Korean War Image from staticflickr.com
If a child should probe his father or mother about the Korean War, few would be capable of providing a coherent answer. That’s because the Korean War is thought of as the “forgotten war,” meaning that either those who were adults at the time tried to forget about it and succeeded in erasing it from their engram, or they were born after the war and saw how little everyone around them had to say on the subject, so few tried to learn anything about it: the topic didn’t came up. Yet, an understanding of the Korean War is the key for appreciating how we became a militaristic society, backed up with a growing nuclear arsenal, unafraid to threaten our enemies with atomic annihilation if they didn’t bow to our growing military might. We achieved that status in our national persona by creating an imbalanced perception of ourselves while regarding our enemies as inferior beings, labeling the Koreans and later the Vietnamese as “slope-heads,” “slant-eyes,” or “gooks” just to name three of the American ethnophaulisms we use for referring to Asians, at least poor Asians. Our attitudes towards the enemies we faced are reminiscent of how we viewed the American Indian as we robbed them of their culture and removed them from their lands.
On the home front, at the time of the Korean War, McCarthyism was building a case that Communists were mentally and morally deranged, such that on the battlefield it was easy to convince ourselves that the only good Communist was a dead Communist and that idea is still evident in America today. On the other hand we were frightened to death of the Russians because they were white like most of us and we couldn’t demonize them by racial slurs, but we succeeded in casting them as evil demons, who were fully capable of devouring us wee little capitalists and swallowing us whole. From McCarthyism, including the “red scare” and the “lavender scare” in which gays and lesbians were regarded as security risks because Communists could blackmail them to give away critical secrets of national interest, a level of national hysteria was reached from which we have never fully recovered. The anticommunist fervor during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations was all about unraveling the New Deal of FDR and the process succeeded in eliminating debate, protests and citizen activism, which briefly returned during the Vietnam war and then disappeared again. Unions were mistrusted in that era, because they were run by Communists. The left never really recovered from the election of 1948, in which Henry Wallace ran for the Presidency under the “Progressive” banner, while Truman was endorsed by the “Liberal” wing of the Democratic party. Wallace campaigned to stop the madness of that era, but it was too late. The anticommunist fever had infected too many Americans to stop the spread of the infection. Our reaction to 9/11 has elements that can be traced back to the McCarthy era, if not evident in the founding of our national personality in the 18th century.
Someday we are going to need a serious, therapeutic conversation amongst ourselves, about why we have viewed other races with such contempt, especially if they are poor. But I keep forgetting the rules of Pax Americana, that we never look back and only look forward just beyond our nose. But still, we all know that George W. Bush was wrong when he claimed that they hate us for our “freedoms,” when in fact they hate us for what we have done to them and the contempt we have for them which is impossible for us to hide. How else could a soldier break into a family home in Afghanistan and shoot every man, woman and child and then wait a few years before a guilt trip occurs at which time the soldier takes his own life. The suicide rate among soldiers that have been stationed in Afghanistan is at an all time high. And yet, we are unable to pin the tail on the donkey where it belongs. This syndrome, which bothers most of the American soldiers who have gone through a rotation in that country, is never discussed in any public forum because it is too damn painful! How many of our soldiers would be indicted for murder in Afghanistan if we didn’t have a Status of Forces Agreement that protects them from local laws? Yet, these same soldiers are perhaps the most innocent victims of our aggressive, thoughtless war making policies.
The Korean War, more than any other conflict we faced since the close of WW II, provided the launching pad for America to develop its posture for confronting the Communist threat and it also determined how we were going to develop and position our nuclear arsenal to bolster American hegemony against the rest of the world, beginning with Russia, but quickly extending our enemies list to include China, once the Chinese Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek who fled to Taiwan, in 1949. As Winston Churchill once said, after the Korean was over, “Korea does not really matter now. I’d never heard of the bloody place until I was 74. Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.” Re-arming is the right word: under Truman, the Department of Defense budget for fiscal 1951 went from $13.5 billion to $48.2 billion and within 6 months after the war started, U.S. defense spending soared to $54 billion, providing a substantial boost to the aerospace and defense sectors, particularly in California. In Los Angeles County 160,000 people worked in aircraft production and in San Diego 80 percent of manufacturing jobs were in the defense sector. The Cold War was truly hot for the defense industry in America and this was the beginning of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about at the end of his presidency (despite that fact that Eisenhower was more guilty than Truman in creating the military-industrial complex, so his warning sounded more like a plea for absolution). It is why today we have trouble cancelling expensive airplanes and have stacks of unneeded military hardware: supporting the military-industrial complex is a concrete fixture of our economy: if it stopped tomorrow we would go into an economic depression, but we would still have plenty of planes to fly and plenty of cluster bombs to give to our friends.
The Korean War coincided with America’s romantic engagement with the atomic age, and the development of atom bombs followed by hydrogen bombs and, as the only country to ever drop one during wartime, it was as if America had earned the right to develop and use them against any country that challenged us. Indeed, Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, Jr, the man in charge of the Manhattan project that developed the atom bomb, recommended that we should preemptively bomb any other country that tried to develop their own atomic weapons, to make sure we had had the only game in town. He predicted that it would take the Russians 40 years to develop their own nuclear device, and Truman magnified that prediction by claiming that the Russians would never develop a bomb, but according to the scientists who worked on the Manhattan project at the time, it would take only a few years because the theoretical basis of the bomb existed in the scientific literature—the rest was mere technology, albeit a very expensive technological investment: the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, a little over 4 years after we detonated our first bomb (July 16, 1945). By 1950, we had 300 atom bombs, so the arms race was on and no one could stop it—it turned out to be a silly race, one based on who had the most bombs and eventually, by the 1970s, we had 22,000 of them. But as one might predict, the more bombs we had the more insecure we became and finally, after 9/11 we awoke to the fact that one of these bombs, perhaps one of our own, might be detonated in an American city and to defend us against that possibility, we needed a massive surveillance state, pretty much like what we have now. We created this problem for ourselves, but once created, we refused to look back and adopt the simple fix—stop what you were doing that got you into such a terrible fix and decide on a new tact. Instead we follow the Newtonian principle that a body in motion tends to stay in motion, in our case permanently.
The Korean War got started in June, 1950 under the Truman administration and ended in the early Eisenhower administration in 1953. Most Americans don’t know that at the peak of the war, our government moved atom bombs into Okinawa in preparation for their use against the North Koreans and Chinese, though fortunately this never happened. At the close of the war, Eisenhower also threatened the use of an atom bomb to force the North Koreans into signing a peace agreement. Richard Nixon credited the end of the Korean War to Eisenhower’s threat to use “tactical” atom bombs and he later used to same strategy in his “mad man” theory to bring North Vietnam to the peace table. Unknown to most Americans, we threatened to use atomic weaponry many times before such threats became public information when we stared down the Russians during the Cuban Missile crisis. We should all be grateful that, to date, these destructive weapons haven’t been used since we dropped them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an act that we thought was necessary to win the war and prevent lives being lost by an invasion of Japan. But in reality, the entrance of the Russians into the war in the Pacific and their quick annihilation of the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchukuo (Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria, China) forced Japan to surrender to the Americans which they did 6 days after the last atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
The war begins: Five years after facing exhaustive wars in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters during WW II, with a loss of 405,000 American lives, President Harry Truman, decided we should go to war again, I mean engage in a “police action” to save South Korea from being overrun by the North Korean Communists in what he thought was a Russian-backed invasion. Apparently this decision was the singular decision of Dean Acheson who had become Secretary of State under Truman. The year was 1950. Three years later, Truman’s presidency had been shattered by the war and Dwight Eisenhower was elected President. Douglas MacArthur conducted the war under Truman until he was fired by Truman, an event that plunged Truman’s approval ratings and helped lead to the destruction of his presidency. Truman fired MacArthur, because, among other reasons, MacArthur thought he had a green light to use atomic weaponry and invade China without consulting with Truman. Although Truman was eligible to run again in 1952, his approval rating at 22% was the lowest ever recorded by a President until George W. Bush showed up, flight suit and all, as he declared victory from his illegal invasion into Iraq.
During MacArthur’s conduct of the war, he promised Truman that the Chinese would never enter the war, as he marched from his historic landing at Inchon in South Korea, close to the 38th parallel, claiming victory (though his troops encountered little resistance; the North Korean troops had migrated back to the North, ahead of MacArthur’s army and struck when the Chinese came from over the Yalu river). Had Truman stopped the advance of UN forces at the 38th parallel, he would have been a national hero; his own doctrine called for “containment” of communism, not “rollback.” But from Inchon MacArthur advanced (with Truman’s approval) into North Korea towards the Yalu River before facing Chinese hordes who drove the Americans back in what was called the greatest defeat in the history of the American military. The day that Truman got news of the Chinese entry into the war, he wrote in his diary “WW III has started.” Eventually, the division between North and South Korea was re-established at the 38th parallel, exactly were they had been at the onset of hostilities. It took another two years before the armistice was worked out and during that interim, ugly trench warfare was conducted with little gains on either side to show for the effort. Battles like “Pork Chop Hill” which was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, but that movie is not available on Netflix, in keeping with the idea of the conflict as “Forgotten War.” While the hostilities ended during the early Eisenhower Presidency, there was no real end to the conflict: to this day an armistice exists which could still break out in war. And while the economic distinction between North and South Korea grows starker almost every day, North Korea has on many occasions since the armistice retracted their recognition of it and potentially opened the door for the resumption of hostilities.
For most Americans the history of Korea began and ended with the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. But bracketed within those three years is a horrific tale of death and destruction. About 10 per cent or more of the population of Korea were killed, numbering more than 3 million Koreans, mostly older men, women and children, more than a million poorly armed Chinese soldiers and more than 36,000 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives in three years. The end result of this bloody conflict was to establish the borders of North and South Korea at the thirty-eighth parallel, precisely where they were before the war started. It was in reality a bitter defeat for the United States as the Chinese Army gained new stature for forcing the American retreat using poorly armed peasant volunteers. As a result of our massive bombing, most of North Korea was completely burned out using the same fire-bombing techniques we applied against Tokyo during WW II, with napalm bombs as the weapons of choice. South Korea was not spared either because at the start of the war North Koreans overran the South until the Americans began fighting and taking on the police action mission that was hatched by Dean Acheson and sanctioned by the United Nations.
War atrocities: If you thought that American war atrocities began in Vietnam with My Lai as the first example, you will have missed some of the most gruesome acts of violence that were rampant during the Korean war. For example a favorite practice of American pilots was to strafe women working in the rice patty fields of Korea for target practice to get their gun alignment calibrated. The South Koreans were particularly brutal against North Koreans with torture and assassinations carried out on a massive scale, and these execution events were attended by U.S. military personnel. Those kinds of things went on before the war got started and got accelerated during the war. The tragedy for Korea is that before the invasion by the Japanese and their annexation of Korea, the country had a rich, unified history that goes back several thousand years.
Who Started the war? If you can find an American who knows anything about the Korean War, they will probably tell you that it was the North that invaded the South and for that reason there was good justification for our entering the war. But I.F. Stone, a very dedicated and unusually thorough reporter looked into this issue and decided that there was no way of knowing who started the war. First, there were many border skirmishes and many of these were perpetrated by South Korea, with Syngman Rhee, the leader of South Korea that we had inserted to form a puppet government under American direction. Rhee, educated in the West, was a rabid anticommunist, made to order for us in the McCarthy era, while Kim Il Sung was the leader of North Korea: his young grandson rules that country today. One thing is clear, that once the war broke out, no matter who started it, the North Koreans were far better equipped and battle hardened because these troops had just returned from helping the Chinese Communists win their war against Chiang Kai-shek and they were better equipped with Russian T-34 tanks. The North Koreans quickly marched all the way to the Pusan Perimeter at the Southern tip of South Korea. If the advancing army of North Korea hadn’t stopped for a week during their march towards the south, the war would very likely have been won by the North and there would have been no Korean War. But the pause allowed American troops and artillery to be injected into Pusan and Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon, near Seoul reversed the battle, as the US and South Korean soldiers began carrying the war northward.
Did we fight on the wrong side? For Koreans, their war with Japan began in 1910 when Japan annexed Korea and occupied it until Japan’s defeat in 1945. Many Koreans were forced into working for the Japanese Imperial Army, and into forced labor conditions in Japan. Korean women were forced to become “Comfort Women” to serve the Japanese soldiers as prostitutes. As the allies were in the process of defeating Japan, the Russians had entered the war in Asia (requested by FDR before his death). Japan still had a 2 million man army in Manchuria, but they proved to be no match for the vaunted Russian war machine: the Russians annihilated the Japanese army in Manchukuo; it was fear of the Russian Army that drove Japan to sue for peace with the Americans and not because of the two atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To the Japanese, it didn’t matter whether one bomb was dropped by one plane or a thousand bombs had been dropped by hundreds of planes, the destruction was still the same. Tokyo had been completely destroyed by the fire bombing techniques perfected during the war. But here is the problem for the Americans: when Japan annexed Korea, those that resisted and fought against the Japanese were in the North, whereas the collaborators of the Japanese occupancy were in the South. Owen Lattimor explained all of this in his writings and warned the Americans not to get involved with Korea, in part because of this problem: at one level the Communists were the good guys and the South Koreans were the bad guys. Lattimor’s reward for stating his opinion on Korea was to be accused by McCarthy of being the top Soviet spy for advancing the cause of communism in America. Lattimor spent several years defending himself from these charges: eventually he triumphed. When FDR died and left the Presidency to Harry Truman, Truman distanced himself from the policies of FDR, especially with respect to the Russians. Truman didn’t see Stalin as “uncle Joe” as FDR had done and he had already initiated the Cold War, but having the Russians occupying North Korea, while the U.S. forces occupied South Korea presented a problem for Truman: what if the Russians wanted to stake claims against the Japanese mainland? So, after arranging to execute a few notables, such as Tojo, the Americans allowed the Japanese who ran the war to serve in the government of post war Japan. In fact they ran it. For example Abe Shinzo, the current Japanese prime minister is the grandson of the class-A war criminal and postwar prime minister Kishi Nobosuke, who was head of Munitions in Manchuria in the 1930s. Another recent prime minister Aso Taro had direct links to Japan’s empire. He was heir to a mining fortune that used thousands of Korean forced laborers during the war which had a reputation for brutality and terrible working conditions. As Bruce Cumings stated in his book “The Korean War: a history,” “if the North Koreans have a form of hereditary communism, postwar Japan is hereditary democracy: 70 to 80 percent of the parliamentarians in Japan have inherited their seats from their fathers or come from politically prominent families.”
The Korean war started our obsession for secrecy. One feature not generally appreciated from our Cold War policies is the fact that many Americans would have had a natural proclivity to favor North Koreans, because they had been active against the Japanese invaders who carried out ruthless policies of enslavement against the Korean population. So the best way to prevent the American public from knowing this fact is to commit all the information to secrecy and after the initial start of the Korean War, censorship was imposed so that the American public couldn’t learn about American pilots strafing women peasants working in the rice fields. The growth of secrecy in government started with the Korean war and has now become part of our institutional philosophy. If you want to understand how our government works, you have to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and if you get hold of documents, they are almost always heavily redacted such that you only get part of the story.
In summary, the Korean War started the United States on the road to militarism. Part of the motivation behind all this was our belief that we had “the bomb,” something we thought the Russians wouldn’t have for decades if they acquired it at all. But once the Russians detonated their first bomb, just four years after we detonated our first bomb, it generated an arms race that couldn’t be stopped or even considered until the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which we came close to a nuclear confrontation that might well have eradicated humans from the planet. In the early days of our possession of the bomb, we threatened to use it against our enemies multiple times during the many multiple conflicts that we were caught up in one way or the other. Imagine what would have happened to all this wasted energy, if we had conformed to the ideas laid down by FDR, forged a peaceful working relationship with Stalin and set both countries onto a collaborative effort to rid the planet of social injustices and instead stimulated economic development. You can certainly argue that a world based on this model would be in far better shape to address the global climate change issues that threaten the entire planet. A more uniform distribution of wealth throughout the world would have given the poor countries of today, a much better opportunity to realistically face increased sea levels in Bangladesh for example. As it is now these poor countries will be asking for aid from us, which we will refuse to give them, further opening the wounds of wealth disparity. If Henry Wallace had been picked to be FDR’s Vice Presidential candidate in 1944, this healthier alternative might well have been our future. Instead, Truman, who was installed as FDR’s Vice Presidential candidate, through party manipulation and backroom deals, set our trajectory on the low road, a road more frequently traveled, as we paid the price that all militaristic societies face when your first thought of confrontation is to solve it through the very means that you have heavily invested in. It is not possible to separate our development of “the bomb” from the anticommunist scare tactics stimulated by McCarthyism: they fed on one another through the fifties and into the 1960s and the hangover effect is still with us today.
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