In early Asian history at the University, one historical figure stands out: Syngman Rhee — Korea’s first president, who got a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1910. Despite a decades-long fight for Korean independence, Rhee’s legacy, however, is marked by increased authoritarianism and a resignation among mass protests. The Daily Princetonian looked back at Rhee’s time at Princeton and his controversial legacy today.
Rhee’s time at Princeton
Rhee was born in Korea in 1875 at a time of significant change for the once-independent kingdom, which at the time was under China's sphere of influence. In 1895, Korea came under the Japanese sphere of influence following the First Sino-Japanese War. In his early 20s, Rhee joined other young Koreans in the Independence Club advocating against Japanese influence. He was arrested in 1898 as a player in an anti-government plot and was imprisoned for six years. After he was released during the Russo-Japanese War, he set off for the United States. Rhee received a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and took coursework towards an M.A. at Harvard.
Intending to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard, Rhee cited financial difficulties that prevented him from returning to Cambridge in a letter to Dean Andrew Fleming West. He considered attending Columbia, but noted a chance encounter with a friend.
“While waiting [for Columbia to open], I met a missionary friend from Korea, a graduate, as I understand, of both the University and Seminary of Princeton, who would naturally wish to see me come to his good, old alma mater,” Rhee wrote to West in 1908. He asked about the expected workload and financial accommodations.
As a political exile with limited financial means, Rhee eventually did get significant aid from Princeton while he pursued his Ph.D. Rhee made arrangements with the Princeton Theological Seminary to stay in Hodge Hall free of charge, provided he took certain theological courses. He was also exempted from other academic costs. “On account of his extreme poverty, I excused Mr. Rhee from his doctoral and course fees,” Dean Andrew Fleming West wrote. Although there were no graduate scholarships available to Rhee, the tuition was “very low,” according to West, “never [exceeding] forty dollars a year.”
Rhee would later credit his decision to attend Princeton to the principles of self-determination advocated by Woodrow Wilson, who served as the University’s president from 1902–1910. In an article he wrote for the Class of 1910 yearbook, Rhee described his experience studying under Wilson. “An idealist always, [Wilson] taught that when law was silent, it must be made to speak,” Rhee wrote. However, despite Wilson’s professed commitment to self-determination, his administration largely ignored the issue of Korean independence from Japan.
During his time at Princeton, Rhee focused his studies on international law, American history, and history of philosophy, with the intended career path of “Literary and Christian work in Korea,” according to University archives.
In June of 1910, Rhee graduated and became the first Korean to receive a doctorate from an American university. His dissertation, titled “Neutrality as influenced by the United States,” was published in the University Press with financial support from an “unknown friend,” according to correspondence between Rhee and West.
West specifically seemed to take specific interest in Rhee. “He is a stranger in a strange land and unfamiliar with Western customs, as well as very scrupulous,” West wrote of Rhee in a letter to a Harvard professor inquiring about Rhee’s Harvard master's degree, which he belatedly received in 1909.
Finished with his education, Rhee returned to Korea in 1910, the year Korea was officially annexed by Japan. After working briefly in a YMCA and as a high school principal, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii and spent the next 30 years as a spokesperson for the Korean independence movement. In 1919, he was elected president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai and attended the First Korean Conference in Philadelphia, with the goal of mobilizing American support for Korean independence. The same year, he returned to Princeton to speak at Alexander Hall as he continued to advocate for Korean independence.
After World War II, Rhee returned to a now-divided Korea and campaigned for president under a policy of immediate independence and unification of the country. He won the election with 92 percent of the vote and became the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948.
A polarized legacy
Rhee’s legacy in Korea has been marred by a period in power marked by increasingly autocratic rule, limited economic development and political instability.
Shortly following his inauguration, Rhee implemented laws that severely curtailed political dissent. He purged the National Assembly of members who opposed him and later had the leader of the opposition Progressive Party, Cho Bong Am, executed in 1959. He also controlled appointments of local officials, detained and tortured suspected communists, and violently quelled uprisings. According to Daniel Chong ’27, his grandfather — a college student at the time — was arrested during a protest against Rhee’s government.
“It hits closer to home given that my grandpa was one of the student demonstrators that fought against his regime and was apprehended for it through arrest,” Chong said. “I think it’s pretty tragic that someone who fought so hard for the independence of this country and who achieved so much … fell under his own greed for power by repressing the civil rights of the people he was meant to serve.”
Rhee was re-elected in 1960, though many suspected he won through fraudulent election practices. Protests led by students emerged and a revolution from April 11–26, 1960 forced Rhee to resign and go into exile in Hawaii.
Despite most Koreans having a negative opinion of Rhee, some alumni have pushed for more recognition of Rhee’s legacy at Princeton as a pioneering figure in early Asian history at the University.
In 2012, the Princeton Club of Korea raised $480,000 to dedicate Bowl 16 in Robertson Hall in Rhee’s name. The Bowl was eventually renamed and former South Korean Prime Minister Un-Chan Chung GS ’78 spoke at the ceremony.
“Without Rhee’s strong leadership and diplomatic skills,” Jong-Seok Kim GS ’88 told Princeton Alumni Weekly at the time, “free South Korea may not have existed.”
Maya Chu is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’
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