Military history


The Taste of Triumph

I see the most serious fault … to lie in … the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems … the inevitable association of legalistic ideas with moralistic ones: the carrying into the affairs of states the concepts of right and wrong … whoever says there is a law must of course be indignant against the lawbreaker and feel a moral superiority to him. And when such indignation spills over into military contest, it knows no bounds short of reduction of the lawbreaker to the point of complete submissiveness—namely, unconditional surrender.

— George F. Kennan.

IN THE CLOSING days of September 1950, the Unites States seemed to be in an invulnerable position in the Far East. In the space of a few short days, the entire balance had turned; with almost shocking suddenness an American and ROK army that had been fighting for its life turned and destroyed its tormentors.

Trapped between the anvil of X Corps on the north, and the hammer of Eighth Army smashing upward from the south, not more than 25,000 sur-vivors of the Inmun Gun were able to retreat north of the 38th parallel.

And as American field commanders could at last relax, as the men under them could savor the sweet taste of chasing and killing an enemy that had chased and killed them earlier, in Washington, where early confidence had turned to concern and then apprehension, confidence returned, strongly.

For a moment, the world had seemed to shake, to go awry—but now all was as it should be, as Americans felt it must always be. Men smiled, and vaguely wondered why they had allowed themselves to doubt the inevitable victory.

And with victory, as it had always come to Americans after a war, came the determination to force their will on the enemy, to punish them for the crime of aggression, for starting the war. If the fighting, with its resultant death and destruction, its loss of American lives, resulted only in the return of the status quo, then almost all Americans would feel cheated.

War could never be part of a system of checks and balances; the view seemed immoral. War must always be for a cause, a transcendental purpose: it must not be to restore the Union, but to make men free; it must not be to save the balance of world power from falling into unfriendly hands, but to make the world safe for democracy; it must not be to rescue allies, but to destroy evil.

Americans have always accepted checks and balances within their own system of government, but never without, in the world. Because in the world such checks have never been achieved with votes or constitutions but with guns, and Americans have never admitted that guns may serve a moral purpose as well as votes.

They have never failed to resort to guns, however, when other means fail.

It was inevitable that the United States should take the position that the North Korean Communist State must now be destroyed for its lawlessness and that all Korea should be united under the government of the Taehan Minkuk.

Actually, the Communist world had not broken the law, for one of the continuing tragedies of mankind is that there is no international law. The Communist world had tried to probe, a gambit, and had been strongly checked.

And the Communists would regard an American move to punish the "law-breaker" not so much as justice but as a United States gambit of its own.

The question was not whether the American desire to reunite Korea under non-Communist rule was a proper goal for the United States, but whether the Communist world could sit by as the United States in turn ruptured the status quo ante.

The desire to join the two halves of Korea under Syngman Rhee was unquestionably proper, and in the best interests of the United Nations—if the U.N. had the power to accomplish it.

On 27 September 1950 the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed General MacArthur as follows:

1. His primary objective was to be the destruction of all North Korean military forces.

2. His secondary mission was the unification of Korea under Syngman Rhee, if possible.

3. He was to determine whether Soviet or Chinese intervention appeared likely, and to report such threat if it developed.

With the third instruction appeared signs of an elementary weakness in American policy—a decision by the powerful Communist nations to intervene or not to intervene was a political question, on the highest level. The indications would be apparent—or nonapparent—not on military levels but through the channels of political intercourse.

FECOM, a subordinate command, was a collective agency only, not an evaluative one. Yet throughout the fall of 1950 Washington continued to permit FECOM to evaluate not only its own intelligence but also that collected in other parts of the world as well. The eternally dangerous lack of insight into the aims and aspirations of hostile governments was to continue in Washington.

Military intelligence, quite competently, can determine the number of divisions a nation has deployed. Military men can never wholly competently decide, from military evidence alone, whether such nation will use them.

Such decision is not, and will never be, within the competence of military intelligence.

Following the directive of 27 September, two days later General George C. Marshall, the new Secretary of Defense—Louis Johnson, who had given the public what it wanted, had been the scapegoat of the public's error—sent MacArthur a personal communication—JCS 92985—"for his eyes only"—that he was free both tactically and strategically to proceed across the parallel and that President Truman concurred.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Korea had never seriously intended to halt at the old border. It is very doubtful if Syngman Rhee, who lived to reunite his country, would have obeyed a U.N. order to stop short of the parallel, any more than Abraham Lincoln would have favored an order from foreigners to stop the Grand Army of the Republic on the Potomac after Gettysburg. Rhee issued orders to his field commanders, now serving under American com-mand, to move north no matter what the Americans did.

Whatever the ploy and counterploy of the great powers, it was in the vital interests of the Taehan Minkuk to expand to the Yalu.

On 1 October, MacArthur demanded the surrender of North Korea. Kim II Sung made no reply.

At noon, 7 October, American units of the Eighth Army went across the parallel at Kaesong. ROK troops had already gone north days before.

On a clear, crisp October day, Captain Worsham Roberson, assistant surgeon of the 6th Tank Battalion, 24th Division, pulled his battered, dusty old jeep to a halt alongside the highway leading north. A hastily erected sign—the trademark of the passing of American troops anywhere in the world—told him that he was crossing the 38th parallel.

He looked at Captain Harvey Phelps, battalion surgeon, sitting beside him, and the stocky, round-faced Roberson fumbled in his kit, removing a carefully hoarded bottle of Seagram's 7 Crown.

Roberson and Phelps had arrived during the bad days, when the crumbling 24th held onto the Perimeter by a nail. They would never forget their arrival into the lines of the division with the new M-46 90mm-gun tanks, shipped hastily from Detroit Arsenal.

It had been hell to get the big tanks to Oakland, aboard ship, and on land again at Pusan. At Pusan there had been no port facilities to handle a 92,000-pound tank; the ship's officers had groaned and turned pale while the ship's winches and cargo booms strained under the extreme load. But lives, after all, were more valuable than winches, and one by one the 76 tanks had crashed down on the dock.

When the armor growled and roared up to the Naktong, men from the Taro Leaf Division ran forward to meet them, many of them openly sobbing. They crowded around the ugly steel monsters and patted them as if they had been blooded horses.

Under Lieutenant Colonel John Growden, West Point 1937, who had been with Patton, the 6th Tank soon had its baptism of fire.

To Growden came a radio flash from a leading tank: "We have sighted enemy. What are our orders?"

Growden radioed back: "Are they definitely enemy?"


"Then fire—that's why the hell we're here!"

In each and every war, Americans must learn the hard way.

It had been a long, hard road. And when they had broken out, and the shooting was good, they had passed a little knoll, on which had been dug fifteen or sixteen trenches. Hearing the men talk, Captain Roberson went up to look.

Buried waist-deep, hands wired behind their backs, agony imprinted on their stark faces, were 500 ROK soldiers and 86 GI's. Some had been bayoneted to death; some had been clubbed; some mercifully, shot.

Doc Phelps, looking ill, determined the men had been killed the evening before the battalion passed.

Now, thinking of the long, dusty, bloody road, Roberson pulled the stopper on the bottle. "Doc, this calls for a drink."

Phelps was a teetotaler. Furthermore, he was married to the daughter of Dr. Godbold, famous pastor of the St. Louis First Baptist Church, who had strong opinions on alcohol. Doc Phelps hesitated, then took the bottle.

"To heck with Dr. Godbold—this calls for a drink—"

Worsham Roberson figured Dr. Godbold would understand, this once.

When it had voted, 7 to 0, with 3 abstentions, 1 absence, to form a unified command in Korea, to permit the United States Government to appoint the U.N. commander, and to use the U.N. flag, the Unites Nations on 7 July 1950 had in effect given the United States something very close to carte blanche for the conduct of the war.

The U.N. Commander, MacArthur, was requested to send, through his government, appropriate reports on whatever action he took.

At this time, the majority of the United Nations were either Western nations or pro-Western; only a handful of the so-called neutrals had been admitted to membership. And, shocked by the overt Communist action, these nations realized that only the United States was capable of effectual opposition to Communist power.

When the Inmun Gun collapsed, the U.N. was prepared to continue its backing of United States policy. The United States was riding a crest of suc-cess, and in October 1950 Americans were happily discovering that world opinion, for whatever it is worth, tends to follow power and success. Later, after Hungary and Tibet, they would again rediscover the fact, this time less happily.

As long as the United States was winning, and its aim did not seem to lead to general war or to sacrifices for the war-weary friendly nations, the U.N. as then constituted was content to follow.

But this was the last time the United States was to find general agreement.

There is every indication that, just as they had not expected that the United States would intervene in Korea in June, the North Koreans did not anticipate the U.N. offensive over the parallel. The shattered Inmun Gun had not been reconstituted after its retreat, and the extensively prepared positions along the border were not heavily defended.

When the Eighth Army smashed across Kaesong in the west, and the ROK's galloped northward to the east, formal resistance almost dissolved. Within a week, despite small pockets of violent resistance here and there, there no longer existed an organized North Korean front, and only remnants of the North Korean Army fled toward the Yalu.

Kim II Sung's broadcast to his forces 14 October is highly revealing. He stated that the new disaster was due to his government's expectation that the U.N. would not move north and that "many of our officers have been thrown into confusion by this new situation. They have thrown away their arms and left their positions without orders."

Kim II Sung further proclaimed resistance to the last. Traitors and agitators were to be shot on the spot, regardless of rank, and a new "Supervising Army" of politically reliable veterans was to be formed.

When it dragged its bleeding forces hastily back across the parallel, the Communist world had apparently been ready to accept a temporary defeat. It was Communist doctrine to exploit success, but it was also considered folly to support failure.

The move in Korea had failed; now they would drop it, wait till a better day. In New York on 2 October the Soviet delegate to the Security Council proposed a cease-fire along the parallel, and a withdrawal of all foreign troops from the peninsula.

Instead, he had a new American challenge thrown into his teeth.

On a balmy Sunday, 15 October, just as the Korean War was turning into a sort of American fox hunt, a star-studded group conferred on Wake Island. Peppery, sharp-eyed President Truman had flown halfway across the Pacific to discuss the final phases of the action with his patrician proconsul of American power in the East, Douglas MacArthur.

Oddly, a fact much noted, it was almost a meeting of two sovereigns rather than of Chief of State and field commander.

The architects of American policy were represented, from homely, keen-faced Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, talking in the same Missouri Valley twang as the President but the finest Army group commander America had produced, to quiet, self-effacing Dean Rusk of the State Department.

The conference was high-level, and five-star General Bradley took its notes.

There was very little talk about the fighting. It was taken for granted that the conflict was almost over and that now the main concern was the rehabilitation of Korea, north and south, most of which lay in ruins.

MacArthur said he expected formal resistance would end around Thanks-giving. He hoped to have the Eighth Army back in Japan by Christmas.

General Bradley, with problems around the world, wanted to know when MacArthur might be able to release a division for Europe.

Then the talk came around to a different matter. "What," asked Harry Truman, "are the chances for Chinese or Soviet intervention?"

Sonorously, MacArthur replied, "Very little."

He went on to say that had they interfered during the first or second months it would have been decisive. "But we are no longer fearful of their intervention. We no longer stand with hat in hand."

He mentioned that the Chinese had 300,000 men in Manchuria, of which not more than 200,000 were along the Yalu River. Of these, not more than 60,000 could be got across.

"The Chinese have no air force. If the Chinese try to get down to P'yongyang there will be the greatest slaughter."

No one, civilian or military, disagreed with MacArthur's view.

But it was not what was said, but what was left unsaid on Wake Island, Sunday, 15 October, that would change the course of history.

General MacArthur was operating on purely military assumptions that the Chinese did not have the ability to intervene. And one of these assumptions was that, if the Chinese dared oppose the righteous march of U.N. forces, the United States would retaliate with all its righteous wrath and fury—that American air would strike at China, interdict its long and painfully vulnerable supply lines across Manchuria, destroy the fledgling industry of which the Chinese were so proud.

He firmly believed such a fear would deter the Chinese from action. He firmly believed, also, that upon a Chinese move, America would cry havoc and loose the dogs of war. China, even with its millions, could not hope to gain by general war with the West.

These things he believed, but did not mention.

Quiet, modest Omar Bradley, with one of the best military brains in the business, was thinking of the massive Soviet divisions—at least 175 in the Satellite countries alone—positioned in Europe. To him, all-out war with China would be war with the wrong enemy, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. The United States had to bear the load in Asia, true, but its vital interest lay in Europe, and its greatest danger in Soviet Russia.

There was no occasion to discuss the matter.

And President Truman, with his civilian advisers, the architects of containment, had his own ideas. He saw no hope of, or profit in, America's trying to subdue the endless land masses of Russia and China. It could only be done—if at all—by such holocaust as mankind had never known.

Harry Truman was ready to defend his country at all costs. If the enemy attacked the United States, or its treaty allies, America would go to war, at once. But Harry Truman would do nothing to precipitate Armageddon.

It was one thing to attempt to prevent the further expansion of Communism, even at the cost of blood, but quite another to seek a global victory over world Communism. Harry Truman doubted that victory would be worth the price.

There was talk, high-level talk, at Wake Island, Sunday, 15 October, but there was not enough communication.

And while these men talked, unknown to any of them, the hordes of Red China, marching by night, wailing the minor keys of Sinic music, were stream-ing across the Yalu and barren wastes of North Korea.

The punishment the U.N. and its agent, the United States, proposed to visit upon the Communist world was greater than the Communist world was willing to accept. Just as the United States had not been able to stand idly by in June as a friendly dependency was overwhelmed, in October the men of Peiping and the Kremlin felt they could not permit the forcible separation of North Korea from their own sphere.

One gambit had failed; now they must attempt another.

In 1950 Soviet Russia wanted general war no more than did the United States. Stalin and his associates held no illusions that the United States could be conquered. Russia's own wounds from World War II were hardly healed, and the nuclear balance of power in American hands was as yet overwhelming. But the Soviets were still willing to accept grave risks.

If the U.S.S.R.'s stance were different from America's, if it could not cease pushing, probing, and risking, it was because Soviet foreign policy was aggressive and expansionist. Communist ideology was far more than a tool to such expansion. It remained a taskmaster forcing the Soviets to it. Unless, with time, Communist ideology could be diluted, or diverted from the narrow precepts of Lenin, there could never be any true peace between Communists and the West. Westerners, tending to be pragmatic and liberal in viewpoint, often miscounted the driving reality of Communist dogmatism.

Russians, determined to oppose the American action in Korea, saw clearly that a confrontation of American troops with Russian, a direct clash, must inevitably escalate into general war, whether the governments wanted it or not. But the West had accepted Soviet arms in the hands of a satellite people; even though they had been drawn into the bloodletting themselves, the Americans had tacitly accepted war at secondhand with the Communist center of power. To substitute another Communist people, the Chinese, for the North Koreans, was not to change materially the tenuous rules of the game. And because of China's contiguous border with North Korea, even some sort of moral case for Chinese intervention could be made.

The Communist leaders, desperate to save both their face and North Korea, felt that if new forces were hurled into the Korean cockpit, so long as the move did not seem to be a direct confrontation of the major powers, the conflict could still be limited to the peninsula.

And on the peninsula they felt they still might win.

Equally important, Red China was ready and spoiling for war.

The Chinese Communists, newly come to power, were driven by that dynamic puritanism that accompanies all great revolutions. Like the French in 1793, they not only desired conflict with the "evil" surrounding them; they needed it. Their hold on the millions of the sprawling Middle Kingdom was far from consolidated, and a controlled, limited war would consolidate it as nothing else could do.

However lacking in Communist enthusiasm the hordes of China might be, there was both a sullen sense of grievance against the West and a passionate national pride in China's millions. Both these passions have been too often overlooked by foreigners.

Just as the northern states of the American Union have overlooked and forgotten their occupation and reconstruction of the southern states, the West has dismissed the painful humiliations repeatedly visited upon the ancient Sinic culture in the past hundred years.

Neither the South nor the Middle Kingdom has forgotten. The Chinese, a proud and very ancient people, never willingly accepted their domination by foreign powers. They never accepted the extraterritoriality, the quartering of foreign troops on their soil, the control of their commerce. Unable to fight the gunboats the foreign powers sent to quell their resentment, they could only smolder, and await the day when the Middle Kingdom was again a world power.

Even Chinese who detested Communism would thrill if the Middle Kingdom emerged from its long impotence, and the men in Peiping understood this.

If they could engage the West, defeat it, or fight it to a standstill, they would gain face as no Chinese rulers had gained for generations.

When the United States had entered the war in Korea, the Chinese had well understood the inevitable result. After all, China had supplied the hard core of the Inmun Gun; the Chinese were hardly blind to that Army's weaknesses. Early in September Chinese forces began the long march from the south, where they had been deployed against Taiwan, to the mountains along the Yalu. The early successes of the Inmun Gun had surprised the rulers of China—and now those successes gave them renewed confidence.

If the "imperialists" moved north, the Chinese would have a severe shock awaiting them.

On 1 October 1950 Mao Tse-tung stated publicly:

The Chinese people will not tolerate foreign aggression and will not stand aside if the imperialists wantonly invade the territory of their neighbor.

Red China had no relations with the United States, but on 3 October small, grave-faced Chou En-lai ordered the Indian ambassador, Sardar K. M. Panik-kar, to his office. Here the foreign minister told Panikkar, "If the United States, or United Nations forces cross the 38th parallel, the Chinese People's Republic will send troops to aid the People's Republic of Korea. We shall not take this action, however, if only South Korean troops cross the border."

Panikkar was deeply impressed. He called New Delhi at once, and the Indian Government passed this word both to New York and to Washington. The Indian delegate to the U.N. announced that his government felt U.N. forces should remain south of the parallel.

Washington took no action except to inform MacArthur's HQ in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, other Chinese officials dropped pointed hints to members of the few Western missions in Peiping. All these views were reported to Wash-ington, which in turn forwarded them to Tokyo.

On 10 October, Peiping Radio broadcast Chinese intentions precisely as Chou-En-lai had stated them.

On 14 October, from Tokyo, Major General Charles Willoughby, Far East Command Intelligence Officer, issued a detailed study of the question of Soviet or Chinese intervention in Korea. The question had long been one of concern to FECOM Intelligence, and already reams of reports, analysis, and estimates had been written. There was a great deal of evidence—pointing either way.

Evidence, however, signifies nothing unless evaluated, and evaluation is always more difficult than collection.

It was Willoughby's view on 14 October that the Soviet Union, in any case, had no military advantage in intervention, and such intervention could be dis-counted. Then Willoughby took up what the Chinese would do, which was the real problem.

The Chinese had at least 38 divisions in 9 field armies garrisoned in Manchuria north of the Yalu. Of these, 24 divisions were disposed along the border in position to intervene. This estimate of CCF strength was reasonably accurate.

But FECOM knew that 14 October the U.N. forces in North Korea stood very close to total victory. The Inmun Gun had deteriorated into remnants. The ROK's had seized the important port of Wonsan on the east coast, and in FECOM there was a definite feeling that the moment for fruitful Chinese intervention had passed. Most of the vital areas of North Korea had been overrun.

Willoughby's analysis described the open failure of the North Koreans to rebuild their forces, and suggested that this indicated the CCF and Soviets had decided against further investment in a losing cause. Willoughby's views unquestionably reflected those of his chief, and portions of his intelligence analysis are revealing:

Recent declarations by CCF leaders, threatening to enter North Korea if American forces were to cross the 38th parallel are probably in a category of diplomatic blackmail. The decision, if any, is beyond the purview of collective intelligence: it is a decision for war, on the highest level.

Charles Willoughby, while devoted to MacArthur, had always been personally unpopular in the American Army. The time would come when the storm would break over his head—because General Willoughby, in truth, was wrong.

But it should never be overlooked that FECOM's views, as stated by Willoughby, were never contested by Washington. The decisionif anyis beyond the purview of collective intelligence. FECOM was at best a collective agency, not an evaluative one for matters of international policy; if Washington permitted FECOM both to collect and to make decisions, then whatever happened the fault was Washington's.

It was true that Washington had no pipeline—not then, not later—into the Kremlin. It was true that the CIA had become woefully spotty in East Asia since the Communist takeover. It was true that the picture of both Peiping and Moscow remained vague, distorted, and open to argument in Western capitals. Nevertheless, the responsibility to evaluate intelligence touching the highest political levels remained in Washington.

Yet throughout the whole uneasy fall of 1950, Washington kept relaying information to Tokyo. And Tokyo, very early, had made up its mind, as expressed by MacArthur: The Chinese would not dare to intervene.

Because Washington permitted soldiers to make and to act on decisions that were beyond the purview of the military, because it forced them to bring purely military thinking into matters that remained in essence political—in short, because Washington still sometimes acted as if there could be a separation between war and politics, the United States, intoxicated with the heady taste of triumph, was heading for disaster.

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