Few would deny that U.S.-China relations are the worst they have been in years. A relationship that was already in trouble has foundered on the shoals of the trade war, the COVID-19 pandemic, and talk of decoupling.
This is not the first time that the pendulum has swung toward confrontation after an era of relatively congenial relations. Periods of hostility also followed the Sino-U.S. alliance of the 1940s and the rapprochement euphoria of the 1970s and ‘80s.
The Korean War (1950-53), which began 70 years ago today, sealed that first Washington-Beijing split and ushered in two decades of estrangement. Considering how tragic that war was – and the extent to which its legacies still haunt Northeast Asia – it is worth reflecting on how collective memory of it shapes perspectives on the present and the future. That the war is remembered very differently in China, and that these memories reflect differing visions of U.S.-China relations and the destiny of the Asia-Pacific, is a lesson that Americans ignore at their peril.
For Americans, Korea is “the forgotten war” – a faraway conflict that is overshadowed in popular memory by World War II, the Vietnam War, and more recent conflicts in the Middle East. But in China, the Korean War holds a prominent place in public memory, and it serves a political purpose that has no parallel in America. What’s in a name? Quite a lot. While Americans use the neutral term “The Korean War,” there is no ambiguity in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) official nomenclature: “The War to Resist America and Aid Korea.”
Americans suffer a form of collective amnesia about the Korean conflict for many reasons. For starters, the war was never popular. As a team of opinion researchers noted in 1953, “The united and wholehearted support of public opinion which characterized the last war is conspicuous by its absence in the Korean War.” President Harry Truman did not seek a congressional declaration of war for what he initially called a “police action,” and commanders’ decision to exceed their initial mandate and “liberate” North Korea brought China into the fight.
Then there was the war’s brutality. “I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man,” said General Douglas MacArthur to the Senate in May 1951, “[and] I shrink with a horror that I cannot express in words at this continuous slaughter of men in Korea.” General Curtis Lemay of the U.S. Air Force similarly recalled the damage that American bombers did to the Korean Peninsula: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Between 3 and 4 million people died in the conflict, and even the July 1953 armistice brought neither victory nor resolution. The Korean Peninsula remained divided.
This is not to say that Americans and their allies have nothing to celebrate. The United States gathered a sizable coalition, repelled the North Korean attack, and avoided a superpower war. The Republic of Korea remained free and developed into a dynamic, democratic state. Nevertheless, it took more than four decades for Americans to erect even a modest national memorial to their Korean War veterans.
American indifference contrasts sharply with the official PRC position, which can be summarized thus: China stood up to American aggression, sent volunteers to defend China’s territorial sovereignty, and “forced” the United States to sign an armistice. In this telling, it was not only a just war, but also a vital test for the new PRC and, ultimately, a “victory” against a technologically superior foe.
No one can deny that Chinese soldiers fought bravely, but this official perspective glosses over the war’s origins with vague phrasing implying that the United States attacked China, and it significantly understates China’s official casualty toll. In claiming a defensive war against “American aggression,” it ignores the many other nations that sided with South Korea. And as the Chinese scholars Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia have noted, it neglects Beijing’s role in dragging out the armistice talks, which lasted two full years.
Why It Matters: National Unity Against a Common Enemy
In China today, the Korean War stands as a universally understood symbol of national unity against American belligerence. A typical Chinese elementary school exam calls the Korean struggle “a just war against aggression” and blames “American imperialism” for “bringing the fire of war to the border of China.” A history textbook explains that “the invasion of the United States gravely threatened the security of China.”
And while almost nobody in America publicly identifies China as the United States’ erstwhile enemy, no such reluctance hinders Chinese commemorations. Contrast President Barack Obama’s 2013 marking of the armistice, in which he did not even mention an adversary, with then-Vice President Xi Jinping’s 2010 assertion that “the imperialist invaders imposed this war on the Chinese people.” The Truman administration, argued Xi, “dispatched troops to carry out an armed intervention and started the Korean War,” and these troops “launched air raids to bomb our northeastern cities and villages, and brought the war to the territory” of the PRC. China, “motivated by a just cause . . . sent out volunteer troops to resist America because we were driven beyond the limits of forbearance.”
Since the war serves as a readymade metaphor for American antagonism, this imagery reappears in times of U.S.-China friction. Last November, the Communist Party’s Global Times pilloried Senator Ted Cruz for his sponsorship of a Taiwan bill, warning that “if Cruz understands a little about the Korean War in the 1950s, he will figure out how much the powerful U.S. paid for underestimating China’s determination.”
The symbolism has also proved useful in the trade war, as it projects an image of the nation defending itself against unprovoked American bullying. “A strategic resolution is being established in China,” stated a 2018 Global Times editorial, “which is to fight the Trump administration’s trade aggression in the same way the country fought U.S. troops during the Korean War” – a struggle that pierced “Washington’s strategic arrogance.” Last year, Chinese television even screened a series of Korean War films, presumably to rally the nation behind the trade fight.
Perhaps these sentiments don’t mean much. After all, there is a fine line between public diplomacy and propaganda. But collective memory can matter. Americans are free to forget the war in Korea, but they should not assume that everyone else in the world has also done so.
Dr. Joe Renouard teaches history and foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Nanjing, China.
Dr. Woyu Liu teaches modern Chinese history at Nanjing University.