Michael Howard writes about the Korean War, and about leaders that could not be abandoned

  • The Korean War by Max Hastings
    Joseph, 476 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2068 X
  • The Origins of the Korean War by Peter Lowe
    Longman, 256 pp, £6.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 582 49278 5
  • Korea: The War before Vietnam by Callum MacDonald
    Macmillan, 330 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 333 33011 0

For twenty-five years, between the studies written in its immediate aftermath and those based on archives opened a generation later, the Korean War was largely ignored. That was natural enough: there is always such ‘dead ground’ as the writing of history moves forward. But that war was so significant as a paradigm for international relations in the post-war world that we can deplore the failure of Western statesmen and, still more, soldiers, to keep it in mind as a guide-post and a warning of what lay in store for them if they attempted any further military interventions in the Third World. For a few years, under the wise guidance of Dwight Eisenhower, American leaders did so bear it in mind, and shaped their policy accordingly: they realised the unwisdom of becoming involved in a land conflict anywhere, especially in Asia. But only ten years after the truce was signed at Panmunjom in July 1953 the slide into Vietnam had begun. The effects of that terrible conflict have been longer-lasting. Even so, the United States has trembled on the verge of military intervention in Central America and does so now in the Middle East. Their present leaders, still obsessed with the memories of Munich, would do better to remember Korea.

The three books under review, all based on British and American archive material, tell the same story, even though they draw different conclusions from it. The defeat of Japan and the occupation of her empire sucked the United States into an Asiatic country about which they knew nothing and which they regarded, initially, as irrelevant to their own security. They accepted for occupation purposes an ad hoc division of the country along the 38th parallel, while looking forward, as did probably the Russians, to a mutual withdrawal of troops and the creation of an independent Korea. But the American military on the spot, ruling through the oppressive machinery inherited from the Japanese, regarded the militant and radical nationalism of the Koreans as ‘communist’ and imported their own surrogate, Synghman Rhee: American-educated, ferociously nationalistic, brutal in his methods and determined to reunite the peninsula under his own control. In the North, from among the Communist factions encouraged by the Soviet authorities, a comparable figure emerged in Kim Il Sung – a man no less ruthless and implacable in his ambitions and equally impatient of foreign direction. Reunification became impossible. A stage-managed election in 1948 enabled Rhee to present his regime to the West as acceptably ‘democratic’, but his oppressive domestic policy and open aggrandisement towards the North made the Americans view him with deep mistrust and provide only light equipment for his armed forces. But Rhee was staunchly anti-Communist, and in 1948-50, in the aftermath of the ‘loss’ of China and the Berlin Blockade, that was all that counted in Washington. The Americans did not like him; they could not spare the forces to defend him; but in the last resort he could not be abandoned. How many such figures have emerged in the Third World since!

Out of that dilemma there developed the misunderstandings which led to the Korean War. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff advised in 1949 that ‘to apply the Truman Doctrine in Korea would require prodigious effort and vast expenditure far out of proportion to the benefits to be expected.’ On 12 January 1950, Dean Acheson as Secretary of State gave a public review of US defence commitments in the Pacific which excluded Korea from their perimeter. It was probably in the light of such information coming out of Washington – where, it will be recalled, Philby, Burgess and Maclean were all active – that Stalin did not discourage Kim Il Sung from using the military equipment with which the Russians had lavishly provided him, and invading South Korea. On 25 June the army of North Korea struck south across the 38th parallel.

We are still living with the effects of that colossal misjudgment. In spite of their profound internal divisions, American political and military leaders were united in seeing this as an overt act of Soviet-inspired aggression: one more step in a sinister and deliberate process which had already started in Europe and parallelled the march of Nazi conquest which had occurred only ten years earlier. Korea might be as irrelevant militarily to US security as Poland had been to Britain in 1939. The United States, its forces demobilised and its attention focused on Europe, might be in no better condition to defend it. But this was a challenge to which, for political reasons as much domestic as foreign, the American leadership had to respond. Truman himself, the embodiment of Middle America, had no doubts about it. But the response involved the virtual militarisation of the United States: the reversal of demobilisation, the tripling of the defence budget, the implementation of all the plans for rearmament which the Armed Forces had had on their drawing-boards since 1948 but which they believed it would be impossible ever to put into effect.

So conveniently did the Korean War fit into the plans of those who believed in the need to remilitarise America that revisionist historians have inevitably suggested, as of course have Soviet writers, that it was the South Koreans who, with American connivance, really started the war. The many border infractions and provocations by South Korean troops, Synghman Rhee’s openly-proclaimed ambitions and the coincidental presence of the hawkish John Foster Dulles in Seoul have been cited in evidence, but none of the works under review provides any substantiation for this interpretation. The scale and weight of the North Korean attack speaks for itself. And as Max Hastings properly reminds us, the United States deliberately deprived Synghman Rhee’s forces of an offensive capability, as the Soviet Union did not for their own clients. The Pentagon hoped, in the event of a North Korean attack, that US air and sea power could adequately support South Korean ground troops, but the first hours of the war showed how false this assumption would be. South Korea, like territory anywhere in the world, could only be adequately defended on the ground, and American forces had to be put in to do it.

American forces – for this was to be Washington’s war. The overtness of the aggression and the coincident absence of the Soviet Union from the Security Council enabled the United States to mobilise their built-in majority in the United Nations and conduct a war, for the first and last time, under the banner of ‘collective security’. But allied contributions were made not so much out of enthusiasm for that cause as from a desire to retain the good will of the United States for the protection, if need be, of their own territories. The British in particular were anxious to obtain a substantial American component for the defence of Western Europe, and in spite of the overstretch of their own armed forces realised the need to provide a quid pro quo. The small British contingent acquitted itself brilliantly, but the additional strain on the economy set British recovery back perhaps by ten years. As so often since, the British went along with the Americans over a policy about which they had profound doubts, in the hope that their presence and advice might limit the damage. And those doubts were deepened by the policy and conduct of Douglas MacArthur – a figure who embodied all those elements in the American tradition with which the British found and still find it most difficult to come to terms.

MacArthur was, as Max Hastings rightly reminds us, a great soldier and a great man. To this the Inchon landings in September 1950 which turned the tide of the war bear convincing witness. But he was a megalomaniac; and he was ultimately to be defeated by those other, more moderate elements in the American tradition Which the British most admire and on which we continue to rely for the preservation of peace and balance in the world. In any case, MacArthur was fighting a different war. He saw Korea neither in the context of Soviet ‘piecemeal aggression’ nor, as did the Joint Chiefs in Washington, as a deliberate feint to distract the Americans from the main battlefield in Europe. For him it was an opportunity, in combination with Chiang Kai-shek, to reverse the ‘loss of China’. Only extreme conspiracy-theorists would argue that his insistence on crossing the 38th parallel and taking the war to the Chinese frontier, in the teeth of all the evidence that this would provoke Chinese intervention, was part of a deliberate intention to involve the Chinese in the war. But certainly his loss of interest in the Korean front once the Chinese had crossed the frontier and were inflicting crushing defeats on his forces, and his demands that the war should now be carried to the Chinese mainland itself, showed where his heart really lay, and made his dismissal essential if the US Government were to show itself capable of governing at all. The admirable General Ridgeway was left to stabilise the front, and the long business of peace-making could begin.

Altogether it is an astonishing story. The Korean War was a struggle, not only between two power-blocs for the control of the Korean peninsula, as Callum MacDonald bleakly concludes, nor for the vindication of international law, as Max Hastings is still inclined to believe, but for the soul of America: a bitter debate over what kind of super-power the United States was going to be. It is not surprising that so many American historians have seen the war primarily as the background and occasion for the ‘Truman-MacArthur controversy’. It was an event, indeed, which engendered an entire academic industry devoted to ‘civil-military relations’. In consequence, there has been a notable lack of comprehensive studies of the war itself.

No disrespect is intended to the careful and well-documented analyses by Peter Lowe and Callum MacDonald in suggesting that so complex and tragic a drama, involving such remarkable protagonists and causing such widespread suffering, needs the skills of a story-teller as accomplished as Max Hastings to do it justice. The fear and bewilderment of American troops pitchforked into a struggle for which they were psychologically and physically unprepared; the confusion and incompetence of their commanders; the nightmare sufferings of the Korean people themselves, caught between the brutality of their own countrymen and the American penchant for using air power to make up for the shortcomings of their troops; the bizarre affair of the Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war, terrorised by their own commissars under the indifferent or intimidated eyes of their Western guards – out of all this Max Hastings makes a brilliant and compelling book which must rank, even by the standards he has set, as a masterpiece.

What was the point of it all? Callum MacDonald is dismissive: ‘In retrospect the Korean conflict seems less an exercise in collective security than an example of intervention against a Third World revolution which threatened to disturb the global status quo.’ Peter Lowe, while agreeing that ‘it is likely that North Korea took the initiative in advancing,’ insists that ‘responsibility for the outbreak and initiation of the war must be shared widely,’ and believes that ‘left to her own devices Korea would probably have become a radical and very possibly communist state but one that would not have been subservient to the Soviet Union or China.’ His editor Professor Hearder indeed suggests that such an outcome ‘might well have brought greater stability to the area’. Was the American intervention therefore a ghastly mistake?

Max Hastings does not think so. The Americans and their allies, he reminds us, did effectively ‘stop Communism’. ‘At the 38th parallel a border persists today between one of the most advanced and one of the most backward societies in Asia.’ Oppressive as were the regimes of Rhee and his successors, deplorable as is their record on human rights, no comparison is possible between the society they have created and the narrow obsessive dictatorship of Kim Il Sung. So ‘if the Korean War was a frustrating, profoundly unsatisfactory experience, more than thirty years later it still seems a struggle that the West was right to fight.’

The sympathies of your reviewer lie on the whole with Max Hastings. Whether or not the West was ‘right to fight’, under the circumstances of the time they had no serious alternative. A civil war is one thing: crossing an established frontier with massive armed force is, pace Peter Lowe, quite another, and was bound to be seen as quite another – not only in Washington but in London, Canberra, Ottawa and even New Delhi. But the decision to extend the war northward beyond the 38th parallel involved a miscalculation almost as grave as Kim Il Sung’s initial invasion of the South. And it is fair to wonder whether, if the Western way of warfare had not relied quite so heavily on obliterating by air bombardment the societies it was designed to libèrate, the North Korean regime would be quite so bitter and obsessional as it is today. Certainly it would be not only fair but wise to remember the lesson that the complexities of emerging nationalism throughout the world are not best viewed through the narrow perspectives of the Cold War.