Korean War

views updated May 29 2018

Korean War (1950–1953).War came to Korea in 1950–53 as both a civil war on the Korean peninsula and the first military clash of the Cold War between forces of the Soviet Union and its Communist clients and the United States and its allies. It was, therefore, potentially the most dangerous war in world history.

Even before the war against Germany and Japan drew to a close in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union assumed competing roles in shaping the postwar world. As the two undisputed victorious powers, they influenced the course of every political problem emerging from the debris of war. Unfortunately, hostility between the two powers increased at the same time and threatened the outbreak of another war, which after 1949 risked the use of atomic weapons.

The conservative forces eventually coalesced in the Republic of Korea under the leadership of President Syngman Rhee. A North Korean state, The Democratic People's Republic created by the Soviet Union and headed by Premier Kim Il‐sung, adopted a policy of opposition to Rhee's government and for unification of the Korean peninsula by armed force.

North Korean ground forces crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea about 4:30 A.M. on 25 June 1950 (24 June Washington time). The main attack, led by two divisions and a tank brigade, aimed at Uijongbu and Seoul. In the central mountains, two North Korean divisions drove toward Yoju and Wonju and on the east coast, a reinforced division headed for Samchok.

In an emergency session on Sunday, 25 June, the UN Security Council (with the USSR boycotting because of the refusal to admit the People's Republic of China) adopted an U.S.‐sponsored resolution branding the North Korean attack a breach of the peace and calling on the North Korean government to cease hostilities and withdraw. The North Koreans did not respond to the UN resolution, so on the following Tuesday, the United States offered a follow‐up proposal that “the members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.” Subsequently, the UN Security Council designated the president of the United States as its executive agent for the war in Korea. President Truman, in turn, appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the Commander in Chief, United Nations Command (CICUNC). The military organization to wage war was in place.

Saving South Korea was certainly the most urgent UN war aim, but President Harry S. Truman also believed that the Soviet Union was the most dangerous threat to the western allies. The UN Command had to stop the North Koreans and eject them from South Korea by military means, no small task with the North Korean army rolling south and no UN troops on the ground. Moreover, while accomplishing this, the UN coalition had to avoid expanding the war into Asia and to Europe by provoking China or the Soviet Union to enter the struggle. So the Truman administration adopted additional, unilateral war aims designed to keep the violence confined to the Korean Peninsula, to keep the Soviets out of the war, to maintain a strongly committed UN (and NATO) coalition, and to buy time to rearm the United States and its allies.

At first, MacArthur had little choice in how to fight the North Koreans. Somehow he had to slow down their offensive sufficiently to give him time to mount a counter‐attack against their flanks or rear. His forces consisted of four undermanned and partially trained U.S. Army divisions comprising Gen. Walton Walker's Eighth Army, the South Korean army, then falling back in front of the enemy, an ill‐equipped U.S. air force, and growing naval U.S. strength. When the President ordered use of American troops, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) immediately sent additional army forces, marines, and air and naval forces to strengthen MacArthur's command. As these units began to deploy, MacArthur requested more reinforcements that included between four and five additional divisions.

In all, fifty‐three UN member nations promised troops to assist South Korea. Of all, the nations of the British Commonwealth were most ready to fight when war broke out. Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were the first to send air, sea, and ground forces. Eventually UN allies sent over 19,000 troops to Korea. All were assigned to the U.S. Eighth Army.

MacArthur's first task was to block what appeared to be the enemy's main attack leading to the port of Pusan in the south. Rushing American ground and air forces from Japan to Korea, he hoped to delay the enemy column and force it to deploy, then withdraw UN forces to new delaying positions and repeat the process. With any luck, he could gain enough time to muster an effective force on the ground. For this task he ordered General Walker to send units to confront the enemy on the road to Pusan. Walker sent a small infantry force—Task Force Smith—to lead the way. While reinforcements were moving to Korea, MacArthur pushed the rest of Walker's Eighth Army (less the 7th Infantry Division) into Korea to build up resistance on the enemy's main axis of advance. With these forces and the South Koreans, Walker hoped to delay the enemy north and west of a line following the Naktong River, to the north, then east to Yongdok on the Sea of Japan. If forced to withdraw farther, he proposed to occupy the Naktong River line as the primary position from which Eighth Army would defend the port of Pusan.

With the main enemy force applying heavy pressure along the primary axis aimed at Pusan, Walker had to fight off two North Korean divisions, advancing around the west flank deep into southwest Korea. From there they could turn east and strike directly at Pusan. To head off this threat, Walker sent the 25th Infantry Division to meet the North Koreans west of Masan and stop them. In savage battle, the 25th slowed the North Koreans, and Walker pulled the Eighth Army and Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) behind the Naktong River line to defend Pusan.

Walker's retirement into the Pusan Perimeter fit MacArthur's plans perfectly. Now he could exercise close control over both the battle on the peninsula and preparations for an amphibious counterstroke, now planned for mid‐September. As reinforcements poured into Pusan and combat strength began to favor Walker, MacArthur started to shunt units, equipment, and individual replacements to Japan to rebuild a corps for use in the amphibious operation. With complete superiority of air power and growing strength in tanks, artillery, and infantry, MacArthur believed that Eighth Army and the ROKA could hold Pusan.

North Koreans launched violent, piecemeal attacks against the perimeter beginning on 5 August. By the end of August, the defenders had thrown back the first barrage of attacks, but a new onslaught began on the night of 31 August. This time the enemy hit simultaneously and even more savagely. American reinforcements had, however, greatly increased the combat power of the allies, and by 12 September the North Korean offensive had spent itself on all fronts against Walkers' skillful defense.

While the Eighth Army fought to hold Pusan, Mac Arthur readied the forces he had assembled in Japan to eject the North Koreans from Korea. He selected the port of Inchon near Seoul as the objective in spite of undesirable hydrographic characteristics. High tides, swift currents, and broad mud flats threatened the safety of an amphibious assault force. But Inchon also had some features that convinced MacArthur that the prize was worth the risk. The North Koreans, concentrated around Pusan in the south, would be vulnerable to an attack so far to the north, and the capture of Inchon would lead directly to the fall of Seoul. Because Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was the intersection of most of the major roads and railroads in South Korea, its capture would trap the North Koreans and force them to surrender or escape to the mountains, abandoning all their heavy equipment. MacArthur believed he could defeat the North Koreans in one decisive battle—the Inchon Landing.

Early in September, naval air forces struck targets up and down the west coast of Korea. As D‐day for Inchon approached, surface gunfire support ships began to add their weight. On 15 September, U.S. Marines of the newly formed X Corps successfully assaulted the port, paving the way for army troops that followed. In the ensuing campaign, North Korea forces fought bitterly to hold the capital. On September 28, Seoul fell, and by October 1, Marines held a line close to the 38th Parallel, blocking all roads and passes leading to Seoul and its port at Inchon.

Weakened by the heavy fighting of July and August, the Eighth Army could not at first break out of the Pusan perimeter. Finally, a week after X Corps landed at Inchon, the North Koreans began to waver. On 23 September they began a general withdrawal, and Eighth Army units advanced to link up with X Corps. MacArthur had won his battle and the UN was poised to exploit his success.

In retrospect, the turning point in the Korean War was the decision now made to cross the 38th Parallel and pursue the retreating enemy into North Korea. At President Truman's direction, the National Security Council (NSC) staff had studied the question and recommended against crossing the 38th because ejecting the North Koreans from South Korea was a sufficient victory. To this, the JCS objected. MacArthur, they argued, must destroy the North Korean army to prevent a renewal of the aggression. On 11 September—four days before the Inchon Landing—the president adopted the arguments of the JCS. Most importantly, Truman changed the national objective from saving South Korea to unifying the peninsula. After the UN Assembly passed a resolution on 7 October 1950 calling for unification of Korea, MacArthur was free to send forces into North Korea.

MacArthur's attack on North Korea never achieved the success of his earlier operations. Beginning 7 October, he sent the weakened Eighth Army in the main attack against the North Korean capital of P’yongyang without adequate combat support. As the supporting attack, he planned another powerful amphibious assault by X Corps to strike the east coast port of Wonsan on 20 October. Although the Eighth Army advanced rapidly toward P’yongyang against light resistance, the amphibious attack by X Corps was six days late landing in its objective area because mine sweepers had to clear an elaborate minefield. On 11 October, Wonsan fell to a South Korean corps, almost two weeks before the marines could land. P’yongyang fell on the 19 October.

After the capture of P’yongyang and Wonsan, allied troops streamed north virtually unopposed. Truman worried about possible Chinese intervention, but at a conference at Wake Island on 15 October, MacArthur belittled this possibility and was optimistic about an early victory. There was, however, little time to enjoy the successes of mid‐October. Beginning on the 25 October, a reinvigorated enemy struck the Eighth Army in a brief but furious counterattack. By 2 November intelligence officers had accumulated undeniable evidence from across the front that Chinese forces had intervened, and the Eighth Army had to stop its advance.

Chinese leaders had tried to ward off a direct confrontation with the Americans by warning the UN not to cross the 38th Parallel. American leaders interpreted these statements as bluff rather than policy. But they were wrong; Josef Stalin, the Soviet premier, asked Mao Zedong, the Chinese premier, to send Chinese forces to the aid of his clients, the North Koreans. After much deliberation, Mao decided to intervene. On 19 October Chinese Peoples Volunteers (CPV) crossed the Yalu River and massed some 260,000 troops in front of the UN Command.

After replenishing supplies, MacArthur's forces were ready. On 24 November the troops of the Eighth Army, unaware of the presence of massed Chinese forces, crossed their lines of departure. Within twenty‐four hours after the Eighth Army jumped off, the Chinese struck back, aiming their main attack at the South Korean ROKA II Corps on the army's right flank. Two days later the CPV hit U.S. X Corps as it advanced into the mountains of eastern Korea. Stunned and outnumbered, American and South Korean units recoiled, beginning a long retreat that ended in January 1951, only after the UN forces fell back south of the 38th Parallel and once again gave up the city of Seoul. X Corps fought its way back to the port of Hungnam on the east coast and then rejoined Eighth Army in the south.

During the first week of December 1950 when reports from the front were incomplete and most grim, President Truman met in Washington with Prime Minister Clement Attlee of the United Kingdom. Though initially far apart, Truman and Attlee, after four days of intense discussion, reached a compromise solution on Korea. They would continue to fight side‐by‐side, find a line and hold it, and wait for an opportunity to negotiate an end to the fighting from a position of military strength. Moreover, they reaffirmed their commitment to “Europe first” in the face of Soviet hostility toward NATO. In this way, the decision to unify Korea was abrogated and a new war aim adopted.

The most immediate military effect of the talks was to prevent MacArthur from exacting revenge for his humiliating defeat. The JCS limited his reinforcements to replacements, shifted the priority of military production to strengthening NATO forces, and wrote a new directive for MacArthur requiring him to defend in Korea as far to the north as possible. MacArthur disagreed with giving priority to Europe at the expense of the shooting war in Korea. He was outraged at the thought of going on the strategic defensive and fought against his new directive with all his might. Nevertheless, on 12 January 1951, the JCS sent him the final version of the directive, and the UN coalition had a new war aim designed to bring about a negotiated settlement.

Just two days before Christmas 1950, the command of the Eighth Army passed to Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway after Gen. Walker died in a truck accident. From his position on the Department of the Army staff in Washington, Ridgway came to the Eighth Army well informed of the strategic situation in Korea. He arrived at his new headquarters determined to attack north as soon as possible. Somehow he had to stop the retreat and turn the army around; until then the Eighth Army continued to withdraw. In early January 1951 UN forces gave up Seoul.

Finally, Ridgway's front line units began reporting light contact with the enemy. Sensing the opportunity to turn on the Chinese, Ridgway stopped the army on a line from P’yongt’aek in the west, through Wonju in the center, to Samch’ok on the east coast. When American divisions, withdrawn with X Corps, moved up to thicken the line in the lightly held center, Ridgway ordered his forces to patrol north and find the enemy. In a series of increasingly powerful offensives, he then sent the Eighth Army north: Operation Thunderbolt jumped off in January, Roundup in February (though a tactical setback), Killer in late February, Ripper in March, and Rugged in April. By this time, Ridgway's army had once again crossed the 38th Parallel where its forward units dug into strong defensive ground in anticipation of an enemy counteroffensive. Surprisingly, the shock came, not from the enemy as Ridgway expected, but from Washington, when MacArthur was dismissed by President Truman.

MacArthur's dismissal resulted from his rejection of Truman's policy. As Ridgway neared the 38th again, the position of military strength envisioned in the Truman‐Attlee conference had seemed near at hand. Truman took advantage of Ridgway's success to invite the Communists to negotiate a cease fire. After reading the text of Truman's proposed message, MacArthur broadcast a bellicose ultimatum to the enemy commander that undermined the president's plan. Truman was furious. MacArthur had preempted presidential prerogative, confused friends and enemies alike about who was directing the war, and directly challenged the president's authority as Commander in Chief. As Truman pondered how to handle the problem, Congressman Joseph W. Martin, Minority (Republican) Leader of the House of Representatives, released the contents of a letter from MacArthur in which the general repeated his criticism of the administration. The next day Truman began the process that was to end with Mac Arthur's being relieved from command on 11 April 1951.

After MacArthur's dismissal, Ridgway took his place as Commander in Chief, Far East and CINCUNC. Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, an experienced and successful World War II combat leader, took command of the Eighth Army. On 22 April, as Van Fleet's Eighth army edged north, the CPV opened the expected general offensive, aiming their main attack toward Seoul in the west. The Chinese, numbering almost a half million men, drove Van Fleet once again below the 38th Parallel. On 10 May, the Chinese jumped off again after shifting seven armies to their main effort against the eastern half of the UN line. Taking advantage of the Chinese concentration in the east, Van Fleet attacked suddenly in the west, north of Seoul. The effect was dramatic; surprised CPV units pulled back, suffering their heaviest casualties of the war, and by the end of May found themselves retreating into North Korea. By mid‐June, UN forces had regained a line, for the most part, north of the 38th Parallel.

Regardless of UN success on the battlefield, ending the war turned out to be a maddeningly long process. U.S. planners knew that the Truman‐Attlee agreement made it unlikely that the war would end in a conventional victory. The UN allies had even adopted negotiating an armistice as a war aim. The time seemed right for the Chinese and North Koreans as well since they needed a respite from the heavy casualties suffered in the UN offensive. They agreed to meet with UN representatives when in late June 1951, the Soviets proposed a conference among the belligerents.

Negotiations were initially hampered by silly haggling over matters of protocol and the selection of a truly neutral negotiating site. Even so, on 26 July 1951 the two sides finally reached an agreement on an agenda containing four major points: selection of a demarcation line and demilitarized zone, supervision of the truce, arrangements for prisoners of war (POWs), and recommendations to the governments involved in the war. With an agreed agenda in hand, and Panmunjom—a town between opposing lines, suitable to hold talks—the negotiators began the lengthy process of debating each item. Handling POWs proved to be the most difficult problem on the agenda, but fixing the demarcation line was the most damaging. By dealing with the final position of the armies first, the UN negotiators blundered into an agreement that permitted the Communists to stalemate the battlefield and to wage a two‐year political war at the negotiating table.

At issue was a U.S. scheme seeking quick agreement on a demarcation line. On 17 November the UN delegation proposed the current line of contact as the demarcation line providing that all remaining agenda items were resolved within thirty days. The communists accepted the proposal on 27 November debated the remaining agenda items for thirty days, and then failed to reach agreement. They used the thirty days to create a tactical defense so deeply dug in that both sides had to accept a stalemate.

From that moment on, the battlefield changed to a static kind of war, more reminiscent of World War I than anything that had happened since. Beginning in the winter of 1951–1952, the war came to be defined by elevated sites named Porkchop Hill, Sniper's Ridge, Old Baldy, T‐Bone, Whitehorse, Punchbowl and a hundred other hilltops between the two armies. There followed a seemingly endless succession of violent fire fights, most of them at night, to gain or maintain control of hills that were a little higher and ridges that were a bit straighter. All of them, no matter how large the forces engaged, were deadly encounters designed to provide leverage for one side or the other in the protracted political battle going on at Panmunjom. In an historical age when technology enabled greater mobility than at any other time, tactical warfare in Korea went through a regression that can only be explained in terms of its close relationship to the negotiations. Constant pressure was its purpose, not decisive victory.

In Panmunjom negotiators plodded through the remaining agenda items. Supervising the armistice agreement was an extremely complex issue, but a compromise emerged that permitted rotation of 35,000 UN troops and supplies each month through specified ports of entry. In addition, both sides accepted Swedish, Swiss, Polish, and Czech membership on an armistice commission. Political recommendations to the belligerents were agreed in the astonishingly short period of eleven days. Both sides called for a conference to convene three months after a cease fire. At that time all political issues that had not been settled during the negotiations would be discussed.

What to do about prisoners of war was the major obstacle to final agreement. The UN Command wanted prisoners to decide for themselves whether or not they would return home. The Communists insisted on forced repatriation. To restore movement to the talks, the International Red Cross polled prisoners as to where they wanted to go. The results, announced early in April 1952, surprised everyone. Of 132,000 Chinese and North Korean POWs screened, only 54,000 North Koreans and 5,100 Chinese wanted to go home. The communist delegation was incredulous and accused the United Nations of influencing the poll. From that moment on, negotiations bogged down on the POW issue.

At about this time, May 1952, General Ridgway left Tokyo to become Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Gen. Mark Clark, who had made his reputation during World War II in Italy, replaced Ridgway as CINCUNC and inherited a difficult situation. Unable to carry the war to the enemy in a decisive way and stalemated in the armistice talks, Clark—with the approval of the administration—finally ordered the UN delegation to walk out of Panmunjom on 8 October. With no one to talk to, the Communists hammered away at UN treatment of POWs and alleged UN violations of the neutral zones surrounding the negotiating site.

Over the fall and winter of 1952–53, three events broke the impasse. In November, Dwight D. Eisenhower won the election for the presidency, ushering in a new style of toughness toward the Communists—including discussion of using atomic weapons. In December, Clark read about an International Red Cross resolution calling for the exchange of sick and wounded POWs. In February 1953 Clark sent letters to the Chinese and North Korean leaders proposing that they exchange the sick and wounded. Before the Communists could respond, the third and perhaps most important event occurred: Josef Stalin died on 5 March 1953.

So achieving a cease‐fire was the result of a complex set of circumstances and interwoven pressures. Eisenhower's toughness increased the pressure on the battlefield. He believed that the Truman strategy was the only practical one, but still something ought to be done to give the Communists an incentive to reach agreement. He permitted Clark's aircraft to bomb dams in North Korea, flooding the countryside. He instructed the JCS to prepare plans for more intensive maneuver—even atomic warfare—should negotiations break down. He authorized movement of atomic delivery aircraft to the Far East and initiated training for low‐level attack with atomic bombs. And he sent John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, to India in April to let it be known that the United States was prepared to renew the war at a higher level unless progress was made at Panmunjom.

Clearly, Chinese leaders carefully considered these news signals, but it is conjectural to connect Ike's toughness and Stalin's death directly to the Communist agreement to end the war. Still, we do know that Stalin's death resulted in a deadly power struggle in the Kremlin that probably focused Soviet leaders on settling their internal problems rather than supporting a prolonged war. Moreover, East European states needed to be kept in line after Stalin's death, and something had to be done to restore deteriorating relations with the governments of China and North Korea, both of which had lost confidence in the Soviet government for not taking a more active part in the war.

On 26 April, negotiating sessions resumed at Panmunjom where a final solution to handling the remaining POWs took shape in the months that followed. Those who chose not to go home were to be turned over to a neutral repatriation commission. If they still did not want to go home, the neutral commission would release them to whichever government they chose. As the delegations wrapped up the details, it seemed that a cease‐fire was not far off.

While the UN worked diligently toward an armistice, South Korean President Syngman Rhee became obstructive. Rhee saw the rush toward an armistice as contrary to South Korea's best interest, and he did not trust the Communists should the UN Command pull out. So on the night of 18 June, Rhee ordered his guards on the POW compounds to release some 25,000 friendly North Koreans. The Communists cried “foul.” Eisenhower, feeling betrayed, was outraged. But in order to save the cease‐fire, he negotiated with the South Korean president, pledging a mutual security pact after the cease‐fire, long term economic aid, expansion of the South Korean armed forces, and coordination of U.S. and ROK objectives at the political conference. Though costly for the United States, the agreement secured Rhee's cooperation and cleared the way for an armistice.

While negotiating the final details of a truce, the Chinese communists sought one last military advantage. They mounted a limited offensive that was designed to push UN negotiators toward a settlement more agreeable to the Communist side; managed carefully, the offensive might also create the illusion of a peaceful settlement following a Communist victory. The attacks began on 10 June 1951 and by 16 June the UN line had been pushed back some 4,000 yards. Although some ground was recovered, fighting slackened as commanders of contending armies prepared to sign the truce. At 10 A.M. 27 July 1953, the darkest moment in Mark Clark's life, he signed the armistice documents to end the Korean War.

For a war intended to be limited, the human toll was staggering. Although Chinese and North Korean casualties are unknown, estimates of total losses amounted to almost two million, plus perhaps a million civilians. The UN Command suffered a total of 88,000 killed, of which 23,300 were American. Total casualties for the UN (killed, wounded, missing) were 459,360, 300,000 of whom were South Korean.

Nevertheless, limiting the war in Korea made a significant contribution to the history of the art of war. First, the Korean War demonstrated alternative strategies designed to gain national objectives without resorting to atomic war. For this reason, the Korean War is less about tactical evolution than about political goals, the strategy to achieve those goals, and the operational art designed to make the strategy succeed. Second, the war caused the U.S. government to arm the nation and its allies on a permanent basis and to bring its military force to a high state of combat readiness, prepared to respond quickly to any threat to national or alliance security. Never again would the United States find itself as ill‐prepared as it had been when the Korean War began.
[See also Korea, U.S. Military Involvement in; Korean War, U.S. Air Operations in; Korean War, U.S. Naval Operations in.]


Mark W. Clark , From the Danube to the Yalu, 1954.
Roy E. Appleman , South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, June‐November 1950, 1961.
Walter G. Hermes , Truce Tent and Fighting Front, 1966.
Matthew B. Ridgway , The Korean War, 1967.
J. Lawton Collins , War in Peacetime, 1969.
James E. Schnabel , Policy and Direction, the First Year, 1972.
Joseph C. Goulden , Korea: the Untold Story of the War, 1982.
D. Clayton James , The Years of MacArthur: Triumph and Disaster, 1945–1964, 1995.
Burton I. Kaufman , The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility and Command, 1986.
Rosemary Foot , A Substitute for Victory: The Policy of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks, 1990.
Shu Guang Zhang , Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese American Confrontations, 1949–1958, 1992.

Roy K. Flint

Korean War

views updated Jun 11 2018


KOREAN WAR. The Korean War began on 25 June 1950, when forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) attacked southward across the thirty-eighth parallel against the army of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Trained and armed by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC) and substantially out-numbering

the South Koreans along the front, the North Koreans advanced rapidly, capturing Seoul, the ROK capital, on 28 June.

The U.S. administration of Harry S. Truman reacted sharply. With Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson taking the lead in advising the commander-in-chief, the United States rushed the Korean issue to the United Nations Security Council in New York. The Soviet Union was boycotting that body over its refusal to grant China's seat to the recently founded PRC under Mao Zedong, thus making possible the quick passage of U.S.-drafted resolutions on 25 and 27 June. The first called for a cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of DPRK forces north of the thirty-eighth parallel, the second for assistance from member states to the ROK "necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area." Already the United States was aiding the ROK with arms, ammunition, and air and naval forces. On 30 June, as the North Koreans advanced south of Seoul, Truman committed to the battle U.S. combat troops stationed in Japan. On 7 July the UN Security Council passed another U.S.-drafted resolution creating a United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea under American leadership. Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur, the commander-in-chief of U.S. Forces, Far East, to head the UNC.

The Korean War lasted for over three years. Although the United States and ROK provided over 90 percent of the manpower on the UN side, fourteen other governments sent forces of some kind and unofficially Japan provided hundreds of laborers in critical Korean industries and in its former colony's harbors operating American vessels. On the North Korean side, the PRC eventually committed over a million troops, and the Soviet Union contributed large-scale matériel assistance and hundreds of pilots and artillery personnel. United States forces suffered in battle alone over 142,000 casualties, including 33,000 deaths; the Chinese nearly 900,000 casualties, including 150,000 deaths. Koreans on both sides endured far greater losses. Total casualties in the war, military and civilian combined, numbered over 3 million.

Origins of the War

The war originated in the division of the peninsula in August 1945 by the United States and the Soviet Union. Korea had been under Japanese rule since early in the century. American leaders believed that, with its defeat in World War II, Japan should lose its empire but that Koreans would need years of tutelage before being prepared to govern themselves. The United States surmised that a multipower trusteeship over the peninsula, to involve itself, the Soviet Union, China, and perhaps Great Britain, would provide Koreans with the necessary preparation while averting the great-power competition that had disrupted northeast Asia a half century before. Yet as the Pacific war approached its end, the Allied powers had not reached precise agreements on Korea. On the eve of Japan's surrender, President Truman proposed to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin that their governments' forces occupy Korea, with the thirty-eighth parallel as the dividing line between them. Stalin agreed.

At the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers in December 1945, the United States did advance a trustee-ship proposal, but the Soviets watered it down to include merely negotiations toward trusteeship in a joint commission made up of representatives of the two occupation commands in Korea. The new body soon became stalemated, adjourning in May 1946. The Americans aligned with the Korean right in the south, while the Soviets sided with the extreme left in the north. Despite a second attempt to resolve differences in the joint commission in the spring and summer of 1947, the Soviet-American stalemate continued, as the escalating Cold War in Europe and the Middle East dampened prospects for accommodation in other areas. In September the United States referred the Korean issue to the UN General Assembly.

By this time South Korea was in considerable turmoil. Since the beginning of the occupation, the Americans had favored conservative Korean groups who had either collaborated with the Japanese or spent most of the period of Japan's rule in exile. The economic division of

the country, the influx of over a million Koreans into the territory south of the thirty-eighth parallel from Japan, Manchuria, and North Korea, and poorly conceived occupation policies combined to produce widespread discontent. Meanwhile, the extreme right, led by Syngman Rhee, agitated aggressively for establishment of an independent government in the south. With support in Congress waning for the U.S. occupation, the Truman administration decided to refer the Korean issue to the United Nations.

The Soviets refused to cooperate in creating a unified government in Korea, so the United States persuaded the international organization to supervise elections below the thirty-eighth parallel. These occurred on 10 May 1948, and the boycott of them by leftist and some rightist leaders ensured a victory for Rhee and his allies. When the ROK came into being on 15 August, Rhee stood as its president and the conservative Democratic party dominated the National Assembly. Less than a month later, the Soviet Union brought into existence the DPRK in the north, led by the Communist Kim Il Sung as premier. Confident of the relative strength of their creation, the Soviets withdrew their occupation forces at the end of the year. Given the widespread turmoil in the south, which included guerrilla warfare in mountain areas, the Americans did not withdraw their last occupation forces until June 1949. Even then, they left substantial quantities of light arms for the ROK army and a 500-man military advisory group to assist in its development.

Beginning in March 1949 Kim Il Sung lobbied Stalin for approval of and matériel support for a military attack on the ROK. Stalin initially demurred. At the end of January 1950, with the Communists having won the civil war on mainland China, with Mao in Moscow negotiating a military alliance with the Soviet Union, and with support for the ROK in the United States appearing less than firm, he changed his mind. Over the next several months, Stalin approved the shipment to North Korea of heavy arms, including tanks, thus giving the DPRK a clear military advantage over the ROK. North Korea was also strengthened by the return of tens of thousands of Korean nationals who had fought on the Communist side in China. In meetings with Kim in Moscow in early April, Stalin explicitly approved a North Korean attack on South Korea, provided Mao also gave his blessing. Although he believed that the United States would not intervene, especially if the North Koreans won a speedy victory, he made it clear that, if Kim ran into difficulty with the Americans, he would have to depend as a counter on direct Chinese, not Soviet, intervention. When in mid-May Mao endorsed Kim's proposal for an early attack on the ROK, the plans proceeded to their final stage.

The Course of the War

Even with the intervention of U.S. troops in July, the DPRK nearly drove the enemy out of Korea. By early August forces fighting under the UN banner were squeezed into the Pusan perimeter, on the southeastern corner of the peninsula. At the end of the month DPRK forces launched an offensive that over the next two weeks inflicted more enemy casualties than in any other comparable period during the war.

Yet UN troops now outnumbered their opponents and, on 15 September, General MacArthur launched a counteroffensive at Inchon, the port for Seoul. By month's

end UN forces had broken out of the Pusan perimeter and retaken Seoul. DPRK forces were in headlong retreat northward and the United States had altered its objective from reestablishing the thirty-eighth parallel to destroying the enemy and reuniting the peninsula under a friendly government. ROK units began crossing the old boundary on 1 October and other UN units followed a week later, by which time the UN General Assembly had given its endorsement.

Long anticipating such developments, the PRC now moved decisively toward intervention. The DPRK appealed to Beijing for aid on 1 October and Stalin urged Mao to comply. The "Chinese People's Volunteers" (CPV) under General Peng Dehuai commenced large-scale movements into Korea on 19 October.

Despite contact with CPV soldiers from 25 October on, UN ground forces did not stop their movement northward. General MacArthur was determined to win a quick and total victory and, despite reservations in the Pentagon and the State Department, Washington proved unwilling to order him to halt. On 24 November UN forces began what they hoped would be an "end-the-war offensive." Four days later, with CPV forces over 200,000 strong engaged in a strong counterattack against severely overextended UN units, MacArthur declared that he faced "an entirely new war."

Over the next month UN troops retreated to the thirty-eighth parallel. On New Year's Eve CPV units crossed the old boundary in an attempt to push enemy forces off the peninsula. MacArthur told Washington that the U.S. choice was between expanding the war to air and naval attacks against mainland China and accepting total defeat.

Adhering to a Europe-first strategy and faced with allied pressure to both persevere in Korea and contain the war there, the Truman administration refused to follow MacArthur's lead. During the second week of January the CPV offensive petered out below Seoul in the face of severe weather, supply problems, and the regrouping of UN forces under the leadership of General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had taken over the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea in late December. Over the next three months, UN forces, outnumbered on the ground but controlling the air and enjoying a sizable advantage in artillery, gradually pushed the enemy northward, retaking Seoul in mid-March. A month later UN units held a line slightly north of the thirty-eighth parallel in all sectors except the extreme west.

This evolving situation produced a final showdown between Truman and MacArthur. The president was content, if possible, to settle the war roughly where it had begun the previous June, and he was under steady pressure

to do so from allies and neutrals in the United Nations. Dissatisfied with less than total victory, the UN commander continued to scheme for an expanded war. Anticipating a Chinese spring offensive at any moment and facing continued public dissent from MacArthur, Truman on 11 April removed his field commander from all his positions, appointing Ridgway in his place. The action set off a storm of protest in the United States, but Truman held firm, aided by UN forces in Korea, which repulsed massive Chinese offensives in April and May. Following consultations in Moscow in early June, the Communist allies decided to seek negotiations for an armistice.

Peace Negotiations

On 10 July negotiations began between the field commands at Kaesong, just south of the thirty-eighth parallel. Despite restraint on both sides from seeking major gains on the battlefield, an armistice was not signed for over two years.

The first issue negotiated was an armistice line, and this took until 27 November to resolve. The Communists initially insisted on the thirty-eighth parallel; the UN command, which was dominated by the United States, pressed for a line north of the prevailing battle line, arguing that this would be reasonable compensation for its agreement in an armistice to desist its pounding of North Korea from the air and sea. After much acrimony, the suspension of the talks for two months, and small battle-field gains by the UN side, the parties agreed to the existing "line of contact"—provided, that is, that agreement on all other issues was reached within thirty days.

Two main issues remained on the agenda: "arrangements for the realization of cease fire and armistice … including the composition, authority, and functions of a supervising organization for carrying out the terms;" and "arrangements relating to prisoners of war." With the UN command relaxing its military pressure on the ground and the Communists securing their defensive lines as never before, neither side had a compelling reason to give way. Nonetheless, by April 1952 essential agreement had been reached on the postarmistice rotation of troops in Korea, the replacement and introduction of matériel, and the makeup and authority of a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. The one remaining item was the fate of prisoners of war (POWs).

The POW issue was bound to be difficult, as it involved captured personnel on both sides who had participated in the ongoing civil conflicts in Korea and/or

China. Many of the prisoners held by the United Nations had begun the war in South Korea, been captured by the DPRK army, and eventually been impressed into it. Others had fought in Nationalist armies during the Chinese civil war and later been integrated into the CPV. Not all of these prisoners wanted to return to the DPRK or PRC at war's end. Negotiations eventually became stalemated over the fate of Chinese prisoners. In October 1952, after months without progress, the UNC suspended talks.

Negotiations did not resume until April of the following year. By this time Dwight D. Eisenhower had replaced Truman as president of the United States (20 January) and Stalin had died (5 March). When negotiations failed to achieve quick success, the American president ordered the bombing of dikes in North Korea, which threatened the DPRK's food supply; he also threatened to terminate the talks and expand the war. In early June the Communists finally accepted the U.S. position on POWs. The centrality of Eisenhower's actions in this out-come remains uncertain.

The fighting would have ended in mid-June had it not been for the action of Syngman Rhee, who opposed an armistice without Korea's unification. His wishes ignored, he ordered ROK guards to release over 25,000 anti-Communist Korean POWs held in the south. This action on 18 June led to strong protests from the Communists and a crisis in U.S.-ROK relations. After the Communists launched successful limited offensives against ROK forces along the battlefront and the Americans promised to negotiate a defense treaty with the ROK immediately following the conclusion of fighting, Rhee finally agreed not to disrupt—but not to sign—an armistice. The Communists joined the UNC in signing the agreement on July 27.

Impact of the War

The war left Korea at once devastated and less likely than at any time since 1945 to become the focal point of international military conflict. Unlike the thirty-eighth parallel, the armistice line based on established battlefield positions was defensible on both sides. More important, while leaders of the divided country refused to rule out forceful unification—indeed, Rhee positively craved it—the great powers were now sufficiently committed to preventing its success by the other side to discourage their clients from initiating the effort.

Although the war was limited almost entirely to Korea, its impact was global. Fearful that the North Korean attack of June 1950 represented the beginning of the Soviet Union's use of force to achieve its purposes, the United States instituted a fourfold increase in defense spending; signed military pacts with Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and the ROK; added Greece and Turkey to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); created a NATO command led by an American general; increased the U.S. troop presence in Europe from two to six divisions; and pushed for the rearming

of West Germany. The United States also intervened to save Taiwan from the Communists, eventually signing a defense pact with the Nationalist government there, and initiated formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which in the following decade played a pivotal role in the direct U.S. military intervention in Indochina.

If the prudence of some of these actions may be questioned, there can be little doubt that the long-term impact of the war was contrary to Soviet interests. The Soviet Union was in a poor position economically to compete with a U.S.-led alliance system partially mobilized for war on a permanent basis. Furthermore, although the Korean War brought the Soviet Union and the PRC closer together for the short term, it helped tear them apart within less than a decade of its end. China's intervention in Korea to prevent a total U.S. victory greatly enhanced the PRC's self-confidence and prestige. The limited scope and initial delay of Soviet aid to the Chinese effort produced resentment in Beijing and reinforced its determination to develop an independent capacity to defend itself and project power beyond its borders.

Yet the war also produced both short-and long-term problems in Sino-American relations. In addition to augmenting feelings of bitterness and fear between the PRC and the United States, the conflict led to American intervention to save Taiwan from conquest by the Communists. U.S. involvement in the island's fate represents the single most acrimonious issue in Sino-American relations to the present day.


Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Chen, Jian. China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War. Vol. 1, Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945–1947. Vol. 2, The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947–1950. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981–1990.

Goncharov, Sergei N., John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Kaufman, Burton I. The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Pierpaoli, Paul G., Jr. Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

Stueck, William. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Thornton, Richard C. Odd Man Out: Truman, Stalin, Mao, and the Origins of the Korean War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000.

West, Philip, and Suh Ji-moon, eds. Remembering the "Forgotten War." Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

Zhang, Shu Guang. Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950–1953. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

William W.StueckJr.

See alsoChina, Relations with ; Cold War ; Korea, Relations with ; Southeast Asia Treaty Organization ; United Nations ; andvol. 9:General Douglas MacArthur's Speech to Congress ; A Personal Narrative of the Korean War ; War Story .

Korean War

views updated Jun 08 2018

Korean War


Although it is often described as the "forgotten war," the conflict in Korea cost some 3 million lives over the course of three years, and helped set the tone for the larger Cold War. Both an international and a national conflict, the Korean War demonstrated the strengths and limitations of the United Nations (UN), and established the framework for the policy of containment that would lead the United States into the much longer conflict in Vietnam. Korea also solidified American attitudes toward communism, and

reaction to events there served to influence both the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the fear of communist "brainwashing." As much a war of intelligence as of arms, Korea saw the birth of the modern U.S. signals intelligence framework as the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) gave way to the National Security Agency (NSA). In the end, an allied force of South Korean, American, British, Australian, and Turkish troops frustrated the aspirations of the North Korean Communist government, aided by the People's Republic of China, to control the Korean peninsula. The truce in 1953 established an uneasy frameworknot quite war, not quite peacethat nevertheless remains in place half a century later.


The roots of the Korean War, like those of the Vietnam conflict, lay in World War II. Soon after 1945, the British and American alliance with the Soviet Union broke down in Europe, and the Korean hostilities brought the end of this partnership in Asia as well. The Soviets had fought World War II entirely on their western front, and only entered the Pacific war on a last minute bid for territory. Years earlier, the little-known tank battle between Soviet and Japanese forces at Nomonhan in August 1939, had discouraged Japan from any hope that a war with the Soviets would yield easy victory. Therefore, when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, his Japanese allies did not join him in making war on Russia.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's lack of participation in the Pacific theatre did not preclude his plans to extend the reach of Soviet Communism into that area. He was aided by an agreement with the United States that the Japanese would surrender to Soviet forces north of the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, which enabled him to establish a Communist government in Pyongyang under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. (Despite North Korean state hagiographers' later attempt to recast their "Great Leader" as a war hero, in fact he had spent the entire war under Stalin's protection, behind Soviet lines.)

By 1947, it had become apparent that Korea, in Japanese hands since 1910, would not easily be reunited under a non-Communist government. Soon another event served to further raise the specter of Communist expansionism in Asia. In October 1949, the victory of Mao Zedong's forces placed the world's largest population under the Communist rule of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Meanwhile, the United States had withdrawn its troops from Korea, and it now petitioned the UN to ensure free elections in Korea. The Soviets had withdrawn their troops as well, but refused to agree to these elections. On June 25, 1950, Kim's armies swept southward to unite the country by force.

An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council resulted in a resolution to stop the North Korean assault. Though the Soviet Union was one of the five permanent Security Council membersalong with the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Republic of Chinait had boycotted the meeting in protest of the U.S. effort to block the admission of the PRC. Because of their failure to show up at the Security Council meeting (a mistake they would not again repeat), the Soviets were unable to exercise their veto power against the American call for a "police action" on the Korean peninsula.

Although the Korean conflict is rightly called a war, there was no accompanying declaration by the U.S. Congress; instead, President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. troops into battle as part of a UN peacekeeping force on June 27, 1950. Four U.S. divisions landed on the Korean peninsula to join the South Korean forces there, but the North Koreans soon drove them all the way to Pusan, at the extreme southeastern end of the peninsula. Soon afterward, however, General Douglas MacArthur abruptly shifted the tide of the war by landing a massive force at Inchon, some 100 miles (160 km) south of the 38th parallel and well behind North Korean lines. He thus, cut the North Korean army in two, and began moving northward, toward what now looked like an easy victory.

As the UN forces moved toward the Yalu River, which separated North Korea from China, Beijing issued a stern warning that it would not look lightly on the presence of a hostile force just across the border. MacArthur, however, remained confident, and at Thanksgiving 1950 promised Americans that their sons would be home for Christmas. This was not to be, as on November 25 the Chinese People's Liberation Army swept across the border with a force of some 180,000 soldiers. By December 15, the allied forces had fallen back below the 38th parallel, and two weeks later, on the last day of 1950, a Chinese-North Korean force numbering half a million troops pushed into South Korea again.

Thanks to relentless bombing by allied forces, the Communist force did not manage to move any further into South Korean territory, and thus began a lengthy stalemate that would characterize the remainder of the war. American leaders were sharply divided as to the means of resolving the conflict. MacArthur favored an extremely aggressive policy toward China, and proposed a naval blockade combined with bombing of Chinese bases in Manchuria. Truman, however, recognized the danger of such action, which he believed would bring a swift response from the Soviet Union. In the sharply polarized world climate, the price of aggression in Korea would almost certainly be armed conflict with the Soviets, and since they had managed to acquire atomic secrets through spies in the West, the result could very well be nuclear war.

The difference of opinion between MacArthur and Truman characterized that which would come to prevail between hard-line anti-Communists on the one hand, and pragmatists on the other. Overstepping the bounds of his authority as a military leader, MacArthur called on the American people to support his war plans, and for this act of insubordination, Truman relieved him of duty on April 11, 1951. Replaced by General Matthew B. Ridgway, MacArthur returned to the United States a hero, as much for his determination to defeat Communism as for his leadership against the Japanese in World War II. He would become a powerful symbol for the most extreme anti-Communist elements, who soon gained a voice in the Senate under the leadership of McCarthy. Thus began a sort of cold war within the Cold War, a division of the American public that would culminate with the bitter disagreements over the Vietnam War that emerged nearly two decades later.

Eisenhower and the War's End

Meanwhile, on July 10, 1951, the allied forces began a lengthy series of talks with the Communists. The situation remained unresolved during the 1952 presidential elections, and helped pave the way to victory for Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the most misunderstood of modern American leaders, Eisenhower was neither a fool nor a hard-liner, and precisely because he had led U.S. forces in Europe during World War II, he recognized the dangers of military adventurism, and tended to be even more of a pragmatist in military matters than Truman had been. Eisenhower, who years later would coin the phrase "military-industrial complex" as he warned against its rise in his farewell presidential address, opposed the Korean War, and vowed to end it.

Winning the presidency with the promise "I shall go to Korea," Eisenhower soon made good on his vow. His policy was the embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt's famous dictum about walking softly and carrying a big stick: though mild on the surface, in private discussions with Chinese leaders he made it clear that he would take aggressive steps, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, if the talks were not soon brought to resolution. Though fighting resumed briefly in June 1953, in the end Eisenhower's gambit won out, and on July 27, the two sides signed an armistice. Although the South gained possession of some eastern mountains north of the 38th parallel, the line virtually served as the boundary between North and South Korea.

In keeping with the emerging modern face of warfare, the Korean conflict was as much a battle of propaganda and intelligence as it was one of military forces. Both sides took large numbers of prisoners of war (POWs), which they exchanged at the end of the fighting, and the Communists in particular made heavy use of the propaganda value to be gained from POWs. Eight different POW camps dotted a stretch along the Yalu River, and in these facilities the Communists sought to demoralize their captives by segregating them according to rank, nationality, and even race. They bombarded the POWs on a daily basis with lessons on the superiority of Communism over capitalism, but the purpose of these activities seems to have been harassment rather than an actual effort to win converts.

The experience added a new term to the English language: brainwashing. The term referred to a variety of psychological and sometimes physical techniques intended to obliterate an individual's beliefs and replace them with new ones. Despite fears of brainwashing that spread through American society in the war's aftermath, there was never any conclusive psychological proof that brainwashing as such actually occurred. Some servicemen did make statements favorable to their captors, and others collaborated with the Communists, but these actions were the result either of fatigue under captivity, or of a simple desire for self-preservation.

Allied signals intelligence. In the behind-the-scenes dimension of the Korean War, the success of allied efforts in signals intelligence (SIGINT) was much more firmly established than that of the Communists in brainwashing. Continuing their record of achievements established in World War II, British and American cryptanalysts proved highly adept at breaking Chinese ciphers. Of particular significance was the breaking of Chinese one-time pad ciphers, which had been supposedly unbreakable, by American cryptanalysts. This was especially noteworthy in light of criticisms that U.S. intelligence had failed to predict the coming of the war itself.

In fact, the modern U.S. intelligence community had only barely come into existence at the war's outset, and Korea marked a turning point. Before the war, budgets for intelligence operations had been lean, but after the out-break of hostilities, Washington made a much firmer commitment to its intelligence community. Only three years before the war began, the National Security Act of 1947 had established the Central Intelligence Agency, and NSA had yet to be born. Instead, AFSA coordinated all cryptographic activities, though the leading SIGINT agency for the U.S. forces was the Army Security Agency (ASA).

Whereas AFSA is remembered as an administrative failure, and was further tainted by the discovery that one of its personnel, William Weisband, had been working for the Soviets since 1934, ASA had a number of notable successes. It cultivated a program of Korean linguists, and used a signal intercept technique from World War I to great effect. This was the ground-return intercept, which used the principle of electric induction to pick up Chinese and North Korean telephone traffic. Also significant was the work of the Air Force Security Service (AFSS), which regularly intercepted information on planned bombing runs and helped allied forces protect their facilities. As for the AFSA, it had been formed to coordinate the SIGINT activities of the military services, but by 1952 Washington had recognized its lack of success in doing so, and in that year a secret memo from Truman established the NSA.

The Legacy of Korea

Some 37,000 Americans died in Korea, along with smaller casualties among the British, Australian, and Turkish forces. The North Koreans lost half a million soldiers, and the Chinese sustained losses of one million. By far the worst casualties belonged to the South Koreans, who lost 1.3 million civilian and military personnel. Though the war resulted in a stalemate, it preserved South Korean independence, and resulted in the establishment of boundaries that remained in place 50 years later.

The war helped draw sharp lines between the Communist world and the West, and in its immediate aftermath, Americans were confronted with the specter of not one but two Communist superpowers allied against them. The Soviet-Chinese alliance would not hold, however, and by 1969 the two nations had become more hostile toward one another than either was toward the United States.

By gaining what could be construed as a victory in Korea, American leaders came away with the mistaken impression that large commitments of troops was a viable means of containing Communist expansion in small Asian nations. Thus, within a year of the Korean War's end, U.S. forces would become involved in another effort to roll back the Communist tide on the Asian continent, this time much further south, in Vietnam.

As for the two countries whose conflict had drawn the world's attention, the war only solidified the division between them. For many years, South Korea would maintain a strict authoritarian regime that, while liberal in comparison to that of North Korea, was hardly so by modern standards. In the 1980s, however, it would emerge as an economic powerhouse, and as its populace prospered, they began to demand greater political options. In time, their nation would become an example of the relationship between economic and political liberalization.

By contrast, North Korea would serve to exemplify the disastrous consequences of strict totalitarian control in practice. An Orwellian state, it was the virtual kingdom of Kim, which he would pass onalong with the gruesome cult of personality that developed around himto his son Kim Jong Il upon his death in 1994. Plagued by famine, unable to sustain even the most basic needs of its populace, North Korea survived on the remittances sent home by citizens living in Japan, and by arms sales to other rogue dictatorships. Its development of missile technology, which it exported to extremist regimes of the Islamic world, would earn it a place, along with Iran and Iraq, on the "axis of evil" described by President George W. Bush in 2002.



Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 19501953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Goulden, Joseph C. Korea, the Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Ridgway, Matthew B. The Korean War: How We Met the Challenge; How All-Out Asian War Was Averted; Why MacArthur Was Dismissed; Why Today's War Objectives Must Be Limited. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of the Korean War. New York: W. Morrow, 1988.

Toland, John. In Mortal Combat, Korea, 19501953. New York: Morrow, 1991.

Tomedi, Rudy. No Bugles, No Drums: An Oral History of the Korean War. New York: Wiley, 1993.

Weintraub, Stanley. MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero. New York: Free Press, 2000.


Korean War 50th Anniversary Commemoration. U.S. Department of Defense. <http://korea50.army.mil/> (April 12, 2003).

NSA Korean War 19501953 Commemoration. National Security Agency. <http://www.nsa.gov/korea/> (April 12, 2003).


Army Security Agency
COMINT (Communications Intelligence)
North Korea, Intelligence and Security
North Korean Nuclear Weapons Programs
NSA (United States National Security Agency)
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence)
South Korea, Intelligence and Security
United Nations Security Council
Vietnam War
World War II

Korean War

views updated May 17 2018


In 1948 as part of the boundary adjustments following World War II (19391945), Korea was supposedly temporarily divided for occupation by the Soviet Union and the United States as victorious former allies against Japan. The Korean peninsula, whose reclusive history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led it to be called the "Hermit Kingdom," had been under Japanese control since the end of the Russo-Japanese War (19041905). The division following World War II was at the 38th parallel, a temporary line of demarcation with no other cultural or geographic significance. Like the artificial divisions of Germany and of Berlin in 1945, as well as the supposedly temporary division of North and South Vietnam in 1954, this bifurcation of the Korean nation was a result of the Cold War rather than internal developments.

In their zone lying north of the 38th parallel, the Soviets organized a socialist regime under the Communist Party. Established in 1948 as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the regime was headed by Kim Il Sung, a long-time leader of the Communist Party. In the South, various factions vied for power, until the party of the "father of Korean nationalism," Syngman Rhee, won a United Nationssponsored election. On August 15, 1948, Rhee became President of the Republic of Korea. His regime was about as dictatorial as that in North Korea, and was implicated in corruption and in the repression of internal political opposition.

Both Korean governments were determined to achieve unification on their own terms. Shortly after partition, North Korea supported large-scale guerrilla incursions into the south, and retaliatory raids by South Korean forces kept the divided country in a state of crisis. Despite this situation, American troops were withdrawn in June 1949, leaving behind only a small group of technical advisers. South Korea, whose army was small, poorly trained, and poorly equipped, faced an adversary with an army of 135,000 men, equipped with modern Russian weapons, and between 150 and 200 combat airplanes. Although South Korean leaders and some Americans feared that North Korea might attack across the 38th parallel at any time, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, declared that Korea was not within the "defensive perimeter" of America's vital interests in the Far East.

The attack came on June 25, 1950. North Korean armed forcesarmored units and mechanized divisions supported by massive artillerystruck without warning across the demarcation line. Meeting little resistance, within thirty-six hours North Korean tanks were approaching the outer suburbs of Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

Contrary to Korean and Soviet expectations, the United States reacted swiftly and with great determination. Immediately after the attack the United States requested that the UN Security Council hold a special session which passed a unanimous resolution calling for the end of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean forces to their former positions north of the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union would probably have vetoed such a resolution but the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council to protest the failure of the UN to include Communist China in its deliberations. In any case, the resolution was ignored by the North Koreans and the Security Council met again on June 27 and passed another resolution recommending that "the members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack." On June 27, U.S. President Harry S Truman committed U.S. Air and Naval forces to the "police action" (a war was never formally declared) as well as ground forces stationed in Japan.

The North Koreans, however, continued their advance. By the end of June, more than half of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army had been destroyed, and American units were forced to fight countless rear-guard actions in the retreat southward. In early August, a defense perimeter was created around the important port of Pusan at the extreme southeastern corner of the peninsula. After violent fighting, a stable defense line was established. As American forces and contingents from fifteen other nations poured in, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. forces in the Far East and Supreme Commander of the UN forces, decided on a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, a west coast port just a few miles from Seoul. The brilliantly conceived operation, launched on September 15, 1950, proved successful, and the North Korean Army, was forced to retreat back across the 38th parallel. Pressed by public demands for a complete victory, the Truman Administration gave General MacArthur the go-ahead to pursue the enemy across the demarcation line, justifying the decision with the UN Security Council's authorization. The first crossings took place on October 1. United Nations and ROK forces moved north, and by late November they were nearing the Yalu river boundary between North Korea and Communist China.

The seesaw struggle was reversed once again by the entry of Chinese "volunteers" into the war. Chinese leaders had warned that they would not allow North Korea to be invaded and would come to the aid of the North Koreans. By late October, thousands of Chinese soldiers had crossed the Yalu. One month later, they struck at the exposed flank and rear of MacArthur's overextended armies. By early December, UN troops were again in headlong retreat, a withdrawal marked by great heroism but resulting in near disaster.

This created a crisis of the first order for President Truman. Truman wanted to stabilize the battle lines and negotiate an end to the war. General MacArthur wanted to attack China, possibly using tactical nuclear weapons. He said as much in a letter to House Republican leader Joseph W. Martins. Truman could not brook this challenge to his authority and, on April 11, 1951, he relieved MacArthur of command. Although the public clearly sided with MacArthur, Truman's strong stand settled the question of civilian control over the military.

A new battle line was organized south of the 38th parallel, and through the remaining winter and early spring months the lines fluctuated from south of Seoul to north of the parallel. Stalemate finally was achieved in July 1951. The conflict settled down to trench warfare, at which the Chinese were particularly adept, and was marked by indecisive but bloody fighting. This conflict lasted for two cruel years, during which time, more than a million Americans served in Korea.

For much of this period, talks proceeded at P'anmunjom, Korea near the 38th parallel. These talks opened on July 10, 1951 at the suggestion of the Communists. Welcomed by the most Americans, these negotiations were designed to achieve a cease-fire and an armistice. They were broken off repeatedly as germ warfare charges and difficulties over prisoner-of-war exchanges clouded the atmosphere.

The stalemate in Korea was a source of mounting frustration in the U.S., where it heightened the "red scare" and furnished ammunition to Senator Joseph McCarthy in his quest to purge leftists from the government and from influence in the society at large. The Korean War also helped elect Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Presidency. The Republican nominee won support by promising to go to Korea if elected. Eisenhower kept his pledge, but the visit had no noticeable effect on the peace talks.

The Communists finally modified their position on forcible repatriation of prisoners, and a final armistice agreement was signed at P'anmunjom on July 27, 1953. It resulted in a cease-fire and the withdrawal of both armies two kilometers from the battle line, which ran from coast to coast from just below the 38th parallel in the west to thirty miles north of it in the east. The agreement also provided for the creation of a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to carry out the terms of armistice. The armistice called for a political conference to settle all remaining questions, including the future of Korea and the fate of prisoners who refused to return to their homelands. In succeeding months, the United Nations repatriated more than 70,000 North Korean and Communist prisoners but received in return only 3,597 Americans, 7,848 South Koreans, and 1,315 prisoners of other nationalities. The political conference was never held, and relations between North and South Korea remained hostile.

The Korean War cost the United States approximately 140,000 casualties including some 22,500 dead, and $22 billion. The results were somewhat inconclusive, but the war did prevent the Communist conquest of South Korea, and it demonstrated that the United States would fight to prevent the further spread of Communism. The war did change U.S. foreign policy. It marked a shift in military strategy from aiming for total victory to one of fighting limited wars.

The Korean police action also brought about a quick reversal of the policy of down-sizing the military. Major national security expenditures rapidly increased as a result of the war; national defense expenditures rose from four percent to 13 percent of gross national product in 1953. Defense spending revived inflationary impulses in the economy until the imposition of direct controls in January 1951 stabilized prices. In general, the Korean conflict changed the policy of containment from a selective European policy into a general global policy, and it contributed to the development of the military-industrial complex in America.

See also: Cold War


Berger, Carl. The Korea Knot: A Military-Political History., revised ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Oliver, Robert T. Syngman Rhee: The Man Behind the Myth. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1954.

Leckie, Robert. Conflict: The History of the Korean War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962.

Paige, Glenn D. The Korean Decision, June 24-30, 1950. New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Rees, David. Korea: The Limited War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.

Korean War

views updated May 29 2018

Korean War


On June 25, 1950, North Koreas invasion of South Korea transformed a civil conflict under way since the end of World War II (19391945) into a conventional war. In April 1945, U.S. president Harry S. Truman (18841972) abandoned a trusteeship plan for the restoration of Koreas sovereignty after forty years of Japanese colonial rule. His quest for unilateral U.S. occupation, after an atomic attack forced Japans prompt surrender, ended when the Soviet Union entered the Pacific war, resulting in the lastminute decision to divide Korea at the 38th parallel into zones of occupation. The failure of negotiations to reunite Korea led to the creation in 1948 of an authoritarian government under Syngman Rhee (18751965) in the south and a Communist regime under Kim Il Sung (19121994) in the north. Both Koreas were obsessed with reunification, resulting in major military clashes at the parallel during the summer of 1949. Washington and Moscow, however, opposed their clients plans for invasion until April 1950, when Kim persuaded Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (18791953) that an offensive would spark an internal uprising and bring swift conquest of the peninsula.

At first, Truman hoped that South Korea could defend itself with U.S. air support and more military equipment, actions that the United Nations endorsed in resolutions calling for a ceasefire and assistance for South Korea. Commitment of U.S. ground forces came after General Douglas MacArthur (18801964), the U.S. occupation commander in Japan, visited the front and advised that the South Koreans could not halt the advance. Overconfident U.S. soldiers would sustain defeat as well, retreating to the Pusan Perimeter, a rectangular area in the southeast corner of the peninsula. On September 15, MacArthur staged a risky amphibious landing at Inchon behind enemy lines that sent Communist forces fleeing back into North Korea. Mao Zedong (18931976), leader of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), viewed the U.S.South Korean reunification offensive that followed as a threat to Chinas security and prestige. In late November, Chinese volunteers attacked en masse. After a chaotic retreat, UN forces counterattacked in February 1951 and moved the line of battle just north of the parallel. MacArthur wanted to widen the war to China, but Truman instead sought a ceasefire and then relieved the general for publicly ridiculing this policy. By June 1951, fighting had reached a stalemate.

Negotiations to end the war began in July 1951, but, after steady progress toward a truce, stalemated in May 1952 over the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war. Peace came because of Stalins death in March 1953 rather than a U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons against China. An armistice in July ended a brutal war that killed nearly three million combatants and Korean civilians. Almost as destructive was the conflicts impact on world affairs. Still divided, Korea would remain a source of tension threatening regional peace. Sino-American relations were poisoned for twenty years, especially after the United States persuaded the United Nations to condemn the PRC for aggression in Korea. For Japan, Korea not only ignited economic recovery, but led to treaties restoring sovereignty and establishing a security alliance with the United States. Hailed as an example of collective security, the war instead severely strained relations between the United States and its allies, not least because it ensured the survival of odious regimes on Taiwan and in South Korea. Most important, the Korean conflict intensified the cold war, motivating huge increases in U.S. defense spending, the rearmament of West Germany, and the militarization of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

SEE ALSO Cold War; Communism; Mao Zedong; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; Partition; Truman, Harry S.; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; United Nations


Cumings, Bruce. 19811990. The Origins of the Korean War. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goncharov, Sergei N., John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. 1993. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Stueck, William. 1995. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

James I. Matray

Korean War

views updated May 23 2018


The korean war was a conflict fought on the Korean Peninsula from June 1950 to July 1953. Initially the war was between South Korea (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), but it soon developed into an international war involving the United States and 19 other nations. The United States sent troops to South Korea as part of a united nations "police action," which sought to repel the Communist aggression of North Korea. Before the war ended in a stalemate, the People's Republic of China had intervened militarily on the side of North Korea, and the Soviet Union had supplied military equipment to the North.

At the end of world war ii, in 1945, the Soviet Union occupied the Korean Peninsula north of the thirty-eighth degree of latitude, while the U.S. occupied the territory south of it. In 1947, after the United States and the Soviet Union failed to negotiate a reunification of the two separate Korean states, the United States asked the U.N. to solve the problem. The Soviet Union, however, refused a U.N. proposal for a general election in the two Koreas to resolve the issue and encouraged the establishment of a Communist regime under the leadership of Kim Il-sung. South Korea then established a democratic government under the leadership of Syngman Rhee. By 1949, most Soviet and U.S. troops had been withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea, with the tacit approval of the Soviet Union, launched an attack across the thirty-eighth parallel. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling for the assistance of all U.N. members to stop the invasion. Normally, the Soviet Union would have vetoed this resolution, but it was boycotting the Security Council in protest of the U.N.'s decision not to admit the People's Republic of China.

Sixteen nations joined the U.N. forces, including the United States. President harry s. truman immediately responded by ordering U.S. forces to assist South Korea. Truman did so without a declaration of war, which until that time had been a prerequisite for U.S. military involvement overseas. Though some Americans criticized Truman for this decision, generally the country supported his action as part of his strategy of "containment," which sought to prevent the spread of communism beyond its current borders. Korea became the test case for containment.

The North Korean forces crushed the South Korean army, with the South Koreans holding just the southeastern part of the peninsula. U.N. forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, stabilized the front. On September 15, 1950, MacArthur made a bold amphibious landing at Inchon, about one hundred miles below the thirty-eighth parallel, cutting off the North Korean forces. The North Korean army was quickly crushed, and more than 125,000 soldiers were captured.

MacArthur then sent U.N. forces into North Korea, proclaiming, on November 24, that the troops would be home by Christmas. As U.N. forces neared the Yalu River, which is the border between North Korea and Manchuria, the northeast part of China, the Chinese army attacked them with 180,000 troops. The entrance of China changed the balance of forces. U.S. troops took heavy casualties during the winter of 1950–51 as the Chinese army pushed the U.N. forces back across the thirty-eighth parallel and proceeded south. U.N. forces finally halted the offensive south of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. A U.N. counteroffensive in February 1951 forced the Chinese to withdraw from South Korea. By the end of April, U.N. forces occupied positions slightly north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

It was during this period that President Truman became concerned about the actions of MacArthur. The general publicly expressed his desire to attack Manchuria, blockade the Chinese coast, and reinforce U.N. forces with troops from Nationalist China, with the goal of achieving victory. Truman, however, favored a limited war, fearing that MacArthur's course would bring the Soviet Union into the war against the United States. When MacArthur continued to make his views known, Truman, as commander in chief, relieved the general of his command on April 11, 1951. The "firing" of MacArthur touched off a firestorm of criticism by Congress and the public against Truman and his apparent unwillingness to win the war. Nevertheless, Truman maintained the limited war strategy, which resulted in a deadlock along the thirty-eighth parallel.

In June 1951, the Soviet Union proposed that cease-fire discussions begin, and in July the representatives of the U.N. and Communist commands began truce negotiations at Kaesong, North Korea. These negotiations were later moved to P'anmunjom.

The Korean War affected U.S. domestic policy. In April 1952, President Truman sparked a constitutional crisis when he seized the U.S. steel industry. With a labor strike by the steelworkers' union imminent, Truman was concerned that

the loss of steel production would hurt the Korean War effort. He ordered Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize the steel mills and maintain full production. The steel industry challenged the order, bringing it before the Supreme Court. In youngstown sheet and tube co. v. sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 72 S. Ct. 863, 96 L. Ed. 1153 (1952), the Court refused to allow the government to seize and operate the steel mills. The majority rejected Truman's claim of inherent executive power in the Constitution to protect the public interest in times of crisis.

Truman's popularity declined because of the war, which contributed to his decision not to run for reelection in 1952. In the presidential race, Republican dwight d. eisenhower easily defeated Democrat adlai stevenson. Eisenhower, a former U.S. Army general and World War II hero, pledged to end the war. The truce negotiations, which broke off in October 1952, were resumed in April 1953. After Eisenhower hinted that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons if a settlement was not reached, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

More than 33,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict, and 415,000 South Korean soldiers were killed. It is estimated that 2,000,000 North Koreans and Chinese died. The United States has maintained a military presence in South Korea since the end of the war, because North Korea and South Korea have remained hostile neighbors.

further readings

Harrison, Selig. 2002. Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Isserman, Maurice. 2003. Korean War: Updated Edition. New York: Facts on File.

Levie, Howard S. 2002. "How it All Started—And How it Ended: A Legal Study of the Korean War." Akron Law Review 35 (winter): 205–25.

Turner, Robert F. 1996. "Truman, Korea, and the Constitution: Debunking the 'Imperial President' Myth." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 19 (winter): 533–5.

Young, James V., and William Stueck. 2003. Eye on Korea: An Insider Account of Korea-American Relations. College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press.


Cold War; Labor Law; Labor Union; Presidential Powers; Stalin, Joseph; Vietnam War.

Korean War

views updated May 29 2018


Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States jointly occupied Korea, which had been ruled by Japan for four decades. After the United States and USSR failed to agree on the composition of a government for the country, separate states were established in 1948 in the two occupation zones, each aspiring to extend its rule over the remainder of the country. In 1949 North and South Korea engaged in serious fighting along their border, and on June 25, 1950, the North Korean army launched a massive conventional assault on South Korea, led by Soviet-made tanks.

Because North Korea was closely controlled by the Soviet Union and heavily dependent on Soviet assistance, Western leaders unanimously viewed the attack on South Korea as an act of Soviet aggression. Fearing that a failure to repel such aggression would encourage Moscow to mount similar invasions elsewhere, leading possibly to a third world war, the United Nations (UN) for the first time in its history authorized the creation of a multinational force to defend South Korea. The United States commanded the UN forces and contributed the overwhelming majority of troops, supplemented by units from Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Greece, Turkey, Ethiopia, South Africa, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Colombia.

The invasion of South Korea also prompted the United States to take a series of actions that shaped the Cold War for the remainder of the USSR's existence. The United States sent naval forces to protect Taiwan from an attack from the mainland, strengthened its support for the French in Indochina, solidified NATO, moved toward the rearmament of Germany, signed a separate peace treaty with Japan, tripled its military spending, and began to station troops overseas indefinitely.

After UN forces advanced into North Korean territory in October 1950, the People's Republic of China sent massive numbers of troops to prevent a North Korean defeat. The Soviet Air Force also intervened, thinly disguised as Chinese, beginning an undeclared air war with the United States that was the only sustained military engagement between the two superpowers. By the spring of 1951 the war had become a stalemate along a front roughly following the prewar border. Negotiations for an armistice began in the summer of 1951, but the war was prolonged another two years, at the cost of massive casualties and intensification of the East-West conflict worldwide. The armistice signed in July 1953 left intensely hostile states on the Korean peninsula, the North backed by the Soviet Union and China, and the South by the United States and its allies.

Russian archival documents made available in the 1990s show that Western leaders were correct in assuming that the decision to attack South Korea was made by Josef Stalin. His chief aim was to prevent a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union through the Korean peninsula, and he concluded that the U.S. failure to prevent a communist victory in China indicated that it would not intervene to prevent a similar victory in Korea. He was never willing to commit Soviet ground forces but urged the Chinese and North Koreans to keep fighting. Immediately after Stalin's death the new leadership in Moscow decided to bring the war to an end.

See also: china, relations with; cold war; koreans; korea, relations with; united nations; united states, relations with


Stueck, William. (1995). The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Weathersby, Kathryn. (1995). "To Attack, or Not to Attack? Stalin, Kim Il Sung and the Prelude to War." Cold War International History Project Bulletin 5:19.

Weathersby, Kathryn. (19951996). "New Russian Documents on the Korean War." Cold War International History Project Bulletin 67:3084.

Weathersby, Kathryn. (1998). "Stalin, Mao, and the End of the Korean War." In Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 19451963, ed. Odd Arne Westad. Washington, DC, and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Stanford University Press.

Kathryn Weathersby

Korean War

views updated Jun 08 2018


CRISIS, 1950–1951
STALEMATE, 1951–1954

Although the brutal conflict to reunify the Korean peninsula that broke out in June 1950 was rooted in civil war, it was provoked and sustained by superpower rivalry: Korea was where the Cold War turned hot. The belligerents agreed to an armistice in July 1953, but no peace treaty has been signed and the two Koreas remain, formally, in a state of war.


Since the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, Korea had been completely under Japanese control. When Japan collapsed in August 1945, the Americans arranged that their troops would take the surrender in the south and the Soviet army would do so in the north. A convenient demarcation line was the thirty-eighth parallel, which divided the peninsula almost equally and left the capital, Seoul, in American hands.

This was supposed to be an interim arrangement, until a democratic government could be formed for the whole country. But, as in Germany, the Soviets sealed off their zone and helped local communists to sovietize its institutions; in the south, the Americans fostered a rightist coalition of anticommunists. Following dubious elections in both Koreas in 1948, the superpowers withdrew most of their troops, hoping to sustain their client regimes by military aid.

But neither Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) in the north nor Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) in the south accepted partition as permanent. Each tried to reunify the country on his terms, and more than a hundred thousand people died in guerrilla operations and border clashes even before the formal war began. The critical step in escalation was Kim Il Sung's visit to Moscow in April 1950. There he persuaded Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) to back an all-out invasion of the south, arguing that the Americans were unlikely to intervene (having just done little to stop communist victory in China's civil war) and that, in any case, South Korea would be overrun in only a few days. Stalin provided arms, equipment, and advisors, and Soviet planners even drafted the operational plan. Kim also obtained the backing of the new Chinese communist government under Mao Zedong (1893–1976).

CRISIS, 1950–1951

North Korean troops crossed the thirty-eighth parallel on 25 June 1950 and drove rapidly southward. But Kim's predictions of American acquiescence proved fatally wrong. President Harry Truman (1884–1972) was under attack in Congress for "letting China fall"; he also believed that appeasement in the 1930s showed the dangers of not nipping aggression in the bud. Truman immediately ordered American troops into action and also secured the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council. This backing, immensely important for international credibility, was only possible because the Soviet Union was boycotting the council in protest of communist China's exclusion. Otherwise Stalin would have imposed a veto on making Korea a UN operation. Eventually seventeen countries contributed troops to the UN command, though the bulk came from South Korea and America.

By late August 1950 only the southeast corner of Korea was not in communist hands. But on 15 September the American commander of the UN forces, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), mounted a major amphibious landing behind enemy lines at the west coast port of Inchon. Now the North Koreans were in turmoil. On 28 September Seoul was retaken; two days later UN forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, seeking to implement the old policy of a unified, democratic Korea.

It was the American turn to miscalculate. Although unwilling to get directly involved, Stalin persuaded Mao to commit Chinese troops. The Americans were clearly warned through the Indian government that, if UN troops crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, they would provoke Chinese resistance, but this was dismissed as bluff. On 25 November MacArthur's final push to the Yalu River, North Korea's border with China, brought a major counterattack from three hundred thousand Chinese, and UN forces fell back in chaos.

On 30 November 1950 Truman told reporters that the United States would use "every weapon we have" to meet the crisis in Korea. Asked about the atomic bomb, he said there had "always been active consideration of its use." Alliance partners were shocked and the British prime minister, Clement Attlee (1883–1967), flew to Washington to urge restraint. The Republican Right and MacArthur himself now favored using the bomb against North Korea and China; there were real fears of a third world war.

STALEMATE, 1951–1954

By late January 1951 the northern quarter of South Korea was back in enemy hands. But then the UN line stabilized and its advance resumed. Seoul was recaptured on 14 March, changing hands for the fourth time since June 1950. Chastened, Truman was now ready for a peaceful settlement, but MacArthur undercut his efforts by calling publicly for Chinese surrender. The president finally lost patience, and on 11 April MacArthur was relieved of his command. After an upsurge of fighting in the spring, the war settled into stalemate.

In July the belligerents began armistice negotiations. The biggest sticking point was the return of prisoners of war, which the Americans insisted should be voluntary—in other words, allowing North Korean and Chinese troops a choice about whether or not to go home. This impasse was not broken until 1953, mainly because of Stalin's death in March 1953 and the eagerness of the new Soviet leadership to extricate itself from Korea. Threats of escalation by the new Eisenhower administration may also have played a part. But although the armistice was finally signed on 27 July 1953, the international conference on Korea, held in Geneva the following spring, made no progress. Unable to unite the peninsula on its own terms, each superpower effectively agreed that a divided Korea was the best outcome for the foreseeable future.


The human cost of the war was appalling: at least three million Koreans died, and probably a million Chinese were killed or wounded, including one of Mao's sons. The American death toll was thirty-three thousand. The United States and China were locked in bitter enmity for a generation. The war also had a profound effect on Europe. Fearful that the North Korean attack presaged a similar assault on Western Europe, the United States committed new combat divisions to Germany and turned the North Atlantic Treaty into a full-scale military alliance. And although other similarly partitioned countries such as Vietnam and Germany were eventually unified, albeit in very different ways, the two Koreas remained into the twenty-first century as grim relics of the Cold War.

See alsoCold War; Vietnam War .


Primary Sources

Cold War International History Project. Its Web site features research papers and translated primary source material on the Korean War. Available at http://wwics.si.edu.

Lee, Steven Hugh. The Korean War. Harlow, U.K., 2001. A good introduction, with documents.

Secondary Sources

Goncharov, S. N., John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford, Calif., 1993. Based on Soviet and Chinese sources.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War. London, 1987. Mostly a military history.

Stueck, William. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

David Reynolds

Korean War

views updated May 18 2018

Korean War

Korea was one of the nations that was divided at the end of World War II (1939–45) to allow for occupation by various countries of the victorious coalition of Allies (Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, France, China, Canada, and Australia). Korea had been under Japanese control for many years but after World War II was occupied by Russian and U.S. forces. The country was divided into North and South Korea, with the thirty-eighth parallel of latitude as the boundary line.

In North Korea, the Soviets organized a communist regime called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Kim II-sung (1912–1994) was its first premier (head of government). South Korea was led by Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) and became known as the Republic of Korea (ROK).

Both governments wanted to unify Korea, but each wanted to do so on its own terms. The North would invade the South, then the South would retaliate, keeping the country in a constant state of conflict. Even so, U.S. troops pulled out in June 1949. Only a small group of advisers stayed behind.

South Korea's army was small and poorly trained, whereas North Korea had an army of 135,000 men equipped with the most modern Russian weapons. It also boasted between 150 and 200 combat planes. South Koreans and some Americans worried that North Korea might attack across the thirty-eighth parallel at any time. On January 12, 1950, U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson (1893–1971) announced that Korea was not part of the defensive perimeter of the United States's vital interests in Asia, implying that the United States might not fight over Korea. This declaration was interpreted by some as an invitation to the communists to invade South Korea.

War begins

Whether or not it was an invitation, the North Korean army crossed the thirty-eighth parallel to attack South Korea on June 25, 1950. Because North Korea invaded without warning, it met with little resistance, and within thirty-six hours the army was moving its tanks into the outer suburbs of Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

To the surprise of the communists, the international community responded to the attack quickly. The United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for an immediate end to the hostilities and withdrawal of North Korean forces back to their original position behind the thirty-eighth parallel. North Korea ignored the order, so the UN Security Council met again on June 27 and recommended that members of the UN assist South Korea in repelling the attack. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) committed U.S. air and navel forces to the struggle in addition to the ground forces already stationed in Japan.

But this was not enough to keep the communists from advancing. By the end of the month, more than half the ROK army had been destroyed, and U.S. forces were forced to fight as they retreated south. Fifteen other nations sent in troops. On September 15, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), commander in chief of the Far East and supreme commander of the UN forces, launched a surprise attack not from the port of Pusan, but from the landing at Inchon, the west-coast port just outside of Seoul. North Korean forces were expecting a land attack, not an assault from the water. MacArthur's strategy forced the communists back across the thirty-eighth parallel.

Turning point

What happened next determined the future of Korea. The UN coalition had to decide whether to pursue the communist forces across the thirty eighth parallel. The United States wanted a complete victory, so Truman gave MacArthur permission to cross the boundary. MacArthur had already decided this would be his plan, and the first crossings took place on October 1. By late November, UN and ROK troops had forced the enemy to the river boundary between North Korea and communist China.

China came to the aid of North Korea, making good on its warning that it would not allow North Korea to be invaded. Thousands of Chinese soldiers sided with their communist brothers, and UN troops began to withdraw. By July 1951, a stalemate (deadlock) was reached. The fighting settled into trench warfare, with each side digging in. The bloody battles continued for two years, with more than one million Americans serving in Korea.


While troops were fighting, negotiations were initiated by the communists. The talks were repeatedly called off because the communists were

using them to spread propaganda and to make the fighting last as long as possible. Meanwhile, the United States was getting frustrated with the deadlock on the battlefield. In 1953, President Truman left office and was replaced with Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61), a Republican who won support by promising to go to Korea if elected. He kept his promise, but the visit had little if any influence on the peace talks.

An agreement was finally reached and signed on July 27, 1953. It called for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of both armies about a mile from the existing battle line, which was just below the thirty-eighth parallel. The treaty also called for the creation of a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to enforce the terms of the truce. A conference would be held to settle all questions, including the future of Korea and the fate of prisoners of war who refused to return home. In the following months, the UN repatriated (sent home) more than 70,000 North Korean and communist prisoners. In return, they received only 3,597 Americans, 7,848 South Koreans, and 1,315 prisoners of other nationalities. The conference was never held, and tensions remained high between North and South Korea.

The Korean War lasted just over three years and cost the United States 140,000 casualties (dead and wounded) and $22 billion. It prevented communism from spreading into South Korea and proved that the United States would fight to contain communism.

With the Korean War, U.S. policy shifted from war for total victory to limited war with no demand for total victory.

Korean War

views updated May 21 2018


In June 1950 North Korea attacked South Korea; within a week President harry s. truman committed American air, sea, and ground forces to South Korea's defense. The resulting three-year involvement lasted into the administration of dwight d. eisenhower and became the largest undeclared war in American history prior to the Vietnam involvement.

The initial rush of events created enduring confusion about the constitutional basis for the American intervention. On June 25, the day following the attack, the United States obtained a United Nations Security Council resolution ordering North Korean withdrawal. Two days later, with fighting continuing, the Security Council requested U.N. members to assist in repelling the aggression. That day, without congressional approval, President Truman publicly ordered American air and naval support for the South Koreans, and throughout his remaining tenure in office he persistently called the conflict a United Nations police action. The key American decisions had actually preceded the U.N. request, however, and critics, led by Senator Robert A. Taft, convincingly demonstrated that pertinent provisions of the united nations charter (having status as treaty law in the United States) and the United Nations Participation Act gave no constitutional authority to the American President. The necessary agreements for United States peacekeeping forces had never been concluded with the Security Council.

Careful defenders of Truman's actions, especially Secretary of State Dean Acheson, argued that Truman's authority derived from his duty as commander-in-chief to protect American interests. One such interest was the preservation of the United Nations as an instrument for peace; another was the security of American forces in the Pacific area. The defenders relied, too, on presidential control of foreign affairs and on the alleged precedent of eighty-five prior instances of presidential use of military forces without a declaration of war. Not surprisingly, critics also found these sources insufficient, strongly disagreeing about the meaning of Congress's power "to declare war" and about the legal relevance of past episodes of unilateral presidential action. Truman nonetheless followed Acheson's advice and explicitly refused to request formal authorization from Congress.

The war had other constitutional dimensions, as well. In April 1951, after serious policy disagreements, Truman dismissed his outspoken Korean and Far Eastern commander, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, thereby reaffirming the principle of civilian control over the military. (See civil-military relations). Later, in April 1952, when a strike threatened military production for Korea, the President seized American steel mills, an action subsequently held unconstitutional in youngstown sheet and tube co. v. sawyer (1952), a decision that arguably narrowed future presidential prerogatives. The Korean engagement also intensified clashes over the first amendment by contributing to the anticommunist sentiment tapped by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Similarly, the war provided context and impulse for the partially successful congressional effort, in the "Great Debate" of 1951, to restrict additional presidential commitment of troops to Europe. Finally, the war figured rhetorically in calls for limiting the treaty power and executive agreements through the bricker amendment.

By the time of the Korean armistice on July 27, 1953, American casualties numbered 142,000, including 33,600 deaths. The war thus stands squarely as de facto precedent for presidential war-making of substantial magnitude, and more so because American courts, in typical fashion, refrained from ruling on its constitutional base. Ironically, memories of the domestic debates over Korea helped generate later efforts, such as the gulf of tonkin resolution (1964), to obtain prior congressional endorsement of foreign military ventures.

Charles A. Lofgren


Lofgren, Charles A. 1969 Mr. Truman's War: A Debate and Its Aftermath. Review of Politics 31:223–241.

Murphy, Paul L. 1972 The Constitution in Crisis Times, 1918–1969. New York: Harper & Row.

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