A Brief History of Modern East Asia

 

East Asia had an eventful and turbulent history over the last century.  With two World Wars, the fallout of imperialism, the rise of communism, and a series of deadly civil wars her historical trajectory has been anything but stable.  Looking at nations such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea we see the impact of these various conflicts and factors, as well as contrasting roads to independence and modernity.  Japan was the first to modernize and became the dominant power in the region until her defeat and ruin in “World War 2” only to be rebuilt as an economic powerhouse in the second half of the 20th Century.  China suffered decades of civil war, western exploitation and Japanese imperialism, the evils of Maoism but then managed to reform economically to the point she is arguably America’s greatest rival.  Taiwan enjoyed a mixed existence under Japanese occupation for 50 years followed by martial law, and “Cold War” angst, but eventually emerged as a much freer and richer society than mainland China.  Korea and Vietnam were subjected to imperialism, civil war and superpower proxy contests yet otherwise suffered two significantly different fates.  However, while East Asia’s major wars seem long ago there is much unfinished business and current issues that make the region potentially volatile. 

Japan

Japan’s last century has been remarkable, impressive and controversial.  When Commodore Perry sailed his modern American warships into Tokyo bay in 1853 Japan was a feudal, technologically backwards state compared to the Western powers.  However, thanks to hard work and brilliant planning Japan’s Meiji leaders managed to more or less catch up to the West in a bit over a generation.  Modern industry, armed might, infrastructure and education quickly sprung up around Japan and eventually produced some unexpected developments.

Japan’s decisive defeat of China in the “First Sino-Japanese War” of 1894-95 surprised the Europeans and Chinese.  Meanwhile Japan’s eventual but still impressive defeat of Russia in the “Russo-Japanese War” of 1904-05 shocked everyone and given that an Asian power had decisively defeated a Western power at the height of European imperialism suggested to all that Japan had joined the club of great nations.  Japan’s annexations of Taiwan, Korea, and various Chinese and Pacific territories from 1895 to Manchuria in 1931 provided further impetus for Japanese expansion.  Meanwhile American and European worries about the Great Depression and German militarism meant Japan’s increasing aggression in the Far East went unchecked.

However, Japan’s continuing arrogant and heavy handed behaviour in China inevitably led to the break out of the “Second Sino-Japanese War” in July 1937.  Japan had not expected war but assumed she could defeat China quickly.  This optimism inevitably faded as Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese people refused to admit defeat despite the loss of countless soldiers, the Japanese occupation of the coastal and industrial heartland of China, and the limited prospect of foreign powers coming to China’s aid.  Yet as time went on Germany overran much of Europe, and with Japan doing the same to China, and committing unspeakable crimes like the “Rape of Nanking,” America woke up to the growing threat of Germany and Japan.

Eventually Japan went a nation too far by annexing French Indochina and this led to America’s oil embargo, Pearl Harbor and war.  Unfortunately for Japan her imaginary superior martial qualities and fanaticism did not defeat American industry, technology and nuclear weapons.  By mid-1945 Japan’s navy was sunk, her air force decimated, her people starving and her cities reduced to ash.  After Japan’s surrender American forces occupied Japan and a new saga for the island nation began.  What would become of Japan’s extensive empire which included much of China, Taiwan, all of Vietnam, Korea and great swaths of Asia and the Pacific would be determined by anti-colonialism, communism and super power rivalry.

Yet ironically Japan benefited more from the postwar era than her former imperial possessions.  American occupation brought money, stability, democracy and freedoms, open markets and the encouragement to concentrate on economic potential in lieu of samurai militarism.  This along with traditional Japanese work ethic, and economic booms from the Korean and Vietnamese wars, helped Japan along her path to near economic superpower status (only recently has China overlapped Japan to become the 2nd economic power of the world).

Versus the Meiji period until 1945 which saw the worst vestiges of Japanese militarism and imperialism the postwar period has benefited not only Japan but the region and world via Japanese culture, trade, and stability.  However, despite such success Japan’s role in modern Asia is not without controversy.  Japan’s halfhearted apologies and efforts to compensate for “World War 2” have not brought closure to the legacy of Japanese imperialism or brought harmony regarding relations with her East Asian neighbours.  Certainly the rise of right wing nationalists and educational curriculum that either downplay, or ignore, the horrific nature of Japanese imperialism and war crimes, or even portray Japan as the victim in “World War 2,” has done nothing to help Japan’s diplomatic position in East Asia.  This can be contrasted with Germany’s laudable efforts since 1945 which have done much to sooth Europe and bring her into the fold of the European community while Japan seems destined for some time to be at the periphery of East Asian affairs. 

Korea

Traditionally Korea was a tributary state of China.  Yet after the “First Sino-Japanese War” Japan wrestled Chinese influence away but then had to deal with Tsarist Russian influence permeating there.  When Russia failed to compromise with Japan over Korea and Manchuria the two nations went to war which led to the decisive victory of Japan in 1905.

This knocked Russia out of major influence for East Asia for four decades and gave Japan the dominant role in the region.  A few years after the “Russo-Japanese War” Japan annexed Korea which remained a Japanese possession until 1945.  Japanese rule was harsh, exploitive and cared little about Korean culture, freedoms or livelihood.  Having secured Korea from Russian and Chinese influence Japan exploited her position in Korea to eventually invade Manchuria and then expand war into China in 1931 and 1937 respectively.

Korea’s postwar fate was decided at the Tehran conference when America essentially bribed the Soviet Union into entering the war against Japan a few months after the defeat of Germany by promising territory and perks in East Asia.  Russia’s brief role in the war in the Far East was to invade Manchuria, and Korea, to defeat the considerable Japanese forces stationed there.  This had the desired effects of weakening Japan, and along with the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced Japan to surrender in August 1945.  

The division of Korea in 1945 was not made by statesmen or generals but junior American officials in the field.  On their own initiatives they suggested to the Soviets they should divide the occupation of Korea at the 38th parallel and remarkably the Soviets agreed and stopped there considering they could easily have proceeded south and conquered more of the peninsula before significant American forces arrived.  For the next 5 years abortive attempts were made to unify the nation but the northern communist part and the authoritarian southern one could not agree and thus Korea remained divided.

Within 5 years the Soviets had strongly rearmed North Korea while the Americans neglected the South’s armed forces.  With Stalin and Mao, who had just came to power in China, gambling that America would do nothing North Korea was encouraged to reunify the Korean peninsula by force.  Yet surprisingly, even to American officials and allies, Truman decided to make a stand for South Korea and so the “Korean War” started in June 1950 and lasted three years.

Despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century the Korean conflict was actually more bloody and dirty than the “Vietnam War” and closer to starting superpower conflict and nuclear war once China intervened.  However, in the end, despite the see saw battles that went up and down the peninsula for the first year the war ended in stalemate near the 38th Parallel.  Both sides claimed victory; America for saving South Korea, China for saving North Korea, but at the time it was not really a win for anyone (especially the bombed out, suffering Koreans).

Yet in the long term the war obviously benefitted South Korea and America more than North Korea and China.  Within a few decades the South threw off the yoke of oppression and stagnation and moved towards democracy and economic prosperity while the supposed communist utopia continued onwards to the path of Stalinism, poverty and decline.  America gained credibility by coming to South Korea’s defense while Mao’s China was labelled a rogue state for a generation.

Looking at Korea today no objective person would conclude the Orwellian rogue state with nukes in the North is a better nation, or has a better way of life, than her democratic and prosperous neighbour to the south.  However, the unfinished business and legacy of the “Korean War” and the potential, if unlikely, prospect of nuclear war in East Asia are constant reminders that more than 100 years after the “Russo-Japanese War” Korea is still a major flashpoint for the world’s great powers.  On one hand North Korea with nukes is really no less dangerous than Stalinist Russia or Maoist China but certainly the North Korean armed forces could inflict widespread damage and death on South Korea.  However, the supposedly crazy leaders of North Korea have rarely been true believers of spreading communism and have no death wish to fight America to the death.  Rather they often use their only trump card, nuclear weapons, to gain economic and political concessions from other nations, and provoke the West and their allies to threaten the regime in Pyongyang just enough so that it can justify its cruel military dictatorship over its starving and oppressed people.  Frankly it is the same routine Arab despots and monarchs use rather than attempting democratizing and reform but unlike them North Korea has nukes and thus world opinion usually listens when in reality she is a paper tiger.

Since the war ended in 1953 North Korea has done some missile launches, and made bombastic speeches, but besides shelling a few islands has never really come close to going to war with South Korea and America.  Whatever the cost for the latter, a war would hurt North Korea much more and the regime’s leadership would gain nothing in potential aid, and concessions, and arguably cease to exist at the end of hostilities.  Thus it makes sense for Pyongyang to sabre rattle once in a while to remind the world of her existence but pull back from the brink before warfare which would destroy her.  However, admittedly one poor miscalculation on either side, or the actions of a crazy warmonger in North Korea, could destroy this balance and ignite a devastating war in the Far East.

Vietnam

Perhaps Vietnam’s modern history is the most controversial regarding East Asia.  Vietnam was conquered by France and absorbed into French Indochina in the 19th Century.  Before this, Vietnam had traditionally been a tribute state of China and had often combatted Chinese attempts at dominating the Vietnamese peninsula.  Either way French colonial rule was typically exploitive, cruel and benefited few Vietnamese.  The exception were some Vietnamese that were cultivated to help the French rule and many of these were sent oversees to France for education.  This included Ho Chi Minh and ironically rather than cementing French rule the exposure to French education and the ideas of freedom, equality and liberalism, as well as the exposure to communist ideology, created a small cadres of Vietnamese committed to overthrowing French colonial rule.

Initially these forces had little success and had to operate underground until the Fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent Japanese penetration into, and ultimate annexation of, French Indochina.  Calling themselves the Viet Minh these communist forces used the decline of French power and Japanese oppression to expand their base and mobilize people to their causes.  Much like Mao’s Communists in China they did not do much fighting to hurt the Japanese in “World War 2” but they did gain enough strength to give them a position of strength by the time war ended in 1945.  After Japan surrendered Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North part of Vietnam, while British forces occupied the South, as the Viet Minh tried to declare Vietnamese independence, and established their own government, before the French returned to reclaim their erstwhile colony.

However, the French returned in force and after futile negotiations war broke out between the French and the Vietminh in late 1946.  What could have remained a limited conflict became a proxy war in the “Cold War” for two reasons.  Firstly, the rise of the PRC in 1949 (a friendly communist neighbour to the north) benefited the Vietminh massively regarding aid, weapons and safe zones which allowed them to not only survive French armed force but eventually produce their own regular army to fight them head on.  Secondly, despite America’s initial wish to destroy colonialism after 1945 the Americans eventually backed the French efforts in Vietnam due to their increasing fears of communism.  Often this is viewed cynically but given that between 1945-1950 there were communist insurgencies in Greece, Malaya, the Philippines, that the CCP triumphed in China and that there was communist backed forces fighting in Korea and Vietnam suggests there were legitimate reasons for America to fear the growth of communism.

Thus Chinese aid allowed the Vietminh to survive and then build up their forces to successfully fight the French while American aid allowed the French to continue their doomed empire in Vietnam for another decade.  In the end the French killed more Vietnamese but never won over the populace or defeated the Vietminh politically, or militarily, and after the Vietminh won the unexpected victory at “Dien Bien Phu” France’s political will to continue the war collapsed and she sued for peace.

Yet rather than securing all of Vietnam due to their victory, the Viet Minh had to accept the division of the country (like Korea) between the communist dominated North and a more pro-west, American leaning, but still authoritarian southern regime.  In all the drama, and poison of the battle of history regarding the ensuing “Vietnam War” it is often forgotten that while North Vietnam being more rural, agrarian, and pro-communist the South was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned towards the West.  Communist sympathizers and others suggest the South was just as pro-communist as the North, but numbers and events do not bear this out.

For instance, during the “French Indochina War” the vast majority of the Viet Minh bases, recruits and sympathy were in the North while few of these, and none of the main battles, were in the South.  Additionally, after the 1954 agreement at least a million inhabitants fled from the North versus perhaps a tenth of this number from the South who emigrated the other way.  Then there is the fact that when well led, equipped and motivated the South Vietnamese army did well and resisted the communist forces against her.  In 1968 it helped American forces fight off the “Tet Offensive,” in 1972 it fought off the Easter Offensive and even in 1975 it fought well despite America abandoning her.  After 1975 two million Southern Vietnamese refugees fled the country and many experts believe that near the end of the war less than 30% of the South’s population welcomed communism.  All of this illustrates that Vietnam was more than a proxy war between America on one hand and Russia with China on the other; it was also a bitter civil war.

Either way after the division of Vietnam in 1954 the promised elections and attempts to unify the nation (again like Korea) never happened and thus both sides inevitably drew closer towards war.  With France gone America continued to support South Vietnam and her corrupt, authoritarian regime, hoping it would improve while the North Vietnamese grew tired of waiting and eventually supported communist insurgents in Southern Vietnam (the Viet Cong).  Unfortunately, while the South Vietnamese generally did not support communism their government in Saigon was admittedly more corrupt, less motivated and not as determined to prosecute a do or die struggle compared to the Communist North.  

During the next decade the North would continue to support the Vietcong with arms, supplies, recruits and even NVA Army units (always violating Cambodian and Laotian neutrality) and by the mid-1960s the South was clearly losing the battle against communism.  Much ink had been spilt about American objectives, methods and failures in Vietnam but the war was not an aggressive war against Vietnam or even North Vietnam.  Rather, much like Korea and Taiwan, America was invited by a government with a mostly anti-communist population to save her from communist aggression.  Whatever rights and wrongs of the conflict, America’s objectives were strategically defensive to prop up an ally and never to rollback communism in North Vietnam.

Yet if American goals were mostly noble her execution of the war was less so.  While North Vietnamese excesses were generally worse than that of America (not to mention grossly forgotten by many histories of the conflict) there is no doubt that American reliance of firepower, strategic bombing, head counts and conventional military sweeps did result in disproportionate collateral damage, civilian losses and frankly war crimes.  It is a myth that America lost the military struggle in the war; America never lost a battle of any consequence.  However, by failing to cut off North Vietnamese aid to the Vietcong, the lack of focus on protecting the South Vietnamese population and increasing their standard of living, and the ultimate failure to support South Vietnam after America left in 1973 meant that all America’s efforts were vain in the end.  

The political, and therefore ultimate, goal of America’s war in Vietnam was to keep South Vietnam independent and non-communist.  Any way you look at it, America failed to accomplish this so she lost the war.

However, America’s loss has been overstated.  America suffered a political and diplomatic defeat by the “Vietnam War” but besides the “credibility gap” in America the effects were eventually limited.  In reality, the war hurt worldwide communism more.  During the conflict Russia and China competed more and more and even got into a brief border war which accelerated the Sino-Soviet split which Nixon used to get China into the Western camp (by far worth the loss of South Vietnam in a cold realpolitik sense).  More ironic was the war between Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s, and the war between Vietnam and China in 1979 (all between communist states who had supported each other during the war).  Thus the “Vietnam War” not only corrected relations between America and China but helped divide world communism.

The long term effects are harder to articulate but it is interesting that in modern times Vietnam is not growing closer to China but to America which again suggests that whatever the latter’s flaws she is often seen as more benign, or less intrusive, than strong powers in Asia like Russia, Japan, and China.  It should be remembered that while Vietnam’s conflict with America occurred over a few decades the Vietnamese determination to resist Chinese hegemony has been an ongoing theme for centuries.

As for Vietnam herself it has to be admitted that unlike Stalinism, Maoism, the killing fields of Cambodia and other Red unpleasantries that Vietnam’s form of communism has been less bloody and oppressive (in the long run at least) in comparison.  There are similarities to China like more openness to economic reforms and capitalism and while democracy is not seen on the horizon the people enjoy relative happiness and cohesion comparable to Tito’s former Communist Yugoslavia.  That said, the Vietnamese people do not benefit from the relative freedom, prosperity and standard of living compared to those in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan which begs the question of how South Vietnam would have turned out if America had not abandoned her but stood by her like these other nations.  

China

In a bit over a century China has gone from a divided, backwards and foreign dominated nation into perhaps the second strongest country in the world.  Meanwhile her economic growth rates and influence are growing while fears about American decline seem more and more credible given the vicissitudes of the Trump administration and the apparent moral, and cultural, decay of American society.  If the 20th Century was America’s the 21st Century may still belong to China.

With Japan’s unexpected victory in the “First Sino-Japanese War” China’s Qing Dynasty attempted some reforms to modernize its increasingly backwards nation.  However, these were often halfhearted, late in the day, and given the poor communications and divided state of China these had little positive effects by the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1911.  Ostensibly China became a republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen at this time but given that China was in reality divided into many small pieces controlled via warlords his power was limited and eventually he and his Kuomintang party (the Chinese Nationalists) were forced from power.  

The Warlord period followed as Sun Yat-sen and his acolytes attempted to gain power via alliances, force, or machinations over the next 15 years to little avail.  However, they were aided by the new communist regime in Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party who both felt they could initially ally with Sun’s Nationalist Party to first gain power in China and then expend the Nationalists later.  With Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925 his loyal, stern, and incorruptible subordinate Chiang Kai-shek won the power struggle to be his successor.  He soon convinced the Nationalists, and their CCP allies, to expand across China to defeat the warlords and unify the nation against foreign and domestic enemies via the “Northern Expedition.”

In a few years the Nationalists advanced to Wuhan, Nanking, Shanghai, and Peking, defeated or co-opted warlord factions and unified China in principle.  However, despite becoming the strongest force in China the Nationalists were beset by many problems.  Many warlord forces refused to collaborate with them, the Japanese fought Chiang in Northern China, the country was still broke and backwards, and the united front with the CCP broke down.  Admittedly, Chiang Kai-shek initiated this break with the CCP with a bloody purge in Shanghai and elsewhere but the evidence is clear that the CCP, with Moscow’s backing, were planning to betray the Nationalists eventually.

For the next decade, the “Nanking Decade,” Chiang and the Nationalists fought warlords and the CCP, appeased and sometimes fought the Japanese, sought foreign aid and recognition, and attempted to initiate widespread reforms, modernization, and industrialization in a divided nation with little stability, money, and military power.  The surprise is not that they failed often, but that they survived at all!  There were some successes such as the near destruction of the CCP by 1936, the German aid that led to some Chinese rearmament, and trappings of modernization in Chinese urban areas, but given the many domestic and foreign enemies of the Nationalists, among other issues, the circumstances were hardly ideal to modernize China, build a strong state, or improve most Chinese lives.

Perhaps Chiang’s worst foes were the CCP and the Japanese.  However, while Japan’s army was by far the strongest threat Chiang was convinced the CCP was the main enemy.  As he once remarked “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart.”  This statement would appear to be as laughable in 1936 as it would be prophetic in 1949.  

The turning point for the Nationalists and CCP was the “Second Sino-Japanese War,” often seen as the beginning of “World War 2,” which began out of mistakes, miscalculations and overreactions.  The war was long, brutal, and ultimately hurt the Nationalists as much as it saved the CCP.  China’s coastal, industrial, and urban heartland were occupied by the Japanese, millions of Chinese were killed, maimed or became refugees, and the Japanese committed unspeakable war crimes which Japan often denies to this day.

Chiang and the Nationalists until recently have received generally poor treatment by history for their conduct of the war but much of this is unfair.  It is true that the Nationalists often made poor military decisions, that their officers and soldiers were of mixed quality, and that there was plenty of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence among their war effort.  However, considering China was a divided, backwards, and poor nation without the benefit of significant foreign aid, fighting a major power this should not be surprising.

What is not true are the accusations that the Nationalists usually refused to fight the Japanese, that the CCP fought the Japanese more than the Nationalists, that America and the allies gave sufficient aid to the Nationalists, and that Chiang was not a team player in the allied war effort.  In reality, the Nationalists fought hopeless battles all the way from Shanghai to Chungking, killed the majority of Japanese soldiers in China, suffered over 90% of all militarily casualties (while the CCP generally stayed on the defensive), and even conducted campaigns to help the allies in Burma despite the latter failing to honour their commitments to Chiang via weapons, lend lease, and promised military operations.  Many histories of the war mock Chiang Kai-Shek as a parasite for lend lease, but China got less of it than all major allied powers (even the Free French) and most of what it got was not to help the Chinese but to support American forces stationed in China.  

While admittedly it was the American advance across the pacific, along with her submarines, bombers, and nukes that defeated Japan the Chinese deserve credit for never surrendering, keeping the majority of Japanese divisions in China, and holding out for more than 8 years of war (China fought in “World War 2” two years longer than Britain and four more years than Russia and America).

With the Japanese surrender in 1945 Chiang Kai-Shek had survived, and China was recognized as a great power, but the Nationalists had been severely weakened by years of warfare.  Meanwhile the CCPs, although admittedly still behind the Nationalists regarding soldiers, population, and territory, had ended the war in a much stronger position than they had enjoyed in 1937.  In the postwar race between the Nationalists and CCP to retake China’s cities from Japanese occupation the Nationalists generally won thanks to major help from American ships and airlifts.  The exception was Manchuria which the Russians had occupied in the summer of 1945 and who collaborated with the communists to take over once the former’s forces left.  Indeed the fight over Manchuria between the CCP and Nationalists would determine the outcome of the final part of the “Chinese Civil War.”

In lieu of Japan’s surrender Chiang invited Mao to Chungking for talks to potentially make peace and create a coalition government, but due to irreconcilable differences and deep rooted hostility, this failed and civil war quickly ensued.  Chiang’s forces had significant numerical and material advantages and at first his army routed the CCP and was seemingly on the brink of winning a decisive victory in Manchuria.  Unfortunately George Marshall had been sent by Truman to arrange a cease fire and American pressure halted the Nationalist’s offensive in mid-1946.  Whether or not Chiang could have beaten the CCP by solely military means is questionable but this was his best chance to do so with hindsight.

After this, the Nationalists committed themselves to occupying as much of Manchuria as possible and given the sheer distances, logistical issues, and the guerrilla tactics of the CCP, it slowly wore down Chiang’s forces until late 1948 the CCP was strong enough to begin routing the Nationalist forces and eventually overrun mainland China.  Committing to an all-out strategy to contest Manchuria would prove to be Chiang’s biggest mistake, would cost him mainland China, and is strange considering how in the past he had always known how to play a poor hand against strong opponents.  Although given the insurmountable postwar issues facing the Nationalists including rampant inflation and the cutting off of American aid in 1946, along with considerable Russian support enjoyed by the CCP, perhaps the Nationalists were doomed once war broke out anyways.

In October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and was committed to invading Taiwan (where the Nationalists had fled) the next year to finish the civil war comprehensively.  Unfortunately for Mao in the summer of 1950 Truman ordered American naval forces to defend Taiwan in lieu of the “Korean War” which saved the Nationalist regime and to this day Taiwan is independent from the mainland’s rule.

With the triumph of communism in China in 1949 Mao had fulfilled the Chinese dream that for decades hoped to unify the country and end foreign imperialism and humiliation of China.  The fact the KMT had accomplished most of this prior to their defeat in the civil war was conveniently forgotten.  Either way with indisputable power, backing from the Soviet Union, and a Chinese population eager to follow him Mao sought to modernize China, create a communist state, and reach utopia.

To his credit Mao improved infrastructure, healthcare and education, and initially enacted widespread land reform to redistribute land to China’s massive peasant population.  Had Mao been a more moderate and humane communist like Tito his legacy would probably be more positive.  However, being vindictive, zealous, and paranoid he inevitably turned what he hoped would be paradise into hell on earth.

In a series of anti-rightist campaigns Mao killed, or ruined, countless people.  The CCP’s occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang were also exceedingly bloody and repressive and to this day the Tibetans and Chinese Wiguars generally resent Beijing’s rule.  Worse of all, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and establishments of communes (which took back the land the CCP had given to the masses) not only failed to increase agriculture and industry but resulted in the deaths of 10s of millions via famine and other causes.  Estimates are controversial but up to 70 million people died from the “Great Leap Forward” but even if the number was half, or a third, as much it is still ridiculously more than either the Nationalists or Japanese inflicted on China directly or indirectly.  

After this, Mao lost some power and credibility for a few years but in a bid to comeback he initiated the “Cultural Revolution” which destroyed much of the progress that had been remade since the end of the “Great Leap Forward.”  Using his Red Guards Mao persecuted teachers, parents, intellectuals, among others and brought progress and modernization in China to a halt once more.  While the death toll was not nearly as high as during the “Great Leap Forward” Mao’s campaign was clearly not a receipt for progress or the path to becoming a great power.

Most cynically of all Mao made a de facto alliance with America in the 1970s against the Soviet Union (her communist brother).  When Mao died in 1975 he was respected as a great politician and strategist, but given his butcher bill and policies that stagnated Chinese progress, economic growth, and industrialization for a generation, he cannot be considered a great man of history.  Certainly Taiwan did much better under Chiang than mainland China did under Mao.  Had Mao’s backwards and bloody-minded policies been continued after his death, instead of the necessary reforms by Deng Xiaoping, it is clear that China would have continued to decline instead of rising to near superpower status.

Fortunately after Mao’s death, his wife and other Maoist acolytes, were expended as Deng Xiaoping came to power and sensibly opened up China’s markets and initiated economic and limited political reforms. The result being that after a generation of these changes, supported by succeeding rulers in Beijing, has not resulted in a liberal democratic, China but has at least made her the world’s second biggest economy, improved the lot of many Chinese, and made China into a great power. 

In modern times China’s economy continues to grow and the CCP still has a monopoly on power despite the Chinese being more willing to show dissent but the future remains an “undiscovered country.”  On one hand America, with a slowing economy, as well as political, social, and cultural malaise seems destined to decline unless some moral rejuvenation occurs.  On the other hand pollution, corruption, political upheaval, separatist sentiment, and demographic issues are much worse in China than America while the latter stills has advantages in immigration, innovation and freedom and it is not a given that China will eclipse America as the world’s strongest nation.  Certainly most of China’s neighbours generally still prefer American protection to Chinese hegemony and given the considerable contradictions of CCP rule it is hard to see a politically communist, but economically capitalist regime stealing the mantle of world leadership.

It is hard to predict the future but this author at least thinks China’s police state will implode before America’s very imperfect democracy.

Taiwan

Taiwan is an interesting case study.  Unlike Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and China her history has been relatively bloodless (with notable exceptions) during the past century.  Becoming a de facto Japanese possession after the “First Sino-Japanese War” Taiwan admittedly received some modernization and industrialization under their Japanese overlords (much like Manchuria after 1931).  Many Taiwanese after 1945 contrasted this with the initial heavy handed conduct of the Nationalists, especially given the “February 28th Incident,” and unsurprisingly were unhappy with the massive influx of Chinese from the mainland after Chiang’s loss in the civil war in 1949.

This, along with the Nationalists’ imposition of martial law which lasted for decades and the “White Terror” certainly warrants some pause regarding the praise of Chiang Kai-shek versus Mao.  However, it is beyond dispute that modernization, industrialization, standard of living and general freedoms were much better in Taiwan under Chiang than Maoist China.  The “White Terror,” though ultimately unforgivable, was peanuts compared to what Mao did to the mainland Chinese.

Fast forwarding to today it might be charitable to suggest that Chiang envisaged the sort of liberal prosperous democracy that is now Taiwan, but at the same time his actions paved the way towards this, especially given the later stewardship of his son, and unlike Mao there were few comparable terrible bloodbaths, famines, or pointless excesses in Taiwan versus China.

However, there is unfinished business over Taiwan due to the fact Beijing has never accepted Taiwan’s independence, the significant military and strategic boost Beijing would get via absorbing the island nation, the fact that Taiwan’s success provides an alternate model to Chinese Communism, and the American alliance with Taiwan which, real or imagined, restricts Chinese influence in East Asia.

There seems no reason given the freedom and prosperity of the Taiwanese people, along with the decline of the Nationalist party in Taiwan, to believe there will ever be a reunification with the mainland and it is just as unlikely that China will try to conquer Taiwan by force so the status quo will probably continue indefinitely.  However, mistakes, miscalculations, or the actions of a firebrand aggressive leader in Beijing could upset this and arguably result in a cross strait war that involves the United States.  

Results 

What were the ultimate results of imperialism, communism, “Cold War” rivalry, the attempts at modernization, and independence for these nations in East Asia?  

European and American imperialism initially created the colonial states of East Asia but also inadvertently pushed Japan onto her own path towards modernization and imperialism.  This, along with the rise of Soviet Russia helped create communist underground movements that gained in numbers, and power, in many Asian nations after Japan’s conquests from 1937-1942.  The costs of “World War 2” which weakened western colonial empires such as the British, French and Dutch, combined with the anti-colonial agenda of America after “World War 2,” resulted in the de facto fall of imperialism in East Asia between 1945-54.

With a power vacuum opened by the departing Europeans it became a contest between America and the Soviet Union to gain these nations for their side.  Unsurprisingly Russia, backed communist groups including Mao’s CCP in Northern China, the communist regime in North Korea, and with the fall of China to communism in 1949 the PRC and Stalin backed the Vietminh against the French and later North Vietnam against South Vietnam.  Meanwhile America effectively dominated Japan, backed the French and later indigenous regime in South Vietnam, gave mixed aid to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, but eventually saved him in Taiwan and came to South Korea’s aid after having failed to arm her effectively against her northern neighbour.  

Eventually the result were prosperous, democratic and pro-American nations in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan on one hand, and an united Communist Vietnam, Orwellian nightmare in North Korea, and politically repressive but increasing prosperous China.  At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, and western biased, a case could be made that the American backed nations have done better in terms of freedom, economic progress, and most other indicators of good governance like healthcare, happiness, and accountability.  Communism has already shown itself to be a failure compared to democracy, or even capitalism, everywhere else in the world so why would it be better in East Asia?  The life expectancy, standard of living, pollution, corruption and police state nature of the communist states compared to their democratic counterparts does not exactly promise a long term recipe for winning the battle of history. 

Against this can be mentioned the collapse of American allies like the Nationalists in China as well as South Vietnam.  The charge that the communists were more efficient, less corrupt, and more dedicated in China and Vietnam than their enemies is ultimately correct.  However, foreign aid is often a crucial difference and while American aid at least saved Taiwan, South Korea and Japan it is notable that America prematurely (or perhaps foolishly) cut all significant aid to South Vietnam after 1973 and gave little to Chiang Kai-Shek in the last years of the “Chinese Civil War.”  It goes without saying that in these cases Mao and Stalin did not hold back crucial aid for their allies.   Additionally, the usual diatribes against corruption, motivation, and supposed incompetence has not only been directed against South Vietnam, and the Nationalists in China, but also regarding the formerly authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan.  Yet with long term American backing, and the chance to rebuild and reform, these latter nations are now democratic and economical models.  It is futile to debate what could have been, but South Vietnam and Nationalist China never got the best chance to go down this road because American policy makers, along with an American public tired of war, decided to cut off aid and abandon them.

As of 2018 there are no shortages of problems plaguing East Asia:  Japan’s refusal to come clean about “World War 2,” China’s rivalry with America and her longstanding issue regarding potential Taiwanese independence, North Korean nukes and the lack of peace with South Korea, and Vietnam’s uneasy relationship with China, remain stumbling points towards more peace and collaboration in the region.  Meanwhile the unpredictable, unreasonable, and maladjusted Trump administration in America throws another complication into this potentially volatile mix.  On one hand East Asia, in modern times at least, is more peaceful and better off politically and economically since before the “Opium Wars.”  On the other hand, it could take only one crisis along with miscalculations (such as the summer of 1914 in Europe), or one firebrand and crazy leader (like Hitler in 1939), to upset the balance of power or plunge the region into war.  None of this is likely, nor would it benefit any of East Asia’s nations.  But it happened in 1914, as well as 1945, and it could happen again.

Bibliography

Beckett, Ian.  Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies.  New York:  Routledge, 2003.

Boot, Max.  Invisible Armies:  An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.  New York:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

Cowley, Robert.  What If?:  The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been.  New York:  Berkley Books, 2000.

Cumings, Bruce.  The Korean War:  A History.  New York:  Modern Library, 2010.

Freedman, Lawrence, The Cold War.  London:  Cassell, 2001.

Hane, Mikiso and Louis Perez.  Modern Japan:  A Historical Survey, 5th Edition.  Boulder:  Westview Press, 2013.

Isaacs, Jeremy and Taylor Downing.  Cold War.  London:  Abacus, 2008.

Joes, Anthony.  Resisting Rebellion:  The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency.  Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Jowett, Philip and Stephen Walsh.  The Chinese Army 1937-49:  World War 2 and Civil War.  Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2005.

Kerr, Gordon.  A Short History of the Vietnam War.  Harpenden:  Pocket Essentials, 2015.  

Lynch, Michael.  Modern China.  London:  Teach Yourself, 2006.

Mitter, Rana.  Forgotten Ally:  China’s World War 2 1937-1945.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013.

Moran, Daniel.  Wars of National Liberation.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Murphey, Rhoads.  East Asia:  A New History 5th edition.  Upper Saddle River:  Longman, 2010.

Pipes, Richard.  Communism.  Toronto:  Modern Library, 2003.

Summers, Harry.  American Strategy in Vietnam:  A Critical Analysis.  Mineola:  Dover Publications, 2007.

Taylor, Jay.  The Generalissimo:  Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.  Cambridge:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Wiest, Andrew.  Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2006.

Windrow, Martin.  The French Indochina War.  Oxford:  Osprey, 1998.

A Brief History on the First Year of the “Korean War”

The “Korean War” never really ended. North and South Korea did not make peace and the rogue North Korean regime which has nuclear weapons, and a massive army, continuously engages in sabre rattling and provocations even nearly 70 years after the conflict ended. As volatile as the situation seems now it was much worse in 1950-1953 when civil war between both Koreas pulled in America and China and arguably could have unleashed nuclear war. What was suppose to be a quick conflict became America’s first major war of the “Cold War” and saw dramatic advances and retreats, major victories and setbacks, and ultimately stalemate within a single year. However, despite its forgotten status and indecisive ending the “Korean War” arguably had a better legacy than most of America’s major wars of the 20th Century.

Korea is like the Poland of East Asia being sandwiched between great nations which have historically wanted to occupy it either as a buffer zone, or launch pad, against enemy states. The Mongolians tried to invade Japan from Korea, China and Japan went to war over Korea in 1894-1895, Japan and Russia did the same in 1904-1905, and Mao was motivated to intervene in late 1950 during the “Korean War” when American forces approached the Yalu River. From 1910 to 1945 Korea was a de-facto colonial possession of the Japan which used it to support her occupation of Manchuria in 1931, her brutal war of conquest against China from 1937-1945 and skirmishes against the Soviet Union.

Korea’s fate after “World War 2” was settled at the “Yalta Conference” in early 1945 where America offered the Soviet Union many enticements in the Far East to join the War against Japan which the former assumed would last a few years. America would continue the island hopping campaign across the Pacific to Japan as well as intensify its firebombing campaign against Japanese cities and naval blockade to starve the Japanese islands of food and resources. Meanwhile the Russians would attack the Japanese in Manchuria and advance down the Korean Peninsula to further tighten the stranglehold around Japan.

The Soviets invaded Manchuria and crushed the Japanese army there but Japan was forced to surrender unexpectedly via the late development of nuclear weapons which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 as the Soviet Union entered the war. With Japanese forces surrendering en masse Russia and America rushed to liberate Japanese occupied territory and it was arbitrarily agreed to split their occupational zones in Korea at the 38th parallel. As such Korea was divided at this line between what became a communist regime in North Korea backed by the Soviets and a pro-west dictatorship backed by the Americans in South Korea.

With the “Cold War” heating up in Europe, China, Vietnam and elsewhere from 1945-49 Korea was not preordained to become a major flashpoint between Communism and the West. America and the Soviet Union were concentrated on Europe and the Chinese Communist Party had just taken over China and were focused on consolidating their rule. However, the North Korean regime was obsessed with reunifying the Korean Peninsula and wanted a green light from the Soviets and Chinese to do so via military means. This was given as America seemed unlikely to fight for Korea as they had provided little military aid and resources to South Korea versus the considerable modern forces the Soviets built up in North Korea. America’s failure to include South Korea in their pacific defensive perimeter as articulated by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in early 1950 probably supported this impression. Thus the Communist Bloc gambled North Korea would swallow up her southern neighbour without serious complaint, or retribution, from America and her allies.

The “Korean War” began June 25, 1950 when the much stronger forces of North Korea invaded South Korea. The North Korean forces made quick headway against southern forces who fell back in disarray. Against Soviet expectations America joined the war to help South Korea because they did not want to give the impression America would tolerate blatant communist aggression. However, the small US forces sent initially from Japan suffered reverses against the well equipped North Korean forces and fell back as well. Soon only a small bridgehead around Pusan on South Korea’s coast was all that remained as many expected a Dunkirk like situation where American forces would retreat to Japan in defeat.

Yet things began to tell against North Korea. America quickly gained aerial supremacy and started providing close air support for allied forces as well as interdicting North Korean supplies. Additionally, the North Koreans began to suffer logistical difficulties as their lines of communication became severely stretched during their impressive advances. American and UN reinforcements also slowly trickled into what was left of South Korea to hold the line. After several close calls during aggressive North Korean attacks against the Pusan perimeter the US and South Korean forces rallied and managed to prevent what was left of South Korea from falling.

What really doomed the North Korean campaign was America’s daring amphibious assault at Inchon in September 1950. This was risky given the treacherous tides around Inchon, the fact the area was far behind enemy lines, and lack of intelligence regarding the area. However, General MacArthur’s gamble paid off as the operation went brilliantly and defeated the few local North Korean forces as most of their army was fighting around the Pusan perimeter. MacArthur remains a controversial figure in military history but he deserves credit in this case.

The results were nearly instantaneous as the North Korean forces in South Korea became cut off from support and resupply and were quickly routed while American forces liberated South Korea. Of the 130,000 North Korean soldiers who crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea only 30,000 managed to retreat to safety. At this point American and South Korean forces could have stopped at the 38th parallel and declared a ceasefire. However, the UN and American government gave MacArthur the green light to cross the border and invade North Korea.

While MacArthur is generally blamed for the subsequent Chinese intervention and expansion of the war this is not completely fair. Rather than order MacArthur to halt at the 38th parallel while they debated their options the American government and UN goaded him on. Unlike today in 1950 the 38th parallel was not an internationally recognized border and Truman and his advisors were tempted by the prospect of unifying Korea under a pro-American state and to roll back communism there. Therefore Defence Secretary George Marshall told MacArthur to be “unhampered” by moving across the de facto Border, the UN set up a commission of re-unification and re-habilitation for Korea, and South Korean forces initially crossed the 38th parallel to be followed by American forces a week later.

Meanwhile China became nervous as American forces advanced up the Korean Peninsula. While MacArthur had initially been told to only have South Korean forces near the Chinese border this was later relaxed as American officials assumed Chinese warnings about intervening in the war if allied forces kept moving north were bluffs. This would prove to be a grave miscalculation. Mao Zedong and the CCP had only just taken over China in 1949 after decades of fighting against the often western backed Chinese Nationalists as well as Japanese forces in “World War 2.” As previously noted Japan used Korea as a spring board to occupy Manchuria in 1931 and support her war against China from 1937-45. As such it is understandable that Mao was afraid not only of a potential unified Korea allied to America but that it could also potentially serve as a base for America to attack Communist China.

On the other hand Mao and the Communist Bloc were hardly innocent bystanders. The Soviet Union and Communist China had given North Korea the necessary material support and green light to invade South Korea while America had more or less forgotten South Korea to focus on Europe. North Korea and the Communist Bloc started the war and while Truman made the decision to come to South Korea’s aid there were never any American plans to expand the war into China. Admittedly MacArthur was tempted by this but there was never any real chance of America doing this as the war came as a surprise to Truman and Americans wanted the war ended as quickly and cheaply as possible. Given that America’s defence budget in 1950 was a mere tenth of what it had been in 1945 America would not have been able to seriously attack China even if she had wanted to.

In many histories of the conflict MacArthur gets a disproportionate amount of blame instead of American policymakers, and the UN, that did not adequately gauge the likely consequences of crossing the 38th parallel which obviously worried the Chinese. In the event despite China’s recent turbulent history, and wariness of Western powers, Mao’s advisors were generally against intervention in the war but he overruled them and gambled America would not escalate the war unduly if China entered the conflict. This suggests a more prescient allied policy regarding Korea and stopping at the 38th Parallel might have had a good chance of ending the war in late 1950. On the other hand since Mao was tempted to intervene in Korea even before the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel and made the decision to do so well before these forces came close to the Yalu river suggests that both sides did not do as much as they could have to avoid escalating the conflict. While Sun Tzu recommends in “The Art of War” to “know the enemy and know yourself” it is clear America and China in 1950 knew themselves but not each other, especially regarding intentions.

Either way Chinese forces, lightly equipped and mobile, mostly escaped American detection while being mobilized near the Yalu river in late 1950 and after being unleashed produced a series of reserves on American, and allied, forces and made them retreat from North Korea and much of South Korea once more. America’s mechanized forces were relatively spread out, their lines of communication stretched, and at a disadvantage in North Korea’s broken terrain while the Chinese foot borne army utilized their numerical superiority, and mobility, to exploit the terrain to often surround and ambush American forces. However, while Chinese forces deserve credit for inflicting reverses on a superior equipped and technological army the extent of the damage has often been exaggerated. Certainly battles such as “Chosin Reservoir” suggests that parts of American retreat (especially regarding American marines) were conducted with considerable skill, the Chinese took disproportionate casualties throughout this campaign and whatever defeats the US Army suffered it was never routed or lost a significant amount of prisoners. During the whole war approximately 7000 American soldiers were captured and this was a small number compared to the other major combatants as well as the total number of American soldiers who served in Korea.

Perhaps the worst American losses were political and symbolic. Not for the first time in history was it promised American forces would be home by Christmas and given North Korea collapsed in the autumn of 1950 this did not seem impossible. But China’s intervention in the war upset this expectation and as American forces fell back, and suffered significant losses, the American people were shocked. In this period MacArthur failed in his capacity; not only did he fail to foresee and prepare for Chinese intervention (having dismissed numerous intelligence reports) but his conduct of the American retreat was not stellar either as he alternated between despair and arrogance. Luckily for MacArthur Truman did not sack him as he felt American soldiers in Korea, as well as the American people, would be demoralized and lose confidence in the war effort if such a legend was fired during an ongoing battle.

Unfortunately instead of being grateful MacArthur committed one of the gravest sins a military commander can do in wartime: Publicly criticizing his political superiors’ policies. MacArthur was by all accounts an egotistical primal Donna used to getting his way and being publicly adored. At this point he forgot his place and criticized Truman for not giving him the power to expand the war against China and do measures he felt would improve the military situation. Yet whereas MacArthur’s ideas would have made sense in an expanded war against China Truman wanted to limit the war and de-escalate the conflict. Unsurprisingly America, and her allies, were not keen on starting World War 3 over Korea and disagreed with MacArthur’s suggestions. Therefore MarArthur was sacked for his impropriety and replaced by General Matthew Ridgway who had a solid military career, had done an excellent job managing the retreat of American forces, and was politically astute not to question the American government regarding policy.

In the spring of 1951 things looked bleak for America and South Korea as Chinese forces crossed the 38th parallel, took Seoul and kept advancing south. However, Communist forces suffered logistical difficulties once more as their lines of communication became stretched, America and her allies continued bringing in more manpower and resources, and Ridgway revitalized his forces. If MacArthur defeated the North Koreans by a brilliant maneuver at Inchon Ridgway would stop the Chinese cold with attrition via firepower. Chinese forces may have done well against complacent American forces that were dispersed, and at the end of their supply lines in North Korea, but the farther south they advanced the harder resistance became. The numerous but lightly armed Chinese forces soon became cannon fodder against reorganized American forces with prodigious firepower from a menagerie of armour, artillery and airpower.

Thus for the fourth time in the war an army was defeated and forced to retreat across the Korean Peninsula which became accustomed to misery, suffering and death. Ridgway, more methodical and sensible than MacArthur, moved carefully and managed to liberate Seoul and advance up to a line roughly along the 38th Parallel. There his forces dug in, consolidated and waited for an expected Chinese counter-offensive.

At this point the Chinese misread the situation as badly as MacArthur had in late 1950 and felt confident they could attack and repeat their successes of the previous autumn and winter. Unfortunately for them with a few exceptions such as the eventual over running of the brave Gloucestershire Regiment in the “Battle of Imjin River” their attacks were broken up by superior firepower and well manned defences by America and her allies. Given China did not have the industry, expertise and technology in 1951 point to create a modern military to tackle these obstacles there was no chance she could break the deadlock. On the other side America had plenty of these assets but not enough troops, or political capital, among her populace or leaders to make the requisite efforts, or sacrifices, needed to break the stalemate either. The only conventional power that could have broken the stalemate were the strong armoured forces of the Soviet Union which probably could have intervened and kicked American forces out of Korea but at the risk of seeing American nukes falling on Moscow and Leningrad.

As such after China’s failed attempt to win a decisive victory in the spring of 1951 both sides knew the war would probably end in stalemate. What is really absurd, and sad, is that the war continued on, although on a much smaller pace and intensity, for two years. There were many skirmishes, America napalmed Korean cities to ash, and both Korean regimes committed many war crimes and atrocities but the last two years became increasingly anti-climatic. Eventually the death of Josef Stalin, China and North Korea conceded on a few negotiation points, and subtle American threats regarding nuclear weapons finally resulted in a ceasefire that effectively ended the war but did not lead to peace between North and South Korea. Regarding prisoner exchanges over 20,000 Communist prisoners refused to be repatriated versus 300 South Koreans and 20 Western soldiers which perhaps illustrates even at this early stage of the “Cold War” that Communism was not seen as a pleasant form of governance.

Although the war did last 3 years most of the crucial events and fighting occurred in the first year. This period saw incredible advances and retreats up and down the Korean Peninsula. Like the “Western Desert Campaign” of 1940-1943 territory switched hands multiple times as North Korea initially overran all of South Korea except the Pusan perimeter only to be defeated at Inchon and lose all but a small corner of North Korea to American and allied forces. Then China attacked America’s over extended forces and pushed them out of North Korea, took Seoul and was seemingly on the verge of overrunning South Korea as well. However, American forces were reinforced, rallied and then first stopped the Chinese advance and then counter-attacked, liberated Seoul a second time and regained much of the line at the 38th parallel. Finally China launched a fifth round of major fighting by attempting to gain a decisive victory and once this failed stalemate was inevitable. Therefore in less than a year the fortunes of war turned no less than 4 times between the respective sides, favouring one and then the other in numerous successions. This is a rarity in military history.

Pyongyang was taken by American forces then re-taken by Chinese forces while Seoul changed hands four times! Unsurprisingly most battles, serious fighting and casualties occurred during this first year. Forty percent of all allied casualties occurred under MacArthur’s brief tenure which did not include China’s “Fifth Phase Offensive” in the spring of 1951 or Ridgway’s subsequent counterattacks which pushed the Chinese north of much of the 38th Parallel. Meanwhile North Korean forces had been gutted during the first year and as China became more sensible regarding tactics her forces suffered less casualties in the last two years as well. Thus the period from late June 1950 to July 1951 witnessed at least more than 50% of all military casualties during the war.

After this the tempo of the war slowed down and later events of the conflict are not rememberer as well. Even military history enthusiasts who know the main battles and events during the first part of the war would be hard pressed to detail the chronology from mid-1951 onwards. Given after mid-1951 no impressive advances or victories occurred this is understandable but also regrettable. Perhaps it is one reason why the “Korean War,” sandwiched between America’s finest hour in “World War 2” and her ultimate humiliation and failure in Vietnam, is a mostly forgotten conflict.

What about the results of the war? Unsurprisingly everyone claimed victory. America claimed victory despite losing her chance to unify both Koreas and China claimed victory although failing to overrun South Korea. South Korea claimed victory despite much of her territory being overrun four times while North Korea claimed victory even though her invasion failed, she had to be bailed out by China and most of her urban centres were levelled by bombs and napalm (America dropped more bombs on North Korea than she used in the “Pacific War”). As such Jan Halliday and Bruce Cumings’ observation that “Each side proclaims that it won, yet each actually seems to feel that it lost” initially appears indisputable.

In an operational sense the war resulted in stalemate as neither side decisively defeated the other and territorial changes were minor (both sides roughly occupied the 38th Parallel again but the Americans and South Korea gained a bit more territory overall).

China was able to present the war as a victory to her people by claiming she had saved North Korea from occupation as well as fighting the American superpower to a standstill. Certainly North Korea was secured as a buffer zone to protect China against foreign aggression and China’s reputation was enhanced by the war. Meanwhile Americans were less satisfied by the war’s outcome as they were disappointed by the stalemate, heavy casualties, and indecisive results so soon after “World War 2.” Indeed Harry Truman’s approval rating fell as low as 22% during the war and was only 32% by the time he left office.

These are among the lowest approval ratings of American Presidents in modern times. Only Nixon had it worse with a 22% approval rating in January 1974 and 24% when he left office. George Bush Junior did better than both with an approval rating that never went below 25% even during the worst days of the “Iraq War” and left office with a 34% rating. Even the erratic, divisive Donald Trump has so far beat these figures with initial approval ratings hovering in the 40s but admittedly falling into the lower 30s recently. Ironically Lyndon Johnson, the architect of America’s most divisive war in Vietnam beats all of them as his lowest approval rating was at 34% but he left office with 49%. To be fair to Truman he is well regarded in more recent times (much more so then the other Presidents listed here) and is generally cited among the top ten most effective American Presidents.

Despite Truman’s poor approval ratings America and South Korea were the real winners in terms of strategic objectives and long term effects. The “Korean War” was an attempt by North Korea, and her communist supporters, to change the status quo in East Asia by force whereas the main strategic goals of South Korea and America were generally defensive (the abortive effort to reunify Korea in late 1950 being mostly opportunistic). Therefore a stalemate technically benefited American and South Korean interests. Seen from the context of 1950 where Russia had just acquired nuclear weapons, the CCP had recently triumphed in the “Chinese Civil War,” and where Communist insurgencies were popping up from Malaysia to the Philippines the “Korean War” gave America a chance to draw the line in the Far East. From 1950 onwards America responded more to Communist actions including defending Taiwan, supporting nations against communist insurgencies, intervening more in the war in Indochina and tripling her defence budget. If the Communist Bloc hoped the “Korean War” would gain them an advantage they clearly miscalculated. To be fair this was a double edged sword considering the end game in Vietnam but with the eventual “Sino-Soviet Split” (whose genesis arguably dates from the “Korean War”) and end result of the “Cold War” no one doubts America and her allies won in the end.

Likewise for South Korea the war was terrible and tragic but at least she escaped the conflict free from North Korean occupation. Fast forward several decades later and South Korea’s dictatorship transferred to a democracy while the nation became rich and prosperous.

Ironically given she did the most to provoke the conflict North Korea was the biggest loser in the “Korean War.” By failing to overrun South Korea, her cities reduced to ruin, becoming a virtual vassal state of Communist China, and most of her captured soldiers refusing to return home, North Korea’s results in the war were less than satisfactory. As North Korea continues to be the last holdout of Stalinism, and is associated with concentration camps, famine and oppression no reasonable or objective person could credit her with victory of any sort.

What of the costs of war? While the “Vietnam War” is disproportionately cited as a bloody, dirty war the mostly forgotten conflict in Korea was worse. Whereas the “Vietnam War” saw 2-3 million casualties in a decade of war the conflict in Korea saw 3-4 million casualties in 3 years (with a disproportionate amount caused in the first year). As in most conflicts casualty figures are varied and controversial but there is no doubt China and North Korea suffered the worst casualties whereas South Korean casualties were a bit lower and America and other combatants got off much lighter.

Chinese casualties were almost exclusively militarily and are estimated between 400,000 and 900,000 dead, wounded or captured. North Korea probably lost between 650,000-750,000 military casualties while South Korea likely suffered 600,000 military casualties (although some estimates suggest approximately 900,000). Both Koreas had disproportionate civilians casualties numbering perhaps 1 million for the South and maybe as high as 1.5 million for the North (in the North mostly due to American bombing and privations and in the South due to most of the land war being fought on her soil). American casualties were roughly 50,000 dead which was similar to Vietnam. America’s UN allies and a few Soviets airmen should not be forgotten but their casualties were minuscule versus the main combatants.

Finally we should compare the “Korean War” to America’s other major wars of the 20th Century. Regarding both World Wars, Vietnam and the “Gulf War” only “World War 2” can be said to have benefited America as much as the “Korean War.” “World War 1” boosted America in the short term economically but America quickly withdrew into isolationism, the subsequent “Great Depression” set back America by a decade and she found herself fighting Germany and Japan twenty years later. The “Vietnam War” was not only a political failure for America but severely undermined her confidence in war making which she has never really regained. Meanwhile America’s best military showing in the “Gulf War” did not result in the expected settlement of Middle Eastern issues in her favour but instead helped usher in decades of terrorism, wars and instability which still plagues the region, and much of the world, today. Despite the looney rogue state in Pyongyang the legacy of the “Korean War” appears favourable to these outcomes indeed given the Far East has been relatively stable and growing more prosperous, and democratic, ever since.

The “Korean War” was America’s first major war of the “Cold War” and despite the dramatic advances and retreats, triumphs and tragedies, disappointments and stalemate America and South Korea can claim victory. The Communist Bloc wanted to change the status quo in East Asia with this war and by meeting the challenge, and holding South Korea, America contained communism in the region and reassured her allies. The war was disproportionately bloody, even more so than the “Vietnam War,” but since South Korea is a prosperous democracy while the North is a Stalinist nightmare it is clear the South benefited more in the end. Thus despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century the conflict in Korea had a better legacy than Vietnam, the “Gulf War” and “World War 1” whose long term affects were more mixed and less beneficial to American interests.
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