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Historical Views: The 50th anniversary of the Korean War

June 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The 50th anniversary of the Korean War, and to Terence Smith.

SPOKESMAN: Aboard the battleship “Missouri” in Tokyo Bay on the morning of September 2, 1945…

TERENCE SMITH: When Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, it gave up the Korean peninsula after a 50-year occupation. At the time, the victorious allies drew a line at the 38th parallel. The U.S. accepted the surrender to the South — the Soviets do to the North, the eventual plan was to unify Korea, but the onset of the Cold War made the partition permanent. And in 1948, separate Koreas were born. On June 25, 1950, just months after the U.S. declared Korea beyond its global line of defense, North Korea received tacit approval from Moscow and attacked the South with 90,000 troops.

NEWSCASTER: High overhead, United Nations planes roam the skies almost at will.

TERENCE SMITH: The U.N. Security council voted immediately to defend South Korea with a multinational police action. The Soviet does not exercise their veto because the delegate was absent, protesting a separate issue. President Truman committed U.S. Soldiers immediately without asking Congress to declare war. But the U.N. force, largely American and South Korean soldiers, was initially overwhelmed. Just a month into the war, they had fallen back to the Southeastern corner of the country near the city of Pusan.

The momentum shifted September when the commander of the U.N. troops, General Douglas MacArthur dead a successful invasion near the port city of Inchon. The U.N. troops cut the North Korean supply lines and chased the Communist forces back to the North, but the tide turned again in October. Chinese soldiers joined the North Koreans and struck back by crossing the Yalu River. That drove the U.N. Troops South again where the war became a stalemate for months. MacArthur wanted to push North again and to expand the war against communist China and the Soviet Union. A possible nuclear confrontation loomed. Truman disagreed strongly with MacArthur, and in April of 1951, fired the General. (Cheers and applause) MacArthur returned home to a hero’s welcome. He delivered his farewell address on Capitol Hill where he coined the phrase that would be forever linked with him.

GEN. DOUGLAS MacARTHUR (Ret.), U.S. Army: I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die, they just fade away.

TERENCE SMITH: By 1952, the unpopular Korean War became an issue in the presidential race. Republican Dwight Eisenhower, general and hero of D-Day, vowed to end the conflict personally.

DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Only in that way could I learn how best to serve the American people in the cause of peace. I shall go to Korea. (Applause)

TERENCE SMITH: In 1953, when the two sides suspended hostilities and signed an armistice, the military and civilian casualties included 1.3 million South Koreans, a million Chinese, half a million North Koreans, and some 36,000 U.S. soldiers. Geographically, the war ended where it began, at the 38th Parallel. Today the DMZ is the most heavily armed border in the world. As for the two Koreas, their heads of state last week held their first ever summit meeting. After the meeting, the two sides stopped broadcasting propaganda across the demilitarized zone, and South Korea canceled this weekend’s parade and reenactment of the war.

TERENCE SMITH: Now the legacy of the forgotten war and to NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Parade Magazine columnist James Brady. He was a U.S. Marine Corps officer during the Korean War and is the author of “The Coldest War, A Memoir.” And “The Marines of Autumn,” a novel based on the conflict. Welcome to all of you. Doris, let me begin with you and ask you, with the hindsight of 50 years now, to put this war in a perspective for us.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, what’s so amazing when we talk about it as the forgotten war is that the legacy is immense from the Korean War. For one thing, in many ways, it really began and put into place the policy of containment. Only after the Korean War was started was Truman able to get that policy in — the policy through the Congress. At the same time, it really set a line that seven presidents followed after that that it was important to somehow stop communist expansion. Some people claim that after World War II, there was a tendency not to want to spend a t of money on the military. This obviously meant an upgrading in the military which led to what Eisenhower later warned about, the military trail establishment.

So that in so many ways, I think the war in terms of containment — in terms of anti-communism — in terms of its effect at home, domestically, because it certainly had a lot to do with the McCarthy era and the communism at home, it had a huge effect on the our country. What’s so weird is though those of us who lived through it. I was a little girl at the time, I somehow for some weird reason remember the day that the North attacked the South. But I hardly remember anything else. Maybe the scale of World War II was so large that this war didn’t have the same effect at home. There weren’t the same numbers. But nonetheless, historically, we can see it now as a very important war.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael Beschloss, there were miscalculations that led to this war, and on all sides, were there not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There were. You know, if we were here in 1948, we probably would have thought if we were imagining the Cold War might turn hot, we would have expected that to happen in Western Europe. That’s when Stalin was putting up the Berlin Blockade. There was a great fear, a natural fear that the red army was just about to march through Western Europe. And instead, two years later, it happens in this country that many Americans had never heard of. You look at it and its accident miscalculation piled up one after another. You begin with 1945 when two American colonels draw that line across Korea very arbitrarily. Then, as time goes on, Dean Atchison gives a speech, essentially accidentally excluding Korea from the American defense perimeter…

TERENCE SMITH: Accidentally?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Accidentally, was not a speech in which he intended to set policy, but the Soviet Union, Stalin and the others thought she was trying to send a message that if there was an effort by the North to invade Korea and South Korea were unified, the United States would not respond. Then in 1949, Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist takeover in china, also the Soviets explode the first atom bomb. The North Korean leadership had been pressing Stalin, let us invade the South, unify this country, make it a soviet satellite. Only in 1950, after all those things happened did Stalin grudgingly say go ahead.

TERENCE SMITH: Haynes, the phrase, the forgotten war? Forgotten by whom?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Forgotten by people who don’t know history. As Doris said, this was enormously consequential. No one who was there, was Jim Brady was, fought there valiantly, and no one who was here in this country at that time, as an adult or even as a child, would forget that. It had all these consequences. I was just watching when you did the set-up for this, you saw the ending of World War II on the USS Missouri, MacArthur signing the famous document at Tokyo Bay. At that moment, the United States was the new Romans. We had entered this, we were unsurpassed. There was no possibility of ever being challenged.

Only five years later we found our military forces in disorder, running, unprepared, demobilization, and all of those things that Doris has talked about, and Michael has talked about, the Cold War, the possibility of atomic war, the McCarthy period, the fear and the suspicion, the politics that head to led to the Eisenhower period, the Nixon period, it is still with us. It’s not forgotten.

TERENCE SMITH: James Brady, as someone who fought there and has written about it, I suspect you haven’t forgotten it?

JAMES BRADY: No, but I think it’s understandable that it fell between the two stools of the great historical event of the century, World War II and a much more bitterly divisive war here at home, Vietnam.

TERENCE SMITH: And the reception the people got and that you got, what was it like when you came home from that war?

JAMES BRADY: Well, I came home on a troop ship in the summer of 1952. We landed at San Diego and they had a high school band and pretty girls on the dock. All the Marines were delighted. We were home, and we were in one piece. We didn’t have a parade welcoming us back, but neither were we spit on in the streets as happened a few years later to the guys from Vietnam.

TERENCE SMITH: Doris, there’s an irony here. It’s the 50th anniversary of the start of the war and it’s not over.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely. To think how many years have gone by since that war ended, still with enormous dislocation for the people in Korea. You know, I was thinking as I watched the enormous celebrations last week when the North and South leaders got together. There you had ordinary citizens with flowers singing, singing patriotic hymns — the two leaders presumably with arms around each other — even though knowing how complicated it will be to bring about a resolution.

It’s just such a reminder that people… ordinary people want peace so desperately and that what war is all about is destruction. It may be necessary at Times, but destruction of human lives, of property, of soil, of building, of everything that’s against growth. I just was so struck by the emotionality of the people – just hoping that somehow, 50 years later, some kind of peace will be brought to those two sad countries.

TERENCE SMITH: Michael, as you look back now on Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur, what is the legacy of that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I was looking at that set-up piece just before we began, of MacArthur speaking to Congress. That speech was so dramatically given. There was a worry that MacArthur might run for president as a Republican. It was said at the Time that on the Republican side of the chamber, there wasn’t a dry eye, and on the Democratic side there was not a dry seat because they were all worried MacArthur was going to come and take the presidency away for next year. And you know what happened was that Truman was very worried about this idea of civilian authority.

He was someone who had given MacArthur pretty strict instructions on what he could and could not do and then MacArthur is threatening to go beyond them, threatening even use of nuclear weapons and doing it in public. Truman had a very tough choice to make: Either fire MacArthur and incur a lot of unpopularity or risk the possibility that this idea that goes back to the 18th century that Americans have of civilian dominance of the military, might be in some way violated. And Truman made this decision and it made him very unpopular. The fact that Truman left office in 1953 with an approval rating of about 23%, had a lot to do with this. Ultimately though, at least we historians say, it was the right thing do. We honor Truman for that.

TERENCE SMITH: And you honor him for reinforcing the civilian control.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. Because the precedent would have been terrible especially if you’re starting a new Cold War period in which we’re sting all sorts of military doctrines.

TERENCE SMITH: Haynes, the Korean War is described as an unpopular war. Why?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think it wasn’t so much unpopular, and it wasn’t so much forgotten at the time, but the country itself was going through other changes. It was only five years after World War II, after the initial shock of it, and the people who were there, Jim Brady fighting and the rest of these people, were over there and here the country was concerned with other issues. And when they came back, they didn’t have the spitting and revelations and revulsion that the Vietnam people did, but it was still not the same thing. One thing I’d like to make a point quickly. This was a war that wasn’t a war that we didn’t win. And that set a whole line directly from there to Vietnam. And that’s a very important thing in the psyche of the country, I think.

TERENCE SMITH: Jim Brady, how much did it shape you personally? I mean when you came back, were you anxious to get on with other things or how has it affected you in the years since?

JAMES BRADY: I was 23 years old when I arrived and I just celebrated my birthday. I was a young second lieutenant and they gave me a rifle platoon to command up in the Kabek Mountains of North Korea. My rival company commander was Captain Chafee — later a United States senator and secretary of the navy and governor of Rhode Island. I was shaped by Korea. I became a man over there. I became a good combat officer. But when I came back to the states, I was still living in my mother’s house in Brooklyn, and I remember I was there about three or four days and went to the beach every day. And my mother said, tomorrow’s Monday. Shouldn’t you go out and look for a job? And I did.

TERENCE SMITH: Your — attitudes change over the years and appetites for this sort of information change. If I understand it properly, you first wrote the novel about the war some years ago, and didn’t immediately find a publisher, right?

JAMES BRADY: Yeah, about six or seven years ago, my agent, who is a very good agent, sent it out to the 16 top book publishers in New York. After all, it was my tenth or eleventh book. I had been around for a while. And he could not get arrested. They said Korea isn’t sexy, it isn’t trendy and it won’t sell. I put it on the shelf and then I realized the 50th anniversary was coming up and very cold bloodedly, using that anniversary as a marketing tool, I said let’s go to market again with the book. The first editor who read it bought it right away. Now it’s a best seller.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And the attitude had changed. There was an appetite that there wasn’t a few years before.

JAMES BRADY: I think a couple of things have happened. I think Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation,” I think Spielberg’s movie “Private Ryan” I think suddenly and for a lot of other reasons, it is okay to be heroic in the United States. It’s okay to be a patriotic American, and that, of course, really comes along at exactly the right Time for this commemoration of Korea.

TERENCE SMITH: Doris, did this country learn any lessons from Korea?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, the hopeful thing is that history does teach people lessons. Just to go back to Truman’s decision about MacArthur, the interesting thing is he said as he was trying to figure out what to do, he looked back on history, lessons learned from Lincoln and McClellan back in the civil war, and remembered how McClellan tried to put his own political ambitions above what he should be doing as a military commander and that finally Lincoln had to fire McClellan.

And that gave Truman some heart to make that tough decision. So there’s no question that whenever we look back on something, you learn something. Obviously I think we learned that when we stuck it out, we were able to draw the line between the North and the South. In that sense, it is a successful war. But if a war is not won quickly, then domestic support for it comes down, as it did when Truman left. But I’ll tell you the fact that Truman went up and up in historian polls show that making decisions sometimes that are hard can be a great thing. I’m so glad for Truman.

TERENCE SMITH: But Michael, the decision didn’t ultimately affect the subsequent decision of Kennedy and Johnson to go into Vietnam.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Kennedy and Johnson really didn’t learn enough about this from this experience. And LBJ was deeply into armed services when he was in the Senate. This was something he was very aware of. You know, I’m listening to these Johnson tapes and writing about these tapes that LBJ made of his conversations, the most chilling tape I’ve heard is the talk between LBJ and Richard Russell, the Senate chairman of Armed Services in which Russell and Johnson are both saying, this is a terrible mess, Vietnam.

I think we’re going to get involved in another Korea except this time it’s going to take ten years and might take more men. And once again we won’t win. You had such a sense, I did, that would I have loved to go back and tell them, listen to history. Remember what happened in Korea and particularly that Truman never asked Congress, never asked the senate for a war declaration, never talked much in public about what he was trying to do in Korea. That had a lot of do with the fact that Americans very quickly turned against that war as they did in Vietnam with Johnson later.

TERENCE SMITH: Haynes, talk a little about the politics that surrounded the Korean War because it was an era of McCarthyism and red betting. That was important.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Of course. I mean, Harry Truman, crime, Korea and corruption. One forgets the standing he has today, as Doris says and Michael says, that he was, at that point, reviled as a President. He was deprecated. He was this little pip squeak who fired this great American Caesar. He was also involved, and maybe a traitor even. Who knows? He was soft on communism. The politics led directly from that point into the era of the 50s as it played out, into the Eisenhower years, then Nixon later. So it had enormous, and still has consequences. Truman was the guy who made the choice. MacArthur is the guy who said there is no substitute for victory. That plays right into Vietnam. That’s what you’re talking about with Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

TERENCE SMITH: James Brady, what is your view of MacArthur as you look back now with 50 years?

JAMES BRADY: My view is somewhat different, Terry. The Marines despised MacArthur and they thought he damn near lost his army up at the chosen reservoir because of this reckless adventure. You know, Genghis Khan of Korea once said, you can’t fight a winter war in the land of the Mongols. And MacArthur tried to do it. And the Marines were trapped up there and it was a desperate, desperate fight to get out. So the Marines had very little respect for MacArthur. They thought that Truman should have yanked his chain a lot earlier than he did.

TERENCE SMITH: Did they feel he gave the Marines the dirtiest jobs to do?

JAMES BRADY: Yeah, that went back to World War II in the pacific campaign. You know, Marines are pretty professional soldiers. I had a Sergeant Wooten who used to say to me, “lieutenant, I know it ain’t much of a war, but it’s the only war we got and we might as well enjoy it.”

TERENCE SMITH: That’s wonderful. James Brady, thank you very much. Michael, Haynes, Doris, thank you all.