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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
It was an interesting and revealing time. The shooting hadn’t stopped, but there wasn’t much movement. Only casualties. Soon truce talks were initiated as the war went on. While more men got killed and wounded, the frustrating negotiations dragged on and on as the communists attempted to eke out, at the least, a no-loss peace: the thirty-eighth parallel restored as the frontier, as if there had never been a war of their making, and a complete exchange of prisoners—the practice in past wars. As I soon learned, however, this was not like past wars. Now that communism, dreary at best, has imploded in the former Soviet Union and been reversed or modified into some form of capitalism elsewhere, including China (with the intransigent exception of North Korea and perhaps Cuba), we can understand why tens of thousands of communist prisoners of war did not want to be repatriated. A second front in Korea finally did materialize: a war inside the prisoner-of-war camps for the bodies and souls of communism’s victims. For China and North Korea to lose any POWs through their own troops’ refusal to go home threatened to become a Cold War propaganda defeat difficult to explain not only in a Third World still up for grabs but in the communist bloc itself.
We discovered deadly kangaroo courts operating under cover of night in the POW camps, in which both sides brutally coerced captives. Soon there were outright mutinies, orchestrated from outside through covert POW communications networks, to prevent UN forces from screening prisoners to separate those who wanted to return from those who rejected communism. We had to use force to create a situation in which independent choice became possible. I recall a surreal nightmare march of sixteen hundred fanatic POW amputees, some on crutches, some in plaster casts, some walking grimly on wooden-pylon prostheses, others merely plodding on stumps, all armed with makeshift weapons or bearing blood-red banners. They had to be halted by tear gas and concussion grenades. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t in the newspapers.
In the end the communist negotiators and their stubborn surrogates in the camps had to be worn down by the reality that we would never again condone the inhumanity that had resulted when the Western Allies reluctantly, in 1945, returned to Russia its own countrymen—many former prisoners of the Germans—who did not want to go back to Stalinism. Some committed suicide en route home; others were murdered by the Soviets when they got there. The Western dilemma then was not only that the Russians were our wartime allies but that they held men of our own retaken from the Germans or interned in the Far East before Russia had entered the war against the Japanese. Our principles had been held hostage. This time we hung tough. The human tragedy would not be repeated.
On every front, the Forgotten War ended in victory.
I was in the middle of the Pacific early in March 1953, returning after seventeen months in Korea, when the troopship’s radio reported that Stalin had died. I realized that the war could end now; a deal could be brokered. A change of leadership had also occurred in Washington. Dwight Eisenhower had been elected to succeed Truman and, upon returning from a highly publicized pre-inauguration trip to Korea, had let it be known that if necessary he would approve the use of nuclear weapons to end the stalemate. Some see that as having made a difference, but as long as Stalin lived, it had not. The other side knew that the United States could not afford the world opprobrium that would result. The Chinese, in fact, had long before discussed that eventuality when MacArthur made similar threats. Gen. Nieh Yen-jung, a Mao intimate and a veteran of the Long March, had told a questioner then, “They may even drop atom bombs on us. What then? They may kill a few million people. After all, China lives on the farms. What can atom bombs do there? Yes, our economic development will be put back. We may have to wait for it [to recover].”
Some face-saving gesture was in order during the post-Stalin transition, and we accepted one on the sensitive prisoner-of-war issue. Pragmatism also drew the Chinese back to the consolidation of their revolution, which had been overtaken by the draining of scarce resources in an un-winnable war. The shooting stopped that June. No prisoners were forced back, but a diplomatic compromise to let Third World representatives, led by India, oversee repatriation delayed freedom for most until January 1954. In the end 21,805 POWs chose not to return to China and North Korea; 23 Americans opted to remain behind. (A few of these latter were communists; a few had been brainwashed; the rest evaded, that way, court-martial for collaboration.)