TRANSLATED BY D. LIAO
People’s Volunteer Army veterans attend a 2016 burial ceremony in Shenyang for the repatriated remains of soldiers who died in the Korean War. [Photo/Xinhua]
The 70th anniversary of China’s entrance into the Korean War bears new meaning amidst a renewed phase of “protracted war” against U.S. aggression.
In this translation, historian Qi Dexue examines the Communist Party’s historic decision to “resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea” less than a year after the founding of New China.
This essay was originally published in Contemporary China History Studies, no. 5, 2020 and republished in Utopia (乌有之乡)
Editor’s Note: October 2020 marks 70 years since the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River, entering the Korean War and engaging United States, South Korean, and United Nations forces alongside the Korean People’s Army.
The Korean War meant many things to many Cold War actors. For the United States, it was a forum to debate theories of containment and rollback, two genres of anti-Communist military intervention; an opportunity to compensate for the “loss” of China; and ultimately, a failed intervention to be erased from the national narrative of the “American Century.” For Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist party, it was a chance to escalate a Third World War and gain U.S. backing for an invasion to “retake” the Chinese mainland—regardless of the threats of nuclear war. For New China, it was a threat to the socialist revolution and the project of national construction and regional peace, a reminder that the U.S. imperialists loomed at China’s doorstep from Taiwan to occupied Japan and Korea. And for the Korean people, it was a civil war over the meaning of self-determination and sovereignty as the formal end of Japanese imperialism gave way to a new era of U.S. occupation.
Despite its narrative erasure as the “forgotten war” of America’s 20th century, the Korean War deeply shapes our contemporary moment. The infamous National Security document NSC 68 set the blueprint for a permanent and globalized U.S. military presence during “peacetime”—the policy framework for perpetual war and the network of over 800 overseas U.S. military bases which now forms the bedrock of U.S. efforts to “contain” China. The U.S. success at leveraging the United Nations as an interventionist force in Korea proved that the supposedly multilateral institutions of the post-WWII world order could be wielded as a simple tool of U.S. unilateral aggression—a contradiction which remains contested as China’s counterweight to U.S. hegemony is met with claims of Chinese “control” over institutions like the World Health Organization.
But first and foremost, the scars of the Korean War shape both the space and spirit of the Korean peninsula, as the division of the 38th parallel continues to stand as a barrier to national and familial reunification. The rendering of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea as a belligerent, self-isolating nuclear power looms large in the American imagination: from its inclusion in Bush Jr.’s “axis of evil” to Donald Trump’s threats of “fire and fury,” the persistence of Korean sovereignty casts a long shadow as the “unfinished business” of a Cold War now being rearticulated with China as its primary antagonist. In this context, the ongoing DPRK-China relationship, though constrained by a global sanctions regime and international pressure, remains a roadblock now as then to unopposed U.S. hegemony in East Asia.
In stark contrast to the narrative absence of the Korean War in the West, China’s commemoration of this 70th anniversary speaks to the symbolic nature and ongoing resonance of what is known as the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea (抗美援朝战争). As escalating U.S. aggression on China has Chinese politicians and intellectuals discussing a new kind of “protracted war,” Xi Jinping’s 70th anniversary remarks took a strong anti-imperialist stance, declaring that “The Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand—to fight war with war and stop an invasion with force, earning peace and security through victory.”
In this context, we are pleased to publish a translation of military historian Qi Dexue’s commemoration of China’s entrance into the Korean War. Qi’s exploration helps to clarify the stakes of China’s historic decision to enter the Korean War and stand with Korean comrades in repelling the world’s superpower. Amidst great internal instability less than a year after the founding of New China, China’s role in the Korean War holds ongoing meaning in the continuing struggles for socialist internationalism, anti-imperialism, and international solidarity in the face of hegemonism and unilateralism.
Note: our romanization of well-known Chinese and Korean figures and places follows popular Anglophone transliteration rather than any particular romanization system (e.g. Chiang Kai-Shek rather than Jiang Jieshi).
A brilliant decision, a victorious result, and a greater meaning:
In the history of the People’s Republic of China, the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea is a noble war deserving of pride, attention, and commemoration. Since October 1950, when the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau made the strategic decision to “resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea to defend our homeland,” successive Central Committees have given much praise to the historic decision.
The sixth plenary session of the 11th Central Committee in June 1981 passed the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People's Republic of China,” calling this war “the great war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea and defend the homeland.”
The vast majority of Chinese scholars have also expressed approval or given praise. However, since the 1990s, the war has become a target for slander, defamation, and repudiation from several scholars. The goal of such ideological discourse is part of a decades-long effort to subvert CPC leadership by turning public opinion against it.
2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (PVA) entrance into the Korean War, and this article is written to commemorate this anniversary. The title “A brilliant decision, a victorious result, and a greater meaning” is a clear summary of the article’s subject matter.
1. A brilliant decision
The Chinese people did not choose to fight in the Korean War—it was a choice forced upon the Chinese people by U.S. aggression.
On June 25, 1950, a large-scale civil war erupted between northern and southern Korea, each seeking to reunify the Korean Peninsula. U.S. authorities immediately proceeded to engage in armed intervention to fulfill their strategic interest of global hegemony. On June 26, U.S. air and naval forces stationed in Japan were sent to reinforce President Syngman Rhee’s invading army under the pretense of extracting the families of foreign nationals. At the same time, the U.S. Navy’s 7th fleet that was stationed in the Philippines had invaded the Taiwan Strait, interfering with China’s internal affairs and preventing the Chinese people from liberating Taiwan.
The next day, President Harry S. Truman issued a statement officially announcing the above acts of aggression. He also declared that he would strengthen U.S. troops stationed in the Philippines, in addition to expediting military aid to the government of the Philippines as well as French invading forces in Indochina.
The U.S. also took advantage of the situation in the United Nations Security Council. With the Soviet representative’s absence and China’s rightful seat occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s faction, the U.S. influenced the Security Council to pass resolutions on June 25 and 27 accusing the DPRK of being the aggressor and demanding UN member states provide “essential aid” to Syngman Rhee’s government. On June 30, the U.S. sent ground troops to Korea. On July 7, the U.S. influenced the UN Security Council again to pass another resolution, establishing the UN Command to invade Korea and further expand the Korean War.
From August 27, the U.S. Air Force repeatedly invaded Chinese airspace and bombed Chinese border towns and villages. And on September 15th, the U.S. mobilized its army to make a large-scale landing on the west coast port of Inchon to salvage its defeat on the battlefield. At the end of September, the U.S. military had arrived at the 38th parallel. The U.S. had turned what would have been a Korean civil war into a war of aggression; the internationalization of the Korean War resulted in the first large-scale international war since WWII.
The above actions by the U.S. were met with public outcry and serious warning from the Chinese government and people. On September 30, 1950, the day before the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Premier Zhou Enlai prepared a report for the celebratory meeting held by the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The report stated: “The Chinese people are passionate about peace, but they are never afraid to defend against wars of aggression in order to maintain peace. The Chinese people will never tolerate foreign invasions, nor will they ignore wanton imperialist aggression against their own neighbors.” On October 3, in an emergency meeting with K. M. Panikkar, the Indian ambassador to China, Zhou Enlai mentioned that the U.S. military was attempting to cross the 38th parallel to extend the war. If that happened, he said, then China would not sit and do nothing—it must intervene.
“The Chinese people are passionate about peace, but they are never afraid to defend against wars of aggression in order to maintain peace. The Chinese people will never tolerate foreign invasions, nor will they ignore wanton imperialist aggression against their own neighbors.”
—Zhou Enlai, in a 1950 report to the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference
But U.S. authorities believed that Zhou Enlai’s warning was merely a bluff against the UN, the Indian ambassador being a mere loudspeaker for the CPC. China would be too afraid to step in and oppose an organized U.S. military, and as such, U.S. authorities continued on with their plans. As Rhee’s army crossed the 38th parallel on October 1, the U.S. military followed suit six days later, launching an invasion towards the border between China and Korea. The flames of war were spreading towards China’s front door.
Korea was facing the threat of being completely occupied by the U.S., while the security of the Chinese mainland was also under serious threat. The Korean Workers Party and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea decided to request that the USSR and China send reinforcements and military aid. Under those circumstances, in the first half of October, the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau held several meetings presided over by Mao Zedong to discuss whether to send troops to aid Korea. On October 8, the day after the U.S. military had crossed the 38th parallel, the Chairman of the Chinese People's Revolutionary Military Commission Mao Zedong issued the order to form the Chinese People's Volunteer Army.
a. China was forced to make this decision under extremely difficult circumstances
New China had been founded only a year prior, and during this time, the newly formed people’s government was facing serious difficulties on all fronts. The scars of warfare had yet to heal, land reform was incomplete, bandits and foreign agents had not been cleared out, military equipment and training were inadequate, etc. The country’s political, economic, and social order had yet to be steered onto the right track.
Sending troops to Korea meant combating the U.S. military, and China’s economy and military weaponry could not compare to that of the U.S.
In terms of economy, the U.S. was industrially developed and technologically advanced, having had 175 years of capitalist development by the time the Korean War erupted. After WWII, the U.S. had emerged as the preeminent superpower of the capitalist world with a GNP of $150.7 billion (with some sources saying $284.8 billion) in 1950 alongside 87.72 million tons of steel being produced in the same year. China, on the other hand, could not even hope to compare. Because of the repeated invasions and pillaging by imperialist powers in China’s then-recent history, the second year of the PRC was met with extremely slow industrial development, severely-behind technological levels, and incredibly lackluster economic strength. In 1950, the gross output value of China’s agricultural production was only at ¥57.4 billion. And assuming that the exchange rate back then was ¥2 RMB to $1 USD, it would be valued at $28.7 billion, only 19% of the U.S. GNP of $150.7 billion (or 10% of $284.8 billion, depending on the source). China’s steel production was also only at 606,000 tons, only a 1:144 ratio against the steel production of the U.S.
In terms of military weaponry, the U.S. possessed the most modernized armed forces in the world, with powerful naval and air forces entering the war at its onset, as well as nuclear weapons. On the other hand, both the naval and air force of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) were unprepared for combat as they were still in the process of assembly. For the ground forces, a single U.S. Army division would be equipped with 149 tanks, 35 armored vehicles, 794 artillery cannons, and 3,800 motor vehicles, all supplemented with superior mobility, firepower, and logistics as well as advanced communication devices to quickly relay orders. The UN Command, which included other countries’ armed forces, brought as many as 1,540 tanks and up to 16,100 artillery cannons. In contrast, the PVA brought zero tanks when it first entered the war, and none of its infantry armies had dedicated tank or armored vehicle units. Each infantry unit only had around 100 motor vehicles and 520 artillery cannons, the latter of which were out-of-date, mixed-model, short-ranged, low on ammunition, and fewer in number than a single U.S. artillery establishment by a ratio of 2:3. The mobility, firepower, and logistics of the PVA were incredibly poor, and relaying commands and information was difficult due to outdated communication devices.
Under those conditions, even the USSR was a bit fearful of the U.S. Could China win a war against the U.S.? Would China’s economy be able to sustain such a war? If everything went wrong, it would be much more difficult for China. Those were the practical issues. While Mao Zedong on August 4, 1950 said that aiding Korea was the only option, the actual decision to send troops first required a well thought-out plan.
But the challenges China was about to face were overwhelming in terms of both number and scale. It is no surprise that, during the Central Committee’s secretariat meeting on October 2 and the Political Bureau’s enlarged conference on October 4, many within the Central Committee had expressed doubts about the mission and had proposed that the dispatch of troops should be delayed or aborted. But if China did not send any troops, reactionary movements within and outside of China would have gained momentum, and pro-U.S. factions would have been even more energetic. The U.S. occupation of Korea would be a direct threat to China. After much discussion, everyone attending the enlarged conference reached a consensus at 5 pm. Thus, the strategic decision of “resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea to defend our homeland” had been made. On October 24, Zhou Enlai submitted the “Resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea to defend our homeland” report to the 1st National Committee and 18th Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The report definitively explained the titular decision to the CPC Central Committee: “How can we discuss development when the enemy is at our doorsteps?” “What Korea is to China is what the lips are to the teeth; if the lips are disfigured then the teeth will be vulnerable against the cold. There is no way to stabilize northeastern China if Korea is overtaken by U.S. imperialism. Half of our country’s heavy industry is located in the northeast region, and half of the industry up there is facing the south, which is within enemy bombing range…if U.S. imperialists reach the Yalu River, how could our production be secure?”
“What Korea is to China is what the lips are to the teeth; if the lips are disfigured then the teeth will be vulnerable against the cold. There is no way to stabilize northeastern China if Korea is overtaken by U.S. imperialism.”
Zhou Enlai, Peng Dehuai, Nie Rongzhen, and Hu Qiaomu had all said that finalizing the decision was a very difficult affair for the CPC Central Committee. Hu Qiaomu once reminisced: “I have worked alongside Chairman Mao for more than 20 years, and I remember only two times when he really struggled to make a decision. One of them was dispatching the PVA to Korea in 1950.”
b. This scientific decision was made on the basis of comprehensively analyzing the advantages and disadvantages given to both sides of the war
After fully analyzing the advantages and disadvantages for both sides, the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau reached the conclusion that on the Korean battlefield, the U.S. military was powerful but also had weaknesses, whereas the China military, though weak, was also advantageous in some respects.
Militarily, the U.S. had one advantage but also three disadvantages. The one advantage is the abundance of steel. The three disadvantages were an overextended front line extending from Berlin to Korea; an overextended transport line that had to traverse the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; and an inferior combat capacity compared to the German or Japanese military in WWII. Additionally, the U.S. allies of West Germany and Japan could not at that point rearm themselves following their defeat in WWII, and the war had also handicapped the UK and France. And even though the U.S. had nuclear weaponry at its disposal, the USSR possessed those as well. Therefore, a nuclear threat could not be used lightly nor would it guarantee victory if acted upon. As such, even though the U.S. has an absolute advantage in terms of overall national strength and military weaponry, it was not undefeatable.
Even though China faced many difficulties, it also held many advantages. The defense force on the northeastern border had already made the necessary preparations and had assembled the second- and third-line troops. The Chinese military held the advantage in numbers while also having more than 20 years of training from revolutionary warfare. Officers and men stood in solidarity and had very high endurance and combat capabilities. Commanders above the regiment level were all experienced Red Army or Eighth Route Army veterans. And the PLA always had experience in seizing victories from more well-equipped opponents.
In defending against U.S. invasion, China was also fighting a just war, and thus would receive full support from the people of China and Korea. The CPC and the Central People’s Government had incredibly high prestige among the Chinese people, which translated to a more compelling call to action and greater organizing power. Fighting in Korea gave the Chinese military direct and abundant backline support, allowing for extended combat. The USSR was also willing to provide additional material support thanks to the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. Given an analysis of these factors, the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau came to the conclusion that victory was not completely out of China’s reach.
c. This brave decision reflects the courage and resourcefulness of CPC revolutionaries
On August 5, 1950, when Mao Zedong met with Commander Deng Hua in Beijing before the latter was sent off to lead the northeastern border defense force’s 13th corps, he said:
“Your mission after consolidating the northwestern region is to defend the border, but be prepared to fight against the Americans. Be prepared to fight an unprecedented large-scale battle and be prepared for atomic bombs on the other side. If they drop atomic bombs, we will throw back hand grenades. Capture their weaknesses, pursue them, and finally, defeat them. I will say this again: look down upon your enemy when you are focusing on strategy, view them as paper tigers; but respect your enemy when you are focusing on tactics, view them as real tigers.”
On September 5, when Mao Zedong gave a speech to the 9th conference of the Central People's Government Commission, he reiterated:
“We wish to not fight a war, but you insist on fighting, so we have no choice but to fight. You fight yours; we fight ours. You drop atomic bombs; we throw hand grenades. We will capture your weaknesses, pursue you, and in the end, defeat you. When the fighting starts, it won’t be a small fight but a big one; it won’t be a short fight but a long one; it won’t be a regular fight but one with nuclear weapons. We need to be prepared.”
In his memoir, Peng Dehuai also said:
“If the U.S. occupies Korea, then they will be at the other side of the river to us, threatening our northeast. And if they control Taiwan, then Shanghai and eastern China would also be threatened. The U.S. can find an excuse to invade China anytime they want. Eating humans is part of the tiger’s nature; the tiger’s appetite determines when the preying begins. We must not capitulate. If it wants to invade, we shall strike back. It would be difficult for us to develop socialism until we face U.S. imperialism head-on…Sending troops to aid Korea is a must. If we fight badly, then the War of Liberation would be delayed for several years. If the U.S. army stations in Taiwan and the edge of the Yalu River, then they will find an excuse to invade anytime.”
On October 14, 1950, Peng Dehuai gave a speech to the mobilization meeting for cadres that were division level or above:
“What if we take a break, and fight three to five years later? Of course we can, but we will still have to fight three to five years later. We might work laboriously to develop a bit of industry during those three to five years, and then we would still be completely crushed. By that time U.S. imperialists will have armed Japan, it will probably send a large army, and then it would be even more difficult for us to halt the invasion. By that time U.S. imperialists might also arm West Germany which produces plenty of steel; that cannot be overlooked. By that time, the revolutions in Eastern European nations might also be suppressed, which would weaken revolutionary power. With those considerations, if we fight right now, it would be perhaps more advantageous…on the other hand, if we were to construct national defense and heavy industry, we cannot finish that process in three to five years…therefore it is better to fight early than to fight late.”
On October 8, After the CPC Central Committee made the decision to send troops, Zhou Enlai was assigned to head towards the USSR to discuss with Stalin about sending air support and providing military equipment. In the end, the USSR agreed to provide military equipment when the Chinese troops were dispatched, and while the Soviet air force could not cross the Chinese border into Korea, it could still provide assistance to China’s air defense and training. On October 13, Mao Zedong hosted a meeting for the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau inside the Yinian Hall of Zhongnanhai residential compound to again discuss the issue of sending troops to aid Korea. Attendees unanimously agreed that even if the USSR could not offer air support, the decision to send troops to aid Korea would not change if the U.S. military had crossed north of the 38th parallel.
d. This practical decision was established based on the worst possible outcome while striving to achieve the best possible outcome
As the CPC Central Committee made its decision to send troops, it proposed three possible war scenarios that could happen after the PVA joined the war. One, under the protection and support of the USSR volunteer air force, the PVA would coordinate with the Korean People’s Army (or KPA) to destroy or expel the U.S. and other invading forces that were within Korean borders. This would thoroughly resolve the issue and was the best-case scenario. Two, even though the PVA was composed of volunteers and thus not an official Chinese army, the U.S. might still formally declare war on China or at minimum, order airstrikes onto many large cities and industrial bases in China, launch naval attacks on Chinese coastal lands, and assault the mainland via supporting or allying with Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC military. At the same time, due to out-of-date military equipment, the PVA would be unable to wipe out U.S. armed forces in large numbers in Korea. The war could become a stalemate, which would impede all plans to restore and redevelop China, thus leading to popular discontent. This was the worst-case scenario. Three, while the USSR was unable to provide direct air support in battle, the PVA would still be able to carry out a flexible operation command and fully utilize its own tactical prowess in combat to sustain battle in Korea and seize territories that are not large or medium-sized cities. Thus the problem might be resolved by forcing peace negotiations with the U.S.
After being informed that the USSR could not dispatch its air forces to provide cover for the PVA, the CPC Central Committee considered the first scenario to be highly improbable. And of the two other likely scenarios, the third scenario had a higher probability. On October 23, Mao Zedong sent a telegram to Peng Dehuai, stating: “We should begin with a solid foundation and not attempt the impossible…we should strive for every possible victory that is built upon a safe and reliable footing.”
Likewise, the CPC Central Committee, the Central People’s Government, and the Central Military Commission made extensive deployment and preparation measures to ensure victory. Those included adjusting military strategies, deploying air and coastal defense across the country, devising plans for establishing arms and services as well as war preparations, requesting the USSR for military equipment support, shifting the northeast administrative region into a wartime system that would function as the main backline military base, adjusting fiscal policies towards fully supporting the war, accelerating the pace of land reform as well as dissolving bandits and counterrevolutions, launching a national movement in support of resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea, etc.
In conclusion, the CPC Central Committee’s strategic decision of “resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea to defend our homeland” was completely necessary and correct. On October 23, 1951, at the 3rd Session of the 1st National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, with Mao Zedong giving the opening speech. He declared:
“We are not going to invade any country. We are only opposing imperialism that is invading our own country. Everyone knows that the Chinese people would not declare war on the U.S. had it not occupied Taiwan, invaded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and advanced towards our northeastern border. But since U.S. aggressors are already attacking us, we had no choice but to raise the flag of anti-aggression. This is absolutely necessary and just; the people of China are all aware of this kind of necessity and justice.”
Even though the strategic decision of “resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea to defend our homeland” was made forcibly under extremely difficult circumstances, it was still for the sake of aiding the Korean people and protecting the national interests of China. It was made scientifically by fully analyzing and evaluating the advantages and disadvantages for both sides. It was made bravely by the people of the CPC represented by Mao Zedong through extraordinary courage and resourcefulness. It was made practically by considering the worst-case scenario and striving for the best outcome. And reality has shown that this decision was incredibly brilliant. On January 23, 1951, Zhou Enlai submitted the report “The Cause and Significance of the PVA’s Victory” to the Northeast Bureau Cadre Meeting. It stated: “This great decision by Chairman Mao is made on the basis of his scientific foresight and practical analysis.” Peng Dehuai later also added: “This decision was not easy. It requires not only extraordinary courage and resourcefulness but also outstanding insight and judgment when dealing with complex affairs. The course of history proves that Chairman Mao is wisely correct.”
2. A victorious result
The standard for measuring the outcome of a war is to confirm whether the expected war objectives are accomplished. The basic war objective set by the CPC Central Committee for the Korean War was for the U.S. to withdraw behind the 38th parallel, then resolve the matter through negotiations. The outcome of the war completely fulfilled the expected war objectives and victory was thus achieved. During the war, the U.S. used every kind of modern weaponry barring nuclear weapons at its disposal, including biological and chemical weapons. The U.S. also conducted destructive airstrikes against the backline of Chinese and Korean armies, with more than 690,000 tons of bombs dropped on top of the tiny northern Korean battlefield of only 120,000 square kilometers—an average of 5.8 tons of bombs per square kilometer. In some areas, the bombing density reached the highest level in history.
On the other side, the PVA had no naval force, and only had a small air force during the later stages of the war to cover backline logistics; there was no way to conduct airstrikes against the U.S. military backline. The U.S. military combined its army, navy, and air force to strike in all directions on the battlefield, whereas the PVA could only fight on the ground with its infantry supported by a few tanks and artillery. And under those conditions, the PVA defeated the well-equipped U.S. military. This was not a regular victory: this was an extremely impressive major victory!
a. This result completely crushed the U.S. strategic plan to militarily occupy Korea, forcing the U.S. to adjust its Korean war policy
After the U.S. military successfully embarked on Inchon on September 15, 1950, the U.S. National Security Council designated the total military occupation of Korea as its war objective.
By October 15, President Truman, Pentagon generals, and the UN Command commander-in-chief Douglas MacArthur all optimistically believed that the U.S. war objective would be accomplished very soon and that a victory celebration was imminent. From the end of October to the middle of November, Syngman Rhee and the U.S. military continued to push towards the Yalu River. The U.S. military authorities and UN Command headquarters thought that the chance for China to send troops was very small and not worth worrying about. And after they were notified of China’s military involvement, they still believed that the U.S. military could completely eradicate the advancing Chinese army. But the U.S. military never expected that not only China had dared to send troops, the PVA would eventually force the U.S. military back towards the 38th parallel and the 37th parallel as well.
The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley said: “To our surprise, the Korean War has quickly turned from victory into a humiliating defeat—it is the most disgraceful defeat in our army’s history.”
The PVA snatched victory the moment it fought, especially during the Second Phase Campaign (November 7–December 24 1950), pushing the U.S.-led UN Command back towards the 38th parallel in one swoop. The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley said: “To our surprise, the Korean War has quickly turned from victory into a humiliating defeat—it is the most disgraceful defeat in our army’s history.” This war shocked MacArthur, shocked U.S. authorities, and shook the world immensely. U.S. author Drew Middleton remarked on this battle in his book Crossroads Of Modern Warfare: “The Chinese were the victors, militarily and politically. The People’s Liberation Army achieved tactical surprise…Politically, the victory established China as the major military power on the Asian mainland and, consequently, increased Peking’s political influence throughout the region.”
Before the PVA and KPA launched their Third Phase Campaign (December 31, 1950–January 8, 1951), the U.S. top brass, including President Truman, had all agreed that if the CPC decided to take action, it had the power to push the UN Command out of northern Korea. Afterward, the Third Phase Campaign forced the UN Command to retreat yet again from the 38th to the 37th parallel. But U.S. authorities did not accept their defeat and had not abandoned their war objective of occupying all of Korea.
On January 25, 1951, at the start of the Fourth Phase Campaign (January 25–April 21 1951), the UN Command launched an all-out counterattack. At that time, the PVA had fought three campaigns consecutively with neither rest nor replenishment of manpower. Ration and ammo supply were running incredibly low, and so the PVA fought defensively while mobile. Nevertheless, the UN Command took 87 days to push the battle line back from the 37th to the 38th parallel on April 21. Each day, the UN Command suffered 900 casualties while only advancing 1.3 kilometers on average. After the Fifth Phase Campaign (April 22–June 10 1951), the battle line settled at the 38th parallel. With both sides being evenly matched, the war turned into a stalemate.
U.S. authorities had clearly seen that, with only the UN Command’s strength to rely upon, there was no way to accomplish the war objective of occupying all of Korea. They had predicted an effortless victory and did not expect the “poor and weak” Chinese people to not only have the grit and determination to fight back, but the strength as well. At that time, the U.S. military invested six infantry divisions and one airborne regiment into the Korean War, along with one Marine division. That was a third of the 18 total infantry divisions in the U.S. Army that were being dispatched. The U.S. Navy also dispatched nearly half of its combat strength, and the U.S. Air Force dispatched a fifth of its own as well. And when the invading U.S. troops were facing manpower replenishment problems, U.S. authorities later authorized 2,500 South Korean men to serve in each infantry division. U.S. allies had already realized that the U.S. had no hope of winning the Korean War, and thus rejected U.S. demands for reinforcements. The U.S. strategic focus was on Europe, and its primary rival was the USSR; a long-term standoff in Korea would severely conflict with its strategic priority. Therefore, in the middle of May in 1951, the U.S. had no choice but to readjust its Korean War policy.
The National Security Council then passed NSC 48/5 on May 16, a policy memo on the “Korean problem.” This policy memo put forth a very different war objective than what the U.S. had originally planned for Korea. The objective now was to ensure that an advantageous line of defense was established above the area along the 38th parallel, to negotiate an armistice agreement, and to end the Korean War. This was the result of the PVA and KPA’s hard-fought victory.
b. This result forced the U.S. military to request an early armistice
In U.S. and world history, there had been no precedent of a world power seeking a truce with a weak or poor nation. Having initiated the truce negotiations of the Korean War, the U.S. essentially had admitted defeat. Starting on July 26, 1951, both sides entered substantive negotiations regarding the military demarcation line. The U.S. delegation not only refused the Korean-Chinese side’s reasonable suggestion to use the 38th parallel as the demarcation line, it also unreasonably demanded that the line should be drawn at more than 10 kilometers behind the PVA and KPA front in an attempt to extort 12,000 square kilometers of land. When this demand was sensibly rebuked by the Korean-Chinese side, the U.S. thought that its desired demarcation line could be seized through airstrikes and artillery. So from August 18 to the end of October, in order for the Korean-Chinese side to accept U.S. demands, the UN Command repeatedly launched regional offensives in summer and autumn while air forces initiated “Operation Strangle” on a massive scale. The U.S. also regularly caused incidents within the Kaesong negotiating zone, forcing the suspension of armistice negotiations on August 23.
The UN Command attacked for more than two months, which cost many lives, yet only 640 square kilometers of the territory was gained. Because of that, the U.S. delegation had no choice but to abandon its demands and reach an agreement with the Korean-Chinese delegation on the demarcation line issue: “A military demarcation line shall be fixed and both sides shall withdraw two (2) kilometers from this line so as to establish a demilitarized zone between the opposing forces…If the armistice is signed 30 days after this agreement is ratified, the demarcation line and demilitarized zone will be adjusted according to the line of contact between both parties at that time.” The armistice line agreement is also the result of the PVA and KPA’s hard-fought victory.
After the demarcation line agreement was agreed upon during the armistice negotiations, starting in December 1951, the PVA and KPA seized the opportunity of a quiet battlefield to develop a large-scale defensive building project on the front line supported by tunnel networks. Meanwhile in June 1952, The U.S. air force’s “Operation Strangle” ended in defeat. Through the effort of China and the PVA, the PVA constructed a combined rail and highway transportation network interconnecting the backline base to the frontline forces. It was equipped with fast repair, fast transport, and anti-air capabilities. The “indestructible ironclad transport line” changed the battlefield situation of inactive logistics and solved the major strategic issue of feeding the troops.
Starting from the spring of 1952, the PVA had grown increasingly stronger and active after each battle. Its first organized offensive operation after it switched into positional warfare is an all-out tactical counterattack in the fall of 1952 which dealt a heavy blow to the UN Command, disrupting its operations and leaving them with no choice but to flee. According to incomplete statistics, the PVA and KPA jointly launched 77 counterattacks onto 60 UN Command target defensive positions on the platoon, company, or battalion level, while also fighting off retaliation from much larger UN Command forces. After back-and-forth contesting, the PVA and KPA solidly secured 17 defensive positions in the end.
From the middle of October to the end of November, The UN Command attempted retaliation during the Battle of Triangle Hill, sending three infantry divisions, 300 artillery guns, nearly 200 tanks, and 3,000 aircraft against two companies belonging to the PVA’s 15th corps stationing on a defensive position smaller than four square kilometers. Even after 1.9 million artillery shells and 5,000 bombs had shaken the ground two meters deep, the PVA did not yield its position. After 40 plus days of fighting, the combined 15th and 12th corps totaling three divisions inflicted 25,000 casualties and completely restored the defensive position, setting an outstanding example for an impenetrable defense.
Syngman Rhee and the U.S. military both admitted that they were in a reactive situation and thus relinquished the attempt to launch an attack at the scale of a battalion or above; they would only parry the PVA’s offenses but were unable to strike back. From May to July of 1953, with the strategic intent to force the opponent to sign the armistice agreement sooner, ten PVA corps and two KPA armies entered the offensive. This offensive was the largest battle ever fought by the Chinese side during the positional warfare phase, which was hugely significant on both the political and the military level. This victory hastened the U.S. decision to end the war, and for the first time in U.S. history, U.S. negotiators made a promise to their opponent to respect the conditions of the armistice agreement.
On July 27, 1953, The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, and the Korean War came to a close. The armistice agreement was also the result of the PVA and KPA’s hard-fought victory. Compared to the demarcation line drawn on October 27, 1951, the final revised demarcation line was pushed south by 332.6 square kilometers thanks to PVA and KPA efforts.
The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea was a victory by all standards. Some scholars quoted Mao Zedong’s words out of context to claim that he set an “unrealistic” goal for the PVA, which was to annihilate or expel from Korea all U.S. and other countries’ invading forces. And since the PVA had not fulfilled this goal, they argue that The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea should not be considered a victory at all; the supposed “victory” was mostly imaginary. This assertion completely disregards historical reality.
c. The U.S. admits defeat
Mark Wayne Clark, the third commander of the UN Command, wrote in the introduction of his memoir From the Danube to the Yalu:
“In May, 1952, I was appointed Commander of the United Nations Forces…Fifteen months later I signed a truce that suspended…the fighting on that unhappy peninsula. For me it also marked the end of forty years of military service. It capped my career, but it was a cap without a feather in it. In carrying out the instructions of my government, I gained the unenviable distinction of being the first United States Army commander in history to sign an armistice without victory. I suffered a sense of frustration that was shared, I imagine, by my two predecessors, Generals Douglas MacArthur and Matthew Ridgeway.”
Famous U.S. political commentator Joseph C. Goulden also wrote in the introduction of his book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War:
“‘A sour little war,’ W. Averell Harriman, that ageless old crocodile of American politics, said of it…But as is often true of unpleasant national experiences, the Korean War is one of those events which most Americans, once it ended, were eager to permit to slip through the crevices of memory. For one reason, Korea was the first time America fought a war to an unvictorious conclusion. America left Korea in a stalemate, held to a draw by a huge but backward Asian nation, Communist China…”
One West Point instructor put it this way: “The Korean War was a complete military failure. The combined army, navy, and air force of the most powerful nation of the world were unable to fight against a poor country’s primitive army, especially when engaging in open field warfare rather than a guerilla war. The U.S. nation and military will forever bear this mark of shame.”
For a fairly long time, the U.S. was reluctant to mention the Korean War, referring to it as “the Forgotten War.” Not one U.S. government official has said that the Korean War ended in victory ever since it ended, only that the U.S. Navy and Air Force had fully exerted its might during the war. In terms of political impact, officials especially emphasized that under the UN banner, communist “aggression” was thwarted and the independence of the allied South Korean nation was protected, that the U.S. truly played a dominant role in the UN and became the world leader of the capitalist bloc. As the vanguard for all anti-communist nations, the U.S. had already earned its reputation.
How a weak and poor New China won against the U.S. world superpower on the Korean battlefield can be explained by several factors coming together as a whole. The main factors are the strategic guidance from the CPC Central Committee and Central Military Commission led by Comrade Mao Zedong, the flexible battlefield commands from the PVA headquarters with Peng Dehuai as commander, the tenacious and fierce PVA armed with Mao Zedong Thought, the wartime intelligence and creativity of the PVA officers and men, the people of China uniting as one against the enemy under the CPC’s leadership, the PVA’s powerful political work, the USSR’s material aid, etc. Those factors cumulate into a limitless strength that triumphed over the world’s superpower.
3. A greater meaning
The Chinese people nobly won the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea, reached their goal of “resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea to defend our homeland,” provided support to the Korean people and protected the DPRK, stabilized the situation in Korea, preserved the security of the Chinese mainland, and upheld peace in Asia as well as the world. The far-reaching significance and impact of the victory apply to China, Korea, the East, and the entire world.
a. The war demonstrated the military strength and global status of New China
With the exception of an ultimately successful resistance against fascist Japanese aggressors, modern-era China since 1840 had always been invaded and plundered by imperialist forces, being coerced to cede territories and pay reparations during this humiliating period in history. In October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established, and the Chinese people had risen. But they had yet to be taken seriously by both the capitalist and the socialist factions. So when New China won The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea under extremely difficult conditions, it shook the U.S. as well as the world, forcing them to look at China with new eyes. The international prestige of the People’s Liberation Army and New China was earned by the PVA on the Korean battlefield. The success swept away all of China’s recent historical humiliations, enabling the Chinese people to truly stand tall among the nations of the world. It was precisely this war that changed the international perception of China as a weak and easily bullied nation, instead cementing New China’s status as a world power.
b. The war solidified the democratic rule of the people of New China
When the CPC Central Committee had no choice but to send troops to Korea, the newly liberated areas of China had yet to completely establish a stable grassroots rule. Reactionary forces within the Chinese mainland were rampant, carrying out acts of sabotage without restraint, agitation against people’s rule, and disturbing the social order. While making the decision to send troops to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea, the CPC Central Committee was determined to take drastic measures in accelerating land reform as well as dissolving bandits and counterrevolutionaries in order to establish a firm societal foundation that could support the war efforts and the restoration of economic development.
Resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea, land reform, and dissolving counterrevolutionaries were considered the three great campaigns at the time. At the end of 1953, China essentially cleared all counterrevolutionaries, eradicated banditry, and completed land reform in all newly liberated areas except for a few ethnic minority regions. The nation solidified a new people’s rule, stabilized social order, peacefully liberated Tibet, and established true unification of the mainland. China’s political, economic, and social order were all steering towards the right track.
c. The war restored the Chinese people’s self-esteem and confidence, sparking patriotic fervor
Since the late Qing dynasty, the governments of the Qing and Republican eras were weak and incompetent. The country lacked dignity, and the Chinese people were as unstable and disunified as loose sand, lacking both self-esteem and confidence. After New China was founded, the defeat of the U.S. military in the Korean War heightened the Chinese people’s political consciousness, and along with it their self-esteem, confidence, and patriotism. Many Chinese people abroad returned one after another to participate in the construction of their country. The Chinese people fully united under the leadership of the CPC, from a bowl of loose sand to a powerful iron fist. As Mao Zedong once said: “Imperialists aggressors should be aware, the Chinese people are already organized. Do not provoke them; if you do, it will not be easy for you.” Walter G. Hermes, a U.S. expert in military history similarly commented on the Korean War:
“From the stout defensive and offensive capabilities that the Chinese had displayed throughout the fighting, the United States and its allies had learned the hard way that Communist China was a formidable foe who bore little resemblance to the feeble nation of World War II.”
d. The war led to the peaceful environment that allowed for China’s long-term construction and development
Although China had devoted a tremendous amount of material resources into the Korean War, the resulting surge in patriotism and enthusiasm for production and construction within the Chinese people ensured that the national economic recovery plan was completed on schedule, marking the first strategically significant major victory for New China’s economic construction. More importantly, the PVA forced the U.S.-led UN Command to retreat from the Yalu River to the 38th parallel, leading to the peaceful environment that allowed for China’s long-term construction and development for 70 years at the time of writing.
e. The war brought about the modernization of the PLA and the strengthening of national defense
China’s involvement in the Korean War made the CPC Central Committee and the Central Military Commission leadership fully realize the difficulty of fighting modern wars without modern military equipment. At the time, many high-ranking generals of the PLA and PVA expressed passionately the need to upgrade their military equipment, “that they would pawn their own pants to purchase an aircraft”. And thus, the PLA and PVA radically improved their military equipment over the course of the war, with the air force’s construction gaining especially significant progress. During the first Five Year Plan, China had prioritized building its national defense industry and heavy industry, which led to a huge step forward in industry and technology. Towards the middle of the 1960s, the disparity in modernization between the PLA and the armed forces of developed countries was greatly reduced.
f. The war shattered the myth of the undefeatable U.S., battered the arrogance of U.S. authorities and armed forces, and weakened U.S. hegemonism
The U.S. was the victor of two world wars, emerging as the most powerful capitalist nation after the second. Yet it was met with a crushing defeat on the Korean battlefield. For the first time in U.S. history since the Revolutionary War, there was no victory parade for the returning troops. Mao Zedong said: “In this instance, we are testing the U.S. armed forces. If we do not approach them, we remain fearful of them. We fought against them for 33 months, and we tested them thoroughly. U.S. imperialism is not scary, that is what it is.” This was an incredible lesson for the Chinese people who were intimidated by the U.S., and an incredible inspiration for the people fighting anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggles for national liberation in Asia and beyond. U.S. authorities fully understood from the Korean War that the Chinese people are strong, that they mean what they say, and the lessons learned from the Korean War are still fresh in their minds.
g. This war forged a spirit of resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea
On October 25, 2010, Xi Jinping gave a speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the PVA fighting abroad to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea. He declared:
“The Noble War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea promoted and invigorated the revolutionary spirit of the CPC and PLA. Not only was the war a song after song of triumph, filled with both joy and sorrow, it also forged a spirit of aiding Korea against the U.S. This spirit is one of patriotism, devoting to the dignity and best interests of the country and people above all. This spirit is one of revolutionary heroism, expressing bravery, tenacity, and the willingness to put one’s life on the line. This spirit is one of revolutionary optimism, unafraid of difficulties and hardships, always displaying high morale. This spirit is one of revolutionary loyalty, giving one’s all to fulfill the mission given by the country and people. This spirit is one of internationalism, striving for the cause to spread peace and justice to humanity. The noble spirit of resisting U.S. aggression and aiding Korea is a vivid portrait of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army’s splendid disposition, a stunning display of the Chinese people’s traditional virtues and national character, a physical expression of a national ethos that centers on patriotism. This spirit will forever be a valuable treasure for the Chinese people.”
The Chinese people are not afraid of strong foes; they dare to fight and win. Leaders and followers are on the same page, expressing solidarity in heart and action, uniting together against the enemy. It was an unprecedented display of the Chinese people’s incredible cohesion, of the will and strength to oppose aggression.
In summary, the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea is the war that established the People’s Republic of China. It is the war that marked the Chinese people’s rise among the people of the world in modern times. It is the war that set a precedent for a poor and weak nation defeating a rich and strong nation in modern world history. It is a great chapter in the history of both the PRC and the Chinese people. The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea demonstrated the excellence of the CPC, the PVA, and the Chinese people. This noble war will forever be worth commemorating.