Once the war began, American leaders anxiously pondered every possibility, from the potential for Chinese intervention to the chance of reaching into North Korea and toppling Kim's government. As early as July 7, 1950, only two days after American troops first made contact with the onrushing North Korean army, MacArthur informed his military superiors that his forces, properly supported by reinforcements, might defeat the invaders. But he warned that intervention by either the Chinese or the Soviets would create a wholly different situation. A few days later, the U.N. commander declared that he could prevent Chinese intervention by mounting operations in North Korea. His troops would have to occupy all of the Korean Peninsula but would not have to move into Manchuria. On July 17, President Truman requested that the National Security Council consider policy choices once the North Koreans had been driven back north of the thirty-eighth parallel, the pre-war North-South border.
On September 11, four days before MacArthur's landing at Inchon, the president approved an NSC-recommended policy concerning operations in North Korea. Presidential approval would have to be obtained for troops to cross the thirty-eighth parallel, but no such move would be made in the event of a major Soviet or Chinese intervention. MacArthur's troops were forbidden to cross the border into Chinese or Soviet territory but might go up to the border. The ultimate policy objective was aimed at the unification of Korea through U.N.-supervised elections.
Strangely, there is no indication that MacArthur was ever informed of Truman's decision to unify Korea until September 27, twelve days after the landing at Inchon. As a result, U.S. forces were unprepared to proceed into North Korea. The First Marine Division and Seventh U.S. Army Division had not been charged with extending their lines from Seoul eastward so as to cut off North Korean forces fleeing South Korea. The senior field commander, Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, stated on September 29 that his Eighth Army was planning to regroup at the thirty-eighth parallel, presumably to await further orders. Meanwhile, Walker's best pursuit force, Colonel William C. Westmoreland's 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment, had been assigned the mundane task of mopping up stranded North Korean troops throughout the Kimpo Peninsula.
When Washington finally ordered MacArthur north, his headquarters stitched together a hasty, complex, and logistically questionable plan in twenty-four hours. The scheme had the Marines and the Seventh Division backing out of the Seoul-Inchon area and mounting an amphibious operation into the northeastern part of the peninsula. Eighth Army, at the same time, was to fight its way north from the Pusan Perimeter. Paratroopers were hurriedly collected and staged for an airdrop above the North Korean capital in western North Korea. All this took time--too much time. By not allowing MacArthur an opportunity to prepare for the conquest of North Korea, the Truman administration forced hasty planning in late September and early October in order to prepare for the coming winter and delayed the U.N. northward advance by about seven days.
Despite a number of warnings, additional American lives were lost when the U.S. intelligence system failed again in October 1950. Crossing the thirty-eighth parallel and attacking north, U.S. forces and their civilian and military leaders in Korea, Tokyo, and Washington were acting on the basis of a flawed prediction by the CIA that the Chinese would not attack. This prediction stood unchanged from the time U.S. troops crossed the thirty-eighth parallel on October 9 until the first solid clash between U.N. and Chinese forces in North Korea on October 25. The CIA forecast was that Chinese intervention in the war "was not probable in 1950." Rarely have American servicemen and women been so tragically ill-served by their government. National-level intelligence was dangerously inadequate, and the coordination between policy makers, military strategists, and commanders was appallingly shoddy.
Of all the historical interpretations of the Korean War, however, few are as wrong-headed as the so-called "Check and Warning" notion. This is the favorite of those who insist that the United States provoked China, the Reluctant Dragon, into defending its borders, and that Mao moved troops across the Yalu River in late October 1950 in order to check U.N. forces and then withdraw.
The faulty assumption here is that Beijing's considerate, responsible action would give Washington notice that a U.S. threat to China's soil would not be tolerated. A subsequent American reaction, according to the Reluctant Dragon theorists, would have been to back off, to allow China to control a reasonable buffer zone south of the Yalu River, and thereby to avert war between the two powers.
Documents released by the Chinese government in 1997 disprove the Check and Warning thesis. On October 2, 1950, twelve days prior to Chinese troops moving into North Korea, Mao sent Stalin a message alerting the Soviet leader that China was jumping into the war to drive the Americans out of Korea and assist the expansion of communism. Beginning on October 14, the Chinese put 180,000 troops across the Yalu.
General Peng Dehuai, commander of China's forces in Korea, believed that due to Communist guerrilla activity, advancing U.N. forces would be kept to only about three U.S. and three Republic of Korea (ROK) divisions. He estimated the size of each American division to be twelve thousand troops, and that of each ROK division to be six thousand soldiers. Therefore, his 180,000 troops would be fighting about fifty-four thousand U.N. troops--a better than a three-to-one advantage. On October 21, 23, and again on October 25, Mao ordered Peng to surround ROK units in order to attract American forces farther northward where they could be defeated.
Within three days, Mao's orders had been obeyed. Three ROK regiments were all but destroyed, and one U.S. regiment, the Eighth Cavalry, had been roughly handled. But the Chinese, often in the open and exposed to U.S. firepower, had suffered as well. Peng reported to Mao on November 4 that he had been forced to call off his attacks and pull back. The general said that U.N. forces had retreated in time to avoid most of his planned traps. He also stated that his troops had become very fearful of U.S. air attacks. He described his soldiers as ill-supplied, cold, fatigued, and in need of reorganization before resuming the offensive.
Documents recently released also throw light on the November Lull episode, a lull in the fighting that occurred throughout the peninsula. Reluctant Dragon historians later interpreted this pause as an unstated Chinese offer to America of a truce in exchange for a protected Communist sanctuary in the northern reaches of North Korea. We now know that the mysterious November Lull was nothing more than a case of exhausted, cold, hungry, and battered Chinese troops in need of rest, resupply, and reorganization before resuming their efforts to annihilate U.N. forces and push the Americans out of Korea.
Historians writing from the 1960s to '80s, however, had not been the first to speculate on the reason for the lull. By November 9, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) were considering the mystery and concluded there were three possible reasons for the Chinese behavior. The first was that China was merely protecting its territory by establishing a buffer zone in the northern reaches of North Korea (the Reluctant Dragon theory). Second, they thought the type of action taken might merely signal a tactic: The Chinese intended to drain American military strength without risking much of their own. Finally, they considered the possibility that China was bent on driving U.N. forces from Korea and was merely regrouping. The Chiefs, however, did not believe the latter theory was credible.
Obviously alarmed about the late October--early November clash between Chinese and American troops, and perhaps influenced by the JCS's first choice of possibilities, the president took action. On November 16, Truman publicly reassured the Chinese Communist government that the U.N. command would not violate China's territory: "We have never at any time entertained any intention to carry hostilities into China." Thus, America's commander in chief and his top uniformed advisers might be described as charter members of the Reluctant Dragon school of thought.