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After the US missions had left the People’s Republic of China, CIA China station officer Douglas Mackiernan volunteered to remain and conduct spy operations. Afterward, he and a team of indigenous personnel then escaped China in a months-long horse trek across the Himalaya mountains; he was killed within miles of Lhasa. His team delivered the intelligence to headquarters that invasion was imminent. Thirteen days later on 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel border and invaded South Korea. Mackiernan was posthumously awarded the CIA Intelligence Star for valor.
Under the guise of counter-attacking a South Korean provocation raid, the KPA crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire at dawn on Sunday 25 June 1950.:14 The KPA said that Republic of Korea Army (ROK Army) troops, under command of the régime of the “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee”, had crossed the border first, and that they would arrest and execute Rhee. Both Korean armies had continually harassed each other with skirmishes and each continually staged raids across the 38th parallel border.
On 27 June, Rhee evacuated from Seoul with government officials. Rhee ordered the Bodo League massacre, which started on 28 June.
On 28 June, South Korea bombed the bridge across the Han River to stop the North Korean army.
Early on in the fighting, South Korea put its forces under the authority of the United Nations Command (Korea).
Factors in US intervention
The Truman Administration was caught at a crossroads. Before the invasion, Korea was not included in the strategic Asian Defense Perimeter outlined by Secretary of State Acheson. Military strategists were more concerned with the security of Europe against the Soviet Union than East Asia. At the same time, the Administration was worried that a war in Korea could quickly widen into another world war should the Chinese or Soviets decide to get involved as well.
One facet of the changing attitude toward Korea and whether to get involved was Japan. Especially after the fall of China to the Communists, “…Japan itself increasingly appeared as the major East Asian prize to be protected”. US East Asian experts saw Japan as the critical counterweight to the Soviet Union and China in the region. While there was no United States policy that dealt with South Korea directly as a national interest, its proximity to Japan pushed South Korea to the fore. “The recognition that the security of Japan required a non-hostile Korea led directly to President Truman’s decision to intervene… The essential point… is that the American response to the North Korean attack stemmed from considerations of US policy toward Japan.” The United States wanted to shore up Japan to make it a viable counterweight against the Soviet Union and China, and Korea was seen as integral to that end.
The other important part of committing to intervention lay in speculation about Soviet action in the event that the United States intervene. The Truman administration was fretful that a war in Korea was a diversionary assault that would escalate to a general war in Europe once the US committed in Korea. At the same time, “[t]here was no suggestion from anyone that the United Nations or the United States could back away from [the conflict]”. In Truman’s mind, this aggression, if left unchecked, would start a chain reaction that would destroy the United Nations and give the go ahead to further Communist aggression elsewhere. Korea was where a stand had to be made, the difficult part was how. The UN Security council approved the use of force to help the South Koreans and the US immediately began using air and naval forces in the area to that end. The Administration still refrained from committing on the ground because some advisors believed the North Koreans could be stopped by air and naval power alone. Also, it was still uncertain if this was a clever ploy by the Soviet Union to catch the US unawares or just a test of US resolve. The decision to commit ground troops and to intervene eventually became viable when a communiqué was received on 27 June from the Soviet Union that alluded it would not move against US forces in Korea. “This opened the way for the sending of American ground forces, for it now seemed less likely that a general war—with Korea as a preliminary diversion—was imminent”. With the Soviet Union’s tacit agreement that this would not cause an escalation, the United States now could intervene with confidence that other commitments would not be jeopardized.
United Nations Security Council Resolutions
On 25 June 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea, with United Nations Security Council Resolution 82. The USSR, a veto-wielding power, had boycotted the Council meetings since January 1950, protesting that the Republic of China (Taiwan), not the People’s Republic of China, held a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. After debating the matter, the Security Council, on 27 June 1950, published Resolution 83 recommending member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On 27 June President Truman ordered US air and sea forces to help the South Korean régime. On 4 July the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister accused the US of starting armed intervention on behalf of South Korea.
The USSR challenged the legitimacy of the war for several reasons. The ROK Army intelligence upon which Resolution 83 was based came from US Intelligence; North Korea was not invited as a sitting temporary member of the UN, which violated UN Charter Article 32; and the Korean conflict was beyond UN Charter scope, because the initial north–south border fighting was classed as a civil war. The Soviet representative boycotted the UN to prevent Security Council action, and to challenge the legitimacy of the UN action; legal scholars posited that deciding upon an action of this type required the unanimous vote of the five permanent members.
Comparison of military forces
The North Korean Army launched the “Fatherland Liberation War” with a comprehensive air–land invasion using 231,000 soldiers, who captured scheduled objectives and territory, among them Kaesong, Chuncheon, Uijeongbu, and Ongjin. Their forces included 274 T-34-85 tanks, some 150 Yak fighters, 110 attack bombers, 200 artillery pieces, 78 Yak trainers, and 35 reconnaissance aircraft. In addition to the invasion force, the North Korean KPA had 114 fighters, 78 bombers, 105 T-34-85 tanks, and some 30,000 soldiers stationed in reserve in North Korea. Although each navy consisted of only several small warships, the North Korean and South Korean navies fought in the war as sea-borne artillery for their in-country armies.
In contrast, the ROK Army defenders were vastly unprepared, and the political establishment in the south, while well aware of the threat to the north, were unable to convince American administrators of the reality of the threat. In South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (1961), R.E. Appleman reports the ROK forces’ low combat readiness as of 25 June 1950. The ROK Army had 98,000 soldiers (65,000 combat, 33,000 support), no tanks (they had been requested from the US military, but requests were denied), and a 22–piece air force comprising 12 liaison-type and 10 AT6 advanced-trainer airplanes. There were no large foreign military garrisons in Korea at invasion time, but there were large US garrisons and air forces in Japan.
Within days of the invasion, masses of ROK Army soldiers—of dubious loyalty to the Syngman Rhee régime—were either retreating southwards or were defecting en masse to the northern side, the KPA.:23
United Nations response (July – August 1950)
A group of soldiers readying a large gun in some brush.
A US howitzer position near the Kum River, 15 July.
Korean civilians pass an M-46 tank
A GI comforts a grieving infantryman.
Despite the rapid post–Second World War Allied demobilizations, there were substantial US forces occupying Japan; under General Douglas MacArthur’s command, they could be made ready to fight the North Koreans.:42 Only the British Commonwealth had comparable forces in the area.
On Saturday, 24 June 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson informed President Truman by telephone, “Mr. President, I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea.” Truman and Acheson discussed a US invasion response with defense department principals, who agreed that the United States was obligated to repel military aggression, paralleling it with Adolf Hitler’s 1930s aggressions, and said that the mistake of appeasement must not be repeated. In his autobiography, President Truman acknowledged that fighting the invasion was essential to the American goal of the global containment of communism as outlined in the National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) (declassified in 1975):
“Communism was acting in Korea, just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier. I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores. If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threat and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors.”
President Truman announced that the US would counter “unprovoked aggression” and “vigorously support the effort of the [UN] security council to terminate this serious breach of peace.” In Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Omar Bradley warned against appeasement, saying that Korea was the place “for drawing the line” against communist expansion. In August 1950, the President and the Secretary of State obtained the consent of Congress to appropriate $12 billion to pay for the military expenses.
Per State Secretary Acheson’s recommendation, President Truman ordered General MacArthur to transfer materiel to the Army of the Republic of Korea while giving air cover to the evacuation of US nationals. The President disagreed with advisors who recommended unilateral US bombing of the North Korean forces, and ordered the US Seventh Fleet to protect the Republic of China (Taiwan), whose Nationalist Government asked to fight in Korea. The US denied the Nationalist Chinese request for combat, lest it provoke a communist Chinese retaliation. Because the US had sent the Seventh Fleet to “neutralize” the Taiwan Strait, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai criticized both the UN and US initiatives as “armed aggression on Chinese territory.”
The Battle of Osan, the first significant American engagement of the Korean War, involved the 540-soldier Task Force Smith, which was a small forward element of the 24th Infantry Division.:45 On 5 July 1950, Task Force Smith attacked the North Koreans at Osan but without weapons capable of destroying the North Koreans’ tanks. They were unsuccessful; the result was 180 dead, wounded, or taken prisoner. The KPA progressed southwards, pushing back the US force at Pyongtaek, Chonan, and Chochiwon, forcing the 24th Division’s retreat to Taejeon, which the KPA captured in the Battle of Taejon;:48 the 24th Division suffered 3,602 dead and wounded and 2,962 captured, including the Division’s Commander, Major General William F. Dean.:48 Overhead, the KPAF shot down 18 USAF fighters and 29 bombers; the USAF shot down five KPAF fighters.
By August, the KPA had pushed back the ROK Army and the Eighth United States Army to the vicinity of Pusan, in southeast Korea.:53 In their southward advance, the KPA purged the Republic of Korea’s intelligentsia by killing civil servants and intellectuals.:56 On 20 August, General MacArthur warned North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung that he was responsible for the KPA’s atrocities.:56 By September, the UN Command controlled only the Pusan perimeter, enclosing only about 10% of Korea, in a line partially defined by the Nakdong River.
Although Kim’s early successes had led him to predict that he would end the war by the end of August, Chinese leaders were more pessimistic. To counter the possibility of American invasion, Zhou Enlai secured a Soviet commitment to have the USSR support Chinese forces with air cover, and deployed 260,000 soldiers along the Korean border, under the command of Gao Gang. Zhou commanded Chai Chengwen to conduct a topographical survey of Korea, and directed Lei Yingfu, Zhou’s military advisor in Korea, to analyze the military situation in Korea. Lei concluded that Macarthur would most likely attempt a landing at Incheon. After conferring with Mao that this would be MacArthur’s most likely strategy, Zhou briefed Soviet and North Korean advisers of Lei’s findings, and issued orders to Chinese army commanders deployed on the Korean border to prepare for American naval activity in the Korea Strait.
n (August – September 1950)
The U.S. Air Force attacking railroads south of Wonsan on the eastern coast of North Korea.
In the resulting Battle of Pusan Perimeter (August–September 1950), the US Army withstood KPA attacks meant to capture the city at the Naktong Bulge, P’ohang-dong, and Taegu. The United States Air Force (USAF) interrupted KPA logistics with 40 daily ground support sorties that destroyed 32 bridges, halting most daytime road and rail traffic. KPA forces were forced to hide in tunnels by day and move only at night.:47–48:66 To deny materiel to the KPA, the USAF destroyed logistics depots, petroleum refineries, and harbors, while the US Navy air forces attacked transport hubs. Consequently, the over-extended KPA could not be supplied throughout the south.:58
Meanwhile, US garrisons in Japan continually dispatched soldiers and materiel to reinforce defenders in the Pusan Perimeter.:59–60 Tank battalions deployed to Korea directly from the United States mainland from the port of San Francisco to the port of Pusan, the largest Korean port. By late August, the Pusan Perimeter had some 500 medium tanks battle ready.:61 In early September 1950, ROK Army and UN Command forces outnumbered the KPA 180,000 to 100,000 soldiers. The UN forces, once prepared, counterattacked and broke out of the Pusan Perimeter.:61
Battle of Inchon (September 1950)
Main article: Battle of Inchon
General Douglas MacArthur, UN Command CiC (seated), observes the naval shelling of Incheon from the USS Mt. McKinley, 15 September 1950.
Against the rested and re-armed Pusan Perimeter defenders and their reinforcements, the KPA were undermanned and poorly supplied; unlike the UN Command, they lacked naval and air support.: 58, 61 To relieve the Pusan Perimeter, General MacArthur recommended an amphibious landing at Inchon, well over 100 miles (160 km) behind the KPA lines.:67 On 6 July, he ordered Major General Hobart R. Gay, Commander, 1st Cavalry Division, to plan the division’s amphibious landing at Incheon; on 12–14 July, the 1st Cavalry Division embarked from Yokohama, Japan to reinforce the 24th Infantry Division inside the Pusan Perimeter.
Soon after the war began, General MacArthur had begun planning a landing at Incheon, but the Pentagon opposed him.:67 When authorized, he activated a combined United States Army, United States Marine Corps, and ROK Army force. The X Corps, led by General Edward Almond, Commander, consisted of 40,000 men of the 1st Marine Division, the 7th Infantry Division and around 8,600 ROK Army soldiers.:68 By the 15 September attack date, the amphibious assault force faced few KPA defenders at Incheon: military intelligence, psychological warfare, guerrilla reconnaissance, and protracted bombardment facilitated a relatively light battle. However, the bombardment destroyed most of the city of Incheon.:70
After the Incheon landing the 1st Cavalry Division began its northward advance from the Pusan Perimeter. “Task Force Lynch”—3rd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, and two 70th Tank Battalion units (Charlie Company and the Intelligence–Reconnaissance Platoon)— effected the “Pusan Perimeter Breakout” through 106.4 miles (171.2 km) of enemy territory to join the 7th Infantry Division at Osan. The X Corps rapidly defeated the KPA defenders around Seoul, thus threatening to trap the main KPA force in Southern Korea,:71–2.
On 18 September Stalin dispatched General H.M. Zakharov to Korea to advise Kim Il-sung to halt his offensive around the Pusan perimeter and to redeploy his forces to defend Seoul. Chinese commanders were not briefed on North Korean troop numbers or operational plans. As the overall commander of Chinese forces, Zhou Enlai suggested that the North Koreans should attempt to eliminate the enemy forces at Inchon only if they had reserves of at least 100,000 men; otherwise, he advised the North Koreans to withdraw their forces north.
On 25 September Seoul was recaptured by South Korean forces. American air raids caused heavy damage to the KPA, destroying most of its tanks and much of its artillery. North Korean troops in the south, instead of effectively withdrawing north, rapidly disintegrated, leaving Pyongyang vulnerable. During the general retreat only 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers managed to rejoin the Northern KPA lines. On 27 September Stalin convened an emergency session of the Politburo, in which he condemned the incompetence of the KPA command and held Soviet military advisers responsible for the defeat.
UN forces cross partition line (September – October 1950)
Main article: UN Offensive, 1950
Combat in the streets of Seoul