Two years later, by the middle of 1947, the U.S. was in full demobilization, and forces were in short supply. In Japan, General MacArthur’s command had dwindled to just a handful of divisions, and he was pining for the 45,000 U.S. forces stationed in South Korea to be withdrawn to Japan. Washington sent several high-level officials — including George Kennan, the father of “containment” — on missions to South Korea to study the situation. They noted that U.S. forces were in a precarious position, caught between increasing numbers of Communist guerrillas infiltrating from the north and a South Korean strongman — Syngman Rhee — who was corrupt, autocratic, and unpopular. They recommended that the forces be evacuated.
The U.S. pushed for a United Nations General Assembly resolution (Res. 112(II)) calling for elections to be held in Korea under U.N. supervision, and for all occupying forces to leave promptly after a government was set up. By this time, it was already quite clear that the same problem that had arisen over the political independence of Poland was going to arise everywhere Soviet forces were present: namely, that instead of holding elections in their zones of occupation as they were supposed to, the Soviets were going to establish heavily armed Communist puppet regimes under their control.
The Soviets naturally refused to hold elections in their zone, but they were more amenable on the withdrawal of occupation forces, so Truman decided that was the best deal he could get. The U.S. went ahead with elections in its zone in May 1948, the first government of South Korea was formed in July, and the withdrawal of U.S. forces began in September.
In a secret cable to the secretary of state dated February 1948, the political officer of the U.S. embassy in South Korea had written:
Rhee thinks that the U.S. has a real moral obligation to retain some U.S. troops in Korea for a period after a South Korean government is established. In addition, he feels that such retention would serve best interests of United States in opposing the Soviets as it would guarantee the holding of South Korea for democracy. As regards size of such force, whether as at present or a smaller token force, he said that this was something for U.S. Government to decide.
Now, in the weeks after the election, the issue of the U.S. withdrawal became even more acute. In another secret cable to the secretary of state, dated June 20, 1948, Gen. John Hodge, then commander of the U.S. garrison in Korea, wrote:
The many press reports and editorials from the United States indicating an early withdrawal from Korea under UN Resolution II have had and are having an adverse effect. [It is feared that] if the United States withdraws before agreements for uniting the two zones are completed the result will be to hand Korea to the Soviet sphere.
These missives slowed but ultimately did not stop the administration’s drive to withdraw forces from Korea. The Americans completed their withdrawal in June 1949, which, ironically enough, was some six months after the Soviets completed theirs. On Jan. 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a famous and much-maligned speech at the National Press Club in which he described America’s “defensive perimeter” as running south from the Aleutians to Ryukyu, Japan, and the Philippines, pointedly excluding Korea, which he implied was the responsibility of the United Nations. Criticizing Acheson for this is not really fair: He was using the formulation that MacArthur and even Hodge himself had used just weeks earlier. The perimeter he described — and its exclusion of Korea — was a matter of widespread consensus in the government.