STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This Friday morning is June 25th, which is the day in 1950 that the North Korean army stormed into South Korea. The attack surprised American intelligence agencies and caught South Korean forces unprepared. In commemoration of the war's anniversary, the CIA has released hundreds of declassified intelligence reports. These documents tell a story of mistaken assumptions and intelligence failures that help explain why the Korean conflict still simmers, even 60 years later. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: President Harry Truman was at his home in Independence, Missouri when his Secretary of State Dean Acheson called to tell him North Korea had invaded the south. The United Nations at that time was a new organization, and Truman wanted to show the world how it could keep peace. He told Acheson to ask for an immediate meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Within 24 hours, the U.S. ambassador there, Warren Austin, was asking the U.N. to come to South Korea's defense.
Mr. WARREN AUSTIN (Former U.S. Ambassador to Korea): The Republic of Korea has appealed to the United Nations for protection. I am proud to report that the United States is prepared to furnish assistance to the Republic of Korea.
GJELTEN: But help did not come fast enough for the South. The North Koreans were far superior in numbers and weaponry. The United States had withdrawn its own forces from Korea a few months earlier, leaving behind just a few hundred advisors. Within 48 hours, the CIA was warning that the South Koreans' morale was deteriorating and that they were incapable of resisting. The collapse of Seoul, the South Korean capital, was said to be imminent.
Within days, the north had seized control of the entire peninsula, except for a small area at the southern tip. With U.N. support, the United States rushed to South Korea's defense, as described in dramatic newsreel footage.
(Soundbite of newsreel)
Unidentified Man: Against the red invaders from North Korea, U.S. planes and U.S. ships are ordered into action. Based in Japan, U.S. Air Force jets and Mustangs are within striking distance of Korea. In actions so far, our airmen have shot down numbers of Russian...
GJELTEN: U.S. ground forces soon joined the fight, but the going was tough. In a radio and television address, President Truman said the attack had taken the United States by surprise, because the communists had kept their activities in North Korea a secret.
President HARRY TRUMAN: It was from that area, where the communist authorities have been unwilling to let the outside world see what was going on, that the attack was launched against the Republic of Korea on June 25th. That attack came without provocation and without warning.
GJELTEN: No Soviet or North Korean warning, but no warning from the CIA, either.
Some U.S. officials saw another intelligence blunder, reminiscent of the failure to foresee the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
A just-declassified secret memorandum from January 1950 shows the CIA did not fully understand what was happening in North Korea. In that memo, the CIA noted the gradual southward movement of the North Korean army, but said it was probably, quote, "a defensive measure."
CIA Historian Clayton Laurie, in support of his agency, notes that the CIA was just three years old in 1950 and lacked the resources it would have needed to see the North Koreans coming.
Mr. CLAYTON LAURIE (CIA Historian): They didn't have the human capabilities or the technical collection capabilities to provide that kind of warning. That was something expected out of the Truman administration, to prevent another Pearl Harbor, but nobody in the government had that kind of capability at the time.
GJELTEN: Whatever the explanation, the consequence was costly in U.S. and Korean lives. And then, four months later a second intelligence failure: This time, the question was whether China would join the fighting on the North Korean side. Again, the recently declassified documents are telling.
On October 12th, in a secret intelligence estimate prepared for the White House, the CIA said it saw, quote, "no convincing indication," unquote, of a Chinese intervention. Even after Chinese forces began moving into North Korea a few weeks later, CIA analysts failed to understand what that movement meant.
Clayton Laurie, the CIA Historian.
Mr. LAURIE: They do not come out and provide the tactical warning. They know the troops are there. They know there are Chinese troops in Korea engaging U.N. forces, but they do not provide the warning that this is China involved in the war and that this is the precursor of a bigger invasion.
GJELTEN: One explanation for the CIA's failure to predict either the North Korean invasion or the Chinese intervention in the war is that the agency - in fact, the whole U.S. government - was paying attention only to Moscow's actions.
Here, for example, is the way President Truman saw the Korean War in early 1951:
Pres. TRUMAN: The communists in the Kremlin are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world. If they were to succeed, the United States would be numbered among their principal victims.
GJELTEN: An agency report titled Current Capabilities of the North Korean Regime, dated six days before the north invaded the south described the North Korean government as, quote, "A Soviet satellite that exercises no independent initiative." And CIA analysts did not believe the Soviets would order an invasion for fear of prompting a world war. Ditto for the CIA's report on the likelihood of China's intervention in Korea. Barring a Soviet decision for global war, the agency concluded, such action is not probable in 1950. Again, Clayton Laurie.
Mr. LAURIE: The belief here is that this is monolithic communism, that things are being orchestrated worldwide by the Soviet Union, and that nothing is going to happen in Asia or Africa without the Soviet Union saying, this is permissible, or go ahead and do this.
GJELTEN: The situation in Korea was rarely considered on its own merits.
A key moment before the war had come in January 1950, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a speech, defined what he called the defensive perimeter that the United States was committed to protecting. Korea was on the other side of the line. That thinking may have explained the controversial decision a few months earlier to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea.
Korea historian William Stueck of the University of Georgia says the issue should have been given more thought. The decision to withdraw from Korea, he says, was another reflection of the idea at the CIA and throughout Washington that it was Moscow that mattered, not Seoul or Pyongyang.
Professor WILLIAM STUECK (Korea Historian, University of Georgia): Given the fact that Korea was not high on our list of priorities, it wasn't given the kind of attention at the very top level that could have resolved the bureaucratic conflicts that existed.
GJELTEN: Arguably, the United States is still paying the price for the intelligence mistakes of that era. The war that began 60 years ago today has never really ended. There was a cease-fire in 1953, but no peace agreement. The United States has made peace with both Russia and China, but the Korean conflict continues to this day, and analysts are still struggling to understand the Koreans on their own terms.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: You can review some of the documents yourself. I'm also looking here at amazing combat photos and other photos from Korea in the early 1950s, as well as a newsreel from that time. You can find it all at npr.org, or you can get there through our Twitter feeds. We are @MORNINGEDITION and @nprinskeep.