The Forgotten US War

Article excerpt

THE Korean War, a virtual skeleton in the American closet, is at last being rediscovered.

From 1941 to 1973, Americans fought three wars in Asia, progressing downward from a victory to a draw to a defeat. Midway through this sad journey lay the Korean "police action," with 55,000 American, 900,000 Chinese, and 3.4 million Korean casualties, North and South, civilian and military.

The conflict included the last clear-cut American battlefield victory in East Asia: Gen. Douglas MacArthur's amphibious landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950. It also included a major disaster: the Chinese offensive of Nov. 25, 1950, which brought panic and collapse to some American units.

Only now is the Korean conflict being studied, analyzed, interpreted, and commemorated. That John Toland, with his renown as a popularizing historian, should join the bandwagon suggests how well it is rolling. But his readiness to over-simplify, to focus on personal exploits, and to accept the conventional wisdom, will disappoint those who seek more than stories and anecdotes.

The careful accounts by Joseph Goulden (1982), Bevin Alexander (1986), Callum MacDonald (1986), and Clay Blair (1987) already have made much specialized research accessible to the general reader. And the richly detailed studies of politics and diplomacy by Bruce Cumings, and of military operations by the prolific Roy Appleman, are casting a new and often disturbing light on what happened and why.

Was it simply a question of right and wrong that spurred Americans to counter the North Korean attack on that Sunday, June 25, 1950? Was it primarily MacArthur's egomania that led American armies into a devastating Chinese ambush on the long dash to the Yalu River? Was it merely overwhelming Chinese numbers human sea tactics that stampeded American units southward? Or were there major flaws in Army (but not Marine) tactics and leadership, flaws that the Chinese exploited, but that Gen. …

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