Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Just got back this morning from Shenyang. I went up there Sunday evening for the National Day "Golden Week." Manchuria, or "Dongbei," as we call it in China, is not the easiest place to visit. Seems kinda strange, but it is easier, in some ways, to travel in Western China then it is in the Northeast, even though the Northeast is much closer. This is because Western China has such an abundance of backpacker hangouts, such as youth hostels and other dormitory style accommodations. I had wanted, for some time, to take a trip to the North Korean border, but I had more or less put it on the back burner, until Rhea invited me to stay with her family in Shenyang. From there, it is just a three hour bus ride to Dandong, on the border.

We took the bus to Dandong Tuesday morning. When we got to Dandong, we boarded one of the tour boats for a ride on the Yalu River. I was interested, of course, in the role this strategic border area played in the conflict we know as the "Korean War," but there is another benefit of this tour. I cannot imagine a better picture of the stark contrast between old, Soviet style Marxism, and the world's latest market economy.

Most people will tell you that the Korean War started in June of 1950. But to really understand how the war got started, you have to go back to December of 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek set up his government on Taiwan after being defeated on the mainland. Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense, wanted to defend Taiwan, but Acheson was opposed to this. In January of 1950, Acheson gave his infamous speech to the National Press Club, in which he stated that Japan and the Philippines were inside the American defense perimeter. South Korea and Taiwan were not on the list. Omitting Taiwan was not surprising at all, because Truman had very publicly stated that he would not interfere in what he viewed as a continuation of China's civil war. But the omission of South Korea is puzzling, because there had not been other indications of this in Truman's foreign policy. Not surprisingly, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung both accepted this "invitation." Fortunately for Taiwan, Mao begin by invading Hainan Island in April of 1950 (in preparation for invading Taiwan the following year), whereupon the Nationalist defenders on Hainan quickly crumbled. Mao was biding his time, because the Truman administration had basically invited him to invade Taiwan at his leisure. Kim Il Sung made his move in June, of 1950, when he invaded South Korea, but not without first getting permission from Stalin.

As usual, the attacker has the advantage of surprise, and the North Koreans quickly moved south, which turned out to be bad strategy, because they overextended themselves. Their plight was made worse by MacArthur's landing at Inchon, which cut them off. The Americans pushed them back to the 38th parallel, the line agreed to in the original partition, but then the American's, encouraged by their success, moved beyond the 38th parallel. The North Korean Army quickly disintegrated. Mao had decided that if the Americans moved beyond the 38th parallel, he would have to help North Korea. It was the involvement of the Chinese that created problems for the Americans. Without that, the Americans probably would have reached the Yalu River by the end of 1950.

Much has been made of the charge that MacArthur was not allowed to bomb the bridges across the Yalu River, but this is not accurate. In fact, MacArthur did bomb the bridges, at least the one I saw. I first noticed it when I saw Dandong from the air (using Google Earth). The Lonely Planet Guide that I have says that the bridge was bombed "accidentally" (meaning accidentally on purpose). This is nonsense. Bridges are not bombed accidentally. It is a well known fact that MacArthur issued an order on November 5th that the Korean side of the bridges across the river be bombed. As soon as the JCS heard about MacArthur's bombing order, they countermanded it, and told him not to bomb targets less than five miles from the border. MacArthur issued a strong protest, and the Joint Chiefs relented. The plaque I saw on the bridge in Dandong says that it was bombed on November 8th, which jibes with the timing of MacArthur's order. The problem is that the major movement of Chinese troops across the Yalu River took place in October, so the bombing was a wee bit late. Why the delay? I'm not sure about this, because it has been a number of years since I read MacArthur's memoirs, but I cannot find any information that MacArthur requested permission to bomb the bridges before the Chinese troops moved across. In my opinion, it is very probable that MacArthur himself did not anticipate the extent of Chinese involvement. Perhaps nobody did. But the point is that once it was clear that they were involved, MacArthur's response was forceful, but he was continually restrained by the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mao was a poor administrator, but he was a brilliant military strategist. He ordered his general to retreat, in order to allow the Americans to distance themselves from their supply lines. Because the North Korean army was pretty much in disarray by this point, the Americans made good progress. They were almost to the Yalu River when the Chinese attacked on November 25th. Ten days later, the Chinese took Pyongyang. The cost was high for the Chinese, but also for the Americans, who lost 24,000 men in that ten day period, almost half the number of soldiers lost in Vietnam in ten years of fighting. This is where MacArthur's problems with Washington really came into play, because Truman was adamant about not allowing MacArthur to attack the Chinese supply sources in Manchuria. The Chinese moved south, and took Seoul, but this time they got overextended, and they couldn't hold it. The Americans pushed back to the 38th parallel, whereupon a stalemate settled in that lasted for the rest of the war, and actually up to the present day.


There are several key persons whose personalities and perspectives merged (or clashed) to create the drama that we know as the Korean War.

Douglas MacArthur. General Douglas MacArthur was the last of the great American field marshals. There had, of course, been many other great field commanders before him, but none after him. Ordinarily, it is not advisable for a military leader to follow up military conquest with domestic, political leadership. It is rarely successful, and often disastrous (Mao is the most poignant example in recent history). According to Manchester, only two military commanders in history have been able to pull it off--Julius Caesar, and General MacArthur. After the defeat of Japan, MacArthur ruled Japan as a benevolent dictator for five years until the beginning of the Korean War. MacArthur got in trouble for saying that there was "no substitute for victory," which is a sad commentary on the state of American foreign policy at the time of the Korean War.

Dean Acheson. I would generally support the adage that if you can't say something good about someone, you shouldn't say anything at all, so I really shouldn't say anything about Acheson, except to reiterate that his speech to the National Press Club in January of 1950 set the stage for the aggression that precipitated the Korean War.

George Marshall. Marshall had become Secretary of Defense in 1950, replacing Louis Johnson. Briefly, Marshall believed in limited war, while MacArthur believed in total war. These two views were destined to clash in the personalities of these two men. Marshall is generally viewed as a hero and a great American, but I believe history has vindicated MacArthur's position. More on that later.

Omar Bradley. From 1949 to 1953, General Omar Bradley was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Omar Bradley was a decent man, but he was not a winner. Not a fighter. He was cautious. Measured. Patton was a fighter. Patton was awesome. But Patton was dead by this point. Bradley's personality and approach served him well in World War II, because there were others like Patton who could drive the push to victory while men like Bradley were holding the line. But in Korea, his infernal "politeness" was sad, because he was constantly pulling the reins back on MacArthur.

President Truman. I have always intensely disliked Truman, because of his penchant for using Asia's millions as a buffer against Communism, without any concern for how the Asian people themselves were affected by his policy. Beyond that, although I would not say that Truman was politically corrupt, he was a profoundly ungodly man, who represented the polar antithesis of MacArthur's tendency to see war in terms of good forces and evil forces. Truman is basically the architect of "containment," which emphasized keeping the Communists from expanding too much, which seemed good to many in America who were terrified of another world war, but which was inherently immoral, because it meant that America, as a world power, had to sacrifice millions of people on the altar of the American wish to avoid conflict.


Forgive me for being pedantic, but if I can take you back to Political Science 101, an issue is, by definition, a conflict of values. No conflict, no issue. There are two main areas where values conflicted to create the key issues in the Korean War.

Who's war is it anyway? For the first time in American history, the management of war was surrendered to foreign powers via the United Nations. Under the constitution, the Congress has the authority to declare war. The president cannot declare war. He can only request that the Congress declare war. In other words, the Constitution is designed to prevent any one president from starting a war on his own. The last time the president submitted himself to the supreme law of the land and requested a declaration of war from Congress was on December 8, 1941. When the Korean "War" broke out, Truman did not go to the Congress. He went to the United Nations. This was the first big mistake. We have become accustomed to hearing how "fortunate" it was that the Soviet Union had boycotted the Security Council, so that the Security Council was able to approve assertive action. Nothing of the sort. The United Nations never should have been involved. Consider the absurdity: The prosecution of the war was being managed with Stalin's guidance on the North Korean end, and the prosecution of the war from the American end was also being managed, at least in part, by the Soviet Union. Remember, the Soviet Union was a member of the Security Council.

Limited War vs. Total War. George C. Marshall is known for the Plan that was named for him. He had a distinguished reputation stemming from his service in World War II. But his approach to the conduct of war was essentially amoral, which was a problem because war is inherently immoral. Listen to me, I'll say it again--war is a dirty, rotten, hellish business. If you must fight it, the only way to do so morally is to fight a war to the bitter end, defeat your enemy, and then help your defeated adversary to heal and rebuild. The contrast is often made between MacArthur, who believed in total war, and Marshall, who believed in limited war. But if Marshall and the Joint Chiefs really believed in Limited War, they should have ordered MacArthur to push the Communists back to the 38th parallel and leave it at that. But they didn't. They specifically authorized him to push beyond the 38th parallel, but only if there was no presence of Chinese or Soviet forces in North Korea. Seems like the Joint Chiefs believed in total war only if nobody (including the enemy) objected. This borders on cowardice, but the directive is revealing, because it epitomizes what has sadly become the standard American approach to warfare. It's wrong. You don't push forward merely because it is easy to do so. You push for victory because justice demands it. Of course you must count the cost and consider the "winability" if a given engagement, because Augustine's rules for a just war specify that a given conflict must not be futile. The Japanese fought futile, suicidal conflicts, but this is not something that is appropriate in a Christian nation. But by the same token, withdrawing merely because of the presence of the enemy is tantamount to surrender.


I believe that the Korean War represents the beginning of the end of America as a world power. I do not, of course blame the JCS entirely for failing to anticipate the involvement of the Chinese. MacArthur himself seems to have underestimated this involvement. I can't remember how Manchester came down on this issue, because it is quite a few years since I have read his biography of MacArthur (which, by the way, I highly recommend). But whatever the case may be, once the involvement of the Chinese became clear, MacArthur was right about the importance of pursuing the enemy's ability to wage war, even if it meant bombing supply depots in Manchuria.

The Americans were terribly worried about another World War. It is understandable that they would feel this way so soon after World War II was over, but their fears were unfounded. The Chinese did not want war. Kim had visited Mao in the summer of 1950, and reported to him that Stalin had given him permission to invade the south. What Kim did not tell Mao, was that Stalin had told him in no uncertain terms, that if he got kicked in teeth he was on his own. Mao requested air support from Stalin, making Chinese support for the war effort conditional on this support. Stalin called his bluff and said that North Korea could be sacrificed, and Kim could reorder his forces in Manchuria. This was absurd, but it worked. Stalin knew that Mao was very concerned about having an American ally right on the Yalu River. Mao's fears were unfounded, because the Americans had no designs on China. The fact is that if the Americans had taken an assertive position and attacked Manchuria only in so far as destroying the materiel of war, the Korean peninsula would have been reunited.

Historians have not treated MacArthur positively (except for Manchester, whose appraisal is mixed, but basically fair). This is because they are viewing the issue from the same hopelessly American perspective shared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. MacArthur was not without faults. His comments about Chiang Kai-shek invading the mainland were ill-advised, because they implied a hostile intent on the part of the Americans that simply was not there. The Americans and the Chinese are not natural enemies; they are natural allies. But, again, MacArthur was right in his understanding of how the war should be pursued once the Americans came under significant attack by the Chinese army. Korea represents the most tragic example of opportunity lost in the history of the American military. The Americans have had no legal (declared) wars since Korea, and they have not been able to win a war since Korea, unless you count Grenada, which if counted, only becomes the exception that emphatically proves the rule, and gives credibility to the charge that the Americans will only fight where there is an overwhelming advantage. The Americans went swaggering into Iraq saying they needed to invade because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be true. Kim Jong Il openly announces to the world that he has weapons of mass destruction, and the Americans are scared to death to confront him and try to buy him off by offering him a nuclear reactor.

Ironically, Korea's loss was Taiwan's gain. Before the Korean War broke out, Truman had made it clear that he did not intend to interfere if China invaded Taiwan. In the summer of 1950, after the war broke out, Truman's concern about the fallout somehow overcame his unmitigated contempt for Chiang Kai-shek, and he ordered the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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