American wars have a story and a legacy in popular culture. That legacy tends to color the way that we view the history and nature of those conflicts and those involved with and surrounding them. As America’s first major conflict after World War II in the fight against Communism, the Korean War is often used as an example of just war, with clear good and evil actors, and it is even characterized as one of America’s most moral wars. This is further cemented by what is seen as a demonstrably positive intended outcome: a thriving, democratic, prosperous South Korea, in contrast with the still-Communist North.
But, given our past experience with debunking war legacies, I was skeptical that this story actually checked out, that the popular facts surrounding it may be, in fact, more nuanced. Is the Korean War really such an obvious win and a clear, easy case of justified war? Or has the history been obscured here as well?
Why Was the Korean War Even Necessary?
Historian Jerry Sweeney has humorously quipped, “when war broke out in South Korea in 1950, Americans scrambled to find an atlas.” This rings equally true for most Americans today and I can still recall a time when I did not understand any of its details. Why the Communist split at the 38th parallel? Why the Soviet influence? Why the US involvement at all?
I still remember my thrill at the revelation that the split in Korea actually dates back to the end of World War II. Recall that, as part of the agreements made between the Allied forces at the Yalta conference that Stalin agreed to join in the Pacific theater three months after Germany had been defeated. This involved the invasion of Manchuria and the collaborative explusion of the Japanese from mainland Asia. However, Truman’s preemptive nuclear bombing of Japan sought to end the conflict with Japan before Stalin could become involved, thus causing Stalin to move forward the timeline for the planned invasion. This invasion also included Korea and, after joint discussions as to its eventual fate, a US agreement drafted and agreed to by the Soviets created the joint occupation and, at first, temporary, partition of Korea at the 38th parallel, the Soviets occupying the North and the US occupying the South.
In a very real sense, the dismal situation in Korea was both the object of further intervention and the result of past intervention. Recall that the invasion and occupation of the Korean Peninsula was deemed necessary at the time to force out the occupying Japanese, who both the US and Soviets were then at war with. And yet, prior to World War II, the US had actually worked to bring about the very Japanese occupation they now found themselves ending. As the great Murray Rothbard recounts, “After helping the European powers suppress the nationalist Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, the U.S. also helped push Russian troops out of Manchuria” and “in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt egged Japan on to attack Russia, and Japan succeeded in driving Russia out of Manchuria and ending Russia’s economic concessions. Roosevelt readily acceded to Japan’s resulting dominance in Korea and Manchuria, hoping that Japan would also protect American economic interests in the area.”
Thus, decades later, the very power that the US had encouraged Japan to expel is the very power that it invited back in. The US-Soviet alliance during World War II is often taken for granted but we should remain ever amazed that within the span of a few short years US-Soviet relations moved from eager cooperation to bitter rivalry. And under the leadership of Truman, this original agreement was then reneged on, effectively making such agreements with the Soviets moot to begin with. So it would seem that Stalin’s help was not, ultimately, needed and that these agreements thus also subjected China, Manchuria, and Korea to unnecessary Communism and Soviet occupation, along with the eventual suffering that would follow.
Was South Korea A Bastion of Freedom?
One of the latent assumptions regarding the war was that of US support and defense of the freedom and democracy in South Korea. At the time, South Korea was being ruled at the hands of the US-backed Syngman Rhee. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Rhee was in exile in the United States. But in 1945, with World War II wrapping up in the Pacific, Rhee was brought back to South Korea by the US and maneuvered into power under the US Korean Military Government. This was done despite an indigenous government forming organically by the Korean peoples themselves which was suppressed from growing any further at the time. Purely from a libertarian perspective, by controlling the makeup and influence of the native peoples in this way, the US support of Rhee and others had the effect of “regulating Korean political life as if the country were a defeated enemy and not a friendly state liberated from a common foe and with a right to independence and self-determination.”
Rhee and the USAMGIK may have had positive motives, ones of promoting free markets and free enterprise, but the methods used and the lack of recognizing the existent post-colonial realities proved ineffective or even counterproductive. For instance, after being established, the government sold off large amounts of previously Japanese held capital assets. Yet, given the history of colonial conditions, those most able to afford such property at the time were those who had most collaborated with and profited from the Japanese occupation. As Alfred Crofts, a member of USAMGIK at the time, considered, “with half the wealth of the nation ‘up for grabs’, demoralization was rapid.” Worse, the Americans also allowed many former Japanese collaborators and even Japanese themselves to retain positions in the new administration, much to the chagrin of any Koreans who had previously fought for freedom from such influence.
In typical Cold War fashion, any Koreans that opposed the Rhee regime was assumed to have succombed to Communist influence and, in the words of John Gunther, “almost any Korean not an extreme rightist was a communist and potential traitor.” As William Blum describes the period, “so reluctant was Rhee to allow an honest election, that by early 1950 he had become enough of an embarrassment to the United States for Washington officials to threaten to cut off aid if he failed to do so and also improve the state of civil liberties.” And, as seen by the “more moderate” election results in South Korea as of May 30 in 1950, when these elections were finally opened up, Rhee’s party lost control of the Korean National Assembly.
These factors and the overall tyrannical rule of Rhee led to public resentment and guerrilla rebellions from 1946 on. Stanley Earl, a labor advisor in South Korea at the time, thought that “an internal South Korean rebellion against the Rhee Government would have occurred if the forces of North Korea had not invaded.” Gregory Henderson, a US diplomat in Korea during the period, estimated that “probably over 100,000 were killed without any trial whatsoever” at the hands of Rhee’s forces during the war. Even more sadly, Mark Gayn writing for the Chicago Sun, attested that American troops sometimes participated in South Korean guerrilla suppresion, that they even “fired on crowds, conducted mass arrests, combed the hills for suspects, and organized posses of Korean rightists, constabulary and police for mass raids.” To drive the point home, Gunther also notes that, “at the time of the outbreak of war in June 1950, there were an estimated 14,000 political prisoners in South Korean jails.”
Was North Korea Solely to Blame?
One common misconception or assumption in evaluating the Korean War is one of an otherwise innocent South Korea and its unjustifiably aggressive northern neighbor, or as William Blum characterizes it, that “the war in Korea was an unambiguous case of one country invading another without provocation. A case of the bad guys attacking the good guys who were being saved by the even better guys.”
As you might expect, this characterization simply does not bear itself out. The impression given in many histories is that of a sudden, unprovoked invasion by North Korea in a fairly black-and-white manner on June 25 of 1950. What had actually been taking place in Korea involved many months of repeated conflicts across the 38th parallel demarcation line. For instance, the US State Department via Ambassador Philip C. Jessup reported in April of 1950, some few months before the actual North Korean invasion, that, “there is constant fighting between the South Korean Army and bands that infiltrate the country from the North. There are very real battles, involving perhaps one or two thousand men.” As well, official North Korean reports state that “in 1949 alone, the South Korean army or police perpetrated 2,617 armed incursions into the North to carry out murder, kidnapping, pillage and arson for the purpose of causing social disorder and unrest.”
Furthermore, North Korean records actually indicate the invasion was a response to prior South Korean bombardment for two days prior, June 23rd and 24th, as well as a surprise South Korean assault on the town of Haeju on the 25th, the capture of which is consistent with South Korean field reports on the 26th. It is also important to note that, though the UN later claimed sole North Korean aggression, “no United Nations group—neither the UN Military Observer Group in the field nor the UN Commission on Korea in Seoul—witnessed, or claimed to have witnessed, the outbreak of hostilities.” Given these considerations, it seems reasonable to understand the North Korean invasion not as a new and unprecedented escalation but “as no more than the escalation of an ongoing civil war.”
In January of 1950, the US State Department announced that their perimeter of defense included Japan and the Phillippines but excluded Korea. One of the reasons for this seems to have been the lack of any perceived military value. But another was likely an opposition to Rhee himself. As leader of South Korea, Rhee had repeatedly called for unification by force and as late as June of 1950, just before the war officially broke out, had still advocated marching north. The New York Times recalled that, “on a number of occasions, Dr. Rhee has indicated that his army would have taken the offensive if Washington had given the consent” and that “the warlike talk strangely [had] almost all come from South Korean leaders.” These concerns are echoed by General John Roberts who testified that the South Koreans were not even allowed to arm themselves adequately for defense “because America feared they would attack the North Koreans.”
Indeed, Rothbard himself reported that, “[Representative] Howard Buffett was convinced that the United States was largely responsible for the eruption of conflict in Korea; for the rest of his life he tried unsuccessfully to get the Senate Armed Services Committee to declassify the testimony of CIA head Admiral Hillenkoeter, which Buffett told me established American responsibility for the Korean outbreak.”
It was also considered that Acheson’s declaration itself, that Korea lay outside of the US sphere of defense, along with its ongoing support of Nationalist China, had invited and magnified the Communist opposition in the region. The northern invasion was approved of by Stalin and, while disagreeing with the Communist desires for Korea, in hindsight, his fears and concerns were actually rather legitimate. Vladislav Zubok relates that Stalin had an “expectation that the United States might eventually turn [South Korea] into a beachhead for a return to the Asian mainland in alliance with a resurgent Japan.” Ultimately, the invasion itself turned South Korea into exactly that.
A Tragic Expansion of the War Into China
As history has it, after indirect bombing in Korea failed to prevent the North Korean advance, Truman ordered US ground forces to join in the effort. Together with South Koreans, they effectively pushed the North Koreans back across the original partition lines at the 38th parallel. However, instead of stopping there, Truman pushed forward, intent on liberating the capital, perhaps making an example of this first major Cold War conflict. Unfortunately, this overreach would lead to far more trouble in the long run.
As UN troops advanced north, they naturally approached ever closer to the Chinese border which elicited repeated warnings to stay well enough away. But when spillover from the war became too much for them to accept, the Chinese formally entered the conflict.
The expansion of the war involving China is particularly scarring for the legacy of the Korean war. The initial expectation for the war was that it could resolved within months and even and even five months into the conflict, General MacArther maintained hope that “we can get the boys home by Christmas.” But as historian Ralph Raico relates, China’s entering of the war “prolong[ed] it by another three years, during which most of the American casualties were sustained.” As well, there were rampant reports of biological or germ warfare waged along the border. William Blum records that “The Chinese devoted a great deal of effort to publicizing their claim that the United States, particularly during January to March 1952, had dropped quantities of bacteria and bacteria-laden insects over Korea and northeast China” and a group of international scientists, after researching the claims, indeed concluded that “the peoples of Korea and China have indeed been the objectives of bacteriological weapons.” The inclusion of China into what was originally supposed to be a “police action” to counter North Korean aggression, having nothing to do with China, represents quite the dishonorable and unwarranted usage of military forces and quite the departure from the originally stated war aims.
Don’t Forget the Domestic Effects of War
One of the often overlooked facets of war is the legacy of domestic political life that is left as a result of how a war is waged. In the long run, the Korean War may have been just as damaging domestically as it turned out to be internationally.
For one, the Korean War represented the first major initiative of what we would term the Cold War era. As we have highlighted before, US foreign policy had been effectively taken over by the Truman Doctrine, which proposed to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures…”, and its successor, NSC-68 which proposed “that every nation in the world should be considered friend or foe” and that “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” The Korean War broke out in the same timeframe as Truman signed off on NSC-68 and in many ways represents the establishment of further actions and interventions years and decades later. As one of Truman’s advisors attested, while the public was not quite convinced of the Communist bogeyman, “we were sweating over it…[but] thank God Korea came along.”
One fairly obvious negative outcome of the Korean War, from a purely domestic point of view, was the establishment of a precedent for unilateral executive action when it comes to war and military intervention. Immediately following the North Korean invasion, Truman pledged the support of the US. At the time, Truman defined his initiative as a “police action,” conveniently avoiding language of all out war. This was despite a widely known statement by then Secretary of State Dean Acheson stating that Korea was considered to be outside of the area deemed important for US defense. Many will be familiar with the language found in the US Consitution granting the President the role of “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States” as well as Article I, Section 8 which vests war-making powers within the Congress. And yet, this role had, previously, been restricted to times of formally declared war.
But as historian Tom Woods testifies, “ever since the Korean War, Article II, Section 2 has been interpreted to mean that the president may act with an essentially free hand in foreign affairs, or at the very least that he may send men into battle without consulting Congress.” Instead of seeking the formal approval of the US Congress, Truman justified his actions as being necessary to fulfill duties and obligations to the United Nations. After the invasion, the UN took up the matter of blame and, with the Soviet representative absent, unable to oppose the measure, the United States helped to push through a resolution that blamed North Korea as the aggressor and called for military support of the South Koreans. This is exacerbated by the fact that North Korea was never allowed to present a case to the General Assembly, neither during the initial discussion at the behest of some member states, nor a few months later when the Soviets again sought to have both sides presented. All told, as William Blum surmises, “The Council made its historic decision with the barest of information available to it, and all of it derived from and selected by only one side of the conflict.”
Truman and Acheson continued to use the “police action” language and UN resolution as justified or binding even though “according to the U.N. Charter, any Security Council commitment of members’ troops must be consistent with the members’ ‘respective constitutional processes.'” As well Truman was even brazen in the face of United Nations support throughout the process, claiming “that he would send the troops even without United Nations authorization” and even, according to Raico, “express[ing] the wish that the Russians had vetoed that UN declaration — so that it would have been crystal clear that, as president, he needed no authority beyond his own will to plunge the nation into war.”
The potential impact of Truman’s actions were not lost on statesmen at the time. As Robert Taft warned, “if the President can intervene in Korea without congressional approval, we can go to war in Malaya or Indonesia or Iran or South America.” How true this statement turned out to be.
The Korean War also held domestic economic and civil liberty encroachments. As part of war mobilization, in September of 1950, the Defense Production Act helped grant Truman additional war production powers. He began to use those powers to establish a number of agencies to control economic production and wage-price controls. The American public seemed adept at adapting to these controls which indicated “evidence that the American public was growing accustomed to the type of action that must be taken in economic mobilization.”
As well, the Korean War extended the gruesome legacy of the “draft” or military conscription. A Selective Service Act was debated and eventually passed earlier in 1948 and, as Representative Howard Buffett argued, “this measure would declare to the world that Hitler was right—that the threat of communism externally justified militarism and regimentation at home.” The Selective Service Act was slated to expire the very month in 1950 that the conflict erupted and the involvement of the US prompted its extension for yet another year, after which, it was officially reinstated into the next decade, thus further cementing the practice. Officially, “more than 1.5 million men were inducted into the armed services during the Korean War, and an additional 1.5 million were inducted between 1954 and 1961.”
Was Korea or the World Better Off Because of the War?
Another one of the oft-quoted positive aspects of the Korean War is its positive results, mainly that of a thriving, independent South Korea safe from the tyranny of Communism. It is argued that US intervention in defending South Korea from the North effectively protected the South from oppressive governance and helped to cultivate a healthy democracy and free market.
The belief that the US protection of South Korean independence can be credited with cultivating a thriving democracy is simplistic and does not actually follow from the record of history. We have already seen that US political control explicitly suppressed any native democratic rule during its early years of occupation and this control finally ceased after 1961. However, in contrast to popular opinion, according to James Payne, when South Koreans were eventually given back that control, instead of pursuing those same democratic paths, what followed was “a military dictatorship under General Park Chung-Hee, which lasted until his murder by other officials in 1979. Thereafter followed two coups, a violent uprising in Kwangju, and many bloody street demonstrations.” From 1985 on, the climate has since leveled out a bit and resulted in the South Korea we know today. Regardless, “here is a case in which sixteen years of tutelage under the Americans brought failure with regard to the establishment of democracy, but the country evolved to democracy on its own twenty-five years after U.S. involvement in local politics ceased.”
We must also remember that the only Koreans who could have enjoyed freedom in the first place were those who actually survived. The Korean War inevitably led to abject and wanton destruction of property and persons in the peninsula. Major General Emmett O’Donnell testified that “everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name.” The British yearbook, “Brassey’s Annual”, also described the state of Korea in 1951: “It is no exaggeration to state that South Korea no longer exists as a country. Its towns have been destroyed, much of its means of livelihood eradicated, and its people reduced to a sullen mass dependent upon charity and exposed to subversive influences. When the war ends no gratitude can be expected from the South Koreans, but it is to be hoped that the lesson will have been learned that it is worse than useless to destroy to liberate.” Korea also became a proving ground for the first prominent use of napalm as a weapon of war, a weapon that would go on to infamy in the next decade with its use in Vietnam.
The costs of the war were quite extensive. In American casualties alone, Richard Ebeling lists that the war “cost the lives of 54,250 Americans and another 103,300 wounded.” General LeMay testified that, “we burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both [and] killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes.” As well, CIA operations behind enemy lines in North Korea also resulted in quite a few casualties. As Michael Swanson attests, “fifteen hundred were sent to their deaths in North Korea.”
But even more than the immediate physical costs, the Korean War cemented US-Soviet relations and the escalation of Cold War hostilities. Ralph Raico relates that “the misinterpretation of the North Korean aggression as part of a grand design at world conquest originating in and controlled by Moscow resulted in a drastic militarization of the cold war in the form of a conventional and nuclear armaments race, the frantic search for alliances, and the establishment of military bases.” General MacArthur himself, in a moment of great clarity, near the close of the war, offered a great compromise when he “claimed that Ike should try to bring a close to the entire Cold War by proposing to the Soviet Union to allow both Korea and Germany to reunite their halves with elections and to remove all troops from both of them and from Japan.” If only Eisenhower had taken this snippet of advice, all parties involved could have been spared the following decades of Cold War escalation and its after-effects.
The Bottom Line
William Blum asks the following rhetorical question: “Once upon a time, the United States fought a great civil war in which the North attempted to reunite the divided country through military force. Did Korea or China or any other foreign power send in an army to slaughter Americans, charging Lincoln with aggression?” A fitting question, indeed. The Korean War continues to be misunderstood by a great many Americans and yet a proper understanding of many of the facts presented here would do wonders in dispelling the fictitiously honorable impression of American and, by extension, State wars throughout history.
Bio: “Adam Graham is the founder of and primary contributor to www.nokingbutchrist.org. He lives in Virginia with his wife, two children, digital book collection, and comprehensive disdain for the State.”