Korean Lesson

Modern history’s forgotten war briefly attracted interest in June when President Obama enforced the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as ISAF commander in Afghanistan. This led to predictable comparisons with President Truman’s summary dismissal in April 1951 of General Douglas MacArthur. McChrystal was an over-promoted special-forces officer who indulged himself in locker-room badmouthing of the White House. MacArthur ruled post-war Japan like an emperor and commanded the entire Pacific theatre. He was not infallible. MacArthur had failed to spot that the Chinese would enter the Korean War (1950-53) in massive strength if his forces ventured near the Yalu River, and then he talked too freely about invading China or using nuclear weapons. Truman caught the essence of the vainglorious general when he remarked: “I’ll show that son of a bitch who’s boss. Who does he think he is — God?”

In a recent House of Lords debate on North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, Unionist peer Ken Maginnis recalled the sacrifice of more than 1,000 British and Commonwealth troops in Korea. More than 33,000 Americans died too. These pale into insignificance next to the four million Korean casualties (meaning killed, wounded and missing) in what began as a civil war waged by super-power proxies and escalated into a direct confrontation between the US and China. Its scale should be underlined in a further respect. The US dropped 635,000 tons of bombs (and 32,557 tons of napalm) on North Korea, surpassing the 500,000 tons dropped throughout the Pacific theatre in the Second World War.

The South Koreans have produced some rather good movies about the conflict, notably Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood (2004). Perhaps the reason the war figures much less in Western consciousness is that it happened before TV became a worldwide phenomenon. 

Yet the war has enormous interest. It shows how the early vacillations of Truman’s foreign policy continued after containment had been promulgated, notably Dean Acheson’s omission of Korea from his January 1950 defence perimeter speech, which encouraged Kim Il Sung, Stalin and Mao to chance their arm in what they imagined would be a limited war to unify the peninsula while distracting the US from Europe. The US troops MacArthur rushed from Japan to Korea reflected badly on him. Colonel John “Iron Mike” Michaelis, a US regimental commander, commented sourly: “They’d been nursed and coddled, told to drive safely, to buy War Bonds, to give to the Red Cross, to avoid VD, to write home to mother — when someone ought to have been telling them how to clear a machine-gun when it jams.” 

In their initial drive to Pusan, North Korea’s Soviet armed forces inflicted 30 per cent casualties on the UN sanctioned coalition. “By God, I am going to let them have it,” Truman exclaimed after news of the North’s aggression reached him, bypassing Congress in his rush to arms. 

Both incipient Korean states — and there was not much to choose between them in terms of illegality and violence — also illustrate how the tails could wag the superpower dogs, with the South’s Syngman Rhee needlessly probing the 38th parallel and Kim Il Sung touring Moscow and Beijing in search of support. Kathryn Weathersby, a visiting scholar at the US Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has used Soviet archives made available in the 1990s to reveal the extreme cynicism of Stalin’s diplomacy. Believing that offence was the best defence, Stalin encouraged Mao to despatch Chinese “volunteers” — after the initial Soviet-devised North Korean war plan went awry — and then dragged his feet in providing this force with Soviet air cover. As for Mao, his intervention in Korea was both a classic “social imperialist” means of remobilising the Chinese Communist Party through external aggression, and an early case of his seeking to lead the nascent Third World through revolutionary example. Mao also used former Nationalist troops as his “expendables” — two-thirds of the Chinese PoWs elected to go to Taiwan. 

It has taken 60 years for the Chinese communists to indicate that the “war to resist US aggression and aid Korea” may have actually been started when North Korean troops crashed across the 38th Parallel in June 1950, though this shift is so sudden that Chinese historians are nervous about confirming it. How unfortunate that the war we now understand so much about has been almost entirely neglected in British official memory — the redoubtable Lord Maginnis apart.

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