- Historic Sites
How To Remember The Forgotten War
The Korean conflict erupted fifty years ago this June. Many Americans still believe that it began in debacle (which is true) and ended in a humiliating compromise that changed nothing (which is not).
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Only by coincidence does the fragment of a map of Korea along the fateful thirty-eighth parallel that is part of the jacket art for my book MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero include the town of Chunchon. That was as far north as I got during the war. My commission as an Army second lieutenant had come on April 18, 1951, exactly one week after President Truman dismissed Douglas MacArthur as commander in chief in the Far East. As I prepared to go on active duty, MacArthur’s four-engine, dramatically named plane, Bataan, was about to touch down in San Francisco. Just after noon the next day, speaking to a joint meeting of Congress, the general delivered his farewell to military service, quoting a line of a nineteenth-century ballad, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” And like that old soldier, he declared in his slow, mesmerizing voice, he too intended to just fade away.
Actually, he intended to propagandize for a widening of the war and to run for President. Had the occasion been a quadrennial party convention, he might very well have been nominated by acclamation. Overcome listeners sobbed; some raced to their telephones to shout imprecations at the White House switchboard. The Republican representative Dewey Short, of Truman’s home state of Missouri, announced, “We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God.” At my Philco I thought I had managed a triumph of timing: I would don my khaki just when MacArthur’s replacement would wind down the war.
I hadn’t wanted to soldier as a private if I could do better. I had been a year too young for the draft when World War II ended and knew I’d be high up on the list for the next call-up. I aspired to be an officer and a gentleman, but neither the Navy nor the Air Force wanted me: I had no college math. The Army wanted to know if I was a scientist. A special regulation left over from the last war authorized direct commissioning of scientists; the recruiting officer at the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia was very positive on that point. I tried a dumb question on him: “Does a Bachelor of Science degree qualify someone as a scientist?”
“Why, sure,” he said, handing me the application form. Armed with my B.S. in education, I received my ticket to Korea. I was also far from the only green second lieutenant.
Although each war reminds Americans yet again that neglecting our readiness is more costly than investing in it, we do it every time. Before World War II engulfed the United States, George Patton on maneuvers in Louisiana had to go to a Sears, Roebuck store and pay from his own pocket for bolts to keep his tanks operating. After the war many tanks were junked where they were, and newer weaponry hardly existed when the Korean War began. For many months the war was fought with what hardware had survived from the last one, and troops on Occupation duty in Japan—the first to cross to Korea—tended to be far more knowledgeable about whorehouses than howitzers.
MacArthur’s shogunate in Japan—his reward for turning defeat in the Philippines into glorious return—had been an inspired decision by Washington. The imperial MacArthur style was, for the Japanese, a nearly seamless transition from rule in the name of the emperor. Five years into his routine, running the Occupation from the Dai Ichi Building, across a street, a moat, and a stone wall from the Imperial Palace, he knew about as much of Japan, and the state of his Occupation army, as the Great Oz might have. He never left Tokyo to inspect his divisions. He never materialized at field exercises, where pampered and poorly trained garrison soldiers often could not figure out how to break down a rifle, dig a foxhole, or maintain themselves in any way without paid indigenous assistance. His chief of staff blamed the poor quality of Occupation troops on peacetime recruits and their disdain for discipline. The tame correspondents on the Tokyo beat remained as reverential to the boss as were his staff officers. It was the good life.
Few troops had walkie-talkies, and ponchos were mostly used for the dead.
The idyll ended with unexpected suddenness on June 25, 1950, although the warning signs had been up and unread for a long time. The leadership in both parts of divided Korea—the southern half of which MacArthur had visited once, ceremonially, declaring at the time that he would defend it as he would California—lusted after unification, each side on its own terms. To prevent South Korea’s dictatorial and provocative president, Syngman Rhee, from crossing the thirty-eighth parallel, which politically divided the peninsula, Washington denied him both armor and aircraft. Kim Il Sung, installed by Stalin to the north, had similar ambitions, and early in 1951 he secured the Kremlin’s permission to invade, assuming an easy victory while the United States dithered. Korea, however, had strategic value that Washington downplayed to the public. In communist hands at the height of the Cold War, it could destabilize Japan and upset the precarious armed postwar détente worldwide.