Frozen corpses and mangled machinery litter the cratered, snowy ground of the Chosin Reservoir. The freezing weather inflicts frostbite while harassing enemy troops sporadically attack the moving column of U.S., U.N., and South Korean troops. Eight months after the start of hostilities, Communist and United Nations forces see-sawed across the peninsula, circling back to the beginning with almost no discernable gains to show for the deaths of thousands and peace negotiations at an impasse. This was the Korean War in microcosm.
The Korean War is routinely overlooked in historical research. That sentiment is repeated constantly in the history community followed by some supporting evidence [It immediately followed World War II which takes the lion’s share of attention, there were no obvious gains for the United States, and it ended with a stalemate]. Despite the research shortcomings and shortsightedness of examining the war’s origins and aftermath, the historical legacy of the Korean War has global ramifications today. The modern North Korean state was born from the conflict and many Koreans remember the inhuman tragedy that befell their families. North and South Koreas are prime examples of nations born from a 20th century conflict that was left unresolved and a people divided. Military, geopolitical, and social disagreements forged in the cauldron of the Cold War precipitated the conflict that Korean War experts agree was the first limited war between the two powers of Western Democracy and Communism.
‘Korea: The Limited War‘ by David Rees delivers a thoroughly researched narrative on the conflict’s various features; ranging from military tactics, domestic political battles, geopolitical ideologies, and personal struggles of people and soldiers making sense of the violence. Rees places the Korean War in the larger scope of the emerging East-West rivalry. He introduces the argument of how authoritarian regimes and democracies can maintain the due course of negotiation and not resort to nuclear destruction. However, Rees also implies that the realities of limited war in the wider scope of practical foreign policy (realpolitik) were always unobtainable in the Cold War. As a result, Korea became a test case in the diplomatic policy of containment. Both democratic and communist countries claimed their moral and societal superiority and through their intransigence, allowed violence to continue as armies savaged each other. During the armistice talks at Panmunjom, Communist and U.N. forces attacked, retreated, regrouped, and attacked again for two years until the armistice was signed in 1953. Rees’ research makes clear that differing views between the U.S. military and political establishment impacted their goals in Korea and the pursuit for peace. Military strategist and RAND fellow Bernard Brodie summarized this duality:
“No doubt the cardinal error as we see it today was the halting of our offensive at the moment when the Communists first indicated an interest in opening armistice negotiations. This error, attributable to our political rather than our military leadership, had nothing to do with our desire to keep the war limited . . . We paid bitterly for that error in the great prolongation of negotiations, the unsatisfactory terms of the settlement, and above all in the disillusionment and distaste which the American people developed as the main emotional residue of their experience with limited war.“Bernard Brodie, ‘Strategy in the Missile Age’
Rees’ manuscript is separated into three sections symbolizing the three phases of the conflict: the North Korean war, Chinese intervention, and the war for peace. Within these sections he meticulously examines the military, political, and diplomatic arenas that produced the conditions for a limited war. The Communist specter looming over the Far East was of great concern to the Truman administration, but they were unclear on how to approach the situation without it exacerbating into World War III. The Korean peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel following the end of World War II to establish zones (similar to postwar Germany) and as a result, two Korean states emerged; Chinese and Soviet backed Communist North Korea led by Kim Il-Sung and U.S. backed South Korea led by Syngman Rhee. U.S. forces stationed in the south were woefully unprepared against the Korean People’s Army (North Korean military) and within weeks of the initial invasion in June 1950, the Communists were on the brink of completing their goals. The intervention of General Douglas MacArthur and the United Nations halted that catastrophe and by November 1950, U.S. and U.N combined forces overtook much of North Korea, pushing to the Yalu River.
The famous Thanksgiving, November 27th 1950, marked the Chinese entrance into the Korean War. Communist forces launched repeated attacks on all fronts against the U.N., recapturing many places only weeks ago were held by Western forces. Territory would hardly change for the next two years as the U.N. and Communist armies savaged one another on a static front. All the while, senior commanders negotiated an armistice at Panmunjom. Two years of on-again, off-again talks that produced nebulous achievements at best. Meanwhile, turmoil between President Truman, the Joint Chiefs, and General Douglas MacArthur reached their peak on April 11, 1951 when Truman relieved MacArthur from command of U.N. forces, all U.S. forces, and dismissed him from duty. For months the general advocated for widening the war in order to crush the possibility of a Chinese invasion, but reassured Truman that the Chinese would not undertake it themselves. Those words and the subsequent march of 300,000 of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) broke MacArthur’s credibility and was recalled to Washington. Rees argues that the disagreements in military-civilian policy constantly left the negotiators empty-handed. The United States’ commitment to limited war waned as troops were deployed to hold an objective that was ill-defined. Politically this attrition strategy would never work, especially as Truman’s approval rating dropped to its lowest at 28% and Republicans made substantial gains in Congress and Eisenhower was elected president in 1952. The battles between celebrity and public personalities are a long running theme in Rees’ research because they are contributory in interpreting how people viewed the Cold War and what they believed was best policy.
Rees’ research ventures beyond the battlefield and incorporates broader themes of East-West geopolitical tension. A key point in understanding how the United States became involved in Korea were the interpretations of postwar global affairs in conquered nations. With the U.S. as a new world power in contrast to the Soviet Union, encouraging revolution through indirect means was necessary in keeping the two powers from direct confrontation; nuclear annihilation as the end result. The Soviet Union supported the Communist Party in North Korea, but kept at arms length for not being the root cause of deteriorating relations. China, however, threw their complete support and committed hundreds of thousands of troops. The international ‘police action’ as coined by President Truman was also a test for the new United Nations in exercising communal power by intervening on the peninsula and identifying aggressors. The U.N. recognized China as an aggressor which stirred debate on how to handle a country who became a world power nearly overnight. Rees includes some international focus, such as Great Britain, but that perspective is primarily reserved for the United Nations. Reducing down from the geopolitics to domestic policy, Rees skillfully presents the growing anxiety of the American public and the incremental steps taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to only defend, not conquer. Omar Bradley even stated at one point while reviewing plans for amphibious landings on North Korean islands; ‘We don’t want any more enemy real estate.’ Containment was the goal, but as long as armistice negotiations failed, the killing continued.
Rees highlights another crucial aspect of the Korean War; POWs. Tens of thousands of U.N., Chinese, and Korean prisoners were held captive and were the lynchpin of armistice negotiations. An elaborate system of repatriation through neutral countries was drawn up primarily by the Communists. This was done as a psychological tactic because during the incarceration of U.N. soldiers, they underwent ‘re-education’ and ‘interrogation’ by Chinese and North Korean agents. It was believed that if POWs understood the merits of Communism and corruptions of the Western countries, they would be more sympathetic to the Revolution. Propaganda was a powerful tool during the conflict that Communists utilized to the best of their ability. Themes like wholesale slaughter, capitalist motivations, and the use of biological warfare were promoted by China to show how Western powers were committing war crimes. Several USAF pilots and crews submitted confessions admitting that they dropped ordnance like ‘cholera and typhus’ bombs on Korean villages. These confessions were later discovered to be forced extractions signed under torture, but that narrative survives today in North Korea, using it as cause for war against America. This scheme of prisoner repatriation retains particular prominence in Rees’ text because it contributed significantly to the prolonging of hostilities on the front lines.
Just like the World War II generation, those who served and fought in Korea are dying in larger numbers every day. With that, the direct memory and impact of the conflict diminishes and what remains is the ongoing geopolitical dialogue. ‘Korea: The Limited War‘ was published in 1964, but the lessons it teaches remain ever relevant when we conduct ourselves in a limited war. We are susceptible to think that the conflict doesn’t extend beyond the set borders, but the origins of said conflict exist beyond them and understanding and confronting issues before they explode on the battlefield are crucial. Like Rees claims, we must have a unified approach in dealing with an opponent whose motives could have worldwide implications. If we applied that lesson to our foreign policy, who knows if we might have become involved in Vietnam.