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David and Goliath

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Then after, it was quite extraordinary when the Chinese intervened because they were so incredibly successful. That was really one of the most amazing military moments in U.S. history. The worst defeat of the U.S. Marine Corps ever was in late 1950 in North Korea. The Chinese, with very inferior weapons, hardly any adequate clothing and boots, were nonetheless coming in and decisively defeating the Americans and pushing them out of the northern part of the peninsula.

Biewen: I don't think this is a piece of Cold War History that most Americans know about.

Weathersby: Which is really unfortunate because it's extremely prominent in the consciousness of Chinese, and certainly of the Koreans as well. But in the Chinese and as we look at relations between the U.S. and China right now we really need to understand the legacy of the Korean War. That so shapes the Chinese.

For the Chinese this was a moment of extraordinary national pride. Here China had been so humiliated for the last 200 years, by the British, by all the Westerners, by the Americans. Ah, we've stood up. We've fought the strongest power in the Western world and we've beat them. We've pushed them back. It was a very, very powerful experience for the Chinese.

Biewen: So in the same way, I suppose, that the Americans who feel this way, who look at the Korean War as a success, that we saved South Korea from North Korea, the Chinese would look at it in a mirror image.

Weathersby: Even more so on the part of the Chinese because they were the underdog. It was David slaying Goliath. To Stalin this was quite a remarkable turn of events. So by the end of 1951 his terrible gut level fear of war with the U.S. seemed to be easing up. Well, geez, if the junior partners, the Chinese, who hardly have anything to fight with, if they're defeating them maybe the Americans are not so fearsome.

So we know from Romanian archives now that he called a meeting of the East European leaders, party and government leaders in January of '51 right after this, at the height of the Chinese advance. And he told them to start preparing, building up their military forces. Now, he did not tell them, build up your military forces because we're going to attack Western Europe and take over France. What he said was, we need to be prepared for an attack on Eastern Europe. And he said, interestingly enough, we have a 3-year window of opportunity. The war did go in fact for 3 years. I don't know how he managed to forecast that so accurately but he said the Americans are going to be tied down in Asia, they're not going to be able to engage in adventures in Europe, so this is our opportunity. We need to devote our resources to building up our military strength. Now that's, as I said, a far cry from saying let's plan to take over powers, but nonetheless it was a clear reaction to a new opportunity that the war in Korea appeared to provide to the Soviet side that maybe we can challenge the Americans. Let's put all of our efforts into it.

Now, as we know, the Americans rallied in the spring of '51 and so they held the line. And the Chinese were not able to completely push the Americans off the peninsula but they did push them back down more or less to the starting point along the 38th parallel, which was quite a stunning accomplishment.

Next: The Stalemate

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