What was the role of China in the Korean War?
by Sir John Pratt, KBE, CMG
What did China do in the Korean War? Sir John Pratt, KBE, CMG, is an authority on China. He held appointments in the Foreign Service at many places in China and was for 13 years Adviser on Far Eastern Affairs in the Foreign Office. He was for two years head of the Far Eastern Section of the Ministry of Information. He was, for 20 years, the Foreign Secretaries’ representative on the Universities China Committee. He is now Vice-Chairman of the Board of Governors of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
The Britain-China Friendship Association is a non-party-political and non-sectarian organisation whose objects are to foster peace and friendship between the peoples of Britain and China, and to encourage the development of British-China trade.
In pursuance of these objects the Association is publishing this pamphlet by Sir John Pratt because it believes that it is a sincere and courageous attempt to put before the people of Britain certain facts about the origin of the Korean war which should be widely known.
The opinions expressed in the pamphlet are those of its author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Association.
The Association believes that this exposure of the truth will come as a shock to many people and will bring home sharply a realisation that the Chinese People’s Government, subjected to extremes of indignity and provocation, has acted wisely and temperately and has thereby greatly assisted the cause of British-Chinese friendship.
China in the Korean War
The leaflet ‘Rearmament and the Far East’ explains very briefly how the Korean War broke out. There is overwhelming evidence that Syngman Rhee and his American supporters started the civil war on 25 June 1950, and it was in order to prevent this evidence being produced and sifted that the United States Government insisted that a Security Council resolution condemning the North Koreans should be adopted the same day. The war was not manufactured, as some people make out, to safeguard British and American interests. That is the sort of stupid charge that often spoils a good case. The war had its origin in the hysterical fear that the mere word Communism produces in America and in the crime rackets and witch-hunts which are a normal feature of American political life and which are now employed to achieve American aims in world affairs.
The State Department’s White Paper on US Relations with China — a volume of 1020 pages published in August 1949 — was a public confession of the failure of the policy of backing Chiang Kai-shek as a barrier against the spread of Communism in Asia. Since 1945 the US Government had given Chiang Kai-shek 2000 million dollars, the whole of which had gone into the pockets of his Kuomintang officials, as well as 1000 million dollars’ worth of military supplies, the whole of which his generals had sold to the Communists. During 1949 the Kuomintang Administration disintegrated and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Formosa. A few months later the party led by Mao Tze Tung gained control of the whole country and, on 1 October 1949, established the People’s Republic of China, with the capital at Peking. In January 1950, Truman and Dean Acheson announced the new policy they had decided to adopt: neither Formosa nor Korea would be included in the ‘American perimeter of defence’; Formosa had been restored to China in 1945 in accordance with the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations and the terms of the Japanese surrender; it has become once more a province of China and the US would not intervene in the civil war between the Nationalists in Formosa and the Communists in China.
This policy was denounced by the Republicans as appeasement of Communism, and in a few weeks Senator McCarthy began making speeches in which he declared that the State Department was full of Communists who were selling out their country. The White Paper showed that the Kuomintang administration had fallen to incredible depths of corruption and incompetence and had reduced the people of China to unprecedented depths of misery and despair, but, according to McCarthy, the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek was due, not to his own defects, but to the treachery of the Communists in the State Department. A Sub-Committee of the Senate, which spent five months enquiring into these charges, declared that they:
… represent perhaps the most nefarious campaign of half-truths and untruth in the history of this Republic… For the first time in our history we have seen the totalitarian technique of the big lie employed on a sustained basis… We have seen the character of our government employees destroyed by public condemnation on the basis of gossip, distortion, hearsay and deliberate untruths. This has been done without the slightest vestige of respect for even the most elementary rules of evidence or fair-play or, indeed, common decency. We have seen an effort to inflame the American people with a wave of hysteria and fear on an unbelievable scale. China in the Korean War!
The free world looked on aghast at the hysteria and unreason of the McCarthy witch-hunt, but the American people believed McCarthy and the leaders of the Republican Party rallied to his support. General Marshall was responsible both for the State Department and its Chinese policy and, as the Economist pointed out, ‘he could, with his immense national prestige, have scattered the State Department traducers with a few words’, but General Marshall remained silent and Truman soon realised that unless he capitulated to McCarthy he would lose votes in the Presidential election. ‘The moral and intellectual squalor of this period’, said the New Yorker, ‘has not been equalled in living memory.’ In April 1950, Foster Dulles, a Republican, was appointed ‘Top Consultant’ in the State Department and Truman gave an assurance that he would be consulted both in the formulation and the execution of foreign policy. Since then Truman has, step by step, carried out the Republican policy in the Far East.
In the latter half of June 1950, Foster Dulles and the two defence chiefs went by air to Tokyo to hold a conference with MacArthur. The decisions reached were published in some detail in the press in America; MacArthur insisted, and the others agreed, that America should have bases in Japan, Formosa and Korea from which she could dominate both China and Russia; in order to secure these bases it would be necessary to:
- Exclude China and Russia from the negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan. This was a violation of the agreement made in 1942 not to make a separate peace with any of the enemy countries.
- Cordon off Formosa and supply military aid to Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled from China in 1949. This was a violation of the Cairo and Potsdam agreements and armed aggression on what was admittedly a Chinese province.
- Supply military aid to Syngman Rhee in South Korea against the Communists in North Korea.
These decisions involved a complete reversal of the policy announced in January and immediate action was necessary because:
- A plan for unifying Korea by conference and negotiation had been launched by the North Koreans and was having such success that Syngman Rhee’s government in South Korea was on the verge of internal collapse.
- The Peking Government intended to drive Chiang Kai-shek out of Formosa in about three weeks’ time.
The Tokyo scheme might be wrecked if there were even a few days’ delay in obtaining the approval of the US Government. The difficulty was that, only six months earlier, both Truman and Acheson had been very emphatic that the status of Formosa had been finally settled in 1945. It was Chinese territory and the traditional American policy called for international respect for the territorial integrity of China. Acheson, in particular, had insisted that the US would not allow the 1945 decision to be upset by any lawyer’s quibble about waiting for a peace treaty. It was essential, he said, to maintain in the world the belief that the Americans were decent and honourable people who, when they took a position, stuck to it and did not change by reason of transitory advantage. It is not surprising, therefore, that on 23 June Dean Acheson told a press conference in Washington that the discussions in Tokyo had not altered US policy as stated by President Truman in January. The only way out of this difficulty was to present Truman and Acheson with a fait accompli. At dawn on Sunday, 25 June, Syngman Rhee launched a sudden attack which took the North Koreans by surprise. His forces crossed the 38th parallel at several places and captured Haeju, some miles to the north on the road to Pyongyang. The North Koreans staged a counter-offensive and the South Koreans threw down their arms and fled. The North Koreans then drove on across the parallel and staged a full-scale invasion of South Korea.
For nearly a year both North and South Koreans had been expecting civil war to break out, and each side was confident of victory. The American Military Advisory Group, who had created the South Korean army, were convinced that one South Korean division could defeat three North Korean divisions and Syngman Rhee had often boasted that, if they were allowed to start, his forces could capture Pyongyang, the Northern capital, in three days. These were ludicrous miscalculations. Ten months later (6 May 1951) General MacArthur told a Committee of the Senate what had happened:
China in the Korean War: The South Koreans were no match for them at all; and the disposition by the South Koreans of their logistic potential was extraordinarily poor. They had put their supplies and equipment close to the 38th parallel. They hadn’t developed any positions in depth. Everything between the 38th parallel and Seoul was their area of depot. When they lost that immediate line they lost their supplies. They were not able apparently to destroy them en masse; so that at one initial stroke this North Korean army had a new supply base in the area between the 38th parallel and Seoul, which enabled them to press south with the full strength of their base being immediately behind them. They no longer had to rely on the long distance from the Yalu to get their supplies down.
General MacArthur’s evidence contradicts at all material points the report of the United Nations’ military observers, which is the one document always cited as proof that the South Korean forces ‘were taken completely by surprise’ (see Appendix II).
It was not an international war but a civil war, with which the United Nations would not normally be concerned. The United States Government decided, however, to treat it as an international war and to secure the condemnation of the North Koreans before any evidence could be produced and before the Soviet delegate could resume his place on the Security Council. Ambassador Muccio’s report reached the State Department at 9.26pm on 24 June, eastern daylight time (11.26am, 25 June, Korean time), and at midnight EDT, namely, 2.00pm, 25 June, Korean time (see Appendix II (e)) the Secretary-General telegraphed to the United Nations Commission in Seoul asking for a report. Some hours later the Commission sent a telegram in reply (S/1496) stating that Syngman Rhee had not planned to appeal to the Security Council, but had no objection to their being informed of this ‘latest turn of events’. The telegram threw no light on the origin of the fighting but merely stated that each side accused the other. At the urgent request of the US Government the Security Council met at Lake Success at 2.00pm EDT the same day. The US delegate said that the facts were set out in the Commission’s telegram (S/1496) and that his government considered that ‘this wholly illegal and unprovoked attack by the North Korean forces constitutes a breach of the peace and an act of aggression’. The Yugoslav delegate protested that the evidence before them did not enable the Council to decide which was the guilty party, but he received no support. The American resolution was adopted and the North Koreans were condemned unheard.
This monstrous act of injustice was rendered possible by the subservient attitude of the British delegate and the absence from the Security Council of both China and Russia. On 13 January 1950, the Security Council decided that the delegate from Formosa should be accepted as the representative of China. The British delegate abstained from voting but the Russian delegate protested against China’s exclusion from the United Nations and refused to attend any further meetings of the Security Council. He maintained that valid decisions could not be taken so long as China was prevented from occupying the permanent seat on the Security Council to which she was entitled. If other countries, and especially Great Britain, had had the moral courage to adopt the same policy there would have been no Korean War but, in the event, it merely meant that in the absence of a Russian delegate, on 25 June the United States was able to secure the condemnation of the North Koreans. Mr Malik resumed his seat on 1 August, but by then the United Nations had been drawn into the Korean War.
On 27 June, before the next meeting of the Security Council, President Truman announced that he had sent the Seventh Fleet to cordon off Formosa, alleging as his pretext that the Korean War was proof that ‘Communism had begun to use armed invasion and war to conquer independent countries’. China in the Korean War? A year later, on 5 July 1951, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial under the heading ‘Truman’s Fear: Not the Reds but Depression’. The contention of the article was that the burden of armaments had been imposed on the world, not from genuine fear of Communist aggression, but in order to relieve the American economy of its nightmare dread of depression: ‘No reports from any quarter prove that Russia has any intention, within the foreseeable future, of embarking on a general war.’
On 28 June, Chou En-lai, the Foreign Minister of the Peking Government, declared that the US had instigated Syngman Rhee to attack the North Koreans in order to create a pretext for sending the Seventh Fleet to Formosa, an act which he denounced as armed aggression against Chinese territory. On 29 June, Dean Acheson made an attempt to answer this accusation. In a speech to the annual convention of the American Newspapers Guild in Washington, he declared that the Security Council’s resolution of 25 June, condemning the North Koreans, had been adopted within 20 hours ‘after hearing the report of the UN Commission labelling the Communist action an unprovoked act of aggression’. This calculated lie has formed the basis of all subsequent accounts of the origin of the Korean War.
After the condemnation of the North Koreans attempts were made to find evidence and arguments to support the American case. We were asked to believe:
- That Soviet Russia had launched her puppet, North Korea, against the South Koreans at the moment when there was no Russian delegate on the Security Council;
- That the North Koreans started a civil war at the moment when their own unification-by-conference plan was on the point of succeeding;
- That this plan was intended solely for its screening effect; and
- That it was a mere coincidence that the civil war happened to break out at the very moment when MacArthur was urgently in need of a pretext for cordoning off Formosa.
A year later, when Acheson was asked to explain how it was that 51 Chinese Nationalists, residing in America, had made a profit of 30 million dollars by cornering the market in soya beans just before the Korean War broke out, he replied that this had created a serious situation, but that it was a matter that concerned the Department of Agriculture. We were also told that the report of the United Nations’ military observers proved that it must have been the North Koreans who began the war, but, no doubt through inadvertence, this myth has been exploded by General MacArthur’s evidence quoted above. In any case all that the report of the military observers proved was that neither side seemed to be expecting an immediate outbreak of hostilities. Paragraph 8 of the report, which showed that the North Koreans were not preparing to attack, was omitted from the version published in the British White Paper laid before Parliament (Cmnd 8078). The White Paper also suppressed the United Nations’ telegram from Seoul of 25 June (S/1496) which would have shown that the North Koreans were condemned unheard on a charge for which no evidence has ever been produced.
Attempts were also made to allay the anxiety aroused both in England and America by the prospect of China being involved in war in Korea. We were assured that what the United Nations were being asked to undertake was a defensive police action in order to restore the position as it was before 25 June, and that there would be no crossing of the 38th parallel. If that promise had been kept, it would have made it difficult for the United States to include Korea within the American perimeter of defence. Korea could not be used as a base from which to bomb and menace China and Russia until the Syngman Rhee Government had been established in control of North Korea.
General MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the United Nations’ Forces and on 15 July President Rhee assigned to him command authority over all South Korean land, sea and air forces. On 1 October the South Korean forces were sent across the 38th parallel and on 9 October they were followed by the rest of the forces under General MacArthur’s command. On 13 October, General MacArthur had a conference with President Truman, who flew to Wake Island for the purpose. With the elections three weeks off he was anxious, we were told, to pluck ‘at least a branch of the laurels of the Korean victory’. In the minutes of the conference which were made public five months later, it is recorded that General MacArthur expressed concern at the opposition in the United Nations to President Rhee, to which President Truman replied: ‘We must make it plain that we are supporting the Rhee Government and propaganda can go to hell.’
The public have been told that General MacArthur was authorised to cross the 38th parallel by the General Assembly Resolution of 7 October 1950. That is quite untrue. Pandit Nehru warned the Assembly that: ‘Faith in the United Nations might be impaired if the United Nations were even to appear to authorise unification of Korea by the use of force against North Korea after the organisation had resisted the attempt of North Korea to unify the country by force against South Korea.’ But by 7 October the 38th parallel had already been crossed and the South Korean army, under General MacArthur’s supreme command, was advancing on a broad front to the port of Wonsan, 100 miles to the north. Faced with a fait accompli, the General Assembly passed a resolution which declared that United Nations’ forces should not ‘remain in any part of Korea’ longer than necessary. It ‘obliquely recognised’, but it did not authorise, the use of force against North Korea.
The account given in the British White Paper (Cmnd 8078) has led the public to believe that two separate armies were operating in Korea and that the army under General MacArthur’s command began its advance across the 38th parallel after the General Assembly had passed the resolution of 7 October. No mention is made of the fact that Syngman Rhee placed all the South Korean forces under General MacArthur’s command and that General MacArthur, in accepting this arrangement, wrote: ‘It cannot fail to increase the coordinated power of the United Nations’ forces operating in Korea.’ We allowed ourselves to be tricked into participating in General MacArthur’s invasion of North Korea and we share the responsibility for the miseries the invasion inflicted on the people of Korea. According to a recent United Nations’ report, out of a total population in North Korea of nine millions, one million have been slaughtered and some four millions have fled from their homes southward to escape the obliteration bombing. The Manchester Guardian’s comment was that this shows what a popular government they had in North Korea.
The MacArthur policy called for military aid to Chiang Kai-shek as well as to Syngman Rhee. In August, MacArthur paid a visit to Formosa and made it known to all the world that his aim was to restore Chiang Kai-shek to power in China. China in the Korean War! On 30 September, when the United Nations’ forces were standing on the 38th parallel, Chou En-lai gave warning that the Peking Government could not stand idly by if they invaded North Korea. This was regarded as bluff. North Korea was invaded and then, ignoring British protests, MacArthur made a headlong rush to the Yalu River. Before long he ran into stiff opposition and was forced to make another headlong rush, this time back to the 38th parallel, and it was not until about the first week in January 1951 that the tide turned again in favour of the forces under his command.
China Intervenes in the Korean War
We are still being asked to believe that China’s intervention in North Korea was an act of aggression. WV Purcell, Lecturer in Far Eastern History in Cambridge University, writes as follows:
The press, generally speaking, asks its readers to see in Korea the unmistakable signs of Soviet aggression. China (they say), at the instigation of Russia, has unwarrantably intervened in Korea to undo the police work of the United Nations. No one who has studied the situation can believe that there is a vestige of evidence for this charge. The fact is that China has reacted in the face of MacArthur’s provocation in an extremely logical and expected way… China entered the Korean War only after a disregarded warning and an exhibition of forbearance. Thus Korea ceased to be a local issue once for all and the United Nations, and the United States in particular, became, to Asia at least, the aggressor. It is hard to believe that MacArthur did not, and does not now, seek a world war.
On 10 January 1951, a memorandum demanding that China be branded an aggressor was circulated by the State Department to 22 nations. The discussions at Lake Success during the next three weeks make painful reading. Walter Lippmann expressed the hope that the United States was capable of something better than ‘the futile rages of a frustrated child’, and even the Economist complained that ‘American policy seems now to have taken the shape of issuing peremptory instructions to the United Nations by Congressional resolution and then flying into a temper when they are not immediately obeyed’. It seemed that America was deliberately seeking an extension of hostilities. Nevertheless on 1 February 1951, the resolution branding China an aggressor was adopted by the General Assembly. That is how China was treated in the Korean War.
This shameful resolution presented Stalin with a case which neither Truman nor Attlee made any attempt to answer. In February 1951, Stalin declared that ‘the United Nations, created as a bulwark for preserving peace, is being turned into an instrument of war’. It was the representatives, he said, of the 10 member countries of the North Atlantic Pact and the 20 Latin American countries ‘who carried the shameful decision on the aggression of the Chinese People’s Republic’, but it is difficult to convince the soldiers sent to fight in Korea ‘that the United States is entitled to defend its security on the territory of Korea and at the frontiers of China, whereas China and Korea have no right to defend their security on their own territory or at the frontiers of China’.
Up to the end of the eighteenth century China was a great and well-ordered Empire to whom the people of Asia looked up as the fountainhead of civilisation. There followed a century of decay, but during the last 30 years there has been a crisis of rejuvenation, culminating two years ago in the recovery by China of her former proud position with prestige enhanced by an officialdom that is completely incorruptible and an army under perfect discipline. All this is familiar to those who deal with Far Eastern affairs, but any American who states these facts is in danger of being labelled Communist and being made the victim of a witch-hunt.
General Marshall finds it prudent to declare that ‘China has been virtually conquered by Russia’ and, from President Truman downward, no one dares deny that Mao is a puppet of Stalin and China a tool of Soviet aggression. There is something rather ludicrous in the claim these men make that their country is the leader of the free world. They should bear in mind the words of Euripides: ‘This is true Liberty, when freeborn men, having to advise the public, may speak free: Which he who can and will deserves high praise: Who neither can nor will may hold his peace. What can be juster in a state than this?’
The new China, unlike the China of Chiang Kai-shek, will not submit to being menaced from places like Formosa and Korea and, rather than submit, will go on fighting till the end of time. This is not yet understood in America. Nor have Americans abandoned their faith in the ignoble slogan, ‘all aid short of war’. It was an unpleasant shock when American soldiers, as well as arms and money, had to be sent to aid Syngman Rhee in his civil war against the North Koreans. It may be some years, therefore, before it is realised that, so long as the United States maintain their present attitude towards the Communist world, so long will they have to send American soldiers to fight in Asia. When this has seeped into the minds of the American people, then, and not till then, will it be possible to re-establish a civilised world order founded on the principles the comity of nations.
New York Times, 1 August 1950: ‘The Senate voted $2,450,000,000 to carry forward the Marshall Plan for the economic reconstruction of Western Europe… It warned the 16 beneficiary nations that those refusing to help the United States fight the United Nations’ battle in Korea might lose all Marshall aid.’
House of Lords, 21 November 1951: The Marquess of Reading: ‘Those who profess to doubt whether UNO has any reality need surely look no further than Korea, where forces from 16 different nations are ranged under a United Nations’ commander to defeat just the kind of aggression that the United Nations Organisation was created to resist.’
House of Lords, 21 November 1951: Viscount Samuel: ‘The sections of the United Nations’ Charter that arrange for contingents to be furnished when military action is necessary were of great value in the case of Korea, and swift and effective action was in fact taken under the magnificent leadership of the United States.’
Washington Post, 11 November 1951: ‘There has been heavy public pressure to use atomic weapons in Korea and Congressional agitation to this end, growing in recent weeks, will probably increase… For the notion of annihilating the Red Chinese and North Korean enemy with an atomic inferno is an appealing one.’
After this pamphlet had been sent to the printer further information, summarised below, was received by airmail from New York. It leaves no reasonable doubt that Syngman Rhee began the civil war with a sudden attack on North Korea. It seems probable that the truth cannot be suppressed much longer, even in America.
A: MacArthur’s HQ in Tokyo, which maintained a ‘reportial unit’ in Korea, relayed a report to Washington in March 1950 that South Korea would be invaded by June, but this report was dismissed in two subsequent telegrams of 10 March and 25 March, stating that there would be ‘no civil war in Korea this spring or summer… The most probable course of North Korean action is furtherance of the attempts to overthrow the South Korean Government by the creation of chaotic conditions through guerrilla activities and psychological warfare.’
B: Assistant Secretary of State John D Hickerson stated to the Senate Appropriations Committee that ‘the attack came without warning’, but admitted under cross-examination that the State Department had ‘done some thinking about it… We planned to take it to the UN for immediate action… We had a skeleton of a resolution, but only in very rough form.’
C: New York Times, 31 July 1950: On 30 July an Intelligence Staff Officer on General MacArthur’s HQ at Tokyo said that ‘the North Korean army had not carried out its full mobilisation plan at the time the war began on 25 June… that only six full divisions had been ready for combat when the invasion started, although the North Korean War plan called for 13 to 15.’ (He offered no theory to explain why North Korea should launch an invasion before it was fully ready.)
D: In the December issue of the Cosmopolitan, General Willoughby, General MacArthur’s Chief of Intelligence, writes of the attack as an ‘alleged surprise’ and says: ‘The entire South Korean army had been alerted for weeks and was in position along the 38th parallel.’
E: John Gunther was in Tokyo in June 1950, gathering material for his book about MacArthur. On 25 June he was lunching with two important members of the occupation ‘when one was called to the phone and came back and whispered, “A big story has just broken. The South Koreans have attacked North Korea.”’
Korea: The Lie that Led to War
The accuracy of the ISC Report was confirmed, on the basis of documents not available in 1952, by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman in their book The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1998). See also Thomas Powell, “Biological Warfare in the Korean War: Allegations and Cover-up” (2019):
In addition to the ISC Report, the Amazon edition contains 200 pages on the war’s origins and its social impacts, together with testimony from nineteen pilots who flew the missions, from journalists who interviewed them, and from biowarfare experts.
The Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of Facts Concerning Bacteriological Warfare in Korea and China (the ISC report), published at the height of the Korean War, validated claims by North Korea and China that the US had launched bacteriological warfare (biological warfare, BW) attacks against both troops and civilian targets in those two countries over a period of several months in 1952.
This 667 page truth commission report has the dubious distinction of being the most vilified written document of the 20th Century. The report’s release in September, 1952, brought a withering international attack. It was roundly denounced by American and British politicians of the highest rank, ridiculed by four star generals, accused of fraud by celebrated pundits, misquoted by notable scientists, and scorned by a compliant Western press. Charges were made against the quality and truthfulness of its science. Its “unstated” political agenda was denounced. The ethics of interviewing captured US pilots was excoriated and its authors were publicly flayed as communist dupes. The report was red baited in the US halls of Congress and deemed unpatriotic to read, and therefore went unread and deliberately forgotten over the years, which has been the fate of Korean War history in general. In subsequent decades, volumes placed in American university library collections were quietly and permanently removed from circulation.
When the rare copy came up for auction, it was discretely purchased and disappeared from public view. This critical 67 year old truth commission document from the Korean War was slipping towards oblivion. For these very reasons, historians and truth seekers should exalt the wondrous rebirth of the ISC Report from near extinction with the publication of this new electronic edition. We welcome the sunshine that re-publication brings to a shadowy and suppressed chapter of American Cold War history. (from the introduction by Thomas Powell)