The Forgotten US War

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. Matthew Ridgway qu ickly rectified? Why did the most powerful country on earth bog down during 1951 to 1953 in fruitless negotiations, disputes over prisoners, and stalemated trench warfare? The subtleties of ends and means, costs and benefits, limited war and total war, hardly matter to Toland. He is less a historian, analyzing events and searching for meaning, than a storyteller who has sold well over the years with ably written narratives of who did what at what moment during what event. This can be exciting when the event is inherently important, and when Toland has rich material at hand. There is, for example, an excellent account of the fear and uncertainty in Seoul and Washington when the North Koreans first struck. And Toland offers something new by upholding Gen. Walton Walker, the Eighth Army commander, during both the difficult early months and the successful Chinese counteroffensive. Walker, a tank commander by training, often is blamed for faulty tactics, for disregarding the highlands while his tanks swept up the valleys. Toland insists that Walker invariably acted for the best. But his scattered remarks are unconvincing: The storyteller outstrips the historian. Almost inadvertently, Toland touches the biggest question of all: Why did the United States Army nearly collapse during December 1950 through January 1951? The Chinese were, after all, hardly world-beaters. They fought with the light weapons they could carry, had neither artillery, air power, nor supplies. But the Chinese followed orders unflinchingly, could march for days, and accepted enormous casualties - just as Vietnamese communists did a decade later. Morale made the difference, the morale that the Marines had, but which overconfidence and a lack of professional pride had undercut in MacArthur's forces until General Ridgway arrived to restore honor, pride, and power.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.