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Testing the Chinese

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Biewen: Is it the case that the original goal of the U.S. when it entered the war - was it basically just to defend South Korea or was the ultimate mission an open question?

Stueck: The defined mission initially was simply to defend South Korea.

Biewen: So that represented a real change when the decision came to cross the 38th parallel [after the Inchon landing] and head further north.

Stueck: It was a change but it was a change that had been considered since early, mid-July [of 1950]. So it was not something that was done strictly on the spur of the moment. But certainly the fact that the Inchon landing had been such a striking success was important in the decision to move forward, because it made a campaign in North Korea look easy. It looked as if the United States and South Korea under the U.N. banner could mop up the remaining North Korean forces without much difficulty. Now, there was concern about a Soviet or a Chinese entry if we did that - although the concern was greater of a Soviet entry than of a Chinese entry simply because the Soviet Union was stronger than China and there was a certain disrespect for Chinese power at the time.

In any event, the Chinese and the Soviets did not immediately, after Inchon, indicate that they would intervene if the Americans crossed the 38th parallel. Had they done so, I think there's a good chance that the Americans would have stopped. In fact, the orders that went out to General Douglas MacArthur on September 27th of 1950 stated he could cross the 38th parallel assuming that no Soviet or Chinese not intervened or even announced an intention to intervene. It was not until Oct 2nd…that the Chinese made an explicit threat that they would intervene if non-Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel. And by that time the momentum to move across was so great that the Chinese threat was not sufficient to stop it.

There was a lot of pressure at home on the administration. There was a congressional election coming up in November and the administration was under attack for the weakness of its policy in East Asia. And with the euphoria that existed in the aftermath of the Inchon landing, it would have been very difficult for the administration to call a halt to a move across the 38th parallel. It could have been done but there would have been a domestic political cost.

Biewen: I've interviewed some veterans who were at the Chosin Reservoir, for example, and we know what happened. They were basically overrun and turned and went back in the other direction. How does that particular event rank among the debacles of U.S. military history?

Stueck: It ranks quite high. There is nothing comparable to that with regard to Vietnam, essentially the routing of American forces. Certainly the retreat by American forces after their intervention in July of 1950 from an area within 50 miles of the 38th parallel all the way back to the Pusan perimeter - 150 to 200 miles southward, that would be something, I suppose, comparable.

But the thing about the initial engagements with the Chinese and their big counter-offensive in November and December is that it was very much related to errors in command by MacArthur. Dean Acheson, who was Secretary of State at the time, when he wrote his memoirs in the late '60s, remarked that had the Truman administration stopped MacArthur and not permitted him to initiate his so-called 'home by Christmas' offensive in late November of 1950 that the administration would have faced all kinds of criticism and anger at home, but in the end MacArthur's reputation as a military commander would have been a lot higher. Not only had he overextended his forces, he had divided his forces, east and west, with a mountain range in between them so they couldn't reinforce each other. So it certainly is a major black mark on MacArthur's military record.

Next: Choosing Restraint

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