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When the Cold War First Went Hot in Korea
How the War Without End on the Korean Peninsula Began
Around this time seventy-three years ago, in September 1950, the Western forces in Korea—deployed after the Communist North invaded the South three months earlier—began to turn the tide. There were several more months of fast-moving combat left before the war ground into a bloody stalemate in early 1951. A ceasefire was finally signed in July 1953, which is the status that remains to the present day: the war is not over, merely paused. The Korean War was widely regarded contemporaneously as a failed endeavour and this was the view for a long time afterwards; the changing perception of the war is one of the interesting things about it. Nonetheless, it was understood even at the time that this first “hot war” of the Cold War had been important in halting the massive Communist offensive across the globe that followed-on from the Soviet victory in the Second World War.
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COMMUNISM ON THE MARCH
The Soviets had jointly started the Second World War in alliance with the Nazis by crushing Poland in September 1939. In the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviets invaded as many countries as Nazis (seven each). Yet, the Anglo-French war declaration only applied against Germany. The one moment where it seemed this might change was the spring of 1940, amid the public outrage over the Soviet attack on Finland.1 The moment passed.
The U.S. and Britain decided to assist the Soviet Union when its Nazi ally turned on it in June 1941, providing the margins that stopped Stalin’s regime going under. In combination with Pearl Harbour and Hitler’s disastrous error in declaring war on America in December 1941, a miracle of public relations took place, transforming Stalin from Hitler’s partner in aggression into a component of the anti-Axis “Grand Alliance” alongside America and Britain.2 Of course, the Soviets did not see the capitalist powers as allies; this new openness was merely an exploitable weakness.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt waged a vigorous campaign against Axis subversion, so much so that some civil libertarians dubbed it a “Brown Scare”, but the administration was remarkably lax in its approach to Communist infiltration. Harry Hopkins, the official overseeing the Lend-Lease program, was co-opted by Soviet intelligence into overriding even the minimal barriers FDR put on what was to be supplied to the Red Army.3 Even before Operation BARBAROSSA, the Soviets had a 200-plus-man agent network spread through the U.S. government; soon the Soviets had penetrated every major branch of the Roosevelt administration.4 The State Department was heavily compromised and the nuclear-weapons program notoriously so. Had FDR died before he won the 1944 election, two Soviet agents would have been brought into the U.S. Cabinet.5
The U.S. and British intelligence agencies that had basically ceased activity against the Soviets were extensively infiltrated. Perhaps the most damaging were William Weisband in the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge spy ring or “Magnificent Five” (as the Soviets called them). Philby’s appointment as head of the SIS/MI6 counter-intelligence division dealing with the Soviets in 1944 allowed Moscow to capture the entire British intelligence system.6
Lend-Lease to the Soviets did not stop once the Nazi offensive was broken,7 and with the help of this American materiel, the Red Army raped and massacred its way across half a continent, displacing the totalitarianism of its former Nazi ally with its own version in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Jugoslavija, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and what would become East Germany. Albania, uniquely, avoided Red Army occupation after the eviction of the Axis, but fell to Communism anyway. Finland alone managed to repel the Soviet onslaught in 1944-45 (for a second time). These States that had suffered through Nazi racial extermination were now subjected to Soviet class extermination—Jews were targeted in both—and were looted on a staggering scale, everything from art to heavy industrial equipment. This war booty brought the Soviets up to a level where they could compete on par with the United States.8
The Soviets tried to make the imposition of Communism on Eastern Europe look democratic, setting up nominally broad-based “Popular Front” governments where real power was held by the NKVD and its dependent “fraternal” Communist Parties; over time, the non-Communists were “salami sliced” away and then fraudulent elections were held that the Communists “won” by huge majorities, “legitimising” their one-party regimes.9 This democratic façade meant that as far as possible, the Soviets wanted to avoid overt violence; this proved impossible in Czechoslovakia.
As the communization of Eastern Europe was proceeding, the Soviets were trying to expand further afield, refusing to leave northern Iran. It was during the Iran crisis, in March 1946, that Winston Churchill made his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, finally forcing a recognition of the “Cold War” the Soviet Revolution had waged against the West since 1917.
The Soviets ultimately withdrew from Iran, but they swiftly moved to new fronts, using the Nuremberg “trials” for political warfare, trying to take over Greece (the one Eastern European State that Stalin had agreed to leave in the Western camp), and menacing Turkey under the pretext of needing revisions to the Montreux Convention (1936) that had given the Turkish government exclusive control of the Straits that allowed passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
The British in early 1947 told the Americans they could no longer fulfil their Imperial responsibilities, and President Harry Truman, much less naïve than FDR about the Soviets, decided the U.S. would pick up the burden. In a speech before Congress in March 1947, Truman set out the “Doctrine of Containment”, which was initially to be applied to Greece and Turkey, but would entail more generally American “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”.10 The Containment Doctrine underlay the creation of NATO in April 1949, with its collective self-defence provisions.11
U.S. backing for Turkey in what had hitherto been a bilateral struggle dissuaded the Soviets from using force to capture the Straits. Greece was to be the first proxy war of the Cold War. The West prevailed in Greece in the summer of 1949, in no small part because Jugoslavija broke from Moscow during the war, shutting down the main apparatus the Soviets used to run the Greek Communist insurgency. This was an important strategic gain, meaning Jugoslavija’s military was tacitly counted among NATO’s divisions for the rest of the Cold War. The cost was ignoring the odious conduct of Tito’s secret police against Jugoslav dissidents in the West. Less concretely but no less importantly, the Greek conflict had important role in familiarising Truman with Soviet methods, shaping his perceptions of Korea.
The need to rebuild Greece after the civil war was a significant influence in the U.S. conceiving the Marshall Aid program, active as of April 1948, to provide economic assistance to the devastated States of Europe. Marshall Aid was offered even to those States occupied by the Soviets; Moscow refused to allow them to accept. It was under Marshall Aid that the American, British, and French occupation zones were unified into what became West Germany. The introduction of a new deutschemark in this zone was the immediate trigger for Stalin blockading Berlin in June 1948.12 Stalin demanded the withdrawal of the new currency in exchange for lifting the blockade, and then tried a coup within Berlin in September 1948. The mass protest that erupted to block this convinced the Allies not to give up on Berlin and the air lifts kept the city supplied until May 1949, when the blockade was lifted.
There was little time to celebrate over Berlin: the first Soviet nuclear test on 29 August 1949, made possible by the infiltration of the MANHATTAN Project, ended the period of single superpower dominance in this area.
Containment is ultimately a regime-change policy, and the logic of hastening the timetable by rolling back the Soviet Empire was tested in Albania, beginning in October 1949. America and Britain initiated Operation VALUABLE,13 parachuting SIS and CIA officers into Albania, along with anti-Communist exiles. Despite the fact that the first raid—and the dozen-plus that followed up to 1952—ended in catastrophe, nobody seemed to realise there had been a breach. The liaison officer organising the Albanian operation was Philby, whose treachery murdered about three-hundred people.14
Right as the rollback effort in Albania began, the Soviets Imperium expanded still further. The senseless American policy on the Asian front was to gorge the Soviets with Lend-Lease, despite their scrupulous neutrality with Japan, while trickling out aid to official government of China, the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, who had tied down huge numbers of Japanese divisions. In 1946, the U.S. cut Chiang off completely and the Soviets—having briefly warred with Japan to occupy some coveted territory—put what the Americans had given them at the service of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong, which had also sat out the war with Japan. In October 1949, the Soviet-dependent CCP marched into Peking and proclaimed the People’s Republic that lasts to this day. Chiang’s government was forced to flee to Formosa/Taiwan.15
Overall, the West had been victorious in a few peripheral cases—Iran, Greece, Berlin—and gotten lucky over Jugoslavija, which shifted its allegiance for reasons of its own. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had brought the bulk of the Eurasian landmass, extending from the Fulda Gap to Peking, under Communist rule; turned Western intelligence inside-out, allowing the defeat of efforts to chip away at this Empire; and stolen the information for the atomic bomb, putting the Soviets in position to make good on their ambition to threaten the entire world.
It was in these circumstances that Senator Joseph McCarthy entered history, making his speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950, saying that the parlous state of the Free Bloc was because Communist agents in the U.S. government had conspired to bring this about. The unmasking of Alger Hiss, a State Department official who had played a key role at Yalta, as a Soviet spy in 1948 and the revelation a week earlier that British subject Klaus Fuchs had betrayed the MANHATTAN Project to Stalin seemed to buttress McCarthy’s case. The discovery of the Rosenbergs’ treachery soon afterwards and the outbreak of the Korean War reinforced the public perception that McCarthy was on to something. In reality, McCarthy was a day late and a dollar short,16 and the most important victim of his carry-on was the anti-Communist cause.17
THE KOREAN CONTEXT
Korea was not a place not many Westerners gave much thought to or knew much about. Korea had been politically and culturally separate from China since the early medieval period, though remained significantly under Chinese influence until the end of the nineteenth century when Japan displaced China on the Peninsula. Occupied by Japan in the first decade of the twentieth century,18 Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
The Soviets took North Korea as part of the land-grab after declaring war on Japan on 7 August 1945, the day after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The U.S. bombed Nagasaki on 9 August and Japan surrendered on 15 August, formally signing the Instrument of Surrender on 2 September. American troops landed at Incheon on 8 September 1945 and occupied South Korea thereafter. A temporary division of Korea was established at the 38th Parallel, with a plan to hold all-Korean elections when the situation had stabilised. This was not to be.
The Soviets refused to hold elections in the North, so the May 1948 elections, supervised by the United Nations, were held only in the South, which by this time had a written constitution modelled on that of the United States. Syngman Rhee won the elections and became President, a largely ceremonial role. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was proclaimed in August 1948 and sovereignty transferred to the government of Prime Minister Lee Beom-seok, a long-time anti-Japanese independence advocate. Lee was not in office when the war began: he resigned in April 1950 and was replaced by Shin Song-mo as Acting Prime Minister.
The elections were controversial within South Korea as nationalists, including the President of the Provisional Government Kim Ku, saw them ending hopes of unifying Korea. Manipulating this sentiment, the South Korean branch of the Communist Party, the Workers’ Party of South Korea (WPSK), staged a brutal uprising on the island of Jeju on 3 April 1948, which took a year to put down despite the ruthless measures adopted. Communist incursions along the border and Soviet-directed guerrilla activity within South Korea raged for two years, before subsiding in the spring of 1950, mostly due to the ROK crackdown.
North Korea, after going through the same “Popular Front” process as Eastern Europe, was ruled by the Workers’ Party of North Korea (WPNK), headed by Kim Il Sung, a man who had been fighting in China as a member of the CCP since 1931. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was declared in September 1948. After the merger of the WPSK and WPNK in June 1949, the ruling authority of the DPRK changed its name to the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).19
The Western neglect of Korea was to continue. By the end of 1948, the 40,000 U.S. troops in South Korea had been reduced to 7,500, and there was a total withdrawal in June 1949.
For a long time, it was thought that a crucial cause of the war—at least its timing—was Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s speech on 12 January 1950 at the National Press Club omitting South Korea when outlining the American “defence perimeter”. Dwight Eisenhower, running on the Republican ticket in 1952, made much of this. The Soviet archives suggest Acheson’s speech was irrelevant: what drove Stalin was his belief that the capitalist “imperialist” powers were relentless aggressors against Communism, and only a pre-emptive strike to bring all of the Korean Peninsula under Communism could preserve the North Korean regime.20 Whether intentional or not, Korea was also a helpful distraction for Stalin from the simmering resentment in the West over the communisation of Eastern Europe.
Stalin and Kim had discussed a pre-emptive invasion of South Korea in Moscow in March 1949. Stalin would have preferred for Kim to stage a provocation that made it look like the South had started the war, but he had no objection in principle to “unification through violent means”.21 Kim’s agency should not be ignored: he really did want to unify the Peninsula under his rule, but he would never have tried without Soviet assent. Stalin gave the “green light” for Kim to invade outright in January 1950. This timing helped keep alive the blame-Acheson narrative, but a far more significant determinant was the end of the Chinese civil war in late 1949.
The Soviet victory in China allowed the CCP divisions that had been used against Chiang’s Nationalists to be turned on Korea (and Indochina). Mao was brought into the invasion plan from the beginning. Mao’s dependency on the Soviet Union left him little practical choice, but he was genuinely willing for ideological reasons: he was as committed as Stalin to global Revolution and eager to fulfil his responsibilities to the socialist camp. Mao also had personal reasons: a supremely egotistical fanatic, he wanted to be seen fulfilling his socialist responsibilities, to prove his “internationalism”. And there were practical considerations: Mao wanted to solidify relations with Stalin, to ensure the continued flow of Soviet resources to consolidate his nascent regime domestically and to maintain Soviet backing for the CCP’s objective of capturing Taiwan.
THE WAR COMES
Taking U.S. intelligence by surprise, at 4 a.m. on 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The North had an army of 135,000 men, many of them ethnic Korean CCP units that were transferred to Korea by Moscow after the conquest of China. Against these battle-hardened forces, South Korea had a smaller, relatively untrained force of 95,000 men.
The South Korean capital, Seoul, located just thirty-five miles from the border, fell in three days.
On the day of the invasion, the United Nations adopted Security Council Resolution 82 condemning it and calling for it to be halted. When the DPRK inevitably ignored this, UNSCR 84 was passed on 7 July authorising force to reverse the aggression. The resolutions were able to pass because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council in protest at the Council seating Chiang’s Nationalists rather than Mao as the official government of China.22
President Truman had ordered General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the head of the occupation authority in Japan, to move all available troops to support the ROK on the night of the invasion. The States of the newly formed NATO and others outside the Communist Bloc now had to decide whether they would send military support to the ROK, and the nature of such support if they did.
UNSCR 84 created the United Nations Command (UNC), a structure de facto under MacArthur, to coordinate the effort as twenty-two States sent troops to Korea to stem the Communist advance.23 At its peak, the U.N.-flagged force had about 950,000 men, mostly South Koreans (600,000) and Americans (300,000), with sixteen other States contributing combat forces, the largest contingents from Britain (14,000), the Commonwealth (10,000), and Turkey (5,450).
In early July 1950, however, the UNC had only the few thousand Americans in South Korea and the ROK Army, which had virtually collapsed when the capital went down. The South Koreans could only account for 22,000 soldiers.
The DPRK forces would swell to 250,000 and Red China would bring nearly a million-and-a-half troops to bear in Korea after its invasion in October-November 1950. Soviet equipment and specialist personnel were part of the DPRK invasion force, and the fifteen Soviet divisions in Manchuria provided logistical support and anti-aircraft cover for the DPRK-CCP forces. By September 1951, the Soviets deployment was up to 25,000 Red Army troops, which would be largely confined to the territory of North Korea, acting in “non-combat” roles, but 2,000 Soviet “advisers” were embedded with DPRK troops, as were 1,500 military engineers, and a Soviet artillery division provided supporting fire.24 Most importantly, 5,000 Soviet pilots were directly engaged, acting as the North Korean air force, a secret kept by both the Soviets and the Americans for decades, to avoid nuclear escalation in the moment and awkward political questions afterwards.
The war would last for three years, but within nine months or so it was clear there was no serious prospect of victory for either side.
The war can be broadly divided into five phases:
PHASE ONE: North Korean Offensive
Despite the ROK recovering its troop strength by re-establishing organisation and communications (and filling in gaps with mobilisation) in late July 1950, and the UNC outnumbering the DPRK troops—92,000 vs. 70,000—by August, the DPRK advance was remorseless. The U.N. (mostly American and British) and ROK troops had been trying to trade space for time, but by mid-August 1950 the space ran out. General MacArthur issued a “stand or die” order and the UNC troops established a perimeter around a tiny patch of territory on the south-eastern tip of the Korean Peninsula. For six weeks, the DPRK troops tried to break through the UNC lines in a horrendous bloodletting that inflicted more than 100,000 casualties, roughly equally divided between the two sides.
A DPRK raid against the UNC perimeter, on 12 August 1950, at “Bloody Gulch”, near Masan, captured seventy-five American troops, who were summarily massacred. The issue of atrocities was serious in the Korean War: post-war investigations identified 1,200 such cases, accounting for 100,000 or more deaths, many of them civilians. The Communist forces were notorious for slaughtering prisoners-of-war (POWs). Just five days after the Bloody Gulch massacre, the DPRK murdered another forty-plus American captives on Hill 303 above Waegwan. The Communists used the cover of the war to exterminate History’s enemies, especially the Christian faithful.25 The U.S. was accused of war crimes related to some of the airstrikes, and the South Korean military and police actually did engage in atrocities, beginning soon after the invasion, massacring of thousands of Communists who had been held in the Bodo League “deradicalisation” or “re-education” program. Atrocities were most common against suspected collaborators after the recapture of territory from the enemy, particularly the two capital cities.
PHASE TWO: United Nations Command Counter-offensive
UNC forces had gotten two pieces of luck. First, the DPRK had overstretched its lines with so rapid an advance, and though it nominally had 98,000 troops by early September 1950, preparing for a massive frontal assault on the U.N./ROK pocket after the smaller attacks had failed, one-third of the DPRK troops were South Korean conscripts—unwilling, untrained, and lacking weapons and food. Second, within the UNC perimeter was the port of Pusan, which allowed an influx of men and supplies. The UNC troops were up to 180,000 men (92,000 ROK). After heavy use of airpower on key DPRK positions, on 15 September MacArthur led a surprise amphibious landing that took Incheon, fifteen miles west of Seoul, and the next day Allied troops led by U.S. General Walton Walker, commander of the U.S. Eighth Army, broke out of the Pusan Perimeter.
Within a week, MacArthur’s and Walker’s troops had met, cutting the DPRK forces in half and creating a besieged pocket of DPRK troops in the south-west. Seoul was retaken on 27 September and two days later MacArthur, with his customary attention to symbolism, staged a dramatic ceremony for President Rhee’s return to his capital. The DPRK pocket was eliminated by the end of September. The question then was: What now?
Truman had euphemistically described the war as a “police action” and certainly wanted to avoid direct Communist Chinese or Soviet intervention, but that threat did not seem very credible at this point. The military logic of securing even South Korea favoured destroying the 30,000 DPRK troops who had fled over the border and liquidating the 30,000 in the training camps. The broader strategic logic pointed the same way: DPRK could not renew aggression if there was no DPRK. There was also the fact that the stated U.N. policy for Korea was unification under a single elected government. On 1 October 1950, with, the UNC troops crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korea.
UNC forces captured Pyongyang—the DPRK capital, 125 miles from the South Korean border and 200 miles from the Chinese border—on 19 October 1950, which happened to be Thanksgiving. Dinner for the American troops in Korea had all the trimmings—in theory. One Marine recalled: “The gravy and then the mashed potatoes froze … The inside of the turkey was still warm … [if] you ate fast. And all the time the snipers were shooting at us”.26 Allied morale was high and the enemy appeared to be disintegrating: on 24 October, MacArthur, hoping to finish the war before winter really began, ordered his commanders to bring everything they had north of the 38th Parallel and advance as quickly as possible to the Yalu River that separates Red China and the DPRK.
PHASE THREE: Chinese Invasion
With UNC troops forty miles from the Yalu River, Mao’s army invaded Korea on 25 October 1950. MacArthur had believed Peking was bluffing and two weeks earlier even Truman’s caution had been revised: the initial orders to keep foreign UNC troops back and only allow ROK troops to operate at the closest points near the Chinese border were amended to tell MacArthur to continue his advance even if Red Chinese troops appeared, provided “he believed his forces had a reasonable chance of success”. This was the situation when the CCP troops crossed into Korea. MacArthur’s forces continued on, reaching right up to the border in places within a week.
Even after the first U.S.-CCP clash at Unsan on 1-2 November, which was a catastrophe for the U.S., the general perception was, as a cable on 24 November put it, that Peking was trying to “obtain U.N. withdrawal by intimidation and diplomatic means” and, though the CCP could be expected to escalate if the UNC forces did not withdraw, the moment where they could decisively impact events had passed. Even if Peking’s objectives were not primarily defensive, as most Americans believed them to be, UNC air power was sufficient to prevent Chinese reinforcements crossing the border. MacArthur recommenced offensive operations: such was the only way to test this analysis and get “an accurate measure of enemy strength”.
MacArthur had his answer by 28 November 1950, cabling Washington: “We face an entirely new war”. Reiterating the sentiment later, MacArthur added: “We [had] hurled back the invader and decimated his forces. Our victory was complete and our objectives within reach when Red China intervened with numerically superior ground forces. This created … an entirely new situation”.
What U.S. intelligence had missed, incredibly, was that in late October, 200,000 Chinese troops had entered Korea undetected, meaning there were 300,000 Chinese troops within Korea when Red China began a massive offensive southwards on 25 November. Within two days, CCP forces threatened to envelop UNC troops and on 28 November UNC lines began to give way.
The Chinese Communists took Pyongyang on 5 December. When General Walker abandoned the North Korean capital he left “8,000 to 10,000 tons of supplies and equipment broken up or burning inside the city”. Walker was killed in a traffic accident in Seoul on 23 December and replaced by Matthew Ridgway, a decorated General in the Second World War, whom MacArthur granted wide latitude. Ridgway was determined to at least hold the line and if possible find a point to attack, but the situation had deteriorated too far. There was little to do but secure an orderly retreat. CCP-DPRK troops had already crossed south of the 38th Parallel in places and they renewed offensive operations on New Years’ Eve. On 4 January 1951, the Communists retook Seoul.
The U.S. had declared a national emergency on 16 December 1950, worried about the possibility that the Soviet Union would open a second front somewhere else in the world, or perhaps attempt something within the U.S., where (it was perceived) dangerously few National Guards remained, since so many had been committed to Korea. Washington, therefore, told MacArthur that a major build-up of UNC troops via U.S. infusions was impossible and, while he should try to remain in Korea if he could, if the Communists forced the UNC back to Pusan again, he should evacuate to Japan.
MacArthur was having precisely none of this and proposed that the U.S. treat the Communists as the integrated force they were by taking action directly against Red China: “blockade the China coast, destroy China’s war industries through naval and air attacks, reinforce the troops in Korea with Chinese Nationalist forces, and allow diversionary operations by Nationalist troops against the China mainland.” Truman had to concede the logic and gave the proposals more than a cursory consideration. Nonetheless, MacArthur’s proposals were rejected, and a decision was made to contain the American war to the Korean theatre.
PHASE FOUR: Second UNC Counter-offensive
By the time Ridgway began a “cautious offensive” on 25 January 1951, the Communists occupied a strip about fifty miles deep within South Korea. It would take until early March before the UNC made any serious headway rolling this back, but once the Communist lines were breached things moved quite quickly. On 14 March, for the fourth time, Seoul changed hands, returning to ROK control.
American politics now intruded. More precisely, the feud in U.S. civil-military relations that had marked the Truman administration came to a head
.By March 1951, Truman and other Western leaders began accepting the liberation of South Korea as an acceptable outcome for the war. The discussions were around how to negotiate with the DPRK and Red China. The Joint Chiefs of Staff told MacArthur on 20 March that a Presidential announcement was being drafted on a “satisfactory” way to end the war, incorporating a signal to Peking and Pyongyang that the U.S. was willing to negotiate, and this announcement was to be given “before any advance with major forces north of 38th Parallel”.
MacArthur pre-empted the Commander-in-Chief, issuing his own statement on 24 March in the form of a circular telegram that was both distinctly off-message (it read more as a threat to the enemy or at best an ultimatum from a victorious party, rather than an offer to talk) and was not-so-subtly critical of President Truman. “This new enemy, Red China, of such exaggerated and vaunted military power, lacks the industrial capacity” for modern warfare, MacArthur wrote, and cannot make up the difference with numbers of its “fanatical” indifference to human life. The UNC, by contrast, has “become seasoned to this form of warfare” and definitively ended all hopes of the Communists forcibly conquering Korea. “The enemy, therefore, must by now be painfully aware”, MacArthur went on, that if the UNC were “to depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war to the area of Korea through expansion of our military operations to his coastal areas and interior bases [it] would doom Red China to the risk of imminent military collapse.” MacArthur said he hoped for a political solution and was willing to do his part to speak to his Communist counterpart, but not at any price: “The Korean nation and people which have been so cruelly ravaged must not be sacrificed. That is the paramount concern.”
Truman was not pleased, but he cancelled his own statement; allowed the question of crossing the 38th Parallel to be taken as a tactical matter in theatre, removing political salience from the question (Ridgway pushed over the eastern part of the border in the last days of March); and hoped that the more aggressive MacArthur stance might force the Communists to sue for an armistice.
The line was crossed for Truman on 5 April 1951, when Congressman Joseph Martin, the Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, read a letter on the House floor from MacArthur, in which MacArthur was reported before all the world saying:
My views and recommendations with respect to the situation created by Red China’s entry into war against us in Korea have been submitted to Washington in most complete detail. … [T]hey follow the conventional pattern of meeting force with maximum counterforce … Your view with respect to the utilization of the Chinese forces on Formosa [to open a second front with Red China] is in conflict with neither logic nor this tradition.
It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest and … that here we fight Europe’s war with arms, while the diplomatic [corps] there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to Communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. … [W]e must win. There is no substitute for victory.
The criticism of Truman’s running of the Korean War and of his broader Europe-first policy was obvious, and such public dissent was deemed unacceptable insubordination. Truman fired MacArthur on 11 April 1951, replacing him with Ridgway as theatre commander in Korea and governor of the Occupation of Japan. This did not go down well in either place: President Rhee blamed the British for MacArthur’s downfall, and the Japanese were beyond dismayed.
The day after MacArthur arrived home, he gave a farewell address to Congress, on 19 April:
I do not stand here as advocate for any partisan cause, for the issues are fundamental and … must be resolved on the highest plane of national interest … I trust, therefore, that you will do me the justice of receiving that which I have to say as solely expressing the considered viewpoint of a fellow American. I address you with neither rancour nor bitterness, in the fading twilight of life, with but one purpose in mind: to serve my country. …
The Communist threat is a global one. Its successful advance in one sector threatens the destruction of every other sector. You cannot appease or otherwise surrender to Communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advance in Europe. … [U]nder no circumstances must Formosa fall under Communist control. Such an eventuality would at once threaten the freedom of the Philippines and the loss of Japan and might well force our western frontier back [from the Pacific] to the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. …
It has been said, in effect, that I was a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition … But once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. …
There are some who … would appease Red China. They are blind to history’s clear lesson… that appeasement … begets new and bloodier war. … The tragedy of Korea is … to suffer the devastating impact of full naval and air bombardment while the enemy’s sanctuaries [in China] are fully protected from such attack and devastation.
Of the nations of the world, Korea alone… has risked its all against Communism. The magnificence of the courage and fortitude of the Korean people defies description. They have chosen to risk death rather than slavery. …
I am closing my fifty-two years of military service. … I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty, as God gave him the light to see that duty. Goodbye.
The effect in the country was electric. There had been shock at the abrupt dismissal of one of the nation’s military heroes and MacArthur now had the status of a living martyr. As an end to the war continued to elude Truman, MacArthur seemed vindicated—and he said so himself, for he did not quite fade away over the next two years.
As the above makes clear, the narrative sometimes heard that MacArthur was fired for asking to use nuclear weapons is not even partially true. MacArthur had, on 9 December 1950, as Red China seemed likely to overwhelm the Eighth Army, requested “discretionary” authority to use tactical nuclear weapons and on 24 December had issued a more specific request for twenty-six air-dropped nuclear devices be released to his command, as well as a list of “retardation targets” on which they would be dropped to halt the Chinese advance. Posthumously, it became clear MacArthur had envisioned using nuclear weapons on targets in Manchuria, from where the Chinese were supporting the war in Korea, and along the Yalu River, to create an irradiated no-go zone that would seal the border and prevent Chinese interference for years to come.27
This latter part of MacArthur’s thinking might not have had widespread support among the American leadership—and it is not clear he voiced it to anyone—but the more basic proposal that the use of nuclear weapons might be necessary over Korea was not controversial. Ridgway agreed with this and President Truman himself had made clear at a public press conference on 30 November 1950 that atomic weapons were on the table under certain circumstances. In private, Truman was clearly hoping atomic weapons would never be used again,28 but he was not quite bluffing. Some atomic devices had been transferred to the Kadena Airbase on Okinowa in March 1951 and authority to use them signed over to the military. The conditions for use were envisioned to be a massive attack on UNC troops like in the first weeks of the war or direct Chinese attacks from Manchuria into Korea.29
PHASE FIVE: Stalemate
In late April 1951, the Chinese and DPRK troops began chipping away at the salient the UNC troops had captured in the south-eastern corner of North Korea and in mid-May the Communists began an offensive that turned out to be far smaller than expected. The Communists succeeded in clearing the UNC troops from North Korean territory, but in the last week of May the UNC forces launched a counter-offensive that captured a swathe of south-eastern North Korea—zones known as the “Line Kansas” and “Wyoming bulge”—by mid-June. These minor movements in April-June 1951 were essentially the last territorial changes of the war: the lines froze for two years as diplomacy ground on to find some formal end to the war.
The Soviets first called for an armistice on 23 June 1951. Jacob Malik, the Soviet delegate to the United Nations, made the statement on a U.N. radio program in New York. CCP radio endorsed the call, and Truman authorised General Ridgway to begin armistice talks. The talks began on 10 July. The Communists withdrew on 23 August and tried to go on the offensive, but the UNC blocked them and expanded the “Wyoming Line” buffer zone by a few miles. On 25 October, armistice talks resumed at Panmunjom, the village whose name is now shorthand for the meeting point between the two sides in the ludicrously named “Demilitarized Zone” (DMZ), and “fighting during the remainder of 1951 tapered off to patrol clashes, raids, and small battles for possession of outposts in no-man’s land”.
The negotiations foundered most significantly on the issue of repatriating POWs. The problem was that many DPRK POWs did not want to go home. The Communists were demanding they be forcibly deported, which UNC negotiators did not believe they were legally allowed to do under the Geneva Conventions. The suggestion that North Korean POWs who wanted to stay in the South be allowed to enraged the Communists. In May 1952, the DPRK abducted the commander of the U.N. Geoje-do POW camp, coercing him to sign a statement saying DPRK prisoners were being threatened and tortured to stay in the South. The attempt was to put political pressure on the UNC to force them back to the North to “disprove” this allegation. The propaganda value of this gambit was substantial, but the UNC stood its ground. In the midst of all this, South Korea held elections on 5 August 1952. President Rhee was overwhelmingly re-elected. On 8 October, an indefinite recess was taken in the armistice talks.
The vast bulk of the casualties in the Korean War were inflicted in the first year, from mid-1950 to mid-1951, but the toll remained significant after that. Along the point of contact there were “a series of artillery duels, patrols, ambushes, raids, and bitter contests for outpost positions. But for all the furious and costly small-scale battles that took place, the lines remained substantially unchanged at the end of 1952.”
Dwight Eisenhower won the U.S. election on 4 November 1952, promising a swift end to the Korean War. Eisenhower had said he would go to Korea, and on 2 December he arrived. Some American military commanders, including General Mark Clark, a friend of Eisenhower’s, thought the President-elect meant to win the war entirely, i.e., conquer the North. It quickly became apparent Eisenhower’s end-goal was the same as Truman’s: an honourable peace agreement.
To get things moving, however, Eisenhower was willing to let stand the idea he had more aggressive intentions than his predecessor. After Eisenhower took office as President on 20 January 1953, he employed rhetoric suggesting he was adopting MacArthur’s policy. The message Eisenhower sent to Moscow, Peking, and Pyongyang was, as he later phrased it in his memoirs, that if they did not sign a peace deal soon, “we intended to move decisively, without inhibition in our use of weapons, and would no longer be responsible for confining hostilities to the Korean Peninsula”.
Trying to find a hook to begin talks, General Clark proposed in February 1953 an exchange of sick and wounded prisoners; he got silence in response. The pattern of really quite costly skirmishes that did not move the front line continued in this period. The change came after Stalin died on 5 March 1953. Informal talks about prisoner exchanges in late March led on to the formal recommencement of armistice talks on 26 April. Sick and wounded prisoners were exchanged before the end of that month.
In May 1953, as the armistice talks progressed, Red China began offensive operations and on 10 June a particularly notable Chinese attack within South Korea occurred that had to be contained. The armistice terms were almost complete by this point. The prisoner issue had been settled by agreeing that each side would have access to try to persuade resistant captives to return home.30 In response to the Communists’ needlessly continuing with military escalations at such a late hour, South Korean President Rhee secretly issued an order on 18 June to release all the DPRK POWs who had refused repatriation; a few days later there was a “breakout” at the prison camp and these North Koreans disappeared into the South Korean populace. The Communists were furious, amusingly condemning Rhee’s actions in a righteous tone as a breach of faith.
The Chinese led attacks along the front line over the next month and did make some minor gains, which meant that after the last major battle of the war ended on 20 July 1953 the terms of the armistice had to be re-written to take account of the new ceasefire line. Handling this and other administrative matters took a week.
The armistice was signed at 10 a.m. on 27 July 1953. Formally speaking, the terms of the Korean Armistice left the war unsolved and indeed ongoing, pledging that “a final peaceful settlement” was still to be reached. But in practical terms, the agreement was the honourable agreement Eisenhower had committed himself to: Communist troops were removed from South Korea, the line of contact that became the new border was firmly sealed to prevent Communist re-infiltration, President Rhee was firmly in control without serious risks of subversion, and 60,000 American troops remained in the ROK to safeguard the settlement.31
A NOTE ON INTELLIGENCE IN THE KOREAN WAR
The intelligence dimension was important to the Korea War right from the outset and would continue to be in its conduct, at the tactical level and in terms of strategy and high politics.
The short version is that the Soviets decisively defeated the Americans in the spy-war over Korea. The CIA missed the DPRK invasion in June 1950 and blundered again in failing to predict and understand Red China’s intentions in October-November 1950. And the reasonably good tactical intelligence that facilitated the Incheon Landing in September 1950 was very much the exception: the CIA’s behind-enemy-lines capacity during the war was abysmal.
At the strategic level, the Soviets still had the Magnificent Five operating until mid-1951. Kim Philby, having captured British intelligence for the Soviets in 1944, was appointed SIS chief at the Washington Embassy in 1949, acting as the primary liaison with U.S. intelligence, which compromised the entire Five Eyes system. Guy Burgess was also at the U.S. Embassy, working as a diplomat, and Donald Maclean was head of the American desk at the Foreign Office in London.
Burgess had access to American war plans, enabling the Communist troops in Korea to thwart American offensive actions and to plan their own offensives with knowledge of UNC weak points. Maclean had access to the documentation relating to Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s meeting with Truman in early December 1950, at the height of the Chinese offensive when MacArthur and others were seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons. Maclean was able to report to Moscow on intra-Allied politics: that Attlee opposed the use of nukes, that he was not on-board for actions outside the Korean theatre, and that Truman had offered reassurances on both points, making clear his strong personal agreement with the Prime Minister. This gave the Communists the confidence to press on past the 38th Parallel.32
The Five did not just pass Western information to the Soviets; they polluted the Western intelligence picture with disinformation and engaged in other active measures to further Soviet political goals. One example: later in December 1950, Maclean tried to exacerbate tensions in the anti-Communist camp, writing in an analysis for the British government that there was “some point” to the argument that American aggressiveness was responsible for the Korean War and the threat that it would now widen because American finance capital and the military industrial complex would rather have a world war than a recession produced by demobilisation.33
In twenty years working for the Soviets, Maclean had never gone on record with such a crude Stalinist analysis. The slip was a clear sign that he was approaching burnout. A year earlier, Maclean had asked the KGB’s predecessor to release him; they had ignored him, and Maclean had nearly been fired after acting out in an extreme way.34 Moscow’s hand was forced when the VENONA program identified Maclean as a Soviet spy in the spring of 1951. Philby was able to discover this from his liaison with the Americans in time for Maclean to defect before he was arrested, but the circumstances of the defection meant it was curtains for the Cambridge Five by the summer of 1951.35
Fortunately for the Soviets, at that very moment a replacement for the Five had been discovered—in Korea. In the Korean theatre, tactical Soviet espionage, human and signals, played an effective role as a force multiplier for the Communists. A fascinating component of this was how successful the Communists were at recruiting POWs. The systematic use of torture by the Soviet secret police and its clone agencies in Red China and DPRK surely had some role, but the explanation at the time of Communist “brainwashing” or “indoctrination” was nearer the mark. The myth-image of the Soviet workers’ paradise, and the intellectual and emotional appeal of Communism, was still strong at this time. Many of the turned captives were used within Korea, released to carry out sabotage operations behind Allied lines.36 The Soviets had grander plans for one POW: George Blake, a British citizen of Jewish and Dutch background who had been in the anti-Nazi Resistance in the Netherlands, then joined SIS. Blake, based in the South Korean Embassy when Seoul fell in June 1950, was imprisoned by the DPRK, and offered himself to the Soviets in the autumn of 1951. After his release in 1953, Blake worked for eight years as by far the most important Soviet agent in Britain.37
The casualties in the Korean War were horrendous:
The UNC suffered 210,000 killed and missing, including 160,000 South Koreans,38 45,000 Americans,39 1,200 British, 1,000 Commonwealth (half of them Canadian, 300 of them Australians), and 900 Turks.40 There were 565,000 UNC troops wounded, among them 450,000 ROK, 100,000 Americans, and 5,000 British and Commonwealth.
A conservative estimate is that just over half-a-million Communist soldiers were killed: 350,000 DPRK, 180,000 Red Chinese, and nearly 300 Soviet soldiers.41 The reality could be nearly double that. There is good reason to think the DPRK lost nearer 400,000 soldiers and the ROK Defence Ministry estimates that 520,000 North Korean troops were killed in the war. This lower estimate of the CCP fatalities is Peking’s claim; the Western powers maintain that 400,000 Chinese soldiers were killed in Korea. No credible statistics exist for the Communist wounded, but the rule-of-thumb killed-to-wounded ratio is 1:3, so a conservative guestimate for the Communist wounded is over one million.
The civilian casualties are uncertain and subject to competing propaganda efforts to inflate and minimise. The one feature that seems consistent in the estimates is that more Northern civilians were killed than Southern, which makes sense since Allied aerial bombardment of the DPRK was very extensive and there was nothing comparable against the ROK. One reasonable estimate is that 700,000 South Korean civilians and 900,000 North Korean civilians were killed in the war—not all by military action. The mass-displacement left people vulnerable to the cold, disease, and hunger.
North Korea had about eleven million people at the war’s outset, and the South had twenty million. With an all-Korean death toll—military and civilian from both sides—of about two-and-a-half million, it means eight percent of the Peninsula’s population perished during the war.42 Factoring in the UNC and Chinese fatalities, at least three million people were killed in three years during the Korean War, more than half of them civilians.
The U.S. had more-or-less learned its lesson in Europe: the withdrawal after the Great War was not repeated after 1945, and structures like NATO were quickly put in place to bar the road to further Communist expansion westward. It was the Korean War that drove home to the U.S. that the engagement with the Soviet Union was truly global, and marginalised the lingering isolationist and penny-pinching sentiments at both elite and popular levels when it came to the military. Part of this was doubtless because of the sunk cost: having drawn a line in blood in Korea, the Americans were committed to defending it. But ultimately it was an intellectual realisation. In effect, MacArthur won the argument with Truman that got him fired.
Having grasped the nature of the Communist enemy, Eisenhower accepted the grim necessities of the campaign prevent it ruling the world.43 The Korean War had secured the U.S. military budget and, with these resources and the confidence of achieving the Korean armistice in six months by pressuring the Communists, Eisenhower was emboldened to press on. Eisenhower’s vision of how to do this was shaped by his experience in the Second World War, where the U.S. had covertly supported Resistance movements through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. version of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) that Churchill had sent to “set [Nazi-occupied] Europe ablaze”.44 Much of the OSS was transferred to the CIA at its foundation in 1946. Relying on a distinctly inexact analogy with OSS operations behind Nazi lines, Eisenhower turned to the CIA to spearhead the anti-Soviet push. The CIA was already falsely claiming credit for preventing the Communists winning the April 1948 elections in Italy, and the CIA’s equally false claims of a decisive role in removing the Soviet-friendly governments of Iran in August 1953 and Guatemala in July 1954 made Eisenhower think he had proof-of-concept within eighteen months of taking office.45 Covert action became a major feature of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy, culminating with the Albania-model “rollback” operation for the Soviet colony in Cuba, which was handed off to President John F. Kennedy and ended in fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
The Soviets highlighted U.S. intelligence embarrassments—of which there were many, since the CIA was the main actor—and invented many more, fabricating conspiracy theories about CIA involvement all over the world. This propaganda transpired to be remarkably effective and durable in shaping a wildly distorted vision—among scholars as much as the public—of Cold War intelligence operations. Many Westerners speak and write as if only the U.S. was engaged in covert action, when the reality is that “the KGB used covert action on a larger scale than the CIA” and far more effectively.46
Important as the Korean War was in shaping the intellectual climate in the early phase of the West beginning to wage the Cold War, the war itself was regarded by most, at the time and for many decades afterwards, as a disaster. The catastrophic losses at the beginning, the second round of losses when Red China intervened, and the grinding frustration of the last two years created a perception of failure. And then there was the outcome: virtually the status quo ante bellum in terms of territory, and worse when it came to the politics of the entity on whose behalf the war had been most directly waged. South Korea’s nascent democracy devolved into autocracy, then military despotism, and the country persisted as a hyper-corrupt economic basket case, heavily dependent on American aid, for three decades. In the longer view, however, the consensus would come around to the idea that holding the line in the Korean War was one of the great achievements of the Cold War, halting the global Communist rising tide, establishing a crucial base in the East Asia region that still pays strategic dividends to this day, and an important moral and humanistic triumph that permitted South Korea to develop into a flourishing liberal democracy and economic powerhouse, whose high-tech products benefit the whole world.
A notable aspect of the changing consensus on Korea is that it has not shifted perceptions over Vietnam, which gets stranger the more you look at it. The justice of the Vietnam War is plain, since it was strategically identical to the Korean War: to halt aggression by a Communist North—which has its nerve centre in Moscow and is supported on the ground by Red Chinese troops—against a constitutional South.47 In terms of how the wars were fought, there was far more scruple in Vietnam than in Korea.
During the period of the Vietnam War, about a million civilians were killed in Indochina—a fraction by the U.S.—as against nearly double that number in Korea, and the civilian death toll in Indochina was not only less in absolute numbers than in Korea; it was significantly less in relative terms. Civilians were a clear majority of the fatalities in Korea, as against about forty-five percent in Vietnam.48 When it is factored in that the two million deaths in the Indochina War (as opposed to three million in Korea) occurred across three countries (as opposed to one) and over a period of twenty years (as opposed to three),49 it becomes very difficult to take seriously the argument that posits an essential difference between the two conflicts where it is the Western engagement in Vietnam that is fundamentally immoral.50 My Lai and other incidental episodes of immorality, which occur in every war in history, do not impact this assessment.
In consequentialist terms, the positive trends in South Vietnam by 1972-73 and the dire consequences—strategic and humanitarian, regional and global—of the abandonment in 1973-75 are self-evident. The melancholy is heightened further precisely by the Korean counter-example: Vietnam has achieved some economic success even under Communist rule; if it had been allowed a period of peace and a democratic evolution, one can only imagine Vietnam’s potential.
Sean McMeekin (2021), Stalin’s War, pp. 134-64.
Stalin’s War, pp. 368-88.
Stalin’s War, p. 657.
Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew (1999), The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, pp. 107-11.
If FDR had died before he replaced Vice President Henry Wallace with Harry Truman, Wallace would have become President. Wallace intended to make Laurence Duggan his Secretary of State and Harry Dexter White his Treasury Secretary. Duggan and White were both Soviet agents. See: The Sword and the Shield, p. 109.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 125.
Stalin formally disbanded the COMINTERN—the coordinating mechanism for the “fraternal” Communist Parties around the world—in May 1943. FDR had requested that Stalin do this so the President could justify Lend-Lease to Congress by saying the Soviets no longer intended to overthrow the U.S. government. And it was true—temporarily. As Stalin privately explained, this tactical concession—he obviously had not given up the ultimate intent to bring Revolution to the whole world, the U.S. included—was wise since no Communist government in London or Washington could fulfil Soviet interests better than the ones in place. See: Stalin’s War, pp. 489-90.
Anne Applebaum (2012), Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, pp. 35-41.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 247.
NATO was created with twelve founding members (U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal). Greece and Turkey would join in 1952 and West Germany in 1955. The only other state to join before the end of the Cold War was Spain, in 1982, after the democratic transition following General Franco’s death. The Soviets created their own parody of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, in May 1955: unlike NATO, membership in the Warsaw Pact was not voluntary, and rather than providing collective security against an external threat the Warsaw Pact was designed to prevent member states escaping.
Stalin blocked the land routes into Berlin, a city divided among the Allies and the Soviets, and geographically an “island” in the Soviet-occupied part of Germany.
“VALUABLE Project” was the British name for the Albanian operation. The Americans called it Operation FIEND.
Miranda Vickers (2001), The Albanians: A Modern History, pp. 179-80.
The sell-out of China was essentially decided in 1943 in Cairo; the Lend-Lease support to Chiang was drastically reduced at that time. Stalin had agreed to declare war on Japan three months after the end of war in Europe. Having delayed as long as possible, the Soviet war declaration, on 7 August 1945, the day after the Hiroshima bombing, was a naked land-grab. By the time of the Japanese surrender a week later, the Red Army had seized Japanese-occupied territories—Manchukuo/Manchuria and Inner Mongolia in China, plus North Korea—and parts of Japan proper, Karafuto (South Sakhalin) and the Kuril Islands. Almost immediately following on from this, Stalin gave the go-ahead for the Chinese Communists to restart the civil war in China, only now supported directly by a Soviet force strengthened with Lend-Lease aid. The American Lend-Lease allotment for the Soviets in the Asian theatre in the last fourteen months of the war equalled the total sent for use against the Germans in Europe over the entire 1939-45 period. See: Stalin’s War, pp. 630-50.
McCarthy’s self-serving demagogic campaign was fuelled by the revelations of how badly compromised the U.S. had been during the Second World War, but the revelations—which McCarthy had almost zero role in bringing about—occurred at a moment when, thanks to Truman’s loyalty-security programs and other measures, Soviet penetration of the U.S. government was substantially reduced, not that anyone did or could know that. In the short-term, the “spy mania” unleashed by McCarthy seriously frightened the Soviets: Moscow thought the U.S. had discovered their espionage apparatus and was preparing to roll it up, then stage a series of show trials that embarrassed the Soviet Union. In the medium term, the Soviets would realise and exploit the public-relations triumph McCarthy had served to advance their cause. See: The Sword and the Shield, pp. 164-65.
The Soviets and their fellow travellers helped promote the myths and half-truths about the period when McCarthy was a major public figure, making “McCarthyism” into a polemical weapon that equated taking seriously the danger posed by the Soviet espionage offensive against the West with the persecution of political dissent, making counter-intelligence much more difficult for the rest of the Cold War. The McCarthy hearings, which never even imprisoned anybody, were often compared directly to the Soviet Great Terror, which murdered three million people. This view was powerful on the Western Left. “McCarthyism” in this sense is largely fictional. A proper definition of “McCarthyism”, reflecting the fact that the main victim of the Senator’s actions was the anti-Communist cause, is the exploitation of a serious issue for personal and/or political gain, which discredits that issue by hysteria—a phenomenon we have seen again recently.
Korea existed from the early medieval period as a patchwork of Kingdoms, not unlike Spain, but under heavy Chinese influence. The Peninsula was unified around the millennium, and managed to resist the Mongol invasions, becoming a tributary State to the Mongols and then the Chinese. Korea was intermittently invaded by Japan from the end of the sixteenth century and through the seventeenth century, but became quite stable in the eighteenth. China was displaced by Japan as the main influence over Korea in the 1870s. Russia briefly contested for influence on the Peninsula, an effort ended when Japan defeated Russia in the 1904-05 war. Shortly afterwards Japan occupied Korea and designated it a protectorate.
The WPSK leader, Pak Hon-yong, became the deputy of the WPK in 1949. The WPSK faction of the Party was purged in August 1953, shortly after the armistice in the Korean War, and, after twenty-eight months in prison, Pak was “executed” by Kim on fabricated charges of being an American spy.
There is no reason to think Stalin’s view of the Korean War as pre-emptive was a cynical rationalisation; it was how the Soviet leadership thought. Twice during the Second World War, the KGB’s predecessor cut contact with the “Magnificent Five”, believing they were British double agents because, despite the masses of important information they were stealing from Britain, the Five had not handed over the (non-existent) British plans for invading the Soviet Union, which Stalin knew existed, since the “imperialists” were relentlessly planning aggression against the Workers’ State. See: The Sword and the Shield, pp. 84-86, 124-25.
Korea Institute of Military History (1997), The Korean War: Volume One, p. 103.
The next time the U.N. would authorise force was in 1990 to reverse the annexation of Kuwait by Saddam Husayn’s Iraq. At that time the Soviets were cooperative, having ostensibly ended the Cold War and more concretely being in need of Western aid to staunch what turned out to be a terminal decline.
Seventeen foreign States sent combat troops to participate in the U.N. Command and their approximate peak number of troops committed in Korea were: America (300,000), Britain (14,000), Canada (6,150), Turkey (5,450), Australia (2,300), the Philippines (1,500), New Zealand (1,400), Ethiopia (1,250), Greece (1,250), Thailand (1,200), France (1,100), Colombia (1,050), Belgium (900), South Africa (825), the Netherlands (820), Japan (120), and Luxembourg (50). Five States sent medical troops to Korea, three from NATO (Norway, Denmark, Italy), plus Sweden and India. The largest medical contingent was Sweden’s at 150 personnel, and only India lost anybody: M.K. Unni Nayar, who had been in the military but had become a journalist and then a diplomat, working at the Indian Embassy in the U.S. until he was made a delegate to the U.N. Korean Commission. Nayar was killed when his jeep drove over a mine in August 1950; two journalists in the vehicle, Christopher Buckley with The Daily Telegraph and Ian Morrison, an Australian with the London Times, were also killed.
Mark N. Katz [ed.] (1990), The USSR and Marxist Revolutions in the Third World, pp. 58-59.
For example, in July 1950, the DPRK butchered thirty American POWs at Taejon, making a particular point of murdering the non-combatant Roman Catholic chaplain, Herman Felhoelter, and in September, around Jeongeup, more than 150 Protestant Koreans were burned alive.
Stanley Weintraub (2014), A Christmas Far from Home: An Epic Tale of Courage and Survival during the Korean War.
Michael Hickey (1999), The Korean War: The West Confronts Communism, chapter eighteen.
Chae-Jin Lee [ed.] (1991), The Korean War: 40-Year Perspectives, p. 70
Hickey, The Korean War, chapter eighteen.
By 6 September 1953, the POWs willing to be repatriated had gone home—interestingly, twenty-one Americans refused to leave North Korea—and in February 1954 something nearly miraculous happened: an international bureaucracy, the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission, dissolved itself.
The Korean settlement is in stark contrast to the catastrophic “peace” deal President Richard Nixon signed over Vietnam in January 1973, which “left no American troops in South Vietnam”; “left 150,000 Communist troops in South Vietnam”; left the Communists in control of both sides of the Vietnamese border, able to move “back and forth without interference”; and “forced President Thieu to accept Communist membership on the National Council of Concord and Reconciliation”.
Lee, The Korean War, p. 70.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 154-55.
When Philby discovered that Maclean had been unmasked by VENONA, he was able to transmit this message to Maclean in Britain through Burgess, since, in April 1951, Burgess was sent home in disgrace after the frequency and flagrancy of his alcohol- and homosexuality-related escapades finally exhausted the patience of local law-enforcement, the State Department, and the British ambassador. The Soviets bungled Maclean’s extraction by insisting Burgess defect as well. The Centre had also had enough of Burgess and was determined to have him in Moscow where they could contain him. But the problem was—as Philby knew, and as Burgess did try to tell his handlers—the defection of Maclean and Burgess in May 1951 immediately brought Philby under suspicion. There was not enough evidence for a legal case, but Philby’s position became untenable: he resigned from SIS in July 1951, while his (by-then quite small) coterie of supporters portrayed him as a victim of “McCarthyism”. Anthony Blunt, a former MI5 officer, was legally safe but professionally finished, and Blunt’s mistake in the clean-up of Burgess’ flat—he missed a series of handwritten documents—led to the identification of John Cairncross, a former SIS officer then working as a senior civil servant overseeing military logistics. Cairncross admitted to MI5 he had passed information to the Soviets, but denied being a spy; they could not prove otherwise, so Cairncross was removed from the government with a generous severance package. See: The Sword and the Shield, pp. 157-61.
S. P. MacKenzie (2012), British Prisoners of the Korean War, p. 141-42.
Blake was given the codename DIOMID by the MGB (the name of the Cheka at the time). Blake was very effective in betraying Western agents within the Soviet Empire. Blake’s KGB file credits him for unravelling an adversary agent network in East Germany in 1953-55. Blake, in his 1990 memoir, claimed to have betrayed four-hundred Western agents behind the Iron Curtain, which may be an exaggeration, and Blake’s claim that none of these people were harmed is a flat-out lie, as Oleg Kalugin and others have made clear. For example, it was probably Blake who revealed to Moscow that Pyotr Popov, a GRU (Soviet military intelligence) officer based in East Germany, was a CIA agent; Popov was arrested and shot in 1960. The second major thing Blake is credited with in the Soviet files is giving them the information on the SIS-CIA tunnel dug from West Berlin under East Berlin, completed in May 1955, which was used to intercept Soviet communications. Blake told Moscow about this in January 1954, but to protect Blake—showing how important he was to the Soviets—the tunnel project was allowed to go forward, and an “accidental” discovery had to be staged in April 1956. Blake was exposed in 1961 by Michal Goleniewski, a defector to the West from the Polish KGB clone, and then dramatically broken out of prison and spirited to the Soviet Union in 1966. Blake died recently, in December 2020, at age 98. See: The Sword and the Shield, pp. 398-400.
37,000 Americans are confirmed dead in the Korean War. It is known that a large part of the 8,000 American missing were taken POW and murdered in captivity by the Communists—not just the DPRK, as was long claimed—but without the bodies this cannot be definitively proved.
Stephen F. Kelly (2013), British Soldiers of the Korean War: In Their Own Words, introduction.
Some have compared the Korean death toll in the Korean War with the Soviet losses during the Second World War. The problem is that the Soviet claim of twenty-seven million fatalities—out of a population of 168 million (15%)—is highly dubious.
Eisenhower agreed with the “Doolittle Report” into CIA covert action, which in July 1954 concluded: “It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.”
As only became clear with the post-war decrypts of VENONA, the OSS had been “heavily penetrated by Soviet agents”. See: The Sword and the Shield, p. 144.
Pope Pius XII—Eugenio Pacelli, the pre-war Cardinal Secretary of State who had faced down the Nazis—was more important in preventing Italy falling to Communism in 1948-49 than the CIA channelling some funds to the Christian Democrats to support its campaigning during the elections. (This was different to, for example, the KGB’s targeting funds to prevent a candidate entering the Chilean election in 1970, leaving the way open for Salvador Allende’s victory.) CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt would make grand claims for his role in the August 1953 removal of Iran’s mutinous and autocratic Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and the restoration of the constitutional government under the Shah. In fact, the operation Roosevelt and the British SIS were involved in collapsed on 15 August, and Iranians took matters into their own hands on 19 August, after being spooked by Mossadeq’s alliance with the Soviets’ Tudeh Communist Party, fearing that what had happened in Eastern Europe would happen in Iran. As for the downfall of Jacobo Arbenz, whose government was believed to have come to power illegitimately and to be maintained in power by a Communist-dominated bureaucracy, the interests and actions of the Guatemalan military were paramount, far more important as factors than the CIA’s activities in support of Carlos Castillo Armas’ rag-tag militia, and certainly more important than the fact Allen Dulles owned shares in the United Fruit Company.
Christopher Andrew (2018), The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, pp. 679-80.
Vietnam is slightly more complicated by the Soviets’ “fraternal” Party in Hanoi using the “Viet Cong” façade to pretend there was a local rebellion and “civil war” in South Vietnam, but with the wealth of information now available the reality is obvious enough. See: Oved Lobel, ‘The Graveyard of Empires: The Causes and Consequences of American Withdrawal from Afghanistan’, April 2021, European Eye on Radicalization Report, p. 19. Available here.
Michael Lind (1999), Vietnam: The Necessary War, pp. 254-55.
The other two Indochina States were Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. was engaged in Vietnam and its neighbours from 1955 to 1975. In Korea, the average rate of civilian deaths was half-a-million per year. The rate in Vietnam was one fifth of that (and even if one only counted the Vietnam War beginning in 1964, with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the rate is still one-third of that in Korea).
Lind, Vietnam, p. 255.