At the end of World War II, the United States stood on the pinnacle of world power. With more than 8 million men under arms, with our vanquished enemies having been forced to accept unconditional surrender, we were at the height of our strength, knowing no peer on earth.
We alone possessed the most fearsome weapon humans had ever devised: the atom bomb.
We had demonstrated its awesome hideousness by obliterating two large Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 115,000 Japanese men, women and children, acts justified by proclaiming that it could well cost up to 1 million American lives if an invasion of the Japanese home islands proved necessary.
World War II saw the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets – total war against total populations for total stakes.
However, scarcely two years after the Germans and Japanese surrendered, the United States’ military was but a shadow of its former self. The Russians had stolen the secrets of radioactive bombs, and “De-Nazification” in Germany was turned over to the Germans. By the time the North Koreans attacked South Korea in 1950, our military forces had dwindled to a mere 591,000. Those stationed in Korea viewed their presence merely as a training command, working with the South Koreans to form a viable military.
The United States did not desire territory. We did not annex Italian, German or Japanese possessions. We had gone to war to defeat brutal totalitarianism – to bring to justice mass murderers to whom human life meant nothing. Americans learned that our soldiers could fight, and fight with tenacity, courage and bravery when they knew what they were fighting for. Yet, most fought for their buddies, for mom, home and apple pie. They did not fight for broad geopolitical principles or for lofty philosophical goals. They fought because they had to, because there was no other choice.
Many of those same soldiers would never understand, either in Korea or Vietnam, how to fight for limited political goals – how to fight wars of attrition and compromise.
As Josef Stalin amply demonstrated, where Soviet arms went, Soviet dominance remained. The Soviet Union had gobbled up all of eastern Europe, had forged alliances with China, had occupied the Kamchatka Peninsula, and was rapidly exercising hegemony from Greece to Africa and the Middle East.
Sir Winston Churchill said it was as if “an iron curtain” had descended over Europe. The phrase was used repeatedly during decades of the “Cold War,” a deadly standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with each side engaged in a frantic race to build thousands of nuclear weapons – huge, intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple warheads, long-range strategic bombers and, yes, a ghastly range of chemical and biological weapons.
For decades, the world nervously walked the tightrope between the war which must never be fought and the peace which could not be achieved. Countless billions were spent by both superpowers to achieve what was called “MAD,” or “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Each power sought to achieve survivability, should the other launch a first strike, and ensure that the retaliatory blow would be so devastating that an attacker could not survive. Thus, the policy of massive strength confronting massive strength seemed the only possible recourse in order to avoid a nuclear World War III, which could mean the end of civilization as we know it.
From the time the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, every decision taken in the situation room in the White House included the nervous question, “But what will the Russians do?” That blinding fear of communism pervaded every administration from that of Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.
The late President Harry Truman, who had authorized the Air Force to drop atomic bombs on Japan, signed off on the development of the hydrogen bomb in January of 1950. It was known the Soviets were also working on this more fearsome weapon – a bomb many times more powerful than the small atomic bombs used against Japan.
In June of that year, North Korea invaded South Korea. The North Korean armies quickly overran Seoul, the South Korean capital, and pushed the defending South Korean and U.S. forces down the entire length of the Korean peninsula to a defensive pocket around Pusan, the southernmost city.
Like Pearl Harbor, the NK attack came as a complete surprise. Gone were the bulk of the battle-hardened U.S. troops who had fought in Normandy and South Pacific. While many officers were World War II veterans, large numbers of the enlisted personnel were fresh and untried. Gone, too, was the American spirit of righteous anger and selfless commitment to battle against a hated enemy.
Korea, after all, was a long way from Kansas.
The White House saw the North Korean attack as an attempt by global communism to swallow up a helpless neighbor, thus threatening Taiwan, the Philippines and all of southeast Asia – one domino about to fall, thus fulfilling the “domino theory” which theorized that if the free world lost in one theater, they lost in all. President Truman was later to write: “I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead.”
“Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had acted 10, 15, and 20 years earlier … If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war … It was also clear to me that the foundations and the principles of the United Nations were at stake unless this unprovoked attack on Korea could be stopped.”
Nevertheless, when Truman told Secretary of Defense Johnson to relate to MacArthur personally that he was to support the South Koreans with elements of air and naval elements under his command, he added, “But only south of the 38th parallel.”
Thus began a new kind of war – a war neither the military nor the civilian population would ever understand – a war based upon limited objectives, with limited forces committed to battle piecemeal, in order to lean on an enemy and bring him to the conference table.
Never was it to be a war against total populations for total stakes. Never did the United States envision the unconditional surrender of North Korea. Never were U.S. bombers to be allowed to deprive the enemy of his rearward bases or his industrial capacity to wage war.
MacArthur knew that about 85 percent of the Chinese industrial capacity was located in Manchuria. MacArthur had at his disposal the capability of taking the war to China, should the Communist Chinese intervene. In his mind, that included the use of tactical nuclear weapons. He had no doubt whatsoever that the United States could win decisively in Korea, but that conviction was based upon using all the weapons at his disposal, and using them where they were most effective. He did not know at the outset that he would have to fight in Korea with one hand tied behind his back.
The Korean War was never truly won. Had it been, the United States would not be smarting under the saucy and provocative threats from North Korea, which has scrapped the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and announced it was activating its nuclear program. Oh yes, for “peaceful purposes,” of course.
General Douglas MacArthur was known for saying, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” Instead of victory, the U.S. settled for protracted “peace talks” at Panmunjom which dragged on while the fighting continued, with casualties mounting daily. Some of the bloodiest battles in Korea such as “Bloody Ridge,” “Pork Chop Hill” and “Bunker Hill” were fought while the negotiators droned on. Each side fought to present the negotiators with a fait accompli in terms of occupied territory.
Clearly, the North Koreans and Communist Chinese were bent on using the conflict to their own benefit. They prevaricated, exaggerated, lied, fenced, delayed and sometimes walked out, using every psychological tool available to gain advantage. Utterly frustrated by their conduct, Adm. C. Turner Joy, leading the U.N. delegation, came to believe negotiating with the communists was totally hopeless. So far as he was concerned, the “peace talks” merely provided a sounding board for communist propaganda, and the manipulation of world public opinion.
In a strong, harshly clear indictment, he told the communist negotiators:
… any hope that your side would bring good faith to these meetings was forlorn indeed. From the very start, you have cavilled [sic] over procedural details; you have manufactured spurious issues and placed them in controversy for bargaining purposes; you have denied the existence of agreements made between us when you found the fulfillment thereof not to your liking; you have made false charges based on crimes invented for your purposes; and you indulged in abuse and invective when all other tactics proved ineffective.
Through a constant succession of delays, fraudulent arguments and artificial attitudes you have obstructed the attainment of an armistice which easily lay within our grasp had there been equal honesty on both sides of this conference table … It is an enormous misfortune that you are constitutionally incapable of understanding the fair and dignified attitude of the United Nations Command.
Apparently, you cannot comprehend that strong and proud and free nations can make costly sacrifices for principles because they are strong, can be dignified in the face of abuse and deceit because they are proud, and can speak honestly because they are free and do not fear the truth. Instead, you impute to the United Nations Command the same suspicion, greed and deviousness which are your stock in trade. You search every word for a hidden meaning and every agreement for a hidden trap.
Powerful words. Blunt, unequivocal indictments of a sly, deceitful, prevaricating enemy.
Those sentiments still apply today, as China, Japan and the U.S. try to “talk” to the North Koreans about their nuclear start-up. Will North Korea negotiate? Are dictators susceptible to reason?
Twice, the United States went to war to halt the spread of communism in Asia. Twice, we sent our military to fight wars that granted an enemy safe sanctuary – wars fought along an imaginary line drawn by cartographers on a map, which recognized no strategic cities, railways, rivers, mountains or topographically important military objectives. Twice, we committed troops piecemeal, feeding men into battles for territory they were forced to abandon to the enemy after having won it with their blood. Twice, we strove merely to fight a battle of containment, a battle of attrition that would force an enemy to come to the conference table.
We did not win in Korea. When all the dying was over, all the devastation completed – the landscape strewn with destroyed towns and villages and the wreckage of war – all was just as it was. Hundreds of thousands had died or been maimed for life. Yet, the political landscape remained the same. A merciless dictator remained in control of the North, and a free and democratic government remained in the South, defended by the U.S. and the U.N.
Now, it appears we may have to pay the price for the egregious error of finding a substitute for victory. The same price may have to be paid in Iraq.
America lost in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese did not remain behind any parallel or DMZ once the shooting stopped. Instead, they occupied the South – annexed it – and began their murderous pogroms of eliminating any and all suspected of having cooperated with the Americans.
Few realize how deeply the ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam – the frustrating hopelessness of the war hurt American pride. Perhaps the Gulf War managed to salvage some of that lost pride, but, once again, the military was halted by political considerations. Once again, a substitute was found for victory.
Today, we face the imminent possibility of war with Iraq. Millions of Americans are beginning to question the wisdom of such a war, and even those who are in favor of the administration’s policy, linking Iraq to global terrorism, anxiously hope President Bush will clearly show the world the proverbial “smoking gun” before hostilities commence.
Some officials now advocate reinstating the draft in the hopes it will cause a backlash of mounting anti-war sentiment just as it did during the war in Vietnam. Their cynicism is not lost on conservatives, who have correctly unveiled their agenda.
And now, at precisely the best geopolitical time for them to do so, the Communist North Koreans threaten the United States with “World War III.”
The rogue nation challenges the Bush administration, warning them not to impose sanctions, or they will “go to war.” North Korea? At “war” with the world’s only remaining super power? The threats are obviously hollow – whistling in the dark by a paranoid dictator who spouts ridiculous drivel calculated to bolster his people’s pride.
While the United States possesses awesome power, we seem bent on proving ourselves a timid giant. We timidly go to the United Nations, Kofi Anan and the blue-helmeted troops from Scandinavia, Europe, Turkey and elsewhere for “approval.” We seek to form “coalitions” which include Muslim countries in the vain hope that hate-filled Islamic populations will see and approve of our peaceful intentions – our presumed just and righteous cause.
We appear deeply concerned – perhaps even fearful – that the North Koreans might make a “dirty bomb.” Since we know they are heavily engaged in exporting missiles and missile technology to Middle Eastern and sub-continent countries like Iran, Yemen and Pakistan, we appear deeply concerned that once they have produced an arsenal of nuclear weapons along with the missiles to deliver them, they may export such weapons to other rogue nations.
The United States’ people and its government, for all our vaunted power and gigantic military force, could never say to the North Koreans:
We know you intend to build a nuclear bomb. We began building them in the 1940s. Since that time, we have built tens of thousands of them – big ones, medium sized ones, small ones. We have placed nuclear weapons in artillery shells, on the nose cones of thousands of missiles aboard nuclear submarines; on the nose cones of ICBMs and IRBMs, in the bombs carried by our stealth bombers – nuclear weapons with a thousand times the power of the little bomb you are now trying to produce.
If we decide to do so, we could utterly destroy your entire country within only minutes. Therefore, you will now halt production of any nuclear weapons – and completely dismantle your nuclear program – or we will turn Pyongyang and other major cities in North Korea into glass. You have exactly one week to comply.
But the United States is not a totalitarian state. Therefore, we could never utter such words to an upstart, rogue nation.
We have no legions. We cannot send illiterate Carthaginians to subdue enemies afar off. Instead, we must send young men and women from Iowa, North Carolina, Montana and Texas.
Because we are fundamentally a “Christian” nation (recent polls indicate up to 85 percent of us believe in God), and because we value human life, we cannot imagine using our military power against total populations for total stakes.
We did so in World War II, but that was because of Pearl Harbor and an inflamed and determined national will.
Today, the battered face of even one captured pilot, shown on enemy television, so aggrieves the hearts and minds of millions of Americans that we are willing to go to virtually any limits to appease, placate and act the pusillanimous and “reasonable” negotiator in order to avoid armed conflict. Americans hate war, as well they should. That is why the mantle of global superpower sits heavily upon our shoulders.
Once the peace talks started in Korea, forward commanders were told: “Go ahead and fight the war, but don’t get anyone killed.” Spoiled by televised pictures of smart bombs going down elevator shafts, Americans now expect their wars to be “clean” wars, with no casualties on our side, and absolutely no “collateral damage” on the other side.
Wars simply do not work out that way.
Perhaps one of the great enigmas of a free, democratic society based upon Judeo-Christian ethics placing great value on each human life is that we are rarely willing to use the tactics of dictators against dictators.
Are we truly the world’s great superpower? Or are we Gulliver in Lilliputia?