No one can know exactly what the apparent internal collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union portends for the United States, but one thing is certain. The euphoria spawned by these events will have--indeed, already has had--a major effect on America’s defense readiness. That’s not surprising, for it is easy to be euphoric when the Soviet empire appears to be crumbling and the threat of superpower war wanes.
We may not remember it, but we’ve been down this road before. In the euphoria following the end of World War II, America unilaterally cut its defense to the bone. And in so doing, we unwittingly encouraged aggression. The resulting 1950-53 Korean War cost more than 157,000 U.S. casualties.
We may be in danger of doing it again, for we have failed to learn the lessons of America’s “forgotten war” in Korea.
The first is that such wars are utterly unpredictable. In January, 1950, we said that Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter. In June, 1950, we went to war there. It remains true that we cannot predict with any certainty when and where American troops will be committed to battle.
And, as in Korea, wherever such troops are committed they will face a well-armed and sophisticated enemy. In the early days of the Korean War, the North Korean Army, supplied with Soviet weaponry, was better armed and equipped than were U.S. troops. Before the war, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson made political hay by claiming that he had “cut the fat” from the defense budget. What he really cut was the throats of thousands of American soldiers.
Forty years later, we again see drastic cuts under way in our defense budgets, and politicians safe at home arguing against development of modern weapons systems.
As the defense budget continues to decrease, we run the risk of creating another hollow army like that which preceded the Korean War. When that war began, our regiments had only two of their three authorized battalions, our field artillery battalions had only two of their three firing batteries. Weapons and ammunition were in short supply. American soldiers paid dearly in blood for those shortcomings.
The United States would have lost the Korean War without the timely mobilization of the reserve forces, which were rushed to the peninsula to hold the line. Ultimately, some six National Guard divisions and a host of smaller units were called to active duty.
Today, more than half of the Army’s combat power and even more of its sustaining power is in the reserve components. As the fight over allocation of reduced defense funding intensifies, this invaluable part of our national defense must be maintained.
Also, the Korean War was fought half a world away. The Army’s first task was to get to the battlefield, and to do so it was absolutely dependent on the sea-lift and airlift capability of the Navy and Air Force. That hasn’t changed. Any future conflict will almost certainly be fought far from our shores. Yet our airlift capability, and our sea-lift capability in particular, is in worse shape than it was in the Korean War.
Finally, Korea was a limited war fought in pursuit of the limited political aim of restoring the prewar status quo. That ruled out a “total victory” like that of World War II. Given the limits of such a conflict, a battlefield stalemate was the best military result attainable. Long diplomatic negotiations were necessary to end the war, a method at odds with the sentiments of most Americans, who wanted a quick, decisive victory. When it became obvious that this could not be done, public support declined precipitously. The same pattern was repeated in Vietnam, and unless steps are taken to educate Americans on the realities of limited war, it will repeat itself yet again.
Korea became America’s “forgotten war” in large measure because its prospects were so unappealing. They would be just as unappealing today. But we must be prepared to face them, for we may well see them again if a relatively disarmed America finds its security and its interests under attack.