Operation Broken Reed

Truman's Secret North Korean Spy Mission That Averted World War III


By Arthur L. Boyd

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At the height of the Korean War, President Truman launched one of the most important intelligence — gathering operations in history. So valuable were the mission’s findings about the North Korean-Soviet-Chinese alliance that it is no stretch to say they prevented World War III. Only one man — sworn to secrecy for a half-century — survived Operation Broken Reed. Arthur Boyd recalls his role as cryptographer on a team of Army Rangers, Navy Frogmen, Air Force officers, and CIA operatives that posed as the captured crew of a B-29 bomber in January 1952. Given cover names and cyanide capsules in case of discovery, the men were transported by Chinese Nationalists wearing Communist uniforms across North Korea, where undercover allies delivered information about troop strengths, weaponry, and intention. Fraught with danger, the mission came apart on its last day when the Americans came under fire from Chinese forces wise to the operation. The members of Broken Reed supplied Truman with proof of massive Chinese and Soviet buildups and a heavy Soviet bomber group in Manchuria, fully loaded with atomic weapons. With the potential destruction of the world outlined in front of him, Truman chose not to escalate the Korean War, saving millions of lives.




Truman’s Secret North Korean Spy
Mission that Averted World War III


It is to honor the dead and their sacrifice
that this book is written.

“Not knowing a damn thing about the enemy is the worst damn pile
of dung that any commander will ever fall into.”

—General George S. Patton


“For the want of a nail,” begins Benjamin Franklin’s refrain on the loss of a shoe, a horse, a rider, and, eventually—the battle. Yet in war, it is not nails but intelligence that decides battles. Indeed, it is accurate, correctly interpreted intelligence, or the lack thereof, that leads to war.

Tragically, the often quoted phrase “history repeats itself ” couldn’t be closer to the truth with respect to world leaders’ blatant, wanton disregard of the need for intelligence that has led to tens of thousands of battle deaths. The strange paradox is that lessons learned have been lessons forgotten.

From June 1950 until July 1953 the United States waged war in Korea; though there were 33,686 battle deaths and over 100,000 wounded, it is America’s forgotten war, a war so forgotten that 8,100 U.S. servicemen from that time are still unaccounted for.

It took fifty years for a monument to be erected to honor those who fought and died.

After the war, Korea existed on the periphery of American politics until only recently. Today it moves relentlessly closer to center stage, though for Americans its history remains obscure, riddled with misunderstanding. More than a million American soldiers served in Korea, and billions of dollars have been spent occupying South Korea over the last five decades, but most Americans know nothing of a country where so many of its youth died, and where many more might die someday.

The Vietnam War is vivid in the collective memory, but the Korean War era is shrouded. When people today think of the United States during the early 1950s, they conjure up a time of peace and prosperity, one long before war protests, and certainly before the threat of international terrorism, of which North Korea is a significant part. The early fifties evoke a slumberous period of tranquillity, roller rinks, and drive-in movies, yet the reality was very different: during those years, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of World War III; atomic war threatened annihilation.

The Korean War era was one of fear and suspicion—possibly greater than at any other time in American history. The cold war dominated all events; it was a period of atomic terror, the Red Scare, and blacklists. Americans were afraid during those years, and their fear was real—the world did teeter on the verge of atomic war.

Few Americans knew then, or realize now, that a hair-trigger nuclear scenario played out in Washington and Moscow during this time. In 1951, President Harry S. Truman faced a fearful decision: should he follow the advice of those who wanted to escalate the Korean War and defeat the Communist threat, or should he accept a stalemate, with the United States not winning a war for the first time since 1812?

Truman had undergone one of the most stressful presidencies in history. He himself would have started his litany of troubles on April 12, 1945, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, thrusting the weight of a world at war on Truman’s shoulders. The most improbable of vice presidents was not prepared. Roosevelt had been president for twelve years, longer than anyone, winning a fourth term even while desperately sick—collapsing the very day of his nomination, caught by his son at the convention, the event hushed up.

Truman, picked at the last moment from near obscurity in the U.S. Senate to be the vice presidential candidate, after a career as a haberdasher and ward politician, had been as surprised as anyone. In eighty-three days as vice president, the shortest of anyone ascending the presidency, he had met with Roosevelt exactly twice, and those were photo ops. He was virtually clueless about the course of the war in Europe and the Pacific, and had never even heard about the atomic bomb until a few months before he ordered it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ushering the world into the atomic age and an arms race of which Albert Einstein and others had forewarned him. Nevertheless, he had no regrets or second thoughts about the decision to drop the bombs.

In March 1947, Truman proposed a new foreign policy for the United States: the country would intervene wherever necessary to prevent the subjugation of free peoples by communist totalitarian regimes, beginning with those in Greece and Turkey. His target was the Soviet Union, which he felt was undermining the foundations of world peace, threatening the security of the United States, and violating the Yalta Agreement in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

This new foreign policy placed the United States on a collision course with Russia that culminated in Korea in 1950.

For Truman, 1948 was his only good year. He’d won election to the presidency in his own right, defeating the heavily favored Republican Thomas Dewey; FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace (the man Truman replaced) running as a Progressive; and Senator Strom Thurmond, who bolted the Democratic Party because of its civil rights plank to run as a Dixiecrat.

Before that, there had been other great accomplishments—the United Nations, the European Recovery Program—named the Marshall Plan after Secretary of State George C. Marshall—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Berlin airlift, integration of the armed services, and the formation of Israel.

But those halcyon days were over by 1951, when newspapers blared awful stories of Americans dying in Korea, spies in government, and corruption at the door of the Oval Office (seven members of Truman’s administration, including some of his closest aides, would eventually go to jail).

Everything soured after 1948. The following year brought terrifying news that the Soviet Union had developed the atomic bomb, a full decade earlier than expected. A month before that, a State Department white paper revealed that China, the world’s most populous country, had fallen to the communists. On October 1, 1949, Mao stood on the Tian An Men—the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing—to proclaim the People’s Republic of China, warning that “The Chinese people have stood up . . . nobody will insult us again.”

The words were prophetic, and should have been heeded by General Douglas MacArthur and Truman.

Republicans scored 52 percent of the vote in the 1950 congressional elections; Truman’s own party had gotten a mere 42 percent and saw its majority in the Senate cut from twelve to two, and in the House from seventeen to twelve. Just two weeks before the election, Puerto Rican nationalists stormed Blair House, where Truman was living while the White House was being renovated.The assassination attempt failed, but a White House policeman stationed outside was murdered and another wounded in a fusillade that engulfed the Blair House lobby. Had the assassins waited another twenty minutes, they would have killed the thirty-third president of the United States.

The year had started with the conviction of Alger Hiss for passing secrets to the communists and Senator Joseph McCarthy brandishing a list of 205 “known communists” in the State Department during a speech in West Virginia; everything since had been downhill.

Then came Korea, a country with a history dating back to 2000 BC.

Three kingdoms—Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche—existed on a peninsula in East Asia (what is now Korea) long before the birth of Christ. They fought among themselves for centuries. Silla became dominant in the late seventh century, but Koguryo fought back and unified the peninsula in 936 AD. The Mongols invaded in 1259 and ruled until the Koguryo empire returned to establish the Yi Dynasty in 1392, a hundred years before Columbus landed in America. The Yi Dynasty lasted until 1910, when the Japanese invaded and subjugated Korea. Their domination was complete and brutal.

After the Japanese defeat in 1945, Korea was split into two countries at the thirty-eighth parallel—North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, under Kim Il Sung, whose capital was Pyongyang; and South Korea, the Republic of Korea, under Syngman Rhee—its capital was Seoul.

Kim Il Sung, a communist trained in Moscow, had fought Japanese rule. Rhee had been a leader of the provisional government that had resisted the Japanese since 1919.

The Soviet Union and Red China backed North Korea; the United States supported South Korea. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea to unite the country under communist rule. The United States militarily backed South Korea. A civil war led by opposing patriots took on the overtones of a conflict between major powers and ideologies.

The United States voted in the United Nations to stop the Communist invasion and sent troops, but its forces were driven back relentlessly. By August 1950, poorly trained and ill-equipped UN soldiers had been rolled south to the end of the peninsula only thirty miles from Pusan. Allied forces were facing another Dunkirk, but General Douglas MacArthur, against the objections and advice of even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, launched the brilliant Inchon landing on September 15, relieving the pressure. In October, the U.S. Eighth Army pressed beyond the thirty-eighth parallel and attacked north, reaching the Yalu River, which separated Korea from Manchuria, by October 24, 1950.

It was here that MacArthur made a disastrous mistake. Believing the Chinese could not muster more than 60,000 troops along the border, assuring Truman there was little risk of Chinese involvement, MacArthur pushed forward.

A month later, the Chinese counterattacked in force: 260,000 troops of the Sixty-third Chinese Army swept across the Yalu and drove the UN forces back seventy miles south of the thirty-eighth parallel. UN forces rallied, and after a year of vicious and bloody battles, attacks, and counterattacks, the conflict was at a stalemate. Unwilling to accept this situation, many in Congress and many military leaders pressed Truman to launch a massive offensive to include the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Believing he had been duped by MacArthur, whom he relieved in April 1951, and without clear knowledge of Communist Chinese intentions or capabilities, Truman felt boxed in—he did not want to lose the war, but neither did he want to expand it. Hovering above it all was the Red Scare, the palpable fear of communist conquest of the world. Yet hovering alongside that fear was the specter of nuclear war.

In 1951, the world was more imperiled than at any time in recent memory.

Any decision Truman made risked major global consequences. Acquiescence to the communist attack would not only enrage political foes at home, but possibly feed Soviet and Chinese aggression. Expansion of the war risked nuclear escalation. Compounding Truman’s problem was his belief that he did not possess sufficient intelligence on enemy capabilities and intentions to make a proper assessment for a course of action.

Feeling he had only months to make a decision that would determine the future for decades to come and the lives of millions, Truman authorized Operation Broken Reed.

This is the true story of that mission and how close the United States came to global nuclear war.

It is a story of daring, heroics, sacrifice, and death, a story of ten men who went behind enemy lines in January 1952 to collect, process, and transmit military intelligence concerning the North Korean and Communist Chinese armies. Their mission, called Operation Broken Reed, originated in the White House with Truman’s full backing; it discovered that China’s resolve and military forces were far greater than anyone had suspected. Pressing the war would incite China and the Soviet Union. The mission convinced Truman that disaster would result.

Broken Reed (1951–1952) was what today would be called a Special Access Program (SAP), or “black” operation similar to the Iran-Contra operation run through the National Security Council (1983–1986), and the current war on terrorism, primarily directed through the Defense Department, but with the unofficial authorization of the NSC.

Broken Reed was conceived and implemented at the highest level of government by President Harry S. Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall— the only permanent and voting members of the NSC—along with CIA director Walter Bedell Smith, White House Counsel Clark Clifford, W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley, and a very few others.

President Truman, in the midst of his first elected term, contemplating reelection in 1952, faced rabid criticism at home, both for his administration’s failure to foresee the war and for his failure to deal with Soviet espionage, a public perception known as the Red Scare fueled by McCarthyism, a hysterical national response to the threat of communism.

Worst of all for Truman, a larger war loomed—atomic and catastrophic.

Broken Reed’s conception and execution were a result of what Truman felt to be a breakdown in intelligence gathering: essentially, how could the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), responsible for human intelligence (HUMINT), the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), responsible for communications intelligence (COMINT), and the military have so badly miscalculated? How could they have missed a war?

Worse, they collectively knew almost nothing of the enemy or of Korea’s allies—China and the Soviet Union. Would China, with its million-man army, jump in to help North Korea? Would the Soviet Union use nuclear weapons? These were critical questions; indeed, millions of lives and the course of history depended upon the answers and upon Truman’s response. The correct answers and proper response rested on intelligence, and it was this that Truman felt he lacked.

Compounding Truman’s distrust and concern were almost daily revelations about communist infiltration of the U.S. and British intelligence communities, along with the defection of agents, such as Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, and the release of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Klaus Fuchs, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and others were arrested by the FBI in 1950. A dark canopy of suspicion hung over the government.

To appreciate Truman’s desperation for an operation such as Broken Reed, one has to understand the confusing state of U.S. intelligence in 1950, a morass that impelled him to take extreme measures. Broken Reed was not the first, and certainly not the last, cloak-and-dagger “black” operation run out of the White House. Indeed, Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, reveled in such secret operations, especially before Pearl Harbor, when he personally nudged the United States to closer ties and cooperation with Britain. Every president since Truman has conducted SAPs from the Oval Office.

After World War II, U.S. intelligence gathering devolved into such disarray that at Truman’s instigation, and mostly through the work of Dean Acheson, the National Security Act of 1947 was passed. In addition to creating the NSC, which would oversee all national security issues, a council with only three permanent and voting members—the president and the secretaries of state and defense—it chartered the CIA. The CIA was charged with the collection, evaluation, and interpretation of “foreign intelligence information originating outside the continental limits of the United States by any and all means deemed effective.” Essentially this is termed HUMINT—human intelligence gathering, as opposed to COMINT, communications intelligence gathering.

For COMINT, a 1948 NSC directive gave formal power to the United States Communications Intelligence Board (USCIB) “to effect the authoritative coordination of Communications Intelligence activities of the Government.” In addition, the directive stated that “the special nature of Communications Intelligence activities requires that they be treated in all aspects as being outside the framework of other or general intelligence activities.” In essence, COMINT was singled out for unique status in the government—it operated in an autonomous vacuum answerable in the end only to the NSC—the president, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of state.

The following year, in 1949, the AFSA emerged under the direction and control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1952, the AFSA became the National Security Agency (NSA), the most secret agency in the government; its control was taken from the military and placed directly under the NSC.

In 1950, intelligence gathering was a churning cauldron of problems; untested remedies were still in the future.

The forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under the legendary William Donovan, had been disbanded in 1945 and its agents dispersed among various government departments—State, War, Navy, and Treasury. There was no central agency for the collection of HUMINT until late 1947. There was no “home” for spies until the CIA was created. It was still a fledging organization when the Korean War broke out. Most of its operatives were in Europe fighting the enemy, the KGB; for all practical purposes, there was no HUMINT coming in from the Far East, especially in regard to Korea.

The collection of COMINT was in even worse shape.

COMINT is a specialized and highly technical field generally called cryptology—code and work in all its aspects: creating codes, breaking codes, and analyzing and evaluating intelligence from codes no matter how they are transmitted.

Secrets are usually encoded so that intelligence is passed in a secure manner. It does no good for a spy to seize a document or to record or intercept a coded transmission if the code in which it is transmitted can’t be broken. Espionage requires both effective HUMINT and COMINT.

Modern U.S. COMINT dates to World War I and two men: Herbert Yardley and William Friedman. Yardley was the father of American cryptology and in 1917 was put in charge of the War Department’s MI-8, responsible for all code and cipher work. For added secrecy, MI-8 was not in Washington, D.C., but had an office in New York City with a Grand Central Station post office box. During World War I, Yardley went to Paris to develop closer ties with France’s secret Cabinet Noir. His work during the Paris peace talks was so important that MI-8 was continued after the armistice with fifty-one employees and an annual budget of $100,000, split between the War and State departments. MI-8 was the United States’ Black Chamber.

At the same time, Friedman and his sole assistant comprised the Army Signal Corps’ Code and Cipher Section.

In World War I, MI-8 created its own code to transmit secret material and deciphered nearly eleven thousand foreign messages. World War I also saw the first use of Native American code talkers—Choctaw Indians.

In 1919, Yardley broke the Japanese secret code, giving the United States an almost complete and uninterrupted ability to decipher Japanese radio traffic throughout World War II. The order to attack Pearl Harbor had been decoded many hours before the first bombs were dropped. The long delay in transmitting the warning to Hawaii was the result of human error; for a long period of time, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could not be found—General George C. Marshall was horseback riding in northern Virginia. COMINT did, however, have a decisive role in the Battle of Midway, and was crucial in defeating the Nazis. Without Ultra, the code name for Britain’s greatest secret, and the cipher machine Enigma, which broke Germany’s code, Hitler might not have been defeated.

So, for quite some time, cryptology’s importance had been appreciated, yet the Black Chamber’s fortunes declined in the 1920s because intercept traffic diminished drastically and the MI- 8’s budget was cut by 75 percent.

MI-8’s end came in 1929, when Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson discovered with horror that the United States was spying on foreign governments. He uttered the legendary words: “Gentlemen, do not read each other’s mail,” and terminated all funding for MI-8.

Nevertheless, more secretive minds prevailed, and MI-8’s activities were transferred to the Army Signal Corps under William Freidman. The new organization was called the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) and placed under the control of the secretary of war. The SIS grew from a staff of 331 at the time of Pearl Harbor to over 10,000 by World War II’s end. The Navy, a separate department equal to the War Department (the two merged in 1947 to become the Department of Defense) also did cryptology, but on a smaller scale and limited to ships at sea.

Once the United States was at war, Stimson, now the secretary of war, had changed his mind about reading other gentlemen’s mail. Indeed, he actively promoted COMINT. In 1943 the SSI became the Signal Security Agency, then the Army Security Agency. After the war, in 1949, it became the Armed Forces Security Agency under the direction and control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It was the failure of the AFSA to foresee the Korean War that incurred Truman’s wrath, and largely brought about Broken Reed. The governing body of COMINT was also in constant flux, from the informal Army–Navy–Communications Intelligence Coordinating Board to a formal State–Army–Navy Communications Intelligence Board, to a 1946 U.S. Communications Intelligence Board (USCIB), then in 1949 to the Armed Forces Security Agency Council (AFSAC), under the USCIB. The changes were reflected in the quality of COMINT; the product mirrored the disarray, a result in large part of the constant squabbling for control among the various players—State and Defense departments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA.

The chaos and confusion are evident in the AFSAC’s selection of intelligence targets for the AFSA to concentrate on. In the seven months prior to North Korea’s attack on South Korea, Korea was listed last among the top twelve target areas of concern. North Korea was not considered a threat. Korea was likewise not a concern for the CIA, which listed it fifth in potential danger.

Three weeks after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, the USCIB stated that “The present scale of communications intelligence effort falls far short of meeting total requirements or even enabling the U.S. to exploit available communications information to its full potential.”

In the midst of a sudden and unexpected war, Truman was told his intelligence community was unprepared and unable to provide adequate intelligence, despite the AFSA’s 8,500 personnel and $60 million budget, and despite the CIA’s vast resources. Truman was so disgusted that he directed his defense secretary to create a committee to evaluate American COMINT and take corrective action. In June 1952, the committee issued a 239-page report that blamed the intelligence failure primarily on the military services and the Joint Chiefs. The committee also recommended that the AFSAC be disbanded and replaced by the NSC. As a result, the AFSA became the National Security Agency, and control was taken from the military and given to three men—the president and the secretaries of state and defense, meeting as the NSC.

This transfer of control, however, took place more than two years after the Korean War began, two years of military failure and stalemate, and even more years of bureaucratic lumbering to remedy and stabilize COMINT.

In the meantime, Truman was losing the Korean War. Men were dying. He needed immediate intelligence; he could not wait. HUMINT, COMINT, and the military had failed him, and it might be years before the intelligence community could provide him with the information he desperately needed on the strength, capabilities, and intentions of North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union.


On Sale
Mar 5, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Da Capo Press

Arthur L. Boyd

About the Author

In August 1951, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur L. Boyd, U.S. Army (Ret), was a twenty-three-year old first lieutenant serving in Germany when he applied for a Top Secret “black intelligence” mission during the Korean War.

The mission director, operating out of the Pentagon and answering directly to President Harry S. Truman, picked Boyd to serve on a ten-man military intelligence team. Lieutenant Boyd was responsible for encryption and transmission of twenty intelligence reports collected from operatives within North Korea. Reports were relayed to Truman under an “Only-for-the-President’s-Eyes” order.

Following Operation Broken Reed, a successful operation that claimed the lives of seventy-five brave patriots, Boyd returned to Germany and was promoted to captain. As a captain, Boyd commanded units at Fort Bliss, Texas; within the 7th Infantry Division in Korea; at Fort Benning, Georgia; and at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

Promoted to major, Boyd served as Chief of Communication Division for Fort Richardson. After his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, Boyd served as Chief, Communication Service at Fort Knox, Kentucky, until his retirement in 1967.

Colonel Boyd moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he graduated from Bethel Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. After graduation, he served as a chaplain at the Metropolitan and North Memorial Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After completing his tenure as a chaplain, he served as a financial consultant with a Saint Paul firm. Colonel Boyd now lives with his wife of sixty-one years in Tennessee.

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