The Korean War: what really happened?

The American massacre of Korean civilians at No Gun Ri went on for three days
The American massacre of Korean civilians at No Gun Ri went on for three days

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War; while that war has been presented as a ‘war for democracy’ against ‘communist aggression’ by North Korea, James Heartfield suggests it was a war made by the United States

On June 25, 1950 the news was relayed to members of the American occupation headquarters in Tokyo that “the South Koreans have attacked North Korea”,[1] making good a threat by the South Korean ‘Defence’ Minister.  “If we had our own way,” he had told a press conference the previous year, “we would have started up already.  We are strong enough to march up and take Pyongyang in a few days.”[2]  The sudden collapse of the South Korean forces invading North Korea and the North Koreans’ rapid capture of Seoul, the South Korean capital, ensured, however, that the conflict would be widely remembered as the result of a surprise attack by the North Korean regime on the South.

In the event, the western allies’ preparations for the ‘surprise’ attack were extensive.  John Foster Dulles, a leading diplomatic figure for US imperialism, had visited Seoul to pledge support for the South, 500 US military intelligence officers were posted on the border and British Field Marshall Slim was in conference with Australian defence chiefs in the weeks preceding the war.  John Hickerson, Assistant Secretary of State for the United Nations, told the US Senate Appropriations Committee on June 5, 1951 that the resolution naming North Korea as the aggressor had already been drafted before the conflict began.  In fact, the Americans had been attempting to impose their will on the peninsula ever since the end of World War 2.

US government interests

When American Commander-General John Hodge landed at Inchon on September  8, 1945, following the surrender of the Japanese, he had been surprised to have been met by representatives of the Korean People’s Republic, newly formed by popular peasant committees and released Korean prisoners of war.  Refusing to recognise the Republic, Hodge restored Japanese police and government officials to rule over a Korea whose division had been agreed by Roosevelt and Stalin.

Against the protests of Canada and Australia, the United States tried to consolidate partition with an election in the South in May 1950, only to see their puppet Syngman Rhee lose all but 14 seats.  Rhee needed a war to consolidate his grip on events.

It was US president Harry Truman, though, who most needed the war – namely, to justify the new policy of ‘containment’ of communism set out in National Security Council Memo 68.  Truman needed a spectacular threat to convince Congress to commit as much as 20% of the USA’s gross national product (GNP) to the military.

War in Asia meant that the US government could justify its policy of supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces based in Formosa (Taiwan) against the newly-created People’s Republic of China led by Mao Tse-tung.  The Korean people, north and south, were sacrificed to an ideological campaign by the United States and its allies, including New Zealand, against the ‘red hordes’.

Under the flag of the United Nations

With the Soviet Union boycotting the United Nations General Council, the US government had General Douglas MacArthur’s Eighth Army enter the war as commander of the “UN forces” – though he only ever reported to the US.  Purportedly on the side of South Korea, the ‘liberation’ of Seoul from the North Koreans was so destructive that the US government ruled out the possibility of new elections for fear of the results.  As the New York Times (August 24, 1950) noted:

“The difficulty is that there is a strong possibility of an overall Communist majority if the elections were held before the communization of North Korea had been undone, and before a UN construction programme had assuaged the bitterness of North and South Korea against the destruction of their homes during their liberation by UN forces.”

While in recent years there has been controversy over whether the US committed atrocities, the  record of the time is unequivocal.  “We were grounded,” Major-General O’Donnell, commander of Far Eastern Air Bomber Command, told a congressional inquiry on June 25, 1951.  “There were no more targets in Korea.”

British military journal Brassey’s Annual (The Armed Forces Yearbook, 1951) recorded: “The war was fought without regard for the South Koreans, and their unfortunate country was regarded as an arena rather than a country to be liberated. . . The South Korean, unfortunately, was regarded as a ‘gook’, like his cousins north of the 38th parallel.”

US atrocities

Having driven the North Koreans back over the 38th parallel, MacArthur resorted to bombing raids into Manchuria to goad Mao’s China into entering the war.  The subsequent arrival of the Chinese Army in the North led to an extraordinary tactic of withdrawal in the face of an invasion that never happened.  The New York Times (January 4, 1951) reported  MacArthur ordered the evacuation of Seoul, leaving “no facility standing which the enemy might use”.

Despite the scorched earth policy, the Chinese invasion never took place.  Associated Press correspondent William Barnard was in an observation plane over Seoul and recorded: “We flew over Seoul and fund a dead city. . . there was not a single sign of life.”[3]

The scorched earth policy was not designed to win friends.  As the New York Times (September 15, 1950) noted, “When the Koreans saw that the Communists had left their homes standing in retreat while the United Nations troops, fighting with much more destructive tools, left only blackened spots where town once stood, the Communists even in retreat chalked up moral victories.”

The point of MacArthur’s retreat was to keep alive the case for the implementation of NSC 68, with its extensive commitment to militarising the Pacific.  Red scares galvanised the US establishment and helped in the imposition of a reactionary political climate in the United States and also in Australia and New Zealand.  Indeed, the anti-communist scare whipped up by New Zealand governments, both Labour and National, was a factor in the defeat of the waterside workers in 1951 (see here).  As US General Van Fleet said in 1952, “Korea has been a blessing.  There had to be a Korea either here, or some place in the world”.[4]

Future Filipino democracy figure Benigno Aquino was a reporter on the Korean War.  He concluded in 1952: “To the rest of Asia the American looks like the Frenchman, the Britisher, the Dutchman.  To Asians, these people are the symbols of oppression. And many Asians would prefer Communism to western oppression”.[5]

Indeed, in the last couple of years archival material has come to light making clear why many Koreans might have felt that way in the early 1950s.  In 2011, for instance, an article on the BBC History site outlined some of the US atrocities that were coming to light:

“. . . recently a much darker side to the US involvement in the Korean War has begun to emerge. It casts a shadow over the conduct of US forces during the conflict, particularly of officers and generals in command. Declassified military documents recently found in the US National Archives show clearly how US commanders repeatedly, and without ambiguity, ordered forces under their control to target and kill Korean refugees caught on the battlefield. More disturbing still have been the published testimonies of Korean survivors who recall such killings, and the frank accounts of those American veterans brave enough to admit involvement.”[6]

At a bridge near the village on No Gun Ri, in July 1950, some 400 South Korean civilians were massacred by the US 7th Cavalry. That this was no accident is clear.  As the BBC History report records, “Air Force Colonel Turner Rogers wrote a memo the day before events at No Gun Ri. ‘The Army has requested we strafe all civilian refugee parties that are noted approaching our positions,’ the memo read. It went on to confirm the instructions had been acted upon. ‘To date, we have complied with the army request in this respect.'”  In fact, over 60 incidents of US forces killing civilians are currently logged with the South Korean authorities.[7]

Sixty years on from the end of the war, the economic success of South Korea, the state of the North Korean economy and rule by three generations of the Kim family, have probably changed that preference.  However, the US government – and its allies in Canberra and Wellington – still present North Korea as some kind of serious danger, using this nonsense to rationalise their own continuing militarisation of the peninsula and the wider Pacific.

Additional material by Philip Ferguson


[1] R. Gunther, The Riddle of MacArthur, p165.

[2] New York Herald-Tribune, November 1, 1949.

[3] New York Herald-Tribune, January 6, 1951.

[4] United Press report, January 19, 1952.

[5] Aquino cited in James Hamilton-Paterson, America’s Boy: the Marcoses and the Philippines, p167.

[6] Jeremy Williams, “Kill ‘em all: the American Military in Korea”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_usa_01.shtml

[7] Ibid.

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