From Robert Gehl:
If you think tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are high now, you don’t remember August 19, 1976.
It was the day after the GOP nominated Gerald Ford as their choice for the Republican ticket against Jimmy Carter.
But the headline in the New York Times had nothing to do with politics:
2 AMERICANS SLAIN BY NORTH KOREANS IN CLASH AT DMZ
Apparently a group of North Korean soldiers wielding axes and knives attacked a group of American and South Korean soldiers and civilians in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. They killed the two US officers and wounded five South Korean soldiers.
After the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam a year prior, the DMZ was the only place where American troops were directly confronted by Communist forces. It was also the site of numerous other attacks by the soldiers of the dictatorship. But as the Times reported, “even by the level of past provocations, yesterday’s attack appeared unusually brutal.”
And it was brutal indeed. Politico reports:
Two American officers on a pre-agreed mission to trim a tree blocking the view of the U.S.-South Korean unit that patrolled the Joint Security Area—a heavily guarded area in the center of the DMZ—had been murdered in broad daylight by North Korean troops in a clearly premeditated attack. To the Western world, the killing of Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett—in what would soon become known as the Axe Murder Incident—seemed to epitomize the contempt of the Pyongyang regime for the United States and its indifference to human life. It appeared as if Kim Il Sung was begging for war.
More than four decades later, we are in the same boat. Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-Un is “begging for war” with his “abusive use of missiles,” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said. But maybe what happened back then could serve a crucial lesson.
Back in 1976, President Gerald Ford’s decisive and forceful reaction succeeded in intimidating the Pyongyang regime without escalating a low-intensity conflict between the North Koreans and the U.S. & South Korea into a full-scale war.
Ford did flex America’s military might, though, launching one of the strongest shows of combined U.S. land, air, naval and special operations forces in peacetime history. The president, working in close conjunction with our South Korean allies, went to DEFCON 3, the third highest state of military readiness.
It worked. Operation Paul Bunyan, as the carefully calibrated, shock-and-awe American response was called, may well have been Ford’s finest forgotten hour.
“Gerald Ford was very gutsy and shrewd in launching Operation Paul Bunyan,” says Douglas Brinkley, a historian and CNN commentator and author of a 2007 biography of Ford. “Operating in DEFCON 3 mode, Ford ably flexed American military might over the death of two U.S. soldiers.” No less important, observes Brinkley, “Washington kept South Korea involved in the operation all of the way.”
So how do we know it was a success? Because – believe it or not – North Korea apologized. They actually issued a “statement of regret” and it was the last time an American soldier died in Korea.
And it all began with a poplar tree.