On this weekend’s 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, the truth must be told: All the express political goals of the United States and the United Nations were met. Based on achieving the national outcomes sought by our elected leaders, America won!
To begin with, understand that Korea was just not important. It was not worth fighting over. Preventing European/nuclear World War III and stopping the spread of Russian and Chinese communist expansion was important. President Harry Truman, adopting the conclusions of 1950’s National Security Council Report No. 68, drew his line in the sand at the 38th Parallel.
Communist North Korea invaded on June 24, 1950. In response to the onslaught, Truman’s national policy was immediate and clear. On June 25, 1950, he said: “If we are tough enough now, if we stand up to them like we did in Greece three years ago, they won’t take any next steps. But if we just stand by, they’ll move into Iran and they’ll take over the whole Middle East. There’s no telling what they’ll do, if we don’t put up a fight now.”
The United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 82, calling the North Korean attack a “breach of the peace,” for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and for North Korea to withdraw to the 38th parallel.
RESOLUTION 83 followed on June 27, recommending “the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.” The entire Korean War was fought under the aegis of the United Nations, with significant support from nearly 50 other nations, but under overall U.S. command and with a preponderance of U.S. soldiery and equipment.
We all know the early phases of the war: initial success by North Korea, the outgunned Task Force Smith, the Pusan Perimeter, then the U.S. build-up, the brilliant end-run landing at Inchon and a routed North Korean Army. The U.S. advance north to the Yalu River was followed by the insubordination and crack-up of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the sudden – but not unanticipated – counterattack of the Chinese.
U.N. forces retreated, taking heavy casualties. This led to discussion about expanding from a limited war with limited objectives into a general war against China.
Nuclear-weapons use was on the table. At this time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley made his famous comments that expanding into full, general war against China was terribly wrong: “Red China is not the powerful nation seeking to dominate the world. Frankly, in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy (total war against China) would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
But the Eighth Army firmed up, held and then regained ground and mooted the question.
The United States and United Nations overreached going to the Yalu in the hope of winning a unified democracy, and the Chinese overreached in the hope of gaining a unified communist nation. Peace was inevitable, only a matter of time and saving face. All Truman needed to do was hang on to enough territory and kill enough communists to bring North Korea and China to the table, with as few American casualties as possible.
THE TRUMAN administration official policy was to uphold the United Nations mandate to restore the 38th parallel and maintain a freely-elected, independent government in South Korea. U.N. forces – overwhelmingly U.S. troops led by U.S. generals – achieved this national goal throughout Truman’s term of office.
The 1952 election of Dwight D. Eisenhower was assured when he promised to “go to Korea” and seek an end to the fighting.
It was clear to all observers Eisenhower was going to get peace. The heavy lifting already had been done by Truman and American soldiers. Ike’s choice was either total war with the Chinese, including nuclear weapons, or a continued stalemate with 1,000 U.S. casualties every week. Neither type of slaughter was acceptable to him, and he rightly judged China was just as eager to get out.
Ike chose peace. An armistice was signed July 27, 1953. South Korea existed as a representative democracy, its border restored.
The United Nations was satisfied with the result of the Korean War, and perceived it as a victory. General Assembly Resolutions 711 (VII) and 712 (VII) approved the armistice and congratulated U.N. forces.
Truman believed he won in Korea, and kept dominoes from falling around the world: “We prevented Tito from taking Trieste right after the German fold-up, we forced Stalin out of Iran, we saved Greece and Turkey, we stayed in Berlin, and we knocked the socks off the communists in Korea; we gave the Philippines a free government.”
North Korea, China and Russia suffered 1.5 million casualties and another 1.5 million civilian deaths. U.S. combat deaths were about 34,000. Total allied casualties were half of the North’s total, and overwhelmingly South Korean civilians. China and North Korea abandoned their attack on South Korea. They ceased their undesirable behavior and yielded to the will of the U.S.A.
THERE ARE TWO nations today, and even a superficial glance shows the fruits of U.S. victory. South Korea is a strong democracy, with a thriving capitalist economy, holding a powerful position in the First World. North Korea is a stunted, cult-of-personality military/Maoist state, still haunted by famine, much of it without electricity or running water.
Militarily, by achieving national policy expressed by civilian authority, and considering the long-term success of South Korea and the long-term failure of North Korea, the United States of America won the Korean War!
(The writer is a lifelong military historian, a lieutenant colonel in the Kansas National Guard and an Iraq War veteran. This is the second of a three-part series.)