Remembering The Forgotten War

In the fall of 1997, the A&E Cable Network aired an hour-long reminiscence about a war that, to most Americans, was known as little more than a hazy backdrop to one of the most popular sitcoms in the history of television - M.A.S.H.

The broadcast was part of a weekly A&E series called The 20th Century, and like every other program in that series, it was produced by CBS News and narrated by this network's veteran correspondent Mike Wallace.

In his on-camera introduction, Wallace got right to the point:

"One way to memorialize a war," he said, "is by the songs it inspires: It's a Long Way to Tipperary from World War I. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition from World War II. Where Have All the Flowers Gone from Vietnam."

He then paused a beat, and observed: "There are no songs about the Korean War."

That opening perfectly set the tone for a broadcast that we chose to call Korea: The Forgotten War. (I say we because, at the time, I was senior producer on The 20th Century project and as such, I played a modest role in getting the show up and running.)

The program on Korea was set in motion by a letter of gentle reproach we received from a veteran of that war. After noting that we had done a number of stories about Vietnam - true enough! - he urged us to give at least some attention to our earlier war against Communism in Asia.

That war, he went on to lament (and I'm paraphrasing here from memory), had become such a forgotten event in our history that most Americans had no interest or curiosity about what happened in Korea, even though almost 37,000 of their countrymen lost their lives there in the early 1950s.

He considered that a shame, and we agreed that the former GI had a point - and then some.

So, after getting approval from our colleagues at A&E, we proceeded to produce Korea: The Forgotten War, a story that was told mainly through the retrospective eyes of a few veterans who had fought there.

And we also tried to deal with the question of why, as Wallace put it in his on-camera close, "the Korean War fell through the cracks of our collective memory."

One of the problems was timing. The Korean War began in 1950, just five years after the conclusion of World War II, and it's easy to overlook or lose sight of a struggle that occurs in the heavy shadow cast by the biggest and bloodiest war in history.

Then there was the frustrating nature of the Korean conflict. All the dramatic victories (and setbacks) took place in the first few months of the war. By the spring of 1951, both sides were dug into their well-fortified positions and most of the ensuing battles took place at close range, from bunker to bunker, with the result that very little ground was gained by either side.

The situation was not unlike the trench-warfare stalemates of World War I, and the bloody impasse persited for more than two years until the war finally came to an end in July 1953.

Nor was the outcome itself all that satisfactory. Yes, the U.S. forces and their allies did achieve their original mission - to keep South Korea free from the clutches of communism - and that no doubt qualified as some kind of victory.

But in the fall of 1950, just a few months after the war began, the U.S. Command had taken on the far more ambitious goal of liberating North Korea as well. And toward that end, American troops had extended their offensive into North Korea, driving to within range of that country's border with China.

That's what brought the Chinese into the war, and their massive counterattack drove the U.S. forces out of North Korea and led to the long and brutal stalemate that defined the last two years of the conflict.

In the end, the two adversaries ended up just about where they had started, and as one of the vets in our broadcast remarked, "Nobody cheers for a tie." Nor is a tie something we go out of our way to remember.

Which brings us to the question of Vietnam, a war in which the United States couldn't even manage a tie. Yet that fiasco - the only war we ever lost - resonates far more vividly in our national memory than does Korea.

One reason, perhaps, is the boiling controversy it provoked. Not since the Civil War had the American people been so bitterly divided, and resentment is an emotion that continues to smolder, long after the argument itself has been resolved.

But the main reason for the enduring impact of Vietnam is that it was the first war to be covered extensively on television. Never before had civilians back home been exposed to the miseries and cruelties of war in all their graphic detail.

Such vivid images as the point-blank gunshot to the head of an enemy prisoner by the police chief of Saigon - which came across as an almost casual, on-the-spot execution - invaded our consciousness in ways that previous generations of home-front compatriots never had to experience.

Little wonder, then, that for many Americans, the sights and sounds of the war in Vietnam are permanently lodged in their memory banks.

So, in this respect as well, Korea had the misfortune of bad timing. When the war was raging over there, television was in its infancy, and TV coverage of the conflict was sporadic, static and generally shallow, not unlike the newsreel stories of that era.

Television journalism came of age in the early 1960s, and if that electronic breakthrough had occurred a decade earlier, then Korea would have had the distinction of becoming our first living-room war. And maybe, just maybe, the lessons we would have absorbed from that experience might have saved us from the folly of getting bogged down in Vietnam.

In November 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the famous wall of names - was dedicated in Washington. At that time, there still was no national memorial honorinthe veterans of The Forgotten War.

But that oversight was finally corrected on July 27, 1995, when President Clinton and other dignitaries gathered at a nearby site for the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The ceremony occurred 42 years to the day after the Korean War formally ended.

So, at long last, the valiant men who fought and died in Korea were given the recognition they deserved.

But, as Mike Wallace noted at the end of our broadcast, "They still have no songs to sing."


Written By Gary Paul Gates
© 2000 CBS News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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