The Forgotten War
"Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude; American will never forget their sacrifice." — President Harry S. Truman
On this Memorial Day much is made of the sacrifices made by our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen over the years in wars past and present. Much is said of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the TV is filled with movies about the Second World War. Very little is said or taught about the Korean War, the war that we have forgotten. The Korean War was a war where over 36,000 Americans died and many thousands more were wounded.
In the United States, the war was initially described by President Harry S. Truman as a "police action" as it was conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. Colloquially, it has been referred to in the United States as The Forgotten War or The Unknown War. The issues concerned were much less clear than in previous and subsequent conflicts, such as World War II and the Vietnam War. To a significant degree, the war has been "historically overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam".
On Sunday 25 June 1950 elements of the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The 38th parallel had been the dividing line between the two nations of North and South Korea. This line had been agreed upon by the U.S. and Soviet Union and formalized by the United Nations after the Second World War.
The invasion by the North took many people by surprise and soon the KPA had advanced all the way down to Korean Peninsula to the port city of Pusan where the United States Army established a defensive pocket.
President Harry Truman, with the sanctions of the United Nations order more troops sent to Korea to defend the feeble South Korean Army (ROK). Other nations like Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France and the Netherlands also sent troops to support the United States, but the main bulk of the fighting forces were Americans.
The Truman Administration was caught at a crossroads. Before the invasion, Korea was not included in the strategic Asian Defense Perimeter outlined by Secretary of State Acheson. Military strategists were more concerned with the security of Europe against the Soviet Union than East Asia. At the same time, the Administration was worried that a war in Korea could quickly widen into another world war should the Chinese or Soviets decide to get involved as well.
One facet of the changing attitude toward Korea and whether to get involved was Japan. Especially after the fall of China to the Communists, Japan itself increasingly appeared as the major East Asian prize to be protected. U.S. East Asian experts saw Japan as the critical counterweight to the Soviet Union and China in the region. While there was no United States policy that dealt with South Korea directly as a national interest, its proximity to Japan pushed South Korea to the fore. The recognition that the security of Japan required a non-hostile Korea led directly to President Truman’s decision to intervene. The essential point was that the American response to the North Korean attack stemmed from considerations of U.S. policy toward Japan. The United States wanted to shore up Japan to make it a viable counterweight against the Soviet Union and China, and Korea was seen as integral to that end.
The other important part of committing to intervention lay in speculation about Soviet action in the event that the United States intervene. The Truman administration was fretful that a war in Korea was a diversionary assault that would escalate to a general war in Europe once the U.S. committed in Korea. At the same time, there was no suggestion from anyone that the United Nations or the United States could back away from the conflict". In Truman’s mind, this aggression, if left unchecked, would start a chain reaction that would destroy the United Nations and give the go ahead to further Communist aggression elsewhere. Korea was where a stand had to be made, the difficult part was how. The UN Security council approved the use of force to help the South Koreans and the U.S. immediately began using air and naval forces in the area to that end. The Administration still refrained from committing on the ground because some advisors believed the North Koreans could be stopped by air and naval power alone. Also, it was still uncertain if this was a clever ploy by the Soviet Union to catch the U.S. unawares or just a test of U.S. resolve. The decision to commit ground troops and to intervene eventually became viable when a communiqué was received on June 27 from the Soviet Union that alluded it would not move against U.S. forces in Korea. This opened the way for the sending of American ground forces, for it now seemed less likely that a general war—with Korea as a preliminary diversion—was imminent". With the Soviet Union’s tacit agreement that this would not cause an escalation, the United States now could intervene with confidence that other commitments would not be jeopardized.
The overall commander was General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur soon realized that it would be difficult to fight back up the Peninsula and that the KPA forces had advanced so rapidly that they had over extended their supply lines. He ordered a landing at Inchon for September 15th, a landing that would cut off thousands KPA troops south of the capital of Seoul. The landing was successful and within days the 1st Calvary Division had reached Seoul and the U.S. Army and Marines began driving the KPA north across the 38th parallel.
On September 30, Defense Secretary George Marshall sent an eyes-only message to MacArthur: "We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel." MacArthur’s drive northward did not stop at the 38th parallel but continued north to border with China at the Yalu River. By mid-October the U.S. Marines had reached a location close to the Chinese border known as the Chosin Reservoir.
On October 15th thousands of Chinese troops crossed the Yalu into Korea and began attacking the Marines. Outnumbered the Marines had to retreat back down the west side of the peninsula where they could be evacuated. This is probably the greatest retreat of the Marines in their history.
Once the Chinese entered the war by sending hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” over the border the war took a turn against the UN forces. At one point MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons to stop the advancing Chinese. The war had now turned to conflict where the two main combatants were the United States and China. This is when public support began to wane in the United States.
Eventually MacArthur was fired by Truman and replaced with General Ridgeway, a paratrooper and combat veteran of WWII. Ridgeway turned the U.S. Army around, increased their morale and stabilized the conflict. The war dragged on for two years while negotiations for cease fire were going on. Finally on July 27, 1953 an armistice was reached and the fighting stopped with the combatants right back at the 38th parallel where it all began. The war is considered to have ended at this point, even though there was no peace treaty.
I was 17 years old when the armistice was reached and very thankful for it. I would soon be eligible for the military draft and the possibility of being sent to Korea was real in my mind. Both never happened.
From June 1950 to July 1953 there was a dramatic change in the support for the Korean War within the United States. After the retreat of the Marines from the Chosin Reservoir and MacArthur’s comments on the use of the Atomic Bomb on the Chinese Americans were not only growing weary of the war there was a raising fear that it could produce a nuclear conflict.
When MacArthur returned to the United States, a country he had not stepped foot in for 16 years, he was met with cheering crowds in San Francisco. After his address to Congress there were calls for him to run for president on the Republican ticket. These calls and his popularity soon vanished after Congressional hearings on the war. It was the vastly more popular Eisenhower who captured the White House in 1954.
Unlike WWII there were no cheering throngs to greet them. There were no victory parades down Main Street. Alexander Haig, a young officer on MacArthur’s staff said; “when I returned to the United States and saw that people were living high with new cars, television and the latest products Madison Avenue could offer and they seemed not to care much about the sacrifice so many American soldiers had made I became disgusted and cynical for quite a while.” Was Haig simply forecasting what would happen to the American soldiers some 20 years later as they returned from Vietnam?
Why did this happen. The United States went into the Korean War with the good and honorable intentions thwarting the advances of the communist bloc and to protect the people of South Korea. Something we did even though the war ended in a stalemate. The American public, as General Patton once said; “love a winner”, and in their mind we had lost 36,000 Americans in a losing cause. They blamed the soldiers for this.
Some of this blame came from the reports of “turncoats”, men who were captured by the North Koreans or Chinese and “brainwashed” into betraying their country. This did not happen during WWII and the American people did not understand why American soldiers would betray their country when captured. This did not happen to many soldiers. The vast majority of captured American and British soldiers resisted severe and harsh treatment, including torture, at the hands of their captors. It was only a few who succumbed to the tactics of the communists. This subject was the theme of the 1962 movie “The Manchurian Candidate” starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury. The film was remade in 2004 with an entirely different villain.
There is another reason for this turnaround that is more subtle, yet more destructive and enduring, and that is the coming of age of the Red Diaper Babies of the 20’s and 30’s. Historian Ronald Radosh, in his book Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left describes Red Diaper Babies as: “They were a subculture within a subculture: the proverbial hard Left of card-carrying Stalinists. Summers were spent at youth camps in the Catskills, where woodcraft took second place to ideological moulding, partly at the hands of the Red balladeer, Pete Seeger”
It was the communists and their fellow travelers like Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, Owen Lattimore , Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, the Rosenbergs, Henry Wallace and Dalton Trumbo who were influencing American culture with their writings, songs and films. They were anti-war and anti-American. They believed in the “one world” theory, except their one world would be led by Joe Stalin or Mao Zedong. They believed communism was for the people — a better way of life than the evils of Adam Smith or John Locke. They conveniently ignored millions who died in Stalin’s gulags or Mao’s purges.
These were the people who were beginning to shape public opinion in he United States. They did it with their films, books and songs. It was not until Joe McCarthy came along with his Senate hearings that the American people began to take note of the creeping communism within our government and culture. While “Tail Gunner Joe” was heavy handed in his tactics he was on the right track. History and the release of the Venona Papers after the collapse of the Soviet Union have proved him to be much more correct than he was given credit for.
All of this rising leftist and communist influence in our media and politics worked against the Korean War and the men who served so valiantly. It is now the children of these Red Diaper Babies that are the college professors that are teaching the next generation of Americans to be good little leftists with anti-American beliefs. It was our current president, Barack Obama, who studied at the knee of a RDB, Frank Marshal Davis.
To this day the veterans of the Korean War are largely forgotten. Recently a friend of mine passed away. He was a veteran of Korea and served as a Navy Corpsman with the Marines. He was decorated for his service with a Purple Heart. Jimmy Toler was a patriot who served his nation and his fellow Marines with honor and valor, yet he was one of those forgotten heroes of a war we fought 60 years ago.
There are many tales of valor and heroism told of the U.S. Marines. There is the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi and the defense Khe Sanh, but the one that comes to the mind of most Marines is the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.
At the Chosin Reservoir, the 1st Marine Division found itself surrounded and outnumbered eight to one by the Chinese army. The worst weather in 50 years cut off air support and assaulted the Marines with snow, wind and temperatures of -40 degrees F.
Even so, the "Chosin Few," as they would come to be called, decimated 10 Chinese infantry divisions and fought their way back to the sea to rejoin the American forces.
No Marines have ever faced worse weather, terrain, or odds than those who fought at Chosin Reservoir. But to anyone familiar with the Marines’ spirit of determination, there was no doubt the 1st Marine Division would prevail. It was General Lewis "Chesty" Puller, commander of the 1st Marine Division who was quoted as saying of the retreat, “retreat hell, we’re just attacking in a different direction.” You will not find one Marine, former of serving, who is not aware of Chesty Puller’s leadership or his comment. Let us not forget the men who fought so courageously in Korea.