The United States government blundered into a war that it said it was not going to fight. Then, after joining the war, it ignored various warnings as the war expanded.
In Korea, the U.S. government once again took a dangerous course and had a new war. America fought its way right up to the North Korean border with China, then said it was surprised when China—after public warnings—-attacked American and United Nations forces, inflicting defeat.
The Soviets controlled North Korea at the end of World War II. The United States controlled the South, accepting the Japanese surrender. Actually American involvement in the Korean peninsula went back to the turn of the 20th century. Korea had been under the cruel control of the Japanese in part due to America’s foreign policy needs.
The United States, which we have seen in this series turned away from its non-interventionist foreign policy in the Spanish-America War, was assuming the responsibilities of an imperial power. It wanted to play off Japan against Russia. So President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Root-Takahira Agreement with Japan. This conceded Japan’s dominion over Korea. This was a tragic agreement that ignored history. The Korean people had fought against the Japanese over centuries, even going back to the sixth century. (i)
Yet the United States after World War II seemed oblivious to the feelings of the Korean people. Unfortunately, it initially used Japanese troops in the post WWII occupation. That enraged Koreans. The Japanese, owing to wartime atrocities, were hated in most of Southeast Asia, where they had forcefully imposed their empire. The United States, in its zone, supported a power hungry leader and former Woodrow Wilson student at Princeton, Syngman Rhee. His rule over South Korea required American bayonets. (ii) Still, the United States, which had a relatively small army in South Korea after WWII, was in the process of pulling out in 1950.
The Soviets accepted the Japanese surrender in the North in 1945 and supported their own Stalinist regime. The Moscow-backed regime was emboldened to think it could re-unite the Korean regime. And, just before the Korean war, Truman Administration Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that Korea did not fall within the United States’ defense zone in the Far East. (iii)
The Soviets supplied and supported North Koreans as they crossed the 38th parallel, attacking the South. They quickly overwhelmed South Korean troops, who lacked heavy weapons. The Truman Administration announced it would repel the invasion. This happened without a Congressional war declaration and with a questionable supporting vote in the United Nations, according to Senator Robert Taft. (iv) The goal of the US and the UN was to restore South Korea. At the outset of the war in 1950, things looked bad for America and its allies. The South’s troops, along with a small number of American troops, were about to be pushed out of the Korean peninsula.
But after a victory turned the tide at Inchon, South Korean and UN forces, which were primarily American, recovered all of South Korea. The Americans and their allies were now on the offensive. The war’s end seemed within sight. However, sometimes in great victory are the seeds of defeat. Indeed, a difficult political and military decision now confronted the Truman administration. It was now giddy with expected victory and hopeful that American troops could be home for Christmas 1950.
Should the U.S. cross the 38th parallel, attack North Korea and reunify the Korea? (v)
UN Commander General Douglas MacArthur insisted that it should. MacArthur, who had brilliantly engineered the great Inchon victory, was at this time so popular that he was often mentioned as a presidential candidate. MacArthur also said that the war would be over by Christmas 1950. Others in the American government agreed that UN, South Korean and American troops should press on into North Korea. (vi)
Nevertheless, a few foreign policy experts disagreed. These included the State Department’s top Soviet advisers, George Kennan and Charles Bohlen. They said stop at the 38th parallel, the border between South and North Korea. They warned that the Allies were flirting with danger. The Soviet Union and China, they argued, would view the invasion as a hostile act and possibly enter the war. (vii) They raised a troubling question: Could these two Communist powers remain great powers and allow a hostile power to send troops into a nearby nation, a nation that was an ally?
The year before the Korean War, Chinese leader, Mao-Tse-Tung, basking in the victory of the civil war in which a pro-Western regime was defeated, said “Our nation will never again be an insulted nation. We have stood up…no imperialist nation will be allowed to invade our territory again.” (viii)
Another warning came from Mao’s government, which, unfortunately, had no relations with the United States, which would not reestablish relations until some two decades later under President Richard Nixon. Yet in 1950 the Chinese might have been ready to do business with the West. They might have been ready to enter into a pragmatic relationship with the Americans because there were hidden tensions within the Communist world.
What were they?
Privately, there was bad blood between these supposed allies. Some Chinese Communists believed their Soviet allies had double crossed them several times during the Chinese Civil War. (ix) The Red Chinese, through various channels, warned the UN would be on the verge of war with China if UN forces crossed the border into North Korea. They also said they were ready to take on the power of the United States if its troops moved close to their border.
“We all know what are in for, but at all costs American aggression has to be stopped,” a Chinese official told an Indian diplomat. “The Americans can bomb us, they can destroy our industries, but they cannot defeat us on land. (x) The warning had an interesting twist: If the crossing of the border were made by South Korean troops that wouldn’t matter to China, Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai said. By contrast, foreign troops doing so would be opposed by Chinese forces, he said.
U.S. officials, ignored the warning of the Communist leaning Indian official, K.M. Panikkar. And, as UN troops headed toward the Yalu River on the North Korean/Chinese border, MacArthur, according to several historians, reassured Truman that, based on his intelligence, large numbers of Chinese soldiers couldn’t get close to the battle. (xi)
MacArthur, in his memoirs, said this supposed judgment was a “prevarication.” He had never promised, MacArthur said, that large numbers of Chinese troops would not be able to get into the battle. (xii) He said he knew there were large concentrations of Chinese troops in the region. Still, he also wrote that “my military estimate was that with our largely unopposed air forces, with their potential capable of destroying, at will, bases of attack and lines of supply, north as well as south of the Yalu, no Chinese commander would hazard the commitment of large forces upon a devastated Korean peninsula.” (xiii)
Whoever miscalculated, disaster followed. At a time when UN troops needed to be in a defensive posture to prepare for a new offensive, they were strung out. They were expecting what MacArthur predicted would be the last offensive of the war. That never happened.
U.S. forces were bushwhacked by hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers. The U.S. suffered a terrible defeat. Its forces retreated back to the South. Later, the U.S. Air Force killed tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers. These were losses Chinese officials said they would accept to keep an unfriendly power away from their border.
A bloody stalemate ensued. The war dragged on for some three more horrible years. Thousands more Americans, Koreans, Chinese and others died. This was in part because the South Korean strongman leader Rhee refused to accept a negotiated settlement and insisted on re-unification under his leadership. (xiv) The United States, as had the Chinese and the Koreans and everyone else, had lost much in this no-win war. The administration of president Harry Truman was ruined. (xv)
“Six months after the Korean War, in January 1951, 66 percent of the public desired a pullout as rapidly as possible,” noted one historian. (xvi)
The same loss of popularity happened to President Johnson 17 years later. After another horrific war that no one called the “Splendid War” or “the Good War,” the president also said that he wouldn’t seek re-election. Both Johnson and Truman could have sought another term, but neither did, knowing they faced a politically difficult environment. They knew Americans, once again, were disgusted by war, wars that no one seemed to win and that exhausted the nation. But more disillusionment was coming in the next decade after Korea, with still another war. The 1960s would be a time that would tear the country apart over yet another controversial war.
So who won the Korean War?
It was a war that unexpectedly led to the United States battling China, a war in which the head of the Joints Chief of Staff, General Omar Bradley, famously told Congress was “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” (xvii)
Well, certainly not any of the participants, the Korean people, the United Nations forces, the Chinese and the many Americans killed and wounded. The Soviet Union, which had armed and enabled the North Koreans’ aggression, gained the most from the war.
They stayed out of it. That’s the judgment of a biographer of Zhou Enlai.
The war “killed two birds with one stone: China was stuck in a quagmire, and the United States had to maintain forces in Asia at the expense of the major Cold War front in Central Europe.” (xviii) The Soviets, he says, gained the most from the Americans and the Chinese killing each other.
The Korean War was also a precedent setting war—-it was the first time that the president formally ignored Congress and didn’t ask for approval of his actions. President Truman never requested a declaration of war. This ignore Congress practice continues to this war, regardless of whether a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House. So it became easier for presidents to wage war so more wars were waged. And since there is usually little debate until the nation is deeply involved in war, there are also more wars than ever. And even when there are seemingly periods of peace, there are perpetual preparations for war.
At about the same time as the Korean War was finally ending, the French were surrendering their Indochina Empire. The United States was less than a decade away from being drawn into a new war in Southeast Asia.
End of Part V
Gregory Bresiger is an independent business writer who has written Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance and MoneySense. Visit his blog at GregoryBresiger.com. He has a graduate degree in history from New York University. He is the author of the Road to the Permanent Warfare State.
(i) See “A Nation of Sheep,” William J. Lederer, p 73, (W/W/ Norton & Company, New York, 1961)
(iii) “The Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1947 had dismissed a Korea as being of little military concern to this government in terms of its broad defensive strategy in the Pacific.” Secretary of State Acheson later affirmed that judgment in a National Press club speech on January 12th, 1950. See “The Truman Presidency,” p 293 Cabell Phillips, (The MacMillan Company, New York, 1966).
(iv) See “The Papers of Robert Taft, Vol4, 1949-1953,” Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr., editor (Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 2006). Taft, in a January 1951 Senate speech, said “on June 28, 1950 I questioned the legality of the United Nations action, because article 27 of the Charter clearly provides that decisions of the Security Council on all matters shall be made by an affirmative of all seven members including the concurring votes of the permanent members. There was no concurring vote by Russia, but we overrode this objection without considering how it might be raised against us in the future.”
(v) “Harry S. Truman, A Life,” Robert H. Ferrell (University of Missouri, 1996)
(vi) “Man of the People, a Life of Harry Truman,” Alonzo L. Hambry, pp 540-542, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1995).
(vii) See “George F. Kennan, an American Life,” John Lewis Gaddis, pp 399-401, (Penguin Press, New York, 2011)
(viii) “Mao’s China, a History of the People’s Republic,” p 79 (The Free Press, 1979, New York).
(ix) See Zhou EnLai, The Last Revolutionary, Gao Wenqian, (Public Affairs, New York, 2007). p5.
(x) “The Coldest Winter,” David Halberstam, (Hyperion, New York, 2007), p 335.
(xi) “Reminiscences,” Douglas MacArthur, pp 327-396, (Bluckjacket Books, 2001, Annapolis, Maryland, 2001
(xiv) “A Nation of Sheep”
(xvi) See “The Ideology of the Executive State,” by Robert J. Bresler, p 10 from “Watershed of Empire. Essays on New Deal Foreign Policy” (Ralph Myles, Colorado Springs, 1976), Leonard Liggio and James J. Martin, editors
(xvii) “A Soldier’s Story,” Omar N. Bradley, (Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1951)
(xviii) See Zhou EnLai, The Last Revolutionary, Gao Wenqian, (Public Affairs, New York, 2007). p5. Also, the author writes that “the United States and the PRC were losers in Korea.”