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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Former Congressman “Apologies for Five Tragic Mistakes in the Korean War”

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Pete McCloskey, former Congressman from California. [Source: Pacific Century Institute Website]

I have been honored by the request of my long-time friend of 60 years, Judge Quentin Kopp, to make a few remarks on this occasion. Because physical infirmity may prevent me from speaking more than a few words, I am taking the liberty of exercising a historic privilege given to Members of Congress to “revise and extend” their remarks.

I’m particularly honored to be able to pay tribute to the late John Stevens, Captain of one of the twelve understrength Marine rifle companies who are credited with saving the Naktong Perimeter in August, 1950, and to the Directors of the Presidio Trust, who made this Memorial possible. I would also like to express thanks to the three Democrat Congressmen, Clem Miller, Phil Burton, and John Burton, who caused the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate Recreation Area.

John Stevens is the primary creator of this Memorial where we sit today, and more than any other American, has well earned the enduring respect of both the Korean and American people.

I’m particularly proud of the wisdom and generosity of the members of the Board of the Presidio Trust for their decision to make this Memorial a part of California’s long history.

I am even prouder of the progress the South Korean people have made since 1950, establishing a robust economy and a democratic government not dissimilar to our own.

I take note that the fact the California Republican Members of Congress include two Korean Americans, one born at Inchon and one in Seoul, Korea.

John Stevens’ and my battalion of the Fifth Marine Regiment landed at Inchon on September 15th, 1950, and were successful in recapturing Seoul on September 28, 1950.

I have long reflected on the similarity of California’s geography to that of Korea’s, and the good fortune which we have enjoyed of having peace here, since California became a state in 1850.

By comparison, South and North Korea suffered the loss of over two million people during the three-year period of the Korean War, together with the devastation of nearly all of their cities, villages and countryside during that period.

I am not so proud, however, of five actions of United States’ leaders which ultimately led to the terrible division of Korea which all Koreans suffer today. I want to convey to Consul General Sangsoo Yoon my personal apology for those five tragic mistakes.

Let me try to list them here.

1. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in negotiating the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 between Japan and Russia. The Japanese Navy had virtually destroyed the Russian Navy, and President Roosevelt acquiesced in awarding Korea to the Japanese. The Japanese would thereafter cruelly occupy Korea, and later use Korea as a base for the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and, later still, its invasion of mainland China. I doubt that President Roosevelt was aware that Japan had long coveted control of Korea, and that some 300 years earlier, between 1592-1598, the weak Ming dynasty in China had permitted Koreans to have what amounted to their own independent government. A Japanese warlord had invaded Korea with 300,000 men but was ultimately driven out by the famous Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin using the famous “turtle ships” to defeat the Japanese in sixteen separate naval battles.

2. The second great mistake was at Yalta in February, 1945, when an ailing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shortly before his death, encouraged Russia to agree to enter the war against Japan, following the surrender of Germany, which followed in April, 1945.

American Army officers and diplomats were authorized to divide Korea at the 38th Parallel, to permit the Russians to occupy North Korea with its population of roughly ten million, while the United States would install a democratic form of government for the twenty million Koreans living south of the Parallel.

In our naivete, we expected the country to be subsequently united by some sort of plebiscite.

3. Fearful, however, that the militant South Korean President Syngman Rhee would invade North Korea if he were furnished offensive weapons including tanks and artillery, the U.S. limited arms to the South Koreans to defensive weapons, which were incapable of stopping the Russian-built T-34 tanks which Russia furnished Kim Il-sung, the seasoned military leader who had successfully fought the Japanese in Manchuria. A lot of brave young South Korean soldiers would die attempting unsuccessfully to stop those T-34 tanks, which nearly overran all of South Korea in August 1950.

4. In January, 1950, the American Secretary of State announced that South Korea was not within the American “defense perimeter” in the Pacific. This was a virtual invitation to Kim Il-sung to attempt to reunify Korea, with his vastly superior army and weaponry.

Only the courage of President Harry Truman in seeking and obtaining immediate United Nations action against North Korea, and the participation of sixteen other nations in ultimately stopping the North Korean advance by the landing at Inchon on September 15, 1950, saved South Korea.

5. Perhaps the most significant error was through the arrogance and lack of good intelligence on the part of General Douglas MacArthur, who, after his smashing September victories at Inchon and Seoul, led him to ignore the clear warning of the China’s leader, Mao Tse Tung, that if American troops crossed the 38th Parallel and moved to the Yalu river border between Korea and China, China would enter the war.

Had MacArthur limited the reoccupation of North Korea only by the resuscitated South Korean army divisions, it is entirely possible that China would not have entered the war, and Korea would be a united, single nation today. I tender these thoughts to Consul General Sangsoo Yoon with some humility and sadness, but believe they accurately reflect the mistakes of an otherwise great nation, my own.

So much for the history of a war that might not have necessarily been fought.

A Geographical Comparison Between Korea and California

From a geographic standpoint, we should not forget that the 38th Parallel, crossed by John Stevens’s Marines three times and thrown back across the Parallel twice, runs through some of California’s most beautiful landscape, starting a few miles north of here at Point Reyes and extending from San Rafael on the north across through Stockton, the Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park to Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierras.

The Presidio Trust has quietly appreciated and preserved the history that for many years, a few hundred yards west of this spot, our Coast Artillery mounted batteries of 16-inch guns to defend against potential battleships of the Japanese Navy. Luckily those 16-inch guns were never fired at an enemy, and the guns were scrapped, to be replaced by flower beds after the end of WWII.

I well remember, at the age of 11, marveling at the historical pageants at the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island, but also marveling at the huge 16-inch “disappearing guns” mounted at the Presidio.

Neither John Stevens nor I were involved in the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950, when 16-inch shells weighing nearly a ton were fired by the battleship Missouri at the several Chinese divisions which were attempting to block the retreat of the Marines from the Chosin Reservoir.

One young veteran of that retreat later told me of the incredible terror caused by one 16-inch shell fired by the battleship Missouri which burst a few hundred yards away, literally disintegrating a group of nearly frozen Chinese infantrymen.

It remains a sobering fact for reflection by those of us here today on a peaceful Saturday, to reflect that the many millions of South Koreans living in Seoul and its environs, are faced with hundreds of North Korean artillery pieces positioned across the present demilitarized zone, capable of reducing the South Korean capitol of Seoul to the same kind of destruction our atom bombs and fire bombing once caused to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo.

With thermonuclear weapons in the hands of men who may be close to being mentally unstable, we can never be sure that even the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area and this Presidio will remain safe from some madman’s decision to attack and destroy us with thermonuclear weapons.

Against that sobering thought, I want to add one personal note, which may be of interest to Consul General Sangsoo Yoon.

Some forty years after I had served in Korea, in 1992, I wrote a book mentioning that, in retrospect, we Americans had to admire the courage of the young Chinese and North Koreans against whom we had fought in close combat with rifles, grenades, and machine guns in Korea.

Eight years ago, in 2014, I was invited to join a delegation headed by former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Donald Gregg to accompany a small group of businessmen to Pyongyang to offer advice to North Korean businessmen regarding economic development that might bring North and South Korea closer together.

When we arrived in the North Korean capitol, I asked if there were any surviving North Korean soldiers from the spring of 1951. The North Koreans produced a retired Lieutenant General, Ji Young Choon, who, at the age of 17, had led a machine gun platoon in the fighting around Inje and Yanggu on the 38th Parallel. He was serving as a docent at the North Korean Military Museum. We learned through an interpreter that each of us had been wounded twice in the bitter fighting in May and June on the steep north-south ridge lines leading up to the famous “Punchbowl.”

The late Eddie LeBaron, one of the Korean War Memorial Foundation’s original directors, was also wounded in that fighting as a Marine rifle platoon leader.

At the end of two days, General Ji and I ended up embracing and saluting each other, and agreed that there was no glory in war and that we hoped that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren would never fight against each other. Now, 8 years later, I have a 31-year-old grandson teaching English to Korean school children in Taegu, a few miles south of Wonju, from which John Stevens’s company and mine led the first counter-attack against the Chinese on February 21, 1951.

I have to assume, regrettably, that General Ji’s grandsons have been drafted into the North Korea army and taught to hate both Americans and South Koreans.

Nevertheless, I am led to hope that in the eight years since General Ji and I met in Pyongyang there has been some progress behind the scenes to ultimately allow the North and South Koreans to reach a reconciliation, rather than continue the terribly unproductive pursuit of the development of huge weapons such as the 16-inch guns once mounted to the west of this Monument. In our youth, we fought on both sides in the belief that our respective causes were just. As we age, however, we look for leaders with the wisdom to know that wars are stupid and accept the words of Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

For the Foundation’s records, I have taken the liberty of attaching the Los Angeles Times article and several photographs of the meeting between myself and the former young North Korean machine-gunner, Ji Young Choon.

If John Stevens were alive today, I believe he would join me, Judge Kopp, Presidio Trustee Mark Buell, and Consul General Sangsoo Yoon, in the hope that our great grandchildren will someday see a peaceful reunification of the Korean people.


Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, Jr.