Prologue Magazine

Revisiting Korea

Exposing Myths of the Forgotten War

Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2

By James I. Matray

© By James I. Matray


"A myth is an account that is demonstrably untrue in whole or substantial part."
     - Thomas A. Bailey

Korean War artillery An artillery officer directs UN troops as they drop white phosphorous on a Communist-held post in February 1951. (NARA, 111-SC-358293)

For many years, the Korean War attracted little attention from either American diplomatic historians or the general public. Clay Blair even titled his detailed study of the Korean conflict The Forgotten War. Other authors have labeled Korea The War Before Vietnam and The Unknown War.1 That the Korean War avoided scholarly examination for so long resulted in the emergence of a number of myths about the conflict that remain central to Korea's place in popular memory almost a half century after the fighting stopped.

The Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., presents in granite what for many remains its most powerful lesson— that "Freedom Is Not Free." Tourists can buy T-shirts sporting a map of Korea over which appears the judgment that this was "The Place Where Communism Was Stopped." But since 1981 a swelling stream of books and articles reexamining not only the war itself, but U.S. policy toward Korea before June 1950, has shattered traditional beliefs about the conflict.2 This essay revisits the Korean War with the purpose of exposing old myths and replacing them with current realities of a no-longer-forgotten conflict.

Early accounts of the Korean War almost without exception focused on events beginning with the North Korean invasion of South Korea. This was because few people doubted that the Soviet Union had ordered the attack as part of its plan for global conquest. President Harry S. Truman provided support for this assumption just two days after the start of hostilities. On June 27, 1950, he told the American people that North Korea's attack on South Korea showed the world that "communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war."3 This assessment reflected Truman's firm belief that North Korea was a puppet of the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung was acting on instructions from Moscow. In his memoirs, Truman equated Joseph Stalin's actions with Adolf Hitler's in the 1930s, arguing that military intervention to defend the Republic of Korea (ROK) was vital because appeasement had not prevented but ensured the outbreak of World War II.4 Top administration officials, as well as the general public, fully shared these assumptions. This traditional interpretation provided the analytical foundation for early accounts of the war, perpetuating the most important myth of the Korean conflict.5

A consensus now prevails that the origins of the Korean War date from at least World War II. Rather than characterizing the conflict as the product of external aggression, scholars acknowledge the centrality of domestic factors. In fact, more than a decade ago, it became fashionable to portray the Korean War as a civil conflict, rejecting not only the argument that it was an example of Soviet-inspired, external aggression but denying Moscow's involvement. Bruce Cumings, the leading proponent of this interpretation, insisted in his two-volume study titled The Origins of the Korean War that a conventional war started in Korea in June 1950 because the United States prevented a leftist revolution on the peninsula during 1945 and imposed a reactionary regime in the south during the years immediately following World War II.6 Accounts of the war thereafter adopted the Cumings interpretation. Callum MacDonald wrote that the North Korean "attack was the latest act in a civil war which had been taking shape since the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945." Burton I. Kaufman labeled the conflict "a true civil war." For Peter Lowe, by 1950, the "situation in the Korean peninsula was in essence one of civil war." John Merrill charged that prior accounts of the Korean War ignored the "local setting," insisting that "the war can be usefully interpreted as a case of intervention in the ongoing civil strife in the South."7

Release of previously classified Soviet and Chinese documents during the 1990s abruptly ended the emerging consensus that Korea was a classic civil war. A renewed emphasis on international factors in reexaminations of the Korean conflict resulted in the current description of it as an "international civil war," which only sounds like an oxymoron. Kathryn Weathersby provided a succinct summary of this new consensus when she concluded that the war's origins "lie primarily with the division of Korea in 1945 and the polarization of Korean politics that resulted from . . . the policies of the two occupying powers. . . . The Soviet Union played a key role in the outbreak of the war, but it was as facilitator, not as originator."8 Many writers already had arrived at this conclusion before Communist archival materials became available in the course of reexamining U.S. policy toward Korea in World War II. For example, some scholars emphasized international factors in reexamining how Korea came to be divided in 1945. A myth had taken hold during the McCarthy era that just as Communists in the State Department had helped Mao Zedong seize power in China, so too had they conspired to ensure Soviet control in North Korea. Korea's partition at the thirty-eighth parallel allegedly was part of the price President Franklin D. Roosevelt paid at Yalta for Soviet entry in the Pacific War. This coexisted with another erroneous belief that the Allies divided Korea at the Potsdam Conference.9

We now know that President Harry S. Truman proposed partitioning Korea on the eve of Japan's surrender to prevent the Soviets from occupying the entire peninsula. When he became President following Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe had begun to alarm U.S. leaders. Almost from the outset, the new President expected Soviet actions in Korea to parallel Stalin's policies in Poland. Within a week after assuming office, Truman began to search for some way to eliminate any opportunity for a repetition of Soviet expansion. The atomic bomb seemed to provide him with an easy answer. Japan's prompt surrender after an atomic attack would preempt Soviet entrance into the Pacific war, thereby permitting the United States to occupy Korea alone and removing any possibility for "sovietization." But Truman's gamble failed. When Stalin declared war on Japan and sent the Red Army into Korea prematurely on August 12, 1945, the United States proposed Korea's division into Soviet and U.S. zones of military occupation at the thirty-eighth parallel. Only Stalin's acceptance of this desperate eleventh-hour plan saved the peninsula from unification under Communist rule. Accepting Korea's division into suitable spheres of influence, the Soviet leader probably also hoped to trade this concession for an equal voice in occupied Japan.10

Korea soon found itself a captive of the Cold War. As Soviet-American relations in Europe deteriorated, neither side was willing to acquiesce to an agreement appreciably strengthening its adversary. After eighteen months of failed negotiations, Washington and Moscow moved toward the formation of separate regimes, resulting in the creation in August 1948 of the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north the following September.11 After North Korea launched its attack two years later, a myth took hold that the United States abandoned the ROK, thereby encouraging an invasion.

Admittedly, in September 1947 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had recommended prompt U.S. military withdrawal from Korea, but a major uprising against the government of Syngman Rhee in October 1948 caused the United States to postpone disengagement until June 29, 1949. By then, Truman believed that South Korea could survive and even prosper without protection from U.S. troops despite the existence of a powerful army in North Korea. Before U.S. troops left, the administration had assumed a commitment to train, equip, and supply a security force in the south that was capable of preserving internal order and deterring an attack from the north. Also, it had asked Congress to approve a three-year program of technical and economic assistance.12

To build political support for the Korean assistance package, Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson delivered a speech before the National Press Club on January 12, 1950, offering an optimistic assessment of the ROK's future. Later, critics perpetrated the myth that Acheson's exclusion of South Korea from the US"defensive perimeter" gave the Kremlin a "green light" to order an attack.13 Currently available declassified Soviet documents show, however, that Acheson's words had almost no effect on Communist planning for the invasion; only one even mentions the Press Club speech. In fact, North Korean leader Kim IL Sung at first thought that Acheson had placed South Korea inside the U.S. defensive perimeter.14

More important was the correct assumption guiding Truman's Korea policy that Moscow was reluctant to allow the North Koreans to practice open aggression. This belief allowed the administration to pursue containment through economic means, and the policy seemed to be experiencing marked success in Korea during the weeks after Acheson's address. South Korea had acted vigorously to end spiraling inflation, while elections in May had given Rhee's critics control of the legislature. Finally, the South Korean army had nearly eliminated guerrilla activities threatening internal order, prompting approval of a large increase in U.S. military aid.15

While the United States was willing to be patient, awaiting the collapse of what it saw as Moscow's artificial client state in North Korea, South Korea's President Rhee was obsessed with accomplishing early reunification through military means. The Truman administration's fear that Rhee would launch an invasion prompted it to limit South Korea's military capabilities, refusing to provide tanks, heavy artillery, and combat planes.16 This did not stop the South Koreans from initiating most of the border clashes with North Korean forces at the thirty-eighth parallel beginning in the summer of 1948 and reaching a high level of intensity and violence a year later. Historians now acknowledge that the two Koreas already were waging a civil conflict when North Korea's attack opened the conventional phase of the war.17 Contradicting traditional assumptions, however, available declassified Soviet documents demonstrate that throughout 1949 Stalin consistently refused to approve Kim IL Sung's persistent requests to approve an invasion of South Korea. The Soviet leader believed that North Korea had not achieved either military superiority north of the parallel or political strength south of that line. His main concern was the threat South Korea posed to North Korea's survival, for example fearing an invasion northward following U.S. military withdrawal in June 1949.18

Stalin was not prepared to risk war with the United States in 1949, but the Communist victory in China that fall placed pressure on him to show his support for the same outcome in Korea. Both of these factors allowed Kim IL Sung to use the "strategy he later used so extensively of playing China and the Soviet Union against one another."19 In January 1950, Stalin approved Kim's request to visit Moscow but, despite Acheson's speech, he was not ready to approve an invasion. At that time, he also approved a major expansion of North Korea's military capabilities, but his purpose was more to ensure its survival than to promote aggressive expansion. When they met during April, Kim persuaded Stalin that a military victory would be quick and easy, especially because of support from southern guerrillas and an expected popular uprising against Rhee. But Stalin still feared U.S. military intervention, advising Kim that he could stage an offensive only if China's Mao Zedong approved. During May, Kim IL Sung traveled to Beijing to secure Chinese consent for the invasion. Significantly, Mao also expressed concerns about U.S. military intervention. But after Kim disingenuously explained that Stalin had approved his plans, Mao gave his reluctant consent for the offensive as well. Kim IL Sung knew that time was running out and manipulated his patrons into supporting his desperate bid for reunification before Rhee could beat him to the punch.20

Few Americans then and thereafter doubted for a moment that on June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea on orders from Moscow. They also came to believe a myth that President Truman acted with swiftness and courage to prevent conquest of the entire peninsula. But in fact, he did not commit U.S. ground troops in Korea for almost a week, referring the matter instead to the United Nations and banking on South Korea's ability to defend itself. This was consistent with Truman's containment policy in Asia, where he hoped to prevent Communist expansion without relying on U.S. military power, thereby avoiding the need to reverse his policy of reducing defense spending. At a press conference on June 29, he was still optimistic that a total commitment was avoidable, agreeing with a newsman's description of the war as a "police action" rather than coining the phrase himself. But the next morning, Gen. Douglas MacArthur advised that without American combat forces, Communist conquest of South Korea was certain. Even then, however, Truman hesitated, asking Secretary of the Army Frank Pace, who telephoned before dawn requesting approval of MacArthur's request, "Do we have to decide tonight?" Told that a decision could not wait, the President sent U.S. soldiers to fight in Korea.21

Truman made much at the time of how the United States intervened in Korea in response to the request for defense of the Republic of Korea from the Security Council of the United Nations. But the myth that the Korean War was an example of collective security lost its credibility long ago, given the reality that the United States acted prior to passage of UN resolutions. The UN Security Council resolution of July 7, 1950, provided for creation of a United Nations Command (UNC), requiring MacArthur, Truman's choice as the UNC commander, to make periodic reports on developments in the war. The Truman administration had blocked formation of a UN committee that would have had direct access to the UNC, adopting instead a procedure whereby MacArthur received instructions from and reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Since Washington had to approve them, MacArthur's reports in fact were after-action summaries of information that was common knowledge because newspapers already had printed detailed coverage of the same developments. Moreover, the United States and the ROK contributed 90 percent of the manpower. It was not the United Nations, but the United States that provided the weapons, equipment, and logistical support to save South Korea. All this provided clear proof of the nominal role that the United Nations, and collective security, played in the Korean War.22

Revisiting Korea, Part 2



James I. Matray is professor of history and department chair at California State University, Chico. He has published a number of articles and two books on U.S.-Korean relations during and after World War II. Author of Japan's Emergence as a Global Power, his East Asia and the United States: An Encyclopedia Since 1784 will be published in October 2002.



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