Truman and 1951: Conclusion

One could not blame Truman for deciding to accept Russia’s armistice proposal in 1951.  Truman could see this war lasting a long, long time.  China had shown an ability to put a seemingly infinite number of troops into the field.   And China had shown an ability to take massive casualties on a seemingly unlimited basis.
Truman was being practical.  


Still Truman’s thinking was not only dominated by what China could do, but clouded to the real situation on the ground.  A situation he and his top military advisors knew all too well, but stubbornly refused to admit or concede.

The UN Forces were winning in Korea.  They had the upper hand.   They had the Chinese and North Korean forces on the run.   China’s lack of everything else, even rice for its soldiers, more than outweighed any advantage gained in manpower.  

Does one really think the Russians would have been first to the table if the Chinese felt they could win?  This one action more than anything should lead one to believe that Stalin also felt the Chinese could not “take” South Korea.

People like to think of American generals as being all too ready to beat the war drums.  Maybe that simply comes from watching too many movies.   (Dr. Strangelove’s true contribution to the world!)  Yet I just don’t think that is the case.  Time and time again the Military in America has shown to be cautious and conservative.  Give them a division to take an outhouse and it’ll say it needs two.   Westmoreland would’ve taken a million troops in Vietnam if Johnson would’ve let him.   Ridgway wanted several divisions just to bail out the French in Vietnam.

When the American generals saw what China could put into the field, they couldn’t accept the Russians’ armistice offer fast enough.   And in the process wantonly ignored every single advantage they had.  The incredibly large shadow of the Chinese military and its endless hordes of soldiers inflicting incalculable casualties on American forces swayed the day.

Yet the American Generals get a pass.  Bradley gets a pass.  It is not the job of Generals to think 50 years out.   Or perhaps even 10.  

But it is Truman’s job. 

In the interim Truman naively felt his Air Force could keep the Chinese from resupplying.  Didn’t happen.

In the months of the initial negotiations, not having to worry about further retreat or massive American offensives, the Chinese quickly rebuilt their reserves and used the hilly terrain to their advantage.   By the Fall of 1951, even if America wanted to attack it would’ve been a moot point.   Eisenhower himself, when visiting the front after winning the Presidential Election stated a frontal attack would’ve been folly.

He was right. 

And what has come of all this?

60 years of peace you say?

Slow down.  

Oh what price Peace.

Truman’s willingness to accept an armistice when he had China’s vaunted Marshall Peng Dehuai on the ropes may go down as the practical thing to do, (it saved so many lives, right?), that one cannot be blamed for having flinched at the prospect of a war without end. 

I need to be clear here.  There is no way the UN Forces would’ve been able to have captured all of North Korea.   The closer the Chinese would’ve been pushed back to the Yalu, the stronger the advantage it would’ve had.  But there is no question UN Forces could’ve, would’ve pushed the Chinese much further back than simply the 38th Parallel.  Much further back.  Two Chinese offensives had depleted not only  military supplies but morale.   The Chinese Soldier knew only too well a minor war wound in the Chinese Army had a good chance of becoming a major wound if not treated promptly. 

As for the other side, this was no UN Army of June ’51, or even of November ’51.    And yet while the UN Forces were vastly improved the Chinese still had nothing.  True, the Russians would help.  But I am not sure short of massive aid if it would’ve been enough to turn the tide.
And if the Russians had intervened, all public support for an Armistice would have vanished. 

The probable most likely end result?  Space for Seoul to breathe.

And this Truman did not give.

Instead what do we have now?  North Korea today still holds those same hills.  Zigzagged with secret tunnels for entry into South Korea in case of war.   North Korea has an active force of one million troops. 

Hovering over Seoul, like a bully that never leaves your front yard.  When you open the door he’s there.

It is common knowledge that in case of any all out conflict Seoul would without question, perhaps within the space of a day, be nothing but Hell on Earth.   A flaming ruin with so many dead that Lucifer himself would turn them away.   

Seoul has 10 million people.

This is what Truman has wrought. 

Wouldn’t North Korea be a lot easier to deal with if Seoul was say a 100 miles away?  Shouldn’t that have been the real goal of the UN Forces?  To push the Chinese back as far from Seoul while maintaining The Chinese Face as possible??

Pushing the Chinese back to the Yalu probably would’ve been inconceivable.   But if the UN Forces had succeeded in doing so, the Chinese wouldn’t have gotten back across.  The River itself would’ve simply become the greatest fortified line on the planet.  Mao would’ve been pinched between both Russia and a Unified Korea, and his fear of an American Presence on his doorstep realized.  

This would’ve changed everything.

With an American presence already on his border, would Mao have been so willing to allow things to get out of hand with the Russians?  He’d need them more than ever right? 

Instead the American President decided to simply stand down, the future be damned.

Did Harry really think the North Korean regime would wither on the vine and die?   Did he care? If so, shame on him for so underestimating the ability of the North Koreans to be so brutal towards their own people, or quite possible, not giving a damn.  I don’t think Truman even cared what a future North Korea would look like.   It was his right to demand the Koreans solve their own problems.  His sole aim was to prevent further American casualties while not giving the Russians an opportunity to strike somewhere else.   He simply believed Korea was nothing but one move, maybe two in a never ending chess match and nothing more.

Why did he think that?

Because the American government by this time simply wasn’t speaking to the Chinese anymore.  Its great cadre of envied China specialists had been decimated at the altar of supporting Chiang Kai Shek at all costs, even at the cost of ignoring a leader of 500 million Chinese.    How many American military lives did that decision cost?  How in the Hell did that decision even make sense?

“Let’s forego hanging out with the 500 million people over there and let’s instead hang out with the 8 million people over here instead…well, because Chiang Kai Shek’s chick Song Mei Ling speaks such great English.”

But that is not all.

One of the great ironies is that Truman immediately saw Chiang Kai Shek for what he was.  A brutal, merciless cad.   Not only did he cut off all aid, but politely barred his wife from the White House.  In the beginning CKS was just as brutal as North Korea’s leader.   At the very least Truman should have insisted in exchange for assistance that Chiang Kai Shek invade China.  Or help in Korea.  If a serious effort had been made to do so one wonders if China really would’ve had the resources to resist both equally?   Stalin would be eager to aid China against America.  Would he have been so willing to do the same versus CKS?

And what of the diplomats?  All those missionaries born and raised in China?  If the US government had really allowed its diplomats to do their job, there may not have been Chinese intervention in a Korean War. 

Truman is guilty here of worshipping the “lazy button”.  He took the most “direct path” to peace.  Remember those American casualties up to the Armistice?  By the time it was signed American combat deaths had reached 40,000.  Fighting for space that no one will ever memorialize.  Or remember.  No famous white crosses on those hills.  Spielberg will never make a movie about these guys.  Let alone of that British Regiment that may have very well saved Seoul.  Couldn’t this cost have been better utilized by pushing the Chinese further back from Seoul?

Wanting to “save” American lives to me is nothing short of a kind of lazy morality.  What of the 10 million held hostage by North Korean guns in Seoul?   What good is “peace” if the bully never leaves your front yard? 

Truman wanted to get out.   And the Hell to everyone else.   Except the very sad irony is we’ve never left.  We’re still damned there.  Not the British, or the Swedes, or the Australians or the Canadians.    And both the Americans and South Koreans have precious little breathing space to show for it.  A simple 2 mile wide strip of preserve, remember? 

This is not hindsight.  This is reality anyone can visit any day of the year. To me, this is just plain common sense.  The further one can push the enemy away from your allies’ capital the better. 
Now North Korea has nuclear weapons.  And they like test firing them!  What would Harry think today? 

Around the 16th of June 1951, the UN Forces abandoned the city of Pyongyang. 

They haven’t been back since.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Indeed Gerald, all nations tend to justify the use of violence in order to make the world a "better" place(Hiroshima and Nagasaki...the upcoming conflict with China).
    They may of course be right, but tell that to the mothers and fathers...

    I for one am very interested in War more for the decisions and the thought process involved. I highly recommend the Civil War Podcast(if you are American) just for this purpose. Also Dan Carlin's Hardcore History Podcast on Armageddon, ie WW1....simply fascinating.


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