Echoes Of A Distant War

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Then a thunderclap for our side. MacArthur had assembled an amphibious force from the reinforcements pouring into Japan, and on September 15 it landed at Inchon on Korea’s western coast, in a dramatic high-risk attack against strong positions in tricky tides—a gamble that, to MacArthur’s delight, was brilliantly successful. Now it was the enemy that faced cutoff and entrapment. The North Koreans retreated pell-mell; inside two weeks Seoul was back in UN hands, and American troops were surging northward above the thirty-eighth parallel, for the United Nations had authorized the then-untouchable MacArthur (though not without debate) not only to restore the status quo but to overrun North Korea and punish the aggressor.

That set up shock number three. The Chinese Communists, who had been in power since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army were driven off the mainland and onto Taiwan, let it be known through neutrals that they would not tolerate a UN armed presence on their common border with North Korea, the YaIu River. MacArthur, who fancied himself a master of “Oriental” psychology, persuaded Washington to ignore these warnings and pushed on. At the end of October 1950 Chinese infantry entered the fighting against the Americans in force, although technically there was no state of war between Peking and Washington or Peking and Seoul. Within days the divided and outnumbered American and ROK forces were enveloped and driven into a bitter winter retreat. As the new year opened, Seoul fell to the Communists again. MacArthur then set the stage for the next scene.

The American public dealt with the frustration of a victoryless war by forgetting the whole episode.

For the general, who had spent the preceding fifteen years in Asia, the war with China, declared or not, was real and had to be pursued to victory. He wanted American bombers to hit Chinese and North Korean bases and “sanctuaries” in Manchuria and also wished to have Chiang’s army sea-lifted from Taiwan to Korea. In the Cold War atmosphere these ideas were attractive to many Americans, but not to Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Preoccupied with confronting Stalin in Europe, they wanted no part of consuming land battles in Asia. MacArthur pushed his public quarrel with Washington up to, if not over, the edge of insubordination.

But he was up against another rocklike, if less flamboyant, individual in Truman. Politician though he was, the President was immovable when he thought he had the Constitution on his side. And so the fourth great shock: On April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur amid a firestorm of public fury. MacArthur’s dismissal was a turning point. After ten months of violent pendulum swings, the war settled into a new kind of conflict. None of the major powers wanted a full-scale engagement in Korea. What was needed was a peace of some kind with neither victory nor defeat. In July of 1951 truce talks began. They lasted for two years.

And in that time the real and most terrible Korean War was fought. The battle line stabilized more or less near the thirty-eighth parallel, and the fighting became a nasty and brutish affair, reminiscent of World War I, of small advances against strongly fortified positions with names like Pork Chop Hill and the Iron Triangle. Each gain cost hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lives. When final truce terms were approved on July 27, 1953 (over the strong objections of Rhee, and possibly Kim too), there was no exultation but mainly a kind of grim relief. Little was changed, except that a U.S. security treaty with Seoul pledged us to the future defense of the ROK against any attack, so as to leave no tempting doubt.

The American public, grudgingly forced to accept a victoryless war, seems to have dealt with frustration by forgetting the whole episode. There is just now under way a memorial in Washington to the thirty-three thousand Americans who died in Korea. Its returning veterans got no parades; they got a platter of benefits sharply reduced from that provided for the warriors of 1941–45. The United Nations, rather than being perceived as the force that had stopped aggression, fell into disrepute with some Americans for its failure to destroy North Korea. The United States settled into an era of diminished expectations of world perfection. Perhaps not diminished enough: The Korean War seems not to have prepared the public mind fully for the limits to power encountered later in Vietnam.

I don’t wish to sound dismissive or to trivialize the vast suffering of soldiers and civilians on all sides. One could argue that the war was “won” to the extent that it may have discouraged further adventurism. Still, I wish it were possible to worry less about the surprises that a still divided Korea may bring us in the years to come.