Syngman Rhee’s Time at Princeton

Dear Mr. Mudd,
What can you tell me about Syngman Rhee’s time at Princeton?

In South Korea, March 1 marks Independence Movement Day, a commemoration of the 1919 Declaration of Independence that marked the start of Korean resistance against the country’s Japanese occupation. One of the notable figures of that movement was Syngman Rhee *1910, who was named the President of the exile Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea that arose during this struggle. Rhee served this exile government, based in Shanghai, China, until his ouster in 1925, and later served as the first president of the Republic of Korea from 1948 until another acrimonious departure in 1960.
Photograph of Syngman Rhee *1910 from the October 6, 1950 Daily Princetonian

Researchers curious about Rhee’s time at Princeton should know that the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library has a variety of information on him. Because Rhee was a graduate student, we have a Graduate Alumni File which provides a great deal of insight into his time at Princeton, as well as the dissertation he produced in completion of the degree. Researchers can also examine Daily Princetonian articles concerning Rhee’s later visits to Princeton, or view an information file compiled by the Office of Communications.

What we learn from Rhee’s alumni file is that the future president entered Princeton in the fall of 1908, having received an A.B. in 1907 from George Washington University. After finishing his undergraduate studies, he took coursework towards an M.A. at Harvard.

While studying at Princeton, Rhee lived in 111 Hodge Hall, at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Living in the Theological Seminary may seem strange to today’s Princeton community, but because the Graduate College had not yet opened, graduate students boarded at a variety of locations throughout Princeton, such as Merwick. The 1909-1910 University Catalogue indicates that Rhee’s situation was far from unusual, with approximately 20 other grad students also living in Hodge, and several more in another PTS building, Brown Hall. Interestingly, Dr. Rhee’s board was gratis thanks to a program of coursework at the Seminary, where he was that institution’s first Korean student.

In pursuit of his PhD., Rhee’s coursework fell under the purview of the Department of History, Politics, and Economics. Our graduate alumni index lists Rhee’s concentration as “History”. However, “History, Political Economy, and the Science of Politics” are listed as separate concentration areas of graduate study in that era’s course catalogues, and the examination card in his file indicates that Rhee “was examined in his subject, Politics.” Further information about the University’s organization in the early 1900s can be found by visiting Mudd and viewing old University Catalogues. Alternatively, Google Books has digitized several editions, such as this 1908-1909 version.

Correspondence in Dr. Rhee’s file suggests that he took on an unusually high workload in an effort to complete his graduate studies within two years, which was atypical and officially discouraged. Rhee’s academic course load was compounded with summer classes at Harvard, which he took to complete his M.A. degree by 1909.

At the completion of his Princeton coursework, Rhee published his PhD. At that time, University policy required students to publish one hundred copies of their dissertation or have the item published in an academic journal. Rhee faced difficulty meeting this requirement due to financial issues, and wrote to Dean Andrew Fleming West, who noted that publication of Rhee’s thesis must be arranged for "within a reasonable time – say within one year, or by October first, 1911 at latest.” Fortunately for Rhee, funding came through from an “unknown friend,” who paid for the 1912 publication of his work.

Researchers have inquired if this difficulty was common or unusual. The best answer I can provide is that other students probably struggled to publish their dissertations or chose not to complete the publication requirement if they received the degree. This is corroborated by a May 9, 1911 Faculty Committee on the Graduate School report requesting that an effort be made to see which students had graduated without publishing their accepted thesis and suggesting contacting those students to ask them to furnish copies for the University Library and notable booksellers.

Several researchers have asked Mudd staff if we have the original manuscript of Rhee’s dissertation. Sadly, this appears to have been lost to history, as correspondence shows that Rhee was asked to leave his manuscript “duly revised and corrected, in charge of Dean Elliott, before leaving for Korea."

Scholars should also be aware that Mudd’s resources concerning Dr. Rhee encompass more than just materials from the University Archives. In our Public Policy Papers, there are also a variety of records from his time as President of the Republic of Korea in collections including the John Foster Dulles Papers, Joseph A. Robinson Papers, and the Bernard Baruch Papers. A complete list of Policy collections concerning Rhee can be found here.

Interested visitors are welcome to visit the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library and view any of the materials mentioned here in person. Further information about conducting research at Mudd library can be found at the following website:

Mudd staff have digitized Rhee’s Graduate Alumni File. View it online here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Special thanks to Princeton’s Korean Studies Librarian Hyoungbae Lee for suggesting this blog post.

-John DeLooper