FORTY YEARS AGO Monday, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, touching off a bloody, controversial, demoralizing, inconclusive conflict many have called the Forgotten War - and America's first losing war.
But after decades in which it seemed Americans were either ignoring or trying to forget the Korean War, its veterans and its lessons - including some lessons that might have averted disaster in Vietnam - there has been an upsurge of interest in what was, in fact, the first hot action of the Cold War.Critics have always maintained that Korea was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But now, with the Iron Curtain and the Soviet "Evil Empire" now crumbling, some Korean War observers and participants are saying that the military stand the United States took - at a cost of 54,246 American lives - was not all in vain.
"It proved worthwhile in the long run," says retired Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., who served in Korea and Vietnam and who has written books about both conflicts. "If we had not intervened and the communists had come to believe they could expand their empire by force of arms, we may have found ourselves with a much larger war on our hands in Europe."
As it was, Summers says, "I think Korea probably canceled out the Soviets' option of using military force to expand their ideology."
As to being forgotten, Summers, who also writes a syndicated column and is the editor of Vietnam magazine, says at least 40 books on the Korean War have been published in the past five years, with more coming out all the time.
"I think it's partly a function of time," says Summers, author of the recently published "Korean War Almanac." "Normally, it takes 20, 25, 30 years for a war to come back to the public's attention. I think for a while, the Korean renaissance, if you will, was obscured by the Vietnam War, but I think it's broken out of that. I think the end of the Cold War has caused a lot of people to begin thinking about the beginning of the Cold War, causing a reappearance in the significance of the Korean War."
It was a war unlike any other that the United States has waged. It saw U.S. troops fight under the flag of the United Nations - 15 countries sent troops to fight for South Korea under the U.S.-led United Nations Command. Because of fears of starting a third world war, America, for the first time in warfare, pulled its punches - ruling out use of the atom bomb and operations over the border in China. It was also the first time that the moral fiber of U.S. soldiers was called into question, based on overblown reports of "brainwashed" U.S. soldiers and POWs deserting and denouncing their country.
It was a war that was fought while back home, anti-communist witchhunters like Sen. Joseph McCarthy were questioning and criticizing the loyalty of government officials. In some cases, those officials were accused of actively or passively contributing to the communist takeover of China that was completed not long before the Korean War began.
It was a war that seesawed up and down the Korean peninsula for three years before ending on July 27, 1953, with a truce that left everyone exactly where they were when the fighting started, and where they remain to this day - facing each other over gun barrels at the 38th parallel.
Though four decades have passed, the legacy of the Korean War remains very much with us. William Manchester, author of "MacArthur: American Caesar," believes that when Truman ordered troops into combat without a congressional declaration of war, it drastically, and tragically, altered the course of American history.
"That precedent has led increasingly to presidential use of armed force to intervene on the president's initiative, without the consent of Congress," says Manchester. "And so we have the spectacle of the commitment of troops in Vietnam and, on a smaller scale, in Grenada and Panama, in which the president of the United States now has the power Hitler had when he sent the Wehrmacht into Poland. . . . This would have the Founding Fathers turning in their graves."
As for the war itself, Manchester says, "I think it was the precursor of Vietnam, an unwinnable land war in Asia . . . and if we had learned that lesson, we would not have gone into Vietnam. . . . After all that bloodletting, the situation was where it was before. I think ultimately, we will see in North Korea, as in every other communist state, that communism will fall of its own weight."
Manchester says that the biggest casualty of U.S. use of force in Korea may have been America's self-image: "It was in Korea, I believe, that we began to doubt America was always right, a cosmic change in attitude toward government. It began in Korea and accelerated greatly in Vietnam."
Summers agrees with Manchester about "the critical importance of a declaration of war if you're going to fight a long war. The precedent set by Truman in 1950 really came to grief in Vietnam. . . .
Another lesson of Korea, "although we didn't appreciate it at the time, is the critical importance of public support. It declined more precipitously for the Korean War than it did for Vietnam, perhaps because it (the Korean War) ended in a much shorter time - after three years rather than 10. But there's a parallel with Vietnam, with both Truman and Johnson coming to grief because of an unpopular war."
Korea was unpopular, Summers says, because it was "the first war in which containment was the U.S. policy. That meant that the military strategy changed from the offensive to the defensive, and the best you could get was a stalemate."
In the atomic age, that was probably a good policy, and recent developments in the Soviet bloc indicate that "containment worked beyond our wildest dreams," Summers says. But during the Korean War, this strategy "was very frustrating to the American people and the military. It wasn't the grand and glorious victory of World War II."