A Rogue American Spy and Why North Korea Hates America

King of Spies
King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America's Spymaster in Korea by Blaine Harden. 7th US infantry Div. and 17th ROK regiment marching, 1950. Photo credit: Viking and Republic of Korea Armed Forces / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Donald Nichols never fit the mold of a post-war American spy. In 1946 he went to Korea as a nobody, going to a place that nobody wanted to go to. When he arrived he began preparing for a war that no one else knew was coming. When it did, he was uniquely ready.

He became an intelligence superstar. He had his own base of operations, and his own army. He became disturbingly close to South Korean President Syngman Rhee, and condoned, if not participated in, Rhee’s campaign of mass killings and beheadings.

This is the remarkable story that author and journalist Blaine Harden tells Jeff Schechtman, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Once the war began, Harden explains, Nichols was invaluable. He created the South Korean Air Force, and he knew when and where America and South Korea could inflict maximum damage in bombing the North. To this day, Nichols’s actions lie at the heart of Kim Jong-un’s argument to the North Korean people about why they should hate America. It’s Nichols’s legacy that Donald Trump’s rhetoric plays directly into.

Nichols was a real life Col. Kurtz, the barbaric officer portrayed by Marlon Brando in the movie Apocalypse Now. And, as Harden tells the story, in 1957, the US military came for him, put him in a straitjacket and took him to a military psych ward where he received massive amounts of electroshock treatment. They turned him into a “non-person.”

To this day, Harden argues, there is no clear reason as to why, and no idea how high up the orders to nullify him came from.

Blaine Harden is the author of King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea (Viking, October 3, 2017).

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman:Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. In Kurtz’s monologues in Apocalypse Now, he talks about the real horror of war.
Kurtz:You have a right to kill me, you have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means, horror. Horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror, horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment, without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
Jeff Schechtman:The story that author, journalist Blaine Harden, tells about Korea and about Donald Nichols is its own ‘heart of darkness’. It’s a story of an American spy who went to Seoul a few years before the war, who went rogue and the consequences of his action are still impacting policy to this very day. Blaine Harden served as the Washington Post Bureau chief in Northeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. He was a national correspondent for the New York Times and has contributed to The Economist,  Frontline, Time and Foreign Policy. It is my pleasure to welcome Blaine Harden to talk about King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea. Blaine Harden, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Blaine Harden:Hi. I’m delighted to be with you.
Jeff Schechtman:Before we talk about Donald Nichols, let’s go back a little bit and first — so many of our listeners that I don’t think understand — talk a little bit about the events of the Korean war and really how it came to be?
Blaine Harden:Well, it goes to the middle of 1940. At the end of World War II, the Soviet army within Manchuria poised to take all of the Korean Peninsula, or at least that’s what the Truman administration feared. So a couple of colonels in the White House in August of 1945 got out a National Geographic map of the Korean Peninsula and looked and drew a line across it. Basically the 38th parallel. And their idea was that the Soviets could have the north and we’d take the south. It was that sort of a classic imperialist superpower game. And to the surprise of the Truman administration, Stalin agreed. He took the North. He installed a puppet regime under Kim Il-sung, the great leader, the grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong-un. And we took the South, the Americans did, and installed our own puppet leader Syngman Rhee.
Both of them were warlike, both of them were sort of wearing the ideological window dressing of their superpower patrons. And they started to fight along the border. And then in 1950, Stalin gave the okay for Kim Il-sung to invade the South with tanks from the Soviet Union, with lots of arms from the Soviet Union. And by that time, the Americans had decided it was too expensive to protect South Korea and it pulled out all of its military except for 500 men in arms. And we, the United States, got our butt kicked for several months in the early months of that war.
Jeff Schechtman:Talk a little bit about what happened once the war got started, once the war was engaged in, how that came to be?
Blaine Harden:Well, that’s the point where the genius of Donald Nichols kicks in. Nichols arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1946, just a year after the line was drawn. He was 23 years old, he was a seventh-grade dropout. He was six foot two, weighed more than 200 pounds and drank a lot of coke and ate a lot of chocolate, very unlike any spy that we know from books and movies. But he was incredibly shrewd, eager, brave, fearless and he was very skilled at developing good relations with the South Koreans. He became a close friend of Syngman Rhee, our puppet leader. Syngman Rhee at the time was 71, Nichols was 23, as I said. But they found favor in each other’s eyes and they began passing information to each other. Syngman Rhee would tell Nichols what his spies were learning about what was going on in the North and Donald Nichols would tell Syngman Rhee what was going on in the American military.
The relationship benefited both. And Nichols rose to a position of real power. So by the time the war started, Nichols had his own outfit. And within a year, he had his own secret base and his own secret army. And he was very, very effective in helping to blunt the invasion, he cracked North Korean army codes that helped save the Americans in the Pusan Perimeter. He won more than 23 medals for valor in the war, secretly. But at the same time, Nichols had a really dark side. His closeness to Rhee blinded him to the things that Rhee was doing to eliminate his political enemies, which was to murder many thousands of them. And Nichols lived in this world of mass killings, torture and severed heads.
Jeff Schechtman:There really is an element to Nichols. And I was just so struck by it in reading about him that you can’t help but think of Colonel Kurtz in the Heart of Darkness. And really that’s the kind of character Nichols was.
Blaine Harden:Yeah. Nichols had never read Heart of Darkness, and I don’t know if he saw Apocalypse Now. But he knew that he probably should have been a more principled operator. He said that if he’d had more training, more education, more leadership skills, he probably would have managed his license to murder more carefully.
Jeff Schechtman:Who recruited Nichols? Who found him? Who was the genius that said this guy is different?
Blaine Harden:I think he recruited himself. No one else wanted to go to the Korean peninsula in 1946. He was pulled out of Guam, given six weeks of training at the army’s counter intelligence core and sent to Korea as a master sergeant. He was a nobody in a place where nobody wanted to be. He had good language skills, he learned passable Korean and he prepared for a war that he didn’t know was coming. There is a real parallel between Nichols and T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia was a much better educated guy, but he, like Nichols, arrived in the Middle East four years before the outbreak of World War I. He learned the language, he learned the leaders, he learned the geography, he learned everything. And so, when war came he was uniquely ready. The same thing can be said of Donald Nichols. When the war broke out, Nichols was on the ground ready to go. He delivered bomb targets to the US Air Force within a few hours of the start of the war.
Jeff Schechtman:The thing about Nichols is that he didn’t fit the image at all of what US spies were like at that point.
Blaine Harden:That’s true. And I think that’s one of the most interesting things about him. The people who were running the Central Intelligence Agency, which was born in the late 1940s, were America’s upper crust. A lot of them went to Yale and Princeton and Harvard, a lot of them worked at white-shoe law firms, a lot of them summered in the Hamptons. They were often described as America’s very best men. Nichols grew up in an operatically dysfunctional family. His mother and father lived in Hackensack and when he was a little boy, his mother used to bathe naked in the kitchen sink and have sexual relations with men not her husband in the living room in front of her four boys, including Donald Nichols. Soon she left the family and the father, brokenhearted, took his four boys to South Florida where they struggled through the depression. The father was not only poor, he was angry and he threatened to kill himself but only after killing his sons by cutting their throats.
So he grew up in a family where violence, fear, heart break and hatred were just part of the texture of his life. And then at 17 to find a measure of stability, he joined the US Army.
Jeff Schechtman:It really puts in context what he saw in terms of his relationship with Syngman Rhee and the torturing and the horrible behavior that he saw there and why it had so little effect on him.
Blaine Harden:Yeah. He was oddly cold. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to his nieces and nephews and they said that he was spooky and distant, strangely self-confident. They didn’t know all that he’d accomplished in the Korean war after he came home and they frankly didn’t believe his stories. They seemed too fantastical. And it took me a long time to understand the dimensions of his career. And it wasn’t really until I found his military service record, that documented on a semi-annual basis his accomplishments, that I got a sense that this guy was, he was an intelligent superstar who was given free rein to do what he wanted to do for eleven years.
Jeff Schechtman:How much of Nichols’s action shaped the way the war revolved and ultimately its outcome. And we’ll talk later about where it brings us today. But how much of Nichols’s actions actually shaped events?
Blaine Harden:He was really a major actor in the unfolding of the war, particularly in its early months. He helped the Americans find weaknesses in Soviet battle tanks that stopped those tanks from really butchering Americans in South Korean forces. So that was a key accomplishment for which he won the silver star. He also found a MiG, a wrecked MiG and got the technical information of that MiG back to the United States so the Americans could build a better fighter plane that could fight against the MiG in the world’s first all jet air war. So these were key accomplishments.
For that, he won the Distinguished Service Cross, which is only just beneath the Congressional Medal of Honor as award for valor. But most importantly, he broke North Korean battle codes. He had in his hip pocket a team of North Korean code breakers who defected. And these code breakers broke North Korean battle codes and gave the American Eighth Army early warning of when incursions were occurring in the Pusan Perimeter, which was the defensive perimeter that the US had put up in the first month of the war. So without Nichols, a whole lot more Americans would have died and it’s possible that the Americans might have been pushed off the Korean Peninsula altogether. So his accomplishments were extraordinary and he deserved his medals. At the same time as I’ve mentioned, he had this dark side.
Jeff Schechtman:What did the North Koreans think of Nichols?
Blaine Harden:They wanted to kill him. They sent assassins to kill him, they broadcasted his name on the radio. One assassin was caught, shot and buried just a few hundred yards from Nichols’s headquarters outside Seoul. He was well known to the North Koreans and his name appeared more than 11 times in a show trial after the war was over. But his name never made it into the New York Times or the Washington Post. He was unknown to the American press.
Jeff Schechtman:Why is that?
Blaine Harden:Part of it has to do, I think, with the way wars were covered in the 1950s. A part of it had to do with the assumption that everything that North Korea said was a lie. Even though his name was in the trial and it could have found its way into the American newspapers, there was a high degree of credulity. They simply believed that the North Koreans were making everything up. But I read the North Koreans’ account of what they said Nichols had done during the war. And while it was somewhat exaggerated, it was more or less the truth.
Jeff Schechtman:You talk about him being unsupervised, how much of what we might call today kind of Black Ops, how much of that really was just stuff that he came up with himself and just did it?
Blaine Harden:Well, almost all of it because had his own base and his own army and his own rules, he could do what he wanted. He sent a very large number of his agents to death in North Korea, putting them on planes and dropping them by parachute or having them walk across the battle lines or infiltrate from islands on both sides of the Korean Peninsula. So he lost a lot of his agents. In fact, the agents became so distressed by having to work for Nichols that at one point in the second year of the Korean war, they attacked him at night in his own quarters and he had a shootout with them and shot several of them. And I have this from two eye witnesses, it never entered his military service record. Can you imagine that, having a shootout in your quarters and it doesn’t get into your military service record? That’s the kind of license that Donald Nichols had.
His arrangement with the Air Force was that he reported only to the general in charge of the Fifth Air Force, the guy who was running the Korean war. He didn’t have to take any guff from majors or colonels.
Jeff Schechtman:What did the upper echelon of the CIA in Washington in Langley, what did they know about his activities?
Blaine Harden:Well, they periodically became aware of him. There were three important players in intelligence before and during and after the Korean war. There was army intelligence run under General Douglas MacArthur, there was the nation CIA, which was created in the late 40s and was slowly gaining manpower and influence. And there was the intelligence operation that was put together by Nichols informally, and it was called NIC. So there was the CIA, there was army intelligence and there was NIC. And the CIA and army intelligence periodically tried to have Nichols fired, they tried to hire him and they competed with him. Nichols had sharp elbows and because he had the best contacts in the South Korean government, he often had the best information.
Jeff Schechtman:As the war wound down in ‘52, talk about what went on with Nichols?
Blaine Harden:Well, as the war wound down, he lost his importance to the Air Force and to American intelligence in general. Without a war, a guy who operates like he operated becomes less and less valuable. But he stayed on for four years after the war for a total of 11 years in country, which is an extraordinary tenure in terms of length for any intelligence official in a foreign posting. And he remained very close to Syngman Rhee in a relationship that, as far as I can tell, is unique in the history of these kind of intelligence officials with a foreign head of state. But in 1957, the good times ended for Nichols. Air Force officials came for him at his base in the middle of the night, put him in a straitjacket and took him to a military hospital in Japan where they put him in a psych ward and declared him to be mentally ill. After a few weeks, he was transported back to an Air Force base hospital in Eglin, Eglin Air Force Hospital in the Florida, Panhandle.
And there he was given months of electric shock and then thrown out of the military. He told his family at the time he was undergoing this treatment that the Air Force was trying to destroy his memory. And what they did is they destroyed his credibility and if he were to have spoken ill of what the Americans did during the Korean war, his time at Eglin and the stain of electric shock would have certainly eroded his credibility as a witness.
Jeff Schechtman:What happened to precipitate them picking him up in ‘57?
Blaine Harden:The Air Force in the documents that I’ve seen and the officials that I have talked to and the people who served with him, there is no clear answer. There are a number of clues and the language of the order that told Nichols that we was done in Korea said that he had been abusive of his men and behaved in an abnormal way. But they didn’t really spell out what that was. But there were several reasons that could have been the primary reason. One, he stole a lot of money. He came home from Korea actually with several hundred thousand dollars in cash bricks that he kept in his brother’s freezer in the late 1950s and ‘60s. And I talked to his nieces and nephews who would sneak looks at the cash in the freezer. So there is the money. And then Nichols was a closeted homosexual who used his authority in South Korea. He was a pedophile and he would have South Korean military officers bring him young South Korean air men for sexual encounters in his quarters.
And he continued to abuse young boys living as a civilian in Florida in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. So that could have also been a reason. But I think the principal reason and this is supported by officers who were serving with Nichols at the time and the preponderance of the evidence is that he’d become too close to Syngman Rhee. Syngman Rhee was no longer seen as serving America’s best interest. And getting Donald Nichols out of Korea was a way of protecting the interest of the United States. And why he was secretly given so much electroshock and thrown out of the Air Force and turned into a non- person is … Well, it was a secret operation and the government has not explained what it did to him.
Jeff Schechtman:Well, I mean the amazing thing about that is that they picked him up and did all this against his will and in this kind of extrajudicial way.
Blaine Harden:Yeah. That’s right. They did it. And when I started working on this story, it was a North Korean fighter pilot who told me about the existence of Nichols, because when he defected Nichols was the person who debriefed him. I just thought that Nichols would be a great spy story, I didn’t know the ending, I didn’t know about the electroshock until I got the documents of Nichols’ military service record from the US Air Force. And for some reason, they also gave me the notes of his doctors in the psychiatric hospital.
Jeff Schechtman:How high up was the decision made to pick up Nichols? Do we know?
Blaine Harden:We don’t know.
Jeff Schechtman:What does your speculation tell you?
Blaine Harden:Well, he was fired by his commanding colonel, one of the chiefs of intelligence in the Far East at the time, a guy named Dunn. And Dunn and his explanation of why he did it was vague, maddeningly so. And the specific reasons why Nichols was fired really don’t add up to a firing offense because Nichols was behaving the same way in 1957 as he behaved in 1947. He was doing nothing different. But the tolerance for his behavior was what changed in the hierarchy of the Air Force. And I talked to some special forces historians who believed that the state department and the CIA had reasons to doubt Nichols’s loyalty. In fact, I found documentary evidence that Nichols had passed on information to Syngman Rhee about what American generals were talking about in private conversations.
Jeff Schechtman:How did Syngman Rhee respond to Nichols being handled the way he did?
Blaine Harden:He didn’t. Syngman Rhee never talked publicly about his relationship with Nichols. I know about it because of letters that Syngman Rhee wrote begging the Americans not to transfer Nichols out of the country and because Nichols actually helped invent the South Korean Air Force working with Rhee. Rhee asked Nichols at the age of like 24 to become his chief advisor for Air Force matters. So there is a clear written record of Rhee’s relationship to him. But Rhee never talked about him, he never publicly appeared with Nichols although he did meet with him regularly. On Rhee’s diary, he would meet with his secretary of state for an hour, he’d meet with Nichols for an hour and a half and then he would meet with his secretary of defense. So Nichols was in that orbit.
Jeff Schechtman:To what extent can we draw a line between some of this activity that we’ve been talking about, and what Nichols did and Syngman Rhee in this, to the events that we see unfolding on the Korean Peninsula today?
Blaine Harden:I think the most important part of Nichols’ legacy is that he was the principal finder of targets for the bombing and napalming of North Korea, a carpet bombing that went on throughout the war. That bombing resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, civilian casualties in North Korea and the destruction of most of the cities. It was a very savage operation. The Kim regime, grandfather, son and grandson have seized upon the American punishment of North Korea during the war as a justification for endless hostilities against the Americans. The refrain is the Americans bombed us once and they’re going to come again unless the Kim family protects the people of North Korea. And protection is expensive, you’re going to have to live with less freedom, less material goods, less electricity and less food, but we will protect you from those Americans who came and killed your grandma with their bombs.
And that is sort of a fact-based narrative that gives the regime a measure of legitimacy as it ruled for seven decades.
Jeff Schechtman:And of course a lot of the rhetoric that we hear coming from Trump today in many ways reinforces that.
Blaine Harden:It does. It gives them again, a fact-based narrative to remind the civilian population that the Americans are dangerous to their wellbeing. And what’s new in the past couple of months is the level of the rhetoric coming from the United States. North Korea has been making bloody-minded threats against the United States, South Korea and Japan for decades in language not unlike what they’ve been saying in recent weeks. What’s new is for an American president to adopt that tone in his counter punching. It has alarmed everybody and made everyone who follows North Korea very nervous. There is a new Nick Kristof story, he was just in the New York Times. It just published today. He was in North Korea last week and he said the entire country is on a war footing in a way that he had never seen before in previous visits. So there is a level of anxiety in North Korea that raises the temperature in a way that is somewhat scary.
Jeff Schechtman:The other part of this, and this relates to the broader story of Nichols and Korea in general. And I think it’s something that Americans have long forgotten is the brutality of that war, you talk about the bombing and the napalming in North Korea and of course the activities that Rhee was involved in in the South. I mean, this was incredibly brutal, this war.
Blaine Harden:It was. The Korean society had been very much ripped apart by Japanese Colonialism for a half century. And with the end of World War II, the Japanese were booted out. And there was no tradition of the rule of law, there was a lot of anger of the poor against the rich. And what happened in South Korea when the Americans came in, they sided with the rich land owners many of whom had collaborated with the Japanese. And this infuriated the poor majority of South Koreans and soon, they went to war against each other. Syngman Rhee, the US puppet, was on the side of the land owners, the former collaborators. He had the police and the army on his side. North Korea was giving some material aid to these angry poor people who wanted property reform and so a civil war broke out. And it was a very bloody, messy one with beheadings, disembowelings.
And in the midst of all this, Nichols was a young intelligence officer firmly on the side of Syngman Rhee. So he moved through this demi mode of killings, torture and beheadings and learned his craft as a spy at the age of 23.
Jeff Schechtman:Finally, are there people over there in the South now that remember Nichols either badly or for good, and what influence does that still have?
Blaine Harden:Well, for my reporting for the book, I went to South Korea and contacted people who served with Nichols, they’re now old men. But they fondly remember Nichols. They credit him with helping South Korea not to lose the war. And what they said that in the intelligence circles in South Korea, there were important Americans, Douglas MacArthur and Donald Nichols. And that’s a direct quote from an intelligence colonel who is now in his mid-80s. So Nichols was the man on the ground for the Americans in terms of intelligence before, during and after that war and was key, as far as the South Korean intelligence services were concerned, in helping to maintain the viability of a South Korean State. Most of the Koreans of course have never heard his name.
Jeff Schechtman:Blaine Harden, King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea. Blaine, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Blaine Harden:Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman:Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from flag (CIA / Wikimedia), planes (Republic of Korea Armed Forces / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and Kurtz (Todd Barnard / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0).

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