(MISTAKES: WAR in KOREA – continued)

home | index


previous | next

(War in Korea, continued)

The Chinese surged into North Korea and drove the UN forces back into South Korea. In April, 1951, the UN forces drove the Chinese and North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. The UN forces numbered approximately 230,000 and the Communist forces were around 700,000.

On April 22, the Chinese launched an offensive that put its forces at Seoul again, but again they were driven back to the other side of the 38th parallel, after having lost as many as 90,000 men in one week.

From now to the end of the war the front remained more or less stationary. President Truman was interested in keeping the war limited. General MacArthur wanted to support Chiang Kai-shek's war against the Communist regime in China and to extend the war he was leading on behalf of the UN to China itself. In my opinion Truman was right about not extending the war to China. That would have been a step too far. But there was the option of pushing farther north to Korea's 100-mile narrow neck and negotiating an end to the war – with the aim of elimination of the illegitimate Communist regime in North Korea.

I expect that some will not accept my view of the difference between the legitimacy of the regime in China, won fair and square in a civil war against Chiang Kai-shek, and the illegitimacy of the Russian imposed regime in North Korea. And there is the question whether the Chinese would have accepted a UN imposed defeat of the North Korean regime. But, in my opinion, we should have tried, accompanied by assurances that we had no intention to contribute to a military overthrow or conquest on the Chinese mainland.

Some complain that by stopping its offensive, the UN forces allowed the Chinese to dig defensive positions that made an offense more difficult. But a bigger problem was the that the U.S. public was losing its stomach for war. Rightly, Americans were not war mongers. Blood was being shed and many didn't see anything worthwhile in shedding more, and there was the common view that the war for the Korean people didn't matter much – the kind of feeling that compels some foreign policy analysts to speak of the nation's interest. The war in Korea was less than one-year old. And Truman's approval ratings were down to 23 percent.

In June, 1951, China proposed negotiations. The Chinese were concerned about the economic costs involved in continuing the war. MacArthur had been fired by Truman, and General Clark was the new UN commander in Korea. He too favored taking the war to mainland China. Unable to do this, he chose to bomb reservoir dikes in the North, flooding the North's sparse agricultural lands, threatening the North Koreans with starvation. He bombed North Korea's hydroelectric plant just south of the Yalu River, and he gave the Air Force permission to strike again at North Korea's industrial and population centers. Pyongyang was napalmed, and the burning to death of civilians was extensive. The Air Force was after military targets, but distinction between military targets and civilians was blurred and was recognized as such by Air Force commanders. The U.S. Navy joined in the overkill by attacking North Korean fishing vessels, crippling this source of food for the Koreans. General Curtis LeMay, of Tokyo firebombing fame, agreed with the Air Force's plan to flatten North Korea's cities, and in retirement he was to describe the U.S. as having "burned down every town in North Korea."

The line between too far and not far enough can be missed by otherwise decent people – especially with people who are worked up emotionally. In his bombing campaigns, General Clark went too far. Winston Churchill, again Prime Minster, said he would not take responsibility for napalm being splashed "about all over the civilian population." No matter how intensive the bombing, the Chinese were able to move their supplies south, largely through deep and narrow trenches. That the extended bombing by the U.S. Airforce contributed to a quicker end of the war is doubtful.

Zhou Enlai met with Stalin in late 1952, and they agreed that the war should be ended. Stalin died in March 1953, and the new Soviet Premier, Gregori Malenkov, made overtures for peaceful coexistence between the superpowers and for peace in Korea. Two days after Zhou Enlai returned from Stalin's funeral he announced China's new effort to end the war in Korea.

Eisenhower had suggested during his 1952 presidential campaign that he could end the war in Korea. Taking office in January, 1953, Eisenhower supported a negotiated settlement, and an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. South Korea didn't concur, and the North and South remained technically at war into the twenty-first century. The regime that might have been forced into deserved dissolution remained.

My having been in Korea from June 1952 to May 1953 has nothing to do with my belief that UN forces not pushing farther north may have been an opportunity missed. I saw among my fellow enlisted men in the Marine Corp detestation for the war rather than enthusiam – a sentiment which I shared and continue to share.


Next, the war in Vietnam, like all wars a war that a good general or strategist should not approach with the previous war in mind.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.