World War II was a great victory for America and its allies, although of course it came at a huge cost in terms of the lives of combatants and non-combatants alike. Viewed as a war of detainder, the victory came at another cost: much of the world was divided into Communist and non-Communist spheres of influence. Korea, Vietnam and Germany were divided in half, as was all of Europe. This would result in an anxiety-producing Cold War that would last seven times as long was World War II and that would seriously retard the economic development and well-being of hundreds of millions of people.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, North Korea was considerably more developed economically than the south. Moreover, after World War II most of the world was either Communist or Socialist, and many residents of South Korea sympathized with the Communist north. No doubt this had partly to do with the brutal regime of Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s President. Before, during and after the Korean War, Rhee’s police and soldiers committed many massacres and atrocities, putting him in a camp not that far away from the notorious Kim Il-sung.
At least retrospectively, the war in Korea had a kind of yoyo quality to it. After securing Stalin’s and Mao’s blessing, Kim Il-sung ordered the invasion of the south on June 25, 1950, surprising everyone, including the American CIA.. The massively outgunned and outnumbered(1) Republic of Korea (ROK) army fled before the onslaught and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) captured Seoul two days later. The North Koreans promptly murdered virtually every educated person in the city.
By early August South Korea controlled only 10% of its former territory – a tiny beachhead around Pusan at the southeast tip of the peninsula – and the war seemed to be nearly over. However, in September the US(2) landed at Inchon, behind KPA lines, and soon the North Koreans were trapped in the south and their army quickly disintegrated. Of the roughly 100,000 KPA soldiers in South Korea at the time, fewer than 30,000 ever rejoined Kim’s army.
The US 8th Army then pivoted north, pushing the remaining KPA troops before it, liberating Seoul in September and capturing Pyongyang a month later. The Americans were soon approaching the Chinese border – the Yalu River, only a few hundred miles from Beijing. Once again the war seemed to be over.
Back in Beijing, however, all was not well. Mao was shocked and infuriated by the collapse of his KPA allies and he was unnerved by the prospect of US troops on his northeast border. He wanted the Americans removed and defeated, more or less at any cost, and for this task he turned to his brilliant and worldly(3) premier, Zhou En-Lai. In November, Zhou ordered an attack against the American positions by hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops, the so-called Peoples Volunteer Army, or PVA, a unit of the Peoples Liberation Army. Taken by surprise, the 8th Army executed the longest retreat in American history, 120 miles, nearly being destroyed en route. The US troops eventually withdrew south of the 38 Parallel, allowing Seoul to be captured yet again. Not only had the 8th been defeated in battle, it’s morale seemed hopelessly broken.
But if the PVA figured the 8th Army was finished, they figured without General Matthew B. Ridgway.(4) Ridgway was a tough, charismatic officer who was unimpressed by the Olympian demeanor of his boss, Douglas MacArthur, and who was, more important, unimpressed by the PVA. He promptly kick-started the 8th Army which, with its mojo back, broke out of its defensive positions, inflicting massive casualties on the startled PVA and forcing the Chinese back above the 38th Parallel. Seoul was re-liberated again – the city had now been conquered and liberated four times in nine months, which must be some sort of world record.
At that point, however, the war stalemated along the 38th Parallel, exactly where it had begun. Armistice talks dragged on while the dying continued, but, finally, in July of 1953, 37 months after Kim Il-sung’s ill-fated invasion, an armistice was signed and the fighting came to an end.(5) However, no peace treaty was ever concluded and, technically, North and South Korea remain at war to this day, nearly 63 years later.
Next week we’ll look at the conventional military analysis of the Korean War, as well as the conventional political consequences. Then we’ll re-analyze Korea as a war of detainder. Stay tuned.
(1) The KPA boasted nearly 200,000 well-trained troops organized into ten divisions and armed with Soviet-made tanks supported by heavy artillery. The South Koreans had no tanks, no anti-tank weapons and no heavy artillery, and never had more than 95,000 men in uniform.
(2) Technically, these were “United Nations” troops, with 21 countries contributing men or materiel to the war effort. However, given that the US suffered roughly 36,000 dead while the next largest contingent – from the UK – suffered fewer than 750 killed, we’ll skip the fig leaf for purposes of this discussion.
(3) Zhou, perhaps the last true mandarin in China, lived in Paris, London and Berlin between 1920 and 1924. He was essentially murdered by Mao, who refused to allow Zhou to be treated for bladder cancer in 1972, despite his doctors’ prognosis of an 80-90% cure rate. Zhou died in 1976.
(4) Ridgway, coincidentally, was from Pittsburgh. My wife once worked at the Ridgway Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
(5) Or almost. My wife’s stepfather’s son was killed in Korea a few days after the armistice was signed, some units apparently not having gotten the memo. My own son, David, is named for the grieving father.
Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 4
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