top of page

The War America Forgot

Summary execution of South Korean political prisoners by the South Korean military and police at Daejeon, South Korea 1950

By Charles Hanley | February 23, 2018

Charles Hanley delivered this talk as part of a roundtable, “The Korean War Today,” with Kim Dong-choon, Christine Hong, and Monica Kim (moderator) at NYU’s D’Agostino Hall on February 23, 2018. This was the inaugural event of NYU’s Marilyn B. Young Memorial Lecture program.

I was approaching my third birthday in Brooklyn, New York, that Sunday long ago when those seven North Korean divisions struck south across the 38th parallel. Now here we are, a lifetime later, in a new century, and it seems as if all the last century’s turmoil and wars – both hot wars and cold wars – have been distilled into one explosive corner of the world map, one narrow peninsula that history won’t let live in peace. Or that somebody won’t let live in peace – choose your own villains.

And yet, all these decades later, the Korean War, the root of all of this, remains an unknown war in so many ways, particularly to Americans.

And the question will arise: Can the warring parties agree to a peace when they cannot agree on the war, on what happened, when they don’t understand what about that war motivates the other side, when they don’t acknowledge responsibility and regret?

For too long the real war – what really happened – lived only in the suppressed memories of ordinary Koreans, in whispered conversations in the villages, in the pages of telltale documents growing yellow with age in classified archives.

When Choe Sang-hun, Martha Mendoza, and I published the journalism confirming the U.S. massacre of civilians at No Gun Ri, on front pages across the United States, it was a shock to Americans. This didn’t fit the script of history as Americans knew it. As Marilyn Young, a historian best known for her research on the Vietnam War, noted, it seemed a story “misplaced in the wrong war.” Korea wasn’t like this.

But when it comes to the Korean War, that script of history sometimes is as much fiction as reality.

A few examples:

The official U.S. Army history of the war tells the reader that U.S. troops recapturing the city of Taejon in September 1950 found that the North Korean occupiers had slaughtered 5,000 to 7,000 South Korean civilians before retreating. But the reality – confirmed only since the turn of this century – is that the South Korean authorities carried out most of these executions the preceding July, as part of a monstrous bloodbath in which tens of thousands of supposed leftist sympathizers across the south were summarily executed. From the very first days, North Korean executions of southerners were publicized worldwide, including this false story about Taejon. But these much more extensive killings by the southerners were hidden from history.

That same July, Life magazine entertained Americans with a cover story about the heroics of U.S. Air Force jet pilots over South Korea, defending hard-pressed American troops on the ground. But it wasn’t until a half-century later that declassified archives showed that these same fighter-bomber squadrons were being ordered to attack refugee columns on the roads – or, in one case, to attack any group of eight or more Koreans … in South Korea! All because of the potential for North Korean infiltrators among them.

Some months later, in January 1951, the Associated Press, my organization, transmitted a news photo showing a scene south of Seoul where 200 civilians – men, women and children – lay dead and strung out along a roadside. The caption said these refugees had frozen to death. The reality was that they had been killed by strafing U.S. planes. Some censorious hand had cut out the truth. This was now the script: frozen to death, all at once, on a main road between two towns.

We’ll never know the full extent, but clearly many, many hundreds, probably thousands, of innocent Koreans were killed in this way.

In August 1950, news stories on the AP wire and in the New York Times reported that U.S. Army engineers had successfully blown up a bridge over South Korea’s Naktong River, denying it to the advancing North Koreans, who wouldn’t appear in the area for another five days. What wasn’t reported – but was known to the journalists – was that hundreds of South Korean refugees, terrified families seeking safety across the river, were blown up with the bridge. The reporters censored themselves on that fact, helping write the acceptable script of history.

And as late as 1999, the U.S. Army denied – to the U.S. National Council of Churches, of all people – that any evidence existed to support a claim by Korean survivors that the U.S. military massacred hundreds of people at No Gun Ri in 1950 when the truth was that the archives reviewed by the Army held many of those telltale documents. Ground troops were ordered to fire indiscriminately on approaching refugee groups. But the Army of 1999 wasn’t about to rewrite the script of history. Six months later, Choe Sang-hun, Martha Mendoza, and I blew their cover on No Gun Ri. And yet the Pentagon investigative report that followed is so full of deceptions and cover-ups that yet another Korean War fiction is kept alive.

That’s South Korea. The black hole of history was – and remains – even blacker when it comes to North Korea and what happened there during the war.

Most famously, the North Koreans claim the U.S. military massacred some 35,000 civilians in Hwanghae province, south of Pyongyang, in the fall of 1950. Recent scholars, including Kim Dong-choon, have concluded the slaughter was carried out by Korean right-wing paramilitaries. The question of any American connection remains unanswered.

But we know anecdotally, from my own and others’ reporting, that terrible things were done by American troops when they entered the north. One 7th Cavalry Regiment veteran told me, “I personally killed anything in front of me when we moved up. … You’ve heard of the Rape of Nanking in China?” he asked me. “Similar to that.”

That’s on the ground. From the air, of course, the devastation and death dealt to the north by the U.S. Air Force was unimaginable. Dean Acheson, secretary of state, proclaimed publicly that U.S. bombing in North Korea was “directed solely at military targets.” But General MacArthur’s classified directive ordered his air forces to destroy “every means of communication and every installation, factory, city and village.” Even earlier, the Pentagon told MacArthur’s command to stop issuing press communiques referring to bombed villages, but to call them “military targets” instead.

There are a few honorable exceptions – Kim Dong-choon’s book, “The Unending Korean War,” is one of them, along with books by Su-kyoung Hwang, Sahr Conway-Lanz and, of course, Bruce Cumings. But the script of history that comes down to us Americans largely tends to overlook the wholesale flattening of North Korean cities, ignores the indiscriminate mowing down of South Korean refugees, takes little notice of the mass executions – of 100, 200, possibly 300,000 people – by the Syngman Rhee regime in 1950.

The most recent best-selling American history of the war, David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, has an entire six-page chapter devoted to Douglas MacArthur’s mother, but literally not a single word – not a word – on any of the above carnage, on all the other mothers and grandmothers and countless others who died unjust deaths in Korea. David Halberstam wrote that book as though the war was fought on a peninsula devoid of civilians.

With this kind of blindness and ignorance, how can today’s Americans understand the depth of inherited hatred and fear that animates North Koreans? Or understand the mixed feelings of South Koreans toward an America that, on one hand, helped them and suffered more than 100,000 dead and wounded of its own in doing so, and on the other hand helped bring about and perpetuate the unending Korean War, and destroyed much of the land and people in the process.

Edward R. Murrow understood this. Two months into the war, that noted American radio correspondent sent a report from Korea back to CBS in New York in which he said the Americans were creating “dead valleys” across South Korea, and wondered whether the South Korean people could “ever forgive us.” The CBS brass killed that Murrow report. It didn’t fit the script of history.

One final point: There seems to be a lack of appreciation, of knowledge, here in this country about the historic relationship between China and North Korea, that Korea is the only place where American and Chinese armies have fought each other to the death, that China saved North Korea from oblivion, that it sacrificed hundreds of thousands of young Chinese in the process, that one of them was Mao Zedong’s own son, who was buried in a military cemetery in Pyongyang. The Chinese pride in that war, their “War to Resist United States Aggression and Aid Korea,” is great and officially nurtured, despite recent frictions over the north’s nuclear program.

I have a Chinese soldier’s 862-day diary from the Korean War. In late July 1953, when he hears at the war front about the armistice, this teen-aged soldier Chen Xingjiu realizes he can now go home a hero, one who helped humiliate the mighty United States. “The entire Chinese people are proud,” he writes in his diary. “How can we not be, being victorious in this war? Rejoice! We are proud because we are Chinese.”

When we speak of ignorance about the Korean War and that Chinese connection, one need go no farther than this current White House. Some of you may recall that in the first presidential debate in the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump suggested that China invade North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue.

“China should solve the problem for us,” he said. “China should go into North Korea.”

I think my young Chinese soldier of 1953 would be a little befuddled by this American president.

The historian Marilyn Young once wrote that the horrible conflict that broke out in Korea 67 and a half years ago was a war that “the American public both rejected and refused to think about.” Sadly, in too many places, that thinking has yet to begin.

Charles J. Hanley is a retired Associated Press correspondent who was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reporting team that confirmed the No Gun Ri Massacre in 1999. He is co-author of The Bridge at No Gun Ri (Henry Holt and Company, 2001).


bottom of page