Key point: Millions would die, and for what?
In November 1950, China and the United States went to war. Thirty-six thousand Americans died, along with upwards of a quarter million Chinese, and half a million or more Koreans. If the United States was deeply surprised to find itself at war with the People’s Republic of China, a country that hadn’t even existed the year before, it was even more surprised to find itself losing that war. The opening Chinese offensive, launched from deep within North Korea, took U.S. forces by complete operational surprise. The U.S.-led United Nations offensive into North Korea was thrown back, with the U.S. Army handed its worst defeat since the American Civil War.
The legacies of this war remain deep, complex and underexamined. Memory of the Korean War in the United States is obscured by the looming shadows of World War II and Vietnam. China remembers the conflict differently, but China’s position in the world has changed in deep and fundamental ways since the 1950s. Still, as we consider the potential for future conflict between China and the United States, we should try to wring what lessons we can from the first Sino-American war.
In early 1950, the politics of the Cold War had not yet solidified around a pair of mutually hostile blocks. Nevertheless, the contours were visible; the Soviets had spent several years consolidating control of Eastern Europe, and the Chinese Communist Party had ridden the victories of the People’s Liberation Army to power in Beijing. The stage was set for a zero-sum interpretation of the global struggle between Communist and non-Communist powers. It was just such an interpretation that dominated Washington’s thinking as North Korean forces escalated the Korean civil war with a massive invasion across the 38th parallel.