Korean War Lessons

By Koresen, Frederick J. | Army, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Korean War Lessons


Koresen, Frederick J., Army


The Pitfalls of Settling for Less:

When I agreed to deliver a speech to the MacArthur Foundation, I went immediately to T. R. Fehrenbach, a revisit to his book This Kind of War. I wanted to refresh my memory of the stark revelations he presented of just how bad things were when we committed an unready, untrained and ill-equipped Army to the mission of defending South Korea. We committed them piecemeal, beginning with Task Force Smith and continuing with bits and pieces of the 24th Division. We committed them to join the Republic of Korea Army that was also unready, untrained and ill-equipped. Together we were almost totally incapable of halting the invasion from the North.

Fehrenbach, with clarity and great perspicacity, describes the condition of all three armies engaged and brings to life the terrible realities faced by soldiers who were in fact "cannon fodder." That the survivors of those first weeks could finally organize and defend the Pusan Perimeter is testimony to the fighting qualities of Americans and Koreans, even those who do not know they possess the fortitude, intrepidity and bravery that have marked battlefields throughout history. That fact and the fundamental soundness of our Army's organizational structure and functioning, coupled with the fact that the North Koreans had far outrun their logistic support, combined to save us from the ignominious disaster of being driven into the sea.

I have never read a comprehensive survey of why and how the deterioration of the World War II Army was allowed to happen. I was in it and I had no idea of how bad it was and only much later came to the realization that the destruction of the force could not have been accomplished more thoroughly if it had been deliberate-in fact being a government program, a deliberate attempt at destruction could not possibly have been so successful.

It also became apparent to me only much later that no one ever paid for the policies and decisions that brought about that deterioration. President Harry S Truman and his Secretaries of War, Navy and Defense have to be high on any list of the culpable, but there were also many famous Army names among those who allowed it to happen-Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur and Bradley among them. Then there was the press, the news media whose principal stories of those days were "bring the boys home" and "the atom bomb makes armies obsolete." Finally there was Congress, where the ultimate responsibility for "raising the Army" seems to have been completely ignored. I should think that today, as we are in the midst of the Korean War 50-- year memorials and commemorations, there is ample need for some doctoral dissertations and book-length exposes of those subjects.

I shall not try to answer questions raised by those observations. I want to focus on two aspects that I believe have had far-reaching influence, and which might also provide topics for intellectual inquiry.

The first of these is that Korea is the first war we did not win-we did not lose it either, of course, but we settled for less. (I know that hindsight tells some that we did not really win at other times either, 1812 for example, but the majority claim has always been that we won them all. The Battle of New Orleans furnished conclusive proof that we won even though it was fought two weeks after the war ended.)

Not long after President Truman committed us to the defense of South Korea, the worrying began about widening the war and involving the Russians. After the Red Chinese entry there was the worry that Chiang Kaishek would attack China. World War III and the possible use of nuclear weapons became specters on the horizon and much learned discussion was aimed at preventing any provocation on our part that the Russians might use as a reason to come to North Korea's aid. President Truman, in the end, took counsel of these fears-not his alone as almost all his advisors, his Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs held the same view. …

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