Seventy years ago, North Korean troops swarmed across the 38th parallel dividing the peninsula and started a three-year and very bloody war ended by a truce still in force. The reasons for that unprovoked attack rested in the Cold War and the year 1949.
Emboldened by Mao's victory over the Nationalist Chinese and the founding of the Communist People's Republic of China and the Soviet development of the atomic bomb, Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin saw an opportunity on the Korean Peninsula.
Earlier in 1950, a speech delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson inadvertently excluded South Korea from America's Asian defense blanket. Moscow saw that as a green light to unify Korea. As an insurance policy, Stalin gained the agreement of Beijing for Chinese support to North Korea if the invasion faltered.
Kim Il Sung had the mandate to invade. South Korean and U.S. forces were surprised and fell back to the Pusan perimeter on the southeast tip of South Korea. In the retreat, the U.S. Army's Task Force Smith was annihilated and remains today a tragic example of the failure to maintain a viable military in peacetime.
The United States proposed a United Nations resolution calling for a "police action" to save South Korea. Foolishly, the Soviet Union boycotted the session and could not veto the resolution. Seventy-year-old Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme Allied commander in Japan, was named commander in chief of the U.N. forces.
Made famous in World War II promising he would return to the Philippines after having been ordered to evacuate from Corregidor, MacArthur believed that his experience and seniority gave him unique authority to override the chain of command in Washington and a weak president.
In September 1950, MacArthur launched the stunning Inchon landing on Korea's west coast near Seoul south of the 38th parallel that surprised and cut off the North Korean army to the south. The rise and fall of tides in Inchon was 30 feet, making the assault risky. Had MacArthur chosen a landing site 30 miles to the south, tides were not an issue and the effect on the North Korean army would have been similar. One can speculate why MacArthur pursued the higher risk strategy.
By October, U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel and raced north against an enemy in disarray. The joint chiefs feared that if MacArthur drove too far north, the Chinese would intervene. MacArthur was warned. But his ego and prior successes led him to ignore intelligence counter to his own. That month, he was summoned to Wake Island for consultations with President Harry Truman whom he insulted by landing after Truman's plane set down, in essence disrespecting the commander in chief.
Disregarding his superiors in Washington and the president's concerns about Chinese intervention, in November, MacArthur dismissed three Chinese attacks in force across the Yalu River separating Korea from China as bluffs. On Thanksgiving Day, hundreds of thousands of People's Liberation Army soldiers poured across the Yalu, overwhelming MacArthur's U.N. forces driving them south.
The battle finally coalesced around the 38th parallel. MacArthur wanted to expand the war to China and argued for the use of nuclear weapons. By April, Truman concluded that MacArthur was insubordinate, determined to take the war to China. After conferring with the joint chiefs, on April 11, 1951, Truman concluded he had no option except to fire MacArthur. At that stage, Truman's popularity was at 22 percent.
MacArthur clearly believed that he was omnipotent. He was reckless in choosing Inchon because of the risks of the tidal changes. He consistently rejected intelligence that showed China would intervene. And he had contempt for the president and joint chiefs, whom he regarded as lacking his experience.
Does that description resonate to today? To some, President Donald Trump is the new MacArthur, believing his instincts and judgment are far better than any advice he may receive to the contrary from experts. Trump is also reckless in minimizing the dangers of the coronavirus and in his disregard for wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Fortunately, Little Rocket Man has not invaded South Korea and the outbreak of a major war is quite unlikely.
The critical question is if there is a Truman to check and balance a commander whose ego clouds judgment and who believes he is the smartest guy in the room, regardless of fact or truth. Perhaps and ironically, the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War should give Americans reason to pause and to worry about the where the nation is headed under this president.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."