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Korean War Commanding General admits he engaged in Nazi-like war crimes

As the U.S. moves towards a possible peace settlement with new nuclear power North Korea, it remains true that much of what constituted the savagery of the Korean War is unknown to most Americans. This is due to historical ignorance or indifference in general, suppression of the subject in textbooks and general discourse, and most of all, ongoing secrecy about certain U.S. government activities.

Recently, at Medium.com, the International Scientific Report on Bacterial Warfare in China and North Korea, including executive summary and hundreds of pages of appendices, was published in clear and searchable format for easy downloading for free for the first time ever. This was followed by an in-depth look at a U.S. plague attack on a North Korean village in March 1952.

B-26 Bombing of a city during the Korean War. Photo by NASM photo. Photo via Good Free Photos.

Better known and less contested is the fact the U.S. conducted a savage air war campaign over North Korea during the Korean War. According to one source, “During the campaign, conventional explosives, incendiary bombs, and napalm destroyed nearly all of the country’s cities and towns, including an estimated 85 percent of its buildings.”

At least one million civilians died in these raids. But most likely there were many more. The head of Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, famously said, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of [North] Korea….”

The U.S. has never owned up to having committed war crimes during the Korean War, or at least that’s what is generally thought.

A Long-forgotten War Crimes Review Board

But in a long-forgotten admission, in 1952 the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR) General Matthew Ridgway told the High Commissioners in Germany — the nominal postwar Allied ruling body, whose U.S. representative at that time was John J. McCloy — that he had conducted crimes as Commanding General of UN forces in the Korean War that were no different than those of German generals who had been tried and convicted by military tribunals after World War II.

John J. McCloy — photo in public domain

Of what kinds of crimes were the German generals convicted? McCloy himself outlined them in a letter at the time to Professor Karl Brandt of Stanford University. Brandt had written in support of a clemency appeal for the military officers convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg and other tribunals, and imprisoned by the Allies in Landsberg Prison.

According to the book Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era, by David Clay Large (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), “McCloy explained that the generals imprisoned in Landsberg were kept there ‘for a very definite reason’ — their compliance with the ‘Führer order to kill all Jews, gypsies, etc.’ McCloy said that he looked upon such generals in the same way he did ‘lawyers and judges who collaborated with the Peoples’ Court, and the doctors who carried out medical experiments in concentration camps.’ All these people, he said, had betrayed their professions….” (Large, 1996, pg. 117, see endnote 1).

McCloy was besieged by requests from West German citizens for amnesty or pardons for those convicted by American tribunals. According to Jeffrey Herf at the New Republic, German historian Norbert Frei has described how eager was a “depressingly broad spectrum of opinion in Adenauer’s Germany — including the leading officials of the Protestant and Catholic churches — to reverse or to ameliorate the results of the Nuremberg- trials period.”

In January 1950, McCloy acceded to the demands by setting up the Advisory Board on Clemency for War Criminals, part of the High Commissioners office.

McCloy was an important figure in American history. Years earlier he had been a key figure in the decision to intern Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. Much later, he joined the Warren Commission on the assassination of John Kennedy at the behest of former CIA chief Allen Dulles.

McCloy’s move to placate those seeking clemency for war criminals drew a sharp rebuke from former Nuremberg Trial prosecutor and Chief Counsel Telford Taylor, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Post arguing that any review of the war crimes trials would “only benefit ‘those who have wealthy and powerful influences behind them.’”

The “retreat from Nuremberg is on,” Taylor wrote (Endnote 2).

The controversy over the clemency review board dragged on into the start of the Korean War, and became entangled with the new policy of Western backing for the rearmament of Germany. The ultimate decision by McCloy and his board to in fact release many of those convicted of war crimes only a few years before was criticized by a number of people at the time.

Ultimately, the controversy faded away. The U.S. had engaged a new tremendous war on the Korean peninsula and was even targeting the new Chinese regime of Mao Tse-Tung.

Famously, the first Commanding General of that war was General Douglas MacArthur. It would take decades, but later it would be revealed that after World War II, MacArthur had been key in advocating for and obtaining a full-scale amnesty for the war criminal Shiro Ishii and his compatriots in the Japanese germ warfare division, Unit 731.

MacArthur fell afoul of President Truman after the general pushed for a full-scale war with China, even to the extent of privately lobbying allies and Congressional representatives. Truman’s replacement for McArthur was the commanding general of the 8th Army then fighting in Korea, Matthew Ridgway.

“Orders in Korea ‘of the kind for which the German generals are sitting in prison.’”

By May 1952, Ridgway had finished in Korea, and been rewarded with command of Allied forces in Europe. But his stay in Korea was not without controversy.

Marine Corps Colonel Frank Schwable reading from deposition, 1953, People’s China, March 16, 1953

Although accusations surrounding U.S. use of biological weapons during the Korean War are difficult to find in documentary form, a recently posted transcript of Marine Corps Colonel Frank Schwable’s deposition to Chinese interrogators about U.S. germ warfare describes the central role of Matthew Ridgway:

The general plan for bacteriological warfare in Korea was directed by the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff in October, 1951. In that month the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a directive by hand to the Commanding General, Far East Command (at that time General Ridgway), directing the initiation of bacteriological warfare in Korea on an initially small, experimental stage but in expanding proportions.

Is it possible that Ridgway had germ warfare in mind when he later appealed to the High Commissioners over West Germany (representatives of the U.S., Britain, and France) for clemency of German officers convicted at war crime tribunals? Or was it the napalming or carpet bombing, the strafing by machine guns of civilians? Or the mass execution of civilians?

“Not long after McCloy’s review decisions, General Matthew Ridgway (SACEUR 1952–53) urged the high commissioners to pardon all German officers convicted of war crimes on the Eastern front. He himself, he noted, had recently given orders in Korea ‘of the kind for which the German generals are sitting in prison.’ His ‘honor as a soldier’ forced him to insist upon the release of these officers before he could ‘issue a single command to a German soldier of the European army.’ [Large, 1996, pg. 117, see endnote 1]
General Matthew Ridgway — Photo in public domain

Gen. Ridgway’s comments to the High Commissioners, while pertaining to a distant controversy surrounding World War II Nazi war criminals, amount to a self-condemnation of war crimes by Ridgway himself, and of U.S. conduct of the Korean War, the criminality of which has been mostly covered up by U.S. academics and the press for decades now.

Whatever the competency of President Trump, or even his real intentions, it is clear that the people of both North and South Korea definitely desire peace. The North Koreans and the Chinese, too, wish for recognition of the truth of what they suffered during the Korean War. The U.S. cannot maintain its bullying stance forever.

It is time to end the Korean War and acknowledge the crimes committed during the waging of that war.

Endnotes:

  1. “Ridgway’s remarks recorded in PA [Parlamentsarchiv], Stenographische Protokolle, Sonderausschuss zur Mitberatung des EVG-Vertrages und der damit zusammenhangenden Abmachungen 6. Sitzung, 37.” Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era, by David Clay Large, University of North Carolina Press, 1996 (pg. 286)
  2. Quote from Law and War: International Law and American History, Revised Edition, by Peter Maguire, Columbia University Press, 2010, pg. 166.