Dismissed as the ‘forgotten
war,’ Korea was in actuality one of America’s most
significant conflicts. Although born of a misapprehension,
the Korean War triggered the buildup of U.S. forces in the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), began American
involvement in the Vietnam War, and, although seen as an
aberration at the time, now serves as the very model for
America’s wars of the future.
One reason the importance of
the Korean War is not better appreciated is that from the
very start the conflict presented confusing and
contradictory messages. Historian and Korean War combat
veteran T.R. Fehrenbach wrote in his classic This Kind of
War: ‘Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that
since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land
forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it, and wipe
it clean of life–but if you desire to defend it, protect it,
and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground
the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men
into the mud.’
Fehrenbach concluded: ‘By
April 1951, the Eighth Army had again proven Erwin Rommel’s
assertion that American troops knew less but learned faster
than any fighting men he had opposed. The tragedy of
American arms, however, is that having an imperfect sense of
history, Americans sometimes forget as quickly as they
learn.’ Those words proved to be only too true.
Two years later, as the war
came to an end, Air Force Secretary Thomas K. Finletter
declared that ‘Korea was a unique, never-to-be-repeated
diversion from the true course of strategic air power.’ For
the next quarter century, nuclear weaponry dominated U.S.
military strategy. As a result, General Maxwell D. Taylor,
the Eighth Army’s last wartime commander (and later chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War),
complained that ‘there was no thoroughgoing analysis ever
made of the lessons to be learned from Korea, and later
policy makers proceeded to repeat many of the same
The most damning mistake those
policy-makers made was to misjudge the true nature of the
war. As Karl von Clausewitz, the renowned Prussian
philosopher of war, wrote in 1832: ‘The first, the supreme,
the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and
the commander has to make is to establish…the kind of war on
which they are embarking….This is the first of all strategic
questions and the most important.’
President Harry S. Truman’s June 27, 1950, war message makes
evident, the U.S. assumption was that monolithic world
communism, directed by Moscow, was behind the North Korean
invasion. ‘The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all
doubt,’ said Truman, ‘that Communism has passed beyond the
use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will
now use armed invasion and war.’
That belief, later revealed as false, had enormous
and far-reaching consequences. Believing that Korea was a diversion and that
the main attack would come in Europe, the United States began a major
expansion of its NATO forces. From 81,000 soldiers and one infantry division
stationed in Western Europe when the war started, by 1952 the U.S. presence
had increased to six divisions–including the National Guard’s 28th and 43rd
Infantry divisions–503 aircraft, 82 warships and 260,800 men, slightly more
than the 238,600 soldiers then in combat in Korea.
Another critical action was the decision to become
involved in Vietnam. In addition to ordering U.S. military forces to
intervene in Korea, Truman directed ‘acceleration in the furnishing of
military assistance to the forces of France and the Associated States in
Indo-China and the dispatch of a military mission to provide close working
relations with those forces.’
On September 17, 1950, Military Assistance
Advisory Group (MAAG) Indochina was formed, an organization that would grow
to the half-million-strong Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) before
U.S. involvement in that country came to an end almost a quarter century
later. As in Korea, the notion that monolithic world communism was behind
the struggle persisted until almost the very end.
The fact that such an assumption was belied by
2,000 years of Sino-Vietnamese hostility was ignored, and it was not until
Richard Nixon’s diplomatic initiatives in 1970 that the United States became
aware of, and began to exploit, the fissures in that so-called Communist
monolith. By then it was too late, for the American people had long since
given up on Vietnam.
The fact that the U.S. response to both the Korean
War and the Vietnam War was built on the false perception of a Communist
monolith began to emerge after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in
December 1991. At a July 1995 conference I attended at Georgetown
University, Dr. Valeri Denissov, deputy director of the Asian Department of
the Russian Foreign Ministry, revealed the true nature of the Korean War’s
Drawing from the hitherto secret documents of the
Soviet Foreign Ministry, Denissov revealed that far from being the
instigator of the war, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin was at best a reluctant
partner. In September 1949, the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party
rejected an appeal from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung to assist in an invasion
of the South. But in April 1950, says Denissov, Stalin changed his mind and
agreed to provide assistance for an invasion of the South. For one thing,
Kim had convinced Stalin that the invasion was a low-risk operation that
could be successfully concluded before the United States could intervene.
‘Thus,’ said Denissov, ‘the documents existing in
Russian archives prove that…it was Kim Il Sung who unleashed the war upon
receiving before-hand blessings from Stalin and Mao Zedong [Mao Tse-tung].’
Why did Stalin change his mind? The first reason
lay in Mao Tse-tung’s victory in the Chinese Third Civil War. Denissov
asserted that ‘Stalin believed that after the U.S.A. deserted Chiang
Kai-shek ‘to his own fortunes’ in the internal Chinese conflict they would
not risk a participation in a Korean-Korean war as well.’ Another factor,
Denissov believed, was that ‘the Soviet Union had declared the creation of
its own nuclear bomb, which according to Stalin’s calculations deprived
Americans of their nuclear monopoly and of their ability to use the ‘nuclear
card’ in the confrontation with the Soviet Union.’
Another Russian Foreign Ministry official at the
conference, Dr. Evgeny Bajanov, added yet another reason for Stalin’s change
of heart–the ‘perceived weakness of Washington’s position and of its will to
get involved militarily in Asia.’
That perception was well-founded. Dispatched to
Korea at the end of World War II to disarm the Japanese there, the U.S.
military was not too fond of the country from the start. When I arrived at
the replacement depot at Yongdungpo in November 1947, our group was
addressed by Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, commander of the XXIV Corps and of U.S.
forces in Korea. ‘There are only three things the troops in Japan are afraid
of,’ he said. ‘They’re gonorrhea, diarrhea and Korea. And you’ve got the
After a year with the 6th Infantry Division in
Pusan–a time spent mostly confined to barracks because of the civil unrest
then sweeping the country–I was only too glad to see the division
deactivated in December 1948 and myself transferred to the 24th Infantry
Division in Japan. In 1949, the 7th Infantry Division, the only remaining
U.S. combat unit in Korea, was also transferred to Japan, leaving only the
several hundred men of the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG).
‘In Moscow,’ Denissov said, ‘American military
presence in South Korea in 1945-1949 was viewed as a ‘deterring factor’
which became defunct after America’s withdrawal from the South.’ Yet another
sign of lack of American will was Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s public
statement in January 1950 that Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter
in Asia. Finally, Moscow must have been well aware of the drastic cuts made
in America’s defenses by the false economies of Truman and Louis Johnson,
his feckless secretary of defense.
While Stalin’s and Kim Il Sung’s perceptions of
U.S. lack of resolve may have been well-founded, they were also wrong.
During a Pentagon briefing in 1974, General Vernon Walters, then deputy
director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, was asked about the
unpredictability of U.S. reaction. ‘If a Soviet KGB spy had broken into the
Pentagon or the State Department on June 25, 1950, and gained access to our
most secret files,’ Walters said, ‘he would have found the U.S. had no
interest at all in Korea. But the one place he couldn’t break into was the
mind of Harry Truman, and two days later America went to war over Korea.’
In taking the United States to war in Korea,
Truman made two critical decisions that would shape future military actions.
First, he decided to fight the war under the auspices of the United Nations,
a pattern followed by President George Bush in the Persian Gulf War in 1991
and, currently, by President Bill Clinton in Bosnia. Second, for the first
time in American military history, Truman decided to take the nation to war
without first asking Congress for a declaration of war. Using the U.N.
Security Council resolution as his authority, he said the conflict in Korea
was not a war but a ‘police action.’
With the Soviet Union then boycotting the U.N.
Security Council, the United States was able to gain approval of U.N.
resolutions labeling the North Korean invasion a ‘breach of the peace’ and
urging all members to aid South Korea.
The United States was named executive agent for
the conduct of the war, and on July 10, 1950, Truman appointed General of
the Army Douglas MacArthur as commander in chief of the U.N. Command. In
reality, however, the U.N. involvement was a facade for unilateral U.S.
action to protect its vital interests in northeast Asia. The U.N. Command
was just another name for MacArthur’s Far East Command in Tokyo.
At its peak strength in July 1953, the U.N.
Command stood at 932,539 ground forces. Republic of Korea (ROK) army and
marine forces accounted for 590,911 of that force, and U.S. Army and Marine
forces for another 302,483. By comparison, other U.N. ground forces totaled
some 39,145 men, 24,085 of whom were provided by British Commonwealth Forces
(Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and 5,455 of whom came
While the U.N. facade was a harmless delusion,
Truman’s decision not to seek a declaration of war set a dangerous
precedent. Claiming their war making authority rested in their power as
commanders in chief, both Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon
refused to ask Congress for approval to wage war in Vietnam, a major factor
in undermining support for that conflict. It was not until the Gulf War in
1991 that then President Bush rejected suggestions that he follow the Korean
precedent and instead, as the Constitution provides, asked Congress for
permission to wage war.
All those political machinations, however, were
far from the minds of those of us then on occupation duty in Japan. We were
as surprised as Stalin and Kim Il Sung at Truman’s orders to go into action
in Korea. For one thing, we were far from ready. I was then a corporal with
the 24th Infantry Division’s heavy tank battalion, only one company of which
was activated–and that unit was equipped not with heavy tanks but with M-24
Chaffee light reconnaissance tanks, armed with low-velocity 75mm guns, that
proved to be no match for the North Koreans’ Soviet-supplied T-34 85mm-gun
Also inadequate were the infantry’s 2.36-inch
anti-tank rocket launchers. Radios did not work properly, and we were
critically short of spare parts. Instead of the usual three rifle
battalions, the infantry regiments had only two. And our field artillery
battalions had only two of their three authorized firing batteries. Although
our officers and sergeants were mostly World War II combat veterans, we were
truly a ‘hollow force.’
The 24th Infantry Division was the first U.S.
ground combat unit committed to the war, with its initial elements landing
in Korea on July 1, 1950. We soon found ourselves outgunned by the advancing
North Korean People’s Army (NKPA). All of our tanks were lost to the NKPA
T-34s, and our commander was killed for want of a starter solenoid on our
tank retriever. Going into action with some 16,000 soldiers, the 24th
Division had only 8,660 men left by the time it was relieved by the 1st
Cavalry Division on July 22.
The shock of those initial disasters still
reverberates throughout the U.S. Army more than four decades later. After
the end of the Cold War in 1991, the watchwords of Army Chief of Staff
General Gordon Sullivan were ‘Remember Task Force Smith,’ a warning not to
let the Army again become the hollow force of 1950 that paid in blood for
Task Force Smith was the first of the 24th
Infantry Division’s units to be committed. Named after its commander, Lt.
Col. Charles B. ‘Brad’ Smith, the task force consisted of the 1st Battalion,
21st Infantry, and ‘A’ Battery, 52nd Field Artillery Battalion. The task
force came under attack by the infantry columns of the NKPA 4th Infantry
Division and the T-34s of the 209th Armored Brigade at Osan on July 5, 1950.
Outnumbered and unable to stop the NKPA tanks, it was forced to fall back
toward Taejon. There, the remainder of the 24th Infantry Division made a
stand until July 20, before being pushed back into the Naktong
Perimeter–losing the commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Dean (captured by the
NKPA), in the process. Although at a terrible price, it had bought time for
the remainder of the Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA) to move from Japan to Korea.
Contrary to Kim Il Sung’s calculations, America had been able to intervene
in time. North Korea’s attempt to conquer South Korea in one lightning
stroke had been thwarted.
Wars are fought on three interconnected levels. At
first, the United States was on the operational (i.e., theater of war) and
tactical (i.e., battlefield) defensive, but at the strategic (i.e., national
policy) level, it was still pursuing the same policy of ‘rollback and
liberation’ that it had followed in earlier wars. That policy called for
temporarily going on the defensive to buy time to prepare for a strategic
offensive that would carry the war to the enemy in order to destroy his will
While EUSA held the Naktong River line against a
series of North Korean assaults, General MacArthur laid plans to assume the
strategic, operational and tactical offensive with a landing behind enemy
lines at Inchon.
In a brilliant strategic maneuver, MacArthur sent
his X Corps ashore on September 15, 1950. Consisting of the Army’s 7th
Infantry Division and the Marine 1st Division, it rapidly cut the enemy’s
lines of supply and communication to its forces besieging the Naktong
Perimeter to the south, forcing them to withdraw in disarray. While X Corps
pressed on to recapture Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, EUSA broke out of
the Naktong Perimeter and linked up with X Corps near Osan on September 26.
Seoul fell the next day.
‘After the Inchon landing,’ Secretary of State
Acheson told the Senate in May 1951, ‘General MacArthur called on these
North Koreans to turn in their arms and cease their efforts; that they
refused to do, and they retired into the North, and what General MacArthur’s
military mission was, was to pursue them and round them up [and] we had the
highest hopes that when you did that the whole of Korea would be unified.’
On Korea’s western coast, EUSA crossed the 38th
parallel dividing North and South Korea and captured the North Korean
capital of Pyongyang on October 19, 1950. EUSA continued to drive north
against light opposition, and on November 1, 1950, it reached its high-water
mark when the village of Chongdo-do, 18 air miles from the Yalu River
separating Korea and the Chinese province of Manchuria, was captured by the
21st Infantry Regiment.
Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, X Corps had
moved into northeastern Korea. The 1st Marine Division occupied positions
around the Chosin Reservoir, while on November 21, elements of the Army’s
7th Infantry Division’s 17th Infantry Regiment reached the Yalu River near
its source at Hyesanjin in eastern Korea. It seemed as though the war was
But disaster was at hand. On October 4, 1950,
Chairman Mao Tse-tung had secretly ordered ‘Chinese People’s Volunteers’
into action in Korea. Those Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) consisted of some
380,000 soldiers, organized into two army groups, nine corps-size field
armies and 30 infantry divisions.
From October 13 to 25, the 130,000-man CCF XIII
Army Group covertly crossed the Yalu River in the western sector opposite
EUSA. Two weeks later, the 120,000-man CCF IX Army Group also moved
surreptitiously into the eastern sector in Korea, opposite X Corps. Because
of intelligence failures, both in Washington and in Korea, the Chinese
managed to achieve almost total surprise. Their intervention would change
not only the battlefield conduct of the war but also its strategic nature.
According to the Soviet archives, in May 1950, Mao
had agreed to join with the Soviet Union and support the North Korean
invasion of South Korea. As the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Evgeny Bajanov
noted at the 1995 Georgetown conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai
‘confirmed [on July 2, 1950] that if the Americans crossed the 38th
parallel, Chinese troops disguised as Koreans would engage the opponent’ and
that Chinese armies had already been concentrated in the area of Mukden in
Manchuria. ‘In August-September 1950 on a number of occasions,’ said Bajanov,
‘Mao personally expressed concerns over the escalation of American military
intervention in Korea and reiterated the readiness of Beijing to send troops
to the Korean peninsula ‘to mince’ American divisions.’ But when Stalin sent
a message to Mao on October 1, asking him to ‘come to the rescue of the
collapsing Kim regime,’ Mao refused, instead suggesting ‘the Koreans should
accept defeat and resort to guerrilla tactics.’
Under intense Soviet pressure, however, on October
13, ‘the Chinese, after long deliberation, did agree to extend military aid
to North Korea,’ said Bajanov. ‘Moscow in exchange agreed to arm the Chinese
troops and provide them with air cover. According to the available
information, it was not easy for Beijing to adopt that military decision.
Pro-Soviet Gao Gang and Peng Dehuai [who would later command the CCF in
Korea] finally managed to convince Mao to take their side. Their main
argument was that if all of Korea was occupied by the Americans, it would
create a mortal danger to the Chinese revolution.’
In any event, after feints in early November
against EUSA at Unsan and against X Corps at Sudong, both of which were
ignored by Far East Command intelligence officers, the CCF launched its main
attack. On November 25, the XIII Army Group struck the EUSA, driving it out
of North Korea and retaking Seoul on January 4, 1951. Meanwhile, on November
27, the CCF IX Army Group struck X Corps, and by December 25, 1950, had
forced its evacuation from North Korea as well.
At first, both Moscow and Beijing were elated. On
January 8, 1951, Bajanov reported, Stalin cabled Mao, ‘From all my heart I
congratulate Chinese comrades with the capture of Seoul.’ But Bajanov added,
‘By the end of January 1951…the euphoria of Communists started to decline
and quite soon it disappeared and was replaced with worries, fear, confusion
and at times panic.’
What made the difference was Lt. Gen. Matthew B.
Ridgway, who took command of EUSA on December 26, 1950, replacing Lt. Gen.
Walton H. Walker, who had been killed in a jeep accident. Ridgway turned
EUSA from dejection and defeat into a tough, battle-ready force within a
matter of weeks. ‘The Eighth Army,’ wrote Fehrenbach, ‘rose from its own
ashes in a killing mood….By 7 March they stood on the Han. They went through
Seoul, and reduced it block by block….At the end of March, the Eighth Army
was across the parallel.’
Attempting to stem that tide, on April 22, 1951,
the CCF launched its great spring offensive, sending some 250,000 men and 27
divisions into the attack along a 40-mile front north of Seoul. It was the
largest battle of the war, but by May 20 the CCF, after some initial gains,
had been turned back with terrible losses. As Time magazine put it, ‘The
U.S. expended ammunition the way the Chinese expended men.’ After that
success, the United States was in good position to retake the offensive and
sweep the CCF from Korea. But Washington ordered EUSA to maintain its
defensive posture, for U.S. military policy had changed from rollback and
liberation to containment. That ruled out battlefield victory, for the best
possible result of defensive operations is stalemate.
On July 10, 1951, armistice talks began between
the U.N. Command and the CCF/NKPA. After the front line stabilized in
November 1951, along what was to become the new demarcation line, the
fighting over the next 20 months degenerated into a bloody battle for
terrain features like Old Baldy, Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill. The
U.S. forces suffered some 63,200 casualties to gain or retain those
outposts. With victory no longer in sight, public support for the war
plummeted, and in 1952 Truman decided not to run for re-election rather than
risk almost certain defeat. With the signing of the armistice agreement on
July 27, 1953, the war finally came to an end.
Dwarfed by the total U.S. victory in World War II,
the negotiated settlement in Korea seemed to many observers to be a defeat
and at best a draw. Certainly it seemed no model for the future.
As indicated previously, it was Eisenhower’s
strategy of massive nuclear retaliation that dominated the immediate postwar
era. Conventional forces, like the Korean War itself, were dismissed as
irrelevant. Even when the atomic war strategies were challenged by the John
F. Kennedy administration’s policy of flexible response, conventional forces
were still ignored in favor of the ‘new’ counterinsurgency war. Vietnam
would be its test case.
The Vietnam War, like the Korean War, was pursued
on the strategic defensive–the United States still not realizing that the
best result possible was stalemate. In Korea, U.S. forces kept the external
enemy at bay while giving local forces responsibility for counter-guerrilla
operations. But in Vietnam, this strategy–the only one with any hope of
success–was regarded as ineffective, even though the Korean War objective of
preserving South Korea’s independence had been attained.
Only in the wake of an unqualified failure in
Vietnam, where Saigon fell not to guerrilla attack but to a Korea-style
cross-border blitzkrieg by the North Vietnamese army, did the limited
validity of both nuclear war and counterinsurgency operations become
evident. The most probable future conflict was still a war fought with
conventional weapons in pursuit of limited political goals–in short, another
That was exactly what happened in the 1990-91
Persian Gulf War, and what the Pentagon is now prepared for with its policy
of being able to fight two regional conflicts almost simultaneously.
One of those potential regional conflicts is
Korea. As President Bill Clinton told the Korean National Assembly in July
1993, ‘The Korean peninsula remains a vital American interest.’ As proof of
U.S. resolve, almost a half century after it was decimated at Kunu-ri
protecting EUSA’s withdrawal from North Korea, the 2nd U.S. Infantry
Division currently sits astride the Seoul invasion corridor as a tripwire
guaranteeing certain U.S. involvement in any future conflict there.