The Korean War (1950-1953) went down in history as a long and bloody conflict that ended in an uncertain compromise. In October 1950, however, nothing indicated such a development. After several difficult months, the Americans took over all of South Korea and 90% of North Korea. And they would probably even have won, had it not been for General MacArthur's extreme self-righteousness and President Truman's detachment from reality. Their "minor" error in judgment cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
At the first stage of the Korean War, the only opponent of the South Korean troops and the UN contingent (that is, actually Americans) was the army of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Thanks to the surprise effect and the numerical superiority, it managed to occupy almost the entire peninsula in a few months, and even destroy one of the American divisions (late June - early September 1950). It was enough, however, for the Americans to mobilize their forces and conduct a successful landing in the north, and the situation changed overnight.
In October and November 1950, Americans (green) celebrated their stunning success ... completely forgetting how quickly fortune can turn away from them (Fig. Roke, license CC BY-SA 3.0).
By the end of October, almost all of North Korea was already under American occupation. The careless march of the US Army northwards was not accompanied by any concerns or even doubts about the possible reaction of People's China and the Soviet Union.
The self-righteous American generals - led by Commander-in-Chief Douglas MacArthur - completely downplayed all threats, even though they had obviously violated the communist sphere of influence. They only thought about ending the war as soon as possible and sending all troops home .
Military and political propaganda has already shaken off a great success, even claiming that the ordering mission in Korea was one of the greatest triumphs of the US armed forces in history . The construction of this pictorial house of cards culminated on October 15 on Wake Island. This is where MacArthur and the then President of the United States, Harry Truman met.
Truman, in part influenced by members of his cabinet, wished to obtain binding declarations from MacArthur as to when and how to end the conflict. The Commander-in-Chief's responses were so astonishing that it would be difficult to make a more misjudged assessment of the situation. If Noble were awarded in the categories of "pride" and "blindfold", MacArthur would have won two awards in 1950 at once .
Truman asked when it would be possible to send the troops back to their homeland. The general was bursting with confidence . He predicted Pyongyang would collapse within a week, and all resistance in North Korea would be crushed by the end of November. In December, the withdrawal of troops was about to proceed in full swing.
So what about the Chinese? Was there a risk of an invasion from the north, which was warned by diplomatic cables from Beijing? MacArthur almost made fun of the president. Let's quote his words best, based on Bill Sloan's great book, devoted to the beginnings of the Korean War ("The Darkest Summer:Pusan and Inchon 1950"):
If they had intervened in the first or second month [of the war] it could have been decisive, [but] now we are no longer afraid of their intervention . We no longer stand humbly before them. (…) They don't have any aviation. Meanwhile, we have established air force bases in Korea. If the Chinese try to break through to Pyongyang, we will arrange for them the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind .
MacArthur was sprinkling numbers as if from a sleeve. He emphasized that the Chinese have only 300,000 soldiers in total in Manchuria, of which up to 125,000 are on the border with North Korea. He considered any intervention very unlikely.
General MacArthur and President Truman at their disastrous meeting on Wake Island.
The president accepted all these explanations without any comment . Ba! He did his best to return home as soon as possible, fearing that any quarrels with MacArthur would affect his political ratings. He did not express any criticism and did not try to argue. Oh, he left everything in the hands of a glory-hungry mythomaniac.
The poles were so important to him that he failed to tackle one of the fundamental topics at all:How far north are US troops going? Where should they stay so as not to provoke the Chinese?
Such an approach would have to end in a confrontation with the Chinese communists, were it not for the fact that they… had already joined the action!
… secondly, reality
When MacArthur praised his successes and the prospects of a quick end to the operation, the Chinese concentrated their own troops on the border - there were, of course, far more than 125,000, and many were already in North Korean territory, under the very nose of the Americans. The confident Yankees ignored all warning signs, blissfully unaware until the last moment.
When the offensive of the "Chinese People's Volunteers" mobilized by Mao Zedong officially began on November 25, the Americans were taken by utter surprise . In January 1951, all of North Korea was in communist hands, as was half of South Korea. The bloody and difficult war was to continue for over a year and a half.
The Chinese participation in the Korean War changed the situation diametrically. The Americans had to prepare for a long and bloody conflict. In the photo, Chinese "volunteers" cross the Yalu River.
Years later, journalist and historian David Halberstam commented on a "minor error in assessing the situation" by MacArthur and Truman: The news was so delicious that no one wanted to know more. It was as if it was taken over that if you didn't talk about something and don't do anything about it, you could get away unscathed. As a result ... there was no thought what to do in case the Chinese did join the war.
Over a million people died in the Korean conflict. Most of them after the carefree meeting between the president and the general on Wake Island.