Guest Essayist: The Honorable Don Ritter

World War II ended in 1945 but the ideological imperative of Soviet communism’s expansion did not. By 1950, the Soviet Union (USSR) had solidified its empire by conquest and subversion in all Central and Eastern Europe. But to Stalin & Co., there were other big fish to fry. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, the USSR was asked to participate in ending the war in the Pacific against Japan. Even though Japan’s defeat was not in doubt, the atom bomb would not be tested until July and it was not yet known to our war planners if it would work.

An invasion of Japan, their home island, was thought to mean huge American and allied casualties, perhaps half a million, a conclusion reached given the tenacity which Japanese soldiers had defended islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. So much blood was yet to be spilled… they were fighting to the death. The Soviet Red Army, so often oblivious to casualties in their onslaught against Nazi Germany, would share in the burden of invasion of Japan.

Japan had controlled Manchukuo (later Manchuria).  The Korean peninsula was dominated by Japan historically and actually annexed early in the 20th century. Islands taken from Czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 were also in play.

Stalin and the communist USSR’s presence at the very end of the war in Asia was solidified at Yalta and that is how they got to create a communist North Korea.

Fast forward to April of 1950, Kim Il Sung had traveled to Moscow to discuss how communist North Korea, might take South Korea and unify the peninsula under communist rule for the communist world. South Korea or the Republic of Korea (ROK) was dependent on the United States. The non-communist ROK was in the middle of the not abnormal chaos of establishing a democracy, an economy, and a new country. Their military was far from ready. Neither was that of the U.S.

Kim and Stalin concluded that South was weak and ripe for adding new realm to their communist world. Stalin gave Kim the go-ahead to invade and pledged full Soviet support. Vast quantities of supplies, artillery and tanks would be provided to the Army of North Korea for a full-fledged attack on the South. MIG-15 fighter aircraft, flown by Soviet pilots masquerading as Koreans would be added. Close by was Communist China for whom the USSR had done yeoman service in their taking control. That was one large insurance policy should things go wrong.

On June 25, 1950, a North Korean blitzkrieg came thundering down on South Korea. Closely spaced large artillery firing massive barrages followed by tanks and troops, a tactic perfected in the Red Army’s battles with the Nazis, wreaked havoc on the overpowered South Korean forces. Communist partisans infiltrated into the South joined the fray, against the ROK. The situation was dire as it looked like the ROK would collapse.

President Harry Truman decided that an expansionist Soviet communist victory in Korea was not only unacceptable but that it would not stop there. He committed the U.S. to fight back and fight back, we did. In July of 1950, the Americans got support from the UN Security Council to form a UN Command (UNC) under U.S. leadership. As many as 70 countries would get involved eventually but the U.S. troops bore the brunt of the war with Great Britain and Commonwealth troops, a very distant second.

It is contested to this day as to why the USSR under Stalin had not been there at the Security Council session to veto the engagement of the UN with the U.S. leading the charge. The Soviets had walked out in January and did not return until August. Was it a grand mistake or did Stalin want to embroil America in a war in Asia so he could more easily deal with his new and possibly expanding empire in Europe? Were the Soviets so confident of a major victory in Korea that would embarrass the U.S. and signal to others that America would be weakened by a defeat in Korea, and thus be unable to lead the non-communist world?

At a time when ROK and U.S. troops were reeling backwards, when the communist North had taken the capital of the country, Seoul, and much more, Supreme UN Commander, General Douglas McArthur had a plan for a surprise attack. He would attack at a port twenty-five miles from Seoul, Inchon, using the American 1st Marine Division as the spearhead of an amphibious operation landing troops, tanks and artillery. That put UNC troops north of the North Korean forces in a position to sever the enemy’s supply lines and inflict severe damage on their armies. Seoul was retaken. The bold Inchon landing changed the course of the Korean war and put America back on offense.

While MacArthur rapidly led the UNC all the way to the Yalu River bordering China, when Communist China entered the war, everything changed. MacArthur had over-extended his own supply lines and apparently had not fully considered the potential for a military disaster if China entered the war. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) counterattacked. MacArthur was sacked by Truman. There was a debate in the Truman administration over the use of nuclear weapons to counter the Chinese incursion.

Overwhelming numbers of Chinese forces employing sophisticated tactics, and a willingness to take huge casualties, pushed the mostly American troops back to the original dividing line between the north and south, the 38th parallel (38 degrees latitude)… which, ironically, after two more years of deadly stalemate, is where we and our South Korean allies stand today.

Looking back, airpower was our ace in the hole and a great equalizer given the disparity in ground troops. B-29 Superfortresses blasted targets in the north, incessantly. Jet fighters like the legendary F-86 Sabre jet dominated the Soviet MIG-15s.  But if you discount nuclear weapons, wars are won by troops on the ground, and on the ground, we ended up where we started.

33, 000 Americans died in combat. Other UNC countries lost about 7,000. South Korea, 134,000. North Korea, 213,000. The Chinese lost an estimated 400,000 troops in combat! Civilians all told, 2.7 million, a staggering number.

The Korean war ended in 1953 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was the U.S. President. South Korea has evolved from a nation of rice paddies to a modern industrial power with strong democratic institutions and world-class living standards. North Korea, under communist dictatorship, is one of the poorest and most repressive nations on earth yet they develop nuclear weapons. China, still a communist dictatorship but having adopted capitalist economic principles, has surged in its economic and military development to become a great power with the capacity to threaten the peace in Asia and beyond.

Communist expansion was halted by a hot war in Korea from 1950 to 1953 but the Cold War continued with no letup.

A question for the reader: What would the world be like if America and its allies had lost the war in Korea.

Don Ritter is President and CEO Emeritus (after serving eight years in that role) of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and a 15-year founding member of the Board of Directors. Since 9-11, 2001, he has worked full time on Afghanistan and has been back to the country more than 40 times. He has a 38-year history in Afghanistan.

Ritter holds a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Lehigh University and a Masters and Doctorate from MIT in physical-mechanical metallurgy. After MIT, where his hobby was Russian language and culture, he was a NAS-Soviet Academy of Sciences Exchange Fellow in the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era for one year doing research at the Baikov Institute for Physical Metallurgy on high temperature materials. He speaks fluent Russian (and French), is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science and recipient of numerous awards from scientific and technical societies and human rights organizations.

After returning from Russia in 1968, he spent a year teaching at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he was also a contract consultant to General Dynamics in their solid-state physics department. He then returned, as a member of the faculty and administration, to his alma-mater, Lehigh University. At Lehigh, in addition to his teaching, research and industry consulting, Dr. Ritter was instrumental in creating a university-wide program linking disciplines of science and engineering to the social sciences and humanities with the hope of furthering understanding of the role of technology in society.

After10 years at Lehigh, Dr. Ritter represented Pennsylvania’s 15th district, the “Lehigh Valley” from 1979 to 1993 in the U.S. House of Representatives where he served on the Science and Technology and Energy and Commerce Committees. Ritter’s main mission as a ‘scientist congressman’ was to work closely with the science, engineering and related industry communities to bring a greater science-based perspective to the legislative, regulatory and political processes.

In Congress, as ranking member on the Congressional Helsinki Commission, he fought for liberty and human rights in the former Soviet Union. The Commission was Ritter’s platform to gather congressional support to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion and occupation during the 1980s. Ritter was author of the “Material Assistance” legislation and founder and House-side Chairman of the “Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan.”

Dr. Ritter continued his effort in the 1990’s after Congress as founder and Chairman of the Washington, DC-based Afghanistan Foundation. In 2003, as creator of a six million-dollar USAID-funded initiative, he served as Senior Advisor to AACC in the creation of the first independent, free-market oriented Chamber of Commerce in the history of the country. Dr. Ritter presently is part of AACC’s seminal role in assisting the development of the Afghan market economy to bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan. He is also a businessman and investor in Afghanistan.

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