40 years after end of 'Forgotten War' in Korea, U.S. ponders its lessons

July 27, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

TONGDUCHON, South Korea -- Historians have called the three-year "police action" that ended 40 years ago this week "The Forgotten War," "The Hidden War" and "The Unknown War."

For U.S. soldiers stationed next to the North Korean border, the lessons of the Korean War are anything but forgotten.

Each day, some of the 7,600 men in the 2nd Infantry Division -- the advanced detachment of the 36,000 U.S. troops remaining in South Korea -- prepare for a tank assault from the north.

"You hear a lot here about the mistakes of the past," said Spec. Matthew Hoerner, a baby-faced 22-year-old who could have stepped out of a black-and-white Life magazine photo from that era. The kind of surprise attack that launched the Korean War June 25, 1950, "is something we work very hard to avoid."

The three-year Korean Conflict -- another name for the undeclared war fought under the banner of the United Nations -- took the lives of 54,246 Americans, just a few thousand fewer than died in the Vietnam War, which lasted three times as long.

Like Vietnam veterans, troops returning home from Korea received no parades and few honors. Many of those soldiers -- card-carrying members of the "Silent Generation" -- still harbor bitter memories of returning to a home front that had no understanding of the terrible price they and their fallen comrades had paid abroad. Only now is a monument being built in Washington to honor their sacrifice.

And, like the Vietnam conflict, as the Korean War dragged on, TC frustrated public turned against it. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election by pledging "I will go to Korea," tacitly accepting for the first time in U.S. history that an honorable peace in a limited war was better than pursuit of the chimera of total victory.

If the immediate outcome left a bitter aftertaste among a public that quickly shoved the war from its consciousness, the long-term impact on the United States cannot be overstated. The ideological rigidities of the Cold War era were firmly implanted in the body politic during the Korean War.

The U.S. military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower would warn against in 1960, was created during the Korean War. Military spending had fallen from $82 billion a year at the end of World War II to $13 billion in 1950, just 5 percent of gross national product.

By the end of the Korean conflict, it was back to $50 billion, making war production a permanent feature of the U.S. industrial landscape. One little-known beneficiary was Japan, which was politically rehabilitated and began rebuilding its shattered industrial infrastructure with Korean War contracts.

"Korea does not really matter now; I'd never heard of the bloody place until I was 74," Winston Churchill would say shortly after the war ended. "Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the rearming of America."

The first hot war of the Cold War era began in an obscure Asian backwater that had been considered of little strategic significance by the superpowers.

By war's end, that "bloody place" had brought the United States to the brink of nuclear war, as post-revolutionary China presented a shocking military challenge to the mighty United States, which only recently had taken up the mantle of protecting the Free World for democracy.

Despite the titanic ideological forces that the war brought into play, the conflict at its heart was a civil war, pitting two diametrically opposed visions of a unified Korea against one another. The cruelty and callousness of that civil war left over 2 million Koreans dead and their homeland in ruins.

Four decades later, the legacy of hatred and mistrust thrives on the Korean peninsula.

One by one, North Korea's comrades in Moscow and Beijing have made their peace with their former enemies. But not north of the Demilitarized Zone, a 151-mile border snaking across the Korean peninsula that marks the exact location where the fighting stopped 40 years ago.

In the early hours of June 25, 1950, the North Korean army poured south at several points along the 38th parallel. Recent scholarship, based on Russian archives, has shown that in the months before the invasion Kim Il Sung sought the approval of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He also contacted Mao Tse-Tung, who had just conquered China.

Neither leader believed the United States would intervene.

Two days after the invasion, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning the North Korean action. It called for withdrawal to the 38th parallel and asked all member nations to help execute its order. The Soviet Union boycotted the vote.

On June 27, President Harry S Truman ordered U.S. ground forces into action.

The United States provided 90 percent of the troops that fought under the U.N. banner. Eventually, 17 nations contributed to the cause, with Great Britain the second-largest contributor. There were more than 14,000 U.N. casualties from other nations, including 5,963 killed and missing.

In the United States, no one rejoiced at having stopped communism at the 38th parallel, a result the next generation of leaders would gladly have taken in Vietnam. The economic miracle that would turn South Korea into one of the world's most vibrant developing economies lay far in the future.

Gen. Mark Clark, who signed the armistice for the U.N. command on July 27, 1953, summed up the national mood: "I cannot find it in me to exult at this hour."

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