Korea, Impact of

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Although it produced no antiwar movement, the Korean War (1950–1953) was an unpopular and difficult conflict for the American people. This limited war, which lasted

three years and took the lives of more than 33,000 U.S. troops in combat, ended with only small adjustments in the boundary between North and South Korea. But it had large effects on U.S. politics and brought major changes to U.S. national security policy during the Cold War (1946–1991).

Cold War considerations compelled President Harry Truman's decision to commit U.S. combat forces to the defense of South Korea in June 1950. Truman believed that the North Korean invasion was a direct challenge from the Kremlin and that U.S. credibility was on the line. We now know that the North Koreans, not the Soviets, planned the attack, and that Joseph Stalin approved it with a warning that the North Koreans should turn to Beijing, not Moscow, if they encountered problems. Yet Truman thought he faced a global Communist challenge. "There's no telling what they'll do," he told an advisor, "if we don't put up a fight now" (Hamby, p. 537). The president took advantage of a Soviet boycott of the United Nations to get the Security Council to pass a resolution asking UN members to help defeat North Korean aggression. Eventually sixteen nations, including the United States, sent troops to assist South Korea.

The war changed dramatically in September 1950, after UN forces carried out a risky amphibious attack behind enemy lines at Inchon and seized the initiative. Truman approved orders allowing General Douglas MacArthur to continue the offensive beyond the 38th parallel, the prewar division between North and South Korea. The Truman administration's strategy of containment never precluded rolling back Communism. In the optimistic days after Inchon, there was an irresistible opportunity to unify Korea under a non-Communist government. Truman and MacArthur all too easily dismissed warnings that the People's Republic of China (PRC) might send its troops into the war.

The intervention of 300,000 PRC soldiers in late November 1950 created, as MacArthur said, "an entirely new war" (Hamby, p. 552). Truman revised his war aims, deciding that he would settle for preserving South Korean independence. Doing more would risk a wider Asian war that might leave Western Europe vulnerable to Soviet attack. MacArthur rejected Truman's thinking, declaring in a public letter that "there is no substitute for victory" (Kaufman, p. 161). Truman considered MacArthur's letter a direct challenge to his authority as commander in chief. With the concurrence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command on April 11, 1951.

MacArthur's firing produced bitter and lasting controversy. Truman's approval rating in the polls, just 28 percent before MacArthur's dismissal, sank even lower and remained low for the remainder of his presidency. Truman's inability to find a way to end this stalemated war, despite the beginning of peace talks, had much to do with his persistent unpopularity. So, too, did vicious attacks from Republican critics, eager to regain the White House after twenty years of Democratic control. The most sensational—and outrageous—criticism came from Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, who accused the president of betraying his country and his top advisors of being part of a Communist conspiracy.

Negotiations made no progress until President Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman. Eisenhower visited Korea in late 1952 to fulfill a campaign pledge. Soon after entering the White House, he quietly informed Chinese leaders that if they did not promptly agree to peace terms, he might expand the war and use new weapons. It is doubtful that this indirect nuclear threat was the main reason for the armistice that went into effect on July 27, 1953. War weariness and pressure from the Soviet leaders who succeeded Stalin probably explain the Chinese and North Korean willingness to accept a compromise on the repatriation of prisoners of war, the main issue that had stalled the negotiations.

The war brought about important changes in U.S. Cold War strategy. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities, in June 1950, Truman approved the National Security Council report known as NSC 68, which called for drastic increases in U.S. conventional and nuclear strength and in foreign aid programs. National security expenditures remained high even after the war, never falling below 50 percent of federal spending during the 1950s. The Korean War also persuaded Truman to station U.S. forces in Europe permanently as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's collective defense efforts and to seek the admission of West Germany to the alliance. This limited war, in short, had lasting effects on the ways that the United States fought the Cold War.


Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hamby, Alonzo A. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kaufman, Burton I. The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command, 2d edition. New York: McGrawHill, 1997.

Rose, Lisle. The Cold War Comes to Main Street: America in 1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

Chester J. Pach, Jr.

See also:Cold War Mobilization; Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; MacArthur, Douglas; Nitze, Paul; NSC #68; POW, MIA; Truman, Harry S.