By Steven Casey
It is sixty years since the Korean War came to a messy end at an ill-tempered armistice ceremony in Panmunjom’s new “peace” pagoda. That night, President Dwight Eisenhower made a brief and somber speech to the nation. What the American negotiators had signed, he explained to his compatriots, was merely “an armistice on a single battleground—not peace in the world.”
Eisenhower’s sobering words set the tone for the US reaction. Many Americans found it difficult to come to terms with a war that had ended, not with the unconditional surrender of its enemy, but with a ceasefire that left the North Korean aggressor intact. So on the day the guns fell silent, there was no rousing party around Times Square, no impromptu revelry outside the White House. In subsequent years, there was not even any rush to commemorate those who had so bravely served. In Arlington Cemetery, the grave markers were initially instructed not to write “Korean War,” and only after a protest did they add “Korea”—though still without the “war.”
At least Arlington gave Korea a mention. Across the Potomac the war did not get its own memorial for more than four decades. It was as if the country was gripped by a bout of willful amnesia. As the historian Charles S. Young has observed, “It was like a terminally ill relative whose family had lived with the loss so long the actual moment of death was anticlimactic. The trial could now be put behind them.”
The Korean War had certainly been traumatic for the American people. In the starkest reckoning, it took the lives of more than 30,000 US fighting men, with another 103,000 wounded. But during the three long years of conflict, many Americans had come to believe that the cost had been even higher.
In the early days, when General Douglas MacArthur, commander of UN forces, refused to censor the press, many war correspondents played up the human toll. Some recounted interviews with GIs who complained that fighting the North Koreans “was a slaughterhouse.” Later, others produced graphic stories of the long American retreat after China’s intervention. This gruesome episode, one correspondent wrote, would be “irrevocably etched in the mind—and the conscience—of the American people. The etching will show frostbitten boys slipping, falling, and dying—but fighting, though facing a vastly greater foe, dragging out their dead and wounded, by hand, by jeep, by oxcart.”
Back in the United States, the Republican Party—desperate to regain power after five straight presidential election defeats—eagerly exploited the large death toll, while adding an extra twist. They accused Harry Truman’s administration of deliberately concealing the true human cost. One common Republican complaint was that the government refused to count non-battle casualties in its totals, especially those boys suffering from frost-bite in the North Korean mountains—a deliberate omission, Republicans charged, that meant the official statistics were 60,000 lower than the “real” figure. Another common Republican allegation was that, despite the mounting casualty lists, Truman had no ideas for how to end the bloodshed.
In the spring of 1951, MacArthur powerfully amplified this argument, and by so doing got himself fired by Truman. On returning home to a tumultuous welcome, MacArthur then launched a sustained attack on the government’s handling of the war, ending with a powerful rhetorical question: “Where does the responsibility for that blood rest? This I am quite sure—It is not going to rest on my shoulders.”
MacArthur need not have worried. As the war dragged on, many Americans placed the responsibility squarely with Truman and the Democrats. Parents whose sons had been drafted, observed Samuel Lubell, the writer and pollster, “were bitterly resentful of the administration.” For others, even bread-and-butter economic issues seemed increasingly subordinate to the war. “Surprising numbers of voters came to resent the prevailing prosperity as being ‘bought by the lives of boys in Korea,’” Lubell concluded in the context of the 1952 election campaign. “The feeling was general that the Korean War was all that stood in the way of an economic recession. From accepting that belief, many persons moved on emotionally to where they felt something immoral and guilt-laden in the ‘you’ve never had it better’ argument of the Democrats.”
When Americans voted in 1952, Eisenhower finally ended the Republican Party’s election drought, recapturing the White House largely on the basis that he was the man to end Truman’s bloody war in Korea. For the political elite, this electoral outcome was stunning: the end, no less, of Franklin Roosevelt’s all-conquering New Deal coalition that had dominated the ballot box for the past twenty years.
Because this election was so consequential, the political elite initially refused to banish Korea from its collective memory. Instead, it intensively pondered the war’s lessons. For the next decade, powerful players on both sides of the partisan divide reached the same conclusion: the political cost of waging a protracted Asian ground war was too high. During the Dien Bien Phu crisis of 1954, for instance, when the Vietnamese communists threatened to overrun French forces, Eisenhower shied away from sending American troops. In Congress Democratic leaders applauded his restraint. There must be “no more Koreas,” insisted Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, “with the United States furnishing 90 percent of the manpower.”
Of course, when Johnson was himself president ten years later, memories of Korea’s human and political cost were no longer strong enough to deter him from launching another Asian ground war. In this sense, Johnson was as guilty as his fellow Americans of Korean War amnesia—and with disastrous results. During the Vietnam War, the American death toll was even higher, and without the compensation of leaving behind a southern ally that would endure. The domestic repercussions were even more intense, as protests spread beyond the halls of Congress and onto the nation’s streets and campuses. And like Truman in 1952, Johnson bequeathed to his party an electoral defeat in 1968—although this time the Republican successor was unable to achieve a quick and durable armistice.
Korea therefore offers a cautionary tale of what can happen when people turn a blind eye to the past. History, to be sure, is often a treacherous teacher. Leaders need to be particularly careful not to glean glib lessons from a cursory knowledge of facts that reinforce their pre-existing assumptions. But neither, for that matter, should they ignore past parallels altogether. When the trauma of war is forgotten, the consequence can be calamitous. When the central political lessons of the Korean War were neglected too soon after its messy and painful end, the outcome was especially tragic.
Although it is now sixty years since the armistice was signed at Panmunjom, Korea deserves to be remembered still. For one thing, it reminds us how the reality of war is refracted to the public through partisan politicians and scoop-seeking reporters, often with traumatic results. But above all, we should never forget the war’s actual human cost—the lives curtailed on the battlefield, the families left grieving, the communities made emptier. These are the tragic consequences that should always be part of our collective memory.
Steven Casey is Professor in International History at the London School of Economics. He is author of Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion (OUP, 2008), which won the Truman Book Award. His new book, When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan, will be published by OUP at the end of 2013.