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.
Truman and MacArthur had their famous meeting at Wake Island on October 15. It was the only meeting they would ever have and was a complete success. Truman confirmed MacArthur’s orders to approach the Yalu, as it was assumed by all that the military-intelligence estimates were accurate that there were 130,000 veterans of the Red Chinese Army, recently victorious over Chiang Kai-shek, north of the Yalu, but very few Chinese in Korea. (American intelligence at this point had no proficiency at assessing guerrilla forces.)
In fact, China had probably already infiltrated 130,000 men into Korea, and they suddenly arose on November 28, and were joined by about ten more divisions crossing the Yalu (despite MacArthur’s bombing of the bridges across that river). The U.S. National Security Council on that day rolled MacArthur’s orders back to holding the 38th Parallel and avoiding a general war with China.
They should have thought of that before they told him to go to the Yalu in the first place, the month before. Truman, at his November 30 press conference, staunchly defended MacArthur’s performance, and when asked about the atomic bomb, said, “There has always been active consideration of its use,” stirring considerable controversy, which has generally, and unjustly, been laid at MacArthur’s door.
MacArthur wanted to smash the Chinese army (conventionally), bomb its Manchurian industrial base, such as it was, to rubble, bring in Nationalist Chinese reinforcements, impose a naval blockade on China, and punish the People’s Republic in its squalling infancy. Truman and his entourage did not think that Korea was worth a maximum-effort war with China, and feared a Soviet response in Germany, just 18 months after the successful end of the Berlin Blockade.
MacArthur’s ensuing public insubordinations were clearly unacceptable, but the issue of civilian control of the military has obscured the strategic debate. Truman should have told MacArthur either to carry out his revised orders or retire with dignity back to his governorship in Tokyo. Sacking so eminent a general so ungraciously, as Truman did on April 11, 1951, merely brought the distinguished careers of both Truman and MacArthur to undistinguished conclusions (taking Acheson and many others with them). As Charles de Gaulle said at the time, “MacArthur was a general whose boldness was feared after full advantage had been taken of it.”
MacArthur, Dulles, Nixon, and others held that a draftee army could not be sent to the ends of the earth to risk all and take heavy casualties in a less ambitious cause than victory, and that China’s aggression had to be countered and not responded to with retreat and grasping for an “honorable accommodation” on the Korean Peninsula, a 90-degree policy turn in less than two months. Chinese premier Chou En-lai confirmed to President Nixon 20 years later that Stalin would not have lifted a finger to help Red China. The U.S. possessed overwhelming nuclear deterrence to deal with Russia in Europe, and it could probably have conducted China into the world at least a decade before Nixon did if it had destroyed a 300,000-man Chinese army in Korea in 1953.
The new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, agreed with Truman, though he discreetly threatened the use of nuclear weapons to get the ceasefire of 1953 that still obtains. The Truman-Eisenhower-Marshall policy is generally reckoned to have been correct, because MacArthur’s provocations were so brazen. But the MacArthur-Dulles-Nixon alternative would probably have worked, and would have spared the world 60 years of the hideous and venomous asp of the Kim regime. It might also have made the Vietnam problem more tractable. At the least, it would have made the Kennedy-Johnson policy of paying “any price” and bearing “any burden” in a limited war a less alluring trap for the country. MacArthur was essentially correct in his basic point that “in war there is no substitute for victory.”
The conundrum revived by the death of Václav Havel, a man as heroic and benign as the Kims were loathsome and contemptible, is much more easily formulated. Czechoslovakia was not covered in the Churchill-Stalin spheres-of-influence agreement in Moscow in October 1944, which disposed of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Yugoslavia, and was not touched by the European Advisory Commission that demarcated occupation zones in Germany. Tehran dealt with Poland only and Yalta promised independence and democracy for all of liberated Europe, specifically Poland. Nowhere were the Czechs mentioned, including in the memoirs of Truman, Churchill, Eisenhower, Brooke, de Gaulle, or Stimson, or Marshall’s official biography. Units of the U.S. Army reached Prague in April 1945, but withdrew, on Eisenhower’s orders, with the agreement of Truman and Marshall. There has never been a word of explanation for the abandonment of the Czechs, just seven years after Chamberlain and Daladier had thrown them to the Nazi wolves at Munich.
Slovakia was already in the hands of the Red Army, but if Eisenhower had remained in Prague, the Czechs could have had unoccupied neutrality like Austria and Finland during the Cold War. Jan Masaryk would not have been defenestrated in 1948, there would have been no suppression of a Prague Spring in 1968, and Václav Havel would not have had the consciousness-raising experience of two terms in a Communist prison.
It is widely believed that we had no practical choice but to tolerate the installation of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang and Stalin’s satellization of the Czechs. Neither assumption is true. The West and its leaders did well in World War II and the Korean War, but we could have done better and can learn from the mistakes we made only if we acknowledge them.