Key point: Stopping the Spring offensive was one important step in a much longer political battle.
By mid-April 1951, the war in Korea was nearly 10 months old. United Nations forces had suffered a reversal of fortunes in late 1950 with the entry of Communist China into the war, losing the South Korean capital of Seoul but later regaining it. Now the U.S. Eighth Army, a multinational force that was dominated by American leadership and troops, found itself engaged in limited offensive operations near the 38th Parallel in the wake of General Douglas MacArthur’s removal by President Harry Truman as U.N. Supreme Commander and U.S. commander in chief in the Far East. The new supreme commander, based in Tokyo, was General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had led Eighth Army out of the dark period following its collapse the previous December. Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet was named the new commander of the Eighth Army and took charge on April 14. Facing the UN forces in Korea were some 700,000 Communist troops, with an additional 750,000 available in Manchuria. Against this, Van Fleet fielded 230,000 men on the front line and 190,000 more in reserve.
Ridgway’s strategy was to eschew taking or holding of ground for its own sake in favor of killing as many enemy troops as possible. Korea was evolving into a war of attrition, and the Truman administration wanted a negotiated settlement. Maoist strategy disapproved of attritional warfare, promoting instead the concept of annihilation. Ridgway and Van Fleet both knew the Chinese were preparing a major offensive designed to drive Eighth Army completely off the Korean Peninsula. No negotiations would be possible until the Communists were convinced through a decisive battlefield defeat that annihilating U.N. forces in Korea was no longer a realistic possibility.