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The hot war in the east

Seventy years ago, on 25 June 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, starting the Korean War. The actions of the combatants, and their superpower sponsors, still reverberate today.

On Saturday 24 June 1950, President Harry S Truman was enjoying a quiet weekend at home in the Midwest with his wife and daughter. He had flown back to Independence, Missouri, for a rare break from the White House. But things didn’t work out that way, as Truman later recalled. “It was a little after ten in the evening and we were sitting in the library of our home on North Delaware Street when the telephone rang.” It was the secretary of state, Dean Acheson. “Mr President, I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea.”

The decisions taken by Truman and his advisers over the next six months redefined the Cold War. That story is less familiar than some of the European dramas of the time, such as the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift. Yet the Korean War of 1950-53 left legacies with which the world is still wrestling today. The 70th anniversary of that momentous weekend is a good reason to re-examine what happened in 1950.

The story that emerges also has topical implications. How do governments take decisions on matters of national security? How do they mobilise popular consent behind those decisions? What is the role of information, of overconfidence, and even raw fear? We like to pride ourselves on the rationality of democracies, but is that justified? The issues raised by the Korean War about taking decisions and mobilising consent are equally salient in our own pandemonic times.

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Nineteen forty-nine was a year of two halves for Joseph Stalin. He had been shaken by the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in April – the first time the United States had entered into a peacetime alliance with Europe – and humiliated by the successful American-British airlift to sustain West Berlin. This forced him in May to call off his almost year-long blockade of the city. But then followed two dramatic coups for the Kremlin. In August 1949 the USSR tested its first atomic device, by reverse-engineering details gained by Soviet agents of the US bomb tested in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. And then on 1 October, Mao Zedong proclaimed victory in China’s long civil war from the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The world’s most populous country had gone red. The global “correlation of forces” seemed to be turning in Moscow’s favour.

Stalin was on a roll. In February 1950 he tied the new Chinese leader to him in a treaty of friendship which recognised Moscow’s buffer state of Outer Mongolia. And he finally acceded to persistent pressure to support another uppity Asian communist, Kim Il-sung of North Korea.

The Korean peninsula had been hurriedly divided in two between the US and the USSR in August 1945, just before Japan surrendered. What was intended to be a temporary occupation congealed, as with Germany, into two rival states. Kim, an anti-Japanese communist guerrilla leader during the war, was determined to unify the whole peninsula under his control. The cult of personality began early – the first of many universities was named for Kim in 1946, when he was aged 34 – but it was not until the spring of 1950 that Stalin was willing to countenance Kim’s plans for war.

During several meetings in April 1950 Stalin agreed to an attack on the south and promised support through military planning and supplies, but nothing more. “If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger,” he warned. “You have to ask Mao for all the help.” When Kim did ask, in mid-May, the Chinese leader said that he had been planning to finish off the civil war by driving the Chinese Nationalists from their last redoubt on the island of Taiwan, but Stalin’s green light for an attack on South Korea changed his mind. Mao promised at least three Korean divisions of the People’s Liberation Army if the Americans intervened and crossed the 38th parallel, but Kim poo-pooed that possibility and neither Stalin nor Mao took it seriously. They knew that all US combat forces had been withdrawn from South Korea in June 1949. Kim boasted that a surprise attack by his troops, in conjunction with a communist-led rising in the south, 200,000 strong, would capture the capital, Seoul, and win the war in three days.

In retrospect the hubristic complacency infecting all three communist capitals seems astounding. Stalin, of course, was operating on a policy of limited liability, turning Mao into the banker of last resort as his price for the new Sino-Soviet pact. In Fearing the Worst: How Korea Transformed the Cold War (Columbia University Press), a magisterial new study using archives from all the key countries, the American historian Samuel F Wells Jr observes that, “At Stalin’s insistence, Mao agreed to give Kim a blank cheque to cash if he got into trouble.” There were shades of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the July crisis of 1914. And the parallels don’t stop there. Kim lacked the logistical capacity for a war lasting more than a few weeks. “Much like the German Schlieffen Plan…” comments the military historian Allan Millett, “the North Koreans planned for a short war since it was the only war they could win.”

Truman flew back to Washington on Sunday evening, 25 June. By then, his Democratic administration had taken two defining decisions. The president, like his advisers, was sure that the US must respond firmly to what all assumed was Kremlin-sanctioned aggression. General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), remarked that Korea “offered as good an occasion for action in drawing the line as anywhere else”. Second, Truman and Acheson immediately took the issue to the United Nations Security Council, which hurriedly convened on Sunday. It unanimously agreed that the North Korean attack was “a breach of the peace”, called on North Korea to withdraw to the 38th parallel and asked all member states to give “every assistance” to the UN in “the execution of this resolution”. It is revealing of Stalin’s complacency that the Soviet ambassador was not present; he was still following Moscow’s empty-chair protest against the UN not allowing the People’s Republic to replace the Nationalists in China’s seat on the Security Council.

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Like many crisis decisions by leaders, the president was acting from the gut but also on his reading of the past. “Korea is the Greece of the Far East,” Truman told an aide – alluding to the firm line he had taken on providing anti-communist aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947. “If we are tough now,” he added, “they won’t take any next steps.” But, “There’s no telling what they’ll do if we don’t put up a fight now.” The president also took the international dimension seriously, commenting that the UN was “our idea” in 1945 and “in this first big test we just couldn’t let them down”.

Truman was in fact a real history buff. On the plane back from Missouri, he had mulled over the lessons of 1930s appeasement. “Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, 15, and 20 years earlier. I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own… If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war.”

Leaders often have to take a stand on ground that isn’t of their own choosing, and few have the time to think through the implications of what they’re doing. Truman was no different. He acted promptly in ordering US air and naval operations to support Seoul, but told the JCS, “I don’t want to go to war.” Yet when the South Korean forces folded, he committed first a regimental combat team and then two divisions of US combat troops, while telling the press on 29 June, “We are not at war” and dismissing the North Koreans as “a bunch of bandits”. When a reporter, seeking clarification, asked if it would therefore be accurate “to call this a police action under the United Nations”, Truman latched on to those words: “Yes. That is exactly what it amounts to.” He stuck doggedly to this formulation as the conflict escalated, rejecting Acheson’s advice that it would be prudent at least to secure a joint resolution of Congress endorsing his actions.


Rise up: a poster encourages North Korean citizens to aid the resistance against US intervention. Credit: Bridgeman Images

As Truman’s biographer Robert J Donovan observes, “war without congressional approval” was “a costly mistake”, for which the president later paid a heavy price when he lost control of the conflict. At this stage in the fighting, political and public opinion was largely supportive. That was true even of a senior Republican such as Senator Robert A Taft, who accused Truman on 28 June of embarking on “de facto war” with North Korea “without consulting Congress” and warned that “if the president can intervene in Korea without congressional approval” he could “go to war in Malaya or Indonesia”. (Taft might as easily have said Vietnam: in the 1960s Lyndon Johnson followed the same tactic as Truman.) Yet Taft added that he would be willing to vote for a resolution of approval if one were put before Congress. The president, however, considered that he had sufficient constitutional authority as commander in chief, and he was confident that the fighting would be over quickly.

Misperception and overconfidence were therefore strikingly evident on both sides in 1950. In the American case, both were aggravated by the hubris of a top adviser. General Douglas MacArthur was a fabled figure, not least thanks to his own obsessive self-promotion in the Pacific during the Second World War and then as Allied supreme commander in the occupation of Japan. Truman dubbed MacArthur “Mr Prima Donna”, but dared not challenge him, even though the general had fancied himself as Republican candidate for the presidency in 1948. After the North Korean attack, MacArthur – the big man on the spot – was given overall command of the US/UN operation. He quickly pushed Truman into committing ground troops, brashly asserting that he could stop the attack and regain the 38th parallel with two combat divisions.

When this failed to turn the tide and UN forces were pushed right back to the south-east coast around Pusan, MacArthur persuaded Washington to gamble on an amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Inchon, on the west coast. Meeting Pentagon top brass on 23 August, he turned in a bravura performance. “I realise that Inchon is a 5,000 to one gamble, but I am used to taking such odds… We shall land at Inchon and [dropping his voice dramatically] I shall crush them.” Nobody dared to speak back. “If MacArthur had gone on the stage,” one of those present wrote later, “you would never have heard of John Barrymore.”

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The desperate position of the South Korean army did not allow any chance to rehearse the landing. But, attacking in strength on 15 September with 71,000 troops, spearheaded by MacArthur in person (together with 86 pressmen), Inchon proved an unqualified success. Surprise was total, and casualties light. As Samuel Wells notes, there was even time for flashes of GI humour: some landing craft had “TRUMAN’S POLICE FORCE” painted on the side. Within two weeks, a triumphant MacArthur was able to hand back Seoul to the South Korean government. Such was the general’s prestige that no one seriously questioned his determination to push beyond the 38th parallel in order to liberate North Korea and unify the whole peninsula. The relief in Washington at the turnaround and the fact that mid-term congressional elections were only weeks away meant that “psychologically, it was almost impossible not to go ahead and complete the job”, as Truman’s adviser Averell Harriman remarked later.

Yet Washington had no idea what that job would entail and lacked even rudimentary information about what was going on behind the bamboo curtain. Although Truman had created the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, in its early years the CIA lived up to none of those three words. Not only did it fail to deliver accurate intelligence on many of the major crises of the late 1940s – including the Soviet atomic test – its actions were lethargic and, far from being centralised, it operated as a series of rival fiefdoms spread out in ten different buildings across Washington, DC. In the spring of 1950, after a Soviet spy notified Moscow that the US had broken the codes used by the USSR to communicate with its emissaries in Beijing and Pyongyang, the ciphers were changed and the CIA went blind during the crucial months before the North Korean attack.

Things had not improved much by the autumn, when the agency was asked by Truman for its assessment of Chinese capabilities and intentions as MacArthur advanced through North Korea towards its border with China along the Yalu River. “While full-scale Chinese intervention in Korea must be regarded as a continuing possibility,” the CIA reported on 12 October, “a consideration of all known factors leads to a conclusion that, barring a Soviet decision for global war, such action is not probable in 1950.” Not only was the agency ignoring warnings via Indian and British diplomats that MacArthur’s advance into North Korea would provoke a military response from China, it assumed – like most of Washington – that Mao was Stalin’s puppet.

Even when Chinese troops were encountered at the end of October, they were dismissed as “volunteers” serving with the North Korean forces. US intelligence failed to detect the build-up of some 300,000 Chinese troops over the next few weeks in concentration areas south of the Yalu. It did not help that MacArthur divided his forces in two, advancing up the east and west coasts with a gap of more than 50 miles between them along Korea’s mountain spine. Once again, the Prima Donna was a law unto himself.

On 24 November MacArthur flew to North Korea to watch his troops launch what he termed a “massive compression envelopment” that would finish the war. Press reports quoted him saying: “I hope we can get the boys home by Christmas.” The next day “the boys” were overwhelmed by an unexpected Chinese onslaught, which drove them back in chaos amid winter conditions for which the troops lacked proper supplies and clothing. In Washington there was talk of the Third World War being “very close”.

The president made the panic far worse by botching his press conference on 30 November. “We will take whatever steps are necessary to meet the military situation,” he insisted, “just as we always have.” A reporter asked “Will that include the atomic bomb?” When that question had been posed during the September crisis at Pusan, Truman had responded with a curt negative. This time he said “That includes every weapon that we have.” To the inevitable follow-up, “Does that mean that there is active consideration of the use of the atomic bomb?”, Truman answered, “There has always been active consideration of its use.” Questioned about when and how the bomb might be used, he responded: “The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.” This was quite wrong: the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 reserved that decision to the president, as a White House statement later noted. But the damage had been done.

The media, naturally, had a field day, with articles suggesting that the A-bomb was under consideration and that MacArthur would be the man to decide. Global consternation ensued. A Polish paper headlined its story “Atomic Bomb plans of Truman”. The Times of India ran an editorial headed, “No! No! No!” Such was the alarm in Britain that the prime minister, Clement Attlee – not normally prone to Churchill-style summitry – invited himself to Washington in an effort to clarify the situation.

It was Truman’s darkest hour in office. And his personal life turned traumatic as well. On the evening of 5 December, after several hours of hard grind with Attlee, Truman took his guest to Constitution Hall to hear his cherished daughter Margaret’s Washington debut as a concert soprano. Just beforehand he was devastated to learn that his press secretary Charlie Ross – a friend since high school – had suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack. Next morning Truman eagerly turned to the review of the concert in the Washington Post by Paul Hume, its respected thirtysomething music critic. Hume granted Margaret a pleasant voice and nice stage manner but judged her “flat a good deal of the time” and lacking in “professional finish”.

Margaret’s furious father scrawled a note, put it in an envelope and attached a three-cent stamp. He then asked one of the White House attendants to take a walk and drop the letter in a mailbox, thereby evading his own communications staff, whose portfolio included – as Robert J Donovan drily remarks – “protecting the president from himself in such moods”. Inevitably, a couple of days later the letter appeared in the Washington Post: “Mr Hume: I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert… It seems to me you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful… Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

All in all, not a good week for the commander in chief. “The American people are getting the impression that their Washington leadership is utterly confused and sterile,” warned the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. “They are saying in effect, ‘Don’t just sit there; do something.’” Amid fears that the US might now have to evacuate Korea completely, Truman did do something. On 16 December he proclaimed a state of national emergency so that “the military, naval, air and civilian defences of this country be strengthened as speedily as possible”. The evening before, he declared on national television: “Our homes, our nation, all the things we believe in, are in great danger. This danger has been created by the rulers of the Soviet Union.”

In Washington the new defence secretary, General George C Marshall – whom Churchill had dubbed the “organiser of victory” during the world war – helped to steady the ship. In Korea a new field commander, General Matt Ridgway, who had led the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day, regrouped and retrained his shaken troops after they were driven back deep into South Korea and had lost Seoul. In the early months of 1951, finally Ridgway began to push the Chinese back towards the 38th parallel, the old de facto border between the two Koreas.

Truman’s aim now was to negotiate a ceasefire, but MacArthur used Ridgway’s advance to criticise the whole limited-war strategy. He wanted to extend the bombing campaign to China itself and denounced the priority given by the administration to Europe. In a letter read out by the Republican leader of the House, Joseph Martin, on 5 April 1951, MacArthur asserted that “if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable… There is no substitute for victory.” This insubordination finally gave Truman sufficient justification to sack his arrogant proconsul. But the general returned home to mass parades of adulation and Republicans unilaterally invited him to address a joint session of Congress on national television. MacArthur delivered a superb grand finale but then, like the “old soldiers” he mentioned sadly in his speech, he just faded away in 1952 – failing (again) to challenge for the presidency.


Reality of war: an American infantryman whose friend has been just been killed is comforted by another soldier. In the background a medic fills out casualty tags. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy​

Korea was also a bad war for Britain. Although Attlee’s visit to Washington seemed to symbolise Britain’s special status with the US – “out of the queue” of European powers, as the British ambassador proudly put it – the administration expected plenty in return. Its insistence on Nato rearmament pushed up British defence spending from 8 to 14 per cent of GDP, prompting cuts in other spending and dividing the Labour cabinet. The proposal to impose charges on NHS prescriptions for dentures and spectacles led to the resignations of Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson. And Washington’s demand for troops in Korea, to show Western solidarity, endangered London’s fragile relationship with the People’s Republic of China, which Britain had formally recognised in January 1950 in order to protect Hong Kong. More than 1,000 British troops were killed in Korea – more than would later die in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

A ceasefire in Korea was not agreed until July 1953, by Truman’s Republican successor Dwight Eisenhower, roughly along the line of the 38th parallel. In other words, after 37 months of bitter fighting, the US was back where it had been in June 1950, despite losing some 33,700 military personnel. China’s officially stated battle deaths were 114,000. No one knows how many Koreans, military and civilian, perished: estimates range up to three million, which would be around 10 per cent of the peninsula’s population.

By the time the guns fell silent in Korea, US foreign and defence policies had been changed fundamentally. Despite fierce attacks by the Republicans during the “Great Debate” of 1951, the administration took the major steps of committing four US combat divisions to Europe, demanding West German rearmament and turning Nato into a full military alliance that endures to this day. Washington and its allies feared that communist aggression in North Korea could be the prelude to a Soviet assault in Europe. The war scare also enabled the administration to persuade Congress to raise the defence budget nearly fivefold, from $13bn in fiscal year 1950 to more than $60bn in 1952, and to triple the manpower of the armed forces from 1.5 million to 3.6 million. During this time the CIA was totally revamped by its new boss, Walter Bedell Smith – who had been Eisenhower’s chief of staff in wartime Europe – and the US, like the USSR, embarked on its hydrogen bomb project, vastly increasing the country’s arsenal of mass destruction. That’s why diplomat Charles “Chip” Bohlen – who had been Franklin Roosevelt’s interpreter at Tehran and Yalta – claimed: “It was the Korean War and not World War Two that made us a world military-political power.”

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It is worth reflecting, in conclusion, on Korea as a case study of a government trying to respond to an unforeseen crisis. In 1949-50, Washington’s priorities had been European. In Asia, its primary focus was Japan. Stalin understood this and, buoyed up by the Soviet bomb test and the communist victory in China, did not anticipate any significant or effective American reaction when he unleashed North Korea against the south. This was a grave miscalculation. Washington, though blindsided by its intelligence failures, responded quickly and appropriately: the challenge to international peace was blatant and a line had to be drawn.

Truman’s first big error was failing to mobilise domestic consent. He did not obtain congressional endorsement, either through a declaration of war or at least a supportive resolution. His announcement of a state of emergency solved the problem in the short term, by enabling him to wage war without it being declared, but bypassing Congress in this way would create big political problems for him and his successors. In fact, the 1950 state of emergency remained in force until 1978, when it was abolished by Congress as part of its post-Vietnam assault on the “Imperial Presidency”. A report by a special US Senate committee commented that its retention had reflected “the continuance of the Cold War atmosphere” which, until the détente of the 1970s, had “made the imminent threat of hostilities an accepted fact of everyday life, with ‘emergency’ the normal state of affairs”.

Truman’s other serious error was to be carried along by the euphoria after the “miracle” at Inchon – failing to rein in the arrogant MacArthur and allowing US war aims to escalate from saving South Korea to unifying the whole peninsula. That sobering lesson from 1950 was one reason why George HW Bush stopped “Operation Desert Storm” on 28 February 1991, when Kuwait had been liberated from Saddam Hussein’s occupation, rather than advancing all the way to Baghdad. Instead, Truman had been drawn into an Asian hot war with China at a time when he was trying to manage the European Cold War with the USSR.

But the president didn’t regard the two regions as separate. Indeed, one of Washington’s fundamental mistakes in the early Cold War was its determination to depict international communism as a global monolith, directed from the Kremlin. When Truman asked Congress in 1947 for the relatively modest sum of $400m in aid for Greece and Turkey, he decided to justify this with Manichean globalist language. “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” he declared, and “the choice is too often not a free one.” Delineating a global divide between “freedom” and “totalitarianism”, the president proclaimed that it must be US policy “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”.

The bipolar rhetoric of what became known as the Truman Doctrine proved enduring. In August 1951, the NIE 25 (National Intelligence Estimate) – on which the Pentagon based its case for a huge Korean War hike in the defence budget – developed the same theme even more extravagantly. “We believe that the ultimate Soviet objective is a communist world dominated by the USSR and that the Kremlin believes its vital interests can be assured over the long run only by the elimination of all governments it cannot control. This objective probably reflects a Kremlin conviction that peaceful coexistence of the USSR and its empire on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other, is impossible and that an armed conflict between them is eventually inevitable.”

Chip Bohlen, the State Department’s leading Russianist, strongly disputed NIE 25’s “presentation of the Soviet Union as a mechanical chess player” executing “a design fully prepared in advance with the ultimate goal of world domination”. Bohlen acknowledged that there was currently “a serious and continuing risk of war” but judged the evidence to show that “the Russians made a gross miscalculation in Korea and did not anticipate any such risk”.

Yet Bohlen’s model – diplomatic cock-up not totalitarian ambition, 1914 rather than 1939 – lacked political leverage. In the US, a country thousands of miles from Europe and Asia, with an isolationist tradition, fear has often proved more effective than reason when trying to mobilise public support for foreign commitments. The anti-German fervour whipped up in 1917 to fuel the war effort morphed into the Red Scare of 1919 and the xenophobic campaign in the 1920s to restrict immigration. Similarly, the spectre of monolithic global communism was promoted in the early 1950s by the Truman administration as well as by McCarthyite Republicans.

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At the end of his vivid, detailed and wide-ranging study, Samuel Wells contends, against Bohlen, that “it was necessary for the administration to argue that the Korean conflict could develop into a global war if the United States did not make a strong stand for strategic superiority”. Yet this hyperbolic model of Kremlin-directed global communism made Washington slow to take Beijing seriously as an independent actor. Mao’s fury at being hung out to dry in Korea accelerated his break from Moscow during the 1950s, but it was not until Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971-72 that the US began to exploit the Sino-Soviet split for diplomatic advantage. And the US’s Russia fixation has been hard to shake off, even after the Cold War. The antics of Vladimir Putin – a KGB operative seeking status for a declining power – have continued to obsess the American media, not least during the Trump presidency, diverting attention from the much weightier issue of China as both partner and challenger in the global order.

In Korea, too, there was an enduring price to pay. The division of 1953 set firm. Unlike the two Germanies, the end of the Cold War brought no unification, or even rapprochement. Indeed, the dynastic dictatorship of North Korea, now ruled by the founder’s missile-toting grandson, Kim Jong-un, is one of the most problematic rogue states of our fragile world. Would it have made any difference if Truman, like Bush in 1991, had curbed the testosterone and stopped at the 38th parallel after Inchon? Would Kim Il-sung’s humiliated regime have then crumbled peacefully? No one can tell. But the saga of Truman and MacArthur underlines the damage that a hubristic adviser can wreak in a supposedly rational democracy. 

David Reynolds’ most recent book is “Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit” (HarperCollins)

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football