James Holmes

A Complicated Narrative: The Korean War

The Korean War, fought after World War II as the Cold War began to take hold offers important lessons.

For a compact, relatively small-scale conflict, the Korean War—this week’s sojourn for the Strategy & War Course at the U.S. Naval War College—abounds in insights. The historical narrative appears straightforward—an invasion, two outside interventions, eventual equilibrium at roughly the midpoint of the Korean Peninsula—yet the conflict defies easy classification. Or rather, it can be classified in a multitude of ways.

That may help explain why it was so hard for the belligerents to wring lasting political value out of fighting on the Korean Peninsula, and why the war ended disappointingly for them.Think about it. The Korean War was a post-imperial, anti-imperial struggle amid the ruins of the Japanese Empire. Who would rule territories vacated by Japan? Speaking from the decks of the battleship Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur proclaimed that the guns had fallen silent with the downfall of Imperial Japan. MacArthur’s words might ring true for Americans. But the fighting for supremacy resumed in East and Southeast Asia almost instantly—if it paused at all.

The struggle was especially acute in Korea. Japan had annexed the peninsula in 1910, gone to extravagant lengths to expunge Korean culture, and played divide-and-rule among Korean factions to neutralize the opposition. Venomous politics was the rule following Japan’s departure, strife on the peninsula almost a foregone conclusion.The Korean War, then, convulsed Northeast Asia during the aftermath of World War II, when the victors were still trying to sort out a durable postwar order. Prosecuting a new war within war termination poses a challenge of a high order for statesmen and commanders.

To complicate matters further, the Korean War took place during the war-termination phase of the Chinese Civil War. Mao’s China could hardly look indifferently on events on the Korean Peninsula, which shares a border with Manchuria and overshadows the Yellow Sea, at Beijing’s maritime door. After debating with Stalin, Mao resolved to intervene. Japan might rearm and revert to militarism, returning to mainland Asia. To prevent a rerun of history, it seemed imperative to keep Japan from again using the peninsula as a geopolitical springboard. The Chinese Communist regime, furthermore, stood to gain domestically if it could fight America, the world’s predominant power, to a standstill. Military success in the near abroad helped cement communist rule at home.

Finally, and most obviously, the Korean War was a theater in the Cold War. It was an event that was more complex than it might appear. Korea constituted a remote, secondary, hot theater in a global, uneasy, peacetime strategic competition. Such asymmetries rendered diplomatic and strategic calculations awkward indeed. Clausewitz, for instance, declares that a belligerent should open a secondary theater only if the endeavor appears “exceptionally rewarding,” the belligerent commands “decisive superiority” in the principal theater, and the diversion of effort won’t place the main theater in jeopardy. But what if it’s not obvious whether the larger war—i.e., the Cold War—is a war at all? How much manpower and how many resources do you apportion to the more important yet quieter theater, and how much to more immediate concerns? Messy times beget strong, clashing opinions.

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The Korean War, then, may offer a glimpse of strategic debates yet to come as Asia enters another age of peacetime competition.