Interview with Joseph Alsop
29 March 1951 , The Eleanor Roosevelt Show
[Elliott Roosevelt]: Instead of answering a letter today Mother, I'd like to have you discuss the question that someone asked me the other day. It is: "Do you think the United Nations troops should cross the thirty-eighth Parallel in Korea, and why should there be confusion as to who decides this? President Truman or General MacArthur?"
[ER]: Well as a matter of fact, I don't suppose either President Truman or General MacArthur should decide, it should be decided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United Nations.
[Elliott]: I see. But evidently the joint chiefs of staff have given a directive under which General MacArthur is acting and which is known to President Truman.
[ER]: Well, only as a member of the United Nations should it be known to President Truman. Because General MacArthur is the United Nations general and he should notify the United Nations at the same time as he notifies President Truman or anybody else because the United Nations is where he gets authority.
[Elliott]: I see. Well now would you like to discuss the question of whether they should cross the thirty-eighth parallel in Korea or not?
[ER]: Well my own feeling is that-and it's purely personal and I haven't talked to any government authority about it-is that we should not ever have crossed the thirty-eighth parallel and that we should not now cross it.
[ER]: That we should stay at the thirty-eighth parallel. That was where the aggression was committed and when we reach that and are strong enough to prevent any assault on that line, I think then we should demand negotiations.
[Elliott]: Supposing those, the demand for those negotiations is ignored...
[ER]: Well I think we should immediately begin, having stabilized our line, to move in to South Korea with the UN Commission and begin to rehabilitate that part of the country.
[Elliott]: Well wouldn't...
[ER]: And perhaps by example that will show the North Koreans that there are advantages to negotiate.
[Elliott]: Wouldn't that be rather foolish in the event that China decided to again attack and send our troops back down the peninsula?
[ER]: I said when we had fully stabilized, I, I meant when we were sure that we were where we could stay.
[Elliott]: In other words when we had a large enough concentration of troops and guns to be able to withstand any attack at the thirty-eighth parallel.
[ER]: That's what, that's what my feeling would be.
[Elliott]: That's going to take a rather large number of troops and machinery in order to ensure that an iron line can be created which cannot be violated.
[ER]: Well I think we could begin and at least to demonstrate what our intentions were. And I think that news would spread because there are a great many North Korean refugees in South Korea today. And I think there would be the possibility at least- everything you do in this world is a gamble-but I should think it [Elliott coughs in background] would be a possibility that in that way you could bring about negotiation. And the sooner we bring that about, the better.
[Elliott]: Well there are military experts who have made the statement quite strongly in the public press that there's another reason that we shouldn't go beyond the thirty-eighth parallel. That if we are not going to reach in and hamper the supply lines of munitions and troops moving from China into North Korea, that we must hold at the thirty-eighth parallel in order to be able to prevent them from pilling up a large force in opposition to our troops-maybe millions of men.
[ER]: I know that. We have to have space in which to operate our air force or it's valueless to us.
[Elliott]: That is correct.
[ER]: And that's, that's...
[ER]: Military, tactical situation, which naturally I should think, would be taken into consideration.
[Elliott]: Uh, Well of course, you see there's been a lot of confusion and there are a great many people who advocate that as long as these troops are moving from China, that the, and the, the United Nations troops have been violated and attacked by Chinese troops- whether they want to call them volunteers or not, the supplies are moving from China. That therefore we should move in and cross the thirty-eighth parallel and rehabilitate all of Korea. Making sure by even going into China to stop the supply lines from moving up to the borders of Korea.
[ER]: Well after all, our original authority was in South Korea and it was the aggression...
[Elliott]: But I don't quite agree with you on that statement because theoretically the original authority
[ER]: Is United Nations authority
[Elliott]: of the United Nations was over all of Korea with the understanding that Russia as a member of United Nations was to administer the northern part, north of the thirty-eighth parallel...
[ER]: That is correct.
[Elliott]:..And the United States the southern part. Well the Soviet Union ostensibly is still a member of the UN and should have no objections to a UN force taking over the entire country.
[ER]: Well we know quite well that that would not be so because we know that what the Soviet Union did was to indoctrinate the North Koreans and to instigate on their part the same idea that the Soviets have, namely that people cannot be happy unless they are communists, and therefore that communism must spread throughout the world. And in order to do that, the North Koreans felt they must liberate the South Koreans by aggression. Now we might just as well face the facts of this situation. If we, against their will, force [Elliott coughs in background] North Koreans to rehabilitation we will perhaps meet resistance again. And I think our efforts should be to give it where the people are prepared to take it, and where we have, where the United Nations has an accepted authority. When it comes, it undoubtedly has authority in North Korea, but it does not, as yet, an accepted authority. It should offer, and offer immediately, to send in it's commission and to rehabilitate just as it will rehabilitate in South Korea. But we started this discussion on the supposition that North Korea would refuse negotiation and that
[ER]: China would not withdraw.
[Elliott]: Who is North Korea today?
[ER]: Well, North Korea is probably a puppet government set up by either China or the Soviets.
[Elliott]: What proportion of the North Korean citizens have evacuated themselves to the South.
[ER]: I don't know. But I should say quite a number.
[Elliott]: Well therefore in South Korea today are large numbers of North Koreans who ostensibly should have the right of...
[ER]: Either to go back to North Korea or to be rehabilitated where they are if they wish to stay.
[Elliott]: Well wouldn't they have the right also to, to have a say in whether North Korea joins and accepts the United Nations order?
[ER]: If they go back into North Korea, yes.
[Elliott]: But the puppet government, a puppet government is one that is run by an outside power.
[Elliott]: And even in North Korea, the North Korean army is quite evident from captives today, that they are becoming very dissatisfied with their partnership with the so called Chinese volunteers.
[ER]: Yes but Elliott, you are facing a reality now you are trying to avoid. I, I grieve every day when I read the papers at the way in which we emphasize the numbers of people that we have killed that are Chinese. I'm not glad because we have to kill innumerable Chinese people in order to put down aggression. I am very sad about it. I know it has to be done and I know that it's the only way to save our own United Nations Forces, but I don't like the way our papers treat it at all. It makes me very unhappy. And I don't therefore-I think we have to face realities as they are-and I don't want to do something. I want to get the maximum of acceptance without any more bloodshed than is necessary.
[ER]: And I think the way to get it is to not say you're not going to cross the thirty-eighth parallel,
[ER]: but try to establish a very strong line.[Elliott]: Strong line there. And then go ahead immediately with a huge rehabilitation program.
[Elliott]: I see. Well I think that that probably answers the question that was put to me and I see that the time is running out for this part of the program so we'll now turn it over to our announcer.[Break]
[ER]: I'm very happy to have a chance to have this talk with you. It happens that this afternoon I'm interviewing my cousin, and we haven't met for a long time. And he has seen a great many things, and done a great many things since last we met, and there are so many things I want to talk about, that I don't even know where to begin! So first of all, I'll just introduce Mr. Joseph Alsop, columnist in Washington, DC. Now Joe, what would you like to talk about? I'd like to know from you, whether you think we have to have a war?
[Alsop]: I certainly don't. I think there's no reason to fear a war at all if we do the simple, practical things that quite obviously need to be done to prevent a war. It's very easy to list those if you look at the world today. I'd put first: to pull together the Western alliance, of which we are of necessity the leader. I'd put second: to hasten the work of building the Western defense. Because of course the weakness of the Western nations is an open invitation to Soviet attack. And I'd put third: to manage ourselves in world affairs, in a sober, calm sensible manner, so that our allies have confidence in us, so that we offer no unnecessary provocation, and so that the firmness of our intentions, our determination and our peacefulness are all understandable to everybody...
[Alsop]: ...If we achieve those three things, I don't think we'll have a war.
[ER]: That's very well stated, but I can see a few difficulties. For instance, in a country like ours where we have free speech and free press, in order to preserve the freedoms you sometimes have to have what sounds to your allies like conflicting voices. How are we going to get it clear that in basic things we are going to act together and probably act immediately all the way down the line?
[Alsop]: Well, that's always a very difficult problem, because people aboard seem to think that everybody that makes a speech in the Senate or writes a piece in the newspapers is speaking for the Government of the United States. The only way that I can see that that problem can be handled is just to let people learn gradually that the acts of the government are what matter, and that when the real testing time comes, if the government is courageous and wise and firm, people always support the government.
[ER]: I, I think that too. But I think that they are rather slow to recognize that in many countries. For instance in the United Nations, I find very often that other delegates, who are living here, and who should be learning what, how to weigh things, will bring me articles from papers and show them to me and say "What does this mean?" And it will be something that has appeared, let us say, in the Times Herald, or in some other paper in New York and I will say, "But that just represents a section of opinion," and, and they look at me and say, "But it is one of your big papers." And I say "Yes, but that doesn't represent the government nor the whole country, and you, you will not find that the whole country will react in this way or that way." But it's very hard for people in other countries to understand.
[Alsop]: Undoubtedly it is, but gradually, when great crises occur, and we are going to have to live through a great many crises, and people abroad see the country as a whole responding to the crisis with resolution and with wisdom, this conflict of voices, this chaos of advice that is part of our political system, ceases to impress them as much. And I've seen in these last five years, as a wandering newspaper man, having to go to Europe a good deal, that the nations that deal with us most regularly like the French and the British have gained confidence and have stopped being so very much alarmed when somebody makes a speech in the Senate that seems to say something quite contrary to our official policy. And I think that, that that kind of evolution toward confidence in the United States can occur in the whole world providing, always providing, that when these crises occur that we are going to have to live through, our people do respond with resolution and with courage.
[ER]: Now that's something that I'd like to just talk about, I'm really thinking out loud for the moment. Its hard for our people at present, I think, to understand, that they are actually being asked to make the sacrifices and to accept many of the restrictions that they never have accepted except for a war. And, to make the most people understand that this is a kind of necessary patriotism which will preserve the peace, is quite a new thing to demand of them. And I find it even as regards action in Korea, it hasn't quite come through that what we are really asking is that to prevent a war which would mean complete destruction for the world, we do the things which we have never done before except to defend ourselves in a war.
[Alsop]: Well, I think there is a very simple way of describing our present situation, Mrs. Roosevelt. The way I'd say, put it is this. For a long time after the end of the war, although we could see the Soviet Union preparing on the vastest scale for military operations, building up an immense armament, we completely neglected the defense problem. In doing that, we were just like a fellow who puts off taking out his insurance until he's fifty-five years old, and then he gets scared and he goes around to the insurance company, and the insurance company says, "Well you're fifty-five years old and you've got to pay ten times the usual premium if you want to get the insurance that you're asking for." And in the same way, we neglected our defense, and now it's all to be done in a very short time, and we have to pay ten times the usual premium for this defense, which is insurance for peace.
[ER]: I think that's put very well. Now, I was interested in your recent trip in Korea, and whether you found that any of the GIs were getting an understanding of what they were doing, and whether any effort on the part of the government was being made to help them to understand.
[Alsop]: Well it seemed to me that they understood what they were doing a great deal better than a good many rather foolish people here. I used to ask them what they thought they were fighting for, which is a pretty insulting question to put [ER laughs], but a conventional one. Well, and they generally had a rather simple answer, they said they were fighting for the United States. And it seems to me that's a perfectly adequate thing to fight for. And they weren't discouraged; their spirit was magnificent. And I must say coming back from Korea, it, it made me mighty angry, to find that the spirit in the United States, where people were pretty comfortable compared to Korea, in fact very comfortable compared to Korea, was not nearly as good as it was among the fellows who were out in the line, taking the danger and the horror of the fighting.
[ER]: But did you find among them a beginning of an understanding of the-or, or perhaps when you were there there hadn't yet come enough of other nations' help-but did you find any sense that we were fighting with other nations...
[ER]: ...For something we all were in together?
[Alsop]: Yes, there was that. When I left, the UN contingents were not nearly so large as they are now. And it's also true that, that people don't bother to think very, in a very complicated way...
[Alsop]: ...about politics when they're in the line. But as I say, the spirit was fine, they had a sense of fighting for the United States. They had a sense that if they didn't do it, the consequences would be very bad indeed, and that it was worth doing. And its seems to me that's as much as you can ask and very good.
[ER]: Well I think that's a tremendous amount for the boys fighting in the line to feel. And I can quite understand your feeling of irritation when it seems as though we hung back on the things that we were asked to do, and perhaps wasted our time troubling about non-essentials, and our government even wasted its time in troubling about non-essentials. Don't you think we might move a little faster sometimes to do the things that are necessary?
[Alsop]: Well I do indeed, and I return to my parallel, if you don't pay for the insurance it isn't there when you need it. And, it may be nice now to have the extra comforts and extra self-indulgence that is possible when you don't pay for it, but when it isn't there and you do need it the result is so much worse, that the only thing to do is pull in your belt, face the reality of your situation, and do what it's necessary to do without complaining.
[ER]: Now for just one minute, I have to let our announcer have a word, and then we'll come right back and continue our talk.[Pause]
[ER]: And now, we come back to this talk between Mr. Joseph Alsop and myself and one of the first questions that I want to ask you is, you're here in Washington, I'm not but I get a great many reactions from things that are happening, and I'm wondering if you, from your experience here, have any feeling that because of our fear of communism, and because of our great dislike for communism, we are sometimes tempted to do things which threaten our own freedoms, and the very things that we are fighting to preserve in democracy?
[Alsop]: I agree with you very strongly Mrs. Roosevelt. It seems to me a monstrous joke. There are a series of simple practical things to do to preserve our freedoms, such as building an adequate defense. These things have nothing to with hunts all through the government for some wretched clerk who may have been silly in his youth about the Communist Party. They have nothing to do with all this domestic agitation. There are things that the Senate can vote on and the country can do without thinking at all about what's called "loyalty." And funnily enough, the very people who make all the row in Congress about potential disloyalty in the American government, are the same people who generally vote the Daily Worker line when the issues come up of whether or no we are to do the things that are needed to defend ourselves against Soviet aggression. I regard-of course we must have a reasonable and sensible security precautions in our government, every sensible government has those. But I regard the tremendous emphasis on the domestic danger as a form of escape, of trying to run away from the necessity of doing rather disagreeable and expensive things to guard ourselves against the danger abroad. It's very easy to persuade yourselves that by stamping out the wretched American Communist Party, which don't amount to a hill of beans, you can safeguard yourself against the Soviet Union. When as a matter of fact what you've got to do to safeguard yourself against the Soviet Union, is put on a tremendous defense effort which, granted, is going to demand a considerable measure of self-sacrifice from every American.
[ER]: I quite agree. And I entirely agree with you. What you've got to do is to put on the tremendous defense effort, but I would go even one step further. I would say that to really be successful with the Soviet Union, you have got to be for Democracy with so much conviction that you will do some of the things that seem perhaps, just one thing too much to bear. For instance, I think we have to help the world to have bread. I think that's almost essential, and, because a great deal of the world cannot even think about freedom until they have bread, and we saw that here in our own depression. Now, one other thing seems to me necessary, is to talk on the level of the mass of people, and not always talk on the level of the intellectual group. Now I was told of something the other day that I wonder if you have given much though to in the way of, of how we get across to people, that in one of the Near Eastern countries, quite a change in feeling has come about towards the Soviets, largely because they indoctrinated a few people in villages and in towns, sent them back to get a group together and give street shows depicting the misery of the people and the answers that the Soviet Union had. Now that, given in villages and all over, is clever propaganda, but I can't see why we can't do, really better because we can give proof of, of what we say and they only have promises.
[Alsop]: Well, again I agree with you fully. And of course, in the Marshall Plan we've seen the rule that you've implied work to the full. I remember very well when I went to Europe in the summer and autumn of 1947. The problem then, in Europe, was bread, and nothing else but bread. It was the sense of insecurity that every Frenchman, every Italian had because he didn't know where his own meal and his family's next meal were coming from. And that was going to lead within nine months, without any question at all to communist governments in most of the Western European countries, which would have been equivalent for us to losing an enormous war without ever having fought one. And we launched the Marshall Plan, and it administered a decisive defeat to the Soviet Union. I think we ought to boast a little bit more when we have a victory like that.
[ER]: Yes I've, I've seen that because I've been in so many of those countries and seen the seats in their Parliaments and that section is much less today...
[Alsop]: And of course the same principle of the Marshall Plan can be applied, less expensively in my opinion, in the more primitive countries where in some respects the long range danger is even greater that it was in Western Europe in 1947.
[ER]: You know a Chinaman called Jimmy Yen?
[Alsop]: I know him well.
[ER]: I think his mass education movement could be applied far less expensively and might do a very good job.
[Alsop]: A splendid thing, and worked finely in the province or so of China where it was experimented with before the communists came in.
[ER]: And that's the type of thing I think perhaps we ought to be exploring. Don't you?
[Alsop]: That, and helping people as we have done in a small way in India with their agriculture, providing improved seeds, providing improved methods of cultivation, giving credits in a conservative way for sensible, gradual industrialization. All these things raise the level of life, and this in turn promotes a sense of security, which means a solidity in the, in the national society which makes it un-attackable by the Soviet virus.
[ER]: I sometimes get questions of why I feel that we as a nation are capable of bearing this financial and, I suppose also, burden of leadership. Do you feel that we are capable financially and in the way of carrying the leadership?
[Alsop]: Well, I certainly think that we are capable of it financially. The total outlay on defense and on foreign policy amounts to about something like twenty percent of our national income and that means that we are paying twenty percent of our national income for an insurance policy against destruction. And since the destruction is a quite visible threat, it's very reasonable to buy the insurance policy. The leadership it seems to me is a more serious problem. Because the leadership's job is to make the people understand why we need the insurance policy and how the insurance policy is going to work. If our people understand that, I have absolute confidence in their willingness to pay whatever may be needed for the insurance policy. And I think the failure to make our people understand that is really the most alarming aspect of the present situation in the United States.
[ER]: I would agree with you if I really felt that we, that the majority of people, had not understood it. I have a feeling that we're pretty sound when we get down actually to basic things, and that while they may squirm now, when it's in the formation period and when they are wondering if they will have to do it, that when we actually get down-now, for instance, I, I have people say, "Well, why do we have to have price controls and who will it hurt," and so forth, I think that anyone will take anything if you are bold enough to say you have to have it because we're going to save the country that way. What's your feeling?
[Alsop]: I, that, I've always had a private rule about the reactions of the American people, which is that they never don't do what they can't not do. And, if I didn't have that faith, that in the long run this country does what it needs to do, I wouldn't believe in our kind of society. And if people, if the leaders are honest with our people, if they tell them the truth, if they place the facts before them, they will certainly respond. And I feel very confident that we are going to get through this bad time without running into the trouble that so obviously threatens us.
[ER]: Well I believe in our people I think we may come to things slowly, but I think in the end we do see what's obviously before us and do it. And now I'm sorry to say our time has come to an end and I have to thank you very much Mr. Joseph Alsop for being with me this afternoon.
[Alsop]: Thank you for asking me, Mrs. Roosevelt.