The hinge around which Michael Pembroke’s Korea: Where the American Century Began turns is Washington and General Douglas MacArthur’s hubris and overreach barely more than three months into the Korean war. After the North’s invasion on 25 June 1950 that threatened to overwhelm the South, the UN had dutifully instructed Pyongyang that it must withdraw its forces back north of the 38th parallel and that any failure to do so would necessitate UN Command intervening to restore the status-quo ante. That was all neatly accomplished by the end of September after the US’s landing at Incheon had ripped the North’s supply lines apart and shattered their troops ability to continue the onslaught. Yet unilaterally without the authority of the UN—or even informing their British Allies, the backbone of the “coalition of the willing”—Washington rewrote the rules and turned the conflict into a surrogate “war of civilizations”. On 30 September, MacArthur’s troops crossed into the North despite the strict limits imposed by the UN mandate. A Korean civil war became an American War with China.
As Pembroke explains, Beijing had repeatedly signaled that an invasion of the North would be treated as a threat to China’s integrity and it would have no alternative but to intervene. The US leadership’s cocktail of arrogance and condescension, naivete and racism was lethal, blinding them to an enemy they neither understood nor respected. The result was a debacle. While US forces tried to race each other to the Yalu river along the flanks of the North’s mountainous central spine Beijing was infiltrating 200,000 “volunteers” into the North. When the two sides finally met and clashed the US’s soldiers “bugged out”. To lose Seoul once was unfortunate, to lose Seoul twice was incompetence. Yet on 4 January, Seoul fell to the North again.
The US fought back and by the end of March to all intents and purposes everyone was back where they started. The Chinese had seen the weaknesses of US troops. In the main they were unmotivated, inexperienced, unimaginative and “soft”. They learnt and hardened over time to the cost of those that died, but their “fifth column” was unmatchable technology and seemingly infinite resources that rebalanced the military equation to put the two on an equal footing.
One consequence was for the people of the South the war was effectively over after nine months but continued for a further long two years in the North. From the first weeks of the war the US had total air superiority, only marginally troubled by Russian piloted MiG-15s protecting the Yalu’s bridges in the North West. Thus there was for Washington the ability to conduct a relentless but leisurely bombing campaign to exert “maximum pressure” in an attempt to force concessions from the North. There is an unconfirmed claim that early in the war Pyongyang launched one abortive bombing raid. In contrast US planes flew over a million sorties dropping 635,000 tonnes of bombs compared to the 503,000 tonnes dropped in the Pacific theatre during the whole of the World War II.
Pembroke does a long, ultimately unconvincing, detour exploring the claim that the US used biological weapons against both China and the North. Washington certainly had the capacity and they had sequestered and interrogated Japan’s biological weapons experts from its Unit 731 to benefit from the agonizing deaths of 10,000 victims including some of their own airmen. Nevertheless, my view now is that the case against Washington is unproven and very probably false. Recent Soviet Documents obtained by the Cold War International History Project saw Moscow label the Chinese claims fraudulent.
What Korea does get right is chemical warfare. Napalm developed by the US Chemical Warfare Service and scientists at Harvard University in 1943 was a viscous liquid that burnt slowly at high temperatures adhering to everything it touched. First used towards the end of the Pacific War, in Korea it was poured over its people, splashed over the civilian population at random. On an “average good day”, says Pembroke, pilots dropped 70,000 gallons. By the end of the war bombs—conventional and chemical—hunger and disease had killed between two and four million people, at least 70% of whom were non-combatants.
Armistice talks started in July 1951 but didn’t conclude for more than two years. Both sides were obdurate, but only one was racist. General Matthew Ridgway called them “treacherous savages”, while another on the negotiating team Admiral Ruthven Libby said they had “the quality of talking animals”. If Washington couldn’t have a military victory, they wanted a propaganda victory.
The Geneva Convention, signed by the US, stated that prisoners of war (POWs) were to be promptly returned home after an armistice. Instead Washington wanted them all to be given the option of staying behind. China and the North only finally and reluctantly conceded after Moscow, in the wake of Stalin’s death, signalled enough was enough. Under pressure from camp guards and the US tens of thousands of Chinese POWs in the South volunteered to go to Taiwan and a handful to “neutral” Brazil and India. To a lesser extent the same was true of prisoners from the North, particularly those who had been forcefully tattooed in the camps with “Down with Communist Dogs”, “Jesus is my Saviour” or “Fuck Communism”, all laid out so eloquently in Ha Jin’s 2004 novel War Trash. Washington finally got a victory of sorts tainted, much to their chagrin, by the twenty-one American POWs who consequently chose to remain behind in China.
The book is all in all a well-written critical re-assessment of the standard narrative. Where it frustrates is in delivering on the subtitle, “Where the American Century Began”. Certainly the Korean War can be seen as firing the starting pistol for the arms race between the US and USSR and laying the foundations for America’s military-industrial complex, but it has to be intuited rather than read. Even then without MacArthur transforming a police action into superpower stand-off, it’s not clear history would have unreeled very differently. As Michael Pembroke himself points out even before the Incheon landing on 15 September 1950, the first US Military Advisors were already in place in Saigon helping the French fight Communism.