Keeping the Peace, Painfully

November 12, 1992

President-elect Clinton observed Veterans Day in Little Rock yesterday by dedicating himself to fulfilling his "responsibilities" as commander-in-chief. It was a boilerplate statement, completely predictable, yet testimony unfolding in Washington underscored how wrenching, how anguishing, these responsibilities can be.

Dwight David Eisenhower was our only general-turned-president of this century. As commander of Allied forces in Europe in 1944-45, he ordered tens of thousands of American servicemen into battle. As a newly installed president in 1953, he defied fierce anti-communists in his own Republican Party to obtain an armistice that ended the Korean War well short of total victory.

And now come stunning questions: Did Ike opt for peace in Korea knowing that some American prisoners of war might be held indefinitely by the Soviet Union? Did he deliberately conceal this information from the American public?

The Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs has heard evidence from a 77-year-old retired army lieutenant colonel, Philip Corso, a military aide to Eisenhower who contends this is the case.

How many Americans ended up in the Soviet gulag is a matter of dispute, but we have it on the word of Russian President Boris Yeltsin that this was the fate of U.S. armed forces personnel after World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and of airmen shot down during Cold War spy missions. During a Washington visit, Mr. Yeltsin caused a sensation by suggesting some American MIAs might still be alive in his country, a prospect disputed at the time and unconfirmed to this day.

No president should ever stop trying to free any citizens illegally held by foreign powers. But this cannot disguise the fact that presidents sometimes have to make choices so distasteful it becomes a matter of national security never to admit them.

One Eisenhower biographer, Blanche Wieson Cook, disputes Colonel Corso's account, saying "It rings false to me." But another, Stephen E. Ambrose, has told us that while the Corso testimony was a surprise to him, "It could have happened."

Consider the circumstances in mid-1953, as Eisenhower sought to end the Korean conflict. According to the Ambrose biography, Ike considered unlimited war in the nuclear age "unimaginable" and limited war "unwinnable." Balking at a military stalemate in which U.S. forces were taking 1,000 casualties a week, Mr. Ambrose wrote that Ike "wanted the killing ended, and he ended it."

Colonel Corso's assertion that Eisenhower feared the issue of missing POWs was so inflammatory it could lead to a superpower war if publicized squares with Henry Kissinger's statement, when badgered about missing Vietnam POWs: "What do you want me to do? Start another war?"

President-elect Clinton must ponder these dark and foreboding questions. As commander-in-chief he may have to live up to "responsibilities" a lot more painful than massaging the defense budget.

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