Hindsight and the Korean War

I was watching a video on alternative history concerning the Korean War and a few things struck me as potential for debate. I figured I’d start off with my (admittedly limited) narrative on the war, then progress to what the debate is in an alternative timeline and ask if, in hindsight it would have been better or worse to change that timeline.

In the early summer of 1950 and in a surprise invasion, North Korea crosses the border with South Korea (38th parallel) and drives deep into South Korea, causing extensive casualties and capturing Seoul in less than a month. By mid-summer the first US forces enter the war to assist the South Korean military, and by late summer the US and UN is committed to defense of the Pusan Perimeter, a series of defensive works that were a last ditch defense of southern South Korea centered around the port city of Pusan. Having established a fairly stable defensive line, the US and allied forces tries and succeeds with an end around amphibious invasion at Inchon, a city off the north western coast of South Korea. This essentially cuts off the North Korean military units surrounding Pusan and enables the US and allied forces to interdict North Korean logistics, free Seoul, and break out of Pusan attacking the North Korean forces from multiple directions. By early winter the US and allied forces have driven into North Korea and captured Pyongyang, driving north towards the border and basically just mopping up what’s left of the North Korean forces. It seems the war is basically over for North Korea and reunification is only a matter of time. However, alarmed, the Chinese have been secretly moving forces to the border, and as the US/UN forces close in on the border launch an unexpected attack, driving the US and UN forces in disarray back beyond Seoul before they drive back to…the 38th parallel (more or less), where this all started (the Chinese/North Koreans do recapture Seoul, but it’s taken back in early '51). At that point there is basically a stalemate where both sides launch local attacks but essentially don’t do much (the Chinese spring offensive of '51 was particularly costly). By the summer of '51 an armistic was signed.

And we’ve been living with the consequences of this ever since. So, leaving aside the probably glaring holes and just outright incorrect stuff above (sorry, the Korean War was never a huge thing of interest for me so my knowledge of it is pretty sketchy), the alternative history senario would be…what if the US decided, when China attacked, cut off the Chinese army logistically by attacking into Manchuria either via air strikes or sea attacks…whatever it took to basically cut off Chinese logistics? Would it be worth the cost, from the perspective of hindsight, to go all out when we could have done so, and reunified Korea? I think it’s something the US and it’s allies COULD have done (though perhaps it would have been beyond the scope of the UN intervention), but at the time it was felt that Korea wasn’t worth the risk of widening the conflict (i.e. in case Russia had decided to take a more active role).

This would have had a pretty profound change on history, especially wrt China and US relations. I seriously doubt the US could or would have approached China in the '70s as we did to reopen relations…and I doubt China would have been open to it the way they were either. China lost over a million killed in Korea, but cutting off their army in the way I’m thinking would have easily doubled, tripled or even more then casualties, and that would have made a reapproachment that much more difficult. It also would have meant that the China/Korean border would have been even more politically and militarily charged. There is also the factor that the South Korean government of today isn’t anything like the corrupt and morally bankrupt one that was in power during the war…so, a unified Korea might not be what South Korea is today. So…with hindsight, should the US and it’s allies gone all out to ensure there was a unified Korea, or was what happened the best of a bad lot (or, do you think it would have been better for the US/UN to stay out of it and let North Korea unify Korea under their system)?

I had been thinking about this subject quite a bit after finishing “The General vs the President”, a book about the relationship between Truman and MacArthur. It’s a complex question, and the real answer is that the long term effects are unknowable, obviously.

That said, there are some interesting scenarios to be considered. First, MacArthur was extremely confident that the Chinese wouldn’t dare intervene, and if they did would we easily defeated, despite copious (and in hindsight, obvious) evidence to the contrary. If MacArthur had actually acted with caution, and advanced slowly and defensively, the Chinese may never have acted.

Second, once he was proven wrong, he began to demand a massive escalation of the war, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons- he even proposed salting the Chinese border with radioactive waste! This is where things get crazy- what if Truman had said yes? How would such a war even be fought? Interestingly, some people who knew MacArthur thought he was doing this to force Truman to remove him- By being removed, MacArthur could still claim credit for any victories, but blame Truman for any defeats.
It gets even more interesting when you look at the testimony from the congressional hearings about MacArthur’s removal. While the committee was very sympathetic to MacArthur, they never took any action. Why? Because in the closed sessions, where classified material was discussed, the military basically said that we were completely unprepared for a wider war, that redeploying any more air power would leave Europe undefended, and moreover, that if we attacked Chinese territory, they would likely begin attacking our carriers and Japanese airbases-targets currently considered off limits by the Chinese. This was unknown to the public, however.

So what’s the takeaway? Best guess, Scenario one, negotiated end to the war with a much smaller and less economically viable North Korea, more heavily subsidized by the Chinese.

Scenario two- World War Three. Or at least a massive distraction that allows the USSR to do as it pleases while we bleed resources.

The problem was the way MacArthur (mis-)handled the advance to the Yalu meant that the Chinese intervention and subsequent U.N. rout was pretty much always going to happen. You’d have to go back a lot earlier, swap generals and/or pretty much assume a war with China from day one prevent it. It wasn’t logistics that allowed the Chinese to sweep everything before them. Indeed their extremely light logistic train was one of their key advantages - they could move fast ( as foot infantry went ) in rough terrain and only lightly encumbered, superior air power had less of an impact on their advance. It was Chinese light infantry discipline, numbers, surprise and most of all the exhausted and highly dispersed nature of the U.N. forces as they advanced towards the Yalu that ended up fucking them.

Assuming you want to start after that defeat, the problem you then face invading Manchuria is the very real possibility of triggering a wider war. Russia and China were still allies then and Soviet Manchuria is pretty darn close to Chinese Manchuria. Not to mention an inkling of early success might cause some overconfident hawks to try and inject the KMT from Taiwan into the affair. A wider war would potentially have been huge - well beyond pushing China from NK. The casualty cost might have eventually been staggering, only a few years after WW II. I don’t think anyone sane thought Korea was worth it. Remember we’re looking back with hindsight - at this point in history NK wasn’t yet a basketcase and SK wasn’t a economic colossus. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the exact current state of affairs in the early 1950’s.

I appreciate the replies. I’m a bit skeptical about this part:

I can’t see 1950 era China being able to have any sort of credible threat to Japanese air bases or US carriers. :dubious:

Yeah, the video I was watching on alternative history was basically talking about if the US had used the requested 50(!!) nukes along the Manchurian border…what would the, um, fallout have been. So to speak. Yeah, pretty scary. :eek:

Yes, I was assuming we’d start after the defeat and retreat. I guess in my minds eye and, again with my limited knowledge, my thought was if the US used it’s heavy bomber and fighter strength we could essentially bomb the logistics hubs and staging areas in Manchuria (not invade) to hurt the ability of the Chinese army to continue operating in North Korea. Some assumptions I was making is that, having recently been on the verge of total defeat the North Koreans wouldn’t be able to logistically support the Chinese very well in an extended campaign and if the Chinese were cut off they would have the same issues. I didn’t think about the rather low tech Chinese PLA at the time, so that might be a bad assumption on my part that they would need all that much support, but it seems to me that eventually you could starve them of the supplies they would need to continue the fight while hammering them from the air and holding them in place via ground defenses.

That’s a huge glaring hole right there. The war didn’t end until July 27, 1953; those two years were a bloody stalemate, more along the lines of the Western Front of WWI after the first year of fighting there than a stalemate where neither side did much. Both sides became so dug in that it was impossible to make the front line move very much, but that didn’t stop both sides from trying.

I have serious doubts that attacking Manchuria would have done more than escalate the war, open Soviet intervention was very likely. Soviet pilots clandestinely flew MiG-15s during the war, bombing Manchuria would likely have led to open deployment of numerous regiments of Soviet MiG-15s to Manchuria at the very least. It’s highly doubtful that it would have led to driving the Chinese from North Korea. Tamerlane is spot on about MacArthur and his mishandling the advance to the Yalu, he refused to believe any sizeable Chinese force had crossed the river when there were already 200,000 Chinese in North Korea. The UN retreat back to below the 38th Parallel was truly a rout, the phrase bugging out entered widespread usage in the English language from it.

The OP suggests a much wider war (as some did propose) and responses so far concentrate on MacArthur’s disastrous offensive of November 1950 and the fallout. However, by summer of 1951, after MacArthur was gone, and the 4th and 5th phase Chinese offensives failed, the UN forces could have pushed again well beyond the eventual DMZ in the general vicinity of the 38th parallel. They chose at that point not to. It wasn’t any longer a direct and immediate inability to do so against Chinese resistance.

However it could have led to a constant see sawing as the Chinese kept coming back with new offensives. And they greatly increased their force in Korea after that. In the static phase of the war during protracted truce negotiations, till 1953, the Chinese force was a lot larger than it had been, although the ROK as well as DPRK forces also got bigger.

The intermediate question in Korea, either in fall 1950 or summer 1951, was whether the UN should have pushed to a line a bit north of a Pyongyang>Wonsan line, where the peninsula is narrowest, around 110 miles, and where the mountains in the middle aren’t too high and rugged for a continuous front, as they are further north. That would have left a not a really viable DPRK, but still some sort of buffer zone China would tolerate, as puppet state or extension of its own Korean Autonomous Region. It might have tolerated that in the first place in October 1950.

The Yalu-Tumen line (the actual border of NK with China) is over 400 miles long, assuming some kind of rational defensive front based on it; if counting every inch it’s more. It wasn’t defensible without destroying the PLA, or some much bigger war v China at least.

In medieval times the Goryeo dynasty’s border was further north than that, but still excluded the big and difficult to defend region in the northeast (Hamgyeong basically). It was fortified by the Cheonli Jangseong, 1000 Li Long Wall, as opposed to the Manli Jangseong, 10,000 Li Long Wall aka Great Wall of China.

Sorry, it was supposed to be '53. I missed that one.

Yeah, I see that. I’m pretty sure that’s why we didn’t do it. We knew/know that there were Soviet pilots flying many of the North Korean MIGs, and they certainly would have supported China in combating US attempts to interdict China’s supply logistics in Manchuria and Northern North Korea.

Yes, that’s what I was getting at. My own thought was a hammering of Chinese logistics coupled with a renewed drive against the Chinese and North Korean defenses to push further north. Maybe it would have been an unnecessary risk or too difficult for us to support, but my question is, with hindsight, should we have taken the chance or widened the war at that time considering how it played out? Seems most of the posters feel we shouldn’t have at this point.

  1. It’s not clear exactly what the US govt knew at highest levels of security classification, it’s still classified. However the situation was that virtually all the MiG’s encountered from November 1950 to around September 1951 were regular units of the Soviet Air Forces. In September 1951 PLA units entered on a significant scale (after briefly appearing in early '51 then withdrawing). The first KPAAF MiG-15 regiment entered combat that November. The latter fact is known from the post armistice 1953 defector No Gum-seok, who also told the US that the Soviets and Chinese flew in their own units, and most of the opposition was Soviet AF until 1953. But his revelations remained secret in the US long after. PLA MiG’s seem to have carried their own markings and sometimes Chinese character slogans (at least in PRC photo’s of them). Soviet ones early on carried NK markings, though they didn’t always bother later on, variations on red stars in all three cases but potentially recognizable. It’s still an interesting question exactly what the US knew before No told them, though the story in ‘secret’ level documents was ‘some Soviet pilots’, which was hinted at publicly enough to become the accepted idea.

  2. This wouldn’t necessarily have required a wider war, at least to initially, in summer 1951. The UN army was then moving north again against limited Chinese/NK resistance after those forces exhausted themselves in the so called 4th and 5th phase offensives since spring. It would only have required a wider one if the Chinese/Soviets widened it because the UN was again pushing well* into NK. Or perhaps not. But assuming the UN forces got to the narrow point of the peninsula that would be easier to defend than the DMZ as well as much easier than the Yalu-Tumen border.

*the eventual DMZ and generally similar ‘Kansas Line’ the UN voluntarily stopped at in summer 1951 are/were north of the 38th parallel in the east though south in the west, and NK’s kept control of the Ongjin peninsula, the part below the 38th having been an isolated and impossible to defend enclave of the ROK pre war. The summer 1951 and current positions are a net small loss of territory for NK v. prewar.

The big fear, and I think it was justified, of the Truman administration was that by committing ourselves too deeply in Korea we were leaving the rest of the world vulnerable.

We already had a large portion of our troops in Korea by late 1950. If we had gotten into a broader war with China, we would have had to send in more troops. What would have happened then if the Soviets had invaded West Germany?

Eh, inability…maybe not. But apparently Ridgeway and Van Fleet didn’t think it was worth it. In late June 1951 Ridgeway wrote: “Van Fleet believes and I concur, that advance to general line roughly paralleling and 20 miles beyond KANSAS, while tactically and logistically feasible at present, would entail unacceptable casualties."

Further that was only measuring Chinese/ROK forces deployed in Korea. It did not include a possibility of massive reinforcement from Manchuria, which might have been in the offing had it looked like a major U.N. breakout was imminent. So again it was a question of whether to potentially further escalate a war that at that point was just about the begin peace talks.

Yes, obviously they didn’t think this was a good idea or would have done it. But it was also naturally influenced by the experience of less than a year before, when advancing too far enough caused a disaster, almost a complete catastrophe, loss of the entire US force in Korea seemed possible for awhile in winter 1950-51. But with a strategic concept to form and enlarged ROK up to the neck of the peninsula, not the Yalu, possible IMO in summer 1951.

And obviously possible to stop there in October 1950. And not clear the Chinese at that point would engaged full on to throw the UN out of all of prewar NK, as opposed to having a problem with a US led force on their border. This is the general message they seemed to try to send in that period, and a reasonable interpretation of the ‘checking’ first phase counter offensive followed by their retreat closer to their border. But MacArthur advanced to contact with them in November.

Note also the actual Korean War wasn’t particularly popular with the American public. Trying to coax them into a larger war, that had the probability of turning into an even larger war, against recent allies, in an attempt to turn what had been a war to protect a Western allied country into a war of conquest against a communist one would’ve been pretty difficult.

Here is an article about that book and the secret testimony:

The Redacted Testimony That Fully Explains Why General MacArthur Was Fired

I haven’t read the book, but that article says that China was greatly restraining its operations while it’s the U.S. side that was overextended.

Plus the risk that the Soviet Union would enter on the side of the North.

To me that article sounded like the U.S. side would have been utterly wiped out by the Chinese (certainly if helped by the Soviet Union) had they escalated.

True. There may have been a bit of excessive caution at play after having been so badly mauled earlier. The biggest issue I guess is whether that move would have escalated the conflict at that point. Honestly I just dunno - I think it could go either way and probably hinge on just how hard it would have been to actually push north. Ironically a stronger Chinese resistance might have been better for SK in that circumstance, insomuch as it might not have led to a panicked Chinese response.

XT et al,

It’s worthwhile to consider the public attitude in the US at the time of the Korean conflict. We were the victors of WW2 and believed we led the world in technology. Russia and China were viewed as backward allies (the result of years of intense propaganda). MacArthur was a giant of a celebrity.

MacArthur’s success in driving the enemy to it’s northern border was a replay of WW2. It was what the public expected. It was all over. We won. Then, as the situation deteriorated, the media began to cautiously report Russian and Chinese involvement. The UN forces were driven south to a stalemate. The propaganda returned. Japan and Germany were good. Russia and China were bad.

The WW2 draft was still in effect. I got my Army draft notice in May 1953. They gave me a couple of weeks to join another branch so I enlisted in the Air Force. The sergeants and officers I served under were WW2 retreads. They had started businesses or school after the war and been recalled just as their careers began. They were stuck and had no choice but to stay in the service until retirement. They did not want a war. The patriotic zeal of WW2 was over.

The Korean conflict was not a declared war. It was an experimental police action. A war weary America was not interested. The country was shocked by the retreat and the stalemate. We did not have the will for an expanded war and I doubt we had the ability.

BTW: MacArthur returned to the US to run for President, but the public wasn’t interested.


I wonder how many understand that most of the famous battles were to take, lose, and retake the same small hills - to effectively no advantage for either side. Just appalling war for war’s sake - yes, much like some of the battles of WWI.

Truman was more or less prepared to dump Chiang Kai Shek before the Chinese intervention and the PLA was making preparations to invade Taiwan. The Korean war sent the 7th fleet back into the straits and foreclosed any hope the PLA had of finishing off the Nationalists. The popular perception in China was that Taiwan was given up for the sake of North Korea.

The Chinese had essentially endless resupply from the Soviets, the US War Industry had basically shut down in September '45*. If the Carriers were going to strike the Chinese mainland, they would have to get very close to shore and within range of the PLAAF.

Nuke PY immediately and the war in Korea ends. There’d be no war in Vietnam either.

…Or anywhere else cause of the following nuclear exchange.