What We Learned From the Korean War

Sixty years after the signing of a truce, it's clear that this conflict set the pattern for multiple American wars to come.
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The demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, in Paju, about 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul (Lee Jae Won/Reuters)

This week marks an important anniversary. Sixty years ago, on July 27, 1953, representatives of the United Nations, led by U.S. Army Lt. Gen William Harrison, met their North Korean counterparts in Panmunjom, Korea, to sign an armistice agreement ending the 37-month-long war. Negotiators had been discussing the agreement for nearly 25 of those months in 158 separate meetings.

The document was not a peace treaty. It provided for a truce. The historic occasion had no mark of formality and no sense of finality. The representatives signed the agreement without speaking a single word to each other, and no one offered handshakes. The South Korean representatives refused to sign and did not join in the meeting. There surely was no ceremony comparable to the one on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay in September 1945. The New York Times reported from the treaty site, "Outside the thin wooden walls there was the mutter of artillery fire - a grim reminder that even as the truce was being signed men were still dying on near-by hills and the fight would continue for twelve more hours."

But it is neither politically nor morally defensible to send the young to war without a public consensus that the goals are understood and essential, and the restraints and the costs are acceptable.

Americans at home were similarly restrained. There were no celebrations in Times Square--or anywhere else. The Washington Post noted, "Washington greeted news of the Korean truce yesterday with a matter-of-fact attitude--quietly, without evident jubilation...." It was peace without a clear victory.

Is Korea still, as it was called then, the Forgotten War? Unfortunately it is. But it shouldn't be. The objectives, the conduct, and the conclusion of that war are significant in too many ways. This anniversary provides an occasion to remember them, and to honor those who served in that war.

Those who fought there have said that, at a heavy cost, they accomplished their objective. This had been described by the United Nations declaration of June 1950 and President Harry Truman's statements at the time when he authorized American troops to participate in the action: securing "a withdrawal of the invading forces to positions north of the 38th parallel."

The 1953 agreement provided that Korea would be divided along that line and specified that there should be a follow-up conference within three months to conclude a comprehensive peace treaty. That conference never convened. Even if permanent peace remains a work in progress, the strong democratic government in South Korea today affirms to those who fought that they did their job.

We have much to learn from the Korean War--and this is relevant as we face decisions about the pending drawdown from Afghanistan. History is not a blueprint or a lesson plan, but it surely does provide a real-life insight into the problems we face. There are stunning examples of the consequences of wars with shifting military goals -- and absent realistic public discussion about the likely means and the costs of achieving these goals. Without these shared commitments and understandings, we should not send men and women to die.

The Korean War veterans who claim that they accomplished what they were sent to do are absolutely correct. This assessment requires a sharply defined assignment focusing on the original goal. In fact the Korean command had accomplished that objective by late September 1950. Those who fought in Korea demonstrated courage and sacrifice that is the equal of any American forces in any war. They did not have a victory parade--at least not until New York City belatedly held one in 1991. In fact their "police action" was not congressionally recognized as a "war" until 1998. Nearly 1.8 million Americans served in Korea from 1950 to 1953, and 36,574 died there.

The UN forces--largely from the U.S.--had some extremely difficult early months in the summer of 1950 with heavy casualties. By August they were defending a last enclave around Pusan, with some even fearing the need for a full withdrawal. Finally sufficient forces arrived that enabled General Douglas MacArthur to order a landing at Inchon on September 1950. This fractured the already-stretched North Korean supply line. Within days the North Korean invaders were routed and UN troops had recaptured Seoul.

On September 29, MacArthur accompanied Republic of Korea (South Korea) President Syngman Rhee back into the National Assembly Hall in Seoul. By the end of September, UN forces were moving into North Korea. Country singer Jimmie Osborne wrote and recorded a song on October 2, "Thank God for Victory in Korea."

Despite all of the euphoria of an objective reached, this had not been an easy victory. In three months 8,182 American troops were killed in Korea. To underline the magnitude of this sacrifice, that number is nearly 1,400 more than have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 12 years.

This costly victory in three months only previewed the compounded tragedy that followed. General MacArthur insisted that the total defeat of North Korea was certain and the peninsula could be reunified, as the WWII Russian-United States agreement for a "temporary" division had promised. Confident of an easy victory, the American Joint Chiefs and the Truman administration urged the United Nations to expand the war goal to accomplish the reunification of Korea. The UN did.

Some worried in October 1950 about Chinese statements that they would enter the war if the UN forces approached their border on the Yalu River. Ignoring his own intelligence reports of Chinese troop movements and consumed with his own confidence, MacArthur assured Washington that China would not enter the war -- and if they did he was certain they did not have the means to mount a significant threat. One of his top generals dismissed them as Chinese "laundrymen." MacArthur boasted that he would bring "the boys home by Christmas."

The only American boys who got home for Christmas in 1950 came on hospital ships or in coffins. The Chinese entered the war as they had promised they would, and they did it in far greater numbers and with greater military capacity than MacArthur had predicted. By late November the First Marine Division faced annihilation at the Chosin Reservoir and fought their way out in what some have described as one of the great military actions of American history.

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James Wright is president-emeritus and professor of history at Dartmouth College. He is a former Marine and the author of Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them.

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