This year is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Often called our forgotten war, Korea has faded from view, overshadowed by Vietnam, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The extended combat in jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, and the frustration of our objectives in the Middle East, remain vivid in our collective national memory, but little is remembered about the struggle in the hot summers and frigid winters of the Korean peninsula. In three years of fighting, United States forces in Korea suffered 128,650 casualties, counting both killed and wounded. The figures for Vietnam are 211,454, but this was over a period of ten years, indicating a casualty rate in Korea almost twice as high as Vietnam. Looking back sixty years later, we might ask ourselves: What did we achieve? Did we learn anything?
The American intervention in Korea caused none of the bitter divisions and public demonstrations which beset our country over Vietnam. The sudden attack by North Korea upon the south was a clear act of aggression, recognized as such by the United Nations. It was perceived as a threat to U. S. security, as American occupation forces across the Korean Strait in Japan were less than 160 miles away. After some initial setbacks, U. S. and U. N. forces quickly liberated South Korea, and advanced into the North to within a few miles of the Chinese border. Only massive intervention by the Chinese prevented the destruction of the North Korean regime, and caused the withdrawal of U. N. forces back to the 38th parallel, the original line of demarcation between the North and the South. Following two more years of stalemated warfare, an armistice was finally signed in 1953.
What did we achieve? Although we did not defeat North Korea or its Chinese allies, we did rescue South Korea. In doing so, we accomplished our objective, which was to eject the invader from South Korean soil, and to restore the “status quo ante,” the previous border between the two powers. As we well know, South Korea went on to become an economic giant and a vibrant democracy. But it was to be our last success. In Vietnam, we were unable to defeat the North Vietnamese, and, following the departure of American forces, South Vietnam was quickly overrun by the North. As we continue to withdraw from our ill-conceived intervention, Iraq and Afghanistan are in political and economic turmoil, threatened by Islamist extremist groups opposed to Western law and culture. Only our invasions of the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama achieved any measure of success. Unfortunately, like the school bully, we seem to win only when we pick on the little guys.
It is time to recognize that when we meddle in the affairs of nations who resent our interference, when we try to bring democracy to people who don’t want it, and when we intervene in events where our national interest is not at stake, we will not succeed.
Is anyone in Washington listening?