CIA Cold War documents show U.S. failed to see Korean War was coming

October 01, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A document released by the Central Intelligence Agency yesterday as it began to unseal its archives from the Cold War era shows that American intelligence agencies failed to recognize that the Korean War was imminent six days before it began.

Despite a buildup of North Korean troops along the 38th parallel, a formal estimate dated June 19, 1950, and approved by the then director of central intelligence, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, said an invasion of South Korea by North Korea had been put off in favor of a campaign of propaganda and subversion.

Instead, the North Korean forces attacked across the border on June 25 to begin a war that lasted nearly three years, brought the United Nations to the defense of South Korea, and cost the lives of more than 50,000 American soldiers.

The document, known as O.R.E. 18-50, had remained classified as secret since it was drafted 43 years ago. It was released to reporters yesterday along with 276 similar estimates, the most important analytical product by American intelligence agencies, between 1947 and 1963.

Joining thousands of files on the assassination of John F. Kennedy that were made public in August, the early Cold War documents have been transferred to the National Archives, where they are to be made available to scholars for the first time on Monday.

The June 1950 assessment of "Current Capabilities of the Northern Korean Regime" is a rarity among the collection of estimates for its lack of a direct focus upon the Soviet Union. But it provides a new glimpse of a failure by the CIA, three years after it was established, to recognize warning signs of a surprise attack.

Still, the details of the most potentially embarrassing episodes, such as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, were not included in yesterday's cache of documents. Agency officials said it would be at least two years before information bearing on 11 such covert operations dating up to 1963 would be made public.

Among the documents declassified yesterday, the majority have proven to be accurate, if cautious, assessments of contemporary developments. They include a Nov. 6, 1956, prediction that the Soviet Union would not intervene in the Suez Crisis; and a Sept. 16, 1958, judgment that it was "unlikely" that China would invade rTC Quemoy or Matsu, the offshore islands the United States had vowed to defend.

But the intelligence estimates, whose pages had all been stamped secret or top secret, are most remarkable for the insight they offer into the tensions of the early Cold War.

An assessment written on March 12, 1953, reflected wariness about the apparent succession of Georgi Malenkov to the leadership of the Soviet Union and a nostalgia for what had been the status quo. It said the death of Stalin eight days earlier "removes an autocrat who, while ruthless and determined to spread Soviet power, did not allow his ambitions to lead him into reckless courses of action in his foreign policy."

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