Good War Gone Bad

On March 7, 1951, at a press conference, Douglas MacArthur, commander of all United States forces in the Pacific, spoke contemptuously of the way his commander in the field, Matthew B. Ridgway, was fighting the Korean War. Ridgway, MacArthur said, was following an ineffectual strategy, gaining a little here, losing a little there, aiming not at victory but at stalemate, and, MacArthur implied, it was unworthy of the United States to fight for anything but complete victory. The phrase MacArthur planted into the lexicon of military belittlement to characterize Ridgway’s strategy was “accordion war.”

MacArthur’s comment was all the more extraordinary since he was making it in violation of a gag order that President Truman had imposed on the military command four months earlier—one of several acts of insubordination that led Truman to relieve him of his command in April that year. Aside from that, the insult to Ridgway was astonishing in its misjudgment, or perhaps its wounded vanity. Ridgway had been appointed during one of the worst moments in American military history, after the Chinese army had, while MacArthur was in command, routed UN forces and pushed them from near the Chinese border to well below the 38th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea. In a matter of just a few weeks, Ridgway had stopped the Chinese advance, and, using American firepower, was causing ten to fifteen times as many casualties among Chinese troops as the Chinese were inflicting on the UN’s forces.

But Ridgway wasn’t really the issue. MacArthur’s desire for a full-scale war with what was called “Red China” was the real issue, and beyond that was his defiance of the president he served. In those early months of 1951, MacArthur, who thought he might be the Republican candidate for president in 1952, complained that the political leadership in Washington was tying his hands, preventing him from carrying out the grand mission to which he believed he had been called by destiny. He had joined forces moreover with Truman’s bitterest political opponents: a coalition of right-wing Republicans, Henry Luce of Time and Life, and the entire China lobby, whose members were supporters of Chiang Kai-shek. All of these people agreed that an “accordion war” with China was a form of appeasement. As MacArthur himself told a joint session of Congress a few weeks after Truman sacked him, those who would “appease Red China” were “blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war.”

MacArthur’s grand plan was to push the Chinese back across the Yalu River, which formed the border between Korea and China, thereby ensuring that the Korean War would result not in a stalemate but in an end to the aggressor North Korean regime. Part of the plan, and the part dearest to the hearts of Luce and the China lobbyists, was, as it was put in those days, “to unleash” the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and the 600,000 supposedly elite troops he had in Taiwan to tear the Chinese mainland out of the hands of the Communists, so that the loss of China itself to communism would be reversed.

As it turned out, of course, nobody was unleashed, and it’s a good thing too. Chiang Kai-shek’s 600,000 troops were the very ones who, a few years earlier, had for the most part retreated in the face of Mao Zedong’s peasant army, or who had deserted or sometimes even surrendered without firing a shot; so MacArthur’s claim about their ability to launch a successful invasion of China seemed more an act of faith than a sound military judgment. More important, an attempt to drive not just to the Yalu but across it into Manchuria might have brought the Soviet Union into the war.

MacArthur was confident that the Russians would stay out of it. But, then again, he had also been confident, as he pushed toward the Yalu in an earlier phase of the Korean War, that the Chinese would stay out of it, and he had been catastrophically wrong. If he were wrong about the Soviet Union too, the Korean War could have led to a new world war seven years after World War II ended. And even if the Soviets did stay out of the war in Asia, the United States, its main forces diverted to China, might well have been weakened in the face of possible Soviet intervention elsewhere, in Iran or in Europe. Shortly after MacArthur was relieved of his command, Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously told the Senate Armed Services Committee that to go to war with China would have involved the United States “in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

And yet, in one sense MacArthur was right. Korea was an accordion war. By late 1950, the conflict, as David Halberstam writes in his new book, “had reached the point where there were no more victories, only death.” The Korean War was the first time in history when the forces of the United States decided to fight for a draw rather than insist on victory, and, as MacArthur liked to put it, there’s no substitute for victory. In Korea in particular, the stalemate ultimately recorded in the armistice agreement that ended the fighting in 1953 left the aggressor, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, in power unpunished and about to be celebrated as a living God in the half of the country he controlled. “A mutually unsatisfactory compromise,” Halberstam writes of the outcome. “Die for a tie” is the way American reporters more bluntly described it.

The unsatisfactory compromise continues to be observed in Korea, a place where history never ceases to circle back on itself. Instead of an accordion war, accordion diplomacy has been practiced in the past decade and a half as the United States has tried to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear development program. The policy has alternated between hard-line efforts to give nothing to North Korea, in the expectation that the regime will collapse as a result, and negotiations leading to a sort of stalemate, while one of the globe’s nastiest dictatorships continues in power.

In September this year, after a second round of direct, one-on-one talks with Pyongyang that it had refused to hold earlier, the Bush administration succeeded in getting a promise from the North Korean government to disable the nuclear power plant that had been producing plutonium for its weapons program and to make a full accounting of any other nuclear programs it has been pursuing. To be sure, the deal represented progress for the United States, though probably not more than it would have made had an earlier deal with Pyongyang, agreed to by Bill Clinton in 1994, not been abandoned by the Bush team shortly after it took office. (According to the 1994 accord, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for assistance in building civilian nuclear power plants and other aid from the US.)

This time, moreover, while the accordion has sprung back very close to the arrangement that was in force at the time George W. Bush took office, Pyongyang has made a significant advance, because during the years the Bush administration refused to have any direct contact with North Korea, it may have produced enough plutonium for between eight and a dozen atomic bombs, and indeed, it exploded such a bomb last fall. The goal now, as negotiations proceed, will be to get the North Koreans to give up nuclear weapons completely, but so far they have not agreed to do that.

Korea has always been like that: great effort and, in the war, immense sacrifice, leading to very little essential change, and certainly to no fatal weakening of the North Korean dictatorship. And it has always been like that for the same reason: because the task of resolving the Korean problem once and for all—which would mean a different regime in the North and possibly reunifying the country under the government in Seoul—has involved the sort of deadly risks that only somebody a bit unhinged from reality, like Douglas MacArthur in 1951, would be willing to assume.

David Halberstam, who died in a car accident in California in April this year, was one of the most productive American journalists. Over the years, he has had his critics who noted, correctly I believe, that some of his books—like The Reckoning, his study of Japan’s challenge to the American automobile industry, and The Powers That Be, his examination of four big news organizations—were overstuffed with incidental detail, and that other works—his book on the decade of the Fifties comes to mind—were in large part drawn from already existing books and articles and were not original works of research or analysis. But since his early reporting in Vietnam, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964, and certainly since his most celebrated book, The Best and the Brightest of 1972, he has continued to take on new subjects. Halberstam produced twenty-one books altogether, including the one under review here. All this work has demonstrated two characteristics: an indefatigable capacity to explore large and complicated subjects; and a tendency to see the events he studied in fervent moral terms. His books, even the ones on sports, such as The Breaks of the Game (1981), identify heroes and villains, good guys and bad, the former to be celebrated, the latter (and the damage they have done) exposed.

The Coldest Winter continues in this vein. Halberstam gives strong accounts of the events on the battlefield, drawing on numerous interviews with combat infantrymen. He concentrates on the exceptional bravery of individual soldiers, underlining the contrast between them and those in the higher echelons whose ambition, or blundering, or self-absorption, or ideological blindness put the fighting enlisted men and officers in mortal danger.

Halberstam takes a panoramic approach to his subject, looking back to the outbreak of the cold war, the rise of Mao, the fall of China’s Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the decision by China to enter the war, and the tumultuous domestic politics of the United States at the time. He also incorporates lengthy portraits of the main leaders both in Asia and on the American political scene—from South Korean leader Syngman Rhee to Truman administration figures like Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall, to Luce, Chiang, the China hands in the State Department, Chinese commander Peng Dehuai, and MacArthur himself. For both his portraits of the major leaders and his summaries of background events, he relies almost entirely on the standard books. To readers familiar with the literature of the period, some of the scenes he reproduces will have a familiar feel. He repeats, for example, the oft-told tale of the sign that Theodore White, Luce’s frustrated correspondent in China, posted outside his office to the effect that any resemblance between what he wrote and what appeared in Time magazine was purely coincidental.

Where Halberstam is strongest is in his accounts of the war itself, and in his efforts to show its importance in American political and military history. He believes that Korea is the unjustifiably forgotten war, although Korea was the site of some of the hardest and most bitter fighting of American military history, with 33,000 Americans killed in fighting North Korea and China and more than 100,000 wounded. What was at stake there and later in Vietnam was, in Halberstam’s words, “the ability of an Asian nation to match the technological superiority of the West with the ability to pay the cost in manpower.” For the first time an Asian foe of the US calculated that by accepting more casualties than the Americans it could cause enough damage to sour the American public on a war that, in any case, had not seemed essential to national security.

Despite his comprehensiveness, there are some matters that Halberstam does not deal with. He interviews no Chinese or Korean combat infantrymen, even though their accounts might have added much to his scenes of major battles. He also avoids some of the arguments that have raged, largely in the revisionist-prone academic world, about who bears ultimate responsibility for starting the war. Halberstam takes the generally accepted view that Kim Il Sung, with the somewhat nervous approval and military support of Joseph Stalin, began the conflict with a massive, premeditated attack across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, aimed at speedily defeating the ineffectual South Koreans and driving any American troops that came to their aid off the peninsula. Halberstam considers some of the other parts of the story that have been stressed by revisionist historians but he declines to follow them to their conclusions.

For example, he sees South Korean President Syngman Rhee not as the benign democrat familiar from US propaganda but as something of a mirror image of Kim: arrogant, manipulative, and dictatorial. Following the division of Korea into two halves after World War II, Rhee hoped for a war that would enable him to extend his control over the North. But Halberstam doesn’t even mention the thesis—advanced in particular by Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago—that Rhee, or perhaps some radical advocates of rollback in the South Korean military, might have provoked Kim into an attack, expecting that the United States would intervene on their behalf.1

Here and there Halberstam has a footnote to Cumings’s work, so he must have been aware of the revisionist thesis, but evidently he chose not to deal with it directly and this does not seem to me a grave fault. The evidence in favor of the accepted interpretation is overwhelming, and Cumings himself, despite his two lengthy and detailed volumes on the topic, does not present a convincing factual case that Syngman Rhee provoked the attack. In any case, Halberstam is more interested in what light the Korean War can cast on the history of the Vietnam War.

The main point about Korea in this respect is that the wrong lesson was drawn from it. North Korean aggression and China’s decision to enter the war infused in the collective American mind an erroneous view of Asian Communist parties, whether of the Chinese or Vietnamese versions, as not the nationalist and anticolonialist movements they partly were but advance elements of a Moscow-inspired design for global conquest. Mao’s break with the USSR was still a few years away. The failure of the US to win a decisive victory in Korea, following so closely after the devastating “loss” of China in 1949, gave credibility to the Kennedyesque exhortation to shrink from no sacrifice in the defense of freedom, and it was this cast of mind that led to the American commitment to go to war against North Vietnam. As a consequence of Korea, Halberstam argues, “American policy toward Asia became deeply flawed, and this would profoundly affect American policy toward a country barely on the American radar screen at the time, Vietnam.”

There are separate but related military similarities between the two wars as well. What The Best and the Brightest did was introduce the American public to the notion that generals and politicians who ought to know better can deny the simple reality that others, journalists and foot soldiers alike, can see. In showing their mistakes in Vietnam, journalists like Halberstam and others (among them Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Lie,2 the best book I’ve read on Vietnam) created a new type of adversarial military journalism in America. In Vietnam the seemingly willful and, in retrospect, outrageous assurances of figures like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and such field commanders as Paul Harkins and William Westmoreland led much of the public to ignore the corruption, the crackpot authoritarianism, and the unpopularity of the side the United States was supporting in the war, and to think, quite falsely, that it was gaining ground against the enemy. In Korea the US underestimated its opponents, both North Korea and China, seeing them as primitive and weak, when, in fact, they were skilled, tough, and brave. The corresponding fault was to overestimate the impact that the US armed forces would have—to believe in a sort of shock-and-awe effect that, as was to be the case later in Iraq, didn’t exist.

Halberstam’s moral outrage is most evident in his description of two different visions of the war, one held by the higher echelons, especially those in MacArthur’s Tokyo headquarters (he reminds us that during the entire war MacArthur never spent a single night in Korea) and the one held by many of the officers and men on the ground. In Halberstam’s angry account of it, MacArthur’s war was very nearly abstract, a matter of coordinates on maps and aggressive battle plans that had little to do with the realities of Korea, including the skill, prowess, and superior numbers of the enemy, the bitter cold, the dangers of overextended lines, the tendency of South Korean troops to run away, and the murderousness of mortars landing on American troops trapped in narrow mountain defiles.

Halberstam’s passion on this subject—no doubt stimulated by the American veterans he interviewed—leads him to overstate his conclusions about the Korean War. It was not the first war in which remote and heedless generals have exposed young men to unnecessary mortal risk. Still, when MacArthur blundered into the North Korean mountains, causing thousands of Americans to die as a result, he eerily prefigured William Westmoreland in his tragically flawed decision to fight a war of attrition with an enemy willing to accept attrition. In Westmoreland’s case this led him to dispatch another generation of young men to seize strategically meaningless, well-defended hills in places like Khe San, in the north of South Vietnam, at a cost of terrible casualties. It was as if the American commander in Vietnam was following a battle plan created for him by Hanoi, just as MacArthur unwittingly did what China hoped he would do in 1950. It is often said of the nearly 60,000 Americans who died in Vietnam that they died for nothing. Halberstam doesn’t make that argument about Korea since he accepts that the war was a necessary response to aggression. But he does feel that, thanks to MacArthur and those around him in his distant, untroubled, spit-and-polish headquarters in Tokyo, thousands of American men died for nothing in Korea too.

Still, he credits Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, George C. Marshall, and George Kennan with clear strategic thinking, admiring their wisdom in accepting a very flawed outcome in Korea, while resisting the campaign against them on the right. Another hero, certainly, is Matthew Ridgway, who stepped into the picture after the large Chinese attack in November 1950 and brought a strategic clarity and forcefulness to the war that were sorely lacking earlier.

Among the villains of Halberstam’s book are the American demagogues, such as Senator William Jenner of Indiana, who portrayed the stalemate in Korea and the dismissal of MacArthur as the acts of “a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union.” And then there is MacArthur himself, a figure of great military achievement in World War II, but one whose overweening self-regard made him impervious to any notion that he might be mistaken. MacArthur’s great success in the war, the Inchon landing in September 1950, was a daring gamble to land an invasion force behind North Korean lines, but it was lucky, too. Kim Il Sung, a North Korean counterpart to MacArthur, with all of MacArthur’s faults and none of his virtues, ignored Chinese warnings that the American landing was going to take place at Inchon and that he should at least mine the harbor there. He didn’t, and the landing, which could easily have been a disaster, went off without a hitch, thereby adding luster to the MacArthur legend and making the general harder to deal with when, following Inchon, he blundered into the worst mistake of his long career.

That mistake, of course, was his heedless effort to rush his forces to the Yalu, ignoring not only China’s explicit warning that it would enter the war if the United States sent American troops north of the 38th parallel but also intelligence from the army itself. It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which MacArthur’s decision to push to the Yalu turned what would have been a considerable triumph of American arms into a disaster of epic proportions. The North Koreans, who in their initial blitzkrieg in June 1950 had driven almost to the southern tip of the peninsula, were turned back by the remarkable defense of the Pusan Perimeter in South Korea and the later landing at Inchon. At that point, with the North Koreans in full retreat, General Walton Walker, who had capably commanded the desperate last stand around Pusan, proposed establishing a line across the neck of Korea about one hundred miles north of the 38th parallel. MacArthur rejected that idea, and began pressuring Walker to get American troops to the Yalu, China’s border with Korea, as quickly as possible.

The failure of MacArthur to heed or even to acknowledge China’s warnings that it would enter the war if the Americans came too close takes on an almost weird quality in Halberstam’s telling of the story. As he shows, MacArthur casually ignored an early, ominous sign that as American troops moved further north, a strong Chinese force had already infiltrated across the Yalu into North Korea where it was waiting for them. At the beginning of November, three weeks before the large-scale Chinese attack, the American Eighth Cavalry Regiment had been encircled at the town of Unsan, a few mountain ranges south of the Korean– Chinese border, by two divisions of elite Chinese troops. Before that happened, their commander, Colonel Hal Edson, wanted to move his badly positioned troops back, but his commander, under MacArthur’s relentless pressure, wouldn’t hear of it. The Chinese had both superior numbers and superior mobility in the mountain terrain. It was 20 degrees below zero. Tanks didn’t start because the oil in the engines had solidified. Starting on the night of November 1 and continuing over the next four days the Chinese killed or wounded about eight hundred of the regiment’s 2,400 men, a sacrifice, in Halberstam’s persuasive view, to MacArthur’s vanity and ambition.

Unsan would seem to have provided all the evidence that MacArthur and his deputies needed to show that a very large number of Chinese were getting ready for what Halberstam calls “the largest ambush in the history of modern warfare.” But even after Unsan, MacArthur was cabling Washington that only a few Chinese were there and only to help the defeated North Koreans “salvage something from the wreckage.” He ordered the drive north to the Yalu to continue. Halberstam writes:

It was the ultimate fateful moment of the Korean War: torn between his great dream of conquering all of Korea and the danger to his troops from a formidable new enemy, MacArthur chose to pursue his dream and to put his army at risk.

When there were thirty divisions of Chinese troops in Korea, 300,000 men facing about half that many Americans, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, General Charles A. Willoughby, a cartoonish right-wing officer with a Prussian accent, was estimating a maximum of 71,000, which is what MacArthur wanted to hear. This was on November 24, the day before the Chinese actually struck in full force. On that same day, with Bob Hope performing for American troops in Pyongyang, MacArthur flew there and, contributing to the mood of hilarity, asked, “Where is Kim Buck Tooth?” On November 24 itself, MacArthur made a brief visit to Eighth Army headquarters and promised that the troops would be home for Christmas. In fact, within about two weeks, several thousand of them were dead.

Korea, as Halberstam makes clear, in some ways prefigured the later war in Vietnam and perhaps the current conflict in Iraq; but he knows the differences as well, and the main difference is that Korea was a partial success, or at least not a defeat. More-over, there can be no comparison of the long-term result: a prosperous and democratic South Korea alongside a failed state to the north, a cruel nightmare of a country.

But as Halberstam argues, the war and the angry debates it occasioned helped to further exacerbate a domestic political situation already poisoned by a stab-in-the-back theory of history. Senator Joe McCarthy gave his famous speech alleging disloyalty in the State Department only a few months before the war broke out and he and those who supported him exploited the war atmosphere to intimidate opponents. In this sense, perhaps the strongest lesson of The Coldest Winter is that there were still in the early 1950s figures like Truman, Acheson, and Marshall to stand against the demagogy that often passes for political discourse in the United States. And then Truman was followed by the sensible Dwight D. Eisenhower, who understood that there could be no victory worth the price in Korea and soon settled for the armistice that MacArthur and the Republican right fought so hard to prevent. In Vietnam and Iraq, we haven’t been so lucky.


The Korean War: An Exchange November 22, 2007

  1. 1

    Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Volume II: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947–1950 (Princeton University Press, 1990).

  2. 2

    Random House, 1988.