"If we stand up to them [the communists] . . . they won't take any next steps. There's no telling what they'll do if we don't put up a fight now."
President Harry Truman at the outbreak of the Korean War, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2010
On June 25, 1950, communist-backed troops from North Korea invaded a hopelessly overmatched South Korea. American-led U.N. forces quickly came to the aid of South Korea, but the war unexpectedly escalated five months later when China, in support of North Korea, launched a massive attack on U.N. forces near the Yalu River.
Three years of brutal fighting followed as both armies hurled each other up and down the Korean peninsula. More than 54,000 U.S. soldiers died during the war, which technically has never officially ended but has been in a prolonged cease-fire since 1953.
North Korea often states that it is still at war, but the reality is that tenacious fighting by U.S. and U.N. soldiers successfully repelled the invading communist forces and pushed them back across the 38th Parallel border. South Korea remains a free nation, one of the most prosperous in Asia, while North Korea is one of the most repressive.
Chris Gibbons, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2010
The Annual Fantasy
Americans relive and debate the Vietnam War. Analysts discuss “the Vietnam Syndrome,” the “albatross” that shackled every president, and/or claims about where every candidate for public office was during Vietnam. To the contrary, the Korean War, which in the words of the U.S. government was launched by the aggressive invasion of North Korean armies below the 38th parallel into South Korea 60 years ago on June 25, 1950, is beyond question.
As newspapers often title Korea, “Our Forgotten War,” the story is simple; Communist aggressors (inspired by Moscow) invaded a free nation (South Korea). The Americans mobilized United Nations support and boldly counter-attacked forcing the Communist aggressors back North. Then, the story goes, the US-led army of the free people went North of the 38th parallel to liberate North Korea from its dictatorship. This invasion was foiled by a massive Chinese Communist military response. While a ceasefire was established in 1953, conflict on the peninsula remains between the prosperous and free South Korea and the poor and totalitarian North Korea.
This fantasy, created in 1950, set the stage for a sixty year rationalization for trillions of dollars of military spending, hundreds of thousands of US soldiers killed and wounded, and the deaths of millions of people, largely from the Global South, who were unwilling hosts of wars, interventions, and domestic violence related to the Cold War.
Just a brief examination of the history of the Far East suggests that the fantasy is just that. The Korean Peninsula was colonized by the Japanese before World War I. At the end of World War II, with their defeat, Koreans all across the peninsula believed that they, at last, would be able to establish their own independent government. “Peoples Assemblies” began to meet to plan for a post-war Korean government. However, at the urging of the United States, it and the Soviet Union agreed to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel until such time as an independent government, desirable to the victorious powers could be established.
The United States government over the next three years brought exiled Korean Syngman Rhee back to the country to establish a government in the US occupied zone. Rhee, an émigré with ties to large landowners, was not popular with South Korean farmers, many of whom rebelled against the new government imposed by Washington. In areas where rebellions were stifled, the United Nations held “elections” for a new government. Rhee and his party were victorious. And in the North, a regime allied with the Soviet Union was established led by Kim Il Sung, long-time Korean Communist party organizer.
In 1948 Soviet troops were withdrawn from the North and in 1949 US troops from the South. Both leaders, Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung, declared their commitments to liberate the other half to establish one Korean government. Some US congressmen began to balk at Truman requests to continue to fund the corrupt Rhee government in the South.
In May, 1950 Republican spokesman on foreign policy John Foster Dulles visited South Korea and spoke in support of Syngman Rhee, whose domestic support was faltering, and then Rhee and Dulles flew off to the Tokyo headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, overseer of post-war Japan. It is important to note that shots had been fired both ways across the 38th parallel for months before these events.
Finally, as the official story suggests, North Korean troops invaded the South on June 25, 1950. South Korean military forces, heavily subsidized and trained by the United States, fled South and within a month much of the country below the 38th parallel was occupied by Northern armies.
Then the US, with UN support, launched a counter-assault in September, 1950, led by General MacArthur, who already had declared his vision of creating a Christian and anti-Communist Asia. North Korean armies were forced back north of the 38th parallel and with the urging of MacArthur and other virulent Cold Warriors in the Truman administration an apocryphal decision was made to take the war to the North. The Chinese, fearful of an invasion of their own land, entered the war on the side of North Korean armies. The Korean War was extended until 1953 and a troubled ceasefire was established that still prevails today.
What the Real History Suggests
First, as historian Robert Simmons wrote: “There were constant and sizeable armed clashes and border incursions between the North and South for over a year before the final crisis…the Seoul regime enjoyed little popular support…it had announced its intention to invade the North and appeared to be preparing to do so…”
Second, the division of Korea in 1945 defied the wishes of the Korean people, Communist and non-Communist alike. In the South, Syngman Rhee was regarded as an outsider and representative of the small land-owning class of Koreans (a character similar to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam).
Third, the Korean War was in fact a civil war which the Truman administration chose to define as the first great conflagration in the global struggle against worldwide Communism. Many scholars suggest to the contrary that North Korean Kim Il Sung’s decision to invade the South was made by him without approval or support from the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet delegate at the United Nations was boycotting the Security Council at the time the Council voted to condemn the invasion of the South. If the Soviet delegate was aware of the planned invasion he probably would have attended the Security Council session to veto the US resolution condemning the North Korean invasion.
Consequences of “Our Forgotten War”
The decision by the Truman administration to enter the war to “save” the Rhee regime in the South signified a permanent commitment to an imperial policy that continues to this day. As political scientist Hans Morgenthau once wrote, after the Korean War started reversing US/Soviet conflicts and the militarization of the world was no longer possible.
The Korean War gave support to those Truman administration advocates for the full militarization of United States foreign policy and US society. National Security Council Document 68 had been circulating inside the administration at that time. It called for a dramatic increase in annual military spending based on the proposition that each president should give the military all it wanted before any other expenditures for government programs were adopted. Specifically it called for an immediate four-fold increase in military spending, a proposal that some fiscal conservatives had opposed. After Korea virtually all restrictions on military spending were lifted.
Additional byproducts of the new US commitment to a Korean War included the following: finalizing the construction of an anti-Communist Japanese economy to balance the new Chinese Communist regime; making permanent the US financial commitment to the French in Indochina (a prelude to the next big war, in Vietnam); circulating the idea of an Asian military alliance to be called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO); expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and stimulating anti-Communist repression domestically.
As we reflect on the limited economic development in the North and the dramatic growth in the South, both products of the Cold War, the impacts of “Our Forgotten War” on the Korean people should be recalled. As Joyce and Gabriel Kolko wrote:
“The United States air force had completely destroyed all usual strategic bombing targets in North Korea within three months time, and by the end of the first year of combat it had dropped 97,000 tons of bombs and 7.8 million gallons of napalm, destroying 125,000 buildings that might ‘shelter’ the enemy. In mid-1952 it turned to the systematic destruction of mines and cement plants…” and the “…Suihu hydroelectric complex on the Yalu.”
They added that Syngman Rhee rounded up 400,000 South Koreans who were put in concentration camps. The authors wrote: “The Korean War, in effect, became a war against an entire nation, civilians and soldiers, Communists and anti-Communists alike. Everything-from villages to military targets-the United States considered a legitimate target for attack.” At least four million Koreans, North and South died, were wounded, or were made homeless (Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-54).
So despite the fact that the Korean War has become “Our Forgotten War,” the decision to enter Korea globalized, militarized, and institutionalized a U.S. policy that rationalized wars on entire populations ever since.