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Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas

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By Donald P. Gregg

Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2014

344 pages, ISBN: 978-0990447108, Paperback

Reviewed by Michael J. Seth

Donald Gregg had a remarkably long career spanning almost six decades, most of it connected with Asia. He served as a CIA officer in Japan, Việt Nam, and Burma, and was the CIA station chief in Seoul from 1973 to 1975. From 1989 to 1993, he was the US ambassador to South Korea. After retiring from government service, he headed the Korea Society in New York and made six trips to North Korea to promote better relations with that country. In between, he served on the National Security Council. During these many years, he witnessed and played a part in so many key developments that his biography becomes intertwined with the history of US-Asian relations since the 1950s.

Gregg’s memoirs are therefore a good read for the many insights they provide into America’s involvement in Asia, especially the two Koreas, as well as for the insights into US intelligence operations and foreign policymaking. The book consists of thirty-one short chapters, easily accessible to undergraduate students and possibly advanced high students, although it does assume some background knowledge on recent Asian and American history. It is written, as the title suggests, in a rather episodic fashion rather that a smooth-flowing narrative, but this also means that readers can skip to the sections of greatest interest to them without getting too lost.

Gregg comes through his memoir as a man who seems to genuinely respect and appreciate Asian cultures, especially Korea and Japan.

Gregg’s involvement in Asia began in 1955 when, as a young CIA officer, he was sent to Japan. Although he spent nearly eight years learning Japanese, much of this brief account is of tennis matches and family outings, and is therefore of limited value. He also served for a few years in the 1960s as an agent in Burma. The short chapter on this period provides a glimpse into that country at a time when General Ne Win was closing the nation to the outside world.

More valuable for the student of the American experience in Asia is the account of Gregg’s two assignments in Việt Nam in 1962–1964 and 1970–1972. The first was when Americans were just beginning to become militarily involved in a major way, and the second occurred when the US was in the process of trying to extricate itself from what had become one of our great foreign policy failures. This part of the book is a rather depressing tale of unnecessary tragedy, as US military and some civilian officials were unable or unwilling to accept the evidence available to them that Washington’s strategies in the South were simply not working. At one point, the author risked the ire of his superiors and his career by refusing to share their optimistic conclusions on the effectiveness of bombing the North. This episode and the decision to remove President Ngo Dinh Diem provide a good inside look into policymaking. Interesting also is the contrasting lack of optimism during Gregg’s second assignment, when he was in charge of the CIA for the ten provinces surrounding Saigon.

For students of Asia, the most valuable parts of the book are the ones dealing with Korea, when Gregg served as CIA station chief in the 1970s and as US ambassador under George H. W. Bush. In particular, his actions during the Kim Dae-jung kidnapping while he was serving in the first position are both fascinating and important for understanding that incident and what it revealed about US-Korean relations at that time. Gregg was, according to his own account, the person most responsible for saving the dissident political leader and future president from being drowned in the Pacific by Park Chung Hee’s thugs when he defied the chain of command to directly intervene. Gregg also provides a look at the relationship between the American CIA and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). By his account, personal working relationships mattered.

During four years as US ambassador to South Korea, Gregg had to deal with student anti-Americanism, as well as their suspicions about his own role in supporting the former dictatorships when serving as CIA chief in Seoul and on the National Security Council. Particularly challenging problems Gregg faced were the legacy of the Kwangju incident and controversial trade issues. He also provides his interpretation of what was a missed opportunity to ease tensions on the peninsula. According to Gregg, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s decision to resume Operation Team Spirit, the joint US-ROK military forces training exercises in spring 1992, without consulting President Bush or the State Department ended promising talks between North and South Korea. Gregg goes on to blame Cheney for undermining any move toward reconciliation between Washington and P’yŏngyang (235).

Gregg’s work on the National Security Council under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gives the reader a look at policymaking, although not in as much detail as one might wish. Of special interest to students of Asia is his involvement in keeping South Korea military dictator Chun Doo Hwan from executing Kim Dae-jung and allowing Kim to travel to the US in return for approval of Chun’s visit to newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan. In this, we see the compromises that the US policymakers made trying to both promote human rights and protect national security interests in Asia. Although not related to Asia, the author also defends his record on the Iran-Contra Affair, a controversy that has haunted him. He provides a brief history of that sordid chapter in American foreign policy while insisting on his own ignorance of it while serving in the Reagan administration. From 1993 to 2010, Gregg served as head of the Korea Society, a small New York City-based nonprofit devoted to fostering understanding between the US and Korea. During that time, he was involved in efforts seeking to improve American relations with North Korea. But promising developments in the late 1990s floundered under the George W. Bush administration. Again, Cheney is among those Gregg blames for undermining attempts at opening dialogue between the two countries.

Gregg comes through his memoir as a man who seems to genuinely respect and appreciate Asian cultures, especially Korea and Japan. Gregg prefers negotiation and compromise to confrontation, has little time for bullies, and is rather quick to come to a judgment about the people he likes and dislikes, whether American or not. Because this relatively brief book encompasses so much history, no particular incident is covered in detail. As a result, at times the author’s accounts can be too sketchy. He could have perhaps spent less time recounting tennis matches with famous people, although one match with a drunken Boris Yeltsin in Seoul is hilarious. Overall, however, it is a book worth reading for anyone interested in US involvement in Asia.