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The Hidden History of the Korean War
By I. F. Stone
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1952 I. F. Stone
All rights reserved.
Was It a Surprise?
Officially the outbreak of the Korean War was described as a surprise. The White Paper issued by the American State Department spoke of it as a "surprise attack." The United Nations Commission on Korea reported that the South Korean forces "were taken completely by surprise as they had no reason to believe from intelligence sources that invasion was imminent." General Douglas MacArthur's biographer, John Gunther, wrote that "the South Koreans and Americans in Korea, to say nothing of SCAP [MacArthur Headquarters] in Tokyo, were taken utterly by surprise."
If this is true, certain first reactions in Washington to the outbreak of war in Korea remain unexplained. The attack came on a Sunday, and at once recalled that other Sunday, nine years earlier, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The parallel was striking, but inquiry revealed a difference. The first indications were that the attack in Korea was not a surprise at all. This difference between Pearl Harbor and Korea was skeptically greeted, grudgingly accepted, and then quickly forgotten—as Freud tells us people conveniently forget inconvenient facts.
When newspapermen that torrid Washington summer day called at the Pentagon, huge headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, "an aide said privately that the United States expected the attack." This officer pointed to "the fact that ships were ready to evacuate the families of American officers and others in South Korea as evidence that the invasion was not a surprise."
When newspapermen tried to confirm this, they succeeded in reaching America's highest ranking intelligence officer, Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which coordinates and distributes information received from all the various American intelligence services. Admiral Hillenkoetter did not insist, as Washington officials so often do, on speaking only "off the record" or "without attribution." He permitted his name to be used, and he made the statement that American intelligence was aware that "conditions existed in Korea that could have meant an invasion this week or next."
The press did not take this statement too seriously. America's most authoritative newspaper, the New York Times, treated it as of subordinate importance. The Admiral's response may well have seemed the natural reaction of an official trying to cover up a blunder by pretending he-knew-it-all-the-time. The New York Times account next morning stressed the likelihood that the Republicans would make the sudden outbreak of war "a national issue, involving as it does the country's foreign intelligence."
The next day the Admiral was summoned to appear before a private hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was called on motion of Senator Bridges of New Hampshire, one of the fiercest critics of the Truman Administration's Far Eastern policies. With Senator Bridges on that Committee was Senator Knowland of California, another Republican critic of "appeasement" in the Pacific. Senator Knowland had already issued a statement saying that the invasion had "caught the Administration flatfooted." The Republicans had made a major issue of Pearl Harbor, and were looking forward to a repeat performance.
The Admiral was asked to appear at 3 P.M. but, when a more urgent summons came for the Admiral from the White House, the hearing was postponed until an hour later. For the Admiral, it must have been a trying day. He had to convince the Republicans that American intelligence had not been taken unawares, yet he had to do so without raising too many questions about the Administration's failure to take preventive action on the basis of his reports. Perhaps he also had to explain to the President why he had not called attention more forcibly to those intelligence reports.
The statement the Admiral made on leaving the White House may have reflected the version of events he had just offered the President. The Admiral "said the North Korean forces have had the capability of invading the South for a year, but that it had been impossible to predict the timetable under which they would march, if at all." This was quite different from his statement the day before that indications showed an attack was possible "this week or next." To say that American intelligence had known for a year that the North could invade the South but didn't know when they would invade, if at all, was the same as admitting that American intelligence had been taken by surprise.
This did indeed remain the version at MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo. John Gunther, in his biography of MacArthur, writes: "On the morning of June 25, the North Koreans launched an attack by no fewer than four divisions, assisted by three constabulary brigades; 70,000 men were committed, and about 70 tanks went into action simultaneously at four different points, ... Ask any military man what all this means. To assemble such a force, arm and equip it, and have it ready to wheel into precalculated action over a wide front with perfect synchronization, on the appointed date, must have taken at least a month, ... Yet South Koreans and Americans in Korea, to say nothing of SCAP in Tokyo, were taken utterly by surprise.... It was more disgraceful than Pearl Harbor. Our eyes were shut, and even our feet were sound asleep."
Gunther adds, "No doubt this will all be investigated in good time." It was investigated that very first day after the war began when Admiral Hillenkoetter was summoned before the Senate Committee. But when the Senators emerged from behind the closed doors of the hearing room they were mollified. The Admiral's account at the hearing was quite different from the vague statement he made on leaving the White House. He had gone into considerable detail before the Committee, producing a file of intelligence bulletins to prove that he had not been taken unawares. The latest of these was dated June 20, only five days before the outbreak of the war. Senators Bridges and Knowland told newspapermen waiting outside the hearing room that they were now satisfied that the Central Intelligence Agency had been "doing a good job."
It would be strange if, in a country like Korea, American intelligence were to overlook a military buildup as impressive as that which went into action on the 38th Parallel that Sunday morning. Korea was one place where American intelligence was not dependent on meager hints from dubious agents in country difficult to penetrate. There were 500 American officers and 700 civilian technicians in South Korea. They were scattered throughout the government and the armed forces. The government itself was dependent on American aid and eager to be cooperative. Nowhere was the Iron Curtain less formidable than on the 38th Parallel. The same people lived, the same language was spoken, on both sides of that artificial boundary. Much of the frontier ran through rugged country difficult to patrol and easy to penetrate. It is hard to believe that an invasion force could be built up on that border without detection.
The bulletins the Admiral showed the Senators that day were not made public, but America's leading military commentator, Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times, a trusted confidant at the Pentagon, reported that they showed "a marked buildup by the North Korean People's Army along the 38th Parallel beginning in the early days of June."
Major elements of four North Korean divisions, Baldwin wrote, plus two other units described as constabulary brigades, were in position along that border "where intermittent fighting and border raids were a part of life." Commencing in early June, intelligence reported that "light and medium tanks probably of Japanese manufacture, about thirty 122-mm. Soviettype field guns and other heavy equipment were assembled at the front, and troop concentrations became noticeable."
If there really were advance warnings, why had nothing been done about them? The question created disbelief. That very first day of the war, when the New York Times reported that the Pentagon and the Admiral claimed that they had not been surprised, it quoted other unnamed "observers" as being skeptical of these assertions. These "observers" suggested that if the United States had known that troops were massing on the Korean border for a possible invasion it would have made diplomatic representations "either to the United Nations, to the North Korean government or to Russia." They also pointed out that warning could have been given in a less official way by making some of this intelligence information available to the press. The "observers" were mystified by "the failure of any news reports to tell that such a crisis was brewing along the 38th Parallel."
This also puzzled the Senators at the Hillenkoetter hearing. When questioned by them, the Admiral "could offer no explanation why the receiving agencies had apparently failed to interpret the indications he furnished as evidence of a move to be undertaken soon." One Senator said he would "make it his business to find out." If he ever did, he kept what he learned to himself.
The mystery is why Washington should have been surprised, when there was reason to believe from intelligence reports that an attack might be in preparation. Admiral Hillenkoetter told the Committee that the duties of his agency "did not, in his view, include evaluation of the information it passed on." This bit of information turned up two months later, in August, in the story announcing his replacement as chief of intelligence.
If it was not Admiral Hillenkoetter's job to evaluate this information—to say, "Look, this might mean an attack is coming"—then whose job was it? Primarily, one supposes, the Department of Defense. But the Pentagon is a big place, and its military responsibilities covered a wide area, from occupied Germany in the West to occupied Japan in the East. If war broke out in Korea, at the very threshold of occupied Japan, threatening the peace of the Pacific, the task of coping with the military consequences would rest with MacArthur in Tokyo.
If MacArthur Headquarters in Tokyo evaluated this intelligence as important, that evaluation would have alerted Washington. If MacArthur Headquarters brushed it off as unreliable or unimportant, no subordinate official in Washington would dare insist that it might mean war. And, if Washington disagreed with MacArthur's evaluation, he was not one to keep his light hidden under a bushel. Every publicity device from well-timed unofficial "leaks" to full-dress interviews was constantly being utilized by MacArthur Headquarters to get its point of view across.
Korea was not occupied territory—but neither was Formosa, yet for months the danger of a Red attack on Formosa had been a constant theme at Tokyo Headquarters. Headlines like "REDS MASS FOR WAR ON 38TH PARALLEL" would have been easy to evoke in the American press. It was not necessary to wait for the capture of a North Korean timetable. The mere possibility would have been enough. The absence of inspired press reports out of Tokyo warning of possible Communist aggression in Korea was all the more puzzling because it was so out of keeping with MacArthur's character and usual mode of operation.CHAPTER 2
The Silence of Seoul
Whatever the situation in Washington or Tokyo, it cannot be said that Seoul, capital of South Korea, was caught completely unawares. On the contrary, the South Korean government, though also strangely silent in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the war, had been expecting trouble. Early in May, President Syngman Rhee had made an appeal for combat planes saying, "May and June may be the crucial period in the life of our nation." On May 10, Captain Sihn Sung Mo, Defense Minister of South Korea, had held a press conference at Seoul in which he stated "that North Korean troops were moving in force toward the 38th Parallel and that there was imminent danger of invasion from the North." Robert T. Oliver, an American adviser of Rhee's, had made an appeal for planes for South Korea in the June 9 issue of a publication called Periscope on Asia, warning that "unless the decision is 'yes,' and unless the planes are sent promptly, the next Soviet advance in Asia could be down the Korean peninsula."
"Why did the South Koreans do badly at the beginning?" John Gunther asks in his book on MacArthur, a book which embodies the official version of Tokyo Headquarters. "They were taken by surprise, and were miserably short of arms." The surprise is questionable and the inadequacy of their equipment was no secret. The day after the war started, the New York Herald Tribune correspondent at Tokyo filed a dispatch on the lack of equipment in the South Korean forces. Its transmission was inexplicably delayed and it was not published until four days later. "Only last month," he reported, "Brigadier General William L. Roberts, then head of the American military mission to South Korea, urged American-supplied airpower for South Korea and spoke of danger if it should not be forthcoming." General Roberts was not subject to MacArthur. No similar warning came out of Tokyo Headquarters.
It is true that on June 27, two days after fighting began, the United Nations Commission cabled the Security Council that the South Koreans "were taken completely by surprise as they had no reason to believe from intelligence sources that invasion was imminent." In the light of information already in the possession of the Commission but not made public until almost three months later, this was untrue.
On September 14, the Commission made public a report which showed that on several occasions officials of the South Korean government had discussed with the Commission signs that the North was preparing for an invasion. The first occasion was in January, 1950, when the Chief of Staff of the South Korean army "informed the committee that he believed the aggressive plans of the North Korean authorities to be mature, and that it was only a matter of time before they would be put into action." He supplied detailed intelligence figures, which are given in the report. The second occasion was a month later when the Chief of Staff "stated that the North Korean forces possessed more powerful and more numerous artillery weapons than did the Army of the Republic of Korea," and gave figures on the increase in the number of tanks, armored cars, and planes on the Northern side. The next occasion was in May when "the attention of the commission" was drawn to a statement made by the South Korean Defense Minister at a press conference on May 10, at which he declared "that North Korean troops were moving in force toward the 38th Parallel and that there was imminent danger of invasion from the North."
The Commission arranged for a meeting with the Foreign Minister "to ask for information on the seriousness of the danger and the degree of imminence of the invasion, as envisaged by the Defense Minister." A private hearing was held by the Commission at which the Acting South Korean Deputy Chief of Staff and the chief of intelligence of the South Korean army gave "important and detailed information," which indicated an extensive buildup of forces and equipment on the 38th Parallel.
After the hearing, members "informally heard" from two officers on the staff of General William L. Roberts, chief of the United States Military Advisory Group to the South Korean army. These officers "substantially confirmed the information given by the Korean military authorities" but "did not, however, agree on the imminence of any danger and again expressed confidence in the ability of the Army of the Republic to handle the forces of the Northern regime in case of attack." The hearing was on May 12. The war broke out on June 25, less than six weeks later. It is difficult to reconcile this information made public on September 14 with the earlier statement in the UN Commission cable of June 27 that the South Koreans "had no reason to believe from intelligence sources that invasion was imminent."
Another UN Commission document little noticed at the time also makes it hard to understand the Commission's insistence that the attack was a complete surprise. This appears as Document No. 14 in the State Department's White Paper on Korea. It was not transmitted to the United Nations Security Council until June 29 but it was dated June 24, the day before the fighting began. The heading is significant: "Following report dated 24 June from United Nations field observers submitted to Commission on their return from field trip along 38th Parallel commencing 9 June to report developments likely to involve military conflict is forwarded for information."
In view of the warnings by South Korean authorities in May and the intelligence reports later furnished by Admiral Hillenkoetter in Washington, it would seem to have been a good precaution to send out field observers "to report developments likely to involve military conflict." But again it is difficult to reconcile the sending out of observers for this purpose from June 9 to June 24 with the view that there was "no reason to believe from intelligence sources that invasion was imminent."
Excerpted from The Hidden History of the Korean War by I. F. Stone. Copyright © 1952 I. F. Stone. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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