Remembering the Forgotten War

January 14, 2011

Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, but whatever commemorations occurred were pretty low key, maintaining its reputation as “the forgotten war.” Given that many people at the time saw the war as possibly leading to World War III, it’s interesting that it’s receded so much from public consciousness.

Sometimes it’s the byways of history that tell us the most about how things really were. Two pamphlets produced by the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History on signals intelligence (SIGINT) in the Korean War do just that. The Korean War: the SIGINT Background shows how woefully understaffed and under-skilled the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) was in the run-up to war. With most of its efforts focused on the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, AFSA had neither the motivation nor the Korean language capabilities to track North Korean communications. The betrayal of American penetration of Soviet cipher systems by an NKVD mole in AFSA resulted in even more distraction.

So Power Can be Brought into Play: SIGINT and the Pusan Perimeter takes the story into combat. While recapitulating the failings of AFSA prior to the outbreak of war, it describes how quickly its staff began providing high-quality intelligence to the U.S. forces trapped in the Pusan perimeter after the massive North Korean invasion that pushed them into that pocket southeast of Seoul. Although outnumbered and outgunned, American forces held out until the risky but totally successful amphibious invasion at Inchon. The Korean War: the SIGINT Background then outlines the Chinese phase of the war, the resultant stalemate, and the detailed advance intelligence that led to victories at Hill 395 and Pork Chop Hill prior to the 1953 armistice.

So there is the Korean War in microcosm: initial surprise and near-disaster, furious improvisation, and success followed by stalemate and an indecisive finish. Perhaps that’s why we don’t remember it – hard fighting but no parades. You can read these publications or order copies here or find them in a library.

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