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After 61 Years, Korean War Offers Modern Lessons

President Truman authorized General MacArthur to go north of the 38th Parallel but cautioned alertness for indications of the entry of China or Russia into the war. Korea was seen as part of the fight against world Communism and as possibly the first skirmish in a Third World War. General MacArthur's troops promptly moved north. The Eighth Army headed up the west coast to the Yalu River while the X Corps made amphibious landings at Wonson and Iwon on the east coast and proceeded to the border with China. The war seemed to be nearly over. It was not.

There had been signals from China that she would send troops should any forces other than South Korean cross the 38th Parallel. However, China was being isolated politically and a warning she attempted to relay through Indian diplomatic channels was ignored. General MacArthur disregarded the risks and plunged ahead:

The best time for [Chinese] intervention was past, they said, and even if the Chinese decided to intervene, allied air power and firepower would cripple their ability to move or resupply their forces. The opinion of many military observers, some of whom had helped train the Chinese to fight against the Japanese in World War II, was that the huge infantry forces that could be put in the field would be poorly equipped, poorly led, and abysmally supplied. These "experts" failed to give full due to the revolutionary zeal and military experience of many of the Chinese soldiers that had been redeployed to the Korean border area. Many of the soldiers were confident veterans of the successful civil war against the Nationalist Chinese forces. Although these forces were indeed poorly supplied, they were highly motivated, battle hardened, and led by officers who were veterans, in some cases, of twenty years of nearly constant war.

General MacArthur was indisputably a military genius, as most recently demonstrated by his very chancy but highly successful Inchon invasion which had generally been opposed by the military establishment in Washington. However, he had an unfortunate tendency to rely heavily on staff officers (the "Bataan Gang," members of which had been with him in World War II's Pacific theater) who told him what he wanted to hear and reinforced his sometimes faulty views. General Charles Andrew Willoughby, General MacArthur's G2 (chief of intelligence), was among them. He tended to tell General MacArthur things and, when General MacArthur accepted them, to provide no contradictory information. While often comforting, "yes men" are less valuable than officers who provide fresh information inconsistent with what they had previously provided. The same is true with presidents. There was apparently also a focus on expecting the USSR, China, and North Korea to behave "rationally" and a tendency to neglect aspects of their ideology and culture. What seems reasonable to the leader of a free people is often very different from what seems reasonable to a dictator far more interested in preserving and enhancing his own position. These factors must be kept constantly in mind in an incipient Korean -- or any other -- conflict, including in the Arab lands. Neither the United States nor the USSR, China nor North Korea had crystal balls and all had ideologies to consider. The fog of war limited the vision of all, something quite common. The problems went beyond that.

The massive Chinese intervention came very soon after the Inchon invasion, on November 1, 1950, and things did not go well; for a while, the U.S. and ROK forces were routed:

[T]hey came out of the hills near Unsan, North Korea, blowing bugles in the dying light of day on 1 November 1950, throwing grenades and firing their "burp" guns at the surprised American soldiers of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Those who survived the initial assaults reported how shaken the spectacle of massed Chinese infantry had left them. Thousands of Chinese had attacked from the north, northwest, and west against scattered U.S. and South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) units moving deep into North Korea. The Chinese seemed to come out of nowhere as they swarmed around the flanks and over the defensive positions of the surprised United Nations (UN) troops. Within hours the ROK 15th Regiment on the 8th Cavalry's right flank collapsed, while the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 8th Cavalry fell back in disarray into the city of Unsan. By morning, with their positions being overrun and their guns falling silent, the men of the 8th Cavalry tried to withdraw, but a Chinese roadblock to their rear forced them to abandon their artillery, and the men took to the hills in small groups. Only a few scattered survivors made it back to tell their story. The remaining battalion of the 8th Cavalry, the 3d, was hit early in the morning of 2 November with the same "human wave" assaults of bugle-blowing Chinese. In the confusion, one company-size Chinese element was mistaken for South Koreans and allowed to pass a critical bridge near the battalion command post (CP). Once over the bridge, the enemy commander blew his bugle, and the Chinese, throwing satchel charges and grenades, overran the CP.

It became a bitter and bloody retreat through and between snow covered mountains in sub-freezing temperatures for which many troops had not been provided adequate cold weather gear. In April of 1951, General Ridgway replaced General MacArthur, who had different views on how to conduct military operations than did many in the Pentagon and, of greater importance, than did President Truman. At times, General MacArthur appeared to be confused over who was the commander in chief. Changes in command during time of war can be dangerous. They had already become so five months before, with the massive Chinese intervention.

In August of 1951, a year and two months after the invasion and about one year after the Chinese push into North Korea from the Yalu had begun,

General Ridgway’s headquarters in Tokyo put out a statement designed to show a cleavage between Moscow and Peking. Russia, said the statement, had inveigled the Chinese into the Korean war in order “to slash the strength of China … because a strong China on Russia’s southern frontier is the Kremlin’s nightmare. … China fought and bled while Russia looked on. To Mao Tse-tung this could hardly look like bosom comradeship. … It may mean China eventually goes the way of Yugoslavia. … The Reds have been so busy looking for cracks in the structure of the democracies they have not noticed the perch they are sitting on is swaying and slowly crumbling. … They cannot survive.”

General Ridgway had replaced General MacArthur only a few months previously and this may have been little more than wishful thinking.

The retreat from the Yalu was difficult and bloody, with much loss of life. The conflict ended in a truce, still in existence although of dubious meaning, with the border between the ROK and North Korea drawn pretty much along the thirty-eighth parallel with some islands to the north of it desired by the DPRK.

North Korea is not our friend, and neither are China and Russia. They tend to look out exclusively for their own peculiar interests as they perceive them and will do whatever it takes to advance them. If the Obama administration fails to recognize these things, and to act on the basis of them, we, South Korea, and many others as well are in for very substantial problems. Indeed, they are upon us with the recent provocative attacks by North Korea on the South.

In many respects, things are even more complicated and less fully understood now than during the lead up to the 1950 Korean Conflict. Then, we had few insights into what might be happening in the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea; that remains the case. Then, many seemed to recognize clearly that North Korea, China, and Russia were our enemies; fewer now seem to have that clear a perception as to Russia and China. Additionally, China has developed quite dramatically as a world economic power, transcending Russia; she is a, if not the, principal banker to the United States. She also supplies much of the “cheap stuff” desired by American consumers and many others. In consequence, the United States has become far more subservient to her than ever before.

As other things have changed, North Korea has become an increasing threat internationally with her trade in offensive military material with Iran and others. There are also problems, current and incipient, in much of the Arab world and we seem to have few insights into how to deal with them to our best advantage. We are at sea in Libya and Egypt can become a major problem with the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood. We now have a new secretary of defense and our president, principally for political purposes, is reducing our presence in Afghanistan.

As to Korea, much unfortunately depends on China and on our increasing subservience to her. If North Korea initiates a real war — perhaps by directing missile attacks against Seoul and her millions of residents — the likely response of China is unknown and perhaps even unpredictable, beyond that she will do whatever she sees as in her own best interests, defined as the interests of her rulers. Her response cannot be assumed to be what we would consider rational because China’s response will be a function of (a) how she perceives the precipitating events and of even greater importance (b) what the Chinese leaders consider their own best interests. I have very attenuated confidence that the folks at the State Department and elsewhere who are supposed to be watching the situation have many useful clues as to that sort of thing.