Moments in Memory: As peace talks approach, Korean War coverage comes to mind

U.N. honor guard carries boxes containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War after arriving from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. The U.N. Command says the 55 cases of war remains retrieved from North Korea will be honored at a ceremony next Wednesday at a base in South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, Pool)

Retired four-star General B.B. Bell spent the final three years of a 39-year military career overseeing all United States armed forces in Asia, including South Korea.

When President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet Wednesday in Hanoi, Vietnam, to discuss denuclearization of North Korea, the Ooltewah resident will be the most interested citizen in Hamilton County.

Few know the history of the Korean War better than Bell. He knows America entered the war to stop the advance of communism after North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. He knows, and worries, that younger generations do not realize 37,000 American soldiers died and 100,000 more were wounded along with 2 million Koreans and 1 million Chinese. He knows the intent of the Armistice signed on July 27, 1953, was to unify the two Koreas. That never happened, and Bell knows better than most the suffering of citizens in North Korea under communism.

"When I see two leaders meeting like that, meeting to resolve what is still a military dispute in Korea, I think of the unfinished work of World War II," said Bell. "That is the genesis of the problem the world has had with a divided Korea since then. The first thing I think about when I see them getting together is all the world leaders since 1953 that have come and gone and never resolved the dispute in a positive way."


The afternoon Chattanooga News-Free Press on July 27, 1953, got right to the point.

"U.S. Loses Its First War" was the headline on the editorial page. "Throughout the world," the newspaper said, "and especially in Asia, whose restless millions are of such critical importance to the future course of world events, will know that an army of the mighty United States has been hurled back across North Korea by the hordes of a backward Asiatic country."

The Times' view of the official end of the Korean War focused more on President Harry Truman's stand against communism from Russia than who won or lost the war. The newspaper said, "we have achieved our objective and have drawn a line and said to all the powers of evil which may seek conquest of peaceful peoples – thus far, and no further." The editorial added, "We may lift our hearts in rejoicing that the agony of our youths on the hills of Korea is stopped."

The 18-page Chattanooga Daily Times and 24-page News-Free Press both bannered the signing of the Korean War Armistice Treaty across their front pages and carried extensive coverage inside. Both newspapers cost 5 cents, and both carried a full-page ad from Shell announcing that its new gasoline additive was the "greatest gasoline development in 31 years." In 1922, lead began being added to gasoline to reduce engine knocks.

The only news other than Korea on the front page of the Daily Times was a story and photograph announcing the opening of roads through the previously restricted area in Oak Ridge where the atomic bomb was developed. The first paragraph of the story said, "the action seems only likely to provide an additional 200 miles of highway on which the visiting motorist can get lost."

The other story not related to Korea was the debate in Washington over maintaining foreign aid at $4.6 billion. The United States gave $46 billion in foreign aid in 2016. The daily business page celebrated General Motors achieving $468 million in revenue; revenue at GM was $146 billion in 2017.

The afternoon News-Free Press carried a front-page story about the Tennessee Hospital Service Association merging the Kingsport community into its health insurance business. The Tennessee Hospital Service was the forerunner of BlueCross BlueShield and was founded by News-Free Press publisher Roy McDonald in 1945.

Easily missed on A1 of the News-Free Press was a one-column headline that read, "Indochina War Could Be Next" and talked about France's fight against communism in Vietnam.


The Daily Times said on July 27, 1953, that "the blessed assurance of the Korea truce is not found in any vain delusion that our troubles are ended with this signing." Those words foreshadowed 65 years of futility that brings the world's eyes to Wednesday when Trump and Kim meet.

Bell says the discussions over a denuclearized North Korea are the price the world paid for failing to follow through on the terms of armistice and reunite Korea under democracy.

"Here we are in 2019 and none of that happened," said Bell, "but it is much more dangerous now than it was then because of the North Koreans' ability to apply nuclear weapons regionally and to a limited degree intercontinentally.

"We absolutely didn't lose the war. It was a stalemate and not a defeat, and we chose to make it a stalemate. What I will say is that there was a perception in those days, real or otherwise, that due to the attack of the Chinese into the north and then the south, the U.S. decided to limit the conflict to the peninsula. The military disagreed and wanted to go to China. [President Harry] Truman was afraid of World War III and sought a settlement. What that did was semi-permanently split the country."

Bell chooses not to dwell in the failures. Instead, he views the Trump-Kim meeting as just another step toward the day when the north and the south are united.

"Despite the challenges we see everywhere, eventually there will be a reunified, single country," said Bell. "It's natural and normal in a cultural system like Korea for these human beings to want to gather as a group. It is not unlike what we saw with East Germany and West Germany after the end of the Cold War.

"The Korean War resulted in the formation of one of the most advanced, modern and economically capable countries on the planet. It's the size of Indiana, actually half the size of Indiana when you consider the mountains. Most people would say it's not possible to be half the size of Indiana and have the 11th largest economy in the world."

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