Sixty years ago today — at dawn on a quiet Sunday morning — the Korean War broke like a clap of thunder. After a short artillery barrage along the 38th parallel, more than 200,000 North Korean forces, under the command of Gen. Kim Il Sung, began pouring into the newly born Republic of Korea. There was no warning. South Korea’s tiny security forces were shattered instantly — and, just as quickly, President Truman decided to fight back. Almost overnight, America was at war.
For many of our veterans, the Korean War is still living memory. The anniversary of its beginning is an occasion to honor the sacrifices they and their fallen comrades made for liberty in that faraway land. But unfortunately, today there are more pressing reasons to remember that conflict.
Wednesday’s firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, is only the most obvious. The general is said to have exercised “poor judgment” in disparaging a variety of senior administration officials in candid interviews with Rolling Stone. Defenders were quick to point out that the general was not insubordinate, as was Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Korea: McChrystal never publicly criticized the president’s war strategy.
But that’s not the point. In Korea 60 years ago we had the same essential problem that we have in Afghanistan today: an inability to define attainable war aims that are rationally related to the interests at stake. When there is no consensus on war aims, there can be no consensus on strategy, and conflict within the senior leadership becomes inevitable. People generally agree on the things they understand, and generally disagree on the things they don’t understand. If history is any guide, the entire administration may well be trapped inside an irresolvable dilemma on Afghanistan — in which case, by definition, nobody has the answer.
Let’s start the story of the Korean War where it really begins, in the five years following the Yalta conference in early 1945, which is all the time it took for the United States to set in motion the forces that made a new war inevitable.
At Yalta, Joseph Stalin promised Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan within three months of the surrender of Germany. Roosevelt died a few weeks later, and Germany surrendered shortly after. Is it possible that the Korean War was already inevitable at this point, even before the surrender of Japan? Yes, it is possible.
By the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Japanese had been occupying Korea for more than 30 years. The question that then arose was how to liquidate the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately, the answer involved the Soviet Union, which had taken advantage of Japan’s situation — and Roosevelt’s ill-considered entreaties — to enter the region in force. We agreed that the Russians would occupy Korea north of the 38th parallel, and we would occupy the peninsula south of that line.