End of an Era: The National Defense Service Medal

The honors and awards system of the United States Armed Forces is a complex plethora of valorous recognition to blanket participation in the service branches. Keen-eyed veterans can distinguish the numerous ribbons, bars, badges, and patches on another veteran’s uniform. A handful of veterans carry the distinction of awards for high gallantry, valor, and bravery, i.e. the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross. Others are more ubiquitous, i.e. the Army Service Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon, Honorable Discharge Button, etc. These are found throughout millions of personnel records. One medal has achieved a unique distinction amongst the routine awards. Established near the end of the Korean War, the National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) has graced the ribbon racks of millions of veterans. The Department of Defense estimates that since 1953, the NDSM was awarded at least four million times, not even counting those who apply for it retroactively. With the exception of the Good Conduct medals, the NDSM is the oldest currently issued service medal in the U.S. awards system (medals not for valor, combat, or participation in a campaign). The NDSM is authorized at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense who determines when a national emergency is present and allows the NDSM to be awarded. This means that the NDSM has gone through periods of inactivity.

On Tuesday, August 30th, 2022, the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed orders ending issuance of the National Defense Service Medal for the War on Terror. After January 1, 2023, no active duty service members that enlist after said date will receive the medal. This marks the longest period that the NDSM was authorized; 21 years, 3 months, and 20 days.

Since September 11, 2001, the National Defense Service Medal became a trio of awards for the War on Terror (NDSM, the Global War on Terror Service Medal, and the Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal)

What are this award’s origins? How did this award become so procedural? The answer lies with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the Korean War, President Eisenhower became concerned with growing contentions in the Cold War. If the U.S. became embroiled in every ‘hot spot’, the honors system would be overwhelmed with potentially conflicting and overlapping service medals. President Harry Truman already created the Korean Service Medal for service in the Korean War. President Eisenhower conceived the idea of a ‘blanket campaign’ medal that would be issued to any honorably discharged veteran with active service during a ‘national emergency’. What stipulated a ‘national emergency’ remained at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense. No matter where they served, the NDSM signified military service. On April 22, 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10448 ‘Establishing the National Defense Service Medal‘ outlining its basic qualifications:

“There is hereby established the National Defense Service Medal, with suitable appurtenances, for award, under such regulations as the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and the Secretary of the Treasury may severally prescribe, and, subject to the provisions of this order, to members of the armed forces of the United States who shall have served during any period between June 27, 1950, and a terminal date to be fixed by the Secretary of Defense…”

Executive Order 10448, April 22, 1953

This order delegated authority to the Secretary of Defense to determine eligibility dates. The Department of Defense followed up in on July 15, 1953 directive by expanding on personnel eligibility, issuance procedure, and ribbon layout. This introduced restrictions to the NDSM and made the following not eligible:

  • Reserve component personnel on short tours of active duty
  • Reserve component personnel on temporary active status for boards, commissions, etc.
  • Personnel undergoing physical examinations
  • Active duty for purposes other than for extended active duty

Like everything in the federal government, policies undergo several revisions depending on world events, budgets, and the political climate. Since 1953, the NDSM was revised by three executive orders, inactivated and reactivated four times, and expanded from active duty service to National Guard and Reservist service. The four active periods coincide with major wars; Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror. In the 1960s and 1970s as the Vietnam War intensified, active duty servicemembers performing stateside service along with reservists and Guardsmen qualified for the award. The same criteria applied to Desert Storm participants. By the War on Terror, the NDSM expanded qualifications to its greatest extent. Members of the Selected Reserve Personnel (actively drilling reservists and Guardsmen) were eligible for the award. Since 9/11, service members could receive the NDSM almost as a given if they completed ninety days of consecutive active duty, not including training periods. Those who are on active duty for multiple approved time periods receive bronze star appurtenances on the NDSM and ribbon. Officer cadets that graduate from military academies can receive the NDSM along with those at Officer Candidate Schools upon their commission.

United States Air Force Major General Roger M. Peterson. The NDSM is in the middle row, furthest to the right with one bronze star. This denotes that he served during two national emergency periods and received the award twice (Image courtesy of the National Archives)

While the National Defense Service Medal is one of the most issued awards, it can sometimes be overlooked by clerks and records technicians when discharging a veteran with only a few weeks of service. Technically, if a member receives an Uncharacterized or Entry Level Separation, they are nominally entitled to the NDSM. However, the service branches don’t consider the initial training period as true active duty. If an individual drops from initial training, the award isn’t added to their DD Form 214 (separation document). Many veterans apply for a retroactive issuance of the NDSM if it doesn’t appear on their discharge and they served during one of the four authorized time periods.

Typically if a veteran served during a conflict, the NDSM would form as part of the ‘automatic’ awards for overseas service in a combat zone. Serving overseas is not a prerequisite for the NDSM, but if one is serving in a hostile area, receiving the NDSM is pretty much a given. Vietnam War veterans automatically receive the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the NDSM if they’re in country. Korean War veterans receive the Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the NDSM. Desert Storm; the Southwest Asia Service Medal and the Kuwait Liberation Medal along with the NDSM. With such a criteria, one can plainly see why the NDSM is the most routinely issued award in the U.S. Armed Forces.

That’ll all change after December 31, 2022. The decision by the Department of Defense signals a more peacetime posture with the limitation of troop deployments and counterterrorism operations. We’re still involved in Syria, but major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have all ceased. Many veterans can scarcely remember a time when the NDSM wasn’t issued or couldn’t be found on a ribbon rack. Its appearance and commonality gave it a distinctive nickname, the ‘pizza stain’ for its red and yellow colors. Despite its formulaic criteria and issuance, the National Defense Service Medal for many represents their commitment at a time when the nation needed their service.

Untamable Tigers: A Review of ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ by Michael Booth

For the majority of 2020, China dominated mainstream media. News stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, travel bans, and subsequent blame placed for the outbreak of the disease led the nightly news and filled our social media timelines. China’s economy was growing at a blistering pace, but the export of a deadly contagion was not expected by many. Neighboring countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan quickly implemented their own quarantines and placed restrictions on Chinese products, resulting in seismic disruptions in the global supply chain. Distrust between the nations reached an all-time high. This distrust, however, was not a novel feeling. There has been animosity and suspicion between China, the Koreas, and Japan for generations. The history is long, complicated, and would take too many articles to completely deconstruct.

Despite the historical density, Michael Booth’s book, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ chronicles his personal journey of trying to understand these animosities. He travels between the nations, visiting historic landmarks, and gains a grassroots interpretation of a volatile geopolitical landscape. Apart from other history books, Booth doesn’t constantly throw specific dates or statistics at the reader. Instead he takes a tourist approach at the complex relationships, asking basic questions that many should ask themselves: Why have the three countries economies changed so drastically? What are the implications of a united Korean peninsula? Why are some offended by the Yasukuni shrine, but others revere its significance? Should we be worried if Japan is able to militarize again? Will China extinguish democratic sovereignty in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan? Booth’s opening phrase, taken from a Chinese proverb, ‘Two tigers cannot share the same mountain’ is a succinct opening to this international dilemma.

The Tree pruning incident of 1976 at the Joint Security Area within the Demilitarized Zone separating North Korea and South Korea. In this incident, two UNC guard officers were hacked to death by a gang of more than thirty North Korean Security Guards. Some of the North Korean Guards got axes that workmen were using to prune the tree and used them on the UNC Guards which resulted in the deaths of the two US Army Officers. Booth referenced this incident in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’ as an example of the constant tension between the two Koreas. (Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

Booth travels by taxi, train, ferry, and car through various points of interest on his journey through the three nations. Writers, journalists, and academic scholars are his primary interviewees, but he has the occasional interaction with someone off the street that expands the grassroots feeling. He spends times interacting with expatriate communities in each country, where they deliver their interpretation of preceding histories and what it means for relationships between their birth and host countries. Major tension stems from the turn of the 20th century when Western colonial powers were waning in the Far East, resulting in a political power vacuum. Japan filled this void quickly by defeating the Russian Empire in 1905, which expanded their control over Korea, and placed the Chinese in precarious situations. In the late 1930s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria resulted in massive loss of human life and arguably started World War II (Booth doesn’t believe it began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland; it started in the Far East with Japan and I agree with him). The atrocities of World War II are, for many of Booth’s interviewees, the foundation for modern-day geopolitical animosity and grudges between people. War crimes, biological warfare, the atomic bomb; everything changed the balance of power when the war ended.

Booth does a phenomenal job explaining the complex dichotomies in direct terms. Not necessarily boiling them down because the details are incredibly important, but by showing how everyday people understand how their countries have changed over the past 70 years. He interviews a Chinese man who built his own museum dedicated to Unit 731, a weapons research department that performed lethal human experimentation on military and civilian prisoners. He states that many Chinese people today consume one of two stories; the official state version taught in school, or the heavily dramatized versions in popular entertainment. This disparity is not only limited to China because of its strict state control of the media, but is found in South Korea and Japan as well. Booth argues that accurate historical education is imperative to understanding the struggles between the Asian nations. That narrative can be distorted however, and that’s a real fear to Booth.

Apologies are another major trend in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’. This is especially common in the section on South Korea and Japan. For most of its history, Korea was subjugated by Japan or the Mongols. Japan is seen as the major perpetrator, especially during World War II. Comfort women and forced conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army were sticking points for the Koreans, who have been demanding official apologies from the Japanese government. While there have been public statements addressing the issue, Japan has somewhat skirted the issue or alleviate the Korean activists right up to the cusp of an apology. Older South Koreans understood the sacrifices their generations made, but Booth notes that not many of the newer generation understand that history though. Younger South Koreans put their energy into cosmetics, internet cafes, smartphones, and visiting Haesindang Park (the ‘Penis Park’; yes, that’s an actual place. Google it at your own peril). Booth highlights the importance of apologies in each section because as modern nations begin issuing official apologies for past grievances or war crimes, some are still encounter difficulties reconciling their history because the people remained divided. This is was the most poignant lesson that Booth recounts because we as U.S. citizens have our own historical demons with the subjugation and massacring of Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yasukuni Shine in Tokyo. An official Shinto shrine that remains a lightning rod for controversy in the post-WWII world.

Yasukuni Shine is another point of contention between the three nations. In a nutshell. this Shinto shrine serves as a war memorial for all deceased Japanese servicemembers. In these names are those convicted of war crimes, including fourteen Class A war criminals convicted of ordering or carrying out atrocities. Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine over the decades, which Korea and China have deemed offensive and controversies have even affected the Emperor of Japan’s actions. No emperor has visited the shrine since 1975, but this doesn’t prevent members of Japanese far-right political parties who advocate for Japan’s re-militarization. A portion of Japanese people still deny that any war crimes were committed during World War II and this leaves many Koreans and Chinese frustrated and unable to pursue future reconciliation. Throughout his interviews in Japan, Booth’s introspection kept returning to the importance of historical education. How could these nations rebuild their prestige and standing with one another if their younger generations denied what their ancestors did?

Overall, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ was a compelling and enlightening read. Booth’s combination of the grassroots history with the broader historical narrative really demonstrates how the course of history affects individual people. Some people will continue to have a burning hatred for another nation, while another embraces another cultural more than their own. All of it boils down to a well-rounded, properly informed education according to Booth. I couldn’t agree more. The ideology of one generation is undoubtedly shaped by another. If proper historical dialogue is replaced by negation and denialism, what can we expect to achieve in terms of global cooperation and cultural understanding? I take the grim view that tensions in the Far East will continue to simmer unless there’s a concerted effort for the nations to face their sordid histories and find a path to reconciliation. Otherwise, the three tigers will keeping circling one another until they all decide to pounce and see which emerges the sole survivor.

Yokohama Chinatown: one of many enclaves of expatriate communities in Japan. Some Chinese and Koreans extol Japanese social and economic virtues, but others are still unable to let go of the historical bad blood between their home countries.

Protecting the Tiger: The Korea Defense Service Medal

The United States Armed Forces has installations around the world and partners with critical nations for their national defense. After World War II, we created a special command for the Far East, we have a massive presence in NATO and Western Europe, and our Navy criss-crosses the globe. At the close of the Korean War, the armistice signed on July 26, 1953 may have ended the actual fighting, but no formal peace has ever occurred. With this, the U.S. has maintained a defensive garrison in South Korea. The United States Forces Korea (USFK), part of the larger Indo-Pacific Command, oversees the combined command with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and conduct a series of military training exercises and humanitarian missions. Over 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea at any given time.

Lieutenant General William Harrison and General Nam Il signing the armistice at Panmunjom. ROK President Rhee refused to sign the armistice and no formal treaty has been ratified between the two nations (Image courtesy of Department of Defense)

For fifty years, South Korea was another nation in the larger geopolitical defense policy of the U.S. and a less than desirable posting. In 2002, service members finally began receiving recognition for their contributions in South Korea with the creation of the Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM). Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the KDSM is awarded to any service member who serves at least thirty consecutive days in South Korea or sixty non-consecutive days. If someone is wounded by enemy combatants while in South Korea, they automatically receive the award, regardless of time overseas.

Under the award criteria, any veteran that was stationed in South Korea since July 27, 1954 may receive the KDSM. Within this period if a veteran served in Korea between October 1, 1966 to June 30, 1974 they can also qualify for the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. This was in response to the Korean DMZ Conflict in the late 1960s.

The Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM). Only one medal is issued no matter how long; no oak leaves, service stars, or other appurtenances are authorized

The significance of this medal isn’t only for recognizing overseas service, but it’s a reminder of the legacy of the Korean War. The status quo that has remained for over sixty years may continue for decades more as the two Korean nations remained divided at the 38th parallel. The U.S. remains a staunch ally to the South Koreans and the KDSM signifies our perpetual commitment to the Republic of Korea.

‘Some People Have To Get Killed’: CIA Operations during the Korean War

You’re a Korean refugee on an island in the Pacific Ocean. A shadowy American tells you that you’re going to be trained to infiltrate Communist-controlled Korea. Technicians teach you basic survival skills–albeit through an interpreter since he can’t speak Korean–and assign you to codenamed teams [White Tiger, Yellow Dragon]. A short time later, you’re parachuting in the darkness over enemy territory and if the briefing intelligence holds true, you can expect to lead guerrillas and resistance groups against the Communists. Underlying this operation though is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Falsified intelligence, poor preparation, and administrative failures lead to your capture, interrogation, and likely death. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted numerous paramilitary operations on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War (1950-1953) and the majority ended in failure. Contemporary analysts and modern historians agree that the CIA’s first ‘hot war’ was not its finest hour.

The CIA was only three years old by the outbreak of the Korean War. The National Security Act of 1947 established the agency and the National Security Council, all with the goal of enhancing the United States’ international security. With eyes on the U.S. leading the post-war world, the CIA needed to act. Sources inside North Korea and China were severely limited however. Much of the agency’s personnel and financial resources were centered on Europe, believing that was the more imminent Communist threat. Any high level information from the Far East was procured by South Korean President Syngman Rhee or the Chiang Kai-shek regime and was at best, marginally truthful. Old State Department files provided additional, albeit outdated, information. The lack of intelligence officers and sources in Korea left the U.S. perilously unprepared for the North Korean invasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur stonewalled the agency from conducting paramilitary operations, but the Director of Central Intelligence, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith (a decorated WWII general who served as Gen. Eisenhower’s chief-of-staff) directed agents to provide tactical intelligence to UN forces. A special group within the Office of Reports and Estimates focused solely on Korea as a way to increase the agency’s analysis. What followed however were a series of intelligence failures that embarrassed the agency.

Hundred of CIA agents and trained guerrillas were parachuted into North Korea, but many were captured within days of landing. Hundreds of operatives were tortured and executed by the Communists (photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, ca. 1951)

The first was the agency’s assessment of Chinese intervention. In an dispatch to President Truman and General MacArthur’s Wake Island conference, the CIA argued that the Chinese would not attack the Korean peninsula. Two sources inside the Tokyo station disagreed however, claiming that hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were poised to cross the Yalu River. These reports were ignored and when the Chinese launched their assaults in November 1950, Bedell Smith was stunned. Having misread the enemy, the CIA needed to re-prioritize its operations and intelligence analysis. Deputy Director of Plans, Allen Dulles (future Director of Central Intelligence) and Smith quarreled over the effectiveness of covert missions. In declassified documents from 2002, Smith received vague and circular answers from his deputies on the status of overseas operations. This opaqueness resulted in unending frustration that plagued the CIA’s role in the Korean War. Most paramilitary operations were described as, “not only ineffective but probably morally reprehensible in the number of lives lost.” Peter Sichel, the Hong Kong station chief described these efforts as “… suicidal and irresponsible. They were sent to supply nonexistent or fictitious resistance groups.” As events on the battlefield transpired, the agency explored options in gathering solid intelligence and inserting moles into the Communist bloc.

Frank Wisner, chief of covert operations, was a giant in the early days of the CIA. Having conducted numerous operations in Europe, he embarked on a similar approach to Korea. Pitching millions of dollars to creating an agent training center in Saipan, many of the same lessons taught by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII were applied in Korea. A problem however was the lack of geographical, historical, and economic information available to the deployed officers. The Eurocentric focus left many ill-suited on Far Eastern scenarios. Tim Weiner, a CIA historian, writes that this deficiency had bloody consequences for the agency:

These men [CIA agents] were thrown into battle with little preparation or training. One among them was Donald Gregg, fresh out of Williams College. His first thought when the war broke out was ‘where the hell is Korea?’…. Gregg took tough Korean farm boys plucked from refugee camps, brave but undisciplined men who spoke no English, and tried to turn them into instant American intelligence agents. The CIA sent them on crudely conceived missions that produced little save a lengthening roster of lost lives.

Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, p. 55

The world of covert intelligence gathering and operations requires a high level of scrutiny to determine the accuracy of information. Checking the validity of sources and having reliable contacts are pillars in making judgements for operations. In Korea though, fabricated reports and outright lies were commonplace. Enterprising men who approached agency officers with ‘insider information’ were later revealed to have been con men trying to insert themselves into the Rhee regime or CIA payroll.

DCI Smith (left) and President Truman (right) discussing over a large globe. DCI Smith was seen as an innovator who modernized the CIA, but operational and intelligence failures in Korea plagued him constantly during his tenure (Image courtesy of the CIA, circa 1950-1953)

One notable example involving the fabricated intelligence deception occurred with the activities of three brigades under OSS veteran Hans Tofte. Between April 1951 and September 1952, thousands of Korean exiles were dropped into North Korea with missions to serve as intelligence gathering teams, carry out guerrilla warfare tactics, and rescue captured American pilots. Hundreds of these exiles were captured and executed, but those who survived were sending back a flood of radio traffic detailing Communist operations. To the Seoul CIA station chief, Albert Haney, these operative were making progress by leaps and bounds. Providing valuable intelligence that could change the course of the war. Many of these reports became too fantastic to believe and Haney’s successor, John Hart, thoroughly reviewed these reports. It was odd that despite having two hundred officers in Seoul, no one spoke Korean. What Hart discovered was that nearly all Korean operatives were actually feeding manufactured intelligence supplied by the North Koreans and Chinese. Another large portion were outright lies by operatives themselves. This intelligence had already been passed up the chain of command and used as a foundation for covert and military operations, but it was faulty from the start. The damage was done and irreparable. But how to emerge from this debacle without publicly tarnishing the CIA?

Deputy Director of Intelligence, Loftus Becker, was sent to assess the Seoul station’s ability to conduct uncompromising intelligence gathering, but quickly concluded that enemy penetration was too easy. No reliable reports could be generated and it was evident that the CIA would have to start over in the Far East. No one was able to infiltrate the North Korean regime and the agency was being deceived at every turn. In a meeting with senior agency leaders, Frank Wisner stated:

We are all aware that our operations in the Far East are far from what we would like… We simply have not had the time to develop the quantity and kind of people we must have it we are to successfully carry out the heavy burdens which have been placed on us.”

Legacy of Ashes, p. 58

What directed many of the CIA’s policies was its emphasis on Europe. Asia was normally considered a secondary theater that did not pose a significant danger. Allen Dulles reinforced this ideology following his promotion to DCI and subsequent intelligence failures in China and Indochina. The legacy of the Korean War for the CIA was one of recurring disappointment. The best that could be said was that Bedell Smith’s restructuring of agency offices and command chain is still used today, but nothing can salvage the cost of human lives that were lost trying to combat the Communists in Korea.

The War for Both Koreas: A Review of ‘Korea: The Limited War’ by David Rees

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.

United Nations troops fighting in the streets of Seoul, September 20, 1950. Seoul sat just below the 38th Parallel and in three years of conflict, the city changed hands four times (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985)

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.

Soldiers barbequing in Pongdong, Korea, November 25, 1950. With the rapid pace of U.S. forces in Korea, many Americans believed that the war really would be over by Christmas (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985)

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.

Brigadier General Courtney Whitney, Far East Command; General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, and Major General Edward Almond, Commanding General, X Corps in Korea, observe the shelling of Inchon from the USS Mount McKinley, September 15, 1950 (Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985)

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.

American and U.N. POWs in a North Korean prison. POWs underwent some form of interrogation, torture, and re-education as a form of psychological warfare and indoctrination into Communist ideology. The exact number of POWs who died while incarcerated is unknown (Image courtesy of United Nations Command)

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.

UN delegate Lieut. Gen. William K. Harrison, Jr. (seated left), and Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteers delegate Gen. Nam Il (seated right) signing the Korean War armistice agreement at Panmunjŏm, Korea, July 27, 1953. South Korean President Rhee did not sign the armistice and only pledged to honor the agreement. North Korea cites this action as the basis for a state of war still existing between the two countries today (Image courtesy of the Department of Defense and Department of the Navy).