Korea; A Game Changing Legacy

June 25, 1950 dawned cool and cloudy like the day before and the day before that at the 38th parallel, an invisible but very real line across the Korean Peninsula. Like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, seasons in Korea change smartly. In October, the Manchurian

Map of the Korean War

Map of the Korean War

and Siberian gates open, releasing bitter cold and icy winds from the northwest. In May and June the winter gates are forced shut by the southerly monsoon flows and Korea becomes hot and humid. In June the days are mostly cloudy and 98 percent comfortable, except for June 25, 1950, when the North Koreans swept across the 38th parallel and caught almost everyone by surprise. The North Korean invasion heated up the South Koreans and the remaining U.S. forces. In two days, the North Koreans were knocking on Seoul’s back door.

Gaining the reigns of Korean War history and legacy approximates the challenge of bringing a run-away 24-mule team back under harness. Everything—Korean Peninsula historical context, foreign policy, post WWII military mission re-alignments, Communist hysteria, egos, and politicians—played into the complexity. Once the U.S. finally decided the Korean situation was serious and it really, really wanted to contain the ‘communist’ threat, it came very close to having its hind-quarters kicked courtesy of politicians passing the general-for-a-day card around a table.

Historically, the poor little Korean Peninsula has been on somebody’s ‘to occupy’ list for centuries but it has been a tough nut to crack. It always amuses me to read about China’s lack of imperial ambition. Imperial ambition is why China’s boundaries are in place and it still fights for more. The Sui, Tang, Ming and Manchu Dynasties of China all had eyes on the Korean Peninsula and tried, with various degrees of success, to take it. Japan recognized the strategic value of Korea as a buffer from and path to conquer China. In the late 1500s, Hideyoshi mounted Japan’s first effort at Korean conquest. Through the centuries, Japan’s Yamato emperors, who still rule today, also tried at various times to occupy Korea. Japan, in fact, had control of Korea at the end of WWII in the Pacific. Japan was ousted by the allies and Korea was divided roughly according to the two ancient original Korean countries and is the North and South Korea we know today. In 1950, North Korea was ruled by the government the Soviet Union had enthroned. South Korea had held a successful elections and the U.S. was on its way out.

The U.S. considered Korea a victim of Japan, not an ally. The United States, China, and Great Britain issued a joint statement in December 1943, after the Cairo Conference, which said: “The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”[1] As a victim, South Korea was assisted back to independence. The South Korean army was built to a point the U.S. considered adequate for self-protection and, beginning in 1947, the U.S. military began to withdraw to its home with the 8th Army in Japan. The Soviet Union went a different direction in North Korea and by 1947, the Soviet’s hand-picked leader, Kim Il Sung, had violently suppressed any opposition. The U.S. did not view Korea as a strategic area but it knew that Russia did. Korea, like many countries freed from the Germans or Japanese, was at risk of becoming a political football in the rising tide of American-Soviet interests, which was apparent well before WWII ended.[2]

U.S. foreign policy was in the shop for a major overhaul in 1950. The Truman administration was re-tooling for the Cold War (1947-1991). The primary mechanics were George C. Marshall and Dean G. Acheson under the direction of Truman. Their work was mostly focused on the perceived Communist threat to Europe but they also had an opinion or two on Asia. Right up until June, 1950, the folks ‘in the know’ were convinced the U.S. would not defend South Korea in the event of an attack by North Korea.

“The decision to intervene in Korea grew out of the tense atmosphere that characterized Cold War politics. On the eve of the North Korean invasion, a number of events had made Truman anxious. The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949, ending the United States’ monopoly on the weapon. In Europe, Soviet intervention in Greece and Turkey had given rise to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which funneled aid to war-torn Europe in the hopes of warding off communist political victories. In early 1950, President Truman directed the National Security Council (NSC) to conduct an analysis of Soviet and American military capabilities. In its report, known as “NSC 68,” the Council recommended heavy increases in military funding to help contain the Soviets.”[3]

The U.S. Military was in transition in Japan as well as in Korea on that fateful June day in 1950. Kim (don’t forget last names are first in Korea) had asked Papa Stalin for permission to invade South Korea many times before he received the two thumbs up in 1949. Stalin had waited for the U.S. to withdraw the last of its ground troops before approving any aggression. In support, Stalin sent significant amounts of both supplies and ‘advisors’ to support Kim. The U.S. was of the general opinion that the Soviets would not risk WWIII over the likes of Korea. The U.S. was wrong.  The U.S. was also of the general opinion that it could not lose, militarily. The U.S. was almost wrong; it was close.

The North Koreans were well supplied. Kim, in possession of a Soviet invasion plan, controlled an

A member of the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion at the 38th Parallel in Korea. (Courtesy of George Brooks)

A member of the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion at the 38th Parallel in Korea. (Courtesy of George Brooks)

invasion force of 135,000, about half of whom were trained veterans. He also controlled eight complete divi­sions and two half-strength divisions, an armored brigade with 120 Soviet tanks; and 5 border constabulary brigades. The Soviets also supplied 180 Soviet aircraft, mostly fighters and attack bombers, and a few naval patrol craft. However, Stalin drew the line at permitting the Soviet advisers to accompany the North Koreans once they crossed the 38th parallel.

The South Koreans, on the other hand, controlled an Army of 95,000 men, which was a light infantry force. Its artillery totaled eighty-nine light 105-mm howitzers, which could shoot farther than North Korea’s artillery, which is handy. Unfortunately, South Korea had no tanks or antitank weapons that could have countered the Soviet tanks. While the North and South Korean navies were fairly evenly matched, the South Korean Air Force had only a few trainers and other light airplanes. “U.S. equip­ment, war-worn when furnished to South Korean forces, had deterio­rated further, and supplies on hand could sustain combat operations no longer than fifteen days.”[4]

The ranking U.S. officer in South Korea was Major General William F. Dean and, according to

Major General William F. Dean

Major General William F. Dean

military historians, he fought gallantly as the U.S. rushed to fortify the south. Eventually, he was wounded and captured. General MacArthur’s Pacific survey showed he had limited capacity to respond. He would be able to muster the “1st Cavalry Division and the 7th, 24th, and 25th Infantry Divisions, all under the Eighth U.S. Army in Japan, and the 29th Regimental Combat Team on Okinawa”, according to the military records. It took until about the middle of July to even mount a faint-hearted counter attack.

Meanwhile back at the United Nations, UN, fifty three countries ratified United Nations Security Council Resolution 82 on June 27th, 1950 clearing the way for an internationally sanctioned military response. Twenty nine of the approving countries offered a variety of types of support that ranged from medical and logistical support to full military support. The Soviets could have blocked the resolution with a veto but did not do so because they were, at the time, boycotting the UN. Truman was in a tough spot. Senator Joseph McCarthy was ramping up his anti-communist rhetoric. Then, too, the Alger Hiss espionage trial was fresh. Truman certainly didn’t want to come across as ‘soft’ on Communism and, like Stalin, he did not want a third world war. Both leaders danced. Stalin refused to have his Soviet troops cross the 38th parallel and Truman stopped just short of saying the Soviets were behind the June 25, 1950 invasion. Instead, the invaders were labeled ‘communists’ and the Soviets were never directly blamed.

The Korean War’s legacy continues to define today’s conflicts. It was a political war fought to ‘contain’ an enemy; not to win. Today Korea looks very much like it did 60 years ago. The 38th parallel still cuts the country in half, including the road and railway infrastructure and over 50 rivers. There has never been a peace treaty so the war never officially ended and no one ever won; the Soviets were not out by the end of 1950, the Koreas were not united, and the U.S. did not significantly impede the progress of ‘communism’. A Kim ruled North Korea and repeatedly made threats, eventually carrying one out. A Kim still rules North Korea and repeatedly makes threats but, so far, has not carried any out. Political wars fought with political egos playing general-for-a-day do not accomplish anything except the loss of American service members. Over 50,000 died in Korea. The U.S. maintained in Korea but lost in Viet Nam, and accomplished little in Bosnia. The U.S.failed in Nicaragua and the Congo, and broke even in Panama and Grenada. At the moment the U.S. is engaged in another political war it has no intention of winning, just fighting. So far, the U.S. has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade with no end in sight and little progress. The only difference is the technology. Now the politicians can ‘see’ what each soldier ‘sees’ and direct the soldiers’ actions on a moment-by-moment basis without ever leaving the comfort of the command center. As John Wayne would say, “that is a helluva way to run a railroad.”



[1] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, Dept., of State Publication 7187 (Washington, 1961), p. 448.

[2] American President: A Reference Resource; http://millercenter.org/president/truman/essays/biography/5

[3] National Archives; Teaching With Documents: The United States Enters the Korean Conflict; (Originally published in Social Education, the Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies).

[4] The US Army Center of Military History; Chapter 8, the Korean War; http://www.history.army.mil/

The Congo: Crunch Time

“This accidental meeting of possibilities calls itself I. I ask: what am I doing here? And, at once, this I becomes unreal.”  ― Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings

 ‘Old Shaky’, the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, argued with her pilot, Captain Richard T. Johnson, about taking that last turn into the Elizabethville (now called Lubumbashi) Airport

C124 Globemaster

C124 Globemaster

before landing in 1961. Noted as a heavy lift airplane, this evening it was loaded to the gills with Gurkhas[1] from the Indian Independent Brigade Group and their gear. Deployed by NATO to quell the latest fighting between the mineral rich Katanga province, whose citizens viewed the rest of the Congo as a nation of thieves, and the rest of the old Belgian Congo, the Gurkhas were battle hardened and ready. Capt. Johnson, a veteran Cold War (1947-1991) pilot, was no fool. He knew this was a Cold War strategy pure and simple. The United Sates and the Soviet Union were ‘duking’ it out for the Congo’s mineral wealth; but they were doing so by deputation. As he fought to bring the Globemaster in line for the approach, there was no friendly voice from the control tower;

The Gurkhas in the Congo

The Gurkhas in the Congo

there was no control tower. His second enemy was the surrender of daylight, Johnson couldn’t be certain he was at the correct airfield but it was the only flat spot in view that was big enough to land the old girl. Gunfire erupting to the port side confirmed he was at the right place, and Johnson wondered once again, if that old airplane was prescient. Landing quickly, safely and deploying the Gurkhas became a burning priority. A quick conference with their commander as the airplane made contact with the tarmac brought the Globemaster to a quick turn to port with the doors already opening. The Gurkhas[2] rolled straight out of the aircraft directly into the battle. Taking care of business, they were. After unloading the last of the supplies, a quick salute sent the old airplane back to the runway and she was off.

 The 1960-1965 uprising in the Congo had its roots back in 1884-1885  when German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck invited fourteen countries to The Berlin Conference to sit down and establish who was doing what to whom in Africa. France, Great Britain, Germany, and Portugal were among the important players. Going into The Berlin Conference, the European countries maintained isolated posts and the vast majority of the African Continent was still ruled by local tribes in a traditional fashion. By the end of the conference, Africa was covered with boundary lines that took no account of local mores or tribes. The Belgian Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, some 900 thousand square miles, was picked up by Belgium and King Leopold II. The rest of the continent was divided as well:[3]

  • Great Britain took a Cape-to-Cairo collection of colonies from Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), and Botswana. The British also controlled Nigeria and Ghana.
  • France grabbed much of western Africa, from Mauritania to Chad (French West Africa) and Gabon and the Republic of Congo (French Equatorial Africa).  
  • Portugal got Mozambique in the east and Angola in the west.
  • Italy was given Somalia (Italian Somaliland) and a portion of Ethiopia. 
  • Germany picked up Namibia (German Southwest Africa) and Tanzania (German East Africa).
  • Spain ended up with little Equatorial Guinea (Rio Muni).

Much of the terrible fighting, bloodshed, and famine is a legacy of The Berlin Conference. The fifty ‘countries’ that were formed in a conference room made no sense in the context of the centuries old cultures that were Africa. Groups that were culturally poles apart and didn’t even like each other were forced to live together. This mess, which worked fairly well while the colonies stayed in place, blew up as the colonies began to receive their independence from the home countries in the 1950s. The traditional cultures, you see, had not been erased; they had just been ignored or controlled by the colonial interests. The old Belgian Congo was one such place.

Belgium treated the Africans in the Congo as children. They were cared for, trained and their rulers

The Congo, a beautiful, rich land filled with violence and contradiction.

The Congo, a beautiful, rich land filled with violence and contradiction.

were used for tasks like tax collection or to recruit labor but they played no part of the legislative process. The bad or uncooperative children/rulers were deposed and replaced. While the United Kingdom and France began preparing their colonies for independence, Belgium made no such effort. Following WWI, American as well as European corporations invested in cotton, coffee, cacao, and rubber operations as well as livestock ventures. The Katanga province was developed for its mineral wealth; gold, copper, tin, cobalt, and zinc. During WWII, the U.S. used the Belgian Congo as a source of uranium. During this time, Africans worked four to seven year contracts as indentured servants in mining, agricultural and public infrastructure sectors. They built electric generation, roads, railroads and public buildings.

Agitation for independence began in 1958 with the formation Patrice Lumumba’s Congo National Movement, the first nationwide Congolese political party. By January 1959, they were rioting for independence in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and continued for a year. Belgium, which asserted that there was no possibility of independence in the immediate future, suddenly changed its political mind and the Congo became an independent republic on June 30, 1960.  The problem was the cultural context. The tribes enclosed by the Belgian Congo’s border did not really like each other. Before the First Republic in 1960, the native Congolese elites formed semi-political organizations based on ethnic relationships, personal relationships, and urban intellectualism which evolved into Lumumba’s party pushing for independence. It was a perfect set-up for interference by the Cold War rivals; the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Katanga picked up it marbles, business interests, mines, and 6,000 Belgian troops and left the new republic in July 1960, less than a month after independence. Katanga declared itself independent under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. Diamond rich South Kasai followed in October. This was not good as Katanga and Kasai were wealth generators. Money grew short and the crisis grew hot.

In July 1960, The United Nations passed a resolution to force the Belgian troops out of the Congo, including Katanga and Kasai. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld disagreed with Lumumba that the UN force could be used to subdue the rebel government of Katanga. Hammarskjöld believed that the secession of Katanga was an internal Congolese matter and the UN was forbidden to intervene by Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. And so it went.

When the United Nations refused to intervene, Lumumba asked for and received Soviet military assistance to bring Katanga and Kasai to heel. Soviet ANC troops were airlifted into Kasai resulting in the deaths of hundreds of local Baluba tribesmen and 250,000 refugees. Lumumba’s decision engage the Soviet’s POed  the Eisenhower administration in the U.S. resulting in the CIA being given its head to support Joseph Mobutu and Kasa-Vubu, two other political hopefuls. Rumor has it that the CIA planned to poison Lumumba’s food. What can be established is that the CIA station chief in Leopoldville did cable his director to saying: “Congo [is] experiencing [a] classic communist effort [to] takeover government… there may be little time to take action to avoid another Cuba”.[4]

'Che' Guevara in the Congo.

‘Che’ Guevara in the Congo.

In 1965, following the assassination of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba Cuba did join the fight.  Fidel Castro sent  ‘Che’ Guevara to the Congo to try and spark a revolution against the pro-Western regime, which had emerged after . Guevara’s attempt was defeated by mercenaries led by Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare.  According to BBC News:

“…Che Guevara’s seven-month stay in the Fizi Baraka mountains was, as he admits himself, an “unmitigated disaster”. 

The mercenary Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare, who had been contracted by the American-influenced government in Kinshasa, squeezed Che’s small Cuban force into an ever smaller area until he had to escape back across Lake Tanganyika into the then-friendly territory of revolutionary Tanzania….”

 Katanga remained a free and independent state for three years; Kasai for much less time. In the five bloody years it took to bring the old Belgian Congo together as a new country, thousands died and over a million became refugees. Famine, in a country that four years before could feed itself and have enough left over to export, killed thousands more. Lumumba, Mobuto and others ripped up the farms, deforested, and looted the country to starvation. Lumumba was killed by Joseph Mobutu’s forces; Che Guevara went to the Congo to ‘help’ in 1965, and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in Africa while on a quest to find some middle Congolese ground. The U.S. saw their choice, Mobutu, in power. In 1997, when he died, his bank accounts just about equaled the amount the World Bank had loaned and granted the Congo; Zaire as it was called by then.

Capt. Johnson was lucky; he flew away. The Gurkhas’s and others fought admirably in a terrible situation. And all of this horror happened because a bunch of people in Berlin, who

The Congo is incredibly rich in minerals.

The Congo is incredibly rich in minerals.

only knew what they wanted, drew lines on maps in 1914. When freedom in Africa tried to stick its head out in the 1950s, the country borders formed lay lines of power and greed. The colonists took the people of Africa for granted and their lack of respect for their cultural fabric has ripped the continent apart. The natural resources are an irresistible attraction for more ‘developed’ predator nations. The continuing upheavals leave the peoples and the nations of Africa vulnerable.

Was it all inevitable with or without the colonial period? Maybe, but it didn’t need to happen this way.


“They’re rioting in Africa. There’s strife in Iran. What nature doesn’t do to us. Will be done by our fellow man.”-

The Merry Minuet

Copyright Alley Music Corp. and Trio Music co., Inc.


[2] Firefight in Elizabethville, Congo – Lt Lee Ah Pow PGB of C Squadron, 2nd Reconnaissance Regiment; April 10, 2011; http://renjervalour.blogspot.com/2006/03/firefight-in-elizabethville-congo-lt.html

[3] Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa; http://geography.about.com/cs/politicalgeog/a/berlinconferenc.htm

[4] The Church Committee; Assassination Planning and the Plots; http://www.history-matters.com/archive/church/reports/ir/pdf/ChurchIR_3A_Congo.pdf