(28)
In Korea, to be sure, Communist POWs were better fed and housed than their Allied counterparts. By January 1952, literacy classes were being conducted for the one-half of the Communist prisoners on Koje-do island who could neither read nor write. Simultaneously, however, the captives were inundated with pro-Western propaganda classes entitled "How War Came to Korea," "Democracy and Totalitarianism,"and "Facts About the United States. In April 1955, the Educational Record applauded these efforts and suggested teaching the strengths of democracy versus the evils of Communism to international students of all ages.(29)
But modern educational methods were not the only reasons that so many enemy prisoners refused repatriation. Converted Communist soldiers were often Nationalist Chinese sympathizers who had been conscripted by the Red army or Korean civilians swept up in the massive troop movements about the peninsula. Moreover, sources as disparate as Boatner and the Australian Communist writer Wilfred Burchett agreed that numerous UNC-held soldiers were physically intimidated by both captors and fellow prisoners. Many leaders in anti-Communist compounds were actually veterans of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Army, and these agents administered frequent beatings to pro-Communist Chinese and North Koreans.(30)
While both Gallery and Boatner largely excused the collaborators themselves, other members of the armed forces lambasted the turncoats on the pages of the popular press and service publications. Of course captured GIs were malnourished and mistreated, they argued, but so were Turkish and British soldiers who, with the exception of one Brit, insisted upon returning to their homelands. Other commentators blamed those who had sent Americans off to fight with inadequate, "Gettysburg-era" training. While GIs were inundated with thousands of hours of Communist propaganda, they had been given a scant few hours of instruction on citizenship and Communism. Unsophisticated enlisted men could not hope to combat the anti-capitalistic arguments with which their captors assaulted them; they could not even adequately understand why they were fighting in Korea in the first place. It was no wonder, the Saturday Evening Post reasoned in March 1954, that poorly educated country boys fell prey to Communist promises of a happy, prosperous utopia.(31)
In 1955, Secretary of Defense Wilson formed a high-level advisory committee to reconcile the military's contradictory positions. The committee's report stressed first that soldiers did not understand the complexity of the conflict, which was at the same time a civil war, a U.N. war of collective security, and a chapter in the Cold War. To make matters worse, GIs were uneducated about Communist ideology and the propaganda methods employed by Chinese troops. The Defense Department thus urged families, churches, schools, and patriotic organizations to begin anti-Communist "indoctrination." Ironically, while Chinese and Soviets were condemned for attempting to bind people to their ideology with absolute allegiance, Americans were urged to do the very same thing.(32)
The report also contained inherent contradictions with respect to the magnitude of the threat brainwashing posed. On the one hand, the very creation of the committee and its front-page coverage by the major newspapers implied that strong prescriptions were necessary to ensure proper conduct by GIs in Communist captivity. Yet the report stressed that only a small minority of POWs acted disloyally and that even the 21 nonrepatriates were doubtless influenced most by offers of preferential treatment if they went to China and fear of reprisal for minor acts of collaboration if they returned home. Accordingly, President Eisenhower's new code of conduct for captured soldiers called for no sweeping changes: they should give only their "name, rank, service number, and date of birth" and refrain from making any oral or written statements condemning their country.(33) Despite the complexity of Communist indoctrination methods and the possible advantages of Gallery's "let them say anything" policy, the modern soldier was ordered to resist by an old-fashioned, Spartan code of non-cooperation.
At the same time, the military enlisted the aid of psychological experts to understand, counteract, and even utilize Communist-style mind control. Major William Mayer, an Army psychiatrist who had served in Korea and investigated nearly 1,000 POWs, argued for better education, a harder line against the Soviets and Chinese, and compulsory military training for all 18-year-old males. Mayer's views were popularized in a 1956 U.S. News and World Report article, as well as by a tape-recorded speech given to soldiers, students, civic associations, and radio audiences. But other government-funded studies were far less politicized, most finding there was nothing fundamentally new or even terribly effective about Communist techniques. Dr. Edgar H. Schein, another Army project leader, concluded that while it was no difficult task to persuade wounded, malnourished POWs to discuss Marxism or sign peace petitions, most men remained staunchly anti-Communist. In the process of "self-criticism," for example, "soldiers would often emphasize the wrong words in the sentence, thus making the whole ritual ridiculous: `I am sorry I called Comrade Wong a no-good son-of-a-bitch.'"(34)
By this time, however, government agencies such as the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Psychological Warfare Division, and the CIA already clandestinely had attempted to develop methods of interrogation and de-brainwashing. On 10 April 1953, Secretary of State Dulles publicly noted that the UNC refused to torture captured soldiers and so possessed no human guinea pigs on which to experiment. Just three days later, however, Dulles acted on aide Richard Helms's suggestion to form MKULTRA, a top-secret project to "investigate whether and how it was possible to modify an individual's behavior by covert means."(35) Soon the CIA was conducting experiments on American subjects using sleep deprivation, electroshock therapy, prostitutes, and drugs. One substance, the as-yet obscure D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), was taken willingly by psychiatrists and federal intelligence officers and unwittingly by government researchers, patients in mental hospitals, criminals, and street people. At least one death resulted, that of Army biological warfare specialist Dr. Frank Olson.(36)
While it is evident that individuals in both government and the media overreacted to the chimera of brainwashing and exaggerated the importance of the non-repatriates, an important question remains: how valid were the media, political, military, and medical explanations of the 21? In the case of Morris Wills, who went to China in 1954 and returned to the U.S. in 1965, contemporary accounts of his motives for refusing repatriation were wildly inaccurate. Wills, a native of West Fort Ann, New York, was described by several popular publications as a man who "lacked guts" and "knuckled under" in difficult situations.(37) He also was widely believed to have married a Chinese nurse, the daughter of a Communist general. Both these characterizations fit nicely with accepted views about the nonrepatriates' weakness and deviancy; yet both were patently false. Wills and those captured with him in May 1951 were certainly not quitters, for they did not finish marching to their POW camp until early October. Wills's recollection of his captivity ("our knees were knobs, our faces hollow, our beards shaggy. We wore lice-infested rags...."(38) is corroborated by the high death rates among captured U.S. soldiers. And while Wills was hospitalized with pleurisy for a month in the spring of 1953, he merely became friendly with several nurses with whom he practiced his halting Chinese. Only after seven years in Peking did he marry Kai-yen, the daughter of a small landlord.(39)
Why, then, did Morris Wills forego repatriation? According to his 1966 autobiography, Wills was angered by the recall of his idol, General Douglas MacArthur, and favored the use of nuclear weapons to end the war. During his two years as a prisoner, he increasingly felt abandoned by America. While Wills eventually became disillusioned with life in China, particularly as antagonism toward foreigners affected his marriage in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, his years abroad were both challenging and rewarding by any standards. He played basketball for Peking University, worked as a translator, and had children with Kai-yen. Back in America, Wills served as an associate at Harvard University's East Asian Research Center and as the head librarian at Utica College in New York. In a 1991 interview, he discounted theories conjured up by the media: "Information was distorted, fabricated, and twisted. The actual facts were not that complicated."(40)
Clarence Adams, an African American from Memphis, Tennessee, insisted at Panmunjom in 1953 that discrimination was the primary reason he chose not to return to the United States. Yet his critique was dismissed by the white press as Communist propaganda, and Adams was described merely as "the average colored boy [who] faces up to the segregation and accepts it and goes on about his business."(41) Adams's defection, it was assumed, must have been due to some personal weakness or deviancy. In a 1991 interview, however, Adams reiterated his views: "Brainwashed? The Chinese unbrainwashed me. The Negro had his mind brainwashed long before the Korea War. If he stayed in his place he was a good nigger."(42) Despite the increasing political oppression that led him to leave China in 1966, Adams still believed he was right to refuse repatriation. In China he worked as a translator, traveled extensively, and married a Chinese woman; in 1970 he opened a successful chop suey restaurant in Memphis. Adams may have glossed over the prejudice that he experienced in China, as his assertion that he was treated no differently as a black man is refuted by Wills's book and by contemporary accounts of Chinese racism. Yet as the reaction to Adams and the two other black GIs demonstrates, the national obsession with Communism in the early 1950s served to deflect attention away from the ugly reality of American race relations.(43)
In the case of Otho Bell, however, it is more difficult to determine whether contemporary press accounts or Bell's own explanations are more plausible. He certainly was not the genuine Marxist convert portrayed by the press, for he left China less than a year and a half after arriving. In 1991, Bell recalled of William A. Cowart, Lewis W. Griggs, and himself that "we were kind of the dummy bunch. They sent us to a collective farm, 'cuz we wasn't educated enough to learn Chinese. We were way out in the country--the people there thought we was from outer space."(44) The three eventually ran away and undertook a 10-day journey back to Peking, where they were imprisoned temporarily before seeking refuge with the British Embassy.
Bell's claim in 1991 that he was promised his wife would be in China when he arrived is also highly dubious, as he did not seek to leave immediately when she was not there. His dissatisfaction with life in the provinces suggests that had he been treated differently he would have stayed longer, and in 1992, a fellow nonrepatriate flatly contradicted Bell's assertion that the Chinese made false promises to induce the group to defect. A more likely answer is that Bell collaborated while in the POW camp and feared retribution if he returned to the United States. "Honey," he wrote, albeit mistakenly, to his wife in the spring of 1955, "if I had come home, I would be in prison for the rest of my life or hung like Batchelor and Dickenson were, and you possibly dead."(45) Bell, Cowart, and Griggs were in fact arrested by the Army after sailing to San Francisco in July 1955 but were acquitted in November. Because they had already been given dishonorable discharges with the other nonrepatriates, they could not be punished further.(46)
By 1958 seven more American exiles had left China, and by 1966 only Howard Adams and James Veneris remained. The gradual return of the rest, once the fear of recrimination was relieved, indicates there were varying degrees of ideological commitment among the nonrepatriates. A handful apparently had informed on their fellows while in POW camps, and rather than rejecting the economic and political situation in the United States they were simply afraid to return. At the other extreme, another half dozen seemed to be more radical ideological converts, or what the men themselves termed "one-hundred and ten percent." Perhaps Howard Adams and James Veneris belong in this category, as both still lived in China well into the 1990s. Harold H. Webb and John R. Dunn also chose to continue living in Communist states, following their wives to Poland and Czechoslovakia, respectively, in the early 1960s. The largest group probably lay somewhere in between, combining anger at the United States for prolonging the war, fairly strong ideas about China, and a hearty dose of adventurism. Contemporary attempts to understand the GIs' decisions almost completely overlooked these subtleties; instead, they accurately reflected widely held assumptions about Communism. Virginia Pasley's 21 Stayed, the most extensive group biography, received positive reviews in major papers, and in the book's introduction Carl Sandburg affirmed, "there may have been another series of articles more deserving of a Pulitzer award but I have not met it."(47)
As the diversity of opinions about the nonrepatriations demonstrates, the continuing attention given to a mere 21 dissenters represented a public discourse on what it meant to be an American at the apex of the Cold War. With the end of three years of fighting in Korea, the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions for espionage, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, and Joseph McCarthys last moments of glory before being censured in the Senate, 1953-54 provided a political climate in which the turncoats took on exaggerated importance. The very rhetoric used suggested that what was at stake symbolically was much more than the fate of fewer than two dozen prisoners of war. While the 21 by definition were nonrepatriates, the widely used "turncoats," "Reds," and "Commies" resonated more powerfully throughout American society. In contrast, those Korean and Chinese prisoners who also refused repatriation were widely praised for affirming the superiority of democracy.
"Brainwashing," the new term added to the lexicon, epitomized best the centrality of symbolism in the Cold War. As psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton pointed out in 1961, a "lurid mythology" quickly evolved in which the word became "a rallying point for fear, resentment, urges toward submission, justification for failure, irresponsible accusation, and for a wide gamut of emotional extremism."(48) Michael Rogin has argued further that throughout their history, Americans have used "political demonology" to distort, stigmatize, and dehumanize political opponents. Savage Indians, demon rum, the many-tentacled Communist conspiracy--these monsters have given shape to Americans' anxieties and permitted them to imitate their enemies. This certainly was the case in January 1954 when, as the turncoats travelled to Red China, President Eisenhower proposed in his State of the Union address to deprive American Communists of their citizenship. According to Samuel A. Stouffer's poll, 80 percent of Americans favored the idea, 77 percent wanted leftist views banned from the radio, and 52 percent wished all Communists jailed.(49)
Popular culture also provided Americans an outlet for political anxieties. Mickey Spillane, whose hard-boiled detective thrillers accounted for six of the top ten best-selling works of fiction in the 1950s, featured his signature character, Mike Hammer, killing enemies of the state: "I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it...They were red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago."(50) Confessional exposes by reformed spies constituted an even more directly anti-Communist genre. A virtual cottage industry grew up around magazine serials and novels by such FBI informants as Louis Budenz, Angela Calomiris, and Whittaker Chambers, all of whom testified that their erstwhile comrades in the Communist Party were dishonest and immoral. And Hollywood, vulnerable with its real and imagined leftist past, sought to mollify congressional watchdogs by making dozens of anti-Communist films during the Korean War era. Perhaps the most compelling cultural artifact depicting brainwashing of POWs was Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959 and made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury three years later. Condon's story featured Chinese and Soviet scientists from the Pavlov Institute who used hypnosis and drugs to turn GIs against their country. In a plot twist reminiscent of Philip Wylie's attacks on momism, the Communists' evil pawn was the mother of one of the soldiers.(51)
The Korean War, fought under the auspices of the fledgling United Nations in a distant country hitherto largely unknown to most Americans, increasingly became a crusade for a mythical American way of life. This was especially true after dramatic troop movements up and down the peninsula gave way to a war of attrition near the 38th parallel. In this context, the nonrepatriations served as a catalyst that triggered inchoate national anxieties about foreign policy, domestic subversion, race relations, gender, and sexuality. Although the incident has nearly vanished from the nation's memory, it is by illuminating the political and social culture of the Cold War that the curious case of the 21 turncoat GIs continues to have historical meaning.
Adam J. Zweiback is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, San Diego.
© 1998 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.