At this point American and South Korean forces could have stopped at the 38th parallel and declared a ceasefire.
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While MacArthur is generally blamed for the subsequent Chinese intervention and expansion of the war this is not completely fair. Rather than order MacArthur to halt at the 38th parallel while they debated their options the American government and UN goaded him on. Unlike today in the 38th parallel was not an internationally recognized border and Truman and his advisors were tempted by the prospect of unifying Korea under a pro-American state and to roll back communism there.
Meanwhile China became nervous as American forces advanced up the Korean Peninsula. While MacArthur had initially been told to only have South Korean forces near the Chinese border this was later relaxed as American officials assumed Chinese warnings about intervening in the war if allied forces kept moving north were bluffs. This would prove to be a grave miscalculation. As such it is understandable that Mao was afraid not only of a potential unified Korea allied to America but that it could also potentially serve as a base for America to attack Communist China.
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On the other hand Mao and the Communist Bloc were hardly innocent bystanders. Admittedly MacArthur was tempted by this but there was never any real chance of America doing this as the war came as a surprise to Truman and Americans wanted the war ended as quickly and cheaply as possible.
In many histories of the conflict MacArthur gets a disproportionate amount of blame instead of American policymakers, and the UN, that did not adequately gauge the likely consequences of crossing the 38th parallel which obviously worried the Chinese. This suggests a more prescient allied policy regarding Korea and stopping at the 38th Parallel might have had a good chance of ending the war in late On the other hand since Mao was tempted to intervene in Korea even before the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel and made the decision to do so well before these forces came close to the Yalu river suggests that both sides did not do as much as they could have to avoid escalating the conflict.
Either way Chinese forces, lightly equipped and mobile, mostly escaped American detection while being mobilized near the Yalu river in late and after being unleashed produced a series of reserves on American, and allied, forces and made them retreat from North Korea and much of South Korea once more.
However, while Chinese forces deserve credit for inflicting reverses on a superior equipped and technological army the extent of the damage has often been exaggerated. During the whole war approximately American soldiers were captured and this was a small number compared to the other major combatants as well as the total number of American soldiers who served in Korea. Perhaps the worst American losses were political and symbolic.
Not for the first time in history was it promised American forces would be home by Christmas and given North Korea collapsed in the autumn of this did not seem impossible. In this period MacArthur failed in his capacity; not only did he fail to foresee and prepare for Chinese intervention having dismissed numerous intelligence reports but his conduct of the American retreat was not stellar either as he alternated between despair and arrogance. Luckily for MacArthur Truman did not sack him as he felt American soldiers in Korea, as well as the American people, would be demoralized and lose confidence in the war effort if such a legend was fired during an ongoing battle.
MacArthur was by all accounts an egotistical primal Donna used to getting his way and being publicly adored. At this point he forgot his place and criticized Truman for not giving him the power to expand the war against China and do measures he felt would improve the military situation. Therefore MarArthur was sacked for his impropriety and replaced by General Matthew Ridgway who had a solid military career, had done an excellent job managing the retreat of American forces, and was politically astute not to question the American government regarding policy.
In the spring of things looked bleak for America and South Korea as Chinese forces crossed the 38th parallel, took Seoul and kept advancing south. However, Communist forces suffered logistical difficulties once more as their lines of communication became stretched, America and her allies continued bringing in more manpower and resources, and Ridgway revitalized his forces. If MacArthur defeated the North Koreans by a brilliant maneuver at Inchon Ridgway would stop the Chinese cold with attrition via firepower.
Chinese forces may have done well against complacent American forces that were dispersed, and at the end of their supply lines in North Korea, but the farther south they advanced the harder resistance became.
The numerous but lightly armed Chinese forces soon became cannon fodder against reorganized American forces with prodigious firepower from a menagerie of armour, artillery and airpower. Thus for the fourth time in the war an army was defeated and forced to retreat across the Korean Peninsula which became accustomed to misery, suffering and death.
Ridgway, more methodical and sensible than MacArthur, moved carefully and managed to liberate Seoul and advance up to a line roughly along the 38th Parallel. There his forces dug in, consolidated and waited for an expected Chinese counter-offensive.
A Brief History on the First Year of the “Korean War” – Section
At this point the Chinese misread the situation as badly as MacArthur had in late and felt confident they could attack and repeat their successes of the previous autumn and winter. Given China did not have the industry, expertise and technology in point to create a modern military to tackle these obstacles there was no chance she could break the deadlock. On the other side America had plenty of these assets but not enough troops, or political capital, among her populace or leaders to make the requisite efforts, or sacrifices, needed to break the stalemate either. The only conventional power that could have broken the stalemate were the strong armoured forces of the Soviet Union which probably could have intervened and kicked American forces out of Korea but at the risk of seeing American nukes falling on Moscow and Leningrad.
What is really absurd, and sad, is that the war continued on, although on a much smaller pace and intensity, for two years. There were many skirmishes, America napalmed Korean cities to ash, and both Korean regimes committed many war crimes and atrocities but the last two years became increasingly anti-climatic. Eventually the death of Josef Stalin, China and North Korea conceded on a few negotiation points, and subtle American threats regarding nuclear weapons finally resulted in a ceasefire that effectively ended the war but did not lead to peace between North and South Korea.
Although the war did last 3 years most of the crucial events and fighting occurred in the first year. This period saw incredible advances and retreats up and down the Korean Peninsula. However, American forces were reinforced, rallied and then first stopped the Chinese advance and then counter-attacked, liberated Seoul a second time and regained much of the line at the 38th parallel. Finally China launched a fifth round of major fighting by attempting to gain a decisive victory and once this failed stalemate was inevitable. Therefore in less than a year the fortunes of war turned no less than 4 times between the respective sides, favouring one and then the other in numerous successions.
This is a rarity in military history.
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Pyongyang was taken by American forces then re-taken by Chinese forces while Seoul changed hands four times! Unsurprisingly most battles, serious fighting and casualties occurred during this first year. Meanwhile North Korean forces had been gutted during the first year and as China became more sensible regarding tactics her forces suffered less casualties in the last two years as well. After this the tempo of the war slowed down and later events of the conflict are not rememberer as well. Even military history enthusiasts who know the main battles and events during the first part of the war would be hard pressed to detail the chronology from mid onwards.
Given after mid no impressive advances or victories occurred this is understandable but also regrettable. What about the results of the war? Unsurprisingly everyone claimed victory. America claimed victory despite losing her chance to unify both Koreas and China claimed victory although failing to overrun South Korea. In an operational sense the war resulted in stalemate as neither side decisively defeated the other and territorial changes were minor both sides roughly occupied the 38th Parallel again but the Americans and South Korea gained a bit more territory overall.
China was able to present the war as a victory to her people by claiming she had saved North Korea from occupation as well as fighting the American superpower to a standstill. These are among the lowest approval ratings of American Presidents in modern times. Even the erratic, divisive Donald Trump has so far beat these figures with initial approval ratings hovering in the 40s but admittedly falling into the lower 30s recently. Here are some of the most important milestones in a Great Recession timeline.
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