Korea: The First War We Lost by Bevin Alexander
Book Excerpt - Preface and Introduction
Preface to the Updated Edition
by Bevin Alexander
Who would have thought that the only important conflict of the Cold War that would cast its terrible shadow into the twenty-first century would be Korea? All the other major problems that seemed more intractable at the time have been resolved for years---the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, the Iron Curtain has disappeared, Germany has reunified, Red China is back in the comity of nations, even the United States and Vietnam have reconciled. But the problem of a divided Korea seems as intransigent today as it did that fateful day of June 25, 1950, when North Korean tanks rolled over the 38th parallel and commenced a war exceeded in violence, death, destruction, and despair only by the First and the Second World Wars.
More than half a century has passed since that wretched war was fought, yet its ramifications are as palpable today as they were during the darkest days of the fighting. Indeed, the so-called Demilitarized Zone or DMZ that separates North Korea from South Korea is only the former main line of resistance or MLR of the actual war. The MLR has gone silent, but the front line is still there, just as it was on the last day of the war, July 27, 1953. Troops still line both sides of the DMZ. Guns point in both directions. The fighting has stopped, but the war goes on; it's merely suspended. This is an armistice, not a peace. The only things that have changed along the front are the hills. During the war they were stripped bare of their trees and their vegetation by shellfire. Now the trees and the shrubs have grown back. The hills, at least, have recovered from the war. But North and South Korea still lie locked in a strange love-hate relationship. The animosity is tangible and inescapable, but the people on both sides yearn for reunion, for an end to the horrible separation, enmity, and invective.
This yearning is shown in the tremendous efforts in recent years to bring about reunions of families separated by the war and division, of numerous demonstrations on the streets of South Korea calling for unity, and by efforts of South Korea to open rail and road communications with North Korea. Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime has prevented public expressions in the north, but much evidence points to the same longing for close ties with the south among the North Korean people.
Since the fighting stopped, South Korea has grown into a tremendously successful, democratic, industrial state. Its capital, Seoul, is a vibrant city of eleven million people, filled with Korean-made cars, prosperous citizens, dynamic businesses, and a downtown that looks like Atlanta. North Korea has remained a closed Communist dictatorship, its economy paralyzed by rigid production quotas and tightly controlled by rules that give the people no freedom and few incentives. For onwards of a decade, North Korea has been unable to feed its people or to provide them even a modestly adequate standard of living. North Korea is slowly dying as a state. But its tyrannical leader Kim Jong Il, son of the late first dictator, Kim Il Sung, is still defiantly trying to follow the Communist ideology of a command economy, a system long since proven to be ineffective and long since rejected by Russia and China.
The North Korean leadership is trying desperately to survive by developing long-range rockets and other weapons it can sell abroad, especially to the few other rogue states left on the planet. It has been threatening to produce atomic weapons, in order to leverage economic and political concessions from the United States. How bizarre! Here is a nation that is menacing war as a way of obtaining food for its starving people! Kim Jong Il's choice of confrontation rather than cooperation with the rest of the world demonstrates the same illogical madness that made his father defy the United States and try to conquer South Korea.
Thus, in a real sense the Korean War has not ended at all. It has entered a new and quite dangerous phase. There's no indication Kim Jong Il harbors dreams of conquering South Korea. But his threat to renounce the armistice of July 1953 and his labeling as an act of war any move the United States might make to counter him is extremely confrontational. Hopefully, sane voices will prevail on both sides, and the terrors and tragedies of another armed conflict will not come to pass. Nevertheless, the divisions that split the peninsula half a century ago still exist with all their venom. This poison must be drained away, and the divided people must find a formula to come together. Korea was known for a thousand years as the Land of the Morning Calm. It is long since past time for serenity to return to this tragic, tortured country.
Reunion could come about in a number of ways, by two separate states that work together in the manner Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg cooperated for years, a confederation on the Swiss model, a closer federal union, or even a return to a single unified state. It will be up to the Korean people, south and north, to seek their own destiny. The whole world hopes that the process will be happy, peaceful, and tranquil.
The sad situation in which Korea finds itself can be traced back directly to the conflicts and disagreements that precipitated the Korean War. Most Americans today know little of the war's origins or its dramatic course. For this reason, it seems to be an especially appropriate time to bring out this revised edition of the story of the war, for the two generations that have arrived since the conflict was fought.
The Korean War endured for three years as an official, international act of violence. It ended only after one and a half million men, women and children had died and two and a half million people had been wounded or injured. It was the third most devastating war in history, and, as we see all around us, the consequences of its hate, distrust and division abide with us today. This book is an attempt to show that the war need not have been protracted for so long, nor to have demanded so much in lives and treasure, nor to have left behind such hostility between nations that had much to lose and little to gain by enmity.
This book is an effort to demonstrate that Western leaders, especially those from the United States, received ample signals that, had the leaders responded to them, could have prevented the entry of Red China into the war and, even after Communist China did enter, could have ended the war much sooner and at much less cost.
This book attempts to show that the United States---with the aid of South Korea and the support of some United Nations members---won one war against the North Koreans, and lost another war against the Red Chinese. The causes of these two wars were essentially and totally different. The North Koreans were bent on overt aggression and were thwarted. The Red Chinese were trying to protect their homeland from the potential threat of invasion and were successful.
Finally, this book tries to show the Korean War as it actually was fought and as the tactical and strategic decisions, good and bad, were made. In this, the dedication and devotion of men on both sides to what they believed to be their nations' needs were demonstrated in such full measure as to suggest the awesome powers of human sacrifice and endeavor that leaders everywhere hold in their hands, and what immense responsibility for the exercise of those powers they assume.
The Korean War became the arena for the fateful clashes of national wills, in which leaders at all levels made decisions ranging from remarkable sagacity to desolating error. Korea thus is a human story of mortals in high and low places acting in crisis as their individual lights directed them.
Chapter 1: June 25, 1950
On the early morning of June 25, 1950, the army of communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and the world has never been the same since. The attack made real the fear of direct communist aggression against the West, raised in the Russian blockade of Berlin two years before. It appeared to validate the existence of a world-wide communist conspiracy of conquest. This specter of a far-reaching plot, actual or not, ensured that the McCarthy-era witch hunt for Red agents and sympathizers would be supported by many. The panic precipitated Europe to subdue its fear of the German army and allow West Germany to rearm as a Western ally. American response to the attack crystallized the practice of confrontation diplomacy with the communist world in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and that affected American policy all the way through the Vietnam War years. Korea provided the opportunity for the spectacular zenith and caused the dizzying nadir of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, one of the most brilliant but contradictory leaders in American military history. Korea motivated the American people to undergo a weeks-long examination in Senate committee hearings of what the country should do about the war and communism. Yet by the end of the Korean War, it had become manifest to many Americans, though by no means to all, that the simple verities about total victory and the conflict between good and evil that had guided American policy for many years were inadequate in the dismaying world that arose from World War II.
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The North Korean army's prime assault troops, 89,000 men in seven divisions and three independent units, attacked south from the 38th parallel boundary in six closely packed columns. They achieved total tactical and strategic surprise. Facing them were four understrength Republic of Korea (ROK) divisions and one regiment, totaling 38,000 men, and not all of them were on the line. Some ROK units were in reserve at various distances below the 38 th. Since no one had predicted the attack, large numbers of South Korean soldiers were away on weekend passes. South Korea's other four divisions were spread out in various places to the south.
The North Korean numerical superiority was something on the order of five or six to one at the crucial points on the battle line where the North Koreans concentrated their effort. The North Koreans possessed three times as much artillery as the ROKs and nearly all of it outranged the South Korean guns. The North Koreans could shell ROK positions at will while standing well out of range of retaliatory fire.
But superior numbers and guns were not the decisive factors for the North Koreans, because they possessed an ultimate weapon: the tank. It is a bizarre fact, but five years after a world war which proved beyond all doubt the blitzkrieg capability of the tank to break great gaps in enemy defenses, the American-equipped South Koreans possessed nothing to stop a tank—neither a single tank of their own, nor armor-piercing artillery shells, nor combat aircraft, nor antitank land mines.
The North Koreans themselves had only 150 tanks, a ludicrous number compared to the thousands employed on both sides in World War II. But with little to stop them, they formed an omnipotent juggernaut that nullified whatever courage, devotion or tenacity the South Korean troops exhibited. The tanks themselves were Russian-built T34s, big thirty two-ton, heavily armor-plated, low-silhouette monsters that carried high-velocity 85mm guns. It was this tank, then equipped only with a 76mm gun, that was credited by German panzer leader Heinz Guderian with stopping the 1941 drive on Moscow.
The only weapons the South Koreans had which possessed even remote potential for stopping the T34s were American 57mm flat-trajectory antitank guns and 2.36-inch rocket launchers (bazookas). The 57mm guns were obsolescent relics of World War II and could halt the heavily armored T34s only with occasional lucky shots. One of the few partially vulnerable spots was the grating above the engine at the rear. The bazooka shells blew up harmlessly against the sides of the North Korean tanks or bounced off. Only the newly developed and still untested 3.5-inch super bazookas, hurriedly flown to Korea in the early weeks, were effective in some cases, but not all.
The North Koreans obviously knew the ROKs had no effective antitank weapons, because they adopted tactics that under normal conditions of warfare would have invited annihilation: they lined their armor in columns, one tank behind the other, on the narrow eighteen-foot-wide Korean dirt roads and headed south, their infantry strung out behind them.
Even a few antitank mines well placed in roadbeds could have stopped entire columns. Armor-piercing shells from some of the ROKs' eighty-nine field pieces (short-range 105mm light howitzers M3, used in U.S. infantry cannon companies in World War II) could have destroyed a stalled column of tanks in minutes, as could have jellied gasoline napalm bombs from attack aircraft. But as the ROKs at first had none of these weapons, the North Koreans brazenly drove down the roads in daylight, destroying South Korean emplacements and any troops with the temerity to fire upon them, and opened virtually unopposed paths for the infantry to follow.
The North Koreans adopted their tactics not only because the South Koreans could not counter them, but because Korean terrain encouraged tanks to remain on the roads. About three-fourths of Korea consists of mountains which are difficult or deadly for tanks. Most of the relatively flat land in the summer of 1950 was covered with tiny, wet rice paddies divided by narrow raised walkways and embankments. In many of these paddies armor would have mired, and in nearly all it would have had difficult going. It was this appraisal of Korea's terrain, plus judgment (largely erroneous, it turned out) that Korea's one-lane bridges over small streams were too weak to support tanks, that United States military advisors cited in 1949 in denying a South Korean request for tanks. Perhaps the advisors reasoned that the Russians and North Koreans would draw the same conclusion and omit tanks from the North Korean arsenal. More likely, Americans used the terrain as an excuse to turn down the request for tanks because they feared South Korea's pugnacious president, Syngman Rhee, would use them to attack the North, as he had threatened to do. Though the United States deliberately provided only defensive weapons to South Korea, it is a comment on the peculiarity of American thinking that the advisors failed to include any adequate means of defense against the tank. The first antitank mines were flown into Korea from Japan on June 30, the sixth day of the invasion. By that time the disarray of the ROK army was such that training in mine use and distribution of them took much time. Meanwhile, the T34s rolled on.
The North Koreans were very like their South Korean brethren in many ways. The soldiers of both states were largely of peasant origin, used to hard work, endurance and privation, stoic both in success and in failure, tenacious in what they believed, and largely obedient to their superiors. Koreans on both sides were able to march long and hard on short rations and still fight at the end. They could climb ridgelines and mountains without dropping from exhaustion and overexertion. In this, they were unlike most American soldiers, who were largely garrison troops, used to being carried in motor vehicles, with little physical conditioning and little experience in long marches and climbing mountains.
Although Koreans north and south of the 38th were much alike, their armies were quite dissimilar, for each army reflected the military doctrines of the respective armies which had created them: the Soviet Army and the U.S. Army.
The North Korean army's overwhelming strength (89,000 men) lay in its seven assault infantry divisions, a tank brigade and two independent infantry regiments. It addition, the army had 23,000 men in three reserve divisions, and about 18,000 were in the Border Constabulary. Only 5,000 men were assigned to command and service units. In comparison, the South Koreans had only 65,000 in their eight understrength combat divisions, while they had 33,000 in headquarters and service troops. The South Korean army reflected the American military establishment: large numbers of support personnel as compared to fighting men. The North Koreans, on the other hand, exhibited perfectly the lean doctrine of the Soviet Army: every man possible was pushed to the front and given a weapon to fire.
The North Koreans had one additional manpower advantage in the short run: about one-third of their army was made up of Koreans who had served in the Chinese Communist forces in China and had been demobilized and returned to Korea about the time the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. These men gave the North Korean army a degree of battle experience and combat hardiness which the South Korean army at the outset largely did not enjoy.
Tactically, the North Koreans repeated time after time one technique which was marvelously effective: they engaged fixed enemy positions with direct frontal attacks or fire, then sent forces around both flanks, if possible, in an envelopment movement designed either to surround the enemy and then squeeze him into a small perimeter to destroy him or force him to surrender, or, if this failed, to cut off his retreat or reinforcements by means of roadblocks in his rear.
This system worked well in the fluid situation which existed during the summer of 1950, when there were no fully manned main lines of resistance extending over many miles which could not be flanked easily. It was especially successful in tactical situations in which the T34 tanks could move directly against enemy positions on the roads, pinning the enemy in place with fire, while North Korean infantry slipped around both sides of the positions to the rear. Even if one of the envelopments did not work, the other often did.
Double-envelopment tactics were natural to North Koreans. Flank envelopments have been basic techniques of war for thousands of years, but some soldiers have more success in carrying them out than others. When they could, the North Koreans followed the model of the greatest of all armies at envelopment, the Mongols of the thirteenth century under Genghis Khan and his successors. The Mongol method of attack was based upon their method of hunting, and Genghis Khan trained his armies by means of a great hunt each winter in peacetime. An army would begin by pressing the game backward, then the flanks of the army would advance ahead of the center, around the game and to the rear, encircling the increasingly terrified animals, then pressing them together from all points of the compass. The training for the Mongol soldiers consisted primarily in teaching them to prevent the escape of even a hare or a deer as the trap was closing. This required an incredible degree of control of all encircling elements. When it worked, practically no animals broke free on their own. For soldiers adept in corralling animals in a great hunt, hunting men became easy.
When envelopment worked for the North Koreans, and it often did, practically no organized units, and often few men, escaped the traps. Fortunately for South Korea, the North Koreans possessed no military genius like Genghis Khan who could expand this limited tactical concept into a far-reaching strategic plan to conquer the South in a single great coordinated campaign.
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Copyright © 1986-2005 Bevin Alexander • All rights reserved
This excerpt is the "Preface" and "Chapter 1" chapters from Korea: The First War We Lost and
is reprinted with Bevin Alexander's permission.
Written by Bevin Alexander. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Bevin Alexander at:
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Bevin Alexander's website at: http://bevinalexander.com/.
About the Author:
Bevin Alexander is the author of nine books on military history. He commanded
the 5th Historical Detachment in the Korean War, 1951-52, and received three
battle stars for service at the front. He holds a bachelor's degree with honors
in history from The Citadel, and a master's degree with distinction from
Northwestern University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Longwood
University, Farmville, Virginia.
Published online: 12/18/2005.