1950 Fifty Years Ago

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On October 19, American-led United Nations forces brought the Korean War to a swift and successful conclusion by taking Pyongyang, the capital of the communist-controlled northern section of the country. As North Korean troops fled helter-skelter from their more numerous and better-armed opponents, a buoyant Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared, “The war definitely is coming to an end shortly,” predicting that American troops would be out of Korea by Christmas. Gen. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, reported that “organized resistance on any large scale has ceased to be an enemy capability.” Back home, under the headline HARD-HITTING U.M. FORCES WIND UP WAR, Life magazine wrote, “The end of the war loomed as plain as the mustache on Stalin’s face.” With resistance continuing to crumble, the magazine wrote, all that remained was to put a few final touches on “the mop-up stage of the war.”

And so it truly seemed, for once the initial shock of the communists’ June 25 invasion was past, a multifront offensive had liberated Seoul, the southern capital, and forced the overmatched North Korean troops into headlong flight. After beginning their counterattack in mid-September, UN forces crossed the 38th parallel, which marked the border between North and South Korea, on October 7. From there they bloodily but relentlessly pursued the communists through North Korea toward the YaIu River, which formed the boundary with China. Logistical snafus slowed the advance, but as the North Koreans continued to fall back, it was not too soon to imagine MacArthur’s replacing Dwight Eisenhower, then toiling in obscurity as president of Columbia University, as the war-hero favorite in the 1952 presidential election.

The UN troops did not have long to savor their victory. Late in October UN units encountered surprisingly strong resistance from troops they had thought were in disarray. As the UN advance was checked, then repulsed, commanders wondered what had gotten into the North Koreans. The answer became clear when occasional groups of captured prisoners turned out to be Chinese. The Chinese Communists, alarmed at the incursion into a friendly neighboring country and fearful that the invaders would not stop at the YaIu, had sent some 300,000 men into Korea.

This massive force did not stop the UN troops dead in their tracks. An early-November offensive went off as planned, and by mid-November they were closing in on the banks of the YaIu. Then the Chinese launched a withering counteroffensive. By midDecember they had crossed the border into South Korea, and by early January they had retaken Seoul. UN troops dug in for a bone-chilling winter in Korea’s windswept mountains, during which shortages of food, ammunition, equipment, and reinforcements would make them bitterly curse their commanders’ early overconfidence.