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June 22, 2000

Korea: Historians debunk some popular myths about the Korean war

On Jan. 12, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a famous speech at the National Press Club in which he failed to include South Korea in America's defense perimeter in the Pacific.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, campaigning in the 1952 presidential election, charged that Acheson's omission "gave the green light" to a North Korean invasion because it convinced the Communists that America would not defend the south.

Historians and military analysts would debate the charge's merits, but a public consensus emerged that the Truman administration had bungled by signaling North Korea, China and the Soviet Union that the United States considered South Korea to be expendable.

However, recently declassified Soviet documents and Chinese documents available prior to 1989's Tiananmen Square crackdown indicate that Acheson's address "had little if any impact on Communist deliberations," said James Matray, professor of history at New Mexico State University.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin "worried about U.S. military intervention until the moment the Korean War began," Matray said. "Moreover, he feared that North Korea could not survive an attack that he was certain South Korea would stage in the future. His approval of [North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung's plan was a mistake, but it derived from a sense of weakness rather than strength."

Acheson's speech was, in fact, a judicious statement that enunciated Truman's emphasis on economic assistance in Asia rather than military power, according to Matray. "Outlining the U.S. 'defensive perimeter' was a secondary issue in Acheson's speech that reflected, in part, concern that President Syngman Rhee of South Korea might resort to military aggression against the north to achieve reunification. The secretary of state was attempting to caution the South Koreans that the United States would not guarantee absolutely [South Korea's] military security," Matray said.

Acheson was outraged at being blamed for the war. He hadn't specifically included Australia or New Zealand in America's Pacific defense perimeter either, he pointed out in his memoirs, yet no one could have doubted the West's commitment to those countries. The United States' first Asian mutual defense agreement had been with South Korea, something that the Communists could not have overlooked, Acheson wrote.

Acheson's Press Club speech isn't even mentioned in Soviet documents, Matray found in his research. Instead, the voluminous memos, letters and cables show how cleverly North Korea's dictator played his mutually antagonistic allies, Stalin and Mao Zedong, off each other, Matray said. "Kim Il Sung displayed remarkable political talent, as he manipulated his patrons into supporting his plan for invasion. He was able to persuade Stalin and Mao that his forces would achieve victory before the United States could intervene, not because the Americans would not act to save South Korea."

q Stanley Sandler, recently a chaired professor at Virginia Military Institute, detailed other Korean War myths in his presentation, including the following:

* U.N. forces fought "with one arm tied behind their backs" — a comforting myth to generals in the Korean as well as Vietnam conflicts, Sandler said.

Indeed, U.N airpower was officially restricted to the Korean side of the Yalu River border with China and the Tyumen River border with the U.S.S.R. But Communists planes rarely ventured south of Pyongyang, well north of the 38th parallel, Sandler said.

"Joseph Stalin was as determined as Harry Truman to confine the Korean War to Korea, and Stalin faced considerably more provocation than did the American president," Sandler said. For example, in October 1950, U.S. jet fighters penetrated 20 miles into Soviet air space and shot up a Red Air Force base. "The Soviet government made the expected strong protests, the Americans expressed their regrets, paid compensation, and the incident was closed," said Sandler — wondering aloud how the United States would have responded if Soviet forces, fighting a war with Canada, had strayed across our border and attacked New York's Rome Air Force Base.

* The United States engaged in bacteriological warfare.

It's true that America was testing bacteriological weapons in the 1950s, with a "criminally irresponsible" disregard for safety by today's standards, Sandler said. And the United States had "shamelessly and uselessly" cooperated with the commander of a secret Japanese chemical-biological warfare research unit that had experimented on Allied POWs and Chinese civilians during World War II, he added.

"The United States was thus at some disadvantage in its flat-out denials" of employing biological warfare in Korea, Sandler stated.

But according to Sandler, declassified Soviet security forces memos indicate that the North Koreans obtained plague and cholera bacteria from Chinese corpses and created false "infection regions" to be found by inspectors from international pro-peace organizations. Communist prisoners awaiting execution were purposely infected, then poisoned, so their bodies could be found.

In a secret May 1953 resolution, Soviet leaders rebuked Mao Zedong for having misled the U.S.S.R.: "The spread in the press of information about the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information," the Kremlin complained. "The accusations against the Americans were fictitious."

These and other documents provide only fragmentary evidence against U.S. use of biological warfare — but it's a lot more substantial than the contrary evidence, Sandler said.

* Communist MiG jet fighters that dueled with U.N. forces were flown by Chinese pilots.

Some 67,000 Soviet air and ground personnel served in North Korea, Sandler noted. Stalin was so anxious to protect this "secret" (widely known among U.N. forces) that he ordered his pilots to wear Chinese uniforms and transmit in Chinese — "the latter an obviously impossible requirement," Sandler said.

Sandler concluded: While the United States could freely bomb a fraternal ally of the U.S.S.R. and intrude on Soviet territory, Stalin feared that Americans might be provoked to nuke his country if it became known that Red Air Force pilots were flying MiGs in the war.

* Communist "hordes" over-ran U.N. forces early in the war.

The Communists enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority only in the opening stage of the conflict and during the initial incursion of the Chinese, Sandler said. U.S. and Korean forces actually outnumbered their enemy 2:1 during the desperate fighting in 1950 around the Pusan Perimeter, in which more Americans died than at any other time in the war, Sandler said.

Surprise, better discipline and superior weaponry (particularly the Russian T-34 tank, against which the Allies had no defense) gave the North Koreans the advantage in the war's early stages, according to Sandler.

* MacArthur's behind-the-lines Inchon landing was a "desperate gamble."

MacArthur played up this myth, but the main problem that U.N. forces faced was the enormous tidal reach of the Inchon waterway, Sandler said.

"If MacArthur's planners didn't get it exactly right, the U.N. invasion fleet would be left stranded on the mud flats, sitting ducks," he noted. "But sitting ducks to what? The Korean People's Air Force had been pretty much shot out of the sky by then, and the invasion armada contained several aircraft carriers and their crack pilots. The stranding of an invasion fleet would have been a major embarrassment, certainly, but nothing remotely like a disaster."

*MacArthur's march to the Yalu River triggered Chinese intervention.

The Chinese were planning to intervene long before U.S. forces reached the Yalu, declassified documents show. "The famous indirect warnings to the Americans by Foreign Minister Chou En Lai against approaching the Yalu seems now to have been merely a means to justify a course already determined upon by the Chinese," Sandler said.

— Bruce Steele

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