Military history

Part III



Truce Talks

To my mind it is fruitless to speculate on what might have been. If we had been ordered to fight our way to the Yalu, we could have done it—if our government had been willing to pay the price in dead and wounded that action would have cost.

— General Matthew B. Ridgway.

ON 1 FEBRUARY 1951 the U.N. branded Red China as an aggressor, and at the same time passed a resolution in effect abandoning the objectives it had set forth on 7 October 1950, for it now stated such objectives should be accomplished through peaceful means.

Since action in the Security Council had been blocked by a Malik veto, the General Assembly voted 44-7, with 9 abstentions, that, noting the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China has not accepted United Nations proposals to bring about a cessation of hostilities in Korea with a view of peaceful settlement, and that its armed forces continue their invasion of Korea and their large-scale attacks upon the United Nations Forces there:

[The General AssemblyFinds that the Central People's Government … has engaged in aggression in Korea;

Calls upon the Central People's Government … to cause its forces … in Korea to cease hostilities … and to withdraw from Korea;

Affirms the determination of the United Nations to continue its action in Korea to meet the aggression;

Calls upon all states … to continue to lend assistance to the United Nations action in Korea;

Calls upon all states to refrain from giving any assistance to the aggressors in Korea;

Requests a committee composed of the members of the Collective Measures Committee … to consider additional measures to be employed to meet this aggression … ;

Affirms that it continues to be the policy of the United Nations to bring about a cessation of hostilities in Korea and the achievement of United Nations objectives in Korea by peaceful means, and requests the President of the General Assembly to designate forthwith two persons to meet with him … to use their good offices to this end.

The U.N. refused to impose sanctions or other punitive measures against the Communist Chinese.

The United States, facing at the time a very poor tactical situation in Korea, finding the U.N. action backed by each of its European allies, had begun to explore the means of ending the fighting that brought Truman into conflict with MacArthur.

But while the Western world was willing to talk peace, and from this time continuously put forth feelers to the Communist bloc, the Red Chinese still hoped for a favorable decision on the battlefield. When they would hint of terms at all, these included withdrawal of all foreign troops from Korea, leaving North and South to settle their own affairs, withdrawal of U.S. protection to Taiwan, and admission of Red China to the U.N., all of which were strategically and politically impossible for the United States.

Here the matter rested during March, April, and early May, while a violent war of maneuver flowed up and down the middle part of the Korean peninsula. Encouraged by their success in the North, the CCF briefly engaged in open battle with the U.N. forces, in one massive assault after another, in February, April, and again in May.

Each time the CCF were spectacularly unsuccessful.

At the end of May 1951, the CCF had proved they could not prevail in open warfare in the more maneuverable ground of southern and middle Korea. But the U.N. Command had no burning desire to push and pursue them back into the horrendous terrain girdling the Yalu. Unless Manchuria could be interdicted, the CCF would fight here from a base of strength, while the U.N. would again be restricted and far from its sources of supply.

On the Yalu, the U.N. defensive line would be four hundred miles long, almost four times the distance it covered in the area of the 38th parallel.

In the spring of 1951 a movement against Red China itself was politically unfeasible in the U.N. As Winston Churchill, soon to return to power in Great Britain, put it, the thought of an Anglo-American army mucking about through Manchuria gave him nightmares. Ridgway, well aware of the processes that had brought him his fourth star, was content to take his direction from Washington.

Washington was seeking any means out of the Korean conflict that might be achieved without surrender, and with honor.

The fighting had escalated from a small limited war to a very large—though still limited—war, and it had poised the world on the brink of a general holocaust.

On 26 May, Lester Pearson of Canada, President of the U.N. General Assembly, stated that surrender of the aggressors might not be required to end the war; the U.N. would be satisfied if the aggression could be brought to an end. On 1 June, Trygve Lie, understanding completely the mood of his charges, mentioned that the time seemed right for stopping the bloodshed, since on this date the Chinese and North Koreans had been driven back across their line of departure. If a cease-fire could be made along the 38th parallel, Lie said, the Security Council resolutions of 25 and 27 June, and 7 July 1950, could be considered carried out.

On 2 June, Dean Acheson publicly agreed with Lie. He said there were actually two problems, one political, one military. While the long-term political approach of the United States, desiring a united, free, and independent Korea had not changed, the immediate problem of concern to Washington was the stopping of the shooting, with assurances it would not begin again. On 7 June, in response to vigorous grilling by a Senate committee, Acheson further stated that any reliable armistice based on the 38th parallel would be acceptable to the United States.

The United States had come full cycle, back from its position of October 1950, to its position of the previous June. The goal was containment, not victory.

And in June, with the CCF very close to real disaster in Korea, Communist thinking altered, too. The Soviet Union wanted neither defeat nor a big war, whatever the firebrands in Peiping desired. The battle lines, except in the west, where they neared the parallel, already stood well above the old line of demarcation, and the situation for the Communist powers was worsening.

It was very clear to Soviet observers that the CCF could not win a decision in South Korea; they could not now even halt the slow, steady U.N. advance northward.

It was also clear that the continuing hot war in the Far East was jangling Western nerves and hastening the slow rearmament of Europe under NATO. The West obviously desired peace—but continued Communist intransigence could tend only to unite the Western allies in the long run.

When Communists cannot win by force, they are prepared to negotiate. If, in 1951, they could stop the U.N. advance by talking, they would firm an increasingly fluid and dangerous situation and in effect achieve a tactical victory.

On 23 June, almost one year from the hour that the Inmun Gun deployed above the parallel, Soviet delegate Yakov A. Malik made a remarkable speech before the U.N. He claimed not to be speaking for the real belligerents, North Korea and Red China, but as a sort of amicus curiae for everyone. He made certain his speech was carried by radio to the gallery at large, the Western public.

The greater part of the speech was the usual Soviet reiteration of charges and complaints—but Malik ended on a new note:

"The problem of armed conflict in Korea could … be settled …; as the first step, discussions should be started between the belligerents for a ceasefire and an armistice providing for mutual withdrawal of forces from the 38th parallel … provided there is a sincere desire to put an end to the bloody fighting in Korea."

If the government Malik represented was sincere, it had apparently now agreed to the present goals of the United Nations Command.

He was immediately challenged by the United States delegate to put up or shut up. Truman repeated the American position in a broadcast. And on 30 June General Ridgway, as U.N. Commander in Chief, radioed the commander of Communist Forces in Korea as follows:

I am informed that you may wish a meeting to discuss an armistice providing for the cessation of hostilities and all acts of armed forces in Korea, with adequate guarantees for the maintenance of such armistice.

It was a remarkable statement for an American commander, triumphant in the field, to make to an as yet unhumbled enemy. It occurred less than a decade after an American pronouncement of a goal of unconditional surrender of its enemies, but it revealed an aeon of diplomatic and political change in American thinking on the matter of war.

And here, on 30 June, a certain amount of love between the United States and the Taehan Minkuk ended. For the Republic of Korea saw no honor in the proposed cease-fire, which left its people ravaged and still divided. A settlement along the 38th parallel, for all the American and U.N. protestations of continuance of the goal of uniting Korea by peaceful means, meant the separation of Korea into two blocs for as long as man could count, possibly for centuries.

Syngman Rhee was spurred not only by economic and national reasons to oppose peace now, but also by those same reasons that bound Europe's leaders into an emotional straitjacket in 1916-1917, when the Great War stalemated and it seemed sensible to end it. The Taehan Minkuk had gone into the war with its whole heart; it had been devastated, and one in twenty of its people killed or injured. Millions of orphans and homeless wandered its ruins.

To end the war after such wholesale sacrifice with nothing but the status quo ante was more than aging Rhee or the Koreans could bear.

Dr. Rhee issued a statement on 30 June 1951.

The Republic of Korea's conditions for peace were as follows: the CCF must withdraw north of the Yalu; all North Korean Communists must be disarmed; Soviet and Chinese arms assistance to the North must end, under a U.N. guarantee; full ROK participation in any settlement; and no settlement conflicting with the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the Republic of Korea.

From this time on, Syngman Rhee continued to be a patriot or became a major nuisance, depending on the vantage point from which he was viewed. Rhee never materially changed his demands, and he was to experience a continually worsening press in both Europe and America. Rhee, threatening again and again to block an armistice desired by most, became less and less a heroic old resistor of Communism and more and more a stubborn, opinionated old tyrant, determined to keep the West from getting what it wanted.

Actually, both Rhee and Korea were largely helpless. Not a U.N. member but a ward of that body, completely dependent upon American arms, fuel, munitions, and economic aid, the Taehan Minkuk had no chance of materially influencing U.S. policy. Willingly or not, Dr. Rhee had to continue as an American puppet or cease to exist.

But a certain amount of love was lost. With divergent aims, neither Washington nor Seoul now fully trusted the other.

Kim II Sung, Supreme Commander of the Inmun Gun, and Peng Teh-huai, Commander of Chinese Volunteers—whose name until that day was unknown to U.N. intelligence—radioed on 1 July 1951, agreeing to a meeting, not at sea, as Ridgway desired, but at Kaesong.

Kaesong was three miles below the parallel and a few miles inside Communist lines; north of Seoul, it lay athwart the main north-south corridor through western Korea, along the main invasion route.

The United Nations Command, not caring to be technical, accepted Kaesong. It was to learn that Communists propose nothing, not even truce sites, without an eye to their own advantage.

On 8 July Colonel James C. Murray, USMC; Jack Kinney, an Air Force colonel; and Colonel Lee Soo Young, ROK Army, representing the U.N. command, met with a Colonel Chang of the Communists at a teahouse on the outskirts of rubble-strewn Kaesong. All agreed that the principals to negotiate a possible cease-fire would meet at Kaesong at 1100 on 10 July.

On that date, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy designated by General Ridgway as the Senior UNC Delegate, said to newsmen as he left Munsan-ni:

"We, the delegates from the United Nations Command, are leaving for Kaesong fully conscious of the importance of these meetings to the entire world. We are proceeding in good faith prepared to do our part to bring about an honorable armistice, under terms that are satisfactory to the United Nations Command."

The seventeen nations with fighting forces in Korea had already met, and agreed on terms, which in essence were to freeze the fighting and forces where they stood, form a demilitarized zone in the vicinity of the parallel, exchange of prisoners, and the establishment of an international commission with access to supervise any truce.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, had explicitly instructed Ridgway not to discuss any political or territorial questions with the enemy. Not to be discussed were the seating of Red China in the U.N., Red claims to Taiwan, or any permanent division of Korea, or the 38th parallel as a political boundary.

From the American and U.N. point of view, the sole purpose of the meetings at Kaesong was to end the bloodshed, and to create some sort of machinery to supervise such an armistice. This done, an entirely separate body would sift the political and territorial questions posed by the Korean situation, in an atmosphere of peace.

Americans, even the knowledgeable Dean Acheson, had once again tried to separate peace and war into neat compartments, to their sorrow.

Assembled with Admiral Joy were Major General Laurence C. Craigie, USAF; Major General Henry I. Hodes, USA; Rear Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN; and Major-General Paik Sun Yup, ROK Army. Not one of these men was other than a military commander; not one was in any respect a diplomat or politician. They were soldiers, come to forge a military agreement to end the killing.

On the other side of the famous green table at Kaesong was a formidable array of Communist talent: General Nam II, North Korea Senior Delegate; Major General Chang Pyong San, North Korea; Major General Lee Sang Cho, North Korea; Lieutenant General Tung Hua, Chinese Volunteers; and Major General Hsieh Fang, also Chinese. Several of these men were graduates of Soviet universities, and not one was a fighting man.

All had held political posts, and with typical Communist deviousness, seemingly the junior man at the table in rank, Hsieh Fang, was the man who actually held the Communist cards.

Immediately, it became apparent that the Communist delegation intended not only to discuss the proposed cease-fire but everything up to and including the kitchen drain. Immediately, they would not agree to an agenda. Immediately, they made sharp protest at Turner Joy's use of the word "Communists"—there were no "Communists" in Kaesong, but only Inmun Gun and Chinese Volunteers; on the other hand, they used such terms as "that murderer Rhee" and "the puppet of Taiwan" quite freely.

They insisted that the 38th parallel must be the new line of demarcation, although the U.N. armies in most places stood well above it—and the parallel, as had been proved, was hardly a defensible line—and that unless the United Nations Command ceased actual hostilities in Korea at once they could not discuss the armistice. They at once refused demands to permit the International Red Cross to inspect North Korean pow camps.

And from the selection of the site at Kaesong—in Communist hands, yet still below the parallel, one of the few spots in Korea where this condition obtained—the forcing of U.N. negotiators to enter Communist territory displaying white flags, as if they were coming to surrender, to the seating of Admiral Joy in a chair substantially lower than Nam II's, the enemy showed that nothing was too small to be overlooked, if it accrued to his advantage.

As best it could, without sabotaging the truce talks, the U.N. Command began to fight for its own ends. Its delegates had come in good faith, to make an honest end to the killing, with the settlements to come later.

The tragedy of the talks was that the Communists intended merely to transfer the war from the battlefield, where they were losing, to the conference table, where they might yet win something.

The United Nations' desire for peace was genuine—almost frantic. Nothing else could have kept their negotiators, subjected to harassment, stinging insult, and interminable delay, at the green table after the first few sessions.

On 8 July, when Colonels Jack Kinney and Chang Chun San arranged the first Plenary Session, the world had displayed conspicuous joy. Only the United States Government sought to dampen the enthusiasm a bit: the New York Times reported on that date that "fighting for several weeks is foreseen by Washington."

Washington was still not seeing clearly. No one dared guess that it would take 159 plenary sessions and more than two years of haggling to end the killing.

Turner Joy, determined to succeed, said: "Unless you come prepared to spend time you only shortchange yourself and those who depend on you. Time is the price you pay for progress."

But time, above all, was what the Communist world needed in Korea in the summer of 1951.

And time, thirty fatal days, while the U.N. forces paused and marked time in expectation of immediate peace, was what they got.

Sometimes the price of progress comes high.

After the start of talks—first at Kaesong, then transferred to Panmunjom, in a neutral zone ten miles east at U.N. insistence—every action on the checkerboard of the Korean War would be made with one eye on the state of the front and one on the conference table.

Very soon, the U.N. Command was in quandary.

It wanted peace; the governments it represented wanted peace. The Communist world was willing to talk, even though it obstructed day to day, and while the talks went on there was always the hope of peace, eventually.

As Winston Churchill said, "It is better to jaw, jaw, than war, war."

But yet, with both armies in the field, lurking within gunshot of each other, with nothing settled, war could not wholly end.

The U.N. Command no longer looked for victory in the field. It had already been committed to settlement in the vicinity of the 38th parallel, though it insisted upon the present line of contact, not that indefensible, imaginary line of demarcation on the ground. If it flailed ahead now, made great gains, these would have already been compromised and might well be lost at the conference table. Ridgway and Van Fleet and Washington were loath to spend lives for nothing. Yet Ridgway and Van Fleet dared not sit still, letting their forces stagnate, despite Washington.

As summer ripened, there was no progress at the table. The Communist delegations seemed willing, even eager, to delay forever. They had transferred their war largely to the truce table, and now were as happily waging it as before, while they put the time they had bought to good use, if another round at arms should come.

As summer deepened, and the hopes of the world slowly withered, another round at arms was bound to come. In the green and muddy hills of Korea, the war had not ended. It had begun a new and terrible phase.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!