Enter the Dragon: China’s undeclared war against the U.S. in Korea, 1950-51: In 1953, after over a year in Korea, I (Russell Spurr) found myself impressed by these very different, and unexpected, foes; the Chinese peasant soldiers, whose toughness and tenacity had won renewed respect for their country as an emerging military power. No one, no matter how friendly to China, would have predicted before the autumn of 1950 that the disciplined armies forged by the Chinese civil war could rout the best that the Americans could muster. Underestimation of the despised Chinese Communists was responsible for most of the major mistakes made by U.S. field commanders once Mao Zedong’s forces joined in the Korean Conflict.
The Korean Conflict had been underway for some months before China threw in with the North Koreans. For five years (1945-50), North and South Korea–the former under the Soviet-installed Kim Il Sung, the latter under the Western-oriented but authoritarian Syngman Rhee–uneasily respected each other’s borders, though both governments claimed sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula.
Then, on June 25 of 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA)–trained and equipped by the Soviet Union–swept over the 38th Parallel, slashing through the defenses erected by the South Koreans. The United Nations forces succeeded in pushing the North Koreans back over the 38th Parallel (thanks to General MacArthur’s daring amphibious landing at Inchon) and, against the better judgment of some Western leaders, proceeded to roll back the Communist North Korean forces on their own territory. By October of 1950 the UN forces occupied the greater part of North Korea; and advance units were within a few miles of the North Korean-Chinese border when they began to encounter unexpected–and increasing–resistance. Chinese troops had crossed their Yalu River border and joined in on the side of the North Koreans.
By January 4, 1951, the Chinese had utterly routed the UN forces, retreating helter-skelter as armies from the north again streamed over the 38th Parallel. U.S. General Matt Bunker Ridgway, the newly appointed Eighth Army commander, fell back to terrain his technologically superior troops could hold, then in mid-January launched a counterattack upon the overextended Chinese. By March 15, the U.S. Eighth Army had retaken Seoul; a week later it had regained the 38th Parallel.
Heroes do not figure largely in Spurr’s book, which highlights more mistake than masterstrokes, but Ridgway, America’s most underrated military genius, and his great opponent, General Peng Dehuai of China, tower above their peers. Spurr’s book does suggest that, contrary to Western perceptions at the time, the Communist rulers of China, newly triumphant in their own civil war, were dragged reluctantly into a conflict they neither instigated nor welcomed. Diverted from the task of domestic reconstruction, the Chinese felt forced to commit ill-equipped troops to prevent the extermination of a friendly, Communist-ruled buffer state on their Manchurian border. Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River gingerly at first, hoping the barbarians would get their message and evacuate North Korea. When that failed, they forced the longest, most disgraceful retreat in U.S. military history. In December 1950, General Walton Walker, who had been treating the campaign thus far as a quail hunt, had lost all stomach for a fight. Convinced that the heirs of Genghis Khan were about to overwhelm the entire Korean peninsula, Walker sanctioned the longest, most disgraceful retreat in U.S. military history.
Contrary to MacArthur’s expectations, the Chinese intervened in force. From late October until the beginning of December in 1950, the Chinese killed or captured thousands of American and South Korean soldiers, nearly decimating the 2nd Infantry Division and forcing Walker into a pell-mell retreat. (Medal of Honor recipient Emil Kapaun was captured and taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers on November 2, 1950.)
Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s eldest son, was killed in action by a UN air strike during the Korean War. Mao Anying was Peng Dehuai’s secretary and Russian translator in the Chinese Army at the time of his death. On November 25, 1950, a South African Air Force A-26 bomber dropped four napalm bombs, killing Mao Anying and another officer. The people on the other side of the line are not simply the other country’s soldiers, but its leaders as well. When Stalin died in 1953, to the relief of Nikita Khrushchev and others, Mao Zedong was one of the few world figures genuinely sorry. For years, Stalin’s portrait was displayed in Beijing, alongside those of Marx and Engels.