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The Korean War Atrocities No One Wants to Talk About

For decades they covered up the U.S. massacre of civilians at No Gun Ri and elsewhere. This is why we never learn our lessons.

June 25th was the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers fought bravely in that war, and almost 37,000 were killed. But the media is ignoring perhaps the war’s most important lesson: the U.S. government has almost unlimited sway to hide its own war crimes.  

During the Korean War, Americans were deluged with official pronouncements about how the U.S. military was taking all possible steps to protect innocent civilians. Because the evils of communism were self-evident, few questions arose about how the U.S. was thwarting Red aggression. When a U.S. Senate subcommittee appointed in 1953 by Sen. Joseph McCarthy investigated Korean War atrocities, the committee explicitly declared that, “war crimes were defined as those acts committed by enemy nations.” 

In 1999, forty-six years after the cease fire in Korea, the Associated Press exposed a 1950 massacre of Korean refugees at No Gun Ri. U.S. troops drove Koreans  out of their village and forced them to remain on a railroad embankment. Beginning on July 25, 1950, the refugees were strafed by U.S. planes and machine guns over the following three days. Hundreds of people, mostly women and children, were killed. The 1999 AP story was widely denounced by American politicians and some media outlets as a slander on American troops.

The Pentagon promised an exhaustive investigation. In January 2001, the Pentagon released a 300-page report purportedly proving that the No Gun Ri killings were merely “an unfortunate tragedy” caused by trigger-happy soldiers frightened by approaching refugees.

President Bill Clinton announced his “regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri.” In a January 2001 interview, Clinton was asked why he used “regret” instead of “apology.” He declared, “I believe that the people who looked into it could not conclude that there was a deliberate act, decided at a high enough level in the military hierarchy, to acknowledge that, in effect, the government had participated in something that was terrible.” Clinton specified that there was no evidence of “wrongdoing high enough in the chain of command in the Army to say that, in effect, the government was responsible.”

In 2005, Sahr Conway-Lanz, a Harvard University doctoral student, discovered a letter in the National Archives from the U.S. ambassador to Korea, John Muccio, sent to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the day the No Gun Ri massacre commenced. Muccio summarized a new policy from a meeting between U.S. military and South Korean officials: “If refugees do appear from north of U.S. lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing  they will be shot.” The new policy was radioed to Army units around Korea on the morning the No Gun Ri massacre began.  The U.S. military feared that North Korean troops might be hiding amidst the refugees. The Pentagon initially claimed that its investigators never saw Muccio’s letter but it was in the specific research file used for its report.

Conway-Lanz’s 2006 book Collateral Damage quoted an official U.S. Navy history of the first six months of the Korean War stating that the policy of strafing civilians was “wholly defensible.” An official Army history noted: “Eventually, it was decided to shoot anyone who moved at night.” A report for the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge justified attacking civilians because the Army insisted that “groups of more than eight to ten people were to be considered troops, and were to be attacked.”

In 2007, the Army recited its original denial: “No policy purporting to authorize soldiers to shoot refugees was ever promulgated to soldiers in the field.” But the Associated Press exposed more dirt from the U.S. archives: “More than a dozen documents—in which high-ranking U.S. officers tell troops that refugees are ‘fair game,’ for example, and order them to ‘shoot all refugees coming across river’—were found by the AP in the  investigators’ own archived files after the 2001 inquiry. None of those documents was disclosed in the Army’s 300-page public report.” 

A former Air Force Pilot told investigators that his plane and three others strafed refugees at the same time of the No Gun Ri massacre; the official  report claimed “all pilots interviewed … knew nothing about such orders.” Evidence also surfaced of other massacres like No Gun Ri. On September 1, 1950, the destroyer USS DeHaven, at the Army’s insistence, “fired on a seaside refugee encampment at Pohang, South Korea. Survivors say 100 to 200 people were killed.”

Slaughtering civilians en masse became routine procedure after the Chinese Army intervened in the Korean war in late 1950. U.S. Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke of turning North Korean-held territory into a “desert.” The U.S. military eventually “expanded its definition of a military target to any structure that could shelter enemy troops or supplies.” In a scoring method that foreshadowed the Vietnam war body counts, Air Force press releases touted the “square footage” of “enemy-held buildings” that it flattened. General Curtis LeMay summarized the achievements: “We burned down every town in North Korea… and some in South Korea, too.” A million civilians may have been killed during the war, and a South Korean government Truth and Reconciliation Commission uncovered many previously unreported atrocities

The Pentagon strategy on Korean War atrocities succeeded because it left truth to the historians, not the policymakers. The facts about No Gun Ri finally slipped out—ten presidencies later. Even more damaging, the Rules of Engagement for killing Korean civilians were covered up until after four more U.S. wars. If U.S. policy for slaying Korean refugees had been exposed during that war, it might have curtailed similar killings in Vietnam (many of which were not revealed until decades after the war).

Former congressman and decorated Korean War veteran Pete McCloskey warned, “The government will always lie about embarrassing matters.” The same shenanigans permeate other U.S. wars. The secrecy and deceit surrounding U.S. military interventions has had catastrophic consequences in this century. The Bush administration exploited the 9/11 attacks to justify attacking Iraq in 2003, and it was not until 2016 that the U.S. government revealed documents exposing the Saudi government’s role in financing the hijackers (15 of 19 were Saudi citizens). The Pentagon covered up the vast majority of U.S. killings of Iraqi civilians until Bradley Manning and Wikileaks exposed them in 2010. There is likely reams of evidence of duplicity and intentional slaughter of civilians in U.S. government files on its endlessly confused and contradictory Syrian intervention. 

When politicians or generals appear itching to pull the U.S. into another foreign war, remember that truth is routinely the first casualty. The blood of civilian victims of U.S. wars is the political version of disappearing ink. But the kinfolk and neighbors of those victims could pursue vengeance regardless of whether cover-ups con the American people.

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.