Police Action

June 1, 2000

In a remembrance that begins this month, we look back with 50 years of hindsight at the Korean War, which started June 25, 1950.

It was a different kind of war. To get around the necessity of asking Congress to declare war, President Truman called it a “police action.” It was fought under the auspices of the United Nations, with the United States acting as the UN’s executive agent.

Unlike World War II, the objective in Korea was not victory. Technically, the Korean War is not over. The fighting ended in an armistice, which continues today.

In the 1950s, Korea was seen as a one-time deviation from the way wars were supposed to be fought. In retrospect, it set a pattern for other limited conflicts–notably Vietnam–that would come later, characterized by uncertain commitment and shifting purpose.

After World War II, US forces and defense budgets were drawn down to dangerous levels. Military resources were strained to cover our obligations in Europe and the strategic threat from Russia. We were not ready for a pop-up war in Korea.

To make matters worse, foreign policy in Asia was not the long suit of the Truman Administration. Up to the moment North Korean tanks rolled across the border, we did not regard Korea as particularly important. Five months earlier, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had publicly defined the US “defensive perimeter” in Asia. Korea lay outside the line.

When news of the invasion came, the Truman Administration reversed its Korea policy overnight. Believing it to be the start of a worldwide Communist offensive led by the Russians, Truman decided to make a stand.

The first line of support for South Korea was Far East Air Forces, operating mostly from bases in Japan. Except for a small advisory group, US forces had been withdrawn from Korea. The South Koreans had no armor or combat aircraft. Without FEAF, which harried the invasion force and took a terrific toll on it, the war would have been lost in a month.

Originally, the objective was to eject the invaders from South Korea. In September, though, a successful counteroffensive carried the war into the north. The objective was changed to defeating North Korea and unifying the peninsula.

In November, the Red Chinese entered the war, crossing the Yalu with 260,000 combat troops. Armed with Russian equipment-and with Russians flying some of the MiG-15s–they pushed the UN forces into retreat across the 38th parallel.

We were unwilling to risk a wider war by striking back at the Chinese in their sanctuary in Manchuria. We were likewise unwilling to pull out of Korea.

By January 1951, the objective changed again. We would seek a negotiated settlement. Eventually, even that revised goal proved elusive.

Truman assured the European allies, who had begun to worry, that Korea would not drain American military resources away from Europe, which was a higher priority.

The conflict in Korea mired into stalemate around the middle of the peninsula, and the final objective became an armistice, which was reached in July 1953.

Under the circumstances, US forces and their UN allies performed well in a war their governments were not prepared or committed to win. It was basically a ground war, and the contribution of airpower is not always understood.

The air war in Korea is usually remembered for the epic fighter battles in “MiG Alley” along the Yalu, where F-86 Sabre pilots shot down 10 MiG-15s for every loss of their own.

Air superiority was critical. It allowed UN forces to operate without fear of air attack. The enemy did not have that advantage. During their big offensive in the winter of 1950, for example, the Chinese could move only at night. UN air superiority made it impossible for them to establish forward air bases, and their massive ground forces were not enough to gain the victory.

The famed air superiority missions, however, accounted for less than 10 percent of FEAF combat sorties. The bulk of the effort was interdiction, close air support, airlift, and reconnaissance.

Because of UN airstrikes, about a third of the North Korean force and some 450 of the tanks that crossed the 38th parallel on June 25 never went home again. By the end of July, FEAF had reduced the North Korean air force to 18 airplanes. By September, such industry as North Korea had was destroyed. When the UN launched its counteroffensive, the enemy had been bled down and was short of food, fuel, and ammunition.

Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, commanding the US Eighth Army in the early part of the war, said that without air support, “we would not have been able to stay in Korea.” Army Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of all UN forces, acknowledged that “not only did airpower save us from disaster, but without it the mission of the United Nations Forces could not have been accomplished.”

South Korea kept its freedom. Whether that outcome was in hand in September 1950 or if it took three years of war to secure is more of a political question than a military one.

What is indisputable is that our forces who fought the “Forgotten War” in Korea deserve a better place in their nation’s memory than they have had up to now.