Our Mistakes in Korea

“The deliberate political design by which two Administrations treated the Korean War as if it were an insoluble military problem … confused the American public and, confusing it, dulled its memory.”



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.


In the second summer of the war, the great illusion was that since we had acknowledged stalemate, the Communists must also see that the game was tied and would be hurting just as hard for a truce. As negotiations began, spokesmen for the Joint Chiefs said privately that the fighting would probably end within three weeks—that it might take as long as six weeks but, on the other hand, could come within six days. President Truman radiated the same optimism. He and the Chiefs seem not to have read of Brest Litovsk or to have known that Mao had praised Communist tactics there as the perfect model for any future negotiation. So again things didn't happen as wished, and some of the by-products of the excessive hope put an additional load on national action.

A limited troop rotation policy was already in effect, having been mothered by necessity. The initial forces had been kept too long and pushed too hard; not to have afforded them relief would have been inexcusable.

But rotation, as it came in full flower under the seeming promise of a quick truce, was a glorified game of musical chairs. Though the fighting pressure had eased, a contract was made with the combat soldier that he would do less than one year in Korea. Provided a truce came forth, there was no great jeopardy in the contract. But if the enemy used the table to prolong the war and harry the United States, it meant that the administrative load among the fighting units would be so greatly increased as to leave little time for training. It meant also that the American divisions of the Eighth Army would henceforth be a half-seasoned body of fighting men barred by regulations from becoming any better than that.

That is the reality. Stuck with its own brainchild, the Army praised rotation as one of the miracles of the Korean War, a bulwark to fighting morale and a conserver of our human material. Analyzed in the field, where men were fighting, it proved to be none of these things.

No doubt something is added to the fighter's morale by the knowledge that in a certain month he will turn home again, provided he lives that long. But what is gained is more than offset by the fact that he never develops any great sense of unity with his company. Reporting to the front for the first time, he joins four or five men in a bunker, and his association with them is likely to be the only feel that he gets of his unit during his first month in combat, or until the unit goes into reserve. By the time he makes a few buddies among the trained men, they are gone on their way. Then, despite his own brief schooling in the front line, he must break in the newly arriving strangers.

Rotation is also a killer of men rather than a saver. There are never enough experienced men to fill the rugged assignments and let the new hands break in gradually. Because of the personnel pinch, men frequently are called on to join a patrol into enemy country their first night in line. Their greenness sometimes proves fatal to the whole group. Such is the turnover that Americans have no chance to develop skill in patrolling. In scouting quality, diversification of maneuver, and catlike caution, they are rarely a match for the Chinese.

Rotation has also furthered that degradation of the Army which is partly the consequence of slide-rule methods in the Pentagon and penny-wise economy in the Bureau of the Budget. Men are not paid what they're worth and are not acknowledged the dignity which they have won under fire. In Korea, companies were commanded by lieutenants, and platoons were frequently led by privates and corporals, with no immediate chance for promotion.

Recently a case study was made in one division of the turnover during a thirty-day period. It was perhaps not too significant that of the 1200 replacements incoming, the quota of noncommissioned officers had less than 10 per cent of the grades needed for a body of that number. But it was rather startling to discover that of the 1800 outgoing veterans who had done their time, the quota was still only 40 per cent of what it should have been.

A brigadier of artillery put it this way: "The trouble with rotation isn't that we haven't made it work, but that someone in Washington will get the idea that it's good."


During the third summer, the illusion that a truce would arrive on winged feet still hung on. The new hope which came to bloom beside it was that by building a still stronger ROK Army we would shortly find an easy exit from our Korean venture.

The history of this effort, and in particular the tardiness of the decision, shows conclusively that it was inspired by dreams of liquidating our commitments and getting back to the old rocking chair rather than by the hope for military victory.

During the first year of mobile war, South Korea as a potential reservoir of military help to us was virtually ignored, and that was the time when the help was most needed. Americans "choggied" their own supply up the ridge trails to join the fire fight, and wore themselves out in so doing, though there were thousands of Korean backs ready to do the pioneer work. The organization of the Korean Service Corps, which now has a regiment with each of our divisions, came along later. It has been a splendid help.

In that year there were only two competent ROK divisions equipped with organic artillery and a reasonable complement of other heavy weapons. The others got along as best they could without systematized heavy fire support, and it is a wonder that any survived. Yet the Army of the United States did not so much as send one headquarters battery to Korea to initiate a training establishment for ROK artillerymen so that there would be ready men when the guns became available. The word in Washington at that time was that the policy-makers feared to build up the ROK Army lest Syngman Rhee become uncontrollable. Whether that is the true explanation, or the neglect of the force was due to pure sluggishness, is perhaps beyond proof.

But it was not until the leash had been pulled on General Van Fleet's forward operations and talk of truce filled the air that the ROK build-up started. The army is now proceeding toward twenty-division organization with an over-all strength of 600,000. There is little fat in the administrative rear, and most of its strength is squeezed toward the fighting components. Here, of course, is the great paradox of the situation. The modern ROK Army was born on the battlefield out of a stricken nation, which had nothing to give but raw manpower. Deprived of our economic help, the Republic could not keep its present army for sixty days.

To rear a modern and well-rounded military establishment and, behind this façade, then to attempt to make a backward nation catch up with the present, while assisting in the revitalizing of its economy, is quite a reversal of the normal processes of history. It is a unique experiment. It is expensive; and to the American who still thinks that military power in any form is a parasite upon the political body, it seems an unnecessary waste of his money and an outrage against Korea's underprivileged people.

Rhee was audacious in expecting us to support twenty ROK divisions, which is more than we had in our own establishment. But Rhee saw perhaps more clearly than we that he would continue to face the Chinese.

That carries us along to the great illusion of the current summer—the wishful hope that soon after the signing of a truce the Communist Chinese will fold their tents, mount their camels, and steal away. Is there any reason in it or is it just another butterfly thought?

Following World War II, the term "vacuum area" was coined to describe the war-ravaged country which, stripped of police power and means of livelihood, became dependent on outside help if it was to survive in nationhood. Greece was such a place for a time. So were the other Balkans. We went to Greece's rescue. Russia filled the vacuum elsewhere in the peninsula and in Central Europe and never thereafter loosed its grip.

Yet, with this recent example before us, we have failed to envisage the over-all political condition that will obtain in the Korean peninsula now that the truce is signed. Since South Korea is, for the time being, invalided and dependent on us largely for military supply and what is needed to keep life in a now surplus population, we more or less vaguely see that for some years ahead we shall have to fill the vacuum, serving as backer, banker, and supplier. Either that or South Korea, left a hopeless derelict, will be salvaged by Communist neighbors.

But where our thinking falls short—and this applies to our policy-makers—is in our failure to consider that North Korea, economically, politically, and militarily, is a worse wreck than the territory south of the 38th Parallel and that this vacuum is certain to be filled by a major power.

Communist China permitted General Nam Il of North Korea to front as chief delegate at Panmunjom. It was an act of political tact in marked contrast with our policy of keeping the South Korean delegate at the bottom of the totem pole. Behind Nam Il's impeccable front, however, lies only the shattered façade of a puppet state which has never known independence and is now too ill to experiment toward it. Of the more than a million Communists manning the front in Korea, not more than 50,000 of the combat element was North Korean. The interior police power is under supervision by the Chinese. The people till their land to keep the Chinese army fed, and subsist on what is left. Their heavy industry is in ruins; their commerce is limited to the traffic in war materials.

Briefly pictured, here is a situation from which the troops of Red China cannot possibly withdraw. For if that were to be done, a chaotic and, despondent people would embrace the help and faith offered from the Free World. All that now gives North Korea a semblance of unity is the military operations of Red China which the North Koreans now serve.

Red China did not enter the war with the object of throwing over her own prestige and sacrificing her power position at the last moment. To expect such stupid generosity of her is almost criminal folly. The Chinese aim is to defeat the United States and UN coalition, and possibly, beyond that, to expand her territory. So when our statesmen express the pious hope that in a "reconciliation period" which follows a truce, Red China can be persuaded to withdraw, they are blind to fundamental political realities. Red China can't withdraw; nor can water flow uphill.

Korea is a strategically profitless area for the United States, of no use as a defensive base, a springboard to nowhere, a sinkhole for our military power. We don't belong there.

But because of that, to think now of how we can stage an extrication before we have taken any measure of what the post-truce struggle might become, is only to extend the wayward course we have already traveled. It is a time for steadiness, waiting and seeing, and a rugged realism in our appreciation of the situation instead of the pipe-dreaming which has mocked the effort thus far. The retention of a strong American garrison in Korea during the period ahead while the Republic is growing up to its armed establishment might well mean the saving of Southeast Asia and even help to cool off Red China.

Quite a few things enter into the prevention of world war and the preserving of peace. It's infinitely helpful when the strongest power acts both willing and resolute.