The deaths, only a couple of days apart, of the Manichaean figures of Kim Jong Il and Václav Havel invite some historical reflection. In Korea, the 38th Parallel was determined to be the division between North and South Korea one summer night in 1945 by two junior American officers — including the future secretary of state Dean Rusk, then a colonel. It was chosen as the dividing point to determine whether the Japanese garrison in Korea should surrender to the Soviet Union or to the United States. As the heavy-handed Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, which had begun in aggressive conquest in 1895, ended, Rusk and his comrade did manage to save about 60 percent of the Koreans from the Kims, who were then barely a gleam in the sallow eyes of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung.
On June 24, 1950, in an act of naked aggression, Kim Il Sung’s heavily armed (by Stalin) North Koreans, in what was widely seen as retaliation for the USSR’s being excluded from Japan, attacked across the 38th Parallel into the almost unarmed South. President Truman well remembered the weakness of the West over Manchuria and Ethiopia in the Thirties, and was one of the founders of the United Nations, of whom he said: “In this first big test, we just can’t let them down.” With the Soviet delegate to the U.N. absent in protest against Chiang Kai-shek’s retention of the Chinese Security Council seat, Truman received overwhelming support at the U.N. and domestically to assist the South Koreans.
Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy had started his wild allegations about Communists in the State Department in February, and on April 7, 1950, foreign- and defense-policy official Paul Nitze, at the request of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, had produced National Security Council Report 68, which stated: “This republic and its citizens, in the ascendancy of their strength, stand in their deepest peril.” This was the belated response to George F. Kennan’s famous “long telegram” of February 1946, warning that it would be impossible to work cooperatively with the Russians.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a brilliant governor of Japan, was named U.N. commander in Korea and given the initial mandate to restore the 38th Parallel. Truman immediately approved the dispatch of 30,000 American soldiers to South Korea, and soon of four more divisions (including, on MacArthur’s correct recommendation, the entire U.S. occupation garrison in Japan). Showing his decisive nature and gift for tough command decisions, Truman doubled the annual defense budget, fired the erratic Louis Johnson as defense secretary, and plucked from retirement, one last time, Gen. George C. Marshall to replace him.
MacArthur and his field commander, Gen. Walton Walker, though outnumbered three to one at the beginning of July, retreated skilfully through the month in intense heat and monsoon rains, yielding only about a hundred miles, toward the southern port city of Pusan, which was heavily reinforced and where Walker ordered the U.N. forces to “stand or die; there will be no Dunkirk, no Bataan.” (The circumstances were hardly comparable, but it was a stirring order of the day.)
MacArthur secured approval of his bold plan for a massive amphibious landing at Inchon, in mid-peninsula, 200 miles behind the North Korean lines, which had almost reached Pusan. Approving this plan again distinguished Truman, who respected MacArthur’s military talents, despite the opposition of the envious, slightly Iago-like army chief of staff, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Truman’s own view that MacArthur was in some respects “a play actor and a bunco man.”
Because of quickly shifting 30-foot tides, the Inchon landings would have to be completed in about an hour directly on to the sea wall, as there were no beaches to land on. This operation was perfectly executed under MacArthur’s personal supervision, on Sept. 15, 1950; 70,000 men were disembarked from 262 ships in 57 minutes, while Walker broke out of the Pusan perimeter. In two weeks the North Korean army had been almost completely eliminated and 60,000 prisoners had been taken. It was a bone-crushing United Nations victory and one of the swiftest military theater campaign reversals in all of history.
Having fulfilled his mandate to reestablish the 38th Parallel, MacArthur was now ordered by Truman, with the full concurrence of Marshall, Acheson, and even the recently converted Bradley, and by the United Nations, still meeting without Soviet participation, to invade the North and complete the destruction of the North Korean army. Most of the U.N. forces (95 percent South Korean or American; the United States had already taken 20,000 casualties) had entered the North by October 9.