When Communists cannot win by force, they are prepared to negotiate

Friday, February 5th, 2021

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachAt the end of May 1951, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), the CCF had proved they could not prevail in open warfare in the more maneuverable ground of southern and middle Korea:

But the U.N. Command had no burning desire to push and pursue them back into the horrendous terrain girdling the Yalu. Unless Manchuria could be interdicted, the CCF would fight here from a base of strength, while the U.N. would again be restricted and far from its sources of supply.


It was very clear to Soviet observers that the CCF could not win a decision in South Korea; they could not now even halt the slow, steady U.N. advance northward.

It was also clear that the continuing hot war in the Far East was jangling Western nerves and hastening the slow rearmament of Europe under NATO. The West obviously desired peace — but continued Communist intransigence could tend only to unite the Western allies in the long run.

When Communists cannot win by force, they are prepared to negotiate.

On 30 June 1951, General Ridgway, as U.N. Commander in Chief, radioed the commander of Communist Forces in Korea an offer to discuss an armistice:

It was a remarkable statement for an American commander, triumphant in the field, to make to an as yet unhumbled enemy. It occurred less than a decade after an American pronouncement of a goal of unconditional surrender of its enemies, but it revealed an aeon of diplomatic and political change in American thinking on the matter of war.

And here, on 30 June, a certain amount of love between the United States and the Taehan Minkuk ended. For the Republic of Korea saw no honor in the proposed cease-fire, which left its people ravaged and still divided.


Rhee, threatening again and again to block an armistice desired by most, became less and less a heroic old resistor of Communism and more and more a stubborn, opinionated old tyrant, determined to keep the West from getting what it wanted.


The United Nations Command, not caring to be technical, accepted Kaesong. It was to learn that Communists propose nothing, not even truce sites, without an eye to their own advantage.


From the American and U.N. point of view, the sole purpose of the meetings at Kaesong was to end the bloodshed, and to create some sort of machinery to supervise such an armistice. This done, an entirely separate body would sift the political and territorial questions posed by the Korean situation, in an atmosphere of peace.

Americans, even the knowledgeable Dean Acheson, had once again tried to separate peace and war into neat compartments, to their sorrow.


They [the American delegates] were soldiers, come to forge a military agreement to end the killing.


Several of these men [the Communist delegates] were graduates of Soviet universities, and not one was a fighting man.

All had held political posts, and with typical Communist deviousness, seemingly the junior man at the table in rank, Hsieh Fang, was the man who actually held the Communist cards.

Immediately, it became apparent that the Communist delegation intended not only to discuss the proposed cease-fire but everything up to and including the kitchen drain.

Immediately, they would not agree to an agenda. Immediately, they made sharp protest at Turner Joy’s use of the word “Communists” — there were no “Communists” in Kaesong, but only Inmun Gun and Chinese Volunteers; on the other hand, they used such terms as “that murderer Rhee” and “the puppet of Taiwan” quite freely.

They insisted that the 38th parallel must be the new line of demarcation, although the U.N. armies in most places stood well above it — and the parallel, as had been proved, was hardly a defensible line — and that unless the United Nations Command ceased actual hostilities in Korea at once they could not discuss the armistice. They at once refused demands to permit the International Red Cross to inspect North Korean POW camps.

And from the selection of the site at Kaesong — in Communist hands, yet still below the parallel, one of the few spots in Korea where this condition obtained — the forcing of U.N. negotiators to enter Communist territory displaying white flags, as if they were coming to surrender, to the seating of Admiral Joy in a chair substantially lower than Nam Il’s, the enemy showed that nothing was too small to be overlooked, if it accrued to his advantage.


The tragedy of the talks was that the Communists intended merely to transfer the war from the battlefield, where they were losing, to the conference table, where they might yet win something.

The United Nations’ desire for peace was genuine — almost frantic. Nothing else could have kept their negotiators, subjected to harassment, stinging insult, and interminable delay, at the green table after the first few sessions.


Washington was still not seeing clearly. No one dared guess that it would take 159 plenary sessions and more than two years of haggling to end the killing.


But time, above all, was what the Communist world needed in Korea in the summer of 1951.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    Strange too that Rhee was totally dependent on American support yet attempted on a number of occasions to sabotage efforts at negotiating an armistice. With friends like that, as the saying goes…

  2. Kirk says:

    Most American officers are political nitwits, when it comes to assessing the intent and actions of politicians in general. We like it that way, and it produces a military that is entirely compliant with civilian control.

    It has cost us an awful lot, though. Look at the post-Desert Storm negotiations with both the Iraqis and our own side–Nobody in the American military really grasped the fundamental point that they were not fighting off the “evil hordes” of a totalitarian despot a la Adolf Hitler, but instead, were intervening in a civil war between equally abhorrent assholes who’d fallen out after the failed outcome of the Iran-Iraq War.

    Because, that’s what it was–The Arabs basically hired Jimmay Cahtah, PBUH as their proxy catspaw to neuter the Iranians, who they were shit-scared of. Carter fell for it, did his thing, and they created an enemy far more dangerous and lethal than the Shah ever would have been. Not to mention, killed a shit-ton of innocent Iranians caught up in the chaos. That backfiring on them, they then used Hussein’s Iraq as their hired thug to take out the perceived-to-be-weakened Iranians, and discovered two things: One, the Iraqis were horribly inept at war, even with all the Soviet tutelage money could buy, and that the Iranian mullahs were willing to expend Iranian lives with Soviet enthusiasm.

    Eventually, the war petered out with an inconclusive outcome, and the idiot Gulf Arabs thought that they were in a position to call all the “loans” they’d made to the Iraqis back. Didn’t work out so well–Absent the US intervention in Desert Storm, most of the Gulf would have gone under the incompetent governance of Hussein, and we’d be dealing with that to this day. The Saudis play politics, but they don’t do it very well at all–They’ve had their successes, but they’ve also had commensurate spectacular failures and miscalculations of a legendary nature.

    Which went right over the heads of the politically-inept and unaware American officers negotiating the cease-fire and other things at the end of Desert Storm. They let the Iraqis keep rotary aviation, which they then used to crush the very same people they’d encouraged to revolt against him. Which, of course, led to severe trust issues later during the 2003 invasion…

    Which, unbelievably, the majority of the American officers I served with did not remember, or ever know about. I remember sitting in the pre-war briefings, hearing how we were going to waltz in and get instant cooperation with all these oppressed Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and then raising my little hand to ask “Uh, hey… Do you guys remember what we did to them, like around a decade ago…?”. I got universal blank looks, and then we moved on.

    Surprise, surprise… Turned out, we didn’t really get really good cooperation from anyone but the Kurds, and even they weren’t too sure about us.

    Gotta tell you what… The American military is really only good for certain specific tasks, and at least two major things they should be able to do are emphatically things they ain’t good at: One, looking forward and projecting from known information to get an idea of how things are going to eventuate, and two, understanding politics or how other people are gonna think. An awful lot of those officers I mention above were guys who were sure that the people who “rose” against Saddam and then got chopped when we didn’t fulfill our promises of support would forgive and forget on this iteration in 2003.

    Didn’t happen. None of what they expected did. There was only one guy, a low-level light colonel in our Engineer Brigade, got it right. He sat there in our basecamp in Kuwait before we went north, and basically laid out exactly what was going to transpire over the next three years. He was only off on one thing, which was the timeline on which we’d start to see EFP-based IEDs show up. He thought they’d manage that about six months ahead of when they actually did…

  3. LGC says:

    Commies, playing to win since 1917. Righties(?) playing by the rules. ‘Tis not the same thing.

  4. Vetrani Sui Sunt Circuli says:

    Kirk: “Most American officers are political nitwits”

    Who are now getting a crash course in DC, or at least the NG is.

    As for an utter lack of historical comprehension, even our own history in Iraq, that came later at at a heavy cost in our own blood, never mind the Iraqis’.

    However, sir, I must differ on a variation of this point: the Arabs are terrible at war. The Arabs are terrible at Western War, or the Soviet Version of War, but quite excel, sir, at their own version of war, indeed as D’aesh/ISIS showed in Syria and Iraq with rapid swarming columns, mission-type orders given electronically and such. Of course, they had the tutelage of ah, er, unnamed parties under the command of the present SECDEF. Where they seem to have broken down was logistics, in particular columns of trucks as resupply being easy meat for air. The other mistake being taking and trying to hold cities — because if there’s one thing America and the West are good at, it’s pounding static positions to dust.

  5. Vetrani Sui Sunt Circuli says:

    Kirk is right. Anyone who knows what they are talking about is banned from American councils of war, or state councils talking about war.

    Edward Luttwak tells a story about the early efforts to conjure “democracy” in Afghanistan. When he was informed of the intended plan to turn Afghans into Swedes, he responded at Council: Very well, you must kill 75% of the Afghan Males for 3 generations, and completely erase all traces of Islam. Luttwak was forthwith ejected from the meeting and banned from the premises. Please be certain this is the policy all the way down…and only relaxes when they not only step in the shite but are mired in it…

  6. Jim says:

    “Nation-building” and “democracy” was a schtick sold to the rubes; Afghanistan was about cash crops.


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