‘Savagery by proxy’: U.S. imperialism’s Korean executioners
Left: Daily Worker editorial, 'We Must Save Ourselves.' / People's World Archives. | This photograph by the U.S. Army shows the execution of South Korean political prisoners by the South Korean military and police at Daejeon, South Korea, over several days in July 1950. It was one of countless mass murders committed by the U.S.-allied Syngman Rhee dictatorship in South Korea. / U.S. Army Photo

This article is part of the People’s World 100th Anniversary Series.

Between Feb. 9 and 11, 1951, U.S.-aligned South Korean military forces massacred 719 unarmed civilians in Geochang, South Korea, on the grounds that they were Communists or that they supported Communists. The victims included 385 children. All were mowed down with machine guns, and a nearby mountain slope was blown up in order to cover their bodies and hide evidence of the crime.

It was the second mass murder spree of the week for the particular army group that carried it out; two days earlier, troops had killed another 705 unarmed civilians—85% of them women, children, and elderly people.

Throughout the Korean War, the Syngman Rhee dictatorship in South Korea, propped up by the United States, committed endless atrocities; its opponents from the other side of the demarcation line separating the two Koreas did likewise, though never on the same scale.

Rhee and his backers in Washington rationalized their mass murder by resorting to anti-communist rhetoric and saying it was the price that had to be paid. At one point, U.S. generals were even considering dropping atomic bombs on Korea.

Several months after it occurred, the Geochang Massacre (referred to as the Kochang Massacre at the time) became one of the first mass murders by Rhee’s troops to be exposed to the whole world. It wasn’t even the worst, however.

The so-called “Bodo League Massacre” of the summer of 1950 saw South Korean soldiers murder as many as 200,000 people, mostly civilians with no connection to the Northern Korean People’s Army or the Communists. For 40 years, the South Korean government tried to conceal the murders or falsely blame them on Kim il-Sung and the North.

When news of the killings at Geochang emerged in 1951, Rhee granted clemency to the gunmen involved and tried to cover up their actions, earning him condemnation in many quarters. It became the spark that set off an explosion of worldwide anti-war sentiment and criticism of the South Korean dictatorship and its enablers.

As the primary financial, political, and military supporter of the Rhee regime, U.S. imperialism also came in for heavy global criticism as details of the incident at Geochang leaked to the world press. The world condemned what was called “savagery by proxy.”

In the statement below, which appeared in the Daily Worker almost a year after the massacre, the editors of the newspaper say that the blood of the innocent Korean people is not just on the hands of Rhee’s soldiers, but on the hands of the U.S. as well. When it becomes clear that U.S. soldiers themselves are also directly dishing out the brutality, the guilt of U.S. imperialism is all the more obvious.

Saying, “We must save ourselves,” the editors of the Daily Worker reminded readers that if they don’t speak up against murder, war crimes, and genocide committed or abetted by their government, then the American people, too, risk becoming complicit.

It is a lesson to be remembered today. When does “savagery by proxy,” in Gaza, for instance, become savagery by us?

(Note: In the third paragraph, the editors refer to the “200 South Korean villagers” shot; it was only after later investigations that the true number killed at Geochang would be known to have actually reached over 700.)


By The Daily Worker Editorial Board

Daily Worker, Jan. 16, 1952, p. 5

Little by little, we Americans are beginning to get some glimpses of truth about atrocities committed by us against the Korean men, women, and children.

There have appeared letters from GIs in Korea telling of orders to shoot down mothers and children from a safe distance.

We have read in the press the “funny” stories of how the stomachs of captured North Koreans are loaded with gunshot so they will die in agony as the metal tears their insides to pieces. We have read of the 200 South Korean villagers, men, women, and children, shot without trial or charge, in a one-day massacre (World-Telegram, Dec. 17).

We remember the shocked horror of Life magazine correspondent John Osborne, writing that the Korean war was being waged in a way “to court final failure and also to force upon our men in the field acts and attitudes of the utmost savagery. This means not the usual savagery of combat in the field, but savagery in detail….” (Aug. 2, 1950).

Syngman Rhee’s police and troops “extort information by means so brutal that they cannot be described,” he wrote then. These tactics of torture—rape, cutting off breasts, burying alive, tearing off of nails, and gouging of eyes—described as the methods presumably of our “allies” alone, the Life magazine correspondent called our “savagery by proxy.” We let them do it so that we would not defile our own hands.

But this line of demarcation has long since been crossed, the witnesses of the world now tell us Americans as a people and a nation. It is no longer “savagery by proxy.” It is savagery by us.

That is why we Americans as a people and a nation had better open our ears and eyes to the “J’Accuse” which is now beginning to sound everywhere against us. The world declares more and more that we are morally guilty for the atrocities and cruelties in Korea which have done to death more than 2,000,000 human beings by fire, bomb, bayonet, jelly-bombs, by rape, slaughter, and terror on a scale employed by the other “anti-Communists” known as Nazis.

We had better listen to the voice of the young French Catholic journalist of the Paris paper Le Monde, one of the most conservative in France, when he writes an open letter to Mr. and Mrs. America.

“For more than a year you have given the world the dismaying spectacle of an inhuman nation pursuing a pitiless vengeance because of a humiliating wound to your vanity. I say nation because your rulers are not solely responsible.” (Esprit, Nov. 1951, page 629).

A South Korean boy looks up at a U.S. Army photographer moments before being executed by South Korean troops near Daejon, South Korea, July 1950. | Photo by U.S. Army Maj. Abbott.

We had better listen to this French Catholic, who was an eyewitness of the Korean war, as he warns us as a people that the world views us more and more as racist killers “without pity.”

We had better listen when he implores us in a final plea to awaken to our grave moral duty to halt this “Operation Killer” which has more than fulfilled the grim warning of Life magazine’s appalled correspondent.

The outcry of moral denunciation as a people coming from this French Catholic writer confirms to the hilt the testimony gathered by the Women’s International Democratic Federation and presented to the United Nations. [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Warren Austin brushed off their testimony with the snobbery of a member of the “master race.”

But the truth is coming out nevertheless. It is a truth about which the Washington leadership is so fearful that it wants to censor the letters of the GIs writing from Korean prison camps. Officials want to gag the mouths of returning GIs with regard to “classified subjects”—meaning what they learned in the war.

The German people said “We didn’t know” when mankind showed them the piled-up corpses at the gas chambers. We Americans cannot take refuge in any alibis. We have an officialdom which upholds the murder of Negroes as an “unwritten law” understood by all, from the FBI chiefs, the Attorney General, down to the Florida sheriff who shot down his handcuffed prisoners. This same racist officialdom is running the “Operation Killer” in Korea. It provides the “master race” background for the sadistic cruelties, the lynch-style arrogance and crime against the Korean and Chinese peoples.

We must denounce these atrocities. We must demand a halt to the continued slaughter and rapine which goes on as the Pentagon balks a ceasefire endlessly at Panmunjom. We must refuse to become the moral pariahs of mankind. We must refuse the brutalization of our youth into SS executioners “without pity.” We must save ourselves as a nation while we have time.

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People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.