Misperceptions of ignorance: reconsidering U.S. intelligence 'failures' in the Korean War

Compton, Daniel Brown
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Southern New Hampshire University
The ongoing American popular perception that the United States committed significant intelligence failures during Korean War is certainly understandable, especially given that this view continues to persist within the scholarly consensus on the topic. However, historian Richard C. Thornton asserts compelling arguments to the contrary, which, when combined with careful examination of the relevant primary source evidence, help to unravel how conscious American policy decisions can explain these supposed intelligence failures. Moreover, a comparative analysis of the U.S. use of intelligence during the Korean conflict relative to that of its three communist adversaries—North Korea, China, and Russia—reveals not only that the U.S. did not commit any significant intelligence failures, but leveraged intelligence much more effectively during the North Korean invasion, Chinese intervention, and in the pursuit of strategic goals. An application of John A. Gentry’s intelligence failure analysis methodology further reveals that the three communist nations’ failures can all be directly attributed to their respective leaders, while intelligence agencies bare the blame for supposed U.S. failures. These results suggest a fundamental difference between the U.S. and the other three nations’ approaches to the use of intelligence. The communist nations relied on the abilities of one man to leverage all of the available intelligence in his decisions, while the American approach was one of policy-driven interpretation and action on intelligence. This difference in approaches to intelligence seems to explain how the U.S. managed to avoid the mistakes so frequently made by its adversaries, and why the U.S. used intelligence so much more effectively relative to the three communist nations. (Author abstract)