Within two days of the invasion, the United States took the issue to the United Nations, and between June 27 and July 7 it was able to obtain UN condemnation of North Korea. In a series of resolutions, the United Nations ultimately authorized deployment of armed forces to rescue South Korea. These actions could have been vetoed in the UN Security Council by the Soviet Union.
The Soviets, however, were boycotting the United Nations in protest of the body’s decision not to recognize the People’s Republic of China.The United States was delegated to lead the armies under the UN flag. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) assigned General Douglas MacArthur as commander of the UN forces.
MacArthur was then and remains today a controversial figure, celebrated and reviled. He fought in three major American wars (World War I, World War II, and the Korean War) and held enormous personal power as military adviser to the Philippines when it was an American protectorate and as the Supreme Commander of U.S. forces in the Far East during the U.S. occupation of Japan and Korea.He can be credited with outstanding achievements.
Among these are the rebuilding of Japan as a stable and peaceful democracy and his daring amphibious invasion at Inchon during the Korean War. He can also be blamed for some truly catastrophic blunders. One of these occurred during World War II, when with eight hours of warning after the Pearl Harbor attack, MacArthur’s forces in the Philippines were caught napping. Three other major errors occurred in the Korean War. Despite reports by the CIA and his own intelligence department that an invasion was imminent, MacArthur did little to train his divisions in Japan for combat.
In the fall of 1950, having pursued the enemy almost as far as the Yalu River, he ignored evidence that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had crossed the Yalu into Korea. A third and final error quickly followed. Ignoring the American tradition that generals do not start wars, he wrote a letter to the Republican House minority leader, arguing for the expansion of the war into China. Had he gotten his wish, we might be able to say that MacArthur fought in three world wars, not just two. Instead, he lost his command.
Eventually 16 nations sent combat troops to fight with the United States under the UN flag. Five other nations supported the United Nations by sending noncombatants, mostly hospital units. Some nations sent small units attached to American units; others sent signifi-cant numbers that contributed significantly to some of the battles.The UN forces were ready for action by mid-September.
MacArthur sent a diversionary force of ships to bombard the east coast, leading the North Koreans to believe the invasion would be on the east coast. The landing of troops, however, took place near Inchon, on the west coast not far from Seoul. It was at Inchon that the Japanese had invaded Korea in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War, so the idea was not new, but Inchon with its treacherous tides that could ground a flotilla of ships if the landing was not well timed offered risks for a major amphibi-ous operation such as MacArthur planned.
The same mystical faith in his own genius and destiny that led MacArthur to make his worst blunders helped him to persuade the doubters in the American com-mand. The Inchon landing on September 15, 1950, turned out to be a masterstroke. Within days, as U.S. troops, artillery, and armor poured into Korea through two major landings at Inchon, U.S. and ROK troops broke out of Pusan Perimeter and pushed northward.
What historians Jon Haliday and Bruce Cumings call “the first Korean War” ended on September 30, 1950, as “ROK Army units crossed into the North, press-ing a rollback against rapidly withdrawing Northern forces.” The war for the South left 111,000 South Koreans killed, 106,000 wounded, and 57,000 missing; 314,000 homes had been destroyed and 244,000 dam-aged. American casualties totaled nearly 5,000 dead, 13,659 wounded, and 3,877 missing in action. North Korean casualties are not known (Haliday and Cumings 1988, 95).
These are large numbers, standing for misery beyond imagining, yet they are small compared to the tragedy to come. Leaders in the U.S. State Department had decided on a rollback—to push the DPRK armies north of the 38th parallel, perhaps to agree on a ceasefire from an improved position or perhaps to keep going until Korea was unified.In retrospect, knowing how little ground was ultimately gained and at how much cost, the decision seems like a great mistake.
Diplomat and State Department adviser George Kennan, the original architect of the U.S. policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union, thought that an attempt to unify Korea under the ROK would be risky while offering little prospect of improved U.S. security, but in 1950 America’s anti-communist hysteria was approaching its peak, driven by revelations of widespread spying for the Soviets during the 1930s and 1940s, the communist takeover of Eastern Europe after 1945, the loss of China to Mao Zedong’s Communists, and the Soviet explosion of the atomic bomb, both in 1949.
Anyone arguing for restraint would have been called an appeaser by the American public, American officials, and Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–57), who was beginning to make a name for himself by charging that the federal government was riddled with communist agents. In addition, it is never easy to justify the mili-tary decision of permitting a fleeing enemy to regroup.
MacArthur was ordered to cross the 38th parallel but avoid any act that would engage the United States and the United Nations in a larger war either with the Soviets or the Chinese. These instructions to MacArthur meant to avoid provoking an attack from China were beside the point. Mao Zedong had already decided to bring China into the war if the Americans crossed the 38th parallel.
A North Korean defeat, put-ting Syngman Rhee’s U.S.-friendly regime on China’s Manchurian bor-der, would threaten the revolution that Mao was still consolidating and give hope to whatever opposition still remained in China. The United States was a friend of Mao’s old foe, Chang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and the Nationalists, who set up a rival China in the former Japanese colony of Taiwan.
Whether or not North Korea won, China could not tolerate its destruction. Shortly after the Inchon landing the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, gave a public speech announcing his intention to intervene if the 38th parallel was crossed. Leaders and opinion-makers in the United States dismissed the threat as a bluff. Like MacArthur, they had little respect for China’s military capabilities.
The United States obtained a UN resolution to move into North Korea on October 7, and the UN forces captured Pyongyang on October 19. The UN forces then continued north to the hills overlooking the Yalu River, the border with China. McArthur, contravening orders, brought his troops into the counties bordering the Yalu, and in late October the Chinese People’s Liberation Army began crossing the river into Korean territory. MacArthur for a while ignored their presence.
It is possible that the true state of affairs was hidden from him by his chief intelligence officer, General Charles Willoughby, who knew that MacArthur did not like receiving information that interfered with his plans (Halberstam 2007, 373–374). Speaking of a giant “pincer movement,” MacArthur had allowed his troops to be scattered widely among the hills of north-ern Korea. The Chinese attacks surrounded the poorly deployed troops. In the Battle of Chosin Reservoir 30,000 U.S. troops fought their way out of encirclement at the cost of more than 15,000 casualties.
U.S. officials commonly referred to the Chinese attackers as “hordes” and “human waves,” giving the impression that this nation of 600 million was sending vast numbers of expendable Chinese into American and ROK fire, but in fact the forces on each side were deploying roughly equal numbers. The Chinese simply “outgeneraled” MacArthur. He had not taken the trouble to study their methods; they were familiar with his.
The U.S. Air Force, which had been bombing North Korean cities and troops since the beginning of the war, were given an increased role at this point in a move that would have immense long-term effects on North Korea, formerly Korea’s industrial heartland.
In the words of historians Jon Haliday and Bruce Cumings, “MacArthur ordered that a wasteland be created between the front and the Chinese border, destroying from the air every installation, factory, city and village over thousands of square miles of North Korean territory” (Cumings 1997, p. 293). MacArthur’s successors continued this policy and eventu-ally extended it to all of North Korea.
Whole cities were reduced to rubble or set aflame with incendiary bombs and napalm. Navy artillery destroyed a major North Korean port city. The air force bombed dams in North Korea, causing hugely destructive floods.
With negligible air power of its own, North Korea was helpless against these attacks, which continued until the armistice in 1953. With Chinese help the North Korean army regrouped and moved south, taking Seoul again on January 4, 1951.
Truman Fires MacArthur
In late September 1950, still, flush with the glory of his Inchon landing, MacArthur gave a long interview to Life Magazine in which he advo-cated building up Chiang Kai-shek’s armies for future use on mainland China (Deane 1999, 117). As the troops under his command suffered reverses he spoke more and more of widening the war and of using the atomic bomb.
On December 1, 1950, he told a reporter that the restric-tion placed on him against attacking Chinese bases beyond the Yalu River were “an enormous handicap without precedent in military his-tory” and sent a transcript of the interview to the United Press. Truman responded with an order (tactfully addressed to all military command-ers, not just MacArthur) to clear statements on foreign policy with the U.S. State Department.
MacArthur repeatedly defied this directive (Pearlman, 7). While MacArthur was insisting that he could not win under the restrictions placed on him, an 8th U.S. Army commander, General Matthew Ridgway (1895–1993), stopped the North Korean advance and began pushing it back. As these facts called MacArthur’s military skills into question, he went on the offensive politically.
He wrote letters to his friends in Congress criticizing the administration’s conduct of the war; the letters were made public and debated. On April 11, 1951, Truman dismissed MacArthur and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway. Chiang Kai-shek and much of the American public were dismayed. America’s chief allies in Europe, who had worried that all-out war in Asia would spread to the West, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
UN forces retook Seoul on March 15 and again crossed the 38th paral-lel, but they were unable to push farther north. For the two years after MacArthur’s dismissal in April 1951, little territory was gained or lost. Rather, battles near the 38th parallel moved the line slightly north or slightly south.
Some of the greatest battles of the Korean War, such as Heartbreak Ridge (September 13–October 15, 1951) and Pork Chop Hill (March 23–April 16; and again between July 6–11, 1952), took place during this time. (Pork Chop is the English rendering of the Korean pokchap, meaning “confusion” or “chaos,” an apt description of the battle.) Yet none was significant in changing the outcome.Given the stalemate, the combatants looked for ways to negotiate an end to the conflict.
The first attempts at a peace conference were actu-ally made even earlier. On July 10, 1950, negotiators met at Kaesong, North Korea, the old Koryo dynasty capital, just north of the 38th parallel. In August the talks were suspended and the location criticized as unsafe for the southern forces. Thereafter, both sides met at a small village called Panmunjom (meetings are still held there to this day), but the next peace conference was not until October 25, 1951. Finally, in spring 1953 negotiations to end the war made significant progress.
Whether Stalin’s death in March 1953 helped the talks get started is debated, but exchanges of prisoners in April and May, including some diplomats and civilians held since the outbreak of the war, helped ease tensions. A total of 6,670 North Korean and Chinese prisoners were exchanged for 669 UN personnel in an initial exchange.During their initial march north the U.S.-UN troops had captured some 130,000 North Korean soldiers.
The problem of housing so many prisoners was solved by placing them all on Koje Island, the second-largest island in Korea, not far from Pusan. There, in large barbed-wire complexes, the prisoners were separated into three groups: hard-core Communists, North Korean soldiers who wanted to return to North Korea, and North Korean soldiers who indicated that they would rather defect to the South.
Unbeknownst to the United States, its irascible ally Syngman Rhee had already released 25,000 prisoners from the POW camp on Koje Island into the South Korean population. Rhee said he could not condemn so many people who wanted freedom from a life of misery in North Korea.
While Rhee’s motive may have been sincere, the action infuriated the Americans. They feared—rightly, it turned out—that the North Koreans would similarly “release” South Korean and American prisoners into North Korean society and they would never be heard from again. In the final exchange, 75,823 Communist prisoners were exchanged for 12,773 UN forces, including 3,598 Americans. How many prisoners were kept in the North is unknown.