Sept. 7, 2001
During1989 two events occurred in Asia that reveal a great deal about U.S. policy towards that region.
In early June, Chinese army units fired on students and workers in and around Tiananmen Square, killing and injuring anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people. The story was front-page news for weeks, and the event continues to cast a pall on U.S.-Chinese relations.
A few weeks before Tiananmen, the South Korean National Assembly asked the United States for materials on a very similar massacre nine years earlier in the South Korean city of Kwangju. In May 1980, South Korean troops had opened fire on demonstrators protesting a military coup by General Chun Doo-hwan, killing and wounding anywhere from several hundred to several thousand. Very few Americans every heard of the event.
The difference between the two incidents is that the Kwangju massacre could not have taken place without the direct involvement of the U.S.
Most Americans are unaware that up until 1994, the South Korean Army (SKA) was under the direct control of the U.S. military (in the event of war it still is). SKA units took part in military coups in 1961 and 1979 with U.S. approval. In 1980, when Kwangju residents poured into the streets to protest the military regime, U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen, and U.S. military commander, General John Wickham, demanded that the authorities suppress the demonstrators and okayed the release of the SKA’s to crush the protests.
The request for information, including testimony by Gleysteen and Wickham, and the refusal of the Bush (senior) Administration to provide it, went unreported in the U.S. media, and to date most Americans have still never heard of Kwangju. But U.S. stonewalling on the matter has deeply angered Koreans and underlines the long and disquieting relationship between the U.S. and Asia, dating back to the 1898 Philippine War.
It is time Americans took a close look at the past century of U.S. involvement in the region, and to start asking—and answering—some very hard questions.
A good place to start this examination is with three books: Historian John Dower’s “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War”; Sociologist Chalmers Johnson’s “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire”; and “The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War” by Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza.
The Pacific Basin has long been America’s biggest market. Its importance is illustrated by the fact that the U.S. has fought three major wars in the area over the past 60 years, and still has over100,000 troops in the region.
What is not common knowledge, however, is how deeply the issue of race has driven U.S. policies in the area. Dower’s book is a searing indictment of U.S. racism vis-a’-vi Asia, tracing its origins back to 19th Century genocidal policies directed at Native-Americans. At times the two were directly linked. In 1854 Chinese were barred from testifying in court cases because it was decided that they were the same race as Indians, who were already barred.
But it was in the Philippine War that the U.S. laid the foundations for what was to be official and unofficial policy toward Asians. In its brutal suppression of Philippine independence, the U.S. military killed over 20,000 insurgents and at least 200,000 civilians (some estimates are as high as 800,000). It was in this long and bloody guerilla war that the American troops coined the word “goo-goo” for the native insurgents, a word that mutated into “gook” during World War II.
Abiding racism is the only explanation for the savage treatment of civilian populations in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia by the American military, including the massive firebombing of Japanese cities, the “free-fire zones” and body counts of Vietnam, and the targeting of civilian refugees during the Korean conflict.
The most chilling description of the latter policy is “The Bridge at No Gun Ri,” which chronicles a three-day massacre of hundreds of helpless civilians cowering under a railroad bridge in the early weeks of the Korean War. Assaulted by machine guns, artillery and air power, the survivors tell a tale straight from Dante’s Inferno. The book clearly demonstrates that official U.S. military policy towards Korean civilians was, in simple language, to shoot, shell and burn anything dressed in white, the traditional garb of the peasants. Moreover, No Gun Ri was just one of many such massacres.
A warning: “The Bridge at No Gun Ri” is riveting reading, but it will chill your soul. There are times you have to put it down and take a deep breath. These are not nameless victims under that bridge, but people whom the authors have brought to life: 10-year old Choon-ja, teenager Chung-Koo-shik, and 13-year old Yang Hae-sook, the “Golden Girl.”
The Clinton Administration expressed “regret” for the loss of life at No Gun Ri, but blamed it on panic by green American troops, rather than policy and explicit orders. With the publication of the book Sept. 6, however, that posture will be hard to defend. As this work so amply demonstrates, No Gun Ri was no accident.
While the South Korean government has been circumspect about pressing the U.S. on Kwangju and demanding an apology for No Gun Ri, the survivors of the latter have filed a lawsuit and are demanding Congressional hearings.
The past two administrations argue that the future is in Asia. But if the U.S. is to be seen as anything but a racist, imperial power, it will have to begin the painful process of excavating its own shameful past. It can start with Kwangju and No Gun Ri.