What If? The 41st Parallel

December 11, 2014 7:00 AM

While in Korea last week, I attended a conference at the Museum of Contemporary Korean History reviewing the country’s political and economic development experience. At the conference, Prof. Byung-chul Koh presented an interesting paper reviewing the American military occupation. In it, he alerted me to a fascinating event—or non-event—that might have changed the course of history: a missed opportunity to insert American troops below the 41st rather than 38th parallel. The following draws directly on his presentation.

In line with commitments made at Tehran and Yalta, the Soviets formally entered the Pacific war on August 9, 1945 and quickly moved not only into Manchuria but down the east coast of Korea as well. Although they got as far as Chongjin by the time of the Japanese surrender, Soviet forces initially encountered surprisingly stiff resistance from Japan’s Kwantung Army and stalled at the 41st parallel; the Northern half of the peninsula was by no means fully occupied on August 15th. To the contrary, as the map below suggests it was hardly occupied at all.

Soviet penetration at Japanese surrender

When President Truman attended the Potsdam conference in July and August of 1945, he was appalled not only by the destruction of Berlin but by evidence of Soviet looting; he apparently had concerns that this would be repeated anywhere the Soviets were given the right to take the Japanese surrender. As a result, according to Michael Sandusky’s 1983 America’s Parallel, Truman “wanted to send US troops (at least a division) to Korea not occupied by the Soviet troops.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chief of naval operations favored the idea, but it was opposed by MacArthur, who claimed that the occupation of Japan would require every infantry division under his command.

The rest, as they say, is history. With little more than a National Geographic map at hand, Colonels Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk had to decide on a dividing line on the night of August 10th. They wanted the American zone to include Seoul but didn’t want Stalin to veto their proposal. Without a map with provincial boundaries, they settled on the 38th parallel, which to everyone’s surprise the Soviets accepted.

It is far beyond our knowledge of the particulars to speculate on whether a substantial troop concentration could have reached the 41st parallel in a timely way or what effect it might have had if it did; the Soviets were clearly on the move south and might have rejected a proposal that the US effectively take the surrender of Japan throughout the majority of the Korean peninsula. But the story at least illustrates why there is ongoing revisionism with respect to MacArthur’s judgment and ambitions. See for example Evan Thomas’ scathing comments on MacArthur in his review of Nigel Hamilton’s new book on FDR’s management of the first two years of the war.


Liars N. Fools

Historically, Japan, Russia, China, and even Korean polities have considered how to divide Korea, and I have read that modern (meaning late 19th century) Russian and Japanese military/colonial planners looked at various scenarios. Americans, of course, had no similar thoughts or plans. Easy to criticize Rusk and Bonesteel or MacArthur (or Willoughby) in hindsight, but their decisions and judgements (and misjudgements) have nevertheless helped shape the way things are now on the Peninsula.


I came upon a facebook post, that helps put why exactly MacArthur was hoarding all his troops into light:
Japan, just like Germany (Korea wasn't on anyone's mind yet), was originally meant to be divided up. However, General MacArthur didn't go along with the plan. When Russia took the Kuril islands, it posed a real threat. Even though MacArthur had control of Ryushu and Honshu, he went ahead and took Hokkaido, securing a unified Japan. Going completely against original Allied plans.

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