Given the speed at which events unfolded in Korea, the United States and its allies had no time to agree on a process to select a commander in chief and his staff. The United States shot down Lie’s proposal that the war be directed by a “Committee on Coordination for the Assistance of Korea.” Instead, MacArthur was formally appointed the first commander in chief of the U.N. command, although each participating nation was allowed a liaison section of no more than three representatives, with MacArthur’s staff coordinating their activities.
“Washington insisted upon direct military control and got its way with its allies.”
In explaining the decision, historian Max Hastings wrote, “Since the U.S. was bearing the overwhelming burden of the war and directly contributed most of its cost, Washington insisted upon direct military control and got its way with its allies.”
The command structure was the least of the coalition’s worries, for throughout the Korean operation, it faced cultural, tactical, and logistics barriers that continually tested its ability to wage war. Several problems arose as troops were processed through the UNRC. Many of them were as basic as the shape of a Thai soldier’s foot, which couldn’t take the standard GI boot, or the size of the U.S.-supplied cold weather combat gear, which turned out to be too big for the smaller Thais.
Friction arose when the commanding officer of the Ethiopian contingent insisted that medical reports carry the categorization “Ethiopian,” not “Negroes,” and adamantly maintained that the religious beliefs of his countrymen prohibited autopsies on their dead.
English was the coalition’s basic language, but translation was difficult because of the lack of qualified translators.
Language was a persistent problem throughout the operation, although it largely depended on the country. For example, most of the Dutch contingent spoke English, but the French and Turkish battalions did not and had big problems communicating.
English was the coalition’s basic language, but translation was difficult because of the lack of qualified translators. Moreover, language problems impaired communications in the field until the U.N. command began assigning English-speaking liaison officers to units, which allowed contact between the English-speaking liaison officers and U.S. advisers.
In contrast, feeding the coalition forces was a minor problem because most units ate the U.S. field and combat rations or supplied their own special items. Still, peculiarities about traditional menu items abounded. For example, there was to be no beef for the Indians, no pork for the Turks, olive oil and wine for the Greeks, and extra bread for the Europeans.
Historian B. Franklin Cooling pointed out that culture and geography became a major factor in integrating the coalition’s troops. In an article in the magazine Military Review, Cooling wrote, “The U.S. commandoes discovered that Greeks took naturally to the mountainous terrain of Korea; the Thais from flat Southeast Asia did not. Slow-learning non-mechanical Filipino troops caused U.S. commanders some concern. They were accustomed to their national system which permitted a mid-day rest period irrespective of battle or other operational conditions.”
“The U.S. commandoes discovered that Greeks took naturally to the mountainous terrain of Korea; the Thais from flat Southeast Asia did not. Slow-learning non-mechanical Filipino troops caused U.S. commanders some concern.”
In terms of logistics and strategy, differences arose between the United States and Britain, the two major powers in the coalition. Britain was wary of relying on U.S. support in battle, and it differed from its ally in the use of military doctrine. Specifically, the British wanted to employ a different minefield system, disliked using outposts, and favored military procedures that focused on holding ridge lines rather than the base of the hills.
Security of classified information, on the other hand, proved less troublesome than expected. The U.S. military adopted a policy in which all classified information, including the top secret kind, would be released to unit commanders if it was thought essential for them to accomplish their military objectives. Initially, U.N. commanders were nervous about releasing classified information to the ROK forces, but they were relieved to see a big improvement in their security measures as the war progressed.
According to Cooling, “By the latter stages of the conflict, classified material could be released to ROK forces almost simultaneously with its release to United States and United Nations units.”
Even with these problems, the U.N. coalition managed to hold its own against the enemy, but, by the summer of 1953, the opposing forces were deadlocked. On July 23, 1953, the Korean armistice agreement was signed at Panmunjom.
At its peak strength in July 1953, the U.N. command stood at 932,539 ground force troops. The ROK army and marine force accounted for 590,911 of that number; the U.S. Army and Marine forces, 302,483; and the U.N. ground forces, 39,145. When hostilities ceased, the records show that the coalition suffered more than 160,000 casualties, including more than 50,000 deaths. The United States lost almost 36,000 dead.
The Korean War was the first, but not the last, time the United States would fight a war under U.N. auspices.
The Korean War was the first, but not the last, time the United States would fight a war under U.N. auspices. It happened again in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, in Kosovo beginning in 1999, and during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. But the Korean War was the first time in U.S. history that a president took the country into a conflict without first asking Congress for a declaration of war.
The U.N. Security Council resolution committing the organization’s members to the conflict provided Truman with his diplomatic and political cover and created the useful façade that the conflict in Korea was not a war but a “police action.” U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley was right, however, when he said in July 1950 that American support could be provided under “the guise of aid to the U.N.”
This article was first published in The Forgotten War: 60th Anniversary of the Korean War.