Who Really Started the Korean War?

Forget the Trumanite mythology

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The sixtieth anniversary of the “end” of the Korean war saw President Obama attempt to rescue that classic example of interventionist failure from history’s dustbin. Addressing veterans of that conflict, he declared:

“That war was no tie. Korea was a victory. When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom, a vibrant democracy…a stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North, that is a victory and that is your legacy.”

This is a fairytale: it wasn’t a victory, or even a tie: the US public was disenchanted with the war long before the armistice, and Truman was under considerable pressure at home to conclude an increasingly unpopular conflict. As for this guff about “democracy”: whatever the US was fighting for, from 1950, when the war broke out, to 1953, when it ground to a halt, democracy hardly described the American cause.

We were fighting on behalf of Syngman Rhee, the US-educated-and-sponsored dictator of South Korea, whose vibrancy was demonstrated by the large-scale slaughter of his leftist political opponents. For 22 years, Rhee’s word was law, and many thousands of his political opponents were murdered: tens of thousands were jailed or driven into exile. Whatever measure of liberality has reigned on the Korean peninsula was in spite of Washington’s efforts and ongoing military presence. When the country finally rebelled against Rhee, and threw him out in the so-called April Revolution of 1960, he was ferried to safety in a CIA helicopter as crowds converged on the presidential palace.

The mythology that has coagulated around the Korean war is epitomized by Obama’s recent peroration, a compendium of uplifting phrases largely bereft of any real history. When history intrudes, it is seen only in very soft focus. The phrase “Korea reminds us” recurs throughout, like the refrain of a pop song, but nowhere does this anonymous presidential speechwriter remind us of the origins of this war. How did it come about?

The standard neocon-cold war liberal line is that the North Koreans, in league with Moscow and Beijing, launched a war of aggression on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops poured across the disputed border. What this truncated history leaves out is that, in doing so, they preempted Rhee’s own plans to launch an invasion northward. As historian Mark E. Caprio, professor of history at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, points out:

“On February 8, 1949, the South Korean president met with Ambassador John Muccio and Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall in Seoul. Here the Korean president listed the following as justifications for initiating a war with the North: the South Korean military could easily be increased by 100,000 if it drew from the 150,000 to 200,000 Koreans who had recently fought with the Japanese or the Nationalist Chinese. Moreover, the morale of the South Korean military was greater than that of the North Koreans. If war broke out he expected mass defections from the enemy. Finally, the United Nations’ recognition of South Korea legitimized its rule over the entire peninsula (as stipulated in its constitution). Thus, he concluded, there was “nothing [to be] gained by waiting.”

The only reason Rhee didn’t launch an attack was due to American reluctance to supply him with the arms and aid he would need: war, when it came, would be on America’s terms, and our leaders had good reason to think it would come sooner rather than later. Washington’s policy was to keep Rhee supplied with just enough arms to control the South. There is also evidence for Congressman Howard Buffett’s contention that the secret testimony before Congress of CIA director Admiral Hillenkoeter proved US responsibility for the war.

Buffett, Republican anti-interventionist from Iowa, went to his grave demanding the declassification of that crucial testimony: alas, to no avail. And yet what we do know is this: the US government had ample warnings of the pending North Korean invasion, via intelligence reports sent to top cabinet officials well before the June 25 commencement of large-scale hostilities. Yet Washington took no action, either diplomatic or otherwise, to deter the North Koreans.

On the other side of the equation, the Communist world was divided on the Korea question, with Stalin skeptical of Kim il Sung’s assurances that his forces would achieve victory in three days. Russian policy was: military aid, yes – Soviet intervention, no. China’s Mao, on the other hand, offered his support – which wasn’t actually forthcoming, however, until the US entered the war and advanced into North Korea itself.

Neither Stalin nor President Harry Truman were particularly eager to see the conflict erupt, although both may have considered it inevitable. In which case it was convenient, for propaganda purposes, to be able to portray the enemy as having fired the first shot.

As to who did in reality fire that shot, Bruce Cumings, head of the history department at the University of Chicago, gave us the definitive answer in his two-volume The Origins of the Korean War, and The Korean War: A History: the Korean war started during the American occupation of the South, and it was Rhee, with help from his American sponsors, who initiated a series of attacks that well preceded the North Korean offensive of 1950. From 1945-1948, American forces aided Rhee in a killing spree that claimed tens of thousands of victims: the counterinsurgency campaign took a high toll in Kwangju, and on the island of Cheju-do – where as many as 60,000 people were murdered by Rhee’s US-backed forces.

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