INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT DONOVAN
INTERVIEWER: This is tape 10483, fifth of February 1997, we're in Washington DC and this is an interview with Mr. Robert J. Donovan and thank you very much for contributing to our series. I'd just like to establish at the start of this interview, if you could tell us the paper that you were working for and what your main field of coverage was in June of 1950.
ROBERT DONOVAN: Well, I was one of the Washington correspondents for the New York Herald Tribune and I was then in those years the White House correspondent for the Herald Tribune, so I covered the White House regularly.
INT: The first big political question we want to talk about is the loss of China. Can you tell us what the political situation about the loss of China, what the reaction was amongst the opposition to the Truman administration, who was blamed and so on, what the loss of China meant?
RD: There was... largely Republican. There was a large element in American politics that just absolutely had it in for Harry Truman, especially in the whole question of China. To back a little bit... I'm not doing this well...
INT: We've got plenty of time. Give us the background to why China was considered important, why were people concerned that it had gone Communist, it's half way round the world, what interest did the United States have in it?
RD: Well, the United States, you know, had had all sorts of relationships with China back over the years. China was what it is today, a great huge country in Asia and the fact that that country might go Communist aroused the American people very much, whether they approved of what Truman was doing or whether they didn't, no-one wanted to see China go Communist. And there was a large group in the United States... dominated by Republicans, who blamed Truman for it. And it went back quite a ways, one is that they were after Truman any how, after he had defeated them in a surprise election in 1948 and then there was in this Republican group, which is often called the China Lobby, although it wasn't as organised as a lobby, but it was a group of people, powerful people. Republicans, Henry Luce, who... published Time and Life magazines, there were military elements in it, who blamed Truman for what they called the loss of China, for the fact that the Communists had taken over mainland China.
INT: How much did they blame the State Department and Acheson?
RD: As much as they could. [Laughs] Acheson was hated by these people. It was obvious that he was the architect of President Truman's policies. He had a way about him... he had a English air about him. Hehe looked like an English diplomat and that just riled Republicans from the hip... from the sticks, from right in the middle of the country. He was terribly unpopular in Congress, among the opposition, they hated him.
INT: He was the person who made the famous defence perimeter speech, but not necessarily famous at the time, but it became not only famous, it became notorious. Can you tell us why Acheson defence perimeter speech of January 1950 was later seized upon and became a very notorious speech?
RD: Because people felt that Acheson, by not including the area of the Thirty Eighth Parallel as part of America's defence perimeter, was an invitation to the foe to move. If I answer your question... [Mumbles]
INT: You have answered it, but maybe you can just expand a little and mention Korea, because the audience won't necessarily know where the Thirty Eighth Parallel is. Can you explain why Acheson's failure to mention Korea in the speech at all later attracted such adverse criticism?
RD: Well it was criticised for opening the way to a Communist advance in Korea. In other words, the Communists would think that we would not respond, because it was not part of our defence perimeter. As a matter of fact, our defence perimeter, as we understood it then, were the islands under American control, from the Elusions all the way down to the Marianas. But in this case, it was interpreted as not making the land of Korea part of our defence perimeter. Nothing much ever came of that, but it was used against the President and Acheson. Now, am I making myself clear.
INT: Yes, you are. If you could just give us an idea of the time... Can we just cut there.
INT: This tape 10484, continuation of the interview with Mr. Robert Donovan. June 1950, why did Truman feel he had to react so swiftly after North Korea had invaded the South?
RD: Let me think how to answer it.
INT: Did he have a choice...
RD: There was really no choice. How shall I put this? [Let's just talk about this a minute. Actually…
INT: I think you told me once that he had no option.
RD: Oh, no he had...
INT: Tell us more about that. Why had he to take the action he did?
RD: Well, first of all, Truman was condemned enough by Korea, but he would have been more condemned if he hadn't stepped in. The United States then, was simply absorbed with preventing the spread of Communism in the world and for the Communists to march down on a country that we were in effect allied with, was just... Why am I saying things so badly here. Let me think... Because that's a vital point here.
INT: Thinking back in time, I remember you wrote, everybody is supporting him at the time and it's part of the atmosphere of the day that Communism has to be stopped...
RD: [Interrupts] Exactly.
INT: ...tell us about that, why was there really no choice for Truman when North Korea attacked South Korea.
RD: Well, there was no choice because the American people would just not stand for Communism, for Soviet Communism taking over another piece of property, another state in fact and we had accepted the Thirty Eighth Parallel of Korea as the dividing line and... we were... That's funny I can say it a million times and I can't say it now.
INT: What was the...
RD: What are we saying here...
RD: In other words, we supported the government of South Korea, below the Thirty Eighth Parallel and for an attack across the parallel meant an attack on people who we were allied with and a Communist attack, that's what I'm saying. I mean, if we couldn't stop 'em there, where were we ever going to stop them? And Truman was under such pressure that there was never any question about what he would do. When this thing happened, the President was out at Independence and he got a telephone call from Acheson saying that the Communists had... from North Korea, were attacking across the South and in no time at all, Truman was going to hit them, he wasn't going to take it and he flew back the next morning, held a conference at Blair House of his highest advisers and the decision right then and there was that we would not stand for this, we would oppose it, militarily oppose it. And that was greatly supported by the American people, even by Truman's critics and there would have been really a very bad reaction against Truman if he had not done so.