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War's Paradoxes: From Pearl Harbor to the Russian Front to the 38th Parallel

Japan, at war in the east with Russia during 1938-1939, had felt betrayed when its Axis partner had signed without warning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, effectively ensuring the Soviets could focus on one front against the Japanese. A defeated Japan repaid the treachery in kind, by signing a similar neutrality pact with Russia in April 1941. That bargain assured Stalin, in turn, that the Soviets would have only a one-front war should Hitler break his agreements -- a fact that might have saved Moscow as reinforcements from the east poured in.

In short, had Hitler maintained his pact with Stalin and focused instead on North Africa and the Persian Gulf oil fields, perhaps in conjunction with the Japanese advancing toward India and Suez, Great Britain would have probably lost the war. But by invading Russia, and declaring war on the United States on December 11 (when Army Group Center seemed on the verge of taking Moscow, when Japan seemingly had destroyed the Pacific fleet and had ensured both Britain and America a two-front war, and when U-boat commanders assured the Nazi high command that with free rein to attack the East Coast of the United States they could destroy the shipping lanes of the convoy system between North America and Great Britain), Hitler chose about the only two courses of action that could have lost him the war.

III. A Divided Korea?

Q. Why did the United States stop after spring 1951 at the 38th Parallel, thereby ensuring a subsequent sixty-year Cold War and resulting in chronic worries about a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and poised to invade its neighbor to the south?

A. Americans were haunted by the nightmare of November 1950 to February 1951. After the brilliant Inchon invasion, and MacArthur’s inspired rapid advance to the Yalu River and the Chinese border, the sudden entrance of an initial quarter-million Chinese Red Army troops, with hundreds of thousands to follow, had sent the Americans reeling hundreds of miles to the south (in the longest retreat in American military history), back across the 38th Parallel, with Seoul soon being lost to the communists yet again. Matthew Ridgway had arrived in December 1950 to try to save the war, and had done just that by April 1951, when he was replaced as senior ground commander by Gen. Van Fleet and in turn took over the theater command from the relieved MacArthur. But the Americans had been permanently traumatized by the Chinese entry and the North Korean recovery after the all-but-declared American victory of October 1950.

Ridgway, after the UN forces’ amazing recovery in early 1951, was in no mood to go much farther across the 38th Parallel. From his study of MacArthur’s debacle in Fall 1950, he knew well that the peninsula in the north became more rugged and expansive and would swallow thousands of troops as they neared the Chinese and Russian borders, and had to be supplied from hundreds of miles to the rear. Such a second advance through North Korea was felt, accurately or not, to risk a regional nuclear war with the Soviet Union, to draw in hundreds of thousands more Chinese Red Army troops, and to ensure another year or two of war at a time when the American public was thoroughly tired of this new concept of a “police action” and an “accordion war.” And while critics railed at silly political restraints on U.S. airpower that might have destroyed Chinese or Russian staging areas across the border, they did not appreciate that such attacks might also have prompted similar enemy attention on U.S. supply centers in Japan.

Moreover, the UN coalition had been created under quasi-coercive premises in Fall 1950. The war was seen as about over, and allied deployment might well amount to only garrison duty. European participation in Korea was also predicated on ensuring an American commitment to keeping the Soviets out of Western Europe. But by the time UN troops arrived in Korea, the Chinese were invading and slaughtering the coalition in the retreat to the south. Most European participants simply wanted a truce at any cost and an end to the war.