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Echoes Of A Distant War

March 2019

The half-remembered Korean conflict was full of surprises, and nearly all of them were unpleasant

Korea is in the news again, and it’s ugly news. North Korea may or may not have the capability to make nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s aging dictator, Kim Il Sung, is unwilling to let international inspectors find out. The United Nations is talking of sanctions. The United States is pointedly scheduling military maneuvers with the army of the Republic of South Korea. Some of the media’s self-chosen secretaries of state summon us, from their word processors, to sturdy firmness. Others warn that the unpredictable Kim should not be cornered, lest he provoke a second Korean War.

I don’t know if that last is an impossible scenario. But the mere idea gives me the feeling of being trapped in a rerun. Nearly five years after the Cold War ended, we are talking about possible renewed hostilities with a chief character from its early phases. Kim is the oldest surviving Communist boss. He goes back beyond an era already ancient—the days of Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Adenauer, de Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh—to an almost paleolithic time when World War II strongmen like Truman, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek still walked the stage.

A great many people know nothing whatever about the original Korean War. It is a barely commemorated conflict, buried between the heroics of World War II, the “good war,” and the torments of Vietnam, the bad one, which we lost. And it partakes of both traditions. It started as a neat epilogue to the great war against fascist aggression and ended as a curtain raiser to the frustrations of an age of limited power. It was full of surprises, almost all of them unpleasant.

To begin at the beginning, North and South Korea, like East and West Germany, were political fictions créâted by the post-1945 failure of the wartime Soviet-U.S. alliance. Korea was a single nation, divided into temporary Soviet and American occupation zones pending a final peace treaty with Japan, which had seized and annexed Korea.


The little peninsula was a rich prize, half of which fell into Stalin’s lap cheaply in August of 1945, when the U.S.S.R. entered the war against Japan in its final days. Moscow’s forces got to occupy Manchuria and northern Korea and help themselves to “reparations” from both places. In Korea the Soviets also dominated the political reorganization that was supposedly the prelude to all-Korean elections that would at last set up a free, single, democratic Korea. Kim Il Sung, a veteran of Korea’s Communist underground, emerged at this time. He was thought by Americans to be a totally obedient Stalin puppet, but so was every Communist leader in those days—a somewhat simplistic assessment, as events showed.

In South Korea the reawakening of independent political life brought back a long-exiled figure, Dr. Syngman Rhee, who was seventy years old at the war’s end. Rhee was a veteran nationalist, jailed and tortured by the Japanese in his youth. He was a popular autocrat whose limited brand of “democracy” had America’s blessing, and when he won elections held in the South, Washington helped him build an army for his Republic of Korea and then withdrew its forces. The U.S.S.R. did likewise with Kim, whom it endowed with the leadership of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. By 1950 Kim and Rhee—their man and ours—were glaring at each other from their respective capitals, Pyongyang and Seoul. Each wished passionately to depose the other “puppet” and unify Korea under his own rule. There were border clashes and provocations, threats (unpleasantly like those we are hearing today) and clear indications that either would use force if he could get his patron’s backing.

But it was Kim who struck first. On June 25, 1950, his tanks rolled across the thirty-eighth parallel, which marked the border between South and North, and gave the world the first of a series of shocks. Number one was the attack itself, seemingly a crude act of aggression in imitation of Japan’s grab of Manchuria, Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia, or Hitler’s march into Austria. This searing parallel to the 1930s led American public opinion almost universally and instantly to agree that action was needed. This time international outlawry would be stopped in its tracks. And right at hand was the United Nations, the precise agency for calling in the international cops. The United States got a resolution authorizing “police action” rushed through the Security Council. The war thereby became technically a UN operation, though 90 percent of the forces, and the overall commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, were furnished by the Republic of Korea and the United States.

Now came the second great shock. The air and naval forces that President Truman immediately ordered to support the South Koreans were not enough to stop the invasion. Ground troops were needed, and MacArthur could deploy only his occupation forces, softened by years of garrison duty. Fed piecemeal into action, they were quickly overrun by North Korean divisions. By the end of August the soldiery of a “tiny” Asian nation had penned the UN forces in a perimeter around the port of Pusan and seemed on the verge of driving them completely off the peninsula.

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.