WASHINGTON — COSTLY and unpopular, the Korean War ended in a bitter standoff 40 years ago in July 1953. But for many Americans, intriguing mysteries still surround that conflict, which took 3 million lives.
Why did Communist China, its prestige on the line, finally lay down its arms? Did President Eisenhower deserve credit for ending it? Did communist forces quit because they feared nuclear attack?
Korea, which presaged the war in Vietnam, was the last major conflict America fought before the advent of worldwide television news reporting. Americans kept up with Korean War news - the dogfights between MIGs and Sabre jets, the daring amphibious landing at Inchon by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the bloody, hand-to-hand fighting - through crackly radio reports and lengthy newspaper stories.
By 1953, after three years of warfare, many Americans were frustrated and angry about President Truman's so-called "police action." Congress never declared war, yet America eventually lost 54,000 troops. As he took office, the newly elected Eisenhower felt that time was running out.
Eisenhower's reputed threat to use atomic weapons against China and North Korea often is cited as the reason communist forces eventually gave up their effort to conquer South Korea.
After taking office, Eisenhower reportedly used Indian diplomats to tell both China and North Korea that he was ready to use nuclear arms. Princeton University historian Fred Greenstein cites Eisenhower's own recollections of that time ("The White House Years: Mandate for Change 1953-1956") in which Ike says he "dropped the word, discreetly, of our intention ... to move decisively without inhibition in our use of weapons...."
Modern-day scholars, however, are skeptical that this threat - if it ever actually reached communist leaders - ended the war. Further, some who knew Eisenhower doubt that he would have really used "the bomb." Richard Immerman, a diplomatic historian at Temple University in Philadelphia, says no one will know for sure why the war ended until documents are made available by the communists. But Dr. Immerman pinpoints two factors he says were "fundamental" to China's agreeing to an armistice.
First, the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin dashed any hopes that China and North Korea would get substantial military aid from the USSR. Without such help, Chinese prospects were bleak. Second, China's war losses, including 1 million battlefield deaths, were rapidly overextending its capabilities.
FORMER Attorney General Herbert Brownell, who accompanied Eisenhower on a fact-finding trip to Korea just before he took office, credits the president with stopping the war. But he insists that Eisenhower "never came close to entertaining the notion" of using nuclear arms. Mr. Brownell says some military leaders, including General MacArthur, were urging the nuclear option. Their readiness to unleash such weapons had a "reverse impact" on Ike, Brownell says.
Brownell concluded that Ike felt use of nuclear weapons was a mistake in World War II - and should not be repeated. Eisenhower apparently felt that America's nuclear attack on Japan was "a tremendous asset to the Soviets" during the cold war. The USSR could cite it as proof of United States racial prejudice, noting, as Brownell explains, "the US never used the atomic bomb against the Germans. They only did it against colored people."
Brownell says: "That was the best weapon the Soviets had during the cold war. It was very hard to realize, looking back on it, the hatred that those people had for the United States. To those people, we were the aggressors because we were those people who killed thousands of nonwhites in a discriminatory way."
Immerman, however, insists nuclear weapons were a live option in Eisenhower's strategy, at least in 1953. He explains: "Early in his administration, Eisenhower distinguished between tactical and strategic atomic weapons. He had changed by 1955-56. By then, he felt you could not distinguish between them."
Immerman says that the major reason Ike held off playing the atomic card in 1953 was that America's military and political allies were "unalterably opposed," and the president did not want to fracture the Western alliance.
Eventually, more will be known about the "forgotten war," as Korea is sometimes called. But the information may have to come from America's two old adversaries, China and North Korea.