The Korean War (The First?)

Considering the modern events and the recent rise in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, it is very interesting to have a general grasp of what the history is between our two nations.  This is a history of the Korean War, which occurred in the early 1950’s.  (For the record, I am not saying necessarily that I think that the modern tensions will escalate.  The post title was merely a nod to the current significance of this post.)

The Korean War

            The Korean War is one of the United States’ more recent wars and is unique in many ways.  Despite these facts, the Korean War is also one of the most forgotten wars in United States history.  The reason for this historical neglect is often attributed to what most Americans at the time, and even now in hindsight, considered the unsatisfactory ending of the war.  American perception of the war changed significantly over the course of the war, and this change in popularity still negatively affects our modern view of this important conflict.

The Korean War was unique and significant in many ways.  It was the first military conflict that was a result of the Cold War.  In many ways, this war was the precursor to the Vietnam War, and symbolized the way the Cold War would be handled for the years to come.  This war was also unique in that it was the first war in which the threat of atomic weapons was present throughout the entire course of hostilities.  Additionally, the Korean War saw the advent of the helicopter as a military asset, and the jet fighter slowly began to come into wide service.  Another difference that separates the Korean War from other wars, can be observed in that armored operations, as were executed and perfected in World War II, was not possible due to the mountainous terrain of the Korean Peninsula.  This was also the first limited war that America had fought since before the Civil War.  It was the first war conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, and the first war that the United States conducted under the authority of an outside organization.  Taking all these things into consideration, the war posed new challenges that American commanders were not accustomed to or prepared for.  These conditions are some of the factors that played into the way the war was conducted, and consequently affected the way that Americans perceived the war.  This perception of the war made it what it is today, a little known, and an even less appreciated conflict.

Korean War Helicopter

            The Korean War was a war of changing fortunes and extremes.  When the U.S. entered the fray in July 1950, it was intervening on behalf of the losing side.  More than this, by the time substantial American forces were available, South Korean forces and the American garrison troops previously deployed from Japan were pushed into a small pocket called the Pusan Perimeter, and were all but thrown into the sea in a matter of weeks.

However, a bold stroke was planned by General MacArthur, and the landing at Inchon Bay was conducted on September 15, 1950.  This amphibious attack changed the fortunes of the war completely in favor of the U.N. forces.  The North Korean Army was, in just as short a time as it had taken to force the South Koreans into the Pusan Perimeter, fleeing in great disorder back across the 38th parallel.  Great changes in fortune were already evident.  Large swings had taken place in each direction.  The pendulum was swinging north, and the U.N. forces were following, ignoring Chinese warnings, and consequently unaware that gravity was already slowing down that same pendulum.  That gravity came in the form of 300,000 Chinese Troops already in the central mountains of North Korea.  When the Chinese counterattacked, the unprepared, and over extended U.N. forces were sent packing right back across the 38th parallel, and farther, until Seoul, the South Korean capitol, was in the hands of the Communists for the second time in the war.  But the Chinese also over extended, and with the United States’ complete control over the skies, they could no longer sustain their forces in the South.  They to had to retreat northward, once again, and the war ground to a halt at the infamous 38th parallel.  Each side was left there as the pendulum had come to a stop, hanging in the middle of the peninsula.

korean war 38th Parallel

            During all this back and forth, all these changes in fortune, the American public was quite supportive of the war.  The seeds for the lack of support, however, were sown after the first northward pendulum swing when President Truman authorized the invasion of North Korea.  This move was in and of itself, not unpopular.  The problem it caused is that it broadened the scope of the war.  Before this change, the goal of the war was simply to push the North Korean Army out of South Korea and to prevent its return.  That goal had been accomplished.  The North Koreans were in no state to attempt another invasion.  However, once the invasion of the North and the unification of the country by elections was declared the goal, the old objective of maintaining the national boundaries was no longer adequate in the public eye.  This new goal was what success and failure must be measured against.

When the pendulum stopped swinging, Communist forces could not mount amphibious operations and therefore, could not get it going again.  The U.N. leaders were unwilling to try to restart it.  All they wanted was to end the war. They were willing to renounce the goal of unification and settle for the original goal by simply working out a treaty that would maintain the status quo.  Unfortunately, to the American public, this now looked like a compromise.  This was not viewed as a victory, which it would have been had the goal not been expanded to include unification.  The unwillingness of the U.N. leaders to pursue the goal of unification, after the involvement of the Chinese, and the long and seemingly fruitless negotiations ending in what appeared to the public as a compromise, and not victory, seriously undermined popular support for the war. The public view of the war as being unsuccessful is the most significant reason why the Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War”.  It was forgotten because it was not viewed as being won.

M20 75mm  korean war

            Another important longstanding effect the Korean War had was the precedent it set for future conflicts with Communism.  The Korean War was Communism’s second test against of the Truman Doctrine, and the first test requiring armed conflict.  Many considered this to be the first true test of how far the Americans were willing to go to uphold their doctrine of containment.  In this sense, this war set the precedent for American involvement worldwide in the fight against the spread of Communism. Due in great part to this action, America would become involved in many different conflicts, both directly and indirectly.  Vietnam is the most common example of this, and it is this precedent that keeps troops in South-East Asia even today.

In conclusion, the Korean War was a landmark conflict in many ways.  It saw the use of new weapons and technology, while still greatly resembling the Pacific conflicts of World War II.  It was the first test of American will in regards to the practical outworking of the Truman Doctrine.  It was the first war fought under the supervision and direction of the United Nations.  It truly was a conflict that changed history.  Despite all these things, it remains unfamiliar to most Americans.  The Korean War is just another example of the many important things that we forget.

-Wyatt Fairlead

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Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

               Abraham Lincoln November 1863

            The figure of Abraham Lincoln looms large in the mind’s eye of most Americans today.  There is debatably no figure in the history of the United States that more works have been written about than this important president.  Much of this work praises him, perhaps too much.  Some of this work vilifies him and makes outrageous claims attempting to discredit the great work that he accomplished for this country.  The unifying factor behind all these works is that Abraham Lincoln was one of the most important and influential men in defining the United States, as we know it today.

One of the things that made Lincoln so successful as president and so prominent in history afterward was his feel for public opinion.  The Civil War was an unpopular war in the North.  The North was politically divided between the Republican and Democratic parties, which often held very different views on the war.  At the beginning of the war, the stated purpose was the preservation of the Union. This goal was especially important to Lincoln, who viewed the American experiment, and the American principles of freedom and democracy as, “The last best hope on earth.”  In his annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, just one month before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln argues that the purpose of the emancipation of the slaves was specifically for the preservation of the Union.

There is considerable controversy over Lincoln’s stance on slavery.  While it is clear that in the end, he supported abolition of slaveryEmancipation Proclamation and worked to get the Thirteenth Amendment ratified, many say that such actions were political expedients and that Lincoln’s slowness in beginning these measures are sure signs of his ambivalence towards the issue.  If you investigate closely however, the conclusion you are most likely to come to is not that he was ambivalent, but that he was in fact greatly opposed to slavery.  What you will find instead of ambivalence is the wiles of a skillful politician.  What seems to us, 150 years later, to be caution and reluctance to address the issue of slavery, was really an acute awareness of the status of public opinion.  Lincoln said was opposed to slavery, and fought against the expansion of slavery, but he understood that slavery was constitutionally protected.  He expressed this view to some prominent abolitionists.

            “I did not consider that I had the right to touch the “State” institution of “Slavery” until all other measures for restoring the Union had failed … The moment came when I thought that slavery must die, that the nation might live! … Many of my strongest supporters urged Emancipation before I thought it indispensable and, I may say, before I thought the country ready for it.  It is my conviction that had the proclamation been issued six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it.”

Historical study vindicates Lincoln’s view as Democratic gains in the Congressional elections of 1862 exhibited voter dissatisfaction with the preliminary emancipation proclamation. The preservation of the Union was the foremost in Lincoln’s mind, but emancipation was clearly a goal that was to be worked towards as well.  The time was simply not yet ripe.

Lincoln had to keep fragile Northern morale from breaking under the strain of the conflict.  In order to achieve this, Lincoln had to avoid upsetting the public by premature actions in areas that were not broadly supported, and also had to produce successful results that would energize those flagging and unenthusiastic portions of the Northern coalition.  It was because of this necessity that we see the early stages of the war carried out in such a hectic and confused way, particularly in the Eastern theaters.  As has been mentioned, Lincoln was extremely attuned to the needs of the people and what was necessary in order to garner their support.  What he lacked was a complete grasp of the military necessities.  Lincoln was not a military man.  He had no prior experience with military operations or strategy, and this affected his decisions as Commander in Chief.  Many have argued, and rightly so, that Lincoln was not ideal for the military post he inherited with the presidency.

Lincoln was interested with what the people needed.  They needed a quick victory.  Fragile moral needs success and decisive victory.  It cannot sustain a protracted war.  This is what Lincoln pressed his commanders for.  He saw the social and political necessities.  Conversely, at the start of the Civil War, the military was in no condition to mount the kind of decisive campaigns that the President wanted.  A large percentage of the senior officer corps had defected to the Confederacy, and the logistical preparations necessary for the desired operations were simply non-existent.  Much of the early blundering and defeat met by Northern commanders in the early part of the war, particularly in the East was the result of hurried or rushed operations to which sufficient preparation time was not allowed.  Poor generalship also had a significant effect, but if operations had been allowed to mature, this deficiency might have been lessened somewhat.

These defeats are examples of Lincoln’s strengths and weaknesses.  He had an acute sense of timing and understood how to gauge public opinion, making decisions accordingly.  He attempted to strengthen moral with quick decisive strokes early on in the war.  They were met with disaster.  As the war progressed and the tactical initiative slowly shifted towards the North, he was gradually able to achieve some success.  One of his most significant successes was the accurate judgment of when the public was prepared to accept the Emancipation Proclamation.  His successes showcase his intuition and his national awareness.  The military defeats in the beginning of the war, mark examples of the sacrifice of military prudence to the needs of the masses.

In conclusion, Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary figure.  While he does not represent the finest Commander in Chief the nation has known, he cannot be marred by excessive criticism.  His political victories expose an agile statesman, if not an agile tactician.  What is undeniable is that this man forever changed the nation; and people will forever remember him as the man who preserved the Union.

Wyatt Fairlead

The Civil War

Before I take a bunch of flack from Civil War buffs, I realize that to try to explain the causes of the Civil War in 1200 words is completely absurd.  This is an essay that I had to do for my college course, and  was forced, and I repeat Forced, to write under the limitations of four pages double spaced.  For anyone who has tried to do it, you will agree that those four pages fill up very fast, and I used every last line for this essay.  I therefore beg you to read this essay with a little forgiveness.  Secondly, my goal with this essay is not to state an opinion on the war.  The goal of this essay is to be factual and nothing else.  Caveat over.  I am proceeding with the post.

The Civil War

By Don TroianiOne of my favorite Civil War paintings.

By Don Troiani
One of my favorite Civil War paintings.

The Civil War represents a conundrum in the history of this nation.  It is a subject that divides and creates controversy in and amongst the citizenry of America to this day.  In terms of net affect on the nation’s development and current makeup, the Civil war is unparalleled, with the possible exception of the Revolutionary War.  The plantation system and “king cotton” collapsed directly because of this prodigious struggle.  The Civil War nearly succeeded in permanently dividing an entire nation and in many cases did permanently divide families, the very fabric of the nation.  After all that bloodshed and violence, all that suffering and separation, there is argument over what was the root cause.

It is important to understand that purpose of the war and the cause of the war can be two totally different things.  Many consider the Civil War to be a war about slavery; others consider it to be a war about states rights.  Still others contend that the real purpose for the war was the preservation of the Union.  The general consensus is that the Civil War was inevitable, a ticking bomb armed at the ratification of the Constitution, and finally out of time in April 1861.

Those who say that the war was about slavery would in part be correct.  From a Northern perspective, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the war became about slavery.  Many of the Southern states succeeded from the Union in direct response to the election of Abraham Lincoln.  His extreme unpopularity in the South came from his Republican views primarily having to do with trade and his personal conviction against slavery, from which he drew significant public support.  In this sense also, slavery had a great deal to do with the war.  Lincoln’s association with the abolitionist agenda, in the Southern mind, if not in reality, and his subsequent election, triggered the beginning of the snowballing secessionist movement.

Of course, there are those who argue that the Civil War was actually about states’ rights and that slavery was only one of many issues in which the Federal Government was overstepping its bounds.  Those who hold this position are also correct in their perception of what the war was about.  The whole purpose of the war to the Southerner was to protect their rights, and state autonomy, from the Federal Government.  Whether rightly or wrongly, the only way they saw to protect those rights was to secede and start afresh.  Jefferson Davis is even reputed to have said during the war, “We are not revolutionists… We are not engaged in a Quixotic fight for the rights of man; our struggle is for inherited rights… We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution.  We are conservative.” Southerners went to war to protect what they considered to be their rights.  Consequently, states’ rights were also a clear purpose of the Civil War.

Perhaps those who hold the position that the overarching purpose of the Civil war was for the preservation of the Union are the most correct.  This is not because either side fought primarily for this reason, but because a decision on this point was a necessity for the political objective of either side to be achieved.  In the South, rights could only be protected by remaining separate from the Union.  In the North, the preservation of the Union was at times a stated purpose of the war, especially in Lincoln’s mind.  But even excluding this; in order for the entirely political objective of freeing the slaves to be achieved, the South had to be kept from separating.  If the North had let the South go, there would have been no war.  Therefore, it is reasonable to say that the overarching purpose of the war was to decide if the Union was to be preserved or divided.

In light of this, many consider the issue of states’ rights to be the preeminent issue, perhaps even reaching the new level of being the root cause of the Civil War.  It is difficult to think that the issue of states’ rights alone was the fundamental root of the war, however.  While the issue of states’ rights certainly goes deeper than the issue of slavery specifically, it is interesting that only the Southern states considered states’ rights as being infringed.  The Federal Government was not enacting laws that were only infringing on some states’ rights.  What was it then, that was causing the South to feel its sovereignty was endangered, that did not trouble the North?  In the South, the cause of the war was states’ rights.  They believed that the Federal government was infringing on those rights.  The government, however, was infringing on the Southern states’ rights no more than it was infringing on the Northern states’ rights; and it was infringing on their rights, if in fact it was infringement, at the Northern states behest.

The conclusion that is becoming more and more prevalent is that the dichotomy between the North and South was not purely ideological but also very practical.  The North was an entirely different place from the South.  The North was industrialized and modern.  Its commercial needs required a strong central government.  The South was agrarian.  It supported traditionally decentralized government to promote its trade overseas and its autonomy.  The North and the South were two essentially opposite social systems, and because of this it was impossible to put in place laws, which would help one of them, and not somehow be unfavorable to the other.

The question of whether or not the Civil War was inevitable or not is not a simple yes or no answer.  In one sense, the Civil War was not inevitable.  Theoretically, all it would have taken to prevent the war was for either side to have changed their societal structure to match the other.  This is almost ludicrous to say, because it is nearly impossible to change the structure of society in a short period of time.  The social systems of a region are something that grow and develop, and to try to change it inorganically is dangerous at best.  The fact remains, however, that the war was not inevitable, in the strictest sense.

On the other hand, it is an entirely true statement to say that the Civil War was inevitable if the status quo remained the same. The same government cannot effectively govern two entirely different social structures, with completely opposite and diverse needs.  Some unifying factors are necessary.  In a governmental setting, diversity is manageable; dichotomy is impossible.  I believe this is what the attack on Fort Sumter meant.  Up until that time the public had been living in two categories.  The one, still believed that things could be concluded peacefully, the other, had already made the decision that irreconcilable differences divided the two regions and that either the South would slip away, or there would be conflict.  The attack on Fort Sumter was the official signal that the game was up.  It was time to choose sides.  As for me, I do not know what my decision would be, but I know that when news of the attack came, the world would have never looked the same again.

Wyatt Fairlead

July the Third

Today is one of the most important days of American history.  But July the third is not only one of the most important days of American history in general; the actions that took place on this date in the past had the profoundest impact on the organization of what we now call the United States.  But before you all get the idea that this has anything to do with Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence, it does not.  The event I am referring to happened 87 years later.  I am referring to the last day in the battle of Gettysburg.  Today, 149 years ago, the Confederacy made its high water mark on Cemetery Ridge, in what became known as Picket’s Charge.  It was on this day that the Union almost broke.  The fate of the southern states depended on the outcome of this day.  Much of this is in hindsight; but even General Lee knew then that had he won the battle of Gettysburg, the path to Washington would be cleared and President Davis would be giving President Lincoln the South’s terms for peace.  The rest is History.  The Union line held against an assault of more than 15,000 Confederate soldiers across a plain 1 ½ miles wide and forced Lee’s retreat back to Virginia.  It was today that proved America could not overcome itself.  This is a story in Lee’s biography, which was written by A. L. Long, told by a union soldier.

            “I was at the battle of Gettysburg myself . . . I had been the most bitter anti-South man, and fought and cursed the Confederates desperately.  I could see nothing good in any of them.  The last day of the fighting I was badly wounded.  A ball shattered my left leg.  I lay on the ground not far from Cemetery Ridge, and as General Lee ordered his retreat he and his officers rode near me.

As they came, I recognized him and, though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, “Hurrah for the Union!”

The General heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me.  I confess that at first I thought he meant to kill me.  But as he came up, he looked down at me with such a sad expression on his face that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about.  He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”

If I live to be a thousand years I shall never forget he expression on General Lee’s face.  There he was, defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by.  As soon as the General had left I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”

            Today is one of the days that made the United States of America what it is, and we so often forget it.  They were regular men, Union or Confederates, Americans all, fighting for a cause, and changing the course of history with them.

Wyatt Fairlead