How wars begin

Jon Halliday

  • The Korean War: History and Tactics edited by David Rees
    Orbis, 128 pp, £7.99, September 1984, ISBN 0 85613 649 2
  • Der Koreakrieg 1950 bis 1953: Das Scheitern der Amerikanischen Aggression gegen die KDVR by Olaf Groehler
    Militarverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 120 pp, DM 6.50
  • The Rainy Spell, and Other Korean Stories translated by Suh Ji-moon
    Onyx, 255 pp, £12.95, December 1984, ISBN 0 906383 17 X
  • The Complete Book of MASH by Suzy Kalter
    Columbus, 240 pp, £15.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 86287 080 1
  • The Last Days of MASH by Alan Alda and Arlene Alda
    Columbus, 150 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 88101 008 1

On 5 July 1953, three weeks before the end of the Korean War, Winston Churchill was about to step out onto the croquet lawn with his doctor, Lord Moran, and with Field Marshal Montgomery, when Monty asked him: ‘What is our policy in Korea? It is no good making war without a policy.’ Churchill replied with a reference to the President of South Korea:

If I were in charge, I would withdraw the United Nations troops to the coast and leave Syngman Rhee to the Chinese. But the American public would not swallow this. Korea does not really matter now. I’d never heard of the bloody place till I was 74. Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.

Later that month, just before the Korean Armistice was signed, President Eisenhower confided to his diary:

It is almost hopeless to write about the Korea-Rhee situation ... It has been a long and bitter experience, and I am certain in my own mind that except for the fact that the evacuation of South Korea would badly expose Japan, the majority of the United Nations now fighting there would have long since attempted to pull out ... Certainly we must be extremely wary and watchful of both sides. Of course, the fact remains that the probable enemy is the communists, but Rhee has been such an unsatisfactory ally that it is difficult indeed to avoid excoriating him in the strongest of terms.

It is hard to read these remarks by the heads of the two main Western governments which had been fighting in Korea for three years as suggesting anything other than that they thought supporting Rhee had been rather a mistake. But was Rhee himself the problem? Was it his regime? Or was it the whole Western undertaking in Korea since the Japanese surrender in 1945?

Some of the archives have now been opened in the USA and Britain, and they contain many startling revelations. Much important work has already been done on some of the new findings, particularly in America, and there have also been interesting revelations from the Communist side. The time has come to reappraise the West’s stance as it was publicly articulated at the time, together with the material on the war which has been forthcoming from Communist countries and which has hitherto been subject to dismissal in the West. Probably the single most important basic point which is ignored in the standard Western literature is one made by Edgar Snow in the opening sentence of a little-known article written after visiting US troops in South Korea at New Year 1946: ‘When everything has been said about our occupation of Korea, probably the most significant thing is that we stopped a revolution here.’ This was less than six months after the Japanese surrender, and only four months after US troops had arrived in the southern half of Korea. Few in the West took the trouble then to find out about the nature of the Korean revolution. Few were even honest enough to acknowledge that it existed. And almost no one in the West has conceded that this is what the Korean War of 1950-53 – a civil war delayed by outside intervention – was really all about. Korea was still, de jure, a single nation. In 1949, envisaging the possibility of a ‘civil war’, Owen Lattimore wrote: ‘America, which has in China complained of the bad luck of having inherited the Kuomintang through no fault of its own, has in Korea manufactured its own Kuomintang. To support our proclaimed policy of world-wide opposition to police states, we have in South Korea created a weak and unreliable police state of our own.’

Western historiography has become fixated on a few very narrow issues, of which the main one is usually formulated as some variant of ‘Who started the Korean War?’ – meaning ‘Who fired the first shot on the morning of 25 June 1950?’ But there are questions about the war which have rarely been asked in the West. What were its causes? What was the nature of the Korean revolution which, as Snow noted, the US blocked immediately it landed? And what was the relationship between domestic political forces and outside intervention? Standard Western texts tend to stress Great Power manoeuvring (usually, as Rees does, travestying the real positions of the USA and the USSR on Korean independence and unification) and to downgrade domestic Korean developments. It is one of the great merits of Bruce Cumings’s path-breaking work, The Origins of the Korean War (1981), that it reinstates the domestic component, making it possible to evaluate the background and credentials of the main political forces and leaders vying for state power throughout Korea. The aging conservative, Syngman Rhee, who had been in unbroken exile in the USA for 34 years, and had little backing in Korea, was flown back into Korea clandestinely in a US plane over two months after the Japanese surrender. His supporters present him as an authentic leader of the nation. The radical Kim Il Sung, who had fought a tough guerrilla war against the Japanese in Manchuria and had long been associated with the anti-Japanese resistance – which was the key to Korean politics in 1945 – was written off in the West as a Soviet ‘puppet’. In fact, he was a Korean nationalist, with closer ties to China than to Russia. Rhee’s regime was, if anything, worse than the Kuomintang, since it relied largely on former collaborators with the hated Japanese. When the Korean War erupted in June 1950, every top commander in the South Korean Army except one was a former member of the Japanese Imperial Army. In effect, the West backed a force whose European equivalent in Yugoslav terms would have been an army headed by ex-members of the Waffen SS and the Ustashe against former Partisans.

The outbreak of full-scale fighting on 25 June 1950 has to be placed in the context of the heavy fighting in Korea before that date: this involved both large-scale uprisings and guerrilla warfare in the South, and serious fighting across the dividing line between North and South, the 38th Parallel. The peasant uprisings of late 1946 involved millions of people. In late 1948, shortly after the US had formally transmitted power to a South Korean regime headed by Syngman Rhee (and opposed by virtually all other political forces in the country), the new South Korean Army was shattered by major mutinies: some large towns were held by mutineers with local support for up to a week. In May 1949 two frontier battalions defected, with their officers, to the North. Meanwhile, guerrilla warfare broke out throughout much of the South, and was particularly strong on Cheju Island, off the south coast – the furthest point from North Korea. Cumings has described the suppression of the rising on Cheju Island as ‘one of the most brutal, sustained, and intensive counter-insurgency campaigns in post-war Asia’.

Although guerrilla warfare declined sharply in early 1950, fighting across the 38th Parallel continued. Almost two thousand major incidents were recorded before 25 June. Standard Western sources usually attribute the bulk of these to the North. But in August 1949 the senior US officer in Korea, General Roberts, wrote to a friend:

Each [incident] was in our opinion brought on by the presence of a small South Korean salient north of the parallel. Each was characterised by the [South Korean] COs screaming: ‘invasion, reinforce, ammo!’ ... The South Koreans wish to invade the North ... Both North and South are at fault. No attacks by the North have ever been in serious proportions.

The two most important points in Roberts’s letter are that the South was encroaching, and that Southern officers were attempting to pass off their own forward movements as Northern invasions – almost a year before June 1950.

David Rees feebly attempts to neutralise the South’s belligerence by stating that ‘Rhee called rhetorically for a march north.’ No one who has read what Rhee said, and ordered, could fairly describe his actions as ‘rhetorical’. Rhee and his entire top command openly called for an invasion of the North. The former Chief of the South Korean Navy General Staff told me how he was ordered in August 1949 to sail north to try to sink the entire North Korean Navy. After the Armistice, Rhee argued vigorously for US backing to start the war again, and told an interviewer: ‘We started the fight in the first place in the hope that Communism would be destroyed.’ When the Communists took Seoul, the Southern capital, in June 1950, they seized archives which, they claimed, showed that Rhee planned to invade the North. They sent copies of these to the UN. Some of the documents were authenticated by their American recipients and authors; none, so far as I know, was disowned. The documentation reached the UN – and subsequently disappeared.

A core element of the Western consensus is that Russia triggered, or at least sanctioned, the start of the Korean War. Since Kim Il Sung and the Korean Communist movement were ‘puppets’, they could not engage in autonomous acts: at this time Dean Rusk, one of the two men who drew the line through the middle of Korea in 1945, was calling China ‘a Slavic Manchukuo’. The publication of Khrushchev’s memoirs in 1971 seemed to clinch the Russian involvement. The memoirs state flatly that the Korean Communist leader Kim Il Sung came to Russia twice and planned the invasion with Stalin. But, as John Merrill demonstrated in the Journal of Korean Studies (1981), the published version differs in important respects from what Khrushchev says on the tapes. On the tapes, Khrushchev gets the date of the confirmed visit by Kim out by a whole year – when timing is rather important. And he cannot date the alleged second visit – about which he expresses considerable uncertainty – at all. The Western editors have ‘corrected’ Khrushchev’s dates and excised his reservations.

Perhaps the biggest knock to the Western position comes from the head of the UN forces, Douglas MacArthur, hardly a man to suspect of going soft on a Communist conspiracy. At a time when Western governments were loudly proclaiming Soviet responsibility for the Korean War, MacArthur was saying in private that this was not the case. In a report dated 21 November 1950, a senior Australian official with the UN states that MacArthur told him: ‘No evidence has been found of any close connection between the Soviet Union and the North Korean aggression ... MacArthur thought that, if it had really inspired the North Korean aggression, the Soviet Union would not have abandoned the North Koreans so completely, giving them no assistance whatever. “This would have been the greatest betrayal in history since Judas accepted his thirty pieces of silver.” ’ This information was available to the British and Australian Governments and, presumably, to the UN and the USA.

The Korean War was presented by the West as Russia’s first move: a feint in the East to mask an attack in the West. It was used to stimulate a level of re-armament which transformed the face of the world. In Britain, the Labour Government put charges on NHS dentures and spectacles to pay for the increased military spending the war occasioned: the Labour Party split, Attlee’s government fell – and with it, in a sense, the Labour Party. The Korean War became the key turning-point in the post-war world, and the central episode of the Cold War. But if it was not a Russian initiative, much less the sinister prelude to a move by Stalin in the West, what was it? In essence, it was originally a civil war in a medium-sized Asian nation which threatened no one, and about which no one in the West knew or cared much. Long after the event, Richard Nixon wrote: ‘It [June 25, 1950] was a miscalculation by them, based upon a misrepresentation by us.’ Lord Gladwyn, British envoy to the UN during the Korean War, writes that he at first thought ‘the probability surely was that ... the invasion of South Korea – if it were an invasion – would result in the collapse of the rather unpopular and not very democratic Syngman Rhee’ and that, as he put it to a Foreign Office colleague, ‘the Americans will somehow arrange for this business in Korea to be settled out of court.’ He also thought the Russians were not about to move in the West. Harold Macmillan says he was ‘sceptical about a Russian attack in the West’.

Having committed troops from 16 countries, from all five continents, to blocking the unification of Korea under a revolutionary regime, the West decided that it would try to reunify Korea. Between early October and December 1950 the US and some of its allies, including Britain, occupied 90 per cent of the North’s territory – the only occasion, apart from the much lesser attempts to invade Albania, when ‘rollback’ was actually implemented, and the only time when the USA has ever occupied a Communist country.

North Korea has claimed that the UN forces carried out a campaign of terror and extensive massacres during their occupation of the North. The West’s response has been a deafening silence. What is not disputed is that Rhee’s forces carried out large-scale massacres in the South and treated their own population with contempt. The BBC correspondent, René Cutforth, wrote of ‘the horrible brutality’ of Rhee’s police in the South. The Observer correspondent, Philip Deane, wrote some years later of a massacre by Rhee’s police in which 1700 political prisoners were shot ahead of the advancing Communist forces: the South pinned its own misdeeds on the Communists, and this attribution was widely accepted in the West. When James Cameron tried to write about Rhee’s atrocities for Picture Post, his report was suppressed. The declassified files in the PRO show the British Government making very feeble gestures to dissuade Rhee from atrocities. The British officials seem to have had two main concerns: first, to make sure British troops did not get ‘demoralised’ by actually witnessing atrocities by Rhee’s forces; second, to conceal information about the South Korean regime from the British public, the press and Parliament. Given what Rhee did in the South, and the unsystematic evidence about what happened in the North during the UN occupation, it seems likely that extensive massacres were carried out in the North between October and December 1950. But the precise responsibility of Rhee’s forces and those of the West has not been nailed down. Syngman Rhee’s contempt for his own people is shown by an episode not mentioned in Rees’s volume: the National Defence Corps scandal, in which Rhee’s commanders rounded up several hundred thousand young South Koreans, allegedly for conscription but also to prevent them joining the People’s Army, the KPA – which some half a million in the South did join. The army commanders put the ‘recruits’ in concentration camps and appropriated their food and clothing. A source close to the Seoul Government cites, without disowning it, a report that over ninety thousand people died from starvation and cold in this incident.

We still do not know exactly how the Korean War started. But we do have a clear picture of how it ended – and of who did not want it to end. On 27 July 1953 an armistice was signed, but not by all the belligerents: the West’s ally, Syngman Rhee, refused to sign, and tried hard, and quite publicly, to get the war restarted. Eisenhower’s closest assistant, Sherman Adams, records in his memoirs that in the period leading up to the Armistice, ‘as the President and Dulles explained to the Cabinet, Rhee was in a position to throw Korea and the entire Far East into chaotic bloodshed.’ If he was prepared to do this in 1953, why not in 1950? The US prepared a plan (Operation Everready) to get rid of Rhee if he managed to block the Armistice. Adams records: ‘Eisenhower told the Cabinet again, as he had told them often during the truce negotiations, that he wished the South Koreans would overthrow Rhee.’

The biggest stumbling-block to the Armistice was the fate of the POWs. Most people in the West are convinced that the number of defecting POWs (matched by only a few ‘brainwashed’ Western defectors) proves that the Western cause was just. New information shows that the problem was not as simple as ‘voluntary repatriation’,– which is how the West presented it. The chief US negotiator at the truce talks, Admiral Joy, recorded in his diary that when Chinese prisoners registered their desire to return to Communist China, they ‘were either beaten black and blue or killed’ by Kuomintang ‘thugs’ whom the UN allowed to roam the POW camps. There was undoubtedly maltreatment on both sides, but more Communist POWs died in UN hands (often in pitched battles) than POWs from the UN member states in Communist hands.

Another crucial aspect of the war which has been grossly misrepresented in the West is what the UN did to the North during the 34 months when it did not occupy it. Already by November 1950 the US had officially grounded its bomber force, stating there were no more targets to hit – something which never happened in Vietnam. Much later, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, recalled that he asked to be allowed to ‘burn down’ five of the biggest cities in the North. ‘It’s too horrible,’ he was told. ‘Yet over a period of three years or so,’ LeMay stated, ‘we burned down every town in North Korea ... Now, over a period of three years, that’s palatable.’ The capital, Pyongyang, and all other major cities were razed to roughly Hiroshima status by high explosive and napalm. Groehler quite rightly describes what the US did as ‘terror bombing’, which culminated in the destruction of major dams and, in spring 1953, of irrigation systems. In an interview embargoed until after his death, General MacArthur described his plan to drop 30 to 50 atom bombs across the neck where Korea meets China and ‘to spread ... a belt of radioactive cobalt ... with an active life of between 60 and 120 years’. ‘My plan,’ he said, ‘was a cinch.’ Even the ‘good’ Eisenhower threatened the Chinese with atomic weapons not long before the truce was agreed. On his last page, Rees states in a caption: ‘the US decision not to resort to atomic weapons may have averted a third world war.’

Groehler and other Communist sources claim that the US also used germ weapons. These charges have usually been dismissed in the West but they have never been disproved. And there is a new element in the debate: claims by the Communist side, hotly denied at the time by the West, that the US had protected and re-employed the top personnel in both the Japanese and the German germ warfare programmes have been shown to be true. The head of the Japanese germ warfare programme, General Ishii, was taken to Fort Detrick, Maryland, in 1949, where his trail goes dead. The head of the Nazi germ warfare programme, General Schreiber, who after the war was condemned in absentia in Poland for medical experiments at Auschwitz, was taken to the US and later spirited away to Latin America.

The recently declassified British archives provide striking confirmation of previously dismissed Communist claims about the fate of the People’s Army after the UN landing at Inchon in September 1950. Most Western sources claim that the KPA collapsed after Inchon.) Communist sources, including Groehler, claim that KPA units fought behind the UN lines, along with sizable guerrilla units in the South. The reports from Air Vice-Marshal Bouchier, the British liaison officer at MacArthur’s HQ, make it clear that the Communist claims are substantially true. Bouchier says that when the UN forces were retreating from the North in December 1950 they had to fight their way back through ‘a well organised force’ of KPA behind the UN front lines.

The Korean War is a particularly tragic episode: first, because of the huge numbers of Koreans killed, maimed and traumatised by it – shown in some surprisingly frank stories from South Korea in the volume edited by Suh Ji-moon. But also because of the heavy cloud of lies, mis-information and evasion laid across it. The West seemed, on the surface, to be prodigal with leaks, revelations and information, but in fact concealed more than the Communist side. The West’s censorship of its correspondents has never been greater.

The most popular Western representation of the war has been MASH, the final episode of which scored an audience of 125 million in the USA – an all-time record. Commenting on this, the Guardian wrote that MASH was ‘not about Korea, of course ... but about Vietnam’. But MASH is about Korea – at least, about the West’s attitude both to Korea as a nation and to the Korean War. In its evasions and its almost total elimination of Koreans, MASH truly reflects the West’s fundamental attitudes. In the penultimate episode, Nurse Hotlips solicits ideas for a time capsule. ‘B.J.’ suggests Dante’s Inferno. Hawkeye comes up with a bottle of Cognac: ‘We drink to forget.’