Colloquium on Contemporary History Project
Captain Steven U. Ramsdell, USN
Director, Naval Aviation History and Publication Division
Naval Historical Center
On behalf of the Director of Naval History, Dr. Dean C. Allard, I welcome you to today's Colloquium on Contemporary History. The purpose of these events, I hope you understand, 15 to promote the study of post-World War II national security issues and to enhance our understanding of the role of the defense establishment in the contemporary period, with of course, emphasis on the naval aspects of that involvement. What an important subject we have today; the Chinese intervention into the Korean War. That watershed event is of interest, first of all because of what we can learn about circumstances surrounding the intervention itself and also, because it cast such a long shadow over subsequent American policy and involvement in Asia, including of course our participation in the Vietnam War. Therefore, it really commands our attention. Once again, welcome, and let's proceed with the conference.
The title of today's colloquium is "A New Equation: Chinese Intervention into the Korean War." Why should we be concerned with an event that occurred almost forty years ago in a conflict that Clay Blair has labeled the Forgotten War? There are many reasons, but a primary one has to be that Chinese intervention into the war strongly influenced how the United States and the People's Republic of China would approach Far Eastern security concerns for at least the next twenty years.
The massive size of the Chinese Red Army, and the skill with which it forced United Nations forces to withdraw from the frozen hills of North Korea, persuaded American leaders that they faced a major military power. Thereafter, successive U.S. administrations focused on preventing full-scale armed confrontation with Chinese Communist forces, especially on the mainland of Asia. Truman gave up earlier thoughts of unifying Korea under a Western banner; Eisenhower passed on the French invitation to Dien Bien Phu and he kept Chiang Kai-shek "leashed;" and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson spared no effort to avoid provoking Chinese intervention into the Southeast Asian conflict.
At the same time, the government in Peking learned from its experience in Korea that American naval, air, and ground forces, equipped with an arsenal of lethal weapons, could exact a heavy toll of Chinese lives and resources. This knowledge fostered Communist restraint during the Sino-American confrontations over the Tachen Islands in 1955, Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, and Southeast Asia in the 1960s.
The fears that motivated this mutual restraint, however, also made the People's Republic of China and the United States the bitterest of enemies. Korea convinced Mao Tse-tung and his lieutenants, ardent Marxist ideologues, that the goal of the United States was not only to rid Asia of Communism but to destroy the Peking regime itself. With renewed vigor, the Chinese Communists supported Soviet foreign policy objectives and provided material support to other Far Eastern Communist movements. There was little indication that the PRC sought accommodation with the West.
Chinese intervention in Korea following the harsh Soviet consolidation of power in Eastern Europe and threat to the Middle East, Mao's conquest of the mainland, and the North Korean attack across the 38th parallel, confirmed the views of many Americans that the Communist bloc was on the march. The near disasters in Korea during the first year of the war so alarmed Americans and others in the Western camp that they responded with super-charged anti-Communism. This visceral reaction enabled successive U.S. administrations to mobilize the resources needed to support the Containment structure. On the down side, the American conviction that Communism was a monolithic movement directed from the Kremlin made it difficult for many to understand that the nations forming the Sino-Soviet bloc often had divergent interests and objectives. As we now know, that perception had unfortunate consequences in Southeast Asia.
As we enter this new, post-Cold War era in Asia, a region where the United States and the People's Republic of China will continue to figure prominently, it should be especially enlightening to study the causes and results of a past breakdown in Sino-American understanding.
List of Topic Discussion Papers
- MacArthur and the Chinese Communist Intervention in the Korean War, September-December 1950
- Invation Patrol: The Seventh Fleet in Chinese Waters
- General George E. Stratemeyer and the Air War in Korea: Fall 1950
- The Epic of Chosin
- General Discussion