John J. Muccio

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John J. Muccio

Born March 1900
Naples, Italy
Died 1989 United States

American diplomat

John J. Muccio was the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea (ROK) from 1949 until 1952, just before and during the crucial years of the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953. When he took office, he inherited powerful problems left behind by the American Military Government's occupation of the southern section of the country and more problems ahead in his dealings with the repressive regime of ROK President Syngman Rhee (1875–1965; see entry). When war broke out in Korea, it was Muccio who informed the U.S. government and oversaw the evacuation of Americans and the Rhee regime from the capital, Seoul. Over time, he developed an acute diplomat's understanding of Korea and its president. He found ways to coax the elderly man to cooperate with the Americans, sometimes by tricking him to do so. While he may have had some reservations about the Korean president, Muccio deeply respected the Korean cause and used his skills effectively to persuade the United States to aid Korea, and, when appropriate, to allow the fledgling nation to stand on its own. The ambassador was invaluable to the United Nations' side of the war for his insight into the ROK Army and the Korean people, and perhaps even more so for his ability to elevate Rhee's morale and to restrain him from rash decisions.

Background of a diplomat

John Joseph Muccio was born near Naples, Italy, in 1900, but came to the United States when he was five months old. His family settled in Providence, Rhode Island, where he went to school and attended Brown University. In 1918, he took out one year to serve in the U.S. Army in World War I (1914–18). He graduated from Brown in 1921 and then pursued a master's degree from George Washington University.

After leaving school, Muccio spent the rest of his career life working in diplomatic service in a variety of places, notably eight years in China and nine years in Latin America, in Bolivia, Panama, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II (1939–45), he was sent to Germany as the assistant of the U.S. political advisor on German affairs. In this capacity he attended the Potsdam Conference, a meeting between the heads of state of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, where he met Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; see entry), who had just become U.S. president upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945).

When the United States recognized the Republic of Korea as a nation in 1948, Truman sent Muccio there as his special representative. Muccio was particularly fit for this position because of his experience in Asia and with U.S. military occupations abroad. In Korea, his first job would be the transfer of responsibilities from the American Military Government to the new Korean government under its president, Syngman Rhee. Establishing a relationship with the seventy-year-old ruler was a difficult job. The temperamental Rhee exhibited mixed feelings toward the American presence in his country. Although he desperately needed the U.S. troops' strength in conflicts with North Korea, he resented American influence in Korean politics. He was not sure he liked Muccio, either: he may have viewed the diplomat's light-hearted style as a lack of manners.

Muccio was a bachelor known for his taste for wine, women, and song. His first secretary, Harold Noble, wrote in his memoirs about the Korean War, Embassy at War, that Muccio was the best man for the job in Korea: "The Republic of Korea was so new, it had so much to learn, it was bound to make so many mistakes, and its officials were so thin-skinned in their personal and national pride, that Muccio's relaxed calmness and sympathy were ideal. He genuinely liked Koreans and most Koreans genuinely liked and respected him."

The first U.S. Ambassador to Korea

At the end of World War II, in August 1945, the general order for the Japanese surrender included an arrangement in which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender in Korea south of the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea) and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, would receive the surrender north of it. The United States and the Soviet Union had originally agreed to occupy Korea after the war because, after forty years of being occupied by Japan, it was feared that the Koreans would not have enough experience to govern themselves right away. The Koreans, naturally, wanted to rule themselves.

In early 1948, at the urging of the United States, the United Nations (UN) sponsored elections in Korea, after which Korea would become an independent nation. (The UN was founded in 1945 by the Allies to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.) The northern Koreans and the Soviets, claiming that the future of Korea should not be determined by the UN, refused to take part in the elections. The vote was held in May anyway, without the northern Koreans, and a new government to rule over all of Korea, the Republic of Korea (ROK), was established, with Rhee installed as its president. Rejecting the ROK and Rhee's authority, the northern Koreans soon held their own elections and established their own new government, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

In 1949, the United States named Muccio ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Muccio immediately had some tough problems to handle. The United States was ready to withdraw its troops, and Rhee firmly opposed the withdrawal. Muccio's job was to change that attitude, as he explained to Jerry N. Hess in a 1971 interview, the transcript of which is housed at the Harry S. Truman Library:

My first aim was to make clear to President Rhee and his whole hierarchy that they were responsible for what was being done in Korea, and it was no longer the United States running the show. And the Koreans were very slow in really seriously taking on the task of developing a defense force, a defense capability. The whole aim, until the final unit of American armed forces left on June 29, 1949, was to keep us there militarily. But once that final unit left, the Koreans did more for themselves in the one year from June 1949 until 1950, than they had done for themselves in all the four previous years.

Muccio had to do some backpedaling as well: before he became ambassador he had criticized Rhee and his government for serious political repression (stifling of any opposition to government policies). Now he had to convince the ruler that he and the United States had Korea's best interests in mind. With remarkable persistence, Muccio managed to arrange an agreement with the United States to provide strong economic aid to the Republic of Korea. He also convinced Rhee to take steps to correct the inflation that was rocking Korea's economy.

Many other things in Korea disturbed the ambassador. Although the United States did not want to be involved in a war, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea brought about new violence at the border, as the South Koreans closely faced the North Koreans across the 38th parallel. Muccio frequently heard of skirmishes, as he recalled in his 1971 interview:

While we were in the Blue House, the presidential residence, Lee Bum Suk, who at that time was Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and head of the National Youth Corps, came in joyfully exalting that his boys had just taken over Haeju, which is just beyond the 38th parallel opposite Kaesong. That was his news, that his boys had entered Haeju, he didn't go on to say that practically every one of them were killed on the spot. But that's the sort of thing that was going on from both sides.

War breaks out

At 8:00 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 1950, Muccio got word that the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) had attacked the ROKs at various points along the border. By 9:00 he had sent word to Washington, and his message ended, as quoted in John Toland's history In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953: "It would appear from the nature of the attack and the manner it was launched, that it constitutes an all-out offensive against the Republic of Korea." In Korea, President Rhee was in a panic. The news from the battlefront was not good, and air strikes were rapidly approaching Seoul.

By Monday it was clear the NKPA would soon be in Seoul. Muccio remained calm, delivering hourly radio announcements stating that the ROK army was holding its own. At the same time, he was organizing the evacuation of the wives and children of Americans stationed in Korea. Later that day, he arranged for air evacuation of all American embassy workers. When he went to tell Rhee about the evacuation, he found that the president had already fled Seoul. Muccio himself planned to stay in Seoul with a few volunteers, but Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893–1971; see entry) ordered him to leave before the enemy got him. He made his first move, setting up a temporary headquarters in Suwon. From there, the embassy and the Rhee government were forced to flee again, first to Taejon and then to Taegu in the Pusan Perimeter.

Rhee, utterly confounded by the steady defeat of the ROK army and the arriving U.S. troops, frequently threatened to go back across the new defensive lines into enemy territory. Repeatedly, Muccio convinced him that the war was not lost and that the president must save himself in order to lead his people. He described to Hess in the 1971 interview how he found a little help in dealing with the unpredictable Rhee from the president's Austrian-born wife:

Mrs. Rhee and I developed, more or less unconsciously, a little procedural understanding. She would get on the phone and call (and she didn't have to say anything on the phone), the call itself was just a tip-off to me that he was about to do something that she thought was not advisable. I would then find some excuse for dropping in on the old man. And if I sat there long enough he'd come out with what he had in mind. She did this repeatedly during those very crucial days.

Diplomacy in the hot seat

Muccio came to know all the significant players in the Korean War. In his interview, he described his observations of General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry), commander of the U.S. Far East forces and later the commander of the UN forces in Korea: "I think MacArthur is one of the biggest brains I've ever come in contact with, but he had gotten to the age where he was no longer in touch with the situation. And I think that was very, very evident in the developments in November and December, in northern Korea. There was a failure of intelligence more than anything else for the mess that we got into." In his dealings with the commander, Muccio's efforts were often stymied by his staff. "I found that the occasions when I had direct access to MacArthur to have gotten the greatest backing and support. When we—I personally—or the American Mission in Korea—tried to deal through the hierarchy, it was quite different."

While MacArthur and the X Corps (the First Marine Division, the Third and Seventh Infantry divisions, and ROK I Corps) split off from the Eighth Army in the Pusan Perimeter to launch their successful invasion at Inchon, Muccio was with the Eighth Army, penned in by the enemy and in very desperate circumstances. Muccio in his interview recalled with admiration the leadership of the American military he observed during the war:

The thing that impressed me most about the whole U.S. operation, the U.S.-UN operation in Korea, was that the U.S. military leadership, that is General [Matthew B.] Ridgway, General [James] Van Fleet and General MacArthur, General [Walton H. "Johnnie"] Walker, General [John H.] Church, and General [William F.] Dean, were men who were still in their physical and mental prime, who had come to the fore during World War II. And it was really a tremendous satisfaction to have dealings, direct dealings, with men of that caliber. I think that we should be very proud of the leadership that we had available at that time, right in the prime of their physical and mental vigor, it was a tremendous experience.

Muccio was also highly impressed with the Republic of Korea Army. Having only started training as a military force after the U.S. troops left Korea in 1949, the ROKs were certainly not prepared for war, as Muccio noted in the interview:

This was enough time, of course, to train squads and companies, but they did not have time to get the leadership personnel organized and trained for large-scale operations. But in spite of that, there wasn't a single Korean unit that gave up as a unit… . They held on desperately, they gave us time, and forawhile, several months, the U.S. and other UN forces were so desperately pressed that we didn't have the time to train and refurbish and reorganize the Korean forces… . And once we hadthe time and the resources to start reorganizing, and retraining, the Koreans fitted in beautifully and did an excellent job.

Wake Island

On the night of October 14, 1950, Muccio was mysteriously summoned to an airport and the next day he was on his way, with General MacArthur, to Wake Island to meet with President Truman. MacArthur, a soldier at heart, told Muccio that he was angry to have to deal with "politics" at such a time. He put on a good face, however, for the conference.

At Wake Island, MacArthur claimed he was certain that the Chinese were not going to intervene in the Korean War. (In fact, since August China had said that it would enter the war if American troops crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea, China's ally.) Soon after he and Muccio returned to their positions, the first Chinese attacks were made on ROK units, but MacArthur still dismissed them as random help from Chinese volunteers.

Retreat and a change of command

When the Communist Chinese Forces attacked again in late November 1950, this time pushing the UN forces back down below the 38th parallel, Muccio was forced to flee Seoul for a second time. He visited MacArthur soon after, and recalled that MacArthur was still thinking that the rest of the war would be a "mop-up" operation: one in which they would simply eliminate the random North Korean soldiers that remained in the fight. By this point in the war, however, there was worldwide concern that the United States might provoke World War III in Korea; most of Washington agreed that it was time to pursue peace. But when the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the president's and the secretary of defense's war advisors) informed MacArthur of their plan to try to work out a cease-fire with the Chinese, MacArthur sent his own communique to the Chinese, threatening them with bombs in their homeland and contradicting the intention of the Truman administration. This was one in a series of acts that Truman felt compromised the security of the country. After the commander was relieved of duty by the president, the pursuit of an armistice (truce) began for real. Muccio went to work on the very unhappy Syngman Rhee, who wanted to continue the war for reunification of Korea. Muccio continued this difficult work until he was called back to the United States in September 1952.

After the Korean War, Muccio was made envoy extraordinaire to Iceland and then ambassador to Guatemala. After forty-two years in diplomatic service, he retired in 1962 at the highest rank available to career ministers. He lived in retirement for another twenty-seven years, dying in 1989.

Where to Learn More

Matray, James I. "John J. Muccio." In The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler. New York: Garland, 1995.

Noble, H. J. Embassy at War. Seattle: Univeristy of Washington Press, 1975.

Toland, John. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.


Muccio, John J. "Oral History Interview Transcripts." Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

armistice: talks between opposing forces in which they agree to a truce or suspension of hostilities.

diplomat: a professional representative of a nation who helps handle affairs and conduct negotiations between nations.

evacuate: to remove people from a dangerous area or a military zone.

intelligence (military): information about the enemy.

mop up: the clearing of an area of all enemy troops or resistance.

morale: the way that a person or a group of people feels about the job they are doing or the mission they are working on.

reunification: the process of bringing back together the separate parts of something that was once a single unit; in Korea, this usually refers to the dream of a single Korea ruled under one government, no longer divided into two nations at the demarcation line.

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