Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Lessons of the Forgotten War

Lessons of the Forgotten War

Before turning to observations about the Korean conflict on the fiftieth anniversary of its Armistice, I should like to make two observations. The first focuses briefly on how our contemporary policies with respect to North Korea should be conducted. Some observations then follow on terrorism, fundamentalism and their relationship with the conflict in Iraq. I know you have just completed an extensive review on current problems on the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, I would like to add my strong affirmation of the Bush Administration’s efforts to multi-lateralize the issue of Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons. It is my belief that our current problems with Pyongyang began with efforts to negotiate bilaterally with the North. The consequences of this policy, which has so obviously failed, brings to mind the essential element of the so-called Nixon Doctrine espoused in the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

At that time, President Nixon maintained that we must avoid conducting our policy in such a way that we convince our Asian allies that their security is of more importance to us than it is to them. One could make the case that by ignoring Seoul and dealing directly with the North, we did precisely that and have now found ourselves in a position where many South Koreans are more sympathetic to Pyongyang than they are to Washington. We have also failed through bilateral showboating to remind our Japanese, Russian and Chinese friends that they, along with the Republic of Korea and the U.S., bear a major responsibility for North Korean conduct. It is also important for the Bush Administration to remember that our own unmatched nuclear capabilities at home and forward deployed deterred conflict and kept the peace on the peninsula for a half century.

Now let’s turn to terrorism and a few observations about the critical nature of the struggle we are in. The point I am trying to make in this brief presentation is the critical geo-political inter-relationship between the struggle with global terrorism, the ongoing efforts to succeed in Iraq and in the Middle East peace process itself.

It is my view that all of these critical struggles are intimately inter-related and each one casts a shadow on the other two. Today’s politically motivated commentaries on all three challenge these critical linkages and convince me that the advice offered by many of today’s outbursts could endanger America’s vital interests. We are waging this war with some critical deficiencies that are long-standing, multiple, complex, and require historical perspectives. I will just touch upon a few.

  1. Churchill’s admonition to “read history”as a basis for opening the secrets of state-craft has been forgotten. Knowledge of history is no longer emphasized in America’s education, nor is it an important qualifier for public service in positions involving international affairs.
  2. The explosion in information science with all the goodit has brought, has also resulted in contemporary politicians being captured by “finger to the wind populism.”Simultaneously, our news reporting produced simplistic snapshots in time, devoid of historic perspective.

As a result, we are increasingly being driven by events rather than shaping them. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the Middle East.

Allow me to highlight just a few important failures over the last 30 years:

  1. In the mid ’70’s, the US ignored the British Labor Government’s decision to withdraw from east of Suez leaving the less experienced United States working primarily through Iran to become the major proponents of western values and interests in the region.
  2. In 1979, US policies resulted in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran paving the way for today’s fundamentalist theocracy.
  3. In 1982, we badly misread the historic issues in the Lebanon crisis. This was followed by the slaughter of 241 US marines and another 60 State Department employees by identified terrorists triggering our sudden withdrawal.
  4. Our failure in 1991 to remove Saddam Hussein from power at a time when our influence in the UN was substantial.
  5. Our failure to take decisive action in the face of repeated terrorist outrages in the ’90’s, up until the current administration and the events of 9/11.

All of this has led to a situation in which many Middle East nations, and others as well, have concluded that we Americans lack the character to accept pain. Many in the region and globally are convinced that our people will no longer fight for our interests if there are major sacrifices involved. Anti-American and anti-western Middle East leaders like Saddam and Bin Laden have become symbols of fundamentalist and nationalist causes. In this context, all three problems— Iraq; terrorism, including the outcome in Afghanistan; and the Middle East Peace Process are intimately inter-related. Simply put, all three efforts must succeed, and success in Iraq will greatly influence the outcome in the other two.

Now permit me to conclude with some observations on the so-called “forgotten war”in Korea in an effort to draw some contemporary lessons as well as express our gratitude to the U.S. and allied servicemen who gave their lives during that bloody conflict.

First a little history. After graduating from West Point in 1947, my soon-to-be wife Pat and I met in 1948 in Tokyo during the post-World War II occupation of Japan. At the time, I was a young platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division. Pat’s father, General “Pat” Fox, was serving as General MacArthur’s Deputy Chief of Staff responsible for the future of postwar Japan. In 1949, I became aide to General MacArthur’s overall Chief of Staff, General Ned Almond. In that position I saw General MacArthur daily. In fact, I was General MacArthur’s Staff Duty Officer that fateful morning on the 25th of June 1950, when I personally took the call from Ambassador Muccio in Seoul notifying the Command of the North Korean attack across the 38th parallel.

In the early days of the conflict, I maintained General MacArthur’s situation map on the war and briefed him each evening on the day’s battlefield events. When I informed him that this or that young man had been killed or captured, I was amazed to see that our losses were of profound and, at times, even tearful concern to this remarkable soldier. The General’s wife, Jean MacArthur, became our lifelong personal friend and we remained in touch until her passing in January 2000 at the admirable age of 101 years.

Later, I served in seven Korean War campaigns, including the Incheon landings, the Frozen Chosen, the evacuation of Hungnam, and the counter UN offensives which followed the intervention by some 500,000 troops of the People’s Republic of China in late October of 1950.

The war itself can be divided into broad phases. The first was the holding action executed by brave U.S. and South Korean troops who of necessity were forced against overwhelming odds to cling to a beleaguered perimeter around the Port of Pusan. This period enabled the U.S. to begin to repair the damage to our readiness and garner help from some 21 free nations from Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia.

The next phases were the collapse of North Korea as a result of the Incheon landing (more about this in a moment), the UN counter offensive which reached the Yalu, and finally the Chinese intervention and resulting UN retreat.

The last phase was the bloody stalemate lasting over two years which resulted in the armistice of July 1953, which remains as of today the only agreement resulting not in a peace treaty but rather a fragile 50 year-old cease fire.

Fifty-three years ago this coming September 15, history was made with General MacArthur’s brilliant Incheon landing. I was able to eavesdrop on the discussions about this risky venture between General MacArthur, General Almond, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The meeting took place on August 23, 1950 in General MacArthur’s headquarters’ conference room. The JCS had been sent by President Truman to dissuade MacArthur from executing the risky landings at Incheon. MacArthur sat at the head of the conference table impassively as each service chief outlined their opposition to the plan as too risky and beyond the capacity of the assets which could be spared for the operation. As the last member of the Chiefs spoke, MacArthur carefully placed his worn pipe in the ashtray before him, slowly stood up and after an attention-getting pause, announced to the assembled group: “Gentlemen, we will land at Incheon on September 15 or you will have a new Supreme Commander in East Asia.” At that point the opposition collapsed. MacArthur was both courageous and right in undertaking the Incheon landing which had the practical effect of enveloping major enemy forces arrayed against the hard-pressed allied forces within the Pusan perimeter, thus making the breakout from Pusan possible.

As I wrote in my autobiography, “I realized that I had witnessed something that would go down in history, a Cincinnatian act of moral courage. Some years passed before I fully understood the lesson it contained; that when you are in a position of trust and a course you know to be right is questioned for political reasons, you must act on your own convictions based on your own experience, because that is your duty to the American people. It was not vainglory but wisdom that motivated MacArthur. He believed that the Incheon landing would succeed, and that it would save 100,000 lives. As events were to prove, he was right when everyone else was wrong.”

The Korean conflict also highlighted another national obligation. Never again should poorly equipped, poorly trained, and in some cases poorly led Americans be asked to shed their blood by a national leadership which overlooked its sacred responsibility to maintain America’s military preparedness. I watched firsthand the neglect of the capabilities of our Asian-deployed forces (over General MacArthur’s repeated objections, I may add). Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself as it pertains to preparedness. Place me in the camp of those who welcome the steps that have been taken recently to improve not only the readiness, but the pay and benefits including medical support for our active personnel and veterans.

Finally, the Korean conflict reminds us of another stark lesson. Before risking precious American lives, the national leadership must decide, above all, that the vital interests of the American people are at stake. In Korea, opposing Soviet-supported and instigated aggression, through a proxy, was indeed in our national interest. This being true, then it should have followed that all of the nation’s assets should have been applied to ensure a successful outcome.

As we remember our brave Korean veterans, and especially America’s POWs and MIAs, it is also important to remind ourselves that in Korea, as in Vietnam, Desert Storm and now in Iraq, we were joined by a number of allies. Their veterans are also due our expression of gratitude and reflection.

For me, the most moving observation of the young men and women who have served our nation since its birth and continued to do so through Korea and are doing so now in Iraq in the global struggle against terrorism came from General MacArthur just before his death in April 1964.

I quote: “… Wherein lies our security?” MacArthur asked. “It is the American man at arms. From personal experience I know how well he guards us. I have seen him die at Verdun, at St. Mihiel, at Guadalcanal; in the foxholes of Bataan, in the batteries of Corregidor, in the battle areas of Korea; on land, on sea, and in the air; amidst jungle and swamp, hot sands and frozen reaches, in the smoldering mud of shell pocked roads and dripping trenches.”

“He was gaunt and he was ghostly; he was grieved and he was loused; he was filthy and he stank; and I loved him,” MacArthur wrote.

“He died hard, that American fighting man. Not like a dove which when hit, folds its wings gently and comes down quietly. But like a wounded wolf at bay, with lips curled back in a snarl.”

“He left me with an abiding faith in the future of this nation; a faith that our beloved land will once more know the serenity of hope without fear; a faith in the course of our destiny as a free, prosperous, and happy people.”

My friends, on this day of remembrance as we assess the dangerous threat posed by global terrorism linked so intimately to a successful outcome in Iraq, we too can have that faith and rejoice in that for which we stand. Thank you and God bless this great land.