Truman's fateful 1951 decision. Did he get it wrong? Part 1

Harry Truman was known as a decisive man.   It had been his decision to drop The Bomb on Hiroshima and later Nagasaki, resulting in over 100,000 deaths.   Upon making the decision to drop the bombs he is said to have slept without a whimper.  

Truman’s decisonmaking throughout his presidency was solid. The Marshall Plan, the saving of Greece, the abandonment of Taiwan, the firing of MacArthur.  These things all made perfect sense and were without question, the best thing to do.  

As was his decision to stand and fight in Korea. 

We all know how badly MacArthur underestimated the Chinese during his island visit with Truman on Wake Island.   From a Western point of view, his thinking made sense.   The Chinese Army at that time had nothing at its disposal.   Yet today we remember the thrashing the American forces took on its long retreat back past Seoul. 

Now only a few months had elapsed since the UN Forces had finally reversed the retreat.  At about this time, May 1951, war was still raging in Korea, with no apparent end in sight.  As such, MacArthur had desperately wanted to take the war to China.  

Only a few weeks earlier in April, China had launched its Spring Offensive.  Also known as the Fifth Phase Offensive.   Peng DeHuai, the Commander of all Chinese Forces famously said his aim was to celebrate May Day in Seoul.   Considering his successes over the past 6 months who could not believe him?  Hadn’t he just pushed these vaunted armies back 200 miles?

Despite the UN superiority of the air, Marshall Peng had still managed to gather 700,000 men for one last push.  Seoul was only 20 miles away.

Yet thanks in very large part to the bravery and the utter ferociousness of of the British Forces’ Gloucestershire Regiment, which kept the Chinese from being able to outflank the UN Front Lines, the Chinese offensive was a failure and by the end of April had come to a complete stop.   While the Chinese were quite rightly stunned at this development, given their previous success of having only a few months previous completely pushed the Americans out of North Korea, they completely overlooked the ability of the West to learn from its mistakes. 

The overall commander on the scene, Matthew Ridgway, promptly surprised the Chinese Forces by launching several counterattacks of his own, with the aim of encircling as many of the PLA as possible.  While the UN Forces were able to quickly retake lost ground, Marshall Peng wisely had his forces retreat rather than stand and fight.  As such the bulk of his Chinese armies were able to get away.  Trade land for time.

Surely it had become clear by now to the Chinese generals their days of simply overwhelming the enemy with numbers had ended.  Surely they knew the UN finally had a competent general in place, and that UN morale would only grow? 

Yamamoto once said his forces would have free rein in the Pacific for 6 months before the Americans would finally figure things out.  The Chinese were no different.  The UN and American armies had finally figured out the other guy, and it showed. 

The weather was good for War in Korea.  No snow. 

A few weeks later the Chinese attacked again.  And failed.   Two offensives with nothing to show for it.   Back to back.  Chinese blood soaked the soil north of Seoul.

Meanwhile, The UN forces had advantages available to it simply unknown to China.   Air power.  Naval power.  Artillery.  Ammo.  Warm boots and plenty of food.  Shorter supply lines.  Tanks.  Lots of them.  

The UN Forces had logistical know how.   Nobody was bombing their supply lines, day and night.  But perhaps most of all, Ridgway now had better commanders.   Men able to instill morale into the troops.   And over time they had simply learned the Chinese way of fighting.  Encircle at night and cut off.  The UN now owned the night.  But the Chinese had men.  But could they replace them on such short notice?

In short, the UN Forces knew they had China on the run.   By now it was clearly plain China had lost the initiative.

The decision to many was obvious.  North to the Yalu!

Now Truman had a decision to make.

MacArthur’s dismissal had brought home clearly to the American People the distaste of fighting for a stalemate.   Nobody likes a tie.  Ties are demoralizing.  At this moment American combat deaths were approximately 18,000.   Who did they die for?  Is there honor dying for a stalemate?

There were indeed good reasons for wanting to continue towards North Korea.  A unified Korea would be an American ally.   Millions of people would be free from the yoke of Communism.  Wasn’t that a good thing?  But to many the better lesson was the message it would impart to both China and Russia.  A unified capitalist Korea would be a thorn in China’s side.  It would almost certainly have an American military presence.    A unified Korea would be a constant reminder of Uncle Sam and his ability to shape the narrative in East Asia.  Mao would have to constantly watch his side.

Others in the military command on the ground wanted to attack northward as well.  America’s future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would later say he wanted to give China “one hell of a licking”.  

The crescendo was deafening.  After all, part of MacArthur’s firing(if he were a Chinese general so publicly challenging Chinese policy, would he have been given a ticker tape parade?) was his spoken wish to NOT have a tie. 

The summer of 1951 was really the defining moment of the war in Korea.  The UN Forces had finally figured out the Chinese puzzle, and with massive advantages in every sense of the military landscape was poised to once again take back North Korea.

Except one must remember one thing:  From Stalin to Mao to Roosevelt to Churchill… was civilians and politicians that controlled the generals.   They were the ones that controlled the narrative. 

So while Main Street USA and every private and in the American Military expected the UN Forces to continue pushing northward and win this thing,  the American Joint Chiefs of Staff was already reaching the conclusion that this might actually be a good place to call an armistice.   

And why not? 

Wasn’t this pretty much where the war began?  (The South would eventually gain around 15000 square miles of new territory.)

Peng DeHuai will long be remembered not as the man that foolishly challenged Mao without first garnering support, but as the guy that beat the Americans and kicked them out of North Korea. 

But even he now knew how this story would end; let the Chinese hordes get too far away from the Chinese border and they’d eventually get chewed up.   Otherwise the same story would repeat itself;
Chinese attack.  Overwhelm UN Forces by sheer numbers.  Attack stopped.  Supply lines decimated by American air force.  Retreat ensues.  Stalemate ensues.   Repeat again.

Except this attack couldn’t even get 20 miles.  (Remember only a few months previous they had pushed the UN Forces back 200 miles!)

The Chinese army simply couldn’t live off the land in a foreign country.

But looking at it from an American view it was different.  Truman wanted an armistice and that was all there was to it.  Broaching the subject with his generals simply led them to justify his decision.   If he had wanted to continue fighting they would’ve justified that point of view, too.

One of his senior generals in Korea, Van Fleet, a man Truman thought very highly of, actually believed the war could be won.  He actually testified to such before Congress. 

Alas, Truman’s sphere of command was global, and as the leader of a nation he had to take everything into consideration.

“If I push into North Korea what will the Russians do in Berlin?”

“Would they dare attack West Germany itself?”

American forces in Europe at this time mounted to only a few divisions.  Easily overrun.
Ridgway was in full support of Truman wanting a political solution.  And he ordered Van Fleet to fall into line.   Ridgway believed his forces had China on the run as well.

But for how long?

It was during this timeframe that Congress held hearings on the war effort. 

Omar Bradley was another 5 star general from WW2.  He was also the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Upon being called to testify as regards expanding the war into Red China, this is what he said,

“Red China is not the powerful nation seeking to dominate the world. Frankly, in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

Damn right.

A few conclusions can be drawn here.  One that Nobody was worried about China “exporting military revolution” (Vietnam anyone?), and two, everybody had Russia on the brain, certainly not China.

But the unspoken but clearly inferred conclusion is the most powerful:  that the USA simply did not want to be involved in an Asian land war with a country infinitely capable of sending 700,000 troops each Spring into Korea.   What would the number be in 1952?  1 million?    Would Mao simply keep increasing the number of troops, logistics and casualties be damned, until he simply “broke” the UN Forces?

More importantly, what about those vital American allies?  Belgium, Australia, the UK, on and on and on.  15 countries besides America committed troops.   For how long would they want to continue banging their head against a wall?

Meanwhile, American forces started a rotation.  That is, veteran troops were slowly rotated home while being replaced with green troops.  The Communists had no such system.   Over time, would not the Chinese develop the advantage?

Truman finally got the opening he had hinted at when a fellow by the name of Malik, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, proposed an armistice.  Without this initial contact from the other side, it would have been very difficult for Truman himself to initiate such a proposal and the fighting would have continued unabated.

One must also understand that Malik, A Soviet, only reinforced in the Western Mind that it was Russia, after all pulling the strings.   Nevermind it was Mao that made the decision to fight, not Stalin.

But could this request have come from anyone else?  What if Truman instead had demanded a direct ceasefire request from either China or Korea?    Does one think these Face Driven Shame Adverse Societies would have so readily spoken up? 

The rest is history.

Korea is still divided, and US troops are still in Korea.  Korea pays a substantial part of this cost, over $800 million per year.  The only positive thing that has come of this is a 150 mile long 2 mile wide belt of pristine nature that has grown over the past half century, mostly undisturbed.  Someday perhaps my children or grandchildren will be able to take a tour of the DMZ.

But what if Truman had not accepted the armistice?

Then what?  What if he had fought to win? 

On June 13th, UN Forces reached Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.  It was deserted.


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