Revisiting Korea, Part 2
Exposing Myths of the Forgotten War
Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2
By James I. Matray
© By James I. Matray
MacArthur's Inchon landing reversed the course of the Korean War, but contrary to traditional beliefs, it did not create the momentum that resulted in the decision to cross the thirty-eighth parallel and continue the offensive to the Yalu. In fact, throughout July, Truman's advisers, certain that a battlefield victory was inevitable, debated whether to pursue forcible reunification once North Korea's army had been thrown out of the south. Initially, Acheson opposed crossing the parallel, stating publicly on June 29 that U.S. military action is "solely for the purpose of restoring [South Korea] to its status prior to the invasion." However, State Department officials worked to change Acheson's mind, arguing persuasively that the United States should destroy the North Korean army and then sponsor free elections for a government to rule all of Korea. US military leaders were reluctant to endorse this drastic change in war aims until, in late July, UN defensive lines finally stabilized. Roughly two weeks later, Truman decided to approve military operations in pursuit of forcible reunification. Truman's plan for conquering North Korea, which he approved on September 1, included precautions to minimize the chance of Chinese intervention that MacArthur later ignored. But the allegation that MacArthur was responsible for the ill-advised advance into North Korea is a myth. Truman made this decision to register a victory in the Cold War.23
China's decision to intervene in the Korean War has received a thorough reexamination in recent years as a consequence of access to new documents and personal accounts on the Communist side. Chen Jian has demonstrated that Beijing's "entry into the Korean War was determined by concerns much more complicated than safeguarding the Chinese-Korean border." Mao Zedong sought "to win a glorious victory" that would restore China's world status as the "Central Kingdom." He also wanted to repay a debt to North Korea, which had sent thousands of soldiers to fight in the Chinese civil war. Furthermore, after the Inchon landing, Stalin also had been pressing Beijing to intervene and prevent US conquest of North Korea. His pledge of Soviet air support removed any remaining doubts that Mao might have had about crossing the Yalu. But his associates hesitated, causing Mao, Chen explains, to use his "wisdom and authority to persuade his comrades" that US conquest of North Korea would inflict an intolerable blow on revolutionary nationalism in Asia.24
After Stalin reneged on his promise of air support early in October, some writers have argued that China balked, but then intervened to avoid the prospect of Kim Il Sung establishing a government in exile in Manchuria.25 Chen insists, however, that because the triumph of Mao's revolutionary nationalist program was so vital to "the new China's . . . domestic and international interests, there was little possibility that China's entrance into the Korean War could have been averted."26
Recent research has contributed to a modest rehabilitation of MacArthur on other issues, most notably the general's persistent efforts to escalate the Korean War. After China's massive military assault in late November 1950, MacArthur submitted a "Plan for Victory" that proposed four specific steps to defeat the Communists. First, the general called for a blockade of China's coast. Second, he wanted authorization to bomb military installations in Manchuria. Third, MacArthur advocated deployment of Chinese Nationalist forces in Korea. Finally, he recommended that Jiang Jieshi launch an attack from Taiwan against the mainland.27 We now know that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, despite later denials, seriously considered endorsing implementation of these actions prior to receiving favorable reports from the battlefront late in December. By spring 1951, Truman had approved the first two proposals if UN forces faced annihilation or China expanded the war beyond Korea. In fact, the President even was prepared to use atomic weapons, an option that he had under consideration since the early days of the fighting. According to some historians, the United States was closer to using nuclear weapons in Korea under Truman than under his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower.28
A surprising pattern in recent writing on the Korean War has been the indifference to the role of MacArthur. Nevertheless, scholars have clarified events surrounding Truman's decision to recall the general in April 1951. Early in 1951, Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway halted the Chinese Communist advance southward, making it possible for the administration to implement its preference for fighting a limited war in Korea. After Washington turned down successive pleas from MacArthur to expand the war through attacking China, the general grew frustrated with a policy of settling for an armistice near the thirty-eighth parallel. In March, his demand for an immediate Communist surrender sabotaged a planned cease-fire initiative. But for various reasons, many of them political, Truman reprimanded, but did not recall the general. By early April, a combination of factors forced the President to act. The JCS worried about a Chinese and Soviet military buildup in East Asia and thought the UN commander should have standing authority to retaliate against any Communist escalation, even recommending deployment of atomic weapons to forward Pacific bases. They mistrusted MacArthur and guessed he might provoke an incident in order to widen the war. While MacArthur's letter to House Republican Minority Leader Joseph W. Martin on April 5 once again criticizing the administration's efforts to limit the war was, as Truman later argued, "rank insubordination" and the "last straw," he already had made his decision for a more compelling reason related to military strategy.29
During the month after MacArthur's recall, UN forces had repulsed two massive Chinese Communist offensives, creating a battlefield stalemate that persuaded the belligerents to open negotiations for an armistice at Kaesong during July. A myth that Communist intransigence stalled progress at the talks went unchallenged for a generation. North Korea and China created an acrimonious atmosphere at the start with efforts to score propaganda points, but the United States raised the first major roadblock with its proposal for a demilitarized zone deep in North Korea.30 More important, after the talks moved to Panmunjom late in October, there was rapid progress in resolving all but one of the agenda items. The delegates agreed that the demilitarized zone would follow the line of battle, while adopting inspection procedures to enforce the truce. After approval of a postwar political conference to discuss withdrawal of foreign troops and reunification, a tradeoff settled disputes on airfield rehabilitation and membership on a neutral supervisory commission. Ten months after the talks began, negotiators would have signed an armistice agreement had they not deadlocked over disposition of the prisoners of war. Progress had occurred because both sides, despite serious disagreement on a number of issues, proposed and accepted compromises that each thought would contribute to an agreement preserving security interests defined in terms of military power and political influence.31
Popular memory still finds humanitarian motivation behind the inflexible refusal of the United States to return Communist prisoners of war (POWs) to China and North Korea against their will, coinciding with Truman's portrayal of his decision at the time. But a different reality has emerged regarding the issue that prevented peace in Korea for over a year. Truman's main goal was to win a propaganda victory in the Cold War, even though this necessitated a misrepresentation of the facts. For example, the US stand on the principle of nonforcible repatriation may have seemed moral, but it contradicted the Geneva Convention, which required, as the Communist side demanded, the return of all POWs. Far worse was the Truman administration's purposeful decision to allow the perception that those POWs refusing repatriation were Communists defecting to the "Free World." A vast majority of North Korean POWs were actually South Koreans who either had joined voluntarily or were impressed into the Communist army. And thousands of Chinese POWs were Nationalist soldiers trapped in China at the end of the civil war who now had the chance to escape to Taiwan. Moreover, Chinese Nationalist guards at UN POW camps had used terrorist "reeducation" tactics to compel prisoners to refuse repatriation. Those who resisted risked beatings or death. Truman's stand on voluntary repatriation had little to do with moral considerations.32
How Eisenhower achieved an armistice ending the Korean War remains contested terrain. Historians acknowledge that Eisenhower entered office thinking seriously about using expanded conventional bombing and the threat of nuclear attack to force concessions from the Communist side. The truce agreement came on July 27, after an accelerated bombing campaign in North Korea and bellicose rhetoric about expanding the war. Most scholars, however, reject as myth Eisenhower's claim that Beijing was responding to his threat of an expanded war employing atomic weapons because as yet no documentary evidence has surfaced to support his assertion.33 They instead contend that the Chinese, facing major domestic economic problems and wanting peaceful coexistence with the West, already had decided to make peace once Truman left office. And Stalin's death in March only added to China's sense of political vulnerability, persuading the Communist delegation to break the logjam at Panmunjom later that month before Secretary of State John Foster Dulles conveyed his vague atomic threat to India's prime minister for delivery to Beijing. Furthermore, the nuclear threats of May 1953 were not clearly or forcefully delivered and were not substantively different from those implied threats that the Truman administration made in the fall of 1951, when B-29 bombers carried out atomic bombing test runs over North Korea with large conventional bombs.34
By January 1953, both sides in fact wanted an armistice. Washington and Beijing had grown tired of the economic burdens, military losses, political and military constraints, worries about an expanded war, and pressure from allies and the world community to end the stalemated war. Food shortages in North Korea, coupled with an understanding that forcible reunification was no longer possible, caused Pyongyang to favor an armistice even earlier. Moscow's new leaders had been concerned even before Stalin died about economic problems in Eastern Europe. A more conciliatory approach in the Cold War, they believed, not only would reduce the risk of general war, but also might create tensions in the Western alliance if the United States acted provocatively in Korea. Several weeks before Eisenhower's threats of an expanded war using nuclear weapons and the bombing of North Korea's dams and irrigation system in May, Chinese negotiators signaled a change in policy when they accepted the UNC's proposal for an exchange of sick and wounded prisoners and then recommended turning non-repatriates over to a neutral state. Also, in late May and early June 1953, Chinese forces launched powerful attacks against positions that South Korean units were defending along the front line. Far from being intimidated, Beijing thus showed its continuing resolve, relying on military means to persuade the United States to compromise on the final terms of the armistice. In the end, both sides conceded points on the POW repatriation issue.35
While scholars continue to debate how the Korean War ended, few writers now disagree that the conflict was the key turning point in US foreign policy during the Cold War. Reacting to North Korea's attack, the United States not only expanded greatly its commitment to halt further Communist seizures of power elsewhere in Asia, it also vastly increased defense spending, strengthened the North Atlantic Treaty Organization militarily, and pressed for West German rearmament. It was the Korean War that erroneously persuaded US leaders that only the direct application of military power could contain what they now perceived as a dire Soviet threat menacing the entire world.36 The main legacy of Korea was that the United States thereafter pursued a foreign policy of global intervention emphasizing a reliance on military means to maintain the status quo. Had it not been for the flawed assumptions that US leaders derived from the Korean War, the Cold War arguably would have ended much earlier and at far less cost in both human lives and material resources.
Exposing the myths surrounding the Korean War is important not just to serve the interests of historical accuracy. The realities of that conflict are instructive because they teach lessons about the impact of US participation in world affairs during and after World War II. Connections between Korea and Vietnam are obvious, although historians have not sufficiently probed the links between these two Asian wars.
But another lesson of the Korean War that will have continuing significance is how Americans relate to people of other nationalities and cultures. US expressions of regret early in 2001 for the No Gun Ri incident, in which US soldiers killed innocent South Korean civilians during the first month of fighting in Korea, provide an excellent example illustrating the importance of the United States accepting responsibility for its mistakes in global affairs if it expects to have honest and meaningful relationships with both friends and adversaries in the world community.
Maintaining the myth that US intervention in the Korean War was an act of idealism and altruism reinforces the wrong lessons about the conflict's meaning, serving to fuel the anti-Americanism in South Korea that has been a destructive force in U.S.-Korean relations for at least the past four decades. Research and writing about the Korean War in recent years presenting a more accurate account of the conflict has made an important contribution to strengthening relations between South Korea and the United States. While the resolution of some issues awaits the release of more archival material, historians have exposed enough myths about Korea that no longer does it warrant description as the forgotten war.
A version of this article was originally delivered as a paper at a symposium titled "The Korean War +50: No Longer Forgotten," sponsored by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library on February 9, 2001.
1 Clair Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (1985); Callum MacDonald, Korea: The War Before Vietnam (1986); Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Korea: The Unknown War (1989).
2 There now are a number of excellent historiographical articles surveying the literature on the Korean War. Among the most useful are Rosemary Foot, "Making Known the Unknown War: Policy Analysis of the Korean Conflict in the Last Decade," Diplomatic History 15, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 411-431; James I. Matray, "Villain Again: The United States and the Korean Armistice Talks," Diplomatic History 16, no. 3 (Summer 1992), 473-480; Robert J. McMahon, "The Cold War in Asia: Toward a New Synthesis," Diplomatic History 12, no. 3 (Summer 1988), 307-327; Bruce Cumings, "Korean-American Relations: A Century of Contact and Thirty-Five Years of Intimacy," in New Frontiers in American-East Asian Relations: Essays Presented to Dorothy Borg, ed. Warren I. Cohen (1983), 237-282; Hakjoon Kim, "Trends in Korean War Studies: A Review of the Literature," in Korea and the Cold War: Division, Destruction, and Disarmament, eds. Kim Chull Baum and James I. Matray (1993), pp. 7-34.
3 Harry S. Truman statement, June 27, 1950, US Department of State, Bulletin 23 (July 3, 1950): 5.
4 Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, Vol. II: Years of Trial and Hope (1956), 464.
5 Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969); John M. Allison, Ambassador from the Prairie or Allison Wonderland (1973); Mark W. Clark, From the Danube to the Yalu (1954); J. Lawton Collins, War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea (Boston, 1969); Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences (New York, 1964); Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War: History and Tactics (Garden City, NY, 1967); C. Turner Joy, How Communists Negotiate (New York, 1955); Courtney Whitney, MacArthur: His Rendezvous with History (New York, 1956).
6 Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, 2 vols. (1981, 1990).
7 MacDonald, Korea, p. 3; Burton I. Kaufman, The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command (1986), p. 32; Peter Lowe, The Origins of the Korean War (1986), p. 68; John Merrill, Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War (1989), p. 21.
8 Kathryn Weathersby, "The Soviet Role in the Early Phase of the Korean War," The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 432. See also Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War (1993).
9 New York Times, Sept. 29, 1945, p. 14, Oct. 18, 1945, p. 4, and Oct. 20, 1945, p. 10; E. Grant Meade, American Military Government in Korea (1951), pp. 90-91; George M. McCune and Arthur L. Grey, Jr., Korea Today (1950), pp. 42-43; Robert T. Oliver, Syngman Rhee: The Man Behind the Myth (1955), pp. 201-202.
10 James I. Matray, "Captive of the Cold War: The Decision to Divide Korea at the 38th Parallel," Pacific Historical Review 50, no. 2 (May 1981): 145-168.
11 Matray, The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941-1950 (1985), pp. 52-150
12 Matray, "Korea: Test Case of Containment in Asia," in Child of Conflict: The Korean-American Relationship, 1945-1953, ed. Bruce Cumings, (1983), pp. 169-194.
13 Robert T. Oliver, Why War Came in Korea (1950), p. 8; David Rees, Korea: The Limited War (1964), p. 9; Glenn D. Paige, The Korean Decision: June 24-30, 1950 (1968), pp. 66-67; Carl Berger, The Korean Knot: A Military-Political History (1964), p. 97.
14 "The Cold War in Asia," Cold War International History Project Bulletin (CWIHPB), 6-7 (Winter 1995/1996): 54-61; Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. II: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947-1950, pp. 421-430.
15 Matray, The Reluctant Crusade, pp. 200-236.
16 William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (1995), pp. 29-30.
17 Merrill, Korea, pp. 130-131.
18 Matray, "Acheson's Press Club Speech Reexamined," Journal of Conflict Studies 22 (Spring 2002): 28-55.
19 Weathersby, "New Russian Documents on the Korean War," in "The Cold War in Asia," CWIHPB, p. 31.
20 Matray, "Civil is a Dumb Name for War," SHAFR Newsletter 27 (December 1995): 1-14.
21 Matray, "America's Reluctant Crusade: Truman's Commitment of Combat Troops in the Korean War," The Historian 42, no. 3 (May 1980): 437-455.
22 Matray, "MacArthur's Periodic Reports to the UN Security Council," in Historical Dictionary of the Korean War, ed. James I. Matray (1991), pp. 267-268; Paul J. Morton, "United Nations Command," ibid., pp. 507-508.
23 Matray, "Truman's Plan for Victory: National Self-Determination and the Thirty-Eighth Parallel Decision in Korea," The Journal of American History 66 (September 1979): 314-333.
24 Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (1994), pp. 3-5, 20.
25 Alexandre Y. Mansourov, "Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China's Decision to Enter the Korean War, September 16-October 15, 1950: New Evidence from the Russian Archives," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 6-7 (Winter 1995/1996): 94-107. See also, Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue, Uncertain Partners; Shu Guang Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953 (1995).
26 Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War, p. 159.
27 Michael Schaller, "MacArthur's Plan for Victory," in Historical Dictionary of the Korean War, ed. James I. Matray (1991), pp. 268-269.
28 Roger Dingman, "Atomic Diplomacy During the Korean War," International Security 13 (Winter 1988/1989): 50-89. See also Rosemary Foot, The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict (1985).
29 Schaller, Douglas MacArthur: The Far Eastern General (1989), pp. 230-240.
30 Donald W. Boose, Jr., "The Korean War Truce Talks: A Study in Conflict Termination," Parameters 30, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 102-116.
31 Matray, "The Korean Armistice Negotiations: Divergent Negotiating Strategies?" in Pursuing Peace Beyond the Korean War, eds. Hwang Byong-moo and Lee Pil-jung (2000), pp. 111-136.
32 Foot, Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks (1990), pp. 108-129.
33 C. Turner Joy, How Communists Negotiate (1955), pp. 161-162; James Shepley, "How Dulles Averted War," Life, Jan. 16, 1956, pp. 70-80; Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953-1956 (1963), p. 181.
34 Stueck, The Korean War, pp. 303-307.
35 Dingman, "Atomic Diplomacy During the Korean War," pp. 50-51; Mark A. Ryan, Chinese Attitudes Toward Nuclear Weapons: China and the United States During the Korean War (1989), p. 156; Edward Keefer, "Eisenhower and the End of the Korean War," Diplomatic History 10 (Summer 1986): 267-268; Daniel Calingaert, "Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War," Journal of Strategic Studies 11 (June 1988): 177-202.
36 Stueck, The Korean War, pp. 348-370.
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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