Korea: The First War We Lost

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Now updated with photographs and a new Preface by the author! Korea: The First War We Lost is a balanced, perceptive, and superb account of the Korean conflict written by a professional military historian. The New York Times Book Review says Bevin Alexander argues in this well-researched and readable book that the United States fought two wars in Korea, winning one against North Korea and losing the other to Communist China.


The continuing importance of the Korean War.

Chapter 1: June 25, 1950

The attack of North Korea and South Korea’s inability to stop it.

Chapter 2: How Did It Happen?

Origins of the separation of Korea along the 38th parallel

Chapter 3: Partition

Refusal of the Soviet Union to allow trade or contacts into North Korea. Election of right-wing Syngman Rhee as leader in the South. Creation of harsh Stalinist state in the North under Kim Il Sung. Most industry in North, best land in the South. Kimchi and “honey wagons.”

Chapter 4: Hands Off Taiwan and Korea

Victory of Communists in Chinese civil war. Flight of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan 1949. Belief in Washington that Red China a satellite of the Soviet Union. Statement by Secretary of State Dean Acheson leaving Taiwan and Korea outside U.S. defensive line. Leads Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin to plan seizure of South Korea.

Chapter 5: Attack Across the 38th

South Koreans have no weapons to stop North Korea’s Soviet-made T34 tanks. ROK ( Republic of Korea or South Korean) forces abandon Seoul, move south in chaos. U.S. sets in motion emergency evacuation of Americans from Korea.

Chapter 6: Decision in Washington

President Truman resolves to intervene to protect South Korea. He sees the Soviet Union as the instigator of the invasion.

Chapter 7: War and the Quarantine of Taiwan

President Truman directs General Douglas MacArthur to repel the North Koreans with air and sea forces. He believes that Red China is a party to the invasion, and orders the U.S. Seventh Fleet to prevent the Communist Chinese from invading Taiwan and eliminating the Nationalist regime there.

Chapter 8: The Army of the United Nations

Congress supports Truman’s actions. The Soviet Union continues its boycott of the UN Security Council, permitting the U.S. to get the UN’s endorsement of its actions. The UN asks the U.S. to designate a UN commander. Truman names MacArthur, who flies into Korea, and informs Truman he must commit U.S. land forces. Truman authorizes him to use all available American forces without limit.

Chapter 9: Goodbye to the Good Times

American occupation forces in Japan are thrown into the Korean maelstrom. Comfortable billets in Japan are exchanged for extremely difficult conditions in Korea. The experience is a great shock to American soldiers.

Chapter 10: The Teenagers Stand and Fight

A small contingent, Task Force Smith, is the first American element to meet the North Korean onslaught, at Osan on July 5, 1950. The North Koreans overrun the American positions, forcing the Americans to retreat in haste.

Chapter 11: Withdrawal in Disorder

A battalion of the 34th Infantry Regiment encounters the North Koreans at Pyongtaek on July 6, 1950, but it offers little resistance, and retreats in haste. North Koreans drive the 34th out of Chonan on July 7, 1950.

Chapter 12: One Bonanza, Several Defeats

General Walton H. Walker, Eighth Army commander, tries to set up a defense line along the Kum river. U.S. aircraft strike enemy tanks and infantry north of Chonui on July 9, 1950. Aircraft shatter a North Korean column at Pyongtaek on July 10, 1950. North Koreans drive the 21 st Infantry out of Chonui and Chochiwon on July 10-12,1950. To the east of the Americans, North Koreans drive back South Korean forces.

Chapter 13: The Kum River

North Koreans outflank the 34th Infantry at Kongju on the Kum river on July 14, 1950, sending the Americans in quick retreat.

Chapter 14: Taepyong-ni

North Koreans set up a devastating roadblock behind the 19th Infantry at Taepyong-ni on the Kum river on July 16, 1950, and cause huge casualties.

Chapter 15: Taejon

Americans are driven out of Taejon in a chaotic battle on July 20, 1950.

Chapter 16: The Ghost Division

While American attention is riveted on the main road and highway route in Korea—the Seoul-Taejon-Taegu axis---the North Koreans undertake an envelopment of South Korea, with the 5th Division moving along the Sea of Japan and the 6th Division driving along the Yellow Sea. But the 5th Division moves timidly and the 6th Division takes up priceless days occupying the ports of southwestern Korea., giving the Americans just enough time to throw in blocking forces.

Chapter 17: Retreat to the Naktong

South Korean troops block the 5th North Korean Division on the Sea of Japan, while American forces stop the 6th North Korean Division near Masan, west of Pusan, and also slow the advance of North Korean forces heading toward Taegu. General Walker sets up a strong defensive line along the Naktong river in late July and early August 1950.

Chapter 18: The First Counteroffensive

Americans launch offensive west of Masan in early August 1950. The operation begins with dogfights on ridgelines, but marines soon advance along the coast road and army soldiers on a road inland. The advance halts when grave dangers appear north of Taegu.

Chapter 19: The Days Along the Naktong

Only July 29, 1950, General Walker declares that “we are going to hold this line” along the Naktong. “We are going to win.” Description of the beginning stages of the dramatic, violent period in August 1950, when the North Koreans fling attack after attack against the Pusan Perimeter, but are unable to break through.

Chapter 20: “We Are Going to Hold This Line”

Description of the spectacular later battles that preserve the Pusan Perimeter and leave the attacking North Koreans badly damaged and unable to achieve any major advance.

Chapter 21: Forging a Sword of Vengeance

General MacArthur devises a plan to invade Inchon, the port city of Seoul, from the sea and sever the only double-tracked railway in Korea, vital to supply the North Koreans attacking the Pusan Perimeter. This, he says, will destroy the enemy army.

Chapter 22: MacArthur v. the Joint Chiefs

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are timid and fight MacArthur’s Inchon invasion plan. But MacArthur presses onward, gaining Truman’s support.

Chapter 23: MacArthur Calls on Chiang Kai-shek

MacArthur visits the Nationalist leader on Taiwan on July 31-August 1, 1950, raising suspicions that the U.S. is forging an alliance with Chiang and might attack the Red Chinese. Truman is livid, but the General is not moved. MacArthur also calls for the destruction of North Korea, not merely its defeat.

Chapter 24: The Decision on Inchon

MacArthur overcomes overt opposition of the Joint Chiefs to an Inchon landing at a special meeting in Tokyo on August 21, 1950. The Chiefs are still dubious but Truman and Acheson are enthusiastic.

Chapter 25: MacArthur Alienates Truman

MacArthur releases a message August 26, 1950, to be read to the Veterans of Foreign Wars implying that Truman’s wary handling of the Taiwan situation is wrong, and suggesting that the U.S. should openly support Chiang against the Chinese Reds. Truman demands that MacArthur retract the statement.

Chapter 26: The North Koreans Try Once More

Description of the last desperate efforts of the North Koreans to break through the Pusan Perimeter, and drive the Americans into the sea. All their attacks fail.

Chapter 27: The Joint Chiefs Get Cold Feet

Fearing the North Koreans will crack the Pusan Perimeter, the Joint Chiefs send a final warning on September 7, 1950, warning of disastrous consequences if the Inchon landing fails. MacArthur responds fiercely, saying this is the one way to ensure the defeat of the North Koreans. The Chiefs back down.

Chapter 28: Inchon

Description of the highly successful landing of marines and army soldiers at Inchon on September 15, 1950, and their quick breakout to seize Seoul, twenty miles away.

Chapter 29: The Assault on Seoul

Description of the fierce battles on the outskirts of Seoul between North Koreans and U.S. marines and soldiers, beginning September 22, 1950, and the subsequent street-by-street fights to drive the enemy out of the city.

Chapter 30: Breakout from the Perimeter

Description of the swift movement of American and South Korean forces northward in late September 1950 after the North Korean army disintegrates upon losing its supplies with the seizure of Seoul and severing of the rail lines.

Chapter 31: The United States Decides to Conquer

American leaders get a UN resolution passed to occupy North Korea, hold elections, and reunite the country with South Korea, meaning right-wing Syngman Rhee would become ruler. This ignores the interests of Red China, which fears an American presence on the Yalu river frontier with Korea.

Chapter 32: Red China Warns the United States

Beijing protests a UN invasion of North Korea, threatening on October 3, 1950, that South Korean troops can cross the 38th parallel, but that Red China will intervene if American forces do so. Washington ignores the warning. Meantime Truman meets with MacArthur on Wake island in the Pacific on October 15, 1950. MacArthur says there is very little chance the Chinese or Russians will come into the war.

Chapter 33: Up to the Chongchon River

The UN invasion of North Korea starts on October 9, 1950, Eighth Army advancing in the west and X Corps east of the high Taebaek mountain spine next to the Sea of Japan. Eighth Army captures the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and drives toward the Chongchon river, sixty miles south of the Yalu.

Chapter 34: Destination: The Yalu River

MacArthur unleashes UN forces in several separate, uncoordinated thrusts northward. He discounts hints that the Chinese are about to enter the war.

Chapter 35: The Warning Blow Falls

On October 25, 1950, Chinese troops ambush a ROK regiment just north of Unsan and another ROK regiment at Onjong, ten miles farther north and only fifty miles from the Yalu. ROK troops abandon Onjong but hold onto Unsan, though Chinese pressure grows ominously.

Chapter 36: Disaster at Unsan

The U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment relieves ROKs at Unsan on November 1, 1950, while a battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment fails to break a Chinese roadblock southwest of Unsan. The 8th Cavalry sustains heavy attacks, and is ordered by I Corps to withdraw. Two battalions get out, though suffering heavily, but the 3rd Battalion on the west is surrounded and cannot retreat.

Chapter 37: The Lost Battalion

Description of the virtual destruction of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, in heavy fighting November 1-4, 1950.

Chapter 38: The Chinese Back Off

Most American, British, and ROK forces withdraw to the south side of the Chongchon river, the British 27th Brigade near Pakchon on the west suffering many losses from Chinese attacks as it disengages. But on November 6, 1950, the Chinese break contact and withdraw entirely from the fight.

Chapter 39: A Time to Reconsider

The Chinese have landed heavy blows to warn the Americans not to advance, but MacArthur is not listening. MacArthur refuses to accept evidence that strong Chinese forces have entered Korea. No one in Washington challenges his interpretation, though on November 6, 1950, MacArthur changes his tune and says Chinese “are pouring across all bridges over the Yalu.”

Chapter 40: Empty Rhetoric on the Potomac

MacArthur rejects any suggestion that his drive to the Yalu should be called off. He says U.S. air power can halt any Chinese offensive. MacArthur is ignorant of the great Chinese ability to hide from American air surveillance. Again, no one in Washington challenges MacArthur’s judgment.

Chapter 41: A Different Kind of Army

Description of the unusual structure and way of operating of the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF)—no officers corps, no military ranks, telling everyone details of the tactical or strategic plan, forming units around a “three-times-three” system of three three-man teams plus a leader, weapons largely limited to rifles, machine guns, grenades, satchel charges, mortars. Also description of Chinese battle tactics.

Chapter 42: Attack into the Unknown

Eighth Army in west sets final offensive to start November 24, 1950, while advance of X Corps east of the mountain spine continues slowly. Marines and soldiers in east move cautiously up to Changjin (Chosin) reservoir. Chinese secretly mass 180,000 troops in the west and 120,000 in the east. UN forces are largely unaware of the Chinese semiguerrilla tactics of deception, surprise, and stealthy infiltration at night.

Chapter 43: The “Home-by-Christmas” Offensive

In the west, the offensive goes well at first, but blow falls on the ROK 8th Division in mountains near Tokchon on the extreme right or east. Chinese shatter the ROKs, and move into the rear of IX Corps in the center. The 2nd Division and Turkish Brigade catch the brunt of the Chinese assaults, and are badly shattered. Other Eighth Army forces retreat with great speed.

Chapter 44: The March to the Sea

In chaotic fighting around the Changjin (Chosin) reservoir in the mountains of the east, Chinese forces cut off most of the 1 st Marine Division and parts of the army 7th Division.

Chapter 45: The Agony of the Three Battalions

Description of the shattering attacks on 7th Division troops on the eastern side of the Changjin (Chosin) reservoir.

Chapter 46: An Act of Defiance

Description of the intense fighting of marines to disengage from the western side of the Changjin (Chosin) reservoir and get back to Hagaru-ri on the exit road leading south.

Chapter 47: The Breakout

Description of the dramatic retreat of marines and soldiers down the narrow mountain road from Hagaru-ri to the sea at Hungnam, and the abandonment of the American plan to conquer North Korea.

Chapter 48: MacArthur Panics

The General abruptly changes from easy confidence to outrage. “We face an entirely new war,” he announces. Washington talks frantically—and does nothing. As X Corps on the east escapes, Eighth Army on the west withdraws 120 miles in the longest retreat in American history. President Truman is tricked by reporters into saying that the U.S. might use the atomic bomb. A world uproar follows, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee flies to confer with Truman.

Chapter 49: Back to the 38th Parallel

In the Attlee-Truman talks December 4-8, 1950, Britain withdraws its proposal for Taiwan to be ceded to Red China but favors Red China’s admission to the UN. Truman says he hopes “world conditions would never call for the use of the atomic bomb.” The U.S. agrees to end the war by reestablishing the border at the 38th parallel. General Walker is killed in a jeep accident, and is replaced by Matthew B. Ridgway. MacArthur wants to risk world war by extending the conflict directly to China.

Chapter 50: The New Year’s Eve Offensive

UN forces have withdrawn to the Imjin river just north of Seoul. The Chinese launch an offensive which captures Seoul and drives the Americans back to about the 37th parallel. Chinese supply facilities are primitive, however, and they are unable to continue. Washington rejects MacArthur’s proposal to extend the war to mainland China. MacArthur claims American soldiers’ morale has declined, threatening their battle efficiency.

Chapter 51: Acheson’s Calculated Risk

The UN calls for the Chinese and Americans to withdraw from Korea, for Korea to reunite, and for all Koreans to decide on their government. Also for an “appropriate body” to decide on the status of Taiwan and Red China’s admission to the UN. Acheson accepts the plan, confident the Chinese will reject it—and thereby lose in world opinion. He’s right. General Collins decides MacArthur’s claim that morale had shrunk is wrong. Ridgway begins a march back northward. Description of R&R leaves to Japan.

Chapter 52: North to the Kansas Line

In March 1951, Eighth Army moves northward on both sides of Chunchon in the center, causing the Chinese to abandon Seoul for fear of being outflanked. The Chinese delay the advance with antitank mines and bunkers, and assemble large forces in the Chorwon-Pyonggang-Kumwha “Iron Triangle” for a counterstroke.

Chapter 53: MacArthur Finally Does It

The approach to the 38th parallel gives Truman a chance to offer a cease-fire. He circulates a draft proposal on March 19, 1951, to Acheson, secretary of defense George C. Marshall, and the Joint Chiefs, and they alert MacArthur as to what Truman is planning. On March 24, 1951, with no notice to Washington, MacArthur usurps the authority of the president and issues a bombastic threat of invasion of China unless Red China sues for peace. This kills Truman’s effort. On April 11, 1951, Truman fires MacArthur. Ridgway replaces him.

Chapter 54: The MacArthur Hearings

Two Senate committees hold hearings May 3-June 27, 1951, on MacArthur’s dismissal and the situation in the Far East. They damage MacArthur, especially concerning his desire to extend the war to China. General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, summarizes the situation: “This strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

Chapter 55: The Spring Offensive

The Chinese launch a massive offensive on April 22, 1951. UN forces fall back to the No Name Line, running from just north of Seoul roughly eastward to the Sea of Japan. This line holds. New Eighth Army commander James A. Van Fleet orders a counteroffensive. By June 13, 1951, the Chinese are back to about the 38th parallel, centering their defense on the Iron Triangle. All along the front they establish heavily dug-in emplacements laced with bunkers. Positional war comes to Korea.

Chapter 56: Talking Peace and Practicing War

Andrei Gromyko, deputy Soviet foreign minister, advises Americans on June 23, 1951, to seek a military armistice, not a political settlement, in Korea. On June 30, 1951, Ridgway offers an armistice. Next day the Chinese agree to suspend military operations and hold peace talks at Kaesong on the 38th parallel. The Americans agree to peace talks, but refuse to accept a cease-fire. This is a great mistake, rejecting Gromyko’s advice, and leads to two more years of deadly war.

Chapter 57: The Bloody Ridges

Description of the terrible battles of Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge on the eastern front August-October 1951. These engagements are the quintessential battles of the Korean War, and represent the many ridgeline clashes that mark the last two years of the war.

Chapter 58: Another Try for Peace

Peace talks resume October 25, 1951, at Panmunjom. Description of the extremely intricate negotiations between the UN and the Communists. The war is greatly lengthened because Truman refuses to return POWs who don’t want to be sent back to their Communist homelands.

Chapter 59: The POWs Seize the Stage

Description of the dramatic seizure by POWs on Koje-do island of an American general in early May 1952, and the damaging statements his successor makes about alleged UN mistreatment of prisoners in order to get the general released. A great propaganda victory for the Communists.

Chapter 60: Rhee the Despot, Clark the Hawk

Syngman Rhee changes the constitution so he can rule as a dictator. Mark Clark, the new Far East commander, bombs hydroelectric stations in North Korea, and in October 1952 proposes an amphibious landing and air and naval attacks on China itself. He also urges using atomic bombs against China. He’s ignored. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for president seeking to end the war, says “I shall go to Korea.”

Chapter 61: Others Take a Hand

As truce talks break down, president-elect Eisenhower visits Korea in December 1952. He learns nothing about achieving peace. In late March 1953 the Communists propose exchange of sick and wounded POWs on both sides and also urge settlement of the whole POW issue. In June 1953 both sides agree that neutral nations will take responsibility for POWs. Those who want to return home will be able to do so, while the others will be released.

Chapter 62: The Final Crisis

Syngman Rhee tries to torpedo the armistice by releasing 25,000 North Korean prisoners. But the Communists react mildly. Rhee refuses to sign, but agrees not to obstruct an agreement. On July 27, 1953, at Panmunjom the two sides sign an armistice—virtually identical to the terms offered by the Chinese on July 1, 1951. The war has gone on two years longer for no purpose.

Chapter 63: The Long Shadow of the Korean War

The United States spends nearly two decades after signing the armistice in deep animosity to Red China. The conflict ends only in February 1972 when Richard Nixon goes to China and reaches a settlement.


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