Russia’s Clandestine Aggression: Nothing New
In light of the current complexity of U.S. relations with North Korea and Russia in terms of political, diplomatic and foreign policy discussions, I think it relevant to examine this country’s largely unknown past experience with the eastern communist countries. This article is the second of what will be a three-part series.
In the first article of this series, What Too Many People Don’t Know about the Korean War, (find the story here: https://medium.com/@donnadknox/what-too-many-people-dont-know-about-the-korean-war-e7157a16f698) I discuss the unexplained disappearance of American servicemen during the Korean War and how, it turns out, the U.S. government had Intelligence and good reason to believe that POWs had been secreted out of the Korean theater of conflict and taken to the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower Administration didn’t tell the men’s families because there was nothing it could (or was willing) to do about the situation. Instead, the military issued presumptive findings of death (PFD’s) and the government took no further public position on the matter — until 1992, when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted the Soviets had taken American POWs.
As a disclaimer, I have a stake in this darkness. My father went missing in Korea two months before I was born. I have lived my life wondering what happened to him. Not that I was paralyzed by the loss; I was not. But it left a wound that has never healed. The questions; the uncertainty of where he was; most of all, the heartbreak that he could’ve been sitting somewhere waiting to be rescued. These thoughts have haunted me and led me to a determined advocacy on behalf of missing American servicemen and their families.
This article expounds on the Soviet Union’s furtive Cold War aggression and Russia’s failure to come clean about it over the past 25 years. Here, I address three fundamental questions: 1) What did the Eisenhower Administration and its successors know about the fate of missing American servicemen during and in the aftermath of the Korean War? 2) What did the government do about it? and 3) What were the Soviets up to, and why?
Even before the Korean War ended, the U.S. Government raised questions about the Communists’ handling of our POWs. In December of 1951, the Joint Chiefs of Staff put out a secret operational paper which noted that the total number of Americans reported by the Communists as being in captivity was too small in relation to the number of missing men. They listed only 25% of Americans known to be missing. So, where were all the others?
A CIA information report dated 2 September 1952 stated, “it was known” that transit camps for POWs captured in Korea had been established in both the Russian far east and in two locations north of the Mongolia/Russia border. Americans were among the POWs passing through those camps. In late ’51 and into ’52, at least two trainloads (hundreds) of U.S. prisoners were seen being transferred from Chinese trains to Soviet trains at Man Chou Li, the transfer point on the border of Manchuria and the USSR. �Why were American POWs on trains bound for the Soviet Union? Note: No POWs who came home reported having been taken to the Soviet Union. Conclusion: those who went, didn’t make it back.
In September of ’53, after the war’s end that July, POWs were exchanged during Operation Big Switch. Prisoners returning from POW Camp 2 reported that numerous airmen who’d been with them as prisoners until the time of the exchange had abruptly disappeared and did not make it home. This information came early on to what would be a growing body of evidence that the Communists were holding men back.
In December of ’53, a confidential memo to the Army Chief of Staff requested a breakdown of information about men who were still missing and unaccounted for. Among the categories were levels of education, combat specialties, highly skilled technical specialties such as radar and electronics, and common technical specialties such as mechanics and slow speed radio operators. Obviously, the military was suspicious that the Communists were holding back men with specialized training, skills and knowledge.
This information was not disseminated to the public, so families of missing men had no reason to connect the dots regarding their particular loved one. My father had been operating SHORAN on his loss mission. SHORAN was a new radar technology that allowed aircraft to find and bomb targets in the dark, making it harder to shoot the plane down. The Soviets didn’t yet have this technology — and wanted to acquire it. Had my family known all this, we would have been less inclined to accept the presented assumption that my father had gone down with the plane. We would have demanded more information. That, of course, is presumably why the government withheld the disturbing truth.
Meanwhile, ours and other families of men who were missing without explanation endured a unique sort of grief. Our loved ones hadn’t been reported as killed in action. They’d just disappeared into an abyss. We were ensnared in emotional limbo, with no relief and no means of moving forward. In early 1954, the military made presumptive findings of death for the missing men, offering a few plastic words about how there was no evidence to suggest the men were alive, so they would, therefore, be presumed to have died. This position was faulty for more than one reason.
First, the PFD notices that went out didn’t mention the January, ’54 memo to the Secretary of the Army from his Assistant Secretary:
A further complicating factor in the situation is that to continue carrying these personnel in a “missing” status is costing over one million dollars annually. It may become necessary at some future date to drop them from our records as “missing and presumed dead.”
One month later, my mother received notice of my father’s PFD. The notice didn’t make a connection to money being spent. The message it conveyed was that the Air Force had sufficient reason to declare my father dead.
Another, and more disturbing, problem with the PFD’s was that the government had good reason to believe at least some of these men had been held back and could very well still be alive. They failed to mention this.
There are myriad subsequent examples of wartime Intelligence, memos and reports, all of which, especially in the collective, make it hard to dispute that American POW’s were likely taken into the Soviet Union and not returned. As decades passed, we families of American MIAs moved on with our lives, but continue to anguish over the absence of definitive answers. What happened to him? Did he suffer? Could he still be alive?
I would be remiss to say the U.S. Government did nothing to resolve the question of unaccounted-for servicemen. Different factions of the military and diplomatic corps wrote letters, submitted lists of names, and requested clarification. In 1954, the Departments of State and Defense authorized the British Government to make a formal request to the Chinese for the return of United Nations personnel who could still be in Communist custody. The U.S.G. used worldwide information systems to obtain reports on missing service personnel. They formed a clandestine plan to recover at least one POW who’d been held back, in an effort to prove that some men had not been released. The recovery did not materialize.
In May of ’54, the American Embassy in Moscow wrote a letter to its Soviet counterpart referencing recent reports that American POWs had been taken to the Soviet Union. The letter requested all information available to the Soviet Government and for the earliest possible repatriation of these men. The U.S. apparently got no information, and no men were released.
Memos and congressional hearings continued for decades following the end of the Korean War. The rhetoric was largely symbolic, with no realistic expectation that the Soviets would suddenly fess-up to war crimes and send the men home. There were no teeth in the demands, just futile posturing that everyone seemed to know would yield no results. And through it all, the reality of what had happened was kept under wraps. The American People weren’t told; families of the missing men weren’t told.
This deprived the country of what it has always stood for: a government of, by and for the People. It wasn’t for government officials to decide under a cloak of secrecy what should be done about such nefarious conduct by a foreign power, especially when that conduct had devastating and tragic consequences to American service personnel and their families.
Who knows what policy initiatives or diplomatic outreach might’ve been conceived by collective input from more than just higher echelons of the federal government from behind closed doors? The global community might’ve put pressure — through trade embargos or other economic sanctions — on the USSR. Non-government organizations or people-to-people initiatives might have found success where hardline military and political officials had failed. But none of that happened because the U.S. government hid the truth.
Things changed in the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. During a visit to the United States in 1992, as he and the first President Bush declared a formal end to the Cold War, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted the Soviets had taken American POWs. ��
This led to a Senate Select Committee hearing, the creation of a Department of Defense POW/MIA accounting office (DPMO), and the outrage of POW/MIA families who’d essentially been lied to about what might have happened to their loved one. The birth of the long overdue Accounting Effort gave rise to family organizations and advocacy on behalf of Korean War missing.
The families set about researching National Archives and other repositories. Countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sought declassification of relevant documents. Mostly, the requests were met with denials or documents that had been so largely redacted that sometimes only the date hadn’t been blacked out, but advocates pushed on.
Legislators heard from (and met with) the families regularly. Slowly, a voice emerged, and the government started to listen. Certain members of Congress in those early days were helpful in getting legislation passed. They conducted oversight of the executive branch and held hearings at which more and more information came to light.
As reported in my first article of this series, Lt. Colonel Phillip Corso was head of the Special Projects Branch/Intelligence Division/Far East Command during the Korean War. He later handled essentially all projects relative to U.S. prisoners of war for President Eisenhower.
At a mid-1990’s Congressional hearing on POW/MIAs in the House, while Colonel Corso and I waited to be called to testify, he told me Eisenhower had asked him for advice on what to do about the Soviet transfer of POWs. According to Corso, he advised the President to leave the men behind and make no public mention of their captivity. To do otherwise, he and Eisenhower had concluded, would risk another war with the Soviets.
As disturbing as this revelation was, another report was almost too gut-wrenching to hear. It came from Jan Sejna, a high-ranking official in the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Defense in 1968, as the Soviet Union readied itself to invade Czechoslovakia. Sejna defied Soviet directives and then fled Czechoslovakia. The U.S. granted him political asylum.
In 1996, Mr. Sejna gave a statement to the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Committee on National Security. His message was blunt: The Soviet Empire’s primary mission was to destroy democracy. They focused their obsession on nuclear readiness and what they initially called the World Revolutionary War, which was based on political and intelligence aggression. According to Sejna, that “war” involved infiltration of a country’s government and press. It relied on (among other things) sabotage, subversion, and deception. Compromise of political and business leaders was an integral component. The program was designed to destroy western social systems, and the most important target was the United States.
Do those political ambitions persist in Russia today?
Sejna went on to say that, throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, he was in “constant” meetings with Soviet Officials, receiving instructions and relaying those instructions to various Czech agencies and departments. Sejna claimed that, during the course of his duties, in 1956 or thereabouts, he became aware that the Soviets had taken American POWs and used them as human guinea pigs.
His report went like this: Moscow created a military hospital in Czechoslovakia at which doctors were trained in such things as amputation. POWs were also used to test the effects of chemical and biological warfare; the effects of atomic radiation. They were tested for psychological and physiological endurance, and response to mind control drugs. Czechoslovakia built a crematorium in North Korea to dispose of bodies and body parts after experiments were concluded.
Such a revelation wreaks the worst kind of horror on families of men who simply disappeared. Take it from the abstract and imagine your son, husband or father lying on a table — with, or without anesthesia — having his legs cut off so a doctor could practice. Or, being subjected to torture so the enemy could measure his ability to withstand pain.
Sejna closed by stating that the Soviet operation was at the highest level of secrecy. The original Soviet order to begin the operation came in 1951 and said that the operation was to be conducted in such a way that “no one would ever know about it.”
The array of Intelligence our government gathered over the years indicates that Soviet use of American POWs was not confined to barbaric experimentation. Men were used for slave labor in Siberian gulags as the Soviets built up their infrastructure. Then there was intimidation of other prisoners, the rationale being that, if the Soviets could get away with keeping Americans, no one else had a prayer in hell of getting out.
The Soviets also wanted our personnel for propaganda, espionage and Intel gathering. Another arm of their atrocious program involved exploitation of technical skills. My father was proficient in a radar technology that the Soviets wanted. He disappeared in the dead of night. That leaves him God knows where, and those of us who love him in a state of open-ended heartbreak.
The daunting reality for my family (and many others) is that my father’s disappearance without explanation lies within the shadow of the Soviets’ conspiracy to hijack POWs. According to a 1993 Report by the U.S. Support Directorate of the Joint U.S./Russia Commission on POW/MIAs, there was a technology gap between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. after WWII. The Soviet Union needed to bridge that ever-widening gap, so it clandestinely orchestrated and participated in the Korean War, during which it launched a systemized plan of design theft, with emphasis on U.S. Air Force technologies. All the other madness was in concert with the goal of competing with, and undermining, the United States. Five years before the Korean War, we’d been allies with the U.S.S.R. against Hitler.
As for the taking of POWs…the policy was to create plausible deniability over the transfer of prisoners by taking them immediately after capture, preferably before they’d been mixed with the general POW population, so no one could track them. From that point, the captors could do what they wanted, as though they were bringing animals to slaughter and no one gave a damn. The rhetorical question here is, what kind of society descends to such levels of depravity? Authoritarian governments can do what they want, especially when they control the press and murder political opponents.
There are conflicting theories about whether Russia, today, is an extension of the Soviet paradigm. The question is, however, reflective of a global dynamic that should not be brushed aside.
So, what does all this have to do with the present day? First, we as a country should never look the other way when we learn of institutionalized travesties, no matter how long ago they were visited upon us, lest they happen again.
And there’s the whole bellicose shouting match between Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. We’ve been to war on the Korean peninsula once already. Do we want to go there again?
The Chinese jumped into the Korean War because they didn’t want a western power at their border. How would they respond today?
And what about Russian President Vladimir Putin? Putin worked as a Soviet KGB foreign intelligence officer for 16 years and is known for his inclination toward authoritarian rule.
BUT, he told Trump that Russia didn’t interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and so, case closed. Trump is sure Putin would not lie to him. Let’s hope his calculation is a good one. On the other hand, is it astute leadership to ignore the whole Soviet, KGB, authoritarian rule thing, which is but a short look back for the Kremlin today? Is it a good idea to assume transparency and above-board conduct?
The Russians have long considered the U.S. and our form of government to be a threat, a nemesis, so much so that their recent predecessors experimented on Americans to be better prepared to defeat us in the future. Over the past couple decades, during which relations between the U.S. and Russia were supposed to have been cooperative, if not amicable, the U.S. POW/MIA Accounting office has provided the Russians with accounts of the transfer of American servicemen from past conflicts. The Russians sometimes have promised to respond, but then failed to do so. Or, they have challenged the accuracy of reports without clarifying the ways in which the reports were supposedly incorrect.
To date, the Russians, the Chinese and the North Koreans have not addressed the transfer of POW’s issue in a meaningful way. There was a glimmer of hopeful cooperation in the 1990’s, when the Russians appeared to be cooperating with the American effort to find answers, but that cooperation produced tangential information and has largely evaporated in recent years. Until the Russians participate in a thorough inquiry, inclusive of sensitive and classified records from factions within their government known to have participated in the Soviet POW transfer program, the question of what happened to American servicemen still missing and unaccounted for from past wars will likely go unanswered.
Until these governments, especially the Russians, participate in a thorough inquiry, inclusive of sensitive and classified records from factions within their governments believed to have participated in the program, the question of what happened to American servicemen still missing and unaccounted for from past wars will likely go unanswered.
Given this disturbing history with these countries, the dicey rhetoric and political maneuvering that is going on today relative to that region of the world is disquieting. These are countries we cannot necessarily trust and they sure as heck are not countries with which we want to engage in war. The Trump Administration needs to find some middle ground between blind acceptance (for whatever reason) of anything Putin has to say, and fiery threats to blow North Korea out of the water in bully to bully one-upmanship.
My third, and final, article in this series will give the reader a look inside Perm 36, the last known Soviet gulag.