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

Further, the U.S. had been drawn into a depressing propaganda war. We were responsible for rebirthing Japan, Italy, and Germany as pro-Western democracies, while Russian and Chinese communists posed as the true allies of the war’s victims that were continuing their war against fascism, against a capitalist American Empire that had joined the old Axis. In the case of Korea, Americans took over constabulary duties from Japanese militarists and supported South Korean authoritarians, while Soviet and Chinese-backed hardened communists in the North posed as agrarian reformers -- or so the global leftist narrative went. For many Americans, the thought of fighting a nearly endless civil war was less desirable than an armistice and an end to the hostilities, even though after three years of fighting and 36,000 American dead (and over a million Koreans lost), the borders remained almost unchanged.

Was that stalemate wise, given the later trajectory of North Korea to the present insanity? Perhaps not -- but the American effort nonetheless jumpstarted the South, which eventually evolved into a nation with consensual government and the world free-market powerhouse of today.


As historians we must remember not to evaluate what happened solely on the basis of what we now know in hindsight, but rather weigh the information available to the warring parties of the time -- albeit with ample attention paid to their own shortcomings and prejudices.

Moreover, most blunders in war follow from the fruits of perceived success (e.g., Germany after victories in the West, Japan after sensing the colonial powers were all through in the Pacific, MacArthur after Inchon, the Chinese after successfully crossing into Korea, and perhaps even the United States in Iraq after the quick victory over the Taliban and the three-week disposal of Saddam Hussein’s regime), when the winning side rarely evaluates its ongoing success in terms of tactical means and strategic ends, the changing tides of war, and the advantages that will soon begin to accrue to the defenders. Few dared challenge the purported genius Hitler in 1941, or the supposedly all-knowing Isoroku Yamamoto in late 1941, or the brilliant MacArthur after Inchon.

Finally, no one can quite predict what will happen when the shooting starts, as even the past can be a deceptive guide. Hitler believed that the Czar’s Russians, who did not fight as stubbornly as the French in World War I, would collapse like the French did in June 1940. When the Chinese crossed the 38th Parallel, they did not anticipate that their communist supermen were subject to the same facts -- long, vulnerable supply lines, bad weather, and an enemy with easier logistics -- that had plagued the Americans on the way to the Yalu. And while Hitler may have had grounds to doubt the initial effectiveness of the U.S. Army, its sudden mobilization, and its inadequate equipment, he had no appreciation of lethal American fighter-bombers or a growing strategic bombing arm, no appreciation of the brilliance of American generals at the corps and division level, and no appreciation of what Henry Kaiser and Charles Sorensen were up to back in the United States.