Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China's Decision to Enter the Korean War, Sept. 16-Oct. 15, 1950: New Evidence from Russian Archives, article and translations by Alexandre Y. Mansourov



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Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China's Decision to Enter the Korean War, Sept. 16-Oct. 15, 1950: New Evidence from Russian Archives, article and translations by Alexandre Y. Mansourov





Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China's Decision to Enter the Korean War,
September 16-October 15, 1950:
New Evidence from the Russian Archives
article and translations by Alexandre Y. Mansourov1

At 5:45 a.m. on 15 September 1950, the 5th Marine Brigade of the X Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond began its unprecedented amphibious landing onto the beaches of Inch'on. There were about 500 North Korean soldiers on Wolmi-do, a tiny island protecting the entry into the Inch'on harbor, another 500 at Kimpo, and about 1,500 within Inch'on.2 They were confronted with more than 70,000 troops from the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Holland, and the UK disembarking from more than 260 ships. The surprise of the UN attack, and the preponderant firepower and manpower of the U.S.-led forces, destroyed pockets of the dazed North Korean resistance within hours. By the next morning the 1st Marines had been able to squeeze the remnants of the Korean People's Army (KPA) out of Inch'on and had started their rapid advance towards Kimp'o and Seoul. Operation Chromite was a complete success and later labelled as "a masterpiece of amphibious ingenuity."3 In a little more than a week Seoul was recaptured by the UN forces. On 1 October 1950, they crossed the 38th parallel, and began their rapid, sweeping advance northward. The KPA surrendered Pyongyang on October 19, and soon the first Republic of Korea (ROK) and U.S. battalions approached the Yalu River on the Chinese-North Korean border.


However, U.S./UN Commander Douglas MacArthur's promise to "Bring the Boys Home by Christmas" never came true. The Thanksgiving offensive proved still-born, for it was a new enemy that the UN troops confronted in Korea from then on: 36 divisions of the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV) who entered North Korea in late October-early November, supported by almost twelve wings and air defense divisions of the Soviet Air Force operating from nearby airfields in Northeast China. Recognizing new patterns in the enemy's behavior, in his special communiqué to the UN dated 28 November 1950, MacArthur called it "an entirely new war." Indeed, it was.
In the Western literature there are many scholarly and eyewitness accounts of the preparation, implementation, and strategic and military significance of Operation Chromite, as well as the subsequent prosecution of the war by the UN forces, including the origins and aftermath of the reversal of fortunes for the UN troops in November 1950.4 In addition, in his 1960 study China Crosses the Yalu, Allen S. Whiting persuasively showed how national security concerns, as well as domestic political and economic considerations, may have led the People's Republic of China (PRC) government to decide to enter the Korean War. His preliminary conclusions were supported almost three decades later by Russell Spurr,5 who focused his research on the psychological background of the Chinese leaders' decision to provide military assistance to a friendly communist regime in Pyongyang.
Then, a wave of memoirs6 published in the PRC by former high-ranking Chinese officials, military leaders, and other insiders allowed scholars to reconstruct in great detail the relevant decision-making processes in Beijing and Northeast China regarding the merits of Chinese military intervention in Korea, including debates within the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and among PLA senior commanders. These works also brought to light some differences in the individual positions of Chinese leaders, including last-minute doubts, reversals, disagreements, and vacillations on the part of those involved, and analyzed the correspondence between Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and their military officials, as well as other political, economic, military, and administrative events related to the war which occurred in China in August-October 1950.7
However, what this literature still left to speculation was the Soviet side of the story. Some of the books, especially Uncertain Partners (1993), by Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai, and William W. Stueck's recently-published The Korean War: An International History,8 discuss strategic calculations which Stalin might have made at this crucial juncture of the Korean War, the course and outcome of crucial negotiations between Stalin and Zhou Enlai on 10-11 October 1950, as well as the still-enigmatic October 1950 correspondence between Beijing and Moscow.9
But due to the unavoidable lack of hard top-level archival evidence, these accounts fell far short of being able to reconstruct in detail the attitudes and policy orientations of Stalin or other key Soviet leaders in Moscow and their representatives on the ground in Korea, nor the decision-making processes taking place inside the Kremlin immediately after the U.S. landing at Inch'on and leading up to the final Chinese decision a month later to intervene militarily in Korea. Moreover, this literature suffered from the lack of previously classified Moscow-Pyongyang top-level correspondence, and to rely primarily on the officially authorized, at times propagandistic Chinese sources of the exchanges between the PRC and USSR leaders.
This absence of critical Soviet source materials, consequently, gave birth to a number of academic debates. First, many scholars disagree in their assessments of Soviet and Chinese intentions and motivations in Northeast Asia and the nature and parameters of their respective perceived national interests on the Korean peninsula at this stage of the war. Second, an overarching debate among historians involves a series of interrelated questions about alliance commitments between Moscow and Beijing--what commitments were made, why and how they were reached, whether they were broken or honored, and how they affected the subsequent course of Sino-Soviet relations (a good example of this is the claim advanced in some Chinese accounts that Stalin, in his 10-11 October 1950 meeting with Zhou, reneged on a prior commitment for the USSR to provide air support for the CPVs). This debate includes controversies related to the personal roles of Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung in manipulating one another's decisions regarding the war, especially the initial decision to initiate a large-scale attack against the south in June 1950 and later over China's intervention. There is also a cloud of uncertainty over the role of Zhou Enlai as an intermediary between Stalin and Mao in managing (mismanaging?) the Sino-Soviet alliance, and the role of the Soviet ambassador to Pyongyang in the initial stages of the war, T.F. Shtykov, as an intermediary between Stalin and Kim Il Sung in the ill-fated handling of the USSR-DPRK alliance.
Shortly before the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, the Russian government released a new batch of previously classified documents related to the events on the Korean peninsula from 1949 to 1953, including some correspondence between Stalin and Kim Il Sung, Stalin and Mao Zedong, internal correspondence between the Kremlin and various Soviet government ministries involved in the prosecution of the war in Korea, and ciphered telegrams between Soviet representatives in North Korea (known officially as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and their respective superiors in Moscow. In total, these new primary source materials amount to well over a thousand pages and come from the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation (APRF), the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (AVPRF) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from the Military Archive at the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
This article introduces and analyzes a selection of these newly declassified documents from the Russian Archives related to the period after the U.S.-UN troops' landing at Inch'on on 16 September 1950, until mid-October 1950, when the PRC decided to send its troops to Korea to save Kim Il Sung's collapsing regime. The newly released documents primarily from the APRF, offer new information and insights into how Stalin and his political representatives and military advisers in Korea; Kim Il Sung and his close associates; and Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and their personal representatives in Korea, viewed and assessed the strategic and military significance of the UN forces' landing at Inch'on, recapture of Seoul, crossing of the 38th parallel, and drive to the Yalu. These new archival materials provide researchers with a fascinating window into the internal dynamics and politics of alliance relationships among the Soviet Union, PRC, and the DPRK from the aftermath of the Inch'on landing until the Chinese crossing of the Yalu River. They present startling new evidence on the commonalities and differences in the Soviet and Chinese world views, and their respective views on the limits of the U.S. global power and likelihood of a U.S.-led escalation of the Korean conflict, as well as on the varied significances of Korea, divided or unified, for the Soviet versus Chinese national interests. Also, the newly declassified early October 1950 correspondence between Moscow and Beijing sheds dramatic new light on intra-alliance bargaining between Stalin and Mao Zedong regarding the terms of China's entry into the Korean War, which is at variance with the traditional Chinese and Western interpretations thereof. In particular, these Russian documents raise questions about the reliability and even authenticity of Mao's telegrams of 2 and 14 October 1950 as they appear in officially authorized Chinese sources, and subsequently in scholarly literature. They also reveal the depth of Stalin's and Mao's personal involvement and the complexity of policymaking processes in Moscow and Beijing regarding the prosecution of the Korean War, as well as how domestic political considerations and bureaucratic politics in the USSR and PRC affected their respective policy outcomes concerning military strategy and tactics. Finally, they reveal for the first time a series of decisions by the Soviet leadership to reduce the Soviet presence in Korea at that time, including three CPSU Politburo conferences (on 27 and 30 September 1950 and 5 October 1950) which considered the Chinese leadership's pronounced reluctance to accommodate Stalin's prodding of Mao to send troops to rescue the DPRK, leading to Stalin's 13 October 1950 decision to abandon North Korea and evacuate Kim Il Sung and the remnants of the KPA to Northeast China and the Soviet Far East, as well as his dramatic reversal less than twenty-four hours later upon learning of the Chinese final decision to fight.
The value of the ciphered telegrams lies in the fact that they reveal the atmosphere of mutual finger-pointing which reigned in the offices of the Soviet, North Korean, and Chinese decision-makers after the Inch'on landing. In the internal correspondence between Stalin and the Soviet political and military advisers in Korea, Stalin blamed them for all the KPA failures in the Korean campaign, whereas in his correspondence with Kim Il Sung Stalin blamed the KPA commanders for military defeats, while in his exchange with Mao Zedong, Stalin held Kim Il Sung and his Korean generals responsible for failures at the battleground. In turn, Zhou Enlai blamed Kim Il Sung for withholding military intelligence from the Chinese and for ignoring Mao's warnings, issued as early as mid-August, about the danger of a U.S. landing at Inch'on. Kim Il Sung, in turn, blamed his commanders for insubordination, Stalin for lack of commitment, and his Soviet advisers for professional ineptitude. Reading the newly declassified Russian telegrams, it is hard not to conclude that these mutual recriminations undermined palpably the mutual trust among the leaders of these communist allies.
The ciphered telegrams also reveal the atmosphere of confusion and discord that permeated relations between the Soviet and Chinese leaders and their respective representatives and associates in Korea regarding the military-strategic significance of the Inch'on landing. Stalin considered the Inch'on landing a development of vital strategic significance, fraught with grave implications for the KPA [Document #3]. Therefore, in his ciphered telegram dated 18 September 1950, he directed that Gen. Vasiliev, the Chief Soviet Military Adviser to the KPA, and Ambassador T.F. Shtykov, the Soviet envoy to the DPRK, tell Kim Il Sung to redeploy four KPA divisions from the Naktong River front to the vicinity of Seoul.10 Also on September 18, he ordered Soviet Defense Minister Marshal A.M. Vasilevsky urgently to develop a plan for the Soviet Air Force to provide air cover to Pyongyang, including the transfer of several Soviet Air Force fighter squadrons with maintenance crews, radar posts, and air defense battalions from their bases in the Maritime Province of the Soviet Far East (including the strategic port city of Vladivostok) to the airfields around Pyongyang [Document #1].
In contrast with Stalin's judgment, neither Shtykov nor Vasiliev seemed to grasp, let alone forecast, the strategic importance of the U.S. troops's amphibious landing at Inch'on--as Stalin harshly admonished them in a withering message on September 27 [Document #3]. They believed it was a bluff aimed at distracting the attention of the KPA Command from the main southeastern front. Shtykov even suggested that an author of an article in the Soviet newspaper Pravda about the Inch'on landing should be brought to trial for disinformation and panicking. In their correspondence with Stalin, they doubted the need to redeploy KPA troops from the Naktong River front to the defense of Seoul, instead favoring a strategy of exerting additional pressure on the southeastern front in order to throw the U.S. and ROK troops defending the Pusan perimeter off the cliffs into the Sea of Japan in a final great offensive. Consequently, they dragged their feet in executing Stalin's order to withdraw four KPA divisions from the Southeast to the vicinity of Seoul.
As the military situation around Seoul deteriorated due to the rapid advance of the U.S. X Corps toward the ROK capital from the west, and their recapture of Kimp'o on September 18, Stalin urgently dispatched to Korea a special mission headed by Army General Matvey Vasilievich Zakharov,11 (known by the pseudonym Matveyev), the Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Soviet Army, carried Stalin's order that Shtykov and Vasiliev tell Kim Il Sung to halt the offensive along the Pusan perimeter, to assume the defensive and pull out all his divisions from the Naktong River front and redeploy them to defend Seoul in the northeast and east. Also, he pressed Vasilevsky to step up his efforts to provide the KPA with air cover and set up an air defense system around Pyongyang (see Document #2). Finally, Stalin directed his representative in Beijing to solicit the Chinese leadership's opinion on the Korean situation and what to do about it.
On the night of September 18, Stalin received a ciphered telegram from his Ambassador to the PRC, N.V. Roshchin.12 Roshchin informed Stalin of his meeting the same day with Zhou Enlai, with the Soviet Military Advisers Gen. Kotov and Konnov present. Zhou said that the Chinese leadership had no other information about the U.S. amphibious landing at Inch'on besides that reported in the Western newspapers and by the Pyongyang Radio. Zhou noted that, in general, the Chinese had very poor contacts with the North Korean government regarding military matters. The Chinese were aware of the North Korean demand for cadres but were absolutely in the dark about the KPA's operational plans. They had attempted to dispatch a team of senior Chinese military officers from the Northeast Frontier Forces Command to Korea to observe the military situation on the battleground, but had not heard anything from them.13 Zhou complained that the DPRK leaders had persistently ignored Mao Zedong's advice and predictions and, moreover, deprived the Chinese Ambassador in Pyongyang, Ni Zhiliang, of operational information about the military situation, thereby preventing him from informing his government properly in a timely fashion. As a result, Mao had only sketchy reports about the execution and consequences of the Inch'on landing.
In response to Roshchin's question about the appropriate course of action for the KPA at this juncture, Zhou recommended with some reservations Zhou recommended that, if the KPA had 100,000-men reserves in the vicinity of Seoul and Pyongyang, they could and must eliminate the enemy's landing force at Inch'on. If, however, the KPA lacked such reserves, then they had to withdraw their main forces from the Naktong River front northward, leaving rear-guards behind to defend the frontline. On behalf of the PRC government, Zhou requested that the Soviet government pass to the Chinese leadership more accurate and up-to-date information on the military situation in Korea, if it possessed it itself.
On September 20, Stalin sent a ciphered telegram to Roshchin in Beijing for delivery to Zhou Enlai, responding to the latter's request for more information on the Korean situation.14 First of all, he stressed that poor communications between the DPRK and PRC and lack of information in Beijing on the military situation in Korea was "abnormal." In Stalin's opinion, Kim Il Sung failed to provide Mao Zedong with military intelligence because of difficulties in his own communications with his Frontline Command rather than his reluctance to share this kind of information. Stalin complained that he himself received odd and belated reports about the frontline situation from his Ambassador in Pyongyang (Shtykov). He asked Zhou to bear in mind that the KPA was a very young and ill-experienced army with an underdeveloped command and control system and weak cadres unable to analyze the frontline situation quickly and efficiently. He blamed the U.S. intervention for the KPA's debacle at Inch'on, emphasizing that had the KPA fought only against Syngman Rhee's troops, "it would have cleaned up Korea from the reactionary forces long time ago." Stalin argued that the tactics used by the KPA at that time--dispatching odd battalions and regiments to the vicinity of Inch'on and Seoul--were flawed and fraught with the possible annihilation of these units without providing any solution to the problem as a whole. He stressed that only a pullout of main forces from the southeastern front and creation of formidable lines of defense east and north of Seoul could halt the unfolding UN offensive around Seoul.
Upon receiving Stalin's message from Roshchin on September 21, Zhou expressed satisfaction that the Soviet assessment of the military situation in Korea after Inch'on matched the Chinese one. He mentioned to Roshchin that two days earlier, he had sent a cable to Chinese Ambassador Ni Zhiliang in Pyongyang with recommendations similar to those which he had given Roshchin and Soviet military advisers earlier that day. According to Zhou, the same day, Ni had a long talk with Kim Il Sung, with Pak Il'u and Pak Hon-Yong present, and, afterwards, cabled to Beijing Kim's words that "the Korean people were ready to fight a protracted war."15
In the meantime, on September 22, the 5th and 7th regiments of the 1st U.S. Marines Division approached Seoul from the northwest and northeast, while the 32nd and 17th regiments of the ROK 7th Division advanced to Seoul from southeast, preparing for the final stage of Operation Chromite: the recapture of the capital. There was a general feeling that Seoul was about to fall. On September 23, the U.S.-UN-ROK forces launched a frontal assault on Seoul; at the same time the Eighth Army's general offensive in the South, unleashed on September 16, began to bear fruit, and the KPA fell apart at the Naktong River front.
Upon arrival in Korea, General Zakharov (Matveyev) sent his first ciphered telegram to Stalin on September 26 [Document #4]. He reported that the situation of the People's Army troops on the western (Seoul) and southeastern (Pusan) fronts was grave; that the KPA's First and Second Armies faced the certain prospect of being encircled and completely destroyed by the enemy troops; and that the U.S. Air Force dominated the air space without hinderance, wreaking havoc both within the KPA and in the rear areas. He noted that the KPA troops had suffered heavy losses, mainly from the enemy's air force, having lost almost all its tanks and much of its artillery; and that they lacked munitions and fuel, the delivery of which was virtually halted. He stressed that the KPA's top-down command and control system was set up poorly, that wire and radio communications worked only intermittently because of the breakdowns inflicted by the enemy's air raids and due to the lack of qualified radio operators and radio station fuel, and that courier mail was almost nonexistent.
On September 25-26, Seoul became "an inferno,"16 with the U.S. Marines advancing into Seoul from the South, North, and West, and methodically destroying over 20,000 North Korean troops making a last-ditch stand. According to Zakharov's ciphered telegram [Document #4], on September 25, at 19:00 hours, local time, Kim Il Sung was finally persuaded to abandon his dream of pushing the UN troops into the sea in the south. He succumbed to his Soviet advisers' urging and ordered that the Seoul Group and the Second Army Group operating in the northern part of the southeastern front assume the defensive and hold up the enemy by any means. The troops of the Second Army Group operating in the central and southern parts of the southeastern front were ordered to begin a general retreat northwestward. But the North Korean troops in the South no longer obeyed their commanders; the KPA was rapidly disintegrating. In Zakharov's judgment, at that time the North's top political and military leaders already had no idea about the predicament of the KPA troops, in particular on the southeastern front.
On September 26, the ROK 7th Division moving westward from Namsan district, after having crossed the Han River, joined hands with the U.S. 5th and 7th Marines. Although some North Korean resistance, including suicide squads attacking American tanks, continued fiercely until the afternoon of September 27, by and large the battle for Seoul was over as the night fell. According to Zakharov's ciphered telegram [Document #4], later that night, Kim Il Sung received him; DPRK Foreign Minister Pak Hon-Yong and Shtykov also attended. As a result of the conversation, Kim Il Sung decided to combine the duties of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief and Defense Minister in his own hands, to set up a Staff Office for the Supreme Commander-in-Chief for command and control over troops, and to pay serious attention to the work of the rear. Zakharov reported that the North Koreans had only just started to form six infantry divisions in the northern part of Korea, and that Kim Il Sung had issued a directive to take immediate steps to withdraw manpower from South Korea in order to use it in the formation of new divisions in North Korea and deny this opportunity to the South.
Stalin was furious. On September 27, he convened an emergency session of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik) [Document #3]. This was the first in a series of CC VKR(b) Politburo meetings which considered Soviet national interests in Korea and eventually decided to minimize Soviet exposure on the peninsula. In its decision P#78/73, the Politburo blamed the KPA's predicament in the Seoul area and in the southeast on a series of grave mistakes made by the KPA Frontline Command, the Commands of the Army Groups and army groupings in the questions related to command and control over troops, and combat tactics. In particular, Stalin and his associates in Moscow held responsible the Soviet military advisers for these blunders. In their judgment, the Soviet military advisers had failed to implement scrupulously and in a timely fashion Stalin's order to withdraw four divisions from the central front to the Seoul area, and had displayed, moreover, strategic illiteracy and incompetence in intelligence matters. "They failed to grasp the strategic importance of the enemy's assault landing in Inch'on, denied the gravity of its implications... This blindness and lack of strategic experience led to the fact that they doubted the necessity of redeploying troops from the South toward Seoul. At the same time, they procrastinated over the redeployment and slowed it down considerably, thereby losing a week to the enemy's enjoyment." The Politburo stated that "the assistance provided by our military advisers to the Korean Command in such paramount questions as communications, command and control over troops, organization of intelligence and combat is exceptionally weak."17 In conclusion, the Politburo decided that after the fall of Seoul the KPA's main goal should be to withdraw all its troops to North Korea and defend its own homeland by all means. It attached a list of military measures which Chief Soviet Military Adviser Vasiliev was ordered to implement in order to prevent the enemy from crossing the 38th parallel. Despite the gravity of the charges, however, no personnel changes among the Soviet political and military advisers were made in Korea at that time.
Meanwhile, in Korea, on September 28 Kim Il Sung convened an emergency meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea Central Committee Political Council (WPK CC PC).18 Everyone present agreed that the military situation was critical and warranted extreme measures. First, in order to restore the KPA Command Structure and improve its efficiency and reliability, the Political Council approved Kim's proposal to combine the positions of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief (SCINC) and Minister of National Defense in his hands and to set up a General Staff for the SCINC, i.e., the measures recommended to Kim by Zakharov and Shtykov at their meeting on September 26. This was tantamount to establishing an entirely new command and control system over the KPA centered on Kim Il Sung. This decision was an obvious reflection of the fact that by September 28, Kim had already lost contact with his Defense Minister, Ch'oe Yong-gon, who was in charge of the defense of Seoul.19 Moreover, Kim and other top political leaders in Pyongyang had lost all communication with their Front Line Command and the Auxiliary Command Posts, which had been cut off from each other by Walker's rapidly advancing Eighth Army.20 That day, the U.S.-led UN forces enveloped both the First and Second Army Groups of the KPA, broke up the KPA's command structure, and completely destroyed its communications system. The KPA units attempting to retreat to the north from the Naktong River were pursued and destroyed. In Kim Il Sung's own words, "because of poor discipline and failure to fulfill orders," the KPA failed to pull out most of their troops stuck in the south.21
The WPK CC PC's second decision was to take urgent measures aimed to organize defenses along the 38th parallel, approving Kim's plan to form immediately fifteen new divisions. At that time, six new infantry divisions were already being created in South Pyongan and South Hwanghae, and South and North Hamgyong Provinces. At the same time, Kim hoped to reconstitute nine more infantry divisions from the remnants of the KPA returning from the southeastern front.22
Finally, in the course of a fierce debate, the Political Council concurred that after the fall of Seoul nothing would stop the UN forces from crossing the 38th parallel; that if they did cross the parallel, the remaining KPA units would not be able to render any serious resistance, and, consequently, the war would be over in a very short period of time, with the North Korean state being eliminated by the aggressive American imperialists. Unanimously, the North Korean leadership agreed to ask both allies, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, for direct military assistance. The Political Council thus discussed and approved two official letters [Document #6] addressed to Stalin and Mao Zedong, begging them to intervene directly and without delay to save the North Korean regime.
It is noteworthy that the next day, before dispatching the letter to Stalin, Kim solicited Shtykov's advice regarding its content and advisability. On the evening of September 29, following the mandate of the WPK CC Politburo, Kim for the first time officially raised to his Soviet military advisers the question of the UN forces' crossing the 38th parallel. At his meeting with Shtykov and Zakharov [Document #5], with Pak Hon-Yong present, he asked Shtykov whether the latter thought the enemy would dare to cross the 38th parallel. Once Shtykov replied that he was not sure, Kim concurred by saying that "it was not clear to me either." Kim added, however, that "if the enemy did cross the parallel, the People's Army would not be able to form new troops and, therefore, would not be able to render any serious resistance to the enemy forces." Kim told Shtykov he wanted his advice as to how they should approach Stalin concerning their letter requesting direct Soviet military assistance. But Shtykov dodged the question, obviously to ensure that the final decision to invite Soviet troops to the defense of North Korea--and subsequent responsibility, should things go wrong--would rest with Kim Il Sung and Pak Hon-Yong themselves.23 Kim and Pak were visibly dissatisfied and upset but at the same time so "confused, lost, hopeless, and desperate," and had so much at stake at the moment, that they went ahead and asked Stalin for a total commitment, including Soviet ground troops, even without Shtykov's blessing.24
It was on October 1, at 2:50 a.m., that Stalin received ciphered telegram #1351 from Shtykov, containing an official text of the letter of Kim Il Sung and Pak Hon-Yong pleading for help [Document #6]. Actually, the letter was dated September 29. The next day, Pak Hon-Yong personally delivered it to Shtykov with an emotional plea that "at the moment of the enemy's troops crossing of the 38th parallel, we will desperately need ground troops from the Soviet Union." The letter arrived at the Eighth Department of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces on September 30, at 23:30 p.m., by wire as "very urgent," was deciphered on October 1, at 0:35 a.m., typed up at 1:45 a.m., and forwarded to Stalin to his dacha in the South at 2:50 a.m. The timing is important in this case because only after having received Kim Il Sung's plea for help did Stalin dispatch a cable to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on October 1, at 3:00 a.m., requesting China's direct intervention in the Korean conflict.
In their letter, Kim and Pak informed Stalin about the severe consequences for the KPA of the Inch'on landing. Although still loathe to admit that Seoul had fallen, they indicated that the enemy "had the real possibility of taking over Seoul." They were certain that "with the complete occupation of Seoul, the enemy would launch a further offensive into North Korea." Kim and Pak admitted that "if the enemy were to take advantage of the situation and step up its offensive in North Korea, then we would be unable to stop the enemy by our own forces... and the U.S. aggression would succeed in the end." Nonetheless, they emphasized that they were still determined to fight on, to mobilize new troops and to prepare "for a protracted war." They argued that it was "in the USSR's national interest to prevent the U.S. advance into North Korea and the latter's transformation into a colony and military springboard of U.S. imperialism."
Finally, they begged Stalin for a "special kind of assistance," admitting that "at the moment when the enemy troops begin to cross the 38th parallel, we would desperately need direct military assistance from the Soviet Union." Afraid of their plea being rejected outright and fearful that Stalin held them personally responsible for the war's disastrous turn, Kim and Pak inserted a face-saving proposition for Stalin, i.e., "if for any reason, this [direct military assistance - AM] proves to be impossible, please, assist us in lining up international volunteers' units in China and other countries of people's democracies to be used in providing military assistance to our struggle." Kim and Pak could not be more explicit than that. Recognizing that they could not survive on their own, they were crying out for help to Stalin, their "fatherly leader," for, preferably, the Soviet cavalry to rescue the day, or, if not, to broker Mao's consent to enter the war.
In the meantime, on September 29, General MacArthur restored the Government of the Republic of Korea headed by Syngman Rhee in an emotional ceremony in the capital in Seoul. The last hope that the war could be contained at the status quo ante belli was dashed when later that day the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) approved MacArthur's plan for the conquest of North Korea, envisioning the Eighth Army advancing to Pyongyang and the Tenth Corps being withdrawn from the Inch'on-Seoul area for another amphibious landing at Wonsan. The same day, U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. George C. Marshall sent an encouraging message to MacArthur: "We want you to feel unhampered strategically and tactically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel."25
On September 30, the Soviet Politburo conferred again on the Korean situation, in particular Zakharov's latest report on the dire military situation [Document #4]. The discussion focused on the need to avoid a direct military confrontation between the USSR and the United States and the options still available to salvage the situation in Korea, including soliciting Chinese help and opening a last-ditch diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations. The Politburo directed that the Foreign Ministry draft a new ceasefire resolution to be submitted to the UN. Also, they decided to approve Kim Il Sung's proposals to reorganize the KPA high military command, form six new divisions, and withdraw remaining North Korean troops from the South [Document #8]. At the same time, the Politburo decided that armaments, munition, and other materials for the new divisions would be supplied to the KPA between October 5 and 20.26 Finally, the Politburo recommended that Kim ask the Chinese to dispatch truck drivers to North Korea.
It is worth noting that Stalin specifically mentioned in his instructions to Shtykov that their last recommendation should be passed to Kim Il Sung without any reference to Moscow, as if it were coming from the Soviet military advisers in the field. The probable cause for such reticence may have been Stalin's belief that the entire question of the Chinese entry into the war was so profound that: 1) he had to discuss it with Mao directly; and 2) he should not even raise it until it was clear that without Chinese help the North Koreans would not survive, and until the latter asked for it explicitly. Also, Stalin may have wanted to probe Mao's intentions and promises and put them to a real test, albeit on the minor issue of truck drivers. Perhaps Stalin even hoped to drag Mao into the war incrementally: according to this scenario, the drivers would be the first commitment of manpower by Mao to Korea, which would later lead to a chain of escalating commitments.
The Politburo made these decisions and wired some of them to Pyongyang close to noon on September 30, i.e., before Stalin received another ciphered telegram #1340 from Shtykov [Document #5], later that the same day (after 4:55 p.m.). Only then was Stalin officially informed by him that Seoul had fallen and Syngman Rhee was back in the capital, promising to complete his drive to the North and vanquish Stalin's North Korean comrades; that Kim Il Sung was afraid that the UN forces would not halt their advance northward at the 38th parallel; and that the North Koreans would not be able to resist the enemy's offensive on their own.
Later in the evening of September 30, in line with the general disposition in Moscow toward limiting the Soviet presence and risks in Korea, Shtykov requested evacuation powers from Moscow [Stalin was informed of this in a note from Deputy Foreign Minister A. A. Gromyko dated September 30--Document #9]. Shtykov asked for the right to send back to the USSR all Soviet specialists working at the North Korean enterprises,27 as well as some redundant personnel of the Soviet organizations in the DPRK. As the Soviet Ambassador to the DPRK responsible for the lives of his people and anticipating the inevitability of the U.S. occupation of North Korea, Shtykov not unnaturally sought emergence authority to order their evacuation. But Gromyko disagreed and advised a different procedure: In order to show the Soviets' continuous faith and backing for Kim Il Sung's government, he recommended to Stalin that Shtykov be allowed to repatriate the Soviet specialists only after a specific request of such a nature was made by the DPRK government. Otherwise, all had to stay at their post, whatever it was. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow insisted that it, not Shtykov, should have the final say in each case of anticipatory repatriation. Surprisingly, Stalin opted to defer both Shtykov's request and Gromyko's recommendation for the time being.
Later that same night, on September 30, Stalin, who was vacationing at one of his dachas on the Black Sea, was informed about the content of Zhou Enlai's official speech in Beijing earlier that day, in which Zhou stated that "the Chinese people will not tolerate foreign aggression, nor will they supinely tolerate seeing their neighbors being savagely invaded by the imperialists." Stalin may well have sensed that the Chinese might be ready for action.
On October 1, at 3:00 a.m., upon the receipt of Kim Il Sung's desperate plea for help, Stalin immediately dictated a telegram to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and had it wired to Beijing [Document #10]. In his telegram, first of all he placed all the blame for the KPA's collapse and disintegration on North Korean military commanders who, in his opinion, had failed to carry out Kim Il Sung's orders for a strategic retreat of the main forces from the South. He specifically mentioned to Mao that Moscow had forewarned the North Korean political leadership about possibly devastating consequences of the U.S. landing at Inch'on as early as September 16, but that the warning was disregarded. However, he was careful to avoid blaming Kim Il Sung personally, thereby indicating to Mao that Kim was still the man to deal with in Pyongyang. Second, Stalin informed Mao and Zhou that after their ruinous defeat in Seoul, the North Koreans no longer had any troops capable of resistance, and that the road toward the 38th parallel from the south was wide open. Finally, Stalin requested that Mao, if possible, "immediately dispatch at least five to six divisions toward the 38th parallel so that the Korean comrades would have an opportunity to regroup and form combat reserves north of the 38th parallel under the protection of the Chinese troops." Stalin suggested, apparently for the first time, that the Chinese troops should be designated as "volunteer" forces. In order to entice Mao further, he indicated that he was ready to share overall command and control over the KPA and the Chinese volunteer forces with the Chinese generals, implying that the role of the Soviet military advisers to Kim Il Sung and the KPA would be drastically curtailed, if not abolished altogether.
It is noteworthy that this is one of the first instances in the Stalin-Mao correspondence where Stalin indicated to Mao his willingness to share control over events in Korea. In exchange for shouldering so much of the burden of defending of North Korea, Stalin offered Mao a power-sharing arrangement. Thus, this telegram was a harbinger of the looming end of the unilateral Soviet control over North Korea which had lasted since 1945. It also meant that from then on Kim Il Sung would have two masters to serve, as well as to play off against each other--one in Moscow and one in Beijing. At the same time, Stalin felt compelled to show some respect for Chinese sensitivities, in particular, their yearning for national independence and independent decision-making; moreover, he was intent to avoid the possibly very awkward position of being the messenger of bad news, in case Mao turned down his request. Therefore, Stalin "magnanimously" designated Mao to deliver his own response directly to Kim Il Sung, stressing that he did not intend to pre-judge the Chinese comrades and tell Kim Il Sung about their likely decision, nor would he desire to do so in the future, because all the honors and gratitude should belong to Mao, not Stalin.
On the evening of October 1, Stalin approved the text of a Soviet draft resolution regarding the Korean Question that had been drafted at the Foreign Ministry's first Far Eastern Department, approved by Gromyko, and submitted for Stalin's consideration. For Stalin, it was a last pitch to the West to resolve the Korean crisis without major escalation.28 At 9:15 p.m. (Moscow time), in Beijing Soviet Ambassador Roshchin delivered the content of the draft resolution to Zhou Enlai. At 10:45 p.m. (Moscow time), Zhou Enlai met Roshchin again and informed him that Mao agreed with its provisions. An hour later, after learning Mao's view, Stalin immediately ordered it wired to the Soviet Representative to the United Nations at Lake Success.29
It is well known that on October 2, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinsky presented the Soviet draft resolution to the Political Committee of the General Assembly, which stipulated an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of all foreign troops, and general elections in all Korea to be held under international supervision. However, at this stage of the war, after a miraculous landing at Inch'on and the recapture of Seoul when the KPA was in ruins, a ceasefire was out of question and totally unacceptable to the West. By now, the decision made in Washington, on mostly tactical grounds, to cross the 38th parallel, after Inch'on had become an official United Nations operation.
While waiting for Mao's reply, on October 2, Stalin received information that the North Korean frontier defenses had begun to crumble under incessant attacks from Rhee's revenge-hungry troops, and the ROK forces had pushed north beyond the parallel on the east coast road heading towards Kosong. He sent an angry ciphered telegram to Matveev in Pyongyang [Document #11], reiterating his earlier directive to his chief military representative in Korea to do his utmost to bring the remnants of the KPA mired in the south back into the north, and to hold the frontline along the 38th parallel.
In the meantime, in Beijing, the crisis was building on October 2: ignoring Zhou's warnings, ROK troops with U.S. backing had crossed the 38th parallel a day earlier; Kim Il Sung was begging for direct military assistance; and, finally, Stalin was personally urging Mao to intervene in Korea. Consequently, that day Mao convened the first of a series of enlarged meetings of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CCP CC) Politburo in Beijing to formulate the Chinese response. New documents from the Russian Presidential Archive suggest that at their first meeting the CCP CC Politburo members discussed general reasons why the PRC should or should not enter the war in Korea and decided that the risks outweighed the benefits of China's direct military intervention at that time. Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao's negative position prevailed, and Mao felt obliged to inform Stalin of the Chinese hesitations and lack of decision.
On October 3, the Soviet ambassador in Beijing, Roshchin, relayed Mao Zedong's negative response. [See Document #12.] Replying to Stalin's October 1 entreaty to enter the war, Mao acknowledged that the Chinese leadership had "originally planned" to send "several volunteer divisions" to assist the "Korean comrades" once the enemy crossed the 38th parallel. However, he explained, after "thoroughly" considering the matter, many of his comrades now advocated a more cautious course of action. Consequently, the PRC would refrain from sending troops to Korea, at least for the time being. Mao attributed this reversal to three principal considerations. First, the Chinese army was poorly armed, ill-prepared, and had "no confidence" it could defeat the modern American military, which could "force us into retreat." Second, Chinese intervention in the conflict would "most likely" lead to an open Sino-American war, which in turn could drag the USSR into the war due to its commitments under the Sino-Soviet Alliance Treaty, "and the question would thus become extremely large." Finally, after decades of civil war, Chinese entry into the Korean conflict to confront a powerful American adversary would provoke widespread domestic resentment within the PRC toward the newly-established People's Government, and wreck the leadership's plan for peaceful reconstruction.
Therefore, Mao reluctantly concluded, it was necessary to "show patience now," focus on building military strength for a possible later conflict, and in the meantime accept a temporary defeat in Korea while the North Koreans "change the form of the struggle to partisan war." Mao concluded his message by noting that this decision was provisional and awaited a final determination by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party; in the meantime, he was ready to send Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao to Stalin's vacation home for direct consultations. In conveying Mao's telegram, which was dated October 2, an obviously shocked Roshchin noted that this new position flatly contradicted repeated assurances from Chinese leaders that the People's Liberation Army was ready, indeed, in high "fighting spirit," to aid the Koreans and to defeat the Americans. The Soviet envoy could only speculate on the reasons for the turnabout in the Beijing leadership's stand: the international situation, the "worsening" predicament in Korea, and/or Anglo-American "intrigues" through the intercession of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. (It is important to note that this account of Mao's October 2 communication to Stalin, informing him of Chinese refusal to enter the war, based on newly-declassified documents int he Russian archives, fundamentally contradicts the purported Mao to Stalin message of October 2 which was published in 1987 in an official Chinese document compilation and has since been relied upon for numerous scholarly accounts; see the attached footnote for further information.)30
Stalin, while undoubtedly sorely disappointed, did not know whether Mao had given his final word or was simply for bargaining for better terms for China's participation in the war. During the day of October 5, Stalin conferred with the members of the (VKP(b) CC) Politburo. Although the official agenda was designated as "the Question of Comrade Shtykov," the real issue under consideration was the nature of the Soviet national security interest in Korea and how to protect it on the ground. All Politburo members agreed that a direct Soviet-U.S. confrontation in Korea should be avoided at all costs, even if the USSR had to abandon North Korea. In his memoirs, Khrushchev recalls that "When the threat [after Inch'on] emerged, Stalin became resigned to the idea that North Korea would be annihilated, and that the Americans would reach our border. I remember quite well that in connection with the exchange of opinions on the Korean question, Stalin said: 'So what? Let the United States of America be our neighbors in the Far East. They will come there, but we shall not fight them now. We are not ready to fight.'"31 The upshot of the Politburo discussion was a decision to increase pressure on Mao to extract an unequivocal commitment from China to enter the war.
Thus, it appears that as a result of cumulative discussions and a series of incremental decisions dated September 27, September 30, and October 5, the Soviet Politburo adopted a major policy shift in the Soviet policy toward Korea. The Soviet leadership appears to have decided to begin to limit Soviet military and political exposure in Korea, and at the same time permit a greater Chinese role in the alliance decision-making on Korea.
In this light, given the continuous deterioration of the military situation in Korea, as well as the Soviet leaders' determination to see Chinese, not Soviet, troops fighting there, the Politburo overruled the Foreign Ministry's objections and decided, as one of the first steps aimed at curtailing the Soviet presence in Korea, to grant Ambassador Shtykov the evacuation powers that he requested with respect to some Soviet specialists employed by the DPRK government and by Soviet organizations in Korea [Politburo Decision No. P78/168, Document #14]. He was notified of this policy change by wire the same day. Ironically, the permission arrived just as Shtykov, sensing a policy shift in Moscow, losing all his faith in Kim Il Sung's ability to defend his regime on his own, and unsure if any help was coming from Moscow or Beijing, requested even more extended evacuation powers, now including the families of the Soviet citizens of Korean nationality,32 the personnel of the Soviet Air Force units stationed in Korea,33 and all other Soviet citizens in Korea [Document #16]. It took less than a day for Vasilevsky and Gromyko to get Stalin's approval and immediately wire the affirmative response.
After the conference with his Politburo associates sometime during the day of October 5, Stalin sent a ciphered telegram to Mao and Zhou [Document #13]. Without mentioning the latest policy shift in Moscow, he outlined his reasoning why it was in China's national interest to dispatch the Chinese "Volunteers" to save the collapsing North Korean regime and why this had to be done immediately. First, he reiterated his conviction that the United States was not ready to fight a major war at present, while Japan, whose militaristic potential had not yet been restored, was not currently capable of militarily assisting the Americans. Therefore, he argued, the U.S. would be compelled to concede in the Korean question to China, which was backed by its ally, the USSR, and to agree to terms of settlement favorable to (North) Korea thus preventing the Americans from transforming the peninsula into their springboard. Following the same hard-nosed realpolitik reasoning, Stalin stated that, consequently, not only would Washington have to abandon Taiwan, but also they would have to reject the idea of separate peace with the Japanese "revanchists," and to jettison their plans of revitalizing Japanese imperialism and of converting Japan into their bridgehead in the Far East.
Having depicted his vision of an emerging new geopolitical order in the Far East, Stalin blandly told Mao that he proceeded from the assumption that China could not extract these concessions if she were to adopt a passive wait-and-see policy. Without some serious struggle and an imposing display of force, he argued, not only would China fail to obtain all these concessions, but it would not be able to get back even Taiwan, which at that time the United States was clinging to; not for the benefit of Nationalist Chinese leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), in Stalin's view, but to use the island as its own strategic base or for a militaristic Japan of tomorrow.
In conclusion, Stalin displayed a singularly unusual propensity for high-stakes gambling which was fraught with the potential for global disaster. He reassured Mao that he had taken into account the possibility that the United States, albeit unready to fight a major war then, could still be drawn into a big war (i.e., with China) on a question of prestige, which, in turn, would drag the USSR, which was bound with China by a Mutual Assistance Pact, into the war. Stalin asked Mao: "Should we be afraid of this possibility? In my opinion, we should not, because, together, we will be stronger than the United States and Great Britain, whereas none of the other European capitalist states (with the exception of Germany, which is unable to provide any assistance to the United States now) possess any military power at all. If war is inevitable, let it be waged now, and not in a few years when Japanese imperialism will be restored as a U.S. ally and when the U.S. and Japan will have a ready-made bridgehead on the continent in the form of all Korea run by Syngman Rhee." This telegram was a call for action. Stalin forcefully indicated to Mao that all the chips were down, and Mao had to show what hand he was playing after all.
The embattled Mao must have received this telegram amidst a series of tense emergency sessions of the CCP CC Politburo in Beijing sometime on October 6. It was at one of these meetings that Mao reportedly announced his decision to appoint Peng Dehuai as the commander of the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV). Later that evening, Mao dined together with Peng Dehuai, Zhou Enlai, and Gao Gang. Reportedly, they agreed that "now it seems that we have to fight a war," and that Zhou Enlai would fly to Moscow to solicit Soviet military aid. The next morning, a supreme military conference presided over by Zhou is said formally to have approved of Mao's decision to send Zhou and Lin Biao to the USSR to discuss the details of military cooperation.34
On October 7, Stalin received Mao's reply; in Stalin's own words, "Mao expressed solidarity with the main ideas of my [October 5] letter and stated that he would send nine, not six, divisions to Korea, but that he would not do it right away; instead, he intended to do it some time soon. In the meantime, he asked me to receive his representatives and discuss with them a plan of military assistance to Korea in detail" [see Document #13]. Evidently, Mao's October 7 telegram contained only his conditional consent to send troops to Korea. He had taken a step toward Stalin's position but hinted that, once again, the decision was not yet final, and could be rendered final only after Stalin received in person and succeeded in persuading the chief CCP CC Politburo opponents of China's entry into the Korean War: Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao. Stalin accepted Mao's request with understanding, realizing that he had to bolster Mao if he wanted the latter to deliver.
While Moscow and Beijing bickered about why, when, on what terms, and whether troops should be sent to defend Kim Il Sung's crumbling regime--and whose troops they should be--the Western allies intensified their diplomatic offensive at the United Nations and stepped up their military offensive on the battleground, anticipating a quick mop-up of the entire Korean campaign. On October 4, the Political Committee of the UN General Assembly rejected the Soviet draft resolution of October 2, and, on October 7, the UN General Assembly passed by a 47-5-7 vote a "Go after the DPRK" resolution, proposed by the United Kingdom, which recommended that: "1. a) All appropriate steps be taken to ensure conditions of stability throughout Korea; b) all constituent acts be taken, including the holding of elections, under the auspices of the U.N., for the establishing of a united, independent and democratic government in the sovereign state of Korea." In a nutshell, this resolution gave Gen. MacArthur and the Western powers carte blanche to occupy all of North Korea and rearrange its political and economic systems to their liking. On the day this crucial vote was taken, in Korea the advanced units of the 1st Cavalry of Gen. Walton Walker's Army crossed the 38th Parallel in the Kaesong area.
At 10:15 p.m. on the night of October 7 Stalin asked Bulganin to forward to Kim Il Sung via Shtykov his long-delayed response to Kim's October 1 plea for help. It had taken almost a week for Stalin to respond, although he was well aware that Kim was desperate and hanging over a precipice. Stalin had tarried simply because he did not yet have any good news to deliver. Only after receiving Mao's conditional commitment did he decide to write to Kim. In his telegram, which Shtykov gave Kim on the afternoon of October 8, Stalin for the first time told Kim Il Sung about his ongoing negotiations with Mao, noting that the Chinese comrades still had doubts and hesitated to make a final commitment to fight, but, at the same time, emphasizing that negotiations continued, and therefore Kim Il Sung had to battle tenaciously for each inch of his land because help was on its way [Document #13].
Reportedly, Mao also sent a telegram to Kim Il Sung via his Ambassador in Pyongyang, who went to Kim's underground headquarters and handed it to him on the night of October 8. It said: "In view of the current situation, we have decided to send volunteers to Korea to help you fight against the aggressor." Chinese sources report Kim Il Sung to have reacted gleefully.35
The next morning, on October 9, at 7:05 a.m., Shtykov wired Kim's reply to Stalin [Document #16], adding that he concurred with its content. Clearly, this letter reflected Kim's new, more positive mood and his newly found self-confidence. Although Shtykov did not mention any contacts between Kim and the Chinese representatives the night before, surely Mao's cable had lifted Kim's spirit. In his letter, Kim expressed his belief that the U.S. aggressor would not stop until it had occupied Korea entirely and converted it into its military-strategic springboard for further aggression in the Far East; therefore, the struggle of the Korean people for their independence, freedom, and state sovereignty would be protracted and very hard.
In contrast to his previous letter of September 29, in which he had requested "direct military assistance" from the Soviet Union, Kim now asked Stalin only to aid the KPA by training 2,000 pilots, 1,000 tank drivers, 500 radio operators, and 500 engineering officers in the territory of the USSR. Of course, if one looks at the numbers, the inescapable impression is that Kim basically asked Stalin to help train an entirely new professional officers corps for the KPA, with the exception of the infantry officers. In other words, Kim Il Sung's fortunes were still very much dependent on professional military advice and arms supplies from the USSR. Nonetheless, once informed of Mao's commitment to send ground troops to fight in Korea, he apparently began to distance himself from Stalin. No longer did he request Soviet ground troops or even air cover, because he knew Mao would probably take care of it by himself.36
In the meantime, the Western allies continued to advance. On October 9 in Washington, President Truman and the JCS directed MacArthur to cross the 38th parallel, even if Chinese intervention occurred, so long as "in your judgment, action by forces now under your control offers a reasonable chance of success." At once, MacArthur issued his final unconditional surrender demand, stating that unless North Korea capitulated, he would proceed to "take such military action as may be necessary to enforce the decrees of the United Nations." The same day, advanced ROK I Corps units moving up the east coast from the perimeter reached Wonsan, over 110 miles north of the parallel. The 1st Cavalry and the 27th Commonwealth Brigade pushed north towards Kumchon, Sariwon, and Pyongyang itself.37 On October 9, two F-80 jets raided "by mistake" a Soviet airfield sixty miles inside the USSR border near Vladivostok. The days of Kim Il Sung's state appeared to be numbered. It is plausible to assume that Stalin was aware of these developments in Korea when he first received Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao at a dacha near the Black Sea late that night.
The Stalin-Zhou talks of 9-10 October 1950 are crucial in understanding the evolution of the Soviet-Chinese alliance and the terms of the Chinese entry into the Korean War. They reveal how domestic political considerations influenced the foreign policy priorities of these two communist giants, as well as the pivotal role of misperceptions and miscommunications in the mismanagement of the alliance relationship.
The newly declassified Russian documents from the APRF by and large confirm the account of Mao's interpreter, Shi Zhe,38 (except dates) of what transpired between Stalin and Zhou at the former's dacha during these two days. In brief, Zhou told Stalin that the CCP CC Politburo had decided not to send troops to Korea because: 1) China lacked adequate money, arms, or transport; 2) the CCP's domestic political opposition had not been pacified yet, and reactionary forces could use this opportunity to raise their heads again; and, finally, 3) the U.S. could declare war on China, should the latter intervene in Korea.
Aware of these arguments from his previous correspondence with Mao and bearing in mind that Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao were the chief opponents within the CCP CC Politburo of China's entry into the war, Stalin went on the offensive. First, he noted that the Great Patriotic War (World War II) had just ended, and therefore it would be very difficult for the USSR to fight another large-scale war right away. Besides, the Soviet-North Korean border was too narrow to allow massive troop transfers. Notwithstanding this, if U.S. actions were to jeopardize the fate of world socialism on a global scale, the Soviet Union would be ready to take up the American challenge. However, he stressed that, at that time, U.S. imperialism was in a weak strategic position because it could not rely for assistance on traditional military powers such as Germany and Japan, as well as Britain, all of which were profoundly weakened by the Second World War. Hence, Washington would not dare to launch a world war. Since any kind of U.S. attack against China would trigger the mutual military assistance provision of the Soviet-Chinese Alliance Treaty and draw the U.S. into a global conflict with the USSR, for which it was not ready, America was unlikely to risk a war with China on the latter's own territory. Hence, in Stalin's opinion, at that moment, Beijing could help the North Koreans without fear of U.S. retaliation against Mainland China. Moreover, Stalin emphasized that it was in China's national interest to ensure the survival of a friendly government in North Korea. For, if the U.S. occupied the North and deployed its forces along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, this would pose an enormous threat to Chinese security, because the Americans could harass China from the air, land, and sea at their discretion and could also endanger the economic development of northeast China.
But, despite these arguments, Zhou did not yield to Stalin's pressure. Stalin appears to have almost yelled in exasperation, "That you do not want to send troops to Korea is your decision, but socialism in Korea would collapse within a very short period of time." After regaining his composure, Stalin changed his tactics and laid out a stark alternative for Zhou. He suggested that both the Soviet Union and PRC provide sanctuary for Kim Il Sung and the remnants of the KPA if they could no longer fight on their own; the main forces, arms, equipment, and some cadres of the KPA would be redeployed to northeast China, while the disabled and wounded men, as well as Koreans of Soviet origin, could be moved to the Maritime Province of the Soviet Far East. In their new bases in northeast China they would train new troops, master new weaponry, and prepare themselves for the day of their reentry into Korea. Stalin reiterated that since the Chinese did not intend to send troops, the Soviet Union and China should work out concrete plans to provide shelter for their Korean comrades and their forces, and make sure that one day they would be able to return to Korea.
Reportedly, Zhou was stunned at what he heard. He backed away from his initial tough stance, and asked Stalin whether China could count on Soviet air cover should it decide to fight in Korea. Without a pause, Stalin responded positively: "We can send a certain number of aircraft to offer cover [for the CPV in Korea-AM]." Stalin also reassured Zhou that the Soviet Union would take care of weapons and equipment supplies for the CPV, including their replacements, immediately after the Chinese side ascertained its needs in actual combat.
The Stalin-Zhou talks lasted for two days, and yet no mutually agreed upon decisions were reached at the end. Zhou simply said that he needed to communicate with Beijing in order to ask for new instructions. Stalin replied that he could wait but that time was fast running out. They parted, reportedly, both confused about each other's true intentions.39
Contrary to Goncharov, Xue, and Lewis' account in Uncertain Partners40--citing the recollections of Zhou aide Kang Yimin--Stalin and Zhou Enlai did not agree to send a joint telegram to Mao Zedong the next day. Nor did Molotov call Zhou after the latter's arrival in Moscow with "startling news that the Soviet Union would not offer any military equipment to China." These are stories, perhaps elaborated by Zhou's entourage in order to persuade Mao that Stalin, not Zhou's obduracy, was to blame for the "breakdown of talks;" that Stalin was an unreliable ally; and that, after all, China should not fight a war in Korea alone, which was Zhou's belief from the very begi

nning.41 Not only did these fictional events never occur, they could not even have happened the way they were described. Stalin never co-signed his telegrams with anybody, regardless of the status of the other party or the addressee, including Mao and Zhou. In the Stalinist era, Soviet Politburo members never used the telephone to communicate important decisions, no matter how urgent those might be, let alone to talk to foreign leaders. These fictional events contradict the then-prevailing Soviet party bureaucratic practices.42 The present author has never encountered evidence of such unorthodox procedures anywhere in the Russian Archives.


In reality, all along Stalin reiterated his willingness to provide the CPV with air cover if Mao sent his troops to Korea.43 Nonetheless, on October 11, Zhou reportedly sent a telegram to Mao in Beijing, stating that "Comrade Filippov [a pseudonym for Stalin-AM] did not express his objections to the CCP CC Politburo's decision not to send troops to Korea." It was Gao Gang who told the Soviet Consul-General in Shenyang, A.M. Ledovsky, and General Vazhnov about Zhou's cable from Moscow during a conversation on October 25 in Shenyang. He added that it was this telegram from Zhou that reignited a fierce debate in the CCP CC Politburo regarding the merits of China's intervention in Korea.44 The result was that Mao put on hold all Chinese preparations in the northeast for the dispatch of troops to Korea.45
I would interpret what happened during the Stalin-Zhou talks on October 9-10 as follows. Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao went to see Stalin with a strong belief that China could not and should not intervene in Korea. During the talks, Stalin failed to convince them of the potentially dire consequences of the North's collapse for Chinese security and its international standing. Therefore, Zhou and Lin decided to stick to their original anti-intervention stand in their debate with Mao, Peng Dehuai, and Gao Gang. At the same time, they invented a "respectable" excuse for their obduracy, i.e., an alleged refusal by Stalin to provide the CPV with air cover. At that moment, there was a brief rupture in bilateral communications, and both sides were left to make decisions for themselves.
As far as Zhou Enlai's role is concerned, if this scenario is correct, he rose up between Stalin and Mao, and almost had them at each other's throat because they both disagreed with his own beliefs. Zhou seems to have viewed his visit to Stalin as a last opportunity to prevent China from entering the Korean war and to shift the entire burden of saving Kim's regime onto Stalin's broad shoulders. Once he realized that Stalin did not want to accept this responsibility and preferred to see the Chinese fighting, Zhou opted to bluff and may even have misrepresented the Soviet position in his correspondence with Mao. But, to his regret, he miscalculated Stalin's high risk-taking propensity in his gambling on the future of North Korea altogether, as well as Mao's own determination to fight in Korea, and failed to foresee that Mao would decide to fight even when his back was pushed against the wall and he was left ostensibly alone, allegedly without Soviet air support.
In the meantime, in Korea, on October 12, the Interim Committee of the UN Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea, created by the UN General Assembly resolution of October 7, advised the United Nations Command to take over the civil government of North Korea, which meant in practice that the U.S. military was authorized to rule the "liberated" provinces of North Korea. Kim Il Sung moved his headquarters to Kosangjin, near Kanggye, not far from the Chinese border. The newly-rebuilt KPA Front Line Command was moved to Tokch'on in South P'yongan Province. The KPA forces desperately tried to halt the advancing ROK and U.S. troops that had broken through the 38th parallel and reached as far as Chunghwa, a few miles from Pyongyang.
On the morning of October 13, Stalin received a report from Admirals Golovko and Fokin informing him of a large concentration of U.S. heavy battleships and amphibious assault vessels, manned with troops, apparently ready for an amphibious landing in the harbor of Wonsan [Document #17]. That day, Wonsan was the target of ferocious U.S. air raids and Navy fire. Stalin could easily foresee the strategic implications of the forthcoming U.S. landing in Wonsan: the KPA would be again split in half, this time along the Pyongyang-Wonsan line, and, with its rear absolutely unprotected, the ROK I Corps and U.S. X Corps could march unimpeded toward the Yalu-Tumen rivers on the North Korean-Chinese and North Korean-Soviet borders, while Gen. Walker's Eighth Army mopped up KPA remnants in the Pyongyang area and then advanced toward the northwest.
This was a decisive moment for Stalin. A week earlier, the Soviet Politburo had decided that the USSR would rather abandon North Korea than risk a direct military confrontation with the U.S., unless the latter deliberately attacked Soviet territory. Therefore, Stalin did not intend to send Soviet ground troops to save Kim Il Sung. As Zhou had told Stalin a couple of days earlier, the Chinese also decided to refrain from sending the CPV to Korea for the time being. Realizing that neither he nor Mao was willing to save Kim Il Sung from total defeat, Stalin evidently resigned himself to viewing the entire Korean situation as a matter of cutting his losses and saving face.
Such a conclusion is supported by the dramatic order Stalin appears to have sent a Kim Il Sung via Ambassador Shtykov on the afternoon of October 13.46 Informing Kim of his talks with Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao, Stalin reported with regret that Zhou had stated that the Chinese were not yet ready to enter the war. Consequently, they concluded that it would be better for Kim to withdraw the remnants of his forces from Korea to China and the USSR. Therefore, Stalin ordered that Kim Il Sung "evacuate North Korea and pull out his Korean troops to the north." He also directed that Shtykov assist Kim in drawing up a plan of measures to implement this evacuation order. In effect, Stalin was fed up with Kim Il Sung and had thrown in the towel.
Late on the night of October 13, Shtykov, following Stalin's instructions, met with Kim Il Sung and Pak Hon-Yong and read the text of Stalin's telegram to them. In Shtykov's telegram addressed to Fyn Si (another Stalin pseudonym), which he wired from Pyongyang at 3:15 a.m. on October 14 [Document #18], he described the North Koreans' reaction as follows: "Kim Il Sung and Pak Hon-Yong were very much surprised by the content of the telegram. Kim Il Sung stated that it was extremely hard for them to implement such advice; however, since there was such advice, they would implement it." Then, Kim asked Shtykov to give him his practical recommendations and directed that Pak Hon-Yong write them down. Also, he asked Shtykov and Matveyev to assist him in drafting a plan of measures to be taken regarding the KPA evacuation plan.
After receiving Stalin's evacuation order on the night of October 13, Kim Il Sung called Major-General Ch'oe Kyong-dok47 to his headquarters in Kosangjin and ordered that Ch'oe leave immediately for the northeastern provinces of China in order to set up guerrilla bases for Kim and the KPA remnants there. Ch'oe is said to have departed with two adjutants the same night. In the next several hours, Kim is said to have repeatedly told his close associates that they would have to wage a guerrilla war from China again. Within a day Ch'oe and his two aides had mysteriously disappeared. Kim Il Sung dispatched a small team of scouts to find them, but in vain.48
Meanwhile, however, even before seeing Kim's response, Stalin had changed his mind and dramatically reversed himself, thanks to some welcome news from Beijing. Early in the morning of October 14, at 3:20 a.m., he received two extremely urgent telegrams (#2406 and #2408) from the Soviet envoy to the PRC described a late-night meeting with Mao which took place immediately after the CCP CC Politburo finally decided, at a emergency session, to intervene in Korea before the war ended in a U.S. victory. Roshchin cited Mao as saying: "Our leading comrades believe that if the U.S. troops advance up to the border of China, then Korea will become a dark spot for us and the Northeast [China] will be faced with constant danger." Mao confirmed that "past hesitations by our comrades occurred because the questions of the international situation, the questions of the Soviet assistance to us, the question of air cover were not clear to them," and stressed that "at present, all these questions have been clarified." Furthermore, Mao pointed out, "now it is advantageous for us to dispatch Chinese troops into Korea. China has the absolute obligation to send troops to Korea" [Document #19]. He mentioned that at this point they were sending a first contingent of nine divisions. Although poorly armed, it would be able to fight the troops of Syngman Rhee. In the meantime, the Chinese comrades would prepare a second echelon. As for air cover, Mao expressed hope that the Soviet air force would arrive in northeast China as soon as possible, but not later than in two months. Mao concluded by saying that the CCP CC believed that the Chinese must assist Korean comrades in their difficult struggle; therefore, he had asked Zhou Enlai to discuss the matter of China's entry into the Korean War with Comrade Filippov again. He stressed that "Zhou Enlai was being sent new instructions."
What is important about this telegram is that it contains Mao's admission that, in essence, Zhou's position was to stonewall because of the hesitations and reservations displayed by some prominent CCP CC leaders in Beijing. However, once these domestic political disputes were resolved, Mao wanted Stalin back in the game.
Indeed, Stalin rejoiced at Mao's new decision because he had been so reluctant to abandon North Korea to begin with. At once, he hand-wrote a note to Shtykov for immediate delivery to Kim Il Sung [Document #20], the second telegram within hours, temporarily halting the implementation of his order of October 13.49 It said: "I have just received a telegram from Mao Zedong in which he reports that the CCP Central Committee discussed the situation again and decided after all to render military assistance to the Korean comrades, regardless of the insufficient armament of the Chinese troops. I am awaiting detailed reports about this matter from Mao Zedong. In connection with this new decision of the Chinese comrades, I ask you to postpone temporarily the implementation of the telegram sent to you yesterday about the evacuation of North Korea and withdrawal of the Korean troops to the north." This telegram makes perfectly clear that the crucial consideration in Stalin's position on intervention in Korea was the role of China. When Mao balked, so did Stalin. When Mao decided to make a commitment to Kim Il Sung, Stalin again followed suit. Still unsure whether Mao's decision was irrevocable, Stalin displayed some caution and ordered that Kim Il Sung "temporarily" postpone, not cancel, the implementation of measures advised to him a day earlier.
Only after Stalin received further clarifications and proof from Beijing that this time Mao meant it, did he order that his previous recommendations to Kim be annulled. He reiterated his commitment to supply the CPV with weapons and equipment. Most importantly, he felt compelled to indicate to Kim that he was relinquishing some of his authority on the Korean matter to Mao and his CPV commanders. A few hours later on October 14, he dispatched a third ciphered telegram to Shtykov for Kim [Document #21] which said: "After hesitations and a series of temporary decisions, the Chinese comrades at last made a final decision to render assistance to Korea with troops. I am glad that the final and favorable decision for Korea has been made at last. In this connection, you should consider the recommendations of the meeting of the Chinese-Soviet leading comrades, which you were told about earlier, annulled. You will have to resolve concrete questions regarding the entry of the Chinese troops jointly with the Chinese comrades. The armaments required for the Chinese troops will be delivered from the USSR. I wish you success."




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