The Korean War
Syngman Rhee in The Korean War
Dr. Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) was an American-educated Korean exile who returned to his country to become the first president of South Korea in 1948. A fierce anticommunist but also an unpopular autocrat, Rhee led his nation—rather ineffectually—throughout the Korean War.
As a young man, Rhee was imprisoned from 1897-1904 for his activism in support of internal reforms in Korea. Following his release, Rhee traveled to the United States, attended Princeton, and became the first Korean student to receive a PhD in America. He then returned home and participated in the Korean rebellion against the Japanese occupation in 1919. When that effort was quashed, Rhee fled again and did not return until the Japanese were defeated in August 1945. By this point, he was approaching seventy years old and had become quite conservative and a ferocious anticommunist. His presidency largely failed to make substantial gains in the quality of life for the war-torn Koreans, and Rhee employed authoritarian measures to maintain power. He ardently clamored for war with the North. After North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950, Rhee ordered his army and police to murder domestic political opponents; as many as 100,000 people are believed to have been killed in this "summer of terror." The executions were supposed to prevent southern leftists from reinforcing the rapidly advancing northern troops, but Rhee's attention to eliminating political opponents rather than fighting North Korean troops led to the near-collapse of his country.