What the US did during World War II and the Korean war

We now know much about the horrors inflicted by the US on Vietnam during that war. It is sometimes suggested that the atrocities committed by the US during that war were an aberration of some kind, a deviation from its usually honorable behavior in wars such as in ‘good’ wars like World War II. But this investigation from Reveal discusses how in that war, US soldiers committed a war crime when they rounded up German prisoners of war in a field and machine-gunned them. General George S. Patton called it a murder but none of the people involved were punished.

Not much is discussed nowadays about but the Korean War. Media attention now is focused almost exclusively on recovering the remains of missing US soldiers from that war. Less emphasized are claims that as many as a million Korean civilians were killed. I was alerted to this page from the book Napalm by Robert Neer that says that the scale of destruction was so bad as to cause even General Douglas MacArthur to be sick. But note the triumphant tone in this Tweet from the Department of Defense.

I was also pointed to the 2010 book The Korean War: A History by Bruce Cumings, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, that is available as a free download that I plan to read at some point.

Wars always produce atrocities, largely inflicted on civilians. To think that they are committed only by the other side and not punish one’s own is the kind of delusion that enables such atrocities to continue.


  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    Also remember that LeMay kept bombing the North for years after the armistice.

  2. says

    Howard Zinn describes one of his last missions in WW2 was a napalm test-drop on a village in southerbln France. At that time the war was so wound down in France there was no purpose for it at all, other than sheer American nasty cruelty.

  3. says

    Right now I’m reading Sy Hersh’s Reporter. As a reminder, Hersh was the one who broke the My Lai story in Vietnam. I was in grade school at the time so I really didn’t know all the details, how widespread it was, and how it ran right up the full chain of command. (His other recollections--it’s an autobiography--are very interesting, too.)

    I recommend the book.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @3: If you’ve actually read Zinn on the subject, you must know that he takes a far more nuanced view than you present; e.g. the role of the Free French leadership. To you, it aways seems to be America, America, America.

  5. says

    Rob Grigjanis:
    WTF are you going on about? I have both read Zinn and listened to his speeches (including his “just war” talk in which he mentions the incident) he states clearly that the war was wound down and while the napalm target was arguably a military target, he later realized it was pointless and cruel. Go do your own research if you need the exact quote.

    To you, it aways seems to be America, America, America.

    If it that were the case, so what?
    But it isn’t so please spend some time making sure you’ve got an idea what you’re talking about before you try to chew on my ankle.

    There is Zinn’s interpretation, which is not at all “nuanced” -- he is strongly antiwar in his description of napalm and the pointlessness of the event. If you think his views are “nuanced” you may be thinking of different comments by him than I was. But I’m only responsible for my own views, which are anti-American. Again: so what? If you’re not Anti-American there’s probably something wrong with you.

  6. says

    This is hardly “nuanced”

    That’s right. And so what happened with me, I was an enthusiastic bombardier, as I say. The war was over, presumably — a few weeks from the end. Everybody knew the war was about to end in Europe. We had been flying bombing missions out of England over the Continent. We didn’t think we were flying missions anymore. No reason to fly. We were all through France, into Germany. The Russians and Americans had met on the Elbe. It was just a matter of a few weeks. And then we were awakened in the wee hours of the morning and told we were going on a mission. The so-called intelligence people, who brief us before we go into a plane, tell us we are going to bomb this tiny town on the Atlantic coast of France called Rohan, near Bordeaux, and we are doing it because there are several thousand German soldiers there. They are not doing anything. They are not bothering anyone. They are waiting for the war to end. They’ve just been bypassed. And we are going to bomb them.

    What’s interesting to me later, in thinking about it, is that it didn’t occur to me to stand up in the briefing room and say, “What are we doing? Why are we doing this? The war is almost over, there is no need.” It didn’t occur to me. To this day, I understand how atrocities are committed. How the military mind works. You are taught to just mechanically go through the procedures that you have been taught, you see.

    So, we went over Rohan, and they told us in the briefing that we were going to drop a different kind of bomb this time. Instead of the usual demolition bombs, we are going to drop, carry in our bomb bay, thirty 100-pound canisters of what they called jellied gasoline, which was napalm. It was the first use of napalm in the European war. We went over. We destroyed the German troops and also destroyed the French town of Rohan. “Friendly fire.” That’s what bombing does.


  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @7: I’m quite well aware of what happened at Royan (not “Rohan”; is that a transcription error?) in April 1945 (and the earlier RAF bombing in January). Of course it was an atrocity. Of course the Americans bear a lot of blame; they dropped the napalm (and other) bombs. But when you write “there was no purpose for it at all, other than sheer American nasty cruelty”, you’re completely ignoring the role of the French. Look up Général de Larminat, in Zinn and elsewhere. That’s what I mean by “nuance”.

    Google books has “The Bombing of Royan” from Howard Zinn on War here. Scroll up to get to the start of the piece.

    If you’re not Anti-American there’s probably something wrong with you.

    I’m sure that from your point of view there is something wrong with me. I can live with that.

  8. Owlmirror says

    I’m quite well aware of what happened at Royan (not “Rohan”; is that a transcription error?)

    Looks like it is. Video of the interview, with a time offset (17:38) to the start of the section on the page linked at #8/#10, is here. The transcriber may have been thrown off by the French pronunciation. Interesting that in 17 years, it hasn’t been corrected.

  9. mnb0 says

    “it aways seems to be America, America, America.”
    Here some more fuel to this fire: the USA intentionally starved the German population from 1945-48. As a result in 1948 infant mortality in Germany was twice as high as in other European countries. This was intentional. When president Roosevelt was aked in March 1945 (!) whether he wanted the Germans to starve his answer was “Why not?”

  10. springa73 says

    One impression I get from reading military history is that atrocity and murder against both civilians and prisoners is common to both sides in almost every war. There aren’t really any “good wars”, though occasionally there may be a necessary one.

    Americans certainly aren’t immune from committing atrocities, but neither is anyone else. To me, the most important thing is to avoid war in the first place, since we know from experience that it makes atrocities inevitable.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @12: I don’t know why you think you’re adding “fuel” to anything.

  12. Matt G says

    I have a friend who served on the ground in Korea. The horror of his experience is part of his everyday life. My father might have served but was in college.

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