WORLD WAR I
By Gregory D. Lucas
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the world was an especially dangerous place. Tensions in Europe reached new levels as the troubled Balkan region precipitated critical political instability. As Nationalists sought to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina, long-standing European alliances threatened to dissolve. When on June 28, 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by the Serbian Gavrilo Princip, it ignited a rapidly burning fuse that brought Europe to the brink of war.
One week later, upon receiving Kaiser Wilhelm II’s secret assurance that Germany would ally itself with Austro-Hungary, Austro-Hungary sent a particularly harsh ultimatum to Serbia making war inevitable. On July 28th, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The major European powers immediately lined up in opposition to Austro-Hungary and Germany, and World War I begun. Upon the shelling of Belgrade, Russia rapidly mobilized against Austro-Hungary and Germany. Hoping to recover the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, ceded to Germany after the Franko-Prussian war, France also quickly mobilized as an ally of Russia. When Germany invaded Belgium on August 3, 1914, the Belgian government invoked the 1839 Treaty of London, bringing Great Britain into the war. Far to the East, the Japanese joined the Allies, seeking to expand their influence in the region by capturing German-held territory in China.
Faced with enemies to the East and West, German Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan to fight the war on two fronts. On August 4, 1914, German troops invaded Belgium, laying siege to the heavily fortified city of Liege. Aided by massive siege cannons, the town was quickly leveled and captured. In what is known as the First Battle of the Marne, the Germans turned their military might against France, rapidly penetrating the countryside to within 30 miles of Paris. French and British forces succeeded in stalling the German offensive, driving them back to north of the Aisne River. Crushing German plans for the rapid defeat of France, both sides dug in for what would become a massively costly war of attrition. More than a million men died in the Battle of Verdun alone.
Meanwhile, the Russian Army attacked on the Eastern front, invading East Prussia and Poland before being stopped at the Battle of Tannenberg. Russia’s assault along the Eastern front forced Germany to relocate two corps from France, contributing to its loss at the Battle of the Marne. Russia’s massive war machine, and its ability to mobilize quickly, assured that the Schlieffen Plan to win a rapid victory on both fronts would ultimately grind to a halt. The War would be protracted and bloody for all concerned.
In late 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered the war as an ally of Germany. As the war in Europe settled into trench warfare, the Allies sought a victory against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans initiated an offensive in the Caucasus Mountains, leading the Russians to request Allied aid. The Allies began planning a naval operation in the Dardanelles as a diversion to mask an invasion by Royal Marines, and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Constantinople. Unknown to the Allies, German specialists had heavily reinforced the defenses of the Dardanelles, and emplaced minefields in the straits. In the battle that ensued, the Ottomans sank three Allied battleships, and inflicted more than seven hundred casualties on the Allies.
In April of 1915, the Allies launched a massive invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula. In an operation that was poorly planned and executed, against an entrenched enemy capable of quickly reinforcing its positions, the Ottomans inflicted heavy casualties. Failing to achieve their initial objectives, and almost out of ammunition, the exhausted Allies dug in to resist an Ottoman counterattack. Among the available resources were small aircraft capable of providing aerial intelligence. The Allies learned of the planned counterattack, prepared to meet it, and inflicted more than 13,000 Ottoman casualties. Nevertheless, the Allied invasion proved to be a failure, and with the passage of time, as both sides reinforced and dug in, the likelihood of achieving a meaningful victory was lost. Worse yet, as winter weather approached, rain filled the Allied trenches drowning a number of soldiers, and corpses washed into the trenches. When the snows fell, men began to die of exposure. In total, the Allies lost more than 53,000 men in the failed offensive.
Timed almost in conjunction with the initiation of operations against the Ottoman Empire, Italy entered the war as an ally of the West. In exchange for the promise of territory from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italian forces attacked the Austro-Hungarian forces in the mountainous regions of the Isonzo River. The attack forced the Austro-Hungarian military to transfer some of its force stationed on the Eastern front to the Isonzo River, weakening the lines. The Isonzo region potentially opened a corridor from Italy to Central Europe. However, the region had been fortified by the Austrians prior to the war, creating a dilemma. To cross the Isonzo safely, the Italians had to neutralize the defending forces north of the River, but to neutralize those forces, the Italians had to cross the River. Combat in the area continued for more than two years, culminating in the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Caporetto. Reinforced by German Stormtroopers, and using lethal gas, the Austro-Hungarians ultimately broke the Italian lines, resulting in the collapse of the Italian Second Army. In all, the Italians suffered more than 300,000 battle deaths along the Isonzo.
Despite Russia’s massive military build-up, Russian offensives along the Eastern front failed to penetrate German lines. As the war extended from months to years, the combination of human losses, the lack of food, and economic instability fueled discontent and hostility among the Russian people, focused on Czar Nicholas II, and his German wife, Alexandra. The circumstances were ripe for rebellion. Led by the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik Rebellion rapidly escalated into a national civil war. The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended the reign and the lives of the Czar and his family. Russians would live with the consequences of that decision for more than seven decades. The new Russian administration signed an armistice with Germany, freeing the Germans to turn their war machine to the West.
Among the German policies that ultimately influenced the outcome of the war was its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. German U-boats attacked shipping indiscriminately, sinking passenger liners, and commercial vessels from neutral states. The sinking of the British liner Lusitania which carried hundreds of American passengers made Woodrow Wilson’s policy of neutrality untenable. Neutrality apart from compelling force is destined to fail. When Germany continued sinking U.S. merchant ships, Wilson finally asked Congress for a declaration of war.
Prior to World War I, the superiority of British sea power had been well established. That superiority was openly challenged by Germany’s U-boat strategy in its effort to break the Allied naval blockade of German ports. Traditional engagements at Dogger Bank and in the Battle of Jutland left Britain in firm control of the seas, but for Germany’s U-boats. The U-boats would continue to devastate Allied shipping throughout the war.
Following its armistice with Russia, Germany again looked Westward for a crushing victory against the Allies in France. With German forces reinforced by the transfer of war power from the Eastern front, Germany again sought to go on the offensive throughout France. At the Second Battle of the Marne, that offensive was again stopped, this time by more than 85,000 American reinforcements and elements of the British Expeditionary Force. The German offensive ended, and three days later, the Allies began a counteroffensive that would inflict massive casualties on the Germans. The Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide of war decisively in favor of the Allies.
In the latter half of 1918, the German and Austro-Hungarian military began to crumble. The Allies had driven the Germans back at the Second Battle of the Marne. Internal rebellion in the Ottoman Empire eroded its ability to resist continued Allied operations in Turkey. Varied nationalist uprisings and discord within the Austro-Hungarian Empire took a toll on the military’s available resources, reducing its ability to sustain a drawn-out war with the Allies. On November 11, 1918, Germany sued for peace, thus ending the war.
World War I claimed more than 19 million lives, including military and civilian casualties. More than 21 million were wounded. Worse yet, the war opened the way for a global flu pandemic that would ultimately claim another 50 million lives worldwide. Little was achieved. Although German was brought to its knees, the peace process that followed included the imposition of reparations and the denial of Germany’s entrance into the League of Nations. Not long after, Germany’s national resentment energized its willingness to follow a new national leader – Adolf Hitler – who promised a stronger future by repudiating the Treaty of Versailles.
Whenever liberty is at stake, standing in the gap between despotism and the American people are men and women in uniform, ready to trade their lives for the cause of freedom. The debt they pay is one owed by every American, but shouldered by few. By their sacrifice, they have earned and continue earning more than we can ever repay. Honor them. They deserve it. Copyright © Gregory D. Lucas 2018
THE KOREAN WAR
By Gregory D. Lucas
Editorial additions contributed by Cindy Lucas
As a direct consequence of the First Sino-Japanese War from 1894-95, followed by Japan’s defeat of Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War a decade later, Korea became a protectorate, and was then annexed by Japan, effectively destroying China’s influence over Korea. Occupying the Korean peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army nevertheless faced continued resistance from Korean Nationalists who formed a shadow government in Nationalist China, and from the communist Peoples Liberation Army.
Beginning in Tehran from November 28 to December 1, 1943, followed by Yalta, and then Potsdam, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill conducted a series of conferences to strategize the destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. One important outcome was Stalin’s agreement to declare war on Japan within two to three months after Germany’s surrender. Thus, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, on August 9, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and promptly thereafter liberated Korea North of the 38th parallel. The Korean peninsula was divided into Soviet and U.S. occupation zones, divided by 38th parallel.
On September 8, 1945 at Incheon, the US accepted the Japanese surrender South of the 38th parallel. By December, Korea was administered – against the collective will of the Korean people - by a joint US-Soviet Union Commission. Intent on creating an independent Korea in the facing of civil unrest, the US military government declared martial law. Under the auspices of the United Nations, elections held in the South were boycotted by the Korean communists. Syngman Rhee was elected President. In the Soviet controlled zone, a communist government, led by Kim Il-sung, was established. Thereupon, as earlier agreed, both the Soviet Union and the US withdrew from Korea.
With the onset of the Cold War, North Korea, buoyed by the Soviet Union, and South Korea, supported by the United States, each created governments claiming to govern the whole of Korea. Neither recognized the 38th parallel as a permanent boundary between North and South.
With Japan now a conquered nation, Civil War resumed in China between the communist People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Nationalists. North Koreans donated as many as 2,000 railway cars worth of supplies, and many thousands of North Koreans served in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Chinese Communists were also provided safe harbor in North Korea. That support was not forgotten. Following the 1949 creation of the People’s Republic of China, 50-70,000 Korean veterans who had served in the People’s Liberation Army returned to North Korea, well-armed, and well supplied by the Chinese communists, along with a commitment of further support in the event of war against South Korea.
The People's Republic of China identified the Western nations, led by the United States, as the biggest threat to its sovereignty. To elevate China’s in the worldwide Communist movements, China actively promoted communist revolutions along their borders.
In March of 1949, Kim Il-sung sought Stalin's support for an invasion of South Korea. Stalin resisted as long as the communist Chinese were engaged in civil war, and as long as US forces were stationed in South Korea. When, however, Mao Tse-tung achieved final victory in China, and the United States had withdrawn from Korea, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, ending the West’s atomic monopoly. Convinced that the US would not intervene in Korea, or face nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, Stalin promised economic and military aid to China and to North Korea, provided that it would not openly engage in combat to avoid a direct war with the United States. Coupled with China’s subsequent promise to place an army near the Korean border, and to provide reinforcements if necessary, North Korea made preparations for war.
Out the outset of hostilities, the Republic of Korea was ill-prepared to defend itself against the larger, better armed, better trained, and better equipped communist army. The Chinese Civil War having ended not only freed those Korean and Chinese participants from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, but made available to the North Koreans tanks, artillery, and aircraft, none of which were available to the Republic of Korea.
Thus, on June 25, 1950, when 75,000 North Korean soldiers from the Democratic People’s Republic Army crossed the 38th parallel, invading the Republic of Korea, the South Koreans were promptly routed. When Seoul fell two days later, many South Korean units were trapped. An Army that only days before had 95,000 men now had fewer than 22,000 with which to defend a country. When U.S. forces finally arrived, what was left of the South Korean Army was placed under the operational command of the United Nations contingent.
Half a world away, the United States was similarly ill-prepared for war in the Far East. Of somewhat greater concern than the fate of Korea was the defense of Europe against the Soviet Union. War in Korea could quickly widen into another world war, this time with China and the Soviet Union. Under the circumstances, the Truman administration was wholly unprepared for the invasion. While the U.S. did not consider South Korea to be of vital interest, its proximity to Japan increased its important. The security of Japan required the protection of South Korea. Failure to protect one would place the other at risk.
The commonly held view was that communist aggression unchecked would lead to a chain reaction of communist aggression worldwide. Moreover, the risk existed that the invasion across the 38th parallel was either a ploy to test U.S. resolve in the region, or an attempt to cause the U.S. to commit to the Far East at the peril of the defense of Europe. When the United Nations Security Council approved the use of force, it was not without risk that U.S. troops intervened in Korea. President Truman later acknowledged his belief that the decision to intervene in Korea was essential to the containment of communism worldwide.
Within a month, the United States and twenty other nations, under the auspices of the United Nations, entered the war on South Korea’s behalf in an effort to stem the tide of international communism. In turn, China and the Soviet Union entered the war in support of the North Korean Army.
The initial onslaught drove allied forces South into a small area known as the Pusan Perimeter. In September, a UN amphibious counter-offensive at Incheon cut off many Communist troops, and forced others to strategically withdraw. As the allied forces approached the Yalu River, the border with China, more than 300,000 massed Chinese forces entered the conflict, and drove the Allied forces into a general retreat. In the two year war of attrition during 1950-51, land areas changed hands numerous times, but by 1953, the front coincided generally with the 38th parallel.
President Truman was convinced that war with China would result in Soviet aggression in Europe. His views did not square with General MacArthur, the Commander of the Pacific Theater. To General MacArthur, anything short of victory represented appeasement. Upon leaking a letter to the press in which MacArthur stated that, “There is no substitute for victory”, MacArthur was fired for insubordination.
Peace talks began in Korea in July of 1951 at Panmunjom. While both sides could accept a ceasefire, they could not agree on more substantive concessions, including the repatriation of prisoners of war, or the resolution of a permanent boundary between North and South. The 2-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” still exists today, leaving both countries still at war.
Although the Korean War was relatively short, it was nevertheless costly. Of the 1,789,000 who served in theater during the War, there were 33,739 battle deaths, 2,835 other deaths in theater, and 103,284 wounded in action. Of those who served in theater fewer than 1 in 10 are alive today. In all, nearly 5 million people died, more than half being civilians.
More problematic is the legacy created by that War. The divided country is divided still. Peace is no closer today than it was during the talks at Panmunjom. The South became an economic powerhouse. The North became a nuclear threat to the peace of the whole world. Sixty-four years after the cessation of combat, troops still prepare daily for an imminent invasion. Provocations of profound consequence are the stuff of daily news reports. The so-called “police action”, another name for an undeclared war, left no winners, and a great many losers. It embittered the public toward wars controlled by politicians, in which soldiers are placed in harm’s way without being permitted or enabled to win. Like the later war in Vietnam, soldiers returned home without parades, or honors, or even simple recognition of the terrible price they paid. Many of those who fought in Korea would later be characterized as the “silent generation”, reflecting a silence that conceals bitterness, frustration, alienation, and memories that others could never fully understand. It is long past time to honor those who served then, and who serve us still.
THE VIETNAM WAR
Gregory D. Lucas
Editorial additions contributed by Robert Parrish and Joe Crecca, both of whom honorably served in Vietnam.
Whatever else may be said of the Vietnam War, it was one of the more divisive and disruptive events in American history, compounded by wide-spread and well-organized anti-war efforts supported by mainstream media. With US involvement spanning the terms of five American Presidents from 1954 (following Vietnam’s anti-colonial war against France) to 1975, Americans suffered more than 58,000 combat and noncombat related deaths, and more than 150,000 wounded. Of those who served in Vietnam, fewer than one-third are alive today, and more than 300 Vietnam veterans die every day. The legacy of the Vietnam War will not be fully understood for many years.
Following World War II, American concerns about the global expansion of communism, and the so-called “domino theory”, were not without justification. China, North Korea, and North Vietnam had already fallen to communist domination. Communist regimes came to power in Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola, Afghanistan, Grenada, and Nicaragua. Premier Nikita Khrushchev declared, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” To that end, Castro’s revolution in Cuba, and subsequent export of terrorism throughout Central and South America, coupled with Russian attempts to place nuclear warheads in Cuba, confirmed America’s fears, and compelled our commitment to oppose communist expansion wherever it occurred. Che Guevara advocated starting many Vietnams around the world. Eastern Europe was transformed into a collection of police states forming a protective buffer zone around the Soviet Union, posing a serious threat to the autonomy of Western Europe. Ours was a world in crisis.
Starting with 2,000 military advisors, America’s commitment to the Republic of Vietnam proved inadequate to stem the National Liberation Front’s expansion into the beleaguered South. By 1963, the coalition of Viet Cong guerrillas and regular units of the North Vietnamese Army (“NVA”) dominated the Mekong Delta. In November, a coup assassinated President Ngô Đình Diệm – the same month in which a Marxist-trained assassin murdered President Kennedy. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, had visions of creating a “Great Society”, while inheriting an increasingly unpopular undeclared war in Vietnam.
The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident led to the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress authorized the President to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by "communist aggression". President Johnson responded with a gradual build-up to more than 530,000 servicemen and servicewomen in country by 1965, and commenced an air war against North Vietnam.
When it was apparent the Viet Cong were using neighboring Laos and Cambodia to infiltrate into South Vietnam, from 1964-1973, the US Air Force conducted more than 580,000 bombing missions to destroy Communist sanctuaries and base areas in which the NVA and Viet Cong had stored weapons and materiel along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia. That the War was expanding into neighboring countries was not lost on the American public. As students faced the prospect of being drafted into a war many of them opposed, and as vastly more young men were being called into military service, riots erupted on college campuses across the country. Radical student groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society, coupled with racially motivated activists, including the Black Power movement, and United Farm Worker demonstrators opposing the growing and sale of non-union grapes conjoined into a perfect storm of coordinated anti-war demonstrations and race riots. The Vietnam War served as a sort of lightning rod attracting opponents and movements as varied as the proponents of illicit hallucinogenic drugs, gender equality and civil rights. Riots and large-scale protests occurred at colleges and universities across the country, and major city-wide rioting took place in Watts, Detroit, Harlem and Baltimore.
In an effort to influence American public opinion and further stimulate the anti-war movement, in January of 1968, coinciding with a 36-hour truce honoring the Vietnamese new year (“Tet”), the NVA began the most massive campaign of the war, known as the Tet Offensive. More than 300,000 NVA regulars and Viet Cong attacked military and civilian targets throughout South Vietnam, executing thousands of prisoners. Having allowed a large percentage of its troops to go on leave for the Tet celebration, the South Vietnamese military was largely unprepared for the magnitude and ferocity of the offensive. Battles at Hue and Khe Sanh left heavy casualties on both sides, and were followed by the massacre of civilians and the families of South Vietnamese ARVN soldiers. The US reported the largest number of casualties incurred in the war to date. The Tet Offensive was followed by “mini-Tet offensives” later in the year. Despite the size of the overall offensive, the Viet Cong suffered enormously from the losses incurred, and the campaigns were militarily unsuccessful. But what was a military defeat for the Viet Cong was nevertheless a propaganda disaster for the United States. At Walter Cronkite’s February 27, 1968 pronouncement that we are “mired in stalemate”, President Johnson reportedly declared, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
President Johnson was unable to persuade the American public that the outcome of the Tet Offensive represented an American victory. 1968 was an election year. By March, a despondent President Johnson staggered the country by his decision not to seek another term of office. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, shortly after having led a March in Memphis that turned violent, was assassinated. His death ended any hope of non-violent demonstrations in the so called “race wars”. On June 5, 1968, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had earlier announced his candidacy for the Presidency, was assassinated.
On August 20, 1968, echoing the invasion of Hungary a decade before, 200,000 Russian soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia.
In November, Richard Nixon was elected President. Promising the American people to end the War, he began the slow process of withdrawing American troops, while attempting to negotiate a diplomatic peace. Americans could now watch the war on television from the comfort of their living rooms. Nightly newsreels showed the mounting casualties. We watched Jane Fonda, who traveled to Hanoi, have her photograph taken on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun as a sign of solidarity with the NVA. The gun would ostensibly be used to shoot down American pilots. The public was outraged. Meanwhile, the promise of victory, or an honorable peace, appeared as unattainable as it had ever been.
Then, in March of 1972, when fourteen divisions of NVA regulars crossed the 17th parallel in Soviet tanks, the mirage of an imminent American “victory” was shattered. President Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor, and, under Operation Linebacker II the B-52 bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong until the communists returned to the Peace Conference in Paris. Within weeks, North Vietnam signed peace accords, allowing the United States to withdraw with honor. But as Americans withdrew from Vietnam while denying aid to the Republic of Vietnam in any form, the South staggered under the burden of taking up its own defense. Meanwhile, the North rebuilt its broken military.
In March of 1975, NVA regulars again invaded across the 17th parallel. This time, the South had no US air support, and no American forces to counter the offensive. NVA tanks entered Saigon on April 30th. The Americans had little time to do more than rescue those in their embassy. The war was lost.
There are three profound legacies of the Vietnam War. First, never before had the press so dominated and influenced public opinion as occurred during the polarizing events of the Vietnam years.
Second, as the communist North unified Vietnam, cracks appeared in the Soviet bloc. Fourteen years after the fall of Saigon, the Berlin Wall was torn down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Third, never before had American servicemen faced such hostility from the country they served. Sent to a place to which many of them did not want to go, by a country who little valued the sacrifices they endured, at a time when they would not be justly honored for their honorable service, American servicemen paid a horrific price.
It is long past time for those injustices to be righted. It is long past time for our own countrymen to be honored. And it is long past time for us to bid them, “Welcome home. Thank you for your service.”
Copyright © Gregory D. Lucas 2016