"If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war," U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893-1971) once said, “the unanimous choice would have been Korea.” The peninsula had landed in America's lap almost by accident. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Korea had been a part of the Japanese empire, and after World War II it fell to the Americans and the Soviets to decide what should be done with their enemy's imperial possessions. In August 1945, two young aides at the U.S. State Department divided the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel. The Russians occupied the area north of the line and the United States occupied the area to its south.
By the end of the decade, two new states had formed on the peninsula. In the south, the anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) enjoyed the reluctant support of the American government; in the north, the communist dictator Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) enjoyed the slightly more enthusiastic support of the Soviets. Neither dictator was content to remain on his side of the 38th parallel, however, and border skirmishes were common. Nearly 10,000 North and South Korean soldiers were killed in battle before the war even began.
The Korean War and the Cold War
Even so, the North Korean invasion came as an alarming surprise to American officials. As far as they were concerned, this was not simply a border dispute between two unstable dictatorships on the other side of the globe. Instead, many feared it was the first step in a communist campaign to take over the world. For this reason, nonintervention was not considered an option by many top decision makers. In fact, in April 1950, a National Security Council report known as NSC-68 had recommended that the United States use military force to “contain” communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring, “regardless of the intrinsic strategic or economic value of the lands in question.”
“If we let Korea down,” President Harry Truman (1884-1972) said, “the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another,” was the way Truman expressed the domino theory. The fight on the Korean peninsula was a symbol of the global struggle between east and west, good and evil. As the North Korean army pushed into Seoul, the South Korean capital, the United States readied its troops for a war against communism itself.
On 25 June 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The Soviet Union, which officially had a veto over decisions made by the Security Council, had been boycotting the Council meetings since January 1950, protesting that Taiwan (where Chiang Kai Shek had fled after losing to Mao and the Chinese communists) was illegally holding the permanent seat in the UN Security Council that belonged to the People’s Republic of (communist) China.After debating the matter, the Security Council, with the Soviet Union absent, on 27 June 1950, recommended member states provide military assistance to South Korea. On 27 June, Truman ordered U.S. air and sea forces to help the South Korean régime.
At first, the war was a defensive one–a war to get the communists out of South Korea–and it went badly for the Allies. The North Korean army was well-disciplined, well-trained and well-equipped; Rhee’s forces, by contrast, were frightened, confused, and seemed inclined to flee the battlefield at any provocation. Also, it was one of the hottest and driest summers on record, and desperately thirsty American soldiers were often forced to drink water from rice paddies that had been fertilized with human waste. As a result, dangerous intestinal diseases and other illnesses were a constant threat.
By the end of the summer, President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), the commander in charge of the Asian theater, had decided on a new set of war aims. Now, for the Allies, the Korean War was an offensive one: It was a war to “liberate” the North from the communists.
Initially, this new strategy was a success. An amphibious assault at Inchon pushed the North Koreans out of Seoul and back to their side of the 38th parallel. But as American troops crossed the boundary and headed north toward the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and Communist China, the Chinese started to worry about protecting themselves from what they called “armed aggression against Chinese territory.” Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) sent troops to North Korea and warned the United States to keep away from the Yalu boundary unless it wanted full-scale war
"No Substitute for Victory"?
This was something that President Truman and his advisers decidedly did not want: They were sure that such a war would lead to Soviet aggression in Europe, the deployment of atomic weapons and millions of senseless deaths. To the U.S. Commander General Douglas MacArthur, however, anything short of this wider war represented “appeasement,” an unacceptable knuckling under to the communists.
Convinced that Korea was the place “where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest,” MacArthur advocating using fifty atomic bombs against Chinese cities. Horrified, Truman rejected this and continued to look for a way to prevent war with the Chinese. Certain that his views were correct, MacArthur tried to go over the president’s head. He spoke and wrote to newspaper and magazine publishers and, especially, to Republican leaders about his views on how the war should be conducted. MacArthur’s superiors informed him that he had no authority to make decisions of policy. Despite warnings to follow orders, MacArthur continued to criticize the president. Finally, in March 1951, Truman had had enough and he fired the general for insubordination.
The Korean War Reaches a Stalemate
In July 1951, President Truman and his new military commanders started peace talks at Panmunjom. Still, the fighting continued along the 38th parallel as negotiations stalled. Both sides were willing to accept a ceasefire that maintained the 38th parallel boundary, but they disagreed on many other issues. Finally, after more than two years of negotiations, the adversaries signed an armistice (cease-fire) on July 27, 1953. The agreement drew a new boundary near the 38th parallel that gave South Korea an extra 1,500 square miles of territory; and created a 2-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” that still exists today. To this day a peace treaty has never been signed and the two sides technically remain at war. They do not have diplomatic relations. Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Korea today to protect against another invasion from the North. North Korea maintains a one million person military and is actively trying to perfect an atomic bomb out of fear that the U.S. will invade at some point.
Casualties of the Korean War
The Korean War was relatively short but exceptionally bloody. Nearly 5 million people died. More than half of these–about 10 percent of Korea’s prewar population–were civilians. This rate of civilian casualties was higher than World War II’s and Vietnam’s. Almost 40,000 Americans died in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.