Riots, Political Subversion, and the Communist Agitator’s Playbook: A Lesson From History - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Riots, Political Subversion, and the Communist Agitator’s Playbook: A Lesson From History
Geoje POW camp diorama (Kang Byeong Kee/Wikimedia Commons)

Historically, Americans have not been very effective in dealing with the radical mindset. Like Neville Chamberlain, who really believed the growing hostility with Hitler’s Germany was just a big misunderstanding, Americans have too often believed that if we could only sit down with the Osama bin Ladens of the world they would see that we are a sincere, reasonable people and violence is of no benefit to anyone.

Tucker Carlson wondered why airborne units aren’t used to quell the rioting. They were once. 

Contained in the century-long slow leak of Christianity from Western culture are many things of value, not the least of which is the doctrine of evil. Now, a vaguely expressed secular notion that people are basically good and are motivated by similar desires and felt needs is the reigning paradigm.

But conflict with some people, some nations, and some groups is not a question of mutual understanding. It is a question of evil. It is a lesson Americans learned the hard way — but learn it they did — during the Korean War. And in this culturally defining moment, it is a lesson we would do well to recall.

After Operation Chromite in September of 1950 — MacArthur’s daring landing at Inchon and drive across the Korean Peninsula — hundreds of thousands of (North) Korea People’s Army (KPA) soldiers were encircled, captured, and destroyed. As a consequence, the UN prisoner of war population swiftly rose from less than a thousand in August to more than 130,000 by November.

Makeshift POW camps were hastily constructed to house more than 80,000 of that number on Koje-do (Geoje in many modern spellings), a county-sized island just off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. Prisoners were divided into four massive enclosures, with each containing eight compounds. U.S. soldiers of subpar quality and insufficient quantity were assigned to keep them there.

When ceasefire negotiations began at Kaesong in July 1951 — which were later moved to Panmunjom — resistance among prisoners became systemic, organized, and violent. Messages were cleverly passed between Gen. Nam Il, North Korea’s chief negotiator at the talks, all the way to Koje-do, where they were delivered through the wire to the communist leaders within the prison camps.

The general’s instructions were clear: create martyrs for the communist cause and thereby undermine America’s moral authority at the negotiating table. To this end, communist enforcers at Koje-do accused their jailers of brutality, cultural insensitivity, and gross mistreatment; they staged riots in an effort to provoke an armed response; and they prepared for a general prison breakout, to force the UN to transfer front line troops to the rear echelons.

Brigadier Gen. Francis Dodd, the commander of the Koje-do island installation, naively took prisoner complaints at face value. Hence, the communist strategy, part of an old radical playbook, met with startling success. Prisoner violence (usually against other prisoners) was largely overlooked while every accusation of mistreatment from their guards resulted in an investigation, dismissal, and a Drew Brees-like mea culpa. But the communist leaders would not be placated. Like the endgame to coronavirus quarantines, the goalposts were continually moved.

In his classic history of the Korean conflict, This Kind of War, T. R. Fehrenbach writes,

[In World War II] it was not until 1943 Americans had any prisoners, and these were from a foe of the same basic culture, who sensed they were already beaten. (There had never been enough Japanese POWs to matter.) But in Korea the United States not only had taken thousands of POW’s of alien culture; it faced an alien psychology also.

On May 7, 1952, Dodd, failing to understand the “alien psychology” of which Fehrenbach wrote, agreed to meet with KPA Senior Col. Lee Hak Ku at the gate of Compound 76. It was there that Dodd stood before a rioting prisoner mob like Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. At a prearranged signal, the American general was seized and pulled deep inside the compound before guards could react. Any attempt to rescue him by force, Americans were told, would result in Gen. Dodd’s immediate execution.

What followed was, in the words of Gen. Mark Clark, “the biggest flap of the war.” In the stuff of a Hollywood epic drama, Dodd was placed on trial for crimes against humanity while ideologically unreliable prisoners were tried and summarily executed by the fanatical communists within the camp.

North Korea and China wasted no time in accusing the U.S. of violating the Geneva Convention. And in a mind-bending twist of facts, the likes of which have not been seen since the New York Times and the Washington Post last went to print, their anti-American allies in the media quickly turned the Koje-do fiasco into a propaganda bonanza. Moscow’s Pravda screamed,

Koje Island! Again, we learn that “civilized” Americans can be yet more inhuman, yet more infamous than the bloody Hitlerites. Dachau was a death camp, Maidenek was a death factory; Koje is a whole island of death. The American hangmen are torturing, tormenting, and killing unarmed people here. They are experimenting with their poisons on them. 

At Panmunjom, Gen. Nam capitalized on his own success in engineering the revolt on Koje-do:

Day after day, facing his opposite numbers across the conference table, Nam II poured out crocodile tears for the fate of the communist prisoners whom he alleged were suffering fiendish torments inflicted by the “sadistic and inhuman” United Nations jailers. Under a smoke screen of pious platitudes, Nam Il coolly directed the apparatus of subversion, terrorism, and political murder which throttled anti-communist opposition among the POW’s and turned the compounds at Koje-do into armed camps of Red defiance.

An embarrassed President Truman ordered outgoing UN Commander Gen. Matthew Ridgway to bring Koje-do to heel. Ridgway simply passed the problem along to incoming UN Commander Gen. Mark Clark who, in turn, ordered Brigadier Gen. Haydon “Bull” Boatner to the island to quell the insurrection brewing there.

Upon inspection, Boatner quickly realized just how badly the situation had been handled by his predecessors. The compounds had become “autonomous zones” where no American dared go. In the fashion of Seattle’s own autonomous zone leader Raz Simone, Colonel Lee paraded about like a peacock, drilling his soldiers — now armed with knives, flails, spears, and stolen gasoline to make Molotov cocktails — and prepared them for what Boatner could only guess was an attempt to take over the whole island and slaughter its inhabitants.

Boatner, the 14th commander of the prison installation in two years, ordered an immediate evacuation of all civilians from the island. To do the job of breaking resistance at Koje-do, he then demanded that Clark give him a thousand paratroopers from the 187th Regimental Combat Team then in Japan. The so-called “Rakkasans” — literally “umbrella men,” a nickname given to them by the Japanese during the occupation of that country — were a battle-hardened regiment. As if that weren’t enough, the 187th had been recently supplemented by elements of the now-decimated and decommissioned elite Airborne Ranger units. Clark, over a barrel, reluctantly agreed.

My father, one of the aforementioned Rangers, recalled being on leave in Tokyo when he and others received notice that they had two hours to finish their drinks, kiss their girls goodbye, and return to base to prepare for immediate deployment to an unknown destination.

“We thought we were going back into combat. Instead, we deplaned on Koje. By that time, the whole world knew about the SNAFU there. We were briefed and told it would be our job to crush any opposition to breaking up the compounds and moving the prisoners to new ones. That suited us. No man on leave and ordered back into the field does so happily. To say that we arrived in a bad mood is putting it mildly.”

The sudden disappearance of the island’s civilians only to be rapidly replaced by this elite force was an ominous sign to the communist hardliners that there was a new sheriff in town. Then, writes Fehrenbach:

Boatner had the paratroops stage a mock advance into an empty compound next to 76, with fixed bayonets and flamethrowers, while the communist prisoners watched. The demonstration went like clockwork; it had been timed and scheduled to the second, and every officer briefed on his part. The demonstration was both impressive and frightening.

According to Gen. Clark, “Staff planning for this operation was done as carefully as for any orthodox military campaign.” Boatner then set up loudspeakers and, in English, Korean, and Chinese, he informed prisoners that if they failed to lay down their arms and divide themselves into groups of 500 for relocation, the boys at his back would be sent in, and they would not shrink from violence. The choice was theirs. Instead of complying with his directive, prisoners barricaded the main gate, dug trenches, and killed any who broke ranks.

The following day, June 10, 1952, at 5:45 a.m., Boatner gave one more warning over the loudspeakers. It was a waste of time. The prisoners, like rioters of recent vintage, shouted defiance and hurled objects — and thus they sealed their own fate.

Boatner decided to start with Compound 76, where most of the communist hardliners were concentrated. Beat them down in full view of the other compounds, he reasoned, and the rest will meekly surrender. It was a savvy move.

“Paratroops are a sharp but fragile tool,” says Fehrenbach, “which, since they cannot be used and then put back into the bottle, are best reserved for special missions … these men wanted to fight. Any fight, anywhere, would do.”

With a full complement of UN observers and members of the international press watching from a nearby hillside — you, too, can watch it all here — Boatner sent in the 187th. Instead of attempting to breach the front gate, they cut the wire at the rear of Compound 76 and entered with fixed bayonets and no cartridges in the chambers. No man was to shoot without a direct order from an officer:

The paratroops advanced, slowly, grimly, pushing them back. Now there was chaos. The POW’s had set their huts afire, and smoke blanketed the area, choking men, obscuring vision. In the Korean press, a number of men panicked, and tried to run. They were killed by their own people, with spears in the back. Then the tough paratroopers met the lines of Koreans, and in a wild melee broke the back of their resistance.

After an hour-and-a-half of fighting and without firing a shot, Boatner was master of Compound 76. Like Saddam Hussein a half a century later, Col. Lee Hak Ku was found cowering in a hole. Literally dragged from it by the seat of his pants, the colonel faced a grim fate — but not from the Americans. Repatriated to North Korea, he was tried and shot in a manner that likely mirrored the kangaroo courts of 76. As for the other compounds, having witnessed firsthand the display of power, their resistance wilted, and order was restored to the island.

Speaking of the incident at Koje-do after the war, General Clark observed that “[It] is in itself both a case study in the technique of communist intrigue and a dire warning of the efficiency and imagination of the communist conspiracy against us.”


All of this should sound eerily familiar to Americans watching the recent riots sweeping the country from Seattle to New York. Yes, I recognize the difference between peaceful protesters and rioters. And I likewise recognize that many well-intentioned people are swept up in both. They are what economist Ludwig von Mises called “useful innocents.” But no one who has studied or observed the tactics of communist, fascist, anarchist, or radical Islamic agitators can fail to recognize that at the core of the Black Lives Matter (and Antifa) movement lies a violent ideology masquerading as a champion of the very things it seeks to undermine: justice and equality.

Before rioting, looting, and lawlessness become, to use a phrase the Left would give us for an altogether different reason, the “new normal,” Americans would do well to look to the past and learn the lessons of Koje-do and the broader lessons that the Cold War taught us about dealing with radical secular ideologies — and make no mistake about it, that is precisely what we are now facing.

As the useful innocents — or idiots, as the case may be — in government, industry, the academy, and even churches rush headlong to apologize for wrongs real and imagined and declare their allegiance to Black Lives Matter, I cannot help but think that these Americans are singing a song of German origin they do not understand, and behind it all is Marx, the master lyricist.

Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, the Atlantic, the New York Post, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, and the soon-to-be-released Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days: Discovering What Makes America Great and Why We Must Fight to Save It. You can subscribe to his blog at and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.

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