The Korean War, Fifty Years Later
by Jerome F. Winzig
Fifty years ago this month--on a rainy Sunday morning on June 25, 1950--North Korea launched a full-scale invasion of South Korea. The Soviet Union had withdrawn the last of its forces from North Korea at the end of 1948 and the United States had pulled the last of its troops in June 1949. However, North Korea had more than 135,000 highly-disciplined army troops, one-third of them veterans of the just-concluded Chinese civil war, and was better supplied than the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
In contrast, South Korea's 98,000-person army was--according to a United Nations report filed by two Australian air force observers the day before the war broke out--a lightly-armed constabulary force. South Korea had a handful of light aircraft, 26 armored cars, and no tanks. Incredibly, on that Sunday morning fully one-half of the South Korean army was on leave.
From the beginning, the war was intensely-fought. Historian Stanley Sandler explores its complex origins, controversial conduct, and long-lasting consequences in his recent book, "The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished." He describes the effects of the war on racial integration in the United States, its impact on the Cold War, and its results in Korea today. In the process, he shatters several myths about the war.
The June 25 attack began before dawn with heavy bombardment. Two hours later, led by a contingent of 150 Soviet-made T-34 tanks and supported by 110 warplanes, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel. Within a few hours, it had seized Kaesong and Uibongju. Three days later, North Korea took Seoul, the South Korean capital, which lies just 35 miles from the 38th parallel.
By then, U.S. President Harry Truman had approved the use of American naval and air forces in support of South Korea. On June 30, he authorized sending U.S. ground forces to South Korea. On July 7, the United Nations authorized a United Nations Command (UNC) to repel the North Korean invasion and placed the UNC under a single unified command. A week later, South Korean President Syngman Rhee (Yi Sung-Man) placed the South Korean armed forces under the command of the UNC. Sixteen other nations also joined the UNC umbrella.
By the end of July, North Korean forces had seized control of most of South Korea, in spite of the introduction of 45,000 UN ground troops accompanied by enormous naval and air support. The combined UNC forces were pushed back to a perimeter around the southeastern port city of Pusan and casualties on both sides were already heavy.
On July 29, General Walton Walker delivered a grim "Stand or Die" order to his division chiefs: "There will be no more retreating, withdrawal, or readjustment of the lines or any other term you choose. There is no line behind us to which we can retreat....There will be no Dunkirk, no Bataan..., a retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history....Capture by these people is worse than death itself....We are going to win."
The defense of Pusan lasted for six weeks. During the first 15 days of September, more U.S. troops died than in any other 15-day period of the entire war. Then, early in the morning on September 15, UNC troops landed at Inchon, a rocky, muddy low-water port near Seoul with the second-greatest tidal range in the world. By September 25, UNC forces had retaken Seoul after days of street-by-street fighting and heavy casualties. At the same time, UNC forces along the Pusan perimeter launched a counter-offensive so strong it might have succeeded even without the famous Marine Corps landing at Inchon.
By the end of September, UNC forces were crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea. General Douglas MacArthur called it his "Home by Christmas" offensive. However, as UNC forces approached the Yalu River border with China, UN intelligence identified 24 Chinese divisions near the Yalu River and another 14 in Manchuria. To avoid war with China, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered MacArthur not to sent U.S. troops near the Yalu. But MacArthur, who was itching for a war with China, ignored the order, shrugged off the intelligence reports, and kept advancing. By November, UNC troops were fighting Chinese forces.
The war also involved the Soviet Union. At its peak, the Soviet Union had 72,000 air force personnel stationed in Manchuria. Soviet pilots flew most of the air combat missions against the UN command, a fact kept secret both by the Soviet Union and the United States to prevent the war from escalating.
While a common myth holds that the Chinese flooded across the border in overwhelming numbers, the facts indicate otherwise. The Chinese did sent 300,000 troops into Korea, but the UNC had 553,000 troops, and its 423,000-person ground force was larger than the combined Chinese and North Korean ground forces.
As Chinese troops engaged UNC forces, the tide turned once again, and the UNC began a withdrawal that lasted all winter. During the retreat, General Walker was killed in a vehicle accident and replaced by General Matthew Ridgeway, who quickly reversed some of the mass destruction policies that had characterized the first six months of the war. These policies had carpet-bombed much of the Korean countryside and caused significant civilian casualties. From now on, Ridgeway said, destruction "shall be such as to combine maximum hurt to the enemy with minimum harm to the civilian population." Three days later Army engineers, who hadn't received Ridgeway's order, blew up Inchon's tidal gates, which later had to be rebuilt at great expense and much time, and Ridgeway insisted on an end to the UNC's "scorched earth" policy.
But the UNC retreat continued. In January 1951, Seoul was evacuated for a second time, and Ridgeway's UNC forces were demoralized. In reply to his men's oft-repeated question, "What are we fighting for?" Ridgeway replied: "Real estate is here incidental....The real issues are whether the power of Western civilization....shall defy and defeat Communism; whether the rule of men who shoot their prisoners, enslave their citizens, and deride the dignity of man, shall displace the rule of those to whom the individual and his individual rights are sacred....The sacrifices we have made, and those we shall yet support, are not offered vicariously for others, but in our own direct defense. In the final analysis, the issue now joined right here in Korea is whether communism or individual freedom shall prevail."
In the early months of 1951, the UN troops began to push back. On March 14, UNC forces retook Seoul for the second time. By now, it was nearly a dead city and the UN command proposed keeping it that way. But Korean civilians began to filter back into the city against orders reviving its commercial, educational, and cultural activities. As UNC forces approached the 38th parallel, President Truman declared that, since South Korea was close to being liberated, the UN was willing to agree to a cease-fire.
But MacArthur, whose earlier advance toward the Yalu River had precipitated China's intervention, had other ideas. On April 5, a friend of MacArthur's, U.S. Congressman Joseph Martin, read a letter from MacArthur on the floor of Congress, calling for the deployment of Chinese Nationalist forces in Korea. This was too much for Truman and he fired MacArthur.
Later that month, Chinese and North Korean forces began a spring offensive that UNC forces repulsed in fierce fighting; 30,000 Chinese troops surrendered. The UN reiterated its request for a cease-fire and on July 8, 1951, UNC negotiators met for the first time with Chinese and North Korean representatives at Kaesong. However, stalemated combat continued for two years, until July 27, 1953, while negotiations, bombing, and fighting dragged on. One of the stumbling blocks was the UN's refusal to forcibly repatriate Chinese and North Korean POWs who did not want to go home. Eventually, 22,604 Communist troops refused to go home, while only 359 UN troops refused repatriation, including 23 Americans.
The war was costly in human terms. Chinese and North Korean troop losses numbered close to one million, while South Korea had 215,000 casualties, the U.S. had 77,000, and other UNC units had 4,500. There were enormous civilian casualties throughout Korea, and much of the country, north and south, was in shambles. North Korea was under the control of Kim Il Sung and had most of Korea's industry and a huge hydroelectric complex. South Korea was left with little industry, an authoritarian government, and millions of refugees from the north.
In 1953, many would not have predicted today's results. But North Korea is impoverished and in many ways a large cult instead of a nation, while South Korea is thriving, in spite of the downturn in Asian economies of the last two years. In his book, Sandler, a military historian, concedes many of the mistakes of the war--the human frailties, the racism, the condescension of many Americans towards Korea. He describes events that only recently have been covered by the mainline media, such as bridges filled with civilian refugees being blown up by desperate retreating UNC forces. He acknowledges the terrible effects of napalm and phosphorus, which were dropped on North Korean and Chinese forces in great quantities.
However, Sandler also believes that "the Korean War, for all of its destruction, waste and human cost, was not fought in vain. Whatever the failings of the Rhee regime and its immediate successors, South Korea was spared the worst of the Stalinist regimes and eventually emerged with something far better." And he concludes that the fall of the Soviet Union and its "Potemkin Village empire" can be traced to President Truman's decision, with the support of the United Nations, to send troops to the defense of South Korea.
Fifty years later, it's something to think about.