W5.03 Contemplating World War III
Hi. Welcome back. What I want to do in this presentation is talk about how the Korean War intensified so it felt like World War III was about to begin. Remember back when we talked about World War II, how it seemed like at these regional wars in Europe and in Asia, and then, by the end of ï¿½41, they combine into being an all-out global war? People in 1950 remembered all of that. They remembered how a regional war, war over Poland, turned fairly quickly into a much, much larger war. They thought that was happening again. Let's look at what happened. In September of 1950, the Americans get enough forces in that they can turn the tide. They have a huge advantage. They control the air and the sea. They launch an invasion, actually an incredibly high risk invasion, right here, behind North Korean lines. The North Korean resistance collapses, you can see with all these blue arrows the U.S./U.N. forces. By the way the British, the French, the Turks are all sending troop contingents to fight alongside the Americans and the South Koreans. They begin driving North Korean forces and are overrunning the country. You'll encounter an argument in some of the history books that said that the United States and UN forces should have stopped right here and not kept going North. That's a bit of a hindsight point of view. There are a handful of people who made that argument at the time. There was no chance that that argument would prevail at the top of the United States government. They had just come out of a war where when dictators committed aggression against you, you had to utterly defeat the dictators rather than push them back to the start line and then wait for them to try again. So at the top of the U.S. government, there's just no question that North Korea, having committed aggression, North Korea will be destroyed the same way that Hitler's Germany was destroyed or Japan had to submit unconditional surrender. They're going to unify the peninsula and organize it along the lines preferred by the United Nations. They drive north. So now the issue is this: From the point of view of the North Korean leaders and their Chinese and Soviet allies, what do you do? Do you allow North Korea to be defeated? You remember that when Stalin authorized this invasion, he had estimated the U.S. would not interfere. That gamble had been proven wrong. But he had also counted on the Chinese being able to help in case things turned bad. And that's exactly what he does now: he argues that the Chinese need to go to war against the United States and the United Nations. There are critical deliberations among the Chinese leaders about this. Actually, a pretty sizable fraction of the Chinese communist leadership does not want the larger war. They want to concentrate on building the new People's Republic. Above all, the leading advocate for a larger war is Mao Zedong himself, seen here conferring with his key general, Peng Dehuai. In the back and forth, Mao is asking Stalin for assurances of equipment, supplies, air cover if Mao was willing to bring China into the war against the United States, which of course, obviously threatens a wider war with China, with whom the Soviet Union is allied. You can just very quickly see how this can turn into World War III. Stalin sees that, too. So if you want to get a glimpse into how they're working through this problem, take a look at this exchange in which Stalin is making his argument to Mao [about] why China should go to war against America, even at the risk of World War III. You see his reasoning in this written communication. The USA, not ready for a big war. Japan, not capable of giving much help to the Americans. The USA will be compelled to yield to China, behind which stands the Soviet Union, for the same reason the USA will not only have to abandon Taiwan, which is what China really wants to take care of, but also reject the idea of a separate peace with the Japanese reactionaries -- because the Americans are moving toward signing a peace treaty settling the issues of the war with Japan. Of course, Stalin writes, I took into account, also, the possibility that the USA, despite it's unreadiness for a big war, could still be drawn into a big war, out of prestige, which in turn would drag China into the war. And along with this, draw into the war, the Soviet Union, which is bound with China by the Mutual Assistance Pact. In other words, World War III. Should we fear this? In my opinion, we should not, because together we will be stronger than the USA and England while the other European capitalist states, with the exception of Germany, which is unable to provide any assistance to the United States now, do not present serious military forces. If a war is inevitable, then let it be waged now, and not in a few years when Japanese militarism will be restored as an ally of the USA. Mao accepts this reasoning and decides to bring China into the fight. A critical enabler for his success are decisions that are made by the United States and the United Nations in October and November. The Chinese are willing to mass hundreds of thousands of soldiers for a massive offensive. But they, in theory, ought to be beaten in this offensive, because the United States and its allies have complete control of the skies and airpower. They have control of the seas. They have much better firepower, heavy artillery, that can be used. The Chinese forces are relatively lightly equipped. So how is it possible that a Chinese offensive could succeed? It can work if the US and the UN forces are scattered over a mountainous countryside. They're not in prepared positions where their firepower can be brought up with the necessary supplies to provide all the needed support. That's exactly what the US and UN forces allowed to have happen in October and November. Even though the Chinese launched some startling attacks in October of 1950 that are probing attacks, that they then stop and pull back from, Douglas MacArthur, commanding the US and UN forces, continues to scatter his forces across the mountains of North Korea. The thing to notice in this map is his forces are here along a thin line here. This is all open space, another position here, another position here, here, here. The Chinese, lightly armed, position themselves to infiltrate in all the areas around these forces, in and through their lines, cutting them off and then ambushing them as they try to retreat along narrow mountainous valleys, fighting at night, in the winter, in the mountains. Instead, what MacArthur could have done, especially once he realized that there was a significant risk the Chinese might come in, is he could have prepared his forces along this line right here, the Wonsan Neck. This was actually considered by military planners at the time. You'd have held Pyongyang. You'd have a lot of the key area of North Korea; you could consolidate your position, bringing up your forces, and hedge against the risk of a Chinese attack instead of scattering forces to the countryside in the hope of winning the war and having the troops home by Christmas. But MacArthur, overconfident, did not hedge against that risk. When the Chinese hit hard, just before Thanksgiving in 1950, the American, the South Korean, US, UN lines break, collapse, and there's a headlong retreat. The United States finds itself in an entirely new war. Not only are they now fighting China, they're now fighting China with their forces fleeing in retreat and with the United States contemplating a wider war against China that can bring in the Soviet Union. World War III. This map readily shows the gains the Chinese made by the beginning of 1951. Again invading Seoul, pushing down past the 38th parallel, Mao hopes to completely overrun South Korea and push the US and UN forces entirely off the peninsula. The United States, thoroughly alarmed, calls up reserves, engages in a national mobilization, declares a national emergency, triples the defense budget virtually overnight, just as it did at the outbreak of World War III. They're able to hold the line in Korea through the determined fighting of American, South Korean, British, French, and other allied forces, holding the line under the leadership, Especially, of this general, Matthew Ridgway, he's the fellow with the hand grenade attached to his shoulder strap. This map shows how the line stabilized. Ignore the fact that they've misspelled the word ï¿½armistice,ï¿½ that ï¿½aï¿½ should be an ï¿½i.ï¿½ The battle in Korea turns into years of trench warfare in the mud and in the cold mountains, as you can see from these scattered images. The Chinese loose hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The South Koreans, Americans, and their allies hang on. American combat forces are now integrated, black and white, as this photograph shows. But another way that the United States held the line, it decided not to widen the war into World War III. General MacArthur argued expressly for involving Nationalist Chinese in the war and for expanding the war to mainland China itself. President Truman, egged on by the worried British prime minister, decides not to widen the war. That tension finally leads to Truman having to fire his commanding general, Douglas MacArthur, in April 1951. McArthur comes home to get ticker tape parades. He's celebrated as the conquering hero, come back to confront his timid civilian bosses. But in months of hearings, Americans hear from their generals that they had reached the conclusion that having World War III start in Korea would have been the wrong war, at the wrong time, and against the wrong enemy.