Armistice author turns 101
December 29, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 29, 2008) - One of the authors of the armistice ending hostilities in the Korean War, who later served as an Army war-crimes lawyer teaching at the Naval War College, celebrated his 101st birthday Dec.19.
Retired Col. Howard Levie began his Army career during World War II at the age of 34, after practicing law for a number of years, and was about 15 years older than most of his comrades. Basic training, he said, was especially difficult.
"Fortunately, I had the foresight to take a pocket watch with an alarm feature and I set it for 15 minutes before Reveille," he said. "That way, I was able to be up and shaved before the big rush for the wash basins - although many of the other trainees only had to shave once or twice a week.
"Prior to joining the Army, I had been living a rather sedentary life, Sunday morning badminton having been my exercise for the week. The obstacle course (and an unfriendly sergeant) nearly finished me."
After heading to Oro Bay in New Guinea in 1944, Levie spent time as a staff officer before the end of the war meant the repatriation of American and British prisoners of war from China, Korea and Japan under the supervision of his boss, Gen. Clarence Sturdevant of the Army Forces, Western Pacific.
Levie said the experience, and his presence at the war-crimes trial of Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, sparked a lifetime interest in the law of war.
"War is inherently and necessarily violent," he said. "But the law of war serves to limit the violence and make warfare less inhumane, particularly with respect to the helpless, such as noncombatants and prisoners of war."
Later, he also helped review death sentences of Japanese war criminals and was also involved in the issue of the status of North Koreans captured by the United Nations Forces during the Korean War. Then one day in July 1951, he received a call that would change his life and the course of history.
Told to report to an unspecified location the next day, Levie quickly found that he was to play an integral role in the United Nations Command Armistice Delegation. As UN, North Korean and Chinese representatives squabbled over the terms and concessions, Levie - the only lawyer on the negotiating team in Panmunjon - was responsible for putting them in writing.
The North Koreans and Chinese presented a constant challenge, he said. They "deliberately" tried to make the UN negotiators lose their tempers and make mistakes.
"Every Communist proposal was 'fair and reasonable;' every UN Command proposal was 'absurd and arrogant.' Every UN Command action was characterized as 'barbarous' and 'criminal' and every UN Command statement as 'deceitful' and a 'fabrication.' Once it became apparent this tactic was not working, it was more or less abandoned," he said.
Once Levie had drafted a specific provision, it would be discussed in-house and forwarded to Washington. After it was approved, staff interpreters would translate it to Korean and Chinese. The Communists would then "discover" errors in the documents.
"Although at the beginning it was thought that each side would draft the specific provisions, rarely did we receive a draft proposal from the Communists," Levie explained. "We quickly learned that no matter how perfect the translation of a proposal would be, the Communists would never accept it without demanding some change or changes that were frequently completely meaningless. We then adopted the practice of deliberately inserting a few obvious errors. The Communists would insist on correcting those errors and would otherwise accept the document."
Negotiations would also stall over the issue of voluntary versus involuntary repatriation of prisoners of war. Levie said this often meant meetings would only last two or three minutes before delegates withdrew.
With the protracted negotiations, the entire delegation had departed in mid-1952. Levie himself left that June. He said they never expected the armistice to be in place as long as it has, but that he hopes the two Koreas will one day be reunited.
After his return to the States, Levie helped present the Geneva Conventions for ratification to the Senate. Although adopted by many nations in 1949, up until 1955 the United States was still not a party to the four conventions.
Levie headed the International Affairs Division in the Office of the Judge Advocate General, which had responsibility for presenting the conventions to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. He attended the session of the Senate where the vote on the conventions occurred, and he recalls the ratification as unanimous.