Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Halberstam on the Korean War


I hadn’t read anything about the Korean War and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed David Halberstam’s work on baseball and culture (Summer of ‘49 and October 1964). So I was glad to read his book on “the forgotten war,” The Coldest Winter. At 661 pages, it was a bit of a slog and I skimmed in places. But it was immensely helpful for understanding the war’s primary causes, key battles, main characters, and the implications of our failures in Korea. 

In his epilogue, Halberstam traces the origins of this book to an interview with Fred Ladd during his research for The Best and the Brightest—on the failures of the Vietnam War (659-660). After a decade of writing and 43 years after the interview that planted the seed, Halberstam finally completed the book in 2007. (Sadly, this was his final book. He died at age 73 in a car accident on the way to an interview for his next book—again, on baseball.)

“The Forgotten War”

I should probably start with an apology and an explanation. If you’re familiar with the Korean War, my review of Halberstam’s book may be somewhere between old news and reinventing the wheel. But I’ve never read anything substantial about it—and I’m not nearly alone. Why has it received so little attention?

The Korean War should be a big deal in the American memory. It lasted three years (June 1950 – July 1953); it occurred near the outset of the Cold War; it involved Russia, Japan, China, and what would become Taiwan; it featured the best decision and worst antics of Douglas MacArthur’s famed career; it resulted in 33,000 dead and 105,000 wounded Americans (1.2 million dead when you include the Koreans and the Chinese); and it led inexorably to the disaster in Vietnam (4).

But from the beginning, its place in history has been diminished. Truman labeled it a “police action” rather than a “war,” not wanting to ramp up the temperature of the Cold War (2). This greatly upset the soldiers—then and afterwards, harming their legacy. Of course, maybe we’d remember it differently if the outcome had been a lot better. Halberstam notes that it “was a grinding, limited war.” After the first nine months, the “action” certainly didn’t rise to the level of WWII excitement. It was not a “great national war of unifying singular purpose”; it was a “puzzling, gray, very distant conflict…seemingly without hope or resolution.” (2)

It didn’t divide us—and thus haunt us—like Vietnam. It didn’t receive ample TV coverage; the news was still largely black-and-white. Elie Wiesel said the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. And indifference was the standard response here—at least for those not in the battle. Most folks back home were enjoying the consumer boom of the 1950s. In contrast, aside for a few brief ecstatic moments, the news from Korea “was almost always so grim.” (4-5)

The upshot: the Korean War was “orphaned by history.” (2) Halberstam went into a public library in Florida in 2004. He found 88 books on the Vietnam War and only four on the Korean War. No popular movies have been made about the Korean War. Its only significant pop-culture reference is the TV show M*A*S*H—a series set in Korea, but ultimately about Vietnam, at a time when one couldn’t criticize Vietnam directly. (Halberstam notes that the shaggy haircuts in M*A*S*H tell us that the show was really about Vietnam, since crew cuts were still required in Korea.)

Korea’s seeming obscurity was a problem from the outset. First, it was considered a backwater in terms of foreign policy. Halberstam’s second sentence fingers Secretary of State Dean Acheson with “a colossal gaffe” (1), by leaving South Korea out of America’s Asian defense perimeter. Second, Douglas MacArthur was busy running post-war Japan as its governor. He did “an admirable job of modernizing Japan.” (62) But he was not particularly concerned with the military there. He gave Korea even less attention, saying that it was a State Department issue (60-61). Third, when conflict began in Korea, most experts worried that it was merely a Soviet feint to disguise a larger and more important move in the budding Cold War.

Beyond inattention to Korea, America’s military had declined at a surprising and debilitating rate. Halberstam provides many reasons for this: a desire to return to a peacetime mindset post-WWII (and post-Great Depression—it’d been a tough 16 years!); being ill-at-ease with its new world-power role; an over-dependence on the nuclear option, imagining that it displaced the need for conventional military resources (142, 149); and the fiscal conservatism of Truman who didn’t want to continue paying so much for a military. Military spending fell from $91 billion to $10-11 billion and Truman wanted to get it down to $6-7 billion (177). As the war proceeded, spending would eventually rise to $55 billion (201).

This caused all sorts of trouble—directly and indirectly. The troops were poorly armed and poorly prepared. When trouble came, the lack of preparation and the resulting reluctance to enter the war necessarily led to charges of “appeasement.” (90) In light of the weak, early European approach to the Nazis and concerns about Communist aggression, many people reasonably believed that a strong response was ideal. Halberstam also argues that its ripple effects extended well beyond the war—that Korea “would poison American politics” and result in “deeply flawed” policy toward Asia and ultimately Vietnam.

Because of the Korean War, Truman took a beating in domestic politics. History has rescued his reputation and elevated the merit of his choices, but it’s gone too far. Truman was famous for insisting that “the buck stops here.” As such, he bears the blame for the poor preparation in the run-up to the War (138) and especially in failing to deal appropriately with General Douglas MacArthur.

One can still have sympathy for Truman. He was “dealing with a war he did not want, in a part of the world his national security people had not thought important, and relying from the start on a commander in the field whom he did not like, and who in turn did not respect him. The stars were not aligned from the start.” (102) But an objective history must find his approach to the military and the war to be far less than ideal.

Key Players on the World Stage: Rhee, Kim, Stalin, and Mao

Halberstam focuses considerable attention on the relevant world leaders. The president of South Korea (SK), Syngman Rhee, is largely described as a figurehead and a puppet (65-68). His ascension to power was a function of circumstances—the right man at the right time, given that he was in America when things were going poorly in Korea before WWII. His leadership was unimpressive; his troops were ill-prepared and ineffective. At least, relative to his American sponsors, the North Korean belligerents, and their Chinese accomplices, Rhee was largely a non-factor.

The leader of North Korea (NK), Kim Il Sung, was a much larger player—as the primary instigator of hostilities. Although Kim exaggerated his role, he had been a key guerrilla leader in the war against Japanese occupation (74). He had been installed by the Soviets and was loaded with help from Russian generals, but during the war, almost all of his assistance came from the Chinese. He “was somewhat of a contradiction, a fierce nationalist who was the creation of an imperial power.” (71) He was not charismatic, but he was a true believer in Communism and his own right to power. Long after the USSR had fallen and China had compromised, “Kim remained the last great Stalinist in power: rigid, doctrinaire, inflexible, a man who believed all the old truths even as so many of them had turned out to be false.” (77)

Stalin gets some play (346) as a foil to Mao and as someone who was trying to stir the pot behind the scenes. Stalin held the stronger hand and played it (361), treating Mao like a peon (352-354) and repeatedly breaking promises to support China’s effort in Korea (360). (Halberstam tells a wild story about Mao returning the favor later, holding a meeting with Khrushchev in a swimming pool, forcing him to wear a life preserver since he couldn’t swim! [352])

Coming into the Korean War, Mao and the Communists had driven out the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek, forcing him to Taiwan. Stalin’s quiet machinations and Chinese success vs. Chiang and America allowed Mao to become as a man of unprecedented power in China and for China to emerge as a world power (633). Of course, from there, things get increasingly brutal for China under Mao—the “Great Leap Forward” (634), staggering persecution, and Stalin-like purges of his “enemies”—or those who became known as “enemies of the people.” (636)

MacArthur believed that China would stay out of the Korean theater, leading him to be aggressive in pushing north. But Mao had other ideas. He “believed it was good for the new China and necessary for the future of the revolution, both domestically and internationally.” (338) Mao believed in “a single strand of history and in [himself] as its principal figure—in effect, serving as history’s man…powerful stuff.” (338-339) “Epic revolutions probably demand someone with a supreme, invincible sense of self, a belief in the price that others men have to pay for the good of their vision…rationalize great suffering for the good of the cause…no boundaries, no restraints…what began as an all-consuming vision became almost inevitably a great nightmare as well.” (339)

Pride and Prejudice

One recurring theme is that the leaders grossly overestimated their military prowess and underestimated their enemies (631). Kim wanted to rule the entire country and imagined that his troops would be welcomed by the South. He overestimated his military strength; he thought NK would be victorious in three weeks (1). He was fooled by his early dominance on the battlefield—before U.S. troops stiffened at Pusan, received reinforcements, and were eventually relieved by the invasion at Inchon. “Kim was still talking victory—while the Chinese were increasingly sure that he had already been defeated.” (168)

Second, after Inchon in September, MacArthur and Co. confidently expected to be done by Christmas (367). Troops sent from Japan were told to “pack their summer dress uniforms—for the victory parade that was soon to come in Seoul.” (145) The Joint Chiefs thought about replacing MacArthur with Matt Ridgway but thought Korea would be short and were worried about USSR efforts elsewhere in the world (153).

Third, with Mao’s “surprise” attack and early sweeping success, he imagined that they would easily drive the Americans off the Korean Peninsula, leading to strategic mistakes in overextending his troops (507). And then after the war, his success in Korea led him to a great leap backward for “the people.”

Eventually, each side was sobered a bit by failure—and with Ridgway in charge, the War settled into its long, slow, grinding phase. But over and over again, hubris had caused bad decisions and devastating consequences.

One key reason for the preeminence of pride was that these leaders used power and fear to control things—and then had sycophants who sucked up to them. When you scare everybody and then you surround yourself with yes-men, you quickly move from pride to self-deceit. As M. Scott Peck notes in The People of the Lie, when you start lying to others and then lying to yourself, it’s quite difficult to recover. Once you’re divorced from reality and you set up barriers for people to bring you back to reality, only exceedingly harsh realities have a chance to turn you around.

It was worst in Communist systems, where the leaders controlled the mechanisms of power far more completely. “Bad news tended not to filter back…[it was] sanitized step by step.” (306) But America had its own burden here. MacArthur was a legend; he was on the cover of Time magazine for the seventh time, immediately after NK first attacked (103). Halberstam quotes General Joseph Stilwell who noted that MacArthur got his first star in 1918 and was thus a general for 30+ years: “thirty years of people playing up to him and kissing his ass, and doing what he wants. That’s not good for anyone.” (104) When Truman didn’t deal forcefully with MacArthur early-on—and when he failed to prepare America militarily, especially in Asia—his lack of courage and passivity were at the crux of the genesis of our problems in Korea.

Another contributing factor was the racism that was prevalent into the mid-20th century, given evolution, pseudo-science, and Progressive ideology. The Chinese looked down on the Koreans. The Russians looked down on the Chinese. Most relevant, many American leaders looked down on all of the Asians. Racism starts in ignorance, dances with pride, and causes all sorts of damage.

Key Events/Battles

Halberstam’s book is not fully chronological, but it’s easy to follow the key events of the war. Let me provide an overview to give you a mental picture.

-From the 38th Parallel (the pre-war and post-war border between NK and SK, approximately dividing the peninsula in half), the NK’s invaded the South in June 1950. The SK troops were routed and a handful of heroic SK and American soldiers held on at the “Pusan Perimeter” (the southeast corner of the peninsula), trying to avoid another Dunkirk.

-The UN got involved with “resolutions”—and on the ground, predominantly American troops and material to bolster the defense. Then MacArthur invaded northwest of Pusan with a bold amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September. From there, the Americans quickly routed the NK’s and pushed them past the 38th Parallel.

-With victories in hand, the Americans confidently continued north with plans to stop at the Chinese border. But the Chinese sent hundreds of thousands of troops into the mountains of Northern NK, waiting in ambush. When they struck in late October, they routed the Americans and quickly pushed them back—all the way past the SK capital of Seoul in January.

-With more troops and the emergence of Matthew Ridgway as the top general, the Americans again pushed north of the 38th Parallel, where the war bogged down for its final two years. (Now check out this excellent Gif and its dates—at the Korean War’s Wikipedia page—to catch the rapid back-and-forth and then the stagnation.)

The surprise amphibious landing at Inchon was the key moment in the war—for what was accomplished there, but also for where it led MacArthur and the American effort. Inchon “broke the spirit of the NK military and opened all of NK to his forces.” (311) The invasion was “a brilliant, daring gamble…MacArthur at his best: audacious, original, unpredictable…” (293) Halberstam compares it to his “deft campaign in the Pacific” in WWII—“vast island-hopping distances accomplished with minimal casualties, he struck more often than not islands that were not Japanese strongpoints.” (294)

To pull off Inchon, MacArthur had to be immensely persuasive with the other commanders, convincing them that the plan was worth the risks (299). He compared the move to James Wolfe’s bold charge up the cliffs at Quebec—the pivotal battle of the French-Indian War in 1763 (299). But the success at Inchon would also lead MacArthur to imagine that such gambles would always pay off handsomely. Instead, his overconfidence and terrible strategic decisions led to disaster just a month later.

Once the Americans were off the ropes at Pusan and pushing the NK’s north, the question was where to stop. The 38th Parallel was the original border, but it was new and arbitrary, having just been established by the Russians and Americans after WWII—“almost as an afterthought, the division done in the most casual way at the last minute at the Pentagon.” (62)

Moreover, shouldn’t the NK’s be punished for their aggression? Would failure to push north be seen as appeasement or weakness that would be exploited by the Chinese or the Russians? Wouldn’t it be smarter for diplomatic ends to go past the original line and then negotiate back? Or thinking big picture: If the Chinese were defeated, would this open the door for the Nationalist Chinese of Chiang Kai-Shek to regain control of the mainland from Mao and the Communists?

Once you go past the 38th Parallel, how far do you go? The two basic choices were to take all of NK, pushing to the Yalu River at the Chinese border—or to capture the NK capital of Pyongyang and find an easily-defensible line north of there. Going further north was problematic. It is a mountainous and largely-uninhabited wilderness, with tougher weather, rougher terrain, and increasingly tenuous supply lines. And the country broadens out considerably as one goes north (383). If the Chinese entered NK at all, this would be an indefensible line and a horrible decision.

MacArthur decided to go to the Yalu and even encouraged soldiers to “piss in the river.” (390) But things went south soon after—metaphorically and literally. It was “a combination of the Second Crusade, Napoleon’s march on Moscow and Bataan…a monstrous error. Even if we battle to the Yalu at a great cost and by mastering logistic obstacles…we would be further out on a limb with no chance of extrication.” (406)

MacArthur was betting (heavily) that the Chinese would not enter the war—even though diplomatic channels and troop sightings provided clear warnings. It was “not so much a strategy as a bet…[and] the bet had been called.” (403) His gamble also included a low assessment of the Chinese if they did enter. In part, this was connected to his recent history (victory over Japan in WWII and the triumph at Inchon), his inflated sense of his knowledge of “the oriental mind” (369-372), and a then-all-too-common racism. (One irony here is Chinese and Japanese racism toward Korea as inferior. “Korea was a small proud country that had the misfortune to lie in the path of three infinitely larger, stronger, more ambitious powers—China, Japan, and Russia. Each of them wanted to use it either as an offensive base from which to assault one or the others or as a defensive shield to negate the possible aggressive designs of the other two.” [63])

So, MacArthur’s successes led to big trouble. Inchon and the subsequent weeks were so successful that “the appetite for a larger victory had been whetted…The more successful the U.S. was in the South, the harder it was to set limits going north. Anyone who tried to limit the offensive into the North would be labeled an appeaser.” (323) MacArthur wanted the glory of a bigger victory and would have been happy for a bigger war with China—for the glory and the opportunity to reestablish Chiang Kai-Shek. So, he over-extended his troops and stumbled into a huge Chinese ambush.

The results of the Chinese counterattack were quick and devastating. Halberstam quotes Frank Gibney: “Inchon was the most expensive victory we ever won because it led to the complete deification of MacArthur and the terrible, terrible defeats that happened next.” (332) All told, the retreat “was the greatest defeat suffered by the American military since the Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War.” (471)

Elements of the retreat were particularly brutal, especially what came to be known as “The Gauntlet.” (451ff) Troops were retreating through narrow valleys with the Chinese holding the high ground. The large American weapons and equipment became an impediment. If the Chinese could disable a large vehicle, it created “fish in a barrel.” The most famous battle from this phase of the war is the Marine heroics in breaking out of the Chosin Reservoir area—“certainly one of the great moments in the Corps’ history” (431), the result of “great individual courage and exceptional small-unit leadership.” (468)

On top of the defeat and the hubris that led to it, MacArthur aggressively tried to blame everybody else (440). But he could not evade responsibility effectively. Truman sent Matthew Ridgway to Korea—in essence, supplanting MacArthur from the most powerful position. Ridgway turned things around—completing the fast-moving phases of the war—in pushing the Chinese back across the 38th Parallel. The bulk of the U.S. renaissance occurred with three key battles in February 1951. Halberstam spends much time on the battles at Twin Tunnels, Wonju, and Chipyoungni (all of part 9: chs. 38-47). These defeats were “devastating” to the Chinese logistically and psychologically, with “grievous casualties” of “frontline” troops who had been forced to flee (587).

Once they reached the stalemate, it was still difficult to end the war—with battles, diplomacy, and politics dragging things out for another two years. There were “cruel costly battles” (including “Pork Chop Hill”) with “few breakthroughs” and no “turn-of-the-tide victory.” (624) One of the key problems was that many Chinese prisoners did not want to return to China! (625) The two Koreas were forced to recognize each others’ legitimacy. Americans also had to come to terms with a stalemate as a conclusion—and American politics had to express its distaste for Truman and the Democrats in the 1952 election. Finally, in late July 1953, the sides reached a truce.

Key Players in the U.S. Military

Dean Acheson plays a huge role in the book. Halberstam is rough on him—probably combined with his criticisms of Acheson about the Vietnam War. Halberstam points to Acheson’s racism, pseudo-science, and classism—and thus, his failure to understand Korea and Vietnam (186). He pokes at Acheson for his defense of Alger Hiss, particularly in such a difficult historical moment (188). Still, Halberstam notes that Acheson faced tremendous challenges—“as tumultuous a tour as any secretary of state ever endured, perhaps the single most difficult four-year stretch in the country’s history in terms of its foreign policy.” From Chiang to Mao, from the Soviets’ first atomic weapon to the Korean War, it was a tough time to be king or one of his lieutenants (187).

Walton “Johnnie” Walker was a prominent but relatively unsung general. He was in charge on the ground during the Pusan Perimeter defense and did a terrific job during the dark early days of the conflict. (Halberstam also devotes a big chunk of space to a Lieutenant Beahler who did vital work during this time, including going against bad orders from a superior [270-276, 279].) For those seven weeks, Walker “was nothing less than a remarkable, fearless commander, doing almost everything right.” (254) And yet, he was “the forgotten commander of the forgotten war.” (255) He was not one of MacArthur’s favorites, so he was overlooked in favor of generals like Ned Almond (who Halberstam crushes). Walker is also pivotal in an ironic way: his death in a car accident (486) led to the emergence of Matt Ridgway as the top general on the ground in Korea. (MacArthur formally gave the Eighth Army to Ridgway when he arrived on December 26 [491, 494].)

Ridgway had been on the rise since WWII. In fact, some military leaders wanted to keep him out of Korea because it might slow down his rise in the military ranks. But now he was definitely needed in Korea. “If ever an American officer was perfectly suited for a particular moment in American military history…to take over the shambles of a dysfunctional Eighth Army.” (487)

Halberstam points to four key moments in Ridgway’s career: talking superiors out of an air assault on Rome in 1943; leading the airborne assault on France for D-Day; helping French forces who were trapped in Vietnam in 1954; and reinvigorating of the troops in Korea (489). The Rome story was most impressive—as he challenged but failed to initially persuade his superiors. He then sent a deputy on “a daring mission behind German lines to meet with the Italians and recon the situation” (489), verifying his concerns and carrying the argument. Halberstam concludes that Ridgway was “someone whose courage away from the battlefield was the same as that on it.” (490)

Ridgway’s leadership style was more conducive than MacArthur’s to modern times. He was amazing in terms of logistics—working through the bureaucracy and private manufacturing to get bazookas produced, creating a “pre-FedEx super-supply system.” (491)  He was constantly on the ground in Korea (498), where MacArthur never made an appearance (11). He emphasized intel (499), where MacArthur has downplayed it and employed Charles Willoughby to use it for political purposes (54, 378-279, 382).

One of the ironies of the forgotten war is that its best general is overlooked because he took over in a phase when Americans were turning away from the conflict. But he was revered by those who fought there. Omar Bradley said of him that “his brilliant, driving, uncompromising leadership would turn the battle like no other general’s in our military history.” (492)

But Halberstam spends most of his time on MacArthur. He describes his WWII heroics (121-122, 294). After the war, he was worshipped by the Japanese and many Americans. Like many Americans, he wanted Nationalist China to be victorious over Mao and hoped for a bigger war in Korea that might led to that outcome. But Chiang and his troops were mostly worthless, leading to Mao’s triumph in 1949 (238-239, 241, 243).

MacArthur’s tremendous ego, his ironic willingness to defy authority, his vision for a greater war and Chiang’s victory in China, and his own presidential ambitions led to a simmering long-distance war with Truman. This put Truman in a tough spot, but his acquiescence led to the debacle in Korea from start to finish (134, 137, 365, Pt 10, 621-623).

Halberstam discusses MacArthur’s father and his exceedingly impressive Army career (105-113). Ironically, MacArthur was supplanted politically by Robert Taft among “conservative” Republicans—as MacArthur’s father had been sacked in the military realm by Taft’s father, President William Howard Taft (621). (On a side note, of the 30 people who have “laid in state” at the U.S. Capitol, the Tafts are the only father-son combination.)

Politically, Truman and the Democrats were in a difficult position. Years of ruling, through immensely challenging times—along with an unpopular war, a popular general who opposed the president, and powerful political symbols such as the prospects of appeasement in the face of Communism—made voters eager for something different. The GOP had been unable to take full advantage until 1952. The GOP gained many seats in the House in 1946, but then Truman upset Dewey after his lackluster campaign in 1948 (207-213). Democratic woes worsened along with prospects in Korea and Sen. McCarthy’s Red Scare paid some dividends leading into Eisenhower’s victory (173, 192, 647-656).

Halberstam provides a hopeful ending to his book: SK’s amazing post-war political and economic success—and the tentative return of Korean War veterans to the site of so much angst and grief (641-645). At the end of the day, one wonders how things would have gone without this troubling war—or if the war had been prosecuted differently. But in the end, life is amazingly good for the SK’s—and immense gratitude should go to the Americans who fought for them in the Korean War.

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