The Korean War, a.k.a. the "Unknown War," was, in fact, headline news at the time it was being fought(1950-53). Given the Cold War hatreds of the combatants, though, a great deal of the reportage was propaganda, and much of what should have been told was never told.
News of the worst atrocities perpetrated against civilians was routinely suppressed and the full story of the horrific suffering of the Korean people---who lost 3-million souls of a total population of 23-million--- has yet to be told in full. Filling in many of the blank spaces is Bruce Cumings, chair of the Department of History at the University of Chicago, whose book "The Korean War"( Modern Library Chronicles) takes an objective look at the conflict.
In one review, Publishers Weekly says, "In this devastating work he shows how little the U.S. knew about who it was fighting, why it was fighting, and even how it was fighting. Though the North Koreans had a reputation for viciousness, according to Cumings, U.S. soldiers actually engaged in more civilian massacres. This included dropping over half a million tons of bombs and thousands of tons of napalm, more than was loosed on the entire Pacific theater in World War II, almost indiscriminately. The review goes on to say, "Cumings deftly reveals how Korea was a clear precursor to Vietnam: a divided country, fighting a long anti-colonial war with a committed and underestimated enemy; enter the U.S., efforts go poorly, disillusionment spreads among soldiers, and lies are told at top levels in an attempt to ignore or obfuscate a relentless stream of bad news. For those who like their truth unvarnished, Cumings's history will be a fresh, welcome take on events that seemed to have long been settled."
Interviewed by Lawrence Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, producers of Comcast's "Books of Our Time" on Sunday, March 20 th , Cumings said U.S. coverage of the war was badly slanted. Hanson Baldwin, the military correspondent for The New York Times, described "North Koreans as locusts, like Nazis, like vermin, who come shrieking on. I mean, this is really hard stuff to read in an era when you don't get away with that kind of thinking anymore." Cumings adds, "Rapes were extremely common. Koreans in the South will still say that that was one of the worst things of the war (was how)many American soldiers were raping Korean women."
Cumings said he was able to draw upon a lot of South Korean research that has come out since the nation democratized in the 1990s about the massacres of Korean civilians. This has been the subject of painstaking research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Seoul and Cumings describes the results as "horrific." Atrocities by "our side, the South Koreans (ran) six to one ahead of the North Koreans in terms of killing civilians, whereas most Americans would think North Koreans would just as soon kill a civilian to look at him." The numbers of civilians killed in South Korea by the government, Cumings said, even dwarfed Spaniards murdered by dictator Francisco Franco, the general who overthrew the Madrid government in the 1936-1939 civil war. Cumings said about 100,000 South Koreans were killed in political violence between 1945 and 1950 and perhaps as many as 200,000 more were killed during the early months of the war. This compares to about 200,000 civilians put to death in Spain in Franco's political massacres. In all, Korea suffered 3 million civilian dead during the 1950-53 war, more killed than the 2.7 million Japan suffered during all of World War II.
One of the worst atrocities was perpetrated by the South Korean police at the small city of Tae Jun. They executed 7,000 political prisoners while Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military officials looked on, Cumings said. To compound the crime, the Pentagon blamed the atrocity on the Communists, Cumings said. "The Joint Chiefs of Staff classified the photographs of it because they make it clear who's doing it, and they don't let the photographs out until 1999 when a Korean finally got them declassified." To top that off, the historian says, "the Pentagon did a video movie called ' Crime of Korea' where you see shots of pits that go on for like a football field, pit after pit of dead people, and (actor) Humphrey Bogart in a voice-over says, 'someday the Communists will pay for this, someday we'll get the full totals and believe me we'll get the exact, accurate totals of the people murdered here and we will make these war criminals pay.' Now this is a complete reversal of black and white, done as a matter of policy." Cumings adds that these events represent "a very deep American responsibility for the regime that we promoted, really more than any other in East Asia (and that) was our creation in the late Forties." Other atrocities, such as the one at No Gun village, Cumings terms "an American massacre of women and children," which he lays at the feet of the U.S. military.
Initially, reporters from U.S. magazines' "Look," "Saturday Evening Post," "Collier's," and "Life," could report on anything they saw, the historian said. They reported that "the troops are shooting civilians, the South Korean police are awful, they're opening up pits and putting hundreds of people in them. This is all true." Within six months, though, U.S. reporters were muzzled by censors, meaning, "you can't say anything bad about our South Korean ally. Even if you see them blowing an old lady's head apart, you can't say that." Even though his writings on Korea years after the war ended were not censored, New York Times reporter David Halberstam wrote a book on the Korean War ( The Coldest Winter") in which "he doesn't mention the bombing of the North (and) mentions the three-year U.S. occupation of South Korea in one sentence, without giving it any significance," Cumings said. Besides rape, the Pentagon was firebombing North Korean cities more intensively than any of those it firebombed during World War II. Where it was typical for U.S. bombing to destroy between 40 and 50 percent of a city in that war, the destruction rate in North Korea was much higher: Shin Eui Ju, on the Chinese border, 95 percent destroyed; Pyongyang, 85 percent; and Hamhung, an industrial city, 80 percent."By the end of 1951, there weren't many bombing targets left in North Korea."
Cumings believed that Douglas MacArthur, the General who commanded U.S. forces in Korea was prejudiced against Asians and badly underestimated their fighting capabilities. On the day the North Koreans invaded the South in force on June 25, 1950, MacArthur boasted, according to Cumings, "'I can beat these guys with one hand tied behind my back' and within a week he wants a bunch of divisions, and within a month he's got almost all of the trained American combat forces in the world either in Korea or on their way to Korea." MacArthur's slight of the fighting trim of North Korean units was shared by other high American officials. "(John Foster) Dulles, (then U.S. delegate to the United Nations) even says things like, 'They must put dope into these guys (because) I don't know how they can fight so fanatically.'" Cumings goes on to explain, the North Korean soldiers "had three or four years of fighting in the Chinese Civil War (for the Communists), so they were crack troops, and our intelligence knew about these people but completely underestimated them, and a lot of Americans got killed because they underestimated them." Again, when the CIA had warned MacArthur that 200,000 Chinese troops were crossing the border into North Korea, MacArthur said, "I'll take care of it, don't worry about it, Chinamen can't fight." However, the Chinese routed U.S. forces, clearing them out of Korea in two weeks. "Sometimes I wonder why the world isn't worse off than it is," the historian reflected, "because people make such unbelievably stupid decisions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (based) on stupid biases."
The U.S. use of air power to inflict widespread devastation had a profound impact on future North Korean military practice. To escape the rain of death the North Korean military---starting at the time of the Korean War---built 15,000 underground facilities, putting whole factories, dormitories, and even airfields underground. "So you have jets flying into the side of mountains," Cumings says, as well as 1 million men and women under arms in a nation of 24 million---so that one in every 24 people is in the military. The U.S. military believes the North Koreans have built their nuclear weapons facilities underground---plural, that is, as it is possible they have one or two backups if a facility is destroyed by an enemy attack. While the U.S. today is concerned that North Korea is developing the means to deliver a nuclear weapon, Cummings said the country "has been under nuclear threat since the Korean War. "Our war plans, for decades, called for using nuclear weapons very early in a new war. That's one reason there hasn't been a new war," Cumings said. The armistice that terminated the peninsular war banned the introduction of new and different quality weapons into the region but the U.S. in violation of the pact inserted nuclear-tipped "Honest John" missiles into Korea in 1958. "They said, 'Well, they're (always) bringing in new MiGs and everything, so we can do this.' But to go from conventional weapons to nuclear weapons essentially obliterated the article of the (armistice,) Cumings said. The U.S. has relied so heavily on nuclear deterrent in Korea that one retired general said it has reached a point where "the South Korean army doesn't think it has to fight in a new war because we're going to wipe out the North Koreans," Cumings continued.