Whatever need be said in disparagement of our three years of fighting operations in Korea, it may at least be claimed for them that they possessed the virtue of a rare consistency. Under one Administration they were begun with an air of excessive expectation based upon estimates which were inspired by wishful optimism. Under a second Administration, they are promising to lapse into uneasy quiet amid illusions that are no less remarkable than those which encouraged the initial decision.
Now, looking backward from this time of precarious truce, it can be seen that the ends are no different from the middle. From first to last the failure to budget the expenses of the Korean War, as if keeping them from sight would make the experience less painful, has been symptomatic of a national ailment. We have been reaching for something just around the corner without first moving to the intersection.
In the first summer, we plunged on a sure thing, though the axiom has it that in war nothing is sure. We said we did it because there was no alternative to precipitate action; the future of collective security was at stake, and aggression left unchecked would soon ring the world with fire.
So went the reasoning. But let's look at the record. The decision to intervene was unanimous in the political and military councils of government. But no move toward even partial mobilization accompanied it. The reserves were not called. An ammunition build-up was not programmed, though in some types the stocks were nil. For three months thereafter the Defense Secretary continued to hack at our fighting resources. Relations between State and the Pentagon remained as cold as if they represented opposite sides in a war.
It is said that the original planners mistakenly calculated that they were dealing with a gook army and an essentially craven people who would collapse as soon as mobile men and modern weapons blew a hot breath their way. But the play didn't follow the lines as written.
Initially two American divisions were sent from Japan along with a token air force and a hope that nothing more would be needed. It proved not enough, and so a third was sent along, to be rocked back on its heels. Belatedly a fourth division had been alerted in the United States. Moving into the battle along the Naktong line, its weight was still insufficient to alter the balance.
When at last, in late summer, two additional divisions were landed behind the enemy lines at Inchon, the show, in so far as American field strength was concerned, was all but complete. One more division was added in the hour when the seemingly shattered Communist enemy was being pursued to the Yalu River. Strategy was then at its wishful best; it was wishing out of existence a Red Chinese Army which was already over the border.
So there were seven American divisions to reap the disappointment of the wish and to know the shock of defeat when Communist China, with many times the fighting power of North Korea, entered the war. There were still seven in the following spring. By then the heroic Eighth Army, having been driven from North Korea, was already on the rebound. It was considered the appropriate time for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others in high place to pass the word that the war was a strategic and tactical stalemate. Concern for Europe influenced the decision; Europe was rated the "decisive" area; so additional American divisions were sent there. This was by way of saying that to stop aggression and make collective security work, it is better to give over a battle which could be won for the sake of one which, under existing conditions, would certainly be lost.
Under both Administrations American policy continued to be guided on the estimates of that hour. At the time of the truce there were still seven American divisions in Korea. There were also sixteen ROK divisions, a British Commonwealth division, a Turkish brigade, and numerous stout battalions from other nations.
But when they manned their fire trenches, there was about one fighting man to every 40 yards of distance. Along the general front they were outnumbered by the enemy three to one. The works they held were eggshell thin compared with the depth of the Chinese entrenchments. They consisted really of one line of bunkered trenches slashed through the ridgetops from coast to coast with an occasional half-organized backstop position somewhat to the rear. The Communist defensive zone was entrenched for 20,000 yards back, four times the depth of World War I systems. Their diggings were engineered to provide maximum protection against atomic attack. Ours were not.
So, as forces stand, the war could be properly described as a tactical stalemate. We had the power and they had the push and the people. For two years the situation remained in equipoise mainly because we were motorized and had a tremendous advantage in air and artillery. There had never been sufficient infantry either to do an adequate job of sealing a defensive front or of composing a strategic reserve so that the Eighth Army could really function as an army, using one corps as a maneuver wing. Instead of that, it could meet offensive opportunities only by inching battalions forward.
The UN side, and in particular the United States, which was the major power holding the command seat, accepted a drawn war as inevitable simply out of unwillingness to raise a sufficient infantry. An additional four solid divisions—meaning approximately 60,000 men—might have made all the difference.
But no such augmentation was ever requested and no one arose to ask why not. It is a tender subject in the United States this one of how many men should be sent to a rifle line where death ever presses close. Too many Americans grow emotional about it, and 'too few Congressmen are willing to look it in the eye. But the chance for victory rides on having the sufficient number; and when either political or economic considerations finally limit purely military requirements, we ask, if not for stalemate, then for defeat.
Even so, the deliberate political design by which two Administrations treated the Korean War as if it were an insoluble military problem served to achieve one major object. It confused the American public and, confusing it, dulled its memory.
But our confusion is like a low back pain: the hurt is not less because the doctors say there is nothing wrong with the patient.