The Korean War
The Forgotten War
The Korean War is called "The Forgotten War." It began when North Korea launched an unprovoked attack into South Korea in June, 1950. The United States rushed in to defend freedom and democracy. The Americans were fighting a force that wanted to overthrow the world—Socialism.
Korea was the worst possible place for America to go to war. The war was not fought by America for territory, but for psychological reasons: the enemies of liberty had crossed a line in the sand.
Japan had conquered Korea in 1895. For fifty years Korea had lived under brutal occupation by the Japanese.
Korea was divided at the end of World War Two. American and Soviet governments agreed on a line at the 38th Parallel to divide North from South. North Korea was industrial; South Korea was agricultural. By 1948, separate regimes had appeared in the two sectors and foreign troops had been withdrawn. North Korea was to be a socialist nation; South Korea to be a capitalist democracy.
Korea Before the War
South Korea was at first governed by the existing Japanese colonial administration. America then turned it over to South Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese. Neither of these arrangements pleased the South Korean people.
Eventually, America backed a government headed by Syngman Rhee, whose main appeal was that he had spent most of his life in exile in the United States. More importantly, he had never collaborated with the Japanese, and he was fervently anti-communist. General Douglas MacArthur told Rhee: "If Korea should ever be attacked by the Communists, I will defend it as I would California."
All of Korea suffered from a lack of basic amenities. Its climate boasts horrific heat in the summer, and unbearable cold in the winter. The air smelled of human fecal matter—night soil it was called—what Koreans used for fertilizer.
The South was led by an unloved government backed by a ragtag army. The North was led by a tough dictatorship with a strong, well-trained, well-armed military force
The Start of the Korean War
In the spring of 1950, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin gave Kim Il-Sung, the dictator of Socialist North Korea, the green light to invade free South Korea. Stalin was blocked from Japan—which he wanted to make a Communist satellite—by General MacArthur after World War II. The rapid prosperity of a free Japan was a threat to Communist expansion in Asia. Stalin therefore felt he must control all of Korea.
Kim Il-Sung described himself as "the respected and beloved leader" as "a great thinker and theoretician" "who has worked countless legendary miracles" and a "matchless iron-willed brilliant commander who is ever-victorious" as well as "the tender-hearted father of the people."
Kim Il-Sung was the son of a schoolteacher. He had joined the Communist guerrillas and fought against the Japanese as a teenager, eventually becoming their commander. Stalin had personally awarded him the Order of Lenin.
At first Kim Il-Sung was popular in North Korea. Soon the harshness and cruelty of his rule became apparent. The Soviets helped him create an army of 135,000 men, and gave him 135 T-34 tanks.
Korean War Death Toll
The Korean War exacted a combat death toll of a million Koreans; 250,000 Chinese; and 33,000 Americans. Another 20,000 soldiers from the United States died from disease, frostbite, and accidents. America brought home 109,000 wounded men. And its treasury was light by $54B. Only half of the 7,000 American POWs taken were ever repatriated.
The 2nd Battalion of South Korea was attacked first and never heard from again. The North Koreans took Seoul, the capital of South Korea, in four days. They destroyed Seoul. The South Korean Army broke and ran.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, was stunned by the audacity of the Communist offensive. When President Truman was told about the invasion, he said, "We've got to stop the sons-of-bitches no matter what."
General MacArthur, the Supreme Commander overseeing the spectacular rebuilding of Japan, was sent to Korea. He landed twenty miles south of Seoul in June and was shocked to see the South Korean Army running past him. He said: "I did not see a wounded man among them."
Reaction to Socialist Aggression
President Truman believed the attack on South Korea would be followed by an attack on Japan. Wanting the "moral authority" of the United Nations, he sought and obtained their authorization to defend free South Korea. Truman said: "We are going to fight! By God I am not going to let them have it."
Even General Omar Bradley, as cool a customer as you will find, was outraged by the attack on South Korea by the Communists.
Chiang Kai-shek offered to send 33,000 Chinese Nationalist troops from Taiwan to Korea, but Truman declined that offer. 14 countries sent troops under the banner of the United Nations to fight the Communist aggression. Britain and Turkey sent the most, besides the United States.
President Truman ordered American forces to go and save South Korea from communist aggression. Our ground forces were seriously undermanned; reserves had to be called up. The Soviets were shocked that America would intervene. Truman did not call it a war. He called it a "police action."
America first sent Task Force Smith, a force of 406 men. Smith and his men took the forward defensive position and were startled to see a column of Russian tanks advancing towards them. Smith's men had only rifles, mortars, and bazookas—none of which could penetrate the T-34 tank. They were quickly outgunned, outnumbered, and surrounded. 40 percent of them were lost in that first confrontation.
General William Dean won the Medal of Honor for his actions defending Taejon. He was the highest ranking officer captured by North Korea; they held him prisoner until the war was over.
The First Week Does Not Go Well for America
The first week America suffered 2,400 deaths. Washington was horrified. Within three weeks, over half of our 16,000 troops were dead or wounded. It was an enormous psychological victory for the Communists.
The first two American Army divisions sent over, the 24th and 25th, were driven back nearly into the sea. America then sent over 92 National Guard Units, and the entire Marine Reserve and put them on the front line. The United States Army was not prepared for battle in Korea, with its winter of -40 degree temperatures. American soldiers had no winter clothes or boots; they had old equipment; they were not properly trained.
America's best fighting men from World War II had rightfully returned home. Its military equipment and weapons, discarded with the demobilization from that terrible conflict, were worn out and not replaced. By 1950, the United States Army had shrunk to 591,000 men—an army which Omar Bradley said could not "fight its way out of a paper bag."
American troops stationed in Japan had grown soft from easy duty. According to General Dean they were "fat and happy in occupation billets, complete with Japanese girlfriends, plenty of beer, and servants to shine their boots."
These were not the battle-hardened troops who had fought their way across the Pacific. Less than one of six had ever seen combat. Most had been recruited from small-town America into the army by promises of seeing the world. "They had enlisted for every reason known to man except to fight," said one American commander.
The Socialist Army of Aggression
The North Korean Army consisted of tough peasants who were exceptionally disciplined. Their officer corps of 20,000 had served in the Red Chinese Army until 1950 and was battle-hardened.
The North Korean soldiers moved well over rugged terrain. The Americans stuck to established roads; they did not. The North Koreans preferred to attack at night, to minimize the American's decisive advantage in artillery and aviation. They sought to engage the American soldiers in close combat, to which they were unaccustomed. You can't bomb a mixed battlefield.
The initial attack on South Korea was led by a hundred Soviet tanks with 90,000 North Korean troops. The South Koreans had no tanks, artillery, or aircraft. They fled the battlefield, and were chased all the way to the southeast corner of their country to Pusan. They suffered 50,000 casualties the first month.
General Douglas MacArthur hatched a brilliant battle plan. Instead of starting at the bottom of the Korean Peninsula, American troops would make an amphibious landing halfway up the west side of Korea at Inchon, 25 miles from Seoul. They would cut off the North Korean Army—already running low on fuel, ammunition, and men—from their home base and supplies.
No other military leaders agreed with MacArthur. The Navy thought Inchon an impossible place to land troops because it had no beach, and the tides were some of the highest in the world.
13,000 Marines landed at Inchon in September, 1950. They took that city with only 21 men killed. The Marines recaptured Seoul nine days later. It was a complete surprise to the communists. The rout was on.
Meanwhile, the United Nations force drove northward from Pusan. Half of the North Korean Army was captured, and the rest escaped back into North Korea.
General MacArthur had made quick work of the North Koreans. He recaptured South Korea in only 90 days. MacArthur then proceeded all the way up to the border of China. It was a rapid and total victory. The United States now occupied North Korea.
The great advantage the Americans held was military intelligence. Secret codes were broken within a day, unveiling enemy battle plans. But by August, 6,000 Americans were listed as dead. The North Koreans had 58,000 dead, including their best troops. South Korea and its allies now faced green conscripts, not their elite soldiers. Their Soviet tanks had been reduced from 135 to 40.
The Truman-MacArthur Dispute
Soon there erupted the bitter controversy between President Truman and General MacArthur. Truman wanted immediate peace with the original border—the 38th parallel—recognized by both sides. MacArthur did not agree, since he already occupied North Korea all the way to the border of China. His greatest desire was to rid the world of communism once and for all by attacking China and Russia.
MacArthur disobeyed Truman's orders and launched an air attack on a Russian air base inside Russian territory. MacArthur wanted to bomb industrial targets in China, blockade its coastline, and support an invasion of the Chinese mainland by Taiwan (Formosa).
Stalin asked China to attack the Americans, and the Chinese responded by attacking with 720,000 men in October, 1950. They drove the Americans out of North Korea. MacArthur was soon relieved of his duty as a result of insubordination to his Commander-In-Chief.
The first American Army company attacked by the Chinese Army lost 240 of its 250 men. America apparently believed that the Chinese would not fight against them. After the American victories at Inchon and Seoul, the Chinese attacked them with such overwhelming numbers that they often surrounded American troops on three sides in battle. The 1st Marine Division was trapped at Chosin. Of the 4,000 Marines killed in Korea, 3,000 of them died at Chosin.
The Red Chinese Army
The United States and the rest of the world underestimated the insanely aggressive nature of Red China. As the world averted its gaze to Korea, China swallowed up Tibet. They then turned to North Korea to apply their war experience to the invasion of South Korea.
The Chinese Army was rudimentary; it moved on foot and lacked even simple modern communication systems. Their attacks were coordinated with bugles. Chinese soldiers were experts at camouflage and were trained not to move if an aircraft was overhead. They were experienced fighters and extremely tough men.
American troops carried sixty pound backpacks. The Chinese backpack weighed nine pounds: a weapon, a grenade, eighty rounds of ammunition, a tiny bit of fish and meat, and a week's supply of rice. The Red Army marched 286 miles in 18 days to reach the border of North Korea and engage in their first battle.
The Chinese respected the American fighting man. His weakness, they thought, was a tendency to panic when fighting on defense at night. Americans were unused to fighting after sunset, and would ultimately flee the area, leaving behind weaponry the Red Army didn't have and could surely use.
The Red Army would attack in human waves that seemingly had no end. Mowed down by American machine guns, they fell in such large numbers that it made the machine gunners sick—but the Chinese kept coming.
The first full attack featured 27,000 soldiers of the Red Army that attacked the Eighth Calvary Regiment—4,000 men. It was a devastating defeat for the Americans, who suffered six hundred dead.
300,000 North Korean civilians fled the communist onslaught. The Americans then evacuated 100,000 soldiers out of North Korea by sea from Hungnam, with all their supplies and equipment—something that had never been done before.
Tragic Mistake by General MacArthur
Uncharacteristically, MacArthur had made a tragic mistake. He had promised Truman that the Red Army would never enter Korea, but if they did we would cut them to pieces. All of this also indicated a massive failure on the part of American Intelligence, since they knew nothing of this enormous army headed towards their troops until contact was made.
MacArthur continued to be foolish, vainglorious, and arrogant. In November he issued a public communiqué boasting about an attack he was about to make. The Chinese thus knew about the attack far in advance, and the communiqué also revealed that MacArthur had underestimated the size of the army he was about to attack by 90 percent.
The weather was terrible; it was a dark November night. Men had to piss on their frozen rifles to thaw them out. Batteries froze, disabling trucks and jeeps. As the Americans marched on a thin, icy road through a narrow valley, Chinese troops rained murderous fire upon them from above. The men panicked, and they ran away—leaving behind their heavy equipment.
The American soldiers were in desperate distress. This was an epic disaster. The main question was how much of the First Marines and the 2nd Infantry Division could get out alive. MacArthur had been outgeneraled.
To retreat, the Americans would have to run a six mile gauntlet with machine gun fire pouring down on them all the way. Everywhere were men dead and dying. The only road was clogged with the wreckage of American vehicles. The 2nd Division lost a third of its men in just a few days: 3,000 dead; 2,000 wounded. Not only was the battle lost, but it proved to be a psychological defeat as well.
December 15, 1950, President Truman declared a state of national emergency.
The Korean War Veterans
The Chinese retook Seoul; the UN forces took it back. The fighting had ended up where it began: the 38th Parallel.
One out of nine American soldiers who served in Korea were killed. But the Chinese suffered 100 men killed for each of our soldiers dead.
The MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals) units were great—they saved thousands of soldiers' lives. Korea was the first war in which we evacuated the wounded by helicopter—something now practiced in civilian life for victims of traffic accidents.
As casualties mounted, so did the number of the American public that withdrew their support of the war in Korea. This was the first war America did not win; though they did stop the intrusion of communist aggression.
When veterans of the Korean War returned home, they were the first soldiers in American history not to be greeted as conquering heroes. Some people treated them as if they had done something wrong. Others simply did not appreciate the sacrifice they had made.
Jet aircraft came of age in Korea. John Glenn and Ted Williams flew combat missions together—Ted was John's wingman in F86 fighters. The Chinese had 900 Soviet MIGS. Many of them were flown by Soviet pilots in Chinese uniforms.
General MacArthur Fired
General Douglas MacArthur knew that President Truman was about to announce his desire for a cease-fire. MacArthur declared to the world that if Truman had not been restricting him, he would have whipped the snot out of the Chinese and had them begging for mercy. "There is no substitute for victory."
Thus he had grossly insulted the Chinese Army and his commander in chief in one fell swoop.
Why did MacArthur do this? General Bradley explains:
"His legendary pride had been hurt. The Red Chinese had made a fool out of the 'infallible genius.' The only possible means left to MacArthur to regain his lost pride and military reputation was now to inflict an overwhelming defeat on those Red Chinese generals who had made a fool of him. In order to do this he was perfectly willing to propel us into all-out war with Red China, and possibly with the Soviet Union, igniting World War Three and a nuclear holocaust."
General Douglas MacArthur Comes Home a Hero
MacArthur told General Ridgway that he had been fired because President Truman was mentally ill. His termination caused widespread division amongst American men. Strangers fought on subway trains and in bars. Long friendships were torn asunder.
General MacArthur first went back to Tokyo, where 250,000 Japanese lined the streets to bid him farewell. At a refueling stop in Hawaii, 100,000 people jammed the airport to show their appreciation for the great man.
General MacArthur returned to the United States to an extraordinary hero's welcome. 500,000 people greeted his landing in San Francisco; 250,000 in a parade in Washington; and then: seven million souls cheered themselves hoarse along his parade route in New York City—twice the crowd that greeted Eisenhower after he defeated Nazi Germany in 1945.
In his final speech, General MacArthur uttered the immortal words: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "Taking on Red China would lead us into the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy."
General Matthew Ridgway Turns the Tide
General Matthew Ridgway took command of UN forces and proved to be a brilliant commander. General Ridgway was in fact one of the preeminent soldiers of the 20th century. He was an upper-class American. His mother was a concert pianist, his father a judge in Brooklyn. A contemporary called him "a twelfth-century knight with a twentieth-century brain."
General Ridgway commanded the All American Division, the 82nd, in World War Two. Another commander said of Ridgway, "a great combat commander. Lots of courage. Hard as flint and full of intensity."
General Ridgway arrived in Korea to find an army that had completely lost its confidence. The men walked around in a daze. Their state was anything but self assured; they were living in a nightmare. Considering the tremendous wealth of America, the general was shocked at the reality of how poorly clothed and poorly fed, the American soldiers were.
General Ridgway devised a plan. He would take the high ground, deploy his artillery, and fortify his defenses with monster trenches. More importantly, he would take the battle to the Chinese at night by illuminating the battlefield through a massive use of flares.
A Truce Proves Elusive in the Korean War
General Ridgway revived the humiliated American Army. General Omar Bradley, a man not given to superlatives, wrote: "It is not often in wartime that a single battlefield commander can make a decisive difference. But in Korea, Ridgway would prove to be the exception. His brilliant, driving, uncompromising leadership would turn the tide of battle like no other general's in our military history."
It was July 1953 before the newly elected President Eisenhower signed a truce for Korea. Only months before Stalin had died. His death eliminated what had been a constant impediment to the signing of a treaty.
The implementation of peace in Korea was no easy task. Negotiations dragged on for two years; the communists had no urge for a quick settlement. The Kremlin was quite willing to keep America's men, money, and attention tied down in Korea. The Soviets continuously came up with new items to be negotiated to stall any agreement.
The primary issue involved the 100,000 prisoners of war held by the Americans. Thousands of them begged the American military holding them prisoner not to send them back to the communist side. The communists insisted that each and every one of them must be forced to return.
21 American soldiers asked to remain with the communists and they were obliged. American POWs were terribly mistreated by the communists. 51% of American POWs died while in custody. To this day, there are still 8,000 American servicemen listed as Missing in Action from the Korean Conflict.
The American public was irritated and confused about the stalemate—just as Stalin intended them to be. So many American lives had been lost, and those who'd been left behind to mind the home-front found their lives disrupted by a war that didn't seem to have any tangible achievement. 1,500 American soldiers have died in Korea since the Korean War ended.
South Korea After the Korean War
South Korea turned its back on socialism and embraced free enterprise. The beliefs that the South Koreans and their allies fought for in the Korean War have endured. As a result, living standards rose there as fast as anywhere in the world from the 1960s onward.
South Korea left the Third World behind and joined the First World. The World Bank reported in 1977 that in only 15 years South Korea had transformed itself from one of the poorest countries to the middle of the pack.
South Koreans have never forgotten that their current freedom and prosperity is the result of our efforts. In Washington, a memorial to the Korean War was finally built in 1995.
North Korea After the Korean War
North Korea is a socialist republic. It is the most isolated nation on earth, and the most militarized. Ten million North Korean personnel are in uniform today. North Korea has the worst human rights record of any country on earth.
After the Korean War, all known Christians, including priests, were murdered by the government, and all of its churches were destroyed. It is officially an atheist country, and a socialist country. Since the death of its first dictator, Kim Il-Sung, his insane son has served as absolute ruler.
North Koreans do not have access to the internet, or any other media, except the sites produced by their government. Only stories that flatter the regime are available to the citizens, in accordance with socialist theory. Millions have died from famine in North Korea.
North Korea's entire economy is centrally planned by the socialist government, and therefore the workers receive $47 per month. Tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis B, and malnutrition are common ailments amongst its citizens.
Any North Korean citizen listening to South Korean radio stations commits a capital offense. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are held in concentration camps as political prisoners. Torture, medical experimentation, rape, murder, starvation, forced labor, and forced abortions are routine in these camps. Many are held prisoner by the government for no other reason than that they are Christians.
The Lesson of Two Koreas
South Korea is a free enterprise democracy. If Marxist theories about the evils of capitalism are correct, they should be in the same shape as North Korea. Whoops!
South Korea has the world's 12th most successful economy. From 1960 to 2000, South Korea boasted the world's fastest growing economy.
The life expectancy of South Koreans is 80 years, a seventeen year difference from the 63 year expectancy of their neighbors across the border in North Korea. Christianity is the largest religion in South Korea.
Take a close look at these two countries, both of the exact same racial stock, both that started out dead even in the 1950s; the result shows a wonderful comparison of a capitalist nation as opposed to a socialist nation.
The average person in South Korea enjoys a standard of living more than five times higher than those in North Korea. And in terms of individual freedom, 100% higher in South Korea.
My sources for this article include: The Fifties by David Halberstam; Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties by Paul Johnson; Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time by Carroll Quigley; and America: A Narrative History by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi.