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22 June 2021

From the NS archive: Korean rehearsal

2 February 1952: If these armies have failed to destroy each other, they have not failed to destroy the country over which they have fought.

By Reginald Thompson

When Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War, Korea, which had been under occupation since 1910, was divided into two states, with the Soviets in the north and the Americans in the south. In 1948 the occupied zones became two sovereign states, with a socialist state established under Kim Il-Sung in the north and a capitalist state under Syngman Rhee in the south. As both governments claimed to be the sole legitimate government, by 1950 war had broken out again. Writing two years into the Korean War, the New Statesman correspondent Reginald Thompson reflected on the destruction caused by decades of conflict and colonisation. Examining the influences of foreign occupation and the changes in warfare tactics throughout the 20th century, Thompson concluded: “War, as mankind has known it, has ceased to be effective: two world wars have proved this; Korea has added a postscript and underlined the truth.”


Two armies have been intermittently engaged in warfare in Korea since the autumn of 1950, and – properly, on their respective merits – have reached a military stalemate. The methods employed have been entirely dissimilar. The one side, highly mechanised and equipped with a wealth of modern weapons, has confined itself largely to roads and inhabited areas, using little more than one-tenth of its manpower as forward troops. The other side, lightly armed and without the means directly to counter its opponents, has avoided roads and inhabited areas, and used nine-tenths of its manpower as fighting troops.

If these armies have failed to destroy each other, they have not failed to destroy the country over which they have fought. This result has been brought about by the mechanised force and its chosen method of “total interdiction”. All the major towns of Korea with the exceptions of Taegu and Pusan have suffered the most terrible destruction; the slow and painful efforts at industrialisation have disappeared; roads and railways have been gravely damaged; hundreds of villages have been erased from the face of the earth, and countless people, caught in this dreadful exercise, have been reduced to ashes with their homes, or condemned hopelessly to roam the barren wilderness. Few of them know why.

The military lessons of this tragedy merit study. Throughout the period from the Inchon landing in September, 1950, to the retreat of the routed Americans from the Chongchon river at the end of November, US troops and transport, guns and ammunition moved unmolested, even by day, over the narrow road channels. Troops seldom deployed off the roads; and camps were not camouflaged. On the sea, scores of warships moved with absolute freedom, able to bring their guns and carrier-borne aircraft to bear in support of ground forces. In the air, fighters and bombers and transport aircraft operated at will, without any precautionary measures, while huge cargoes of supplies were able to move continuously and without protection between the Japanese sea and air bases and the Korean battlefield. Never could modern weapons and “total interdiction” have a better chance to prove themselves.

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In this period the Korean war, inasmuch as it was or is a war for the “liberation” of South Korea, was won and lost. I was privileged to be a close observer of the military performance. I followed the US forward troops closely from Inchon across the 38th Parallel and beyond the Chongchon river, and was with the rearguard of the retreat back through Pyongyang to south of the Parallel. On each and every occasion, advance was preceded by air and artillery attack on a very heavy scale, quite out of proportion to the resistance, real or imaginary. It became apparent from the outset that the purpose was to win by these methods alone; to obliterate the enemy. As a war correspondent, I wrote of it as “the atom mind” and of troops as “the street cleaners of the new war”. In this way Seoul, with its suburb of Yongdung-po, the capital city of South Korea, was shockingly destroyed, and half of its million inhabitants were killed or rendered homeless. The final defence of the city was conducted by not more than 20,000 hurriedly trained North Koreans, who could not muster anything heavier than a mortar in their artillery.

Step by step on the roads to the North, this method was pursued with results which have been well publicised. On the Chongchon river an American commander remarked to me: “We have won a whole lot of real estate, but we have not killed many enemy.” In fact, the real estate was in ruins, thousands of civilians had been killed; but the enemy continued to survive in the hills. In short, little had been achieved beyond the destruction of civilian lives and property.

Thus in Korea we see the new trend and pattern of warfare for the first time. In the 1914-18 war civilians were included. In the 1939-45 war civilians became equal targets with soldiers. Today civilians have become the main target. That is the meaning of ” total interdiction” and the atom bomb carries it to its conclusion…

At this point the Chinese came into the picture and without air support or artillery put the whole mechanised army to headlong flight at a speed and in a manner that must be unique in the annals of war. Again an American commander said to me: “Without air or artillery they’re making us look a little silly in this Godawful country.”

Nothing that the Americans have been able to do since has greatly changed the picture, for it is probable that the Chinese inability to exploit their advantages and sustain their pressures is much more due to their own limitations than to the incessant “total interdiction” to which they have been, and still are, subjected.

The lesson of all this, for me at any rate, was that long-range weapons cannot win a war. The US forces in Korea have demonstrated their ability to destroy without military virtue, or the gaining of a decisive advantage over their enemies. They have shown that the most modern implements of destruction are useless to achieve military result, and therefore a political result, without well-trained, well-disciplined and resolute men to follow up, defeat the enemy and consolidate. The United States policy of “total interdiction” means the blotting out of whole groups of civilians and their means of support. In terms of warfare it is almost meaningless.

Much of this was becoming clear in the latter stages of the Second World War. The appalling wastage of vital raw materials and the destruction of industrial plant and house, by all-out bombing was paying very small dividends. Territory had to be won and held: the opposing army had to be destroyed. The bombers brought about great hardship for civilians, and great loss of property, but they could not have encompassed the military defeat of the enemy. More than that, they rendered the victory economically and politically disastrous when at last it was obtained.

Soon after the Inchon landing I saw this type of warfare clearly as an attempt to substitute machines for men, and I realised that the atom bomb was but a natural extension of this type of thinking. By the end of November, when the flight from the Chongchon river was in full flood, and the troops and machines were racing back from the North through Pyongyang, it was apparent that this was true. It did not occur to anyone that the remedy might be to stand and fight; each mind seemed to spring instantly to the atom bomb. Indeed, it appeared to many of us, American and British observers alike, that this dreadful means of indiscriminate destruction was about to be employed. I have no doubt that in terms of victory it would have been in vain. In terms of liberation it would have been monstrous. In terms of aggression it would have been hideous. In terms of civilisation it would have destroyed the meaning of culture and rendered obsolete all prior meanings of the word evil. But it would have been logical, and no more than an extension, greater in degree, of napalm and high explosive.

The atom bomb has rendered such things as tanks, artillery and armies ridiculous. It has moved warfare entirely into the civilian sphere, and can achieve the virtual extinction of a country such as Great Britain. War, as mankind has known it, has ceased to be effective: two world wars have proved this; Korea has added a postscript and underlined the truth. In all human reason Hitler should be recorded as the last man to hold, and to attempt to prove, the contrary.

In both world wars the winners did not win; in both, the defenders, comparatively unarmed at the outset, defended themselves successfully. It is fair to suppose that a third venture would complete the proof, while probably involving mankind in something near to irretrievable disaster. Regarded as a weapon of “war” – as it used to be called while its purposes were still intelligible – the atom bomb is an “obsolete” weapon.

I am not a pacifist: in war, I have seen thousands of men at their best, and have been perhaps at my best myself. It has been the only period in my life when my services have been required and I have been able to earn a steady living. It is difficult to dislike such a situation. And my conclusion, after close observation of three very different wars in three continents, is that if we were ever called on to defend this country from attack, in the sense of invasion by its enemies, we need not be defeated: if we wish to defend ourselves we can do so. We could doubtless be extinguished by atom bombs, hydrogen bombs or bacteria; but against such instruments the tank and artillery which now consume with terrible profligacy vitally needed raw materials, would be utterly ineffective. Defence would depend on resolution and determination to resist, even if it were only with knives. And do not let us be squeamish about knives: killing discriminately at short range has much more to be said for it than the infliction of blind, purposeless annihilation from a distance. 

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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