Syngman Rhee, Robert T. Oliver, and the Symbolic Construction of the Republic of Korea during the Global Cold War
Abstract: Robert T. Oliver, a professor of speech at Pennsylvania State University, served as a ghostwriter for Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of South Korea between 1943 and 1960. Within the larger context of an ongoing global Cold War and the division of the Korean peninsula in August 1945, Oliver and Rhee developed a foundational myth, Puk-jin Tongil (), to build the new nation of South Korea. The Puk-jin Tongil myth called for a reunification of the Korean people and land through a US-led invasion of North Korea and was paired with a myth of enemyship that named the Communists of North Korea as essentially evil, estranged them as beyond the pale of rationality, and escalated the conflict between the two Koreas. In this essay, we consider the first full presentation of the Puk-jin Tongil myth in Rhee’s August 15, 1948, inaugural address, which had significantly different versions: an English version written by Oliver and a Korean version delivered at the inaugural ceremony by Rhee. Rhee’s confrontational version of the myth was delivered in Korean to his South Korean audience while Oliver presented a much tamer version in his English draft of the inaugural, targeting an American audience. Rhee’s speech, we suggest, foreshadowed his dictatorial approach to the presidency and revealed tensions between the president and the US government and in the Rhee-Oliver collaboration. Our essay fills a gap in our understanding of nation building through mythic rhetoric in the global Cold War, contributes to our disciplinary history with its focus on Oliver’s role in Rhee’s symbolic efforts, and offers a judgment of the mythic rhetoric crafted by the Rhee-Oliver collaboration.