The Korean War

*Truman’s second term in office was no easier than his first.  As the Fair Deal struggled to get through Congress, the man who had ended WWII suddenly had to fight a new war in Korea.


*When Japan collapsed in 1945, the Soviets had taken the Japanese surrender of the Korean peninsula north of the 38th parallel, as agreed upon by the Allies in advance.  The United States took the land south of that line.  Both sides claimed the split was temporary, and that they wanted to re-unify Korea as soon as possible.  However, they had said that in Germany, too.  Nonetheless, by 1949, the US and USSR had withdrawn their forces from Korea.  However, the Northern ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ under Kim Il Sung (from 1948 to 1994) and the Southern Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee (from 1948 to 1960) governments both had large armies and were eager to re-unify Korea by force.


*The US wanted out of Korea completely.  On 12 January 1950, Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, declared that Korea lay outside the area of American interest in the Pacific.  About the same time, in March 1950, some CIA reports suggested that the North might be preparing to invade, but this were dismissed or ignored.  As late as 20 June, Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, told Congress that there would be no war in Korea.


*On 25 June, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army attacked, crossing the border in Soviet-made tanks.  Despite their own posturing, the South was caught off guard and pushed back.  Seoul was captured, and by 4 August, the entire South Korean army and the few US soldiers in the country were pushed back to a small area round the southern city of Pusan, where they held out along the Pusan Perimeter awaiting evacuation or re-enforcement. 


*Truman sprang into action.  The concept of containment that lay at the base of the funding of the Greek and Turkish anti-communist activities formed fully into the Truman Doctrine, proving the essential notion that if the US relaxed their guard anywhere, the communists would take advantage of it. 


*The NSC had recently proposed quadrupling the US defence spending, and this gave Truman and Congress a reason to do so.  Doing so not only provided a tremendous boost to the economy, but allowed Truman and his administration to dispute the claim that they had been soft on communism or been responsible for the Fall of China.  Soon the US had 3.5 million men in uniform and was spending $50 billion (13% of the GNP) per annum on military purposes alone.  This was founded on the tremendous optimism of America--there was nothing we could not do, and on the New Deal tradition of solving all problems through massive government spending.  However, America was not going to do this alone--they were going to ask the UN.


*Normally, an attempt to get the UN to intervene in Korea would have been stopped by the Soviets, who supported the North Korean cause.  However, when China fell, the UN did not recognise the Communist government, and continued to seat the Nationalist representatives sent by Chiang.  In protest, the Soviets walked out, boycotting the Security Council.  Truman immediately took advantage of this, passing a resolution on a UN police action through the Security Council on the same day the NKPA invaded—no attending country voted against the measure, and only Yugoslavia abstained.  The Soviets never boycotted a meeting again.


*Officially, the Korean War was fought be the United Nations, and troops from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxembourg participated, as did non-combatants such as medical units from other UN countries.  The Republic of China asked for permission to participate, but were discouraged by the US.  However, the majority of the troops were from the United States—and Truman has sometimes been criticised for sending the troops before obtaining a declaration of war from Congress. 


*Two days after the invasion, Truman sent American naval and air units to support the ROK, and before the end of the week, Douglas MacArthur was on his way from Japan with troops from the occupation forces.  He would take overall command of all UN forces, and report to Washington, not the UN—although he often took orders only from himself.


*MacArthur chose not to try to fight back from the Pusan Perimeter, but instead chose to flank the enemy with a hazardous amphibious assault at Inchon.  The approach to Inchon was through a relatively narrow passage easily controlled by guns on Wolmi IslandInchon had the second largest tidal range of any port, reaching as much as a 30 foot difference between high and low tides.  There high sea walls which the Marines would have to scale.  The American Eighth Army objected to the withdrawal of Marine regiments defending the Pusan Perimeter in order to take part in what was obviously an extremely hazardous operation.


*Despite the opposition, the Inchon landing took place on 15 September, 1950 and was a brilliant success, cutting the NKPA’s lines of supply and completely recapturing Seoul within two weeks and driving the entire NKPA north of the 38th parallel.


*Now the tricky question was what to do.  It seemed foolish to let the DPRK re-group and invade at a more propitious date.  MacArthur, with Truman and the UN’s approval, pursued the NKPA beyond the border.  This operation was so successful that by October, the UN was almost within sight of the Chinese border, and much of the NKPA was hiding beyond it.  China has warned the UN not to come to close to the Yalu River, the border between China and Korea, but MacArthur ignored these warnings.


*On 19 October 1950, 280,000 soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, calling themselves the People’s Volunteer Army (so they would not start a war between China and the major UN nations), crossed into North Korea, in many cases armed with Soviet weapons and flying Soviet MiGs, which were better than t he F-80s currently in use by the US (but soon bested by the F-86.  For over a month, the PVA and the UN forces contended along the northern frontier of Korea.  The most famous encounter was the Battle of Chosin Resevoir (26 November to 11 December 1950).  The place became known as Frozen Chosin as US Marines, Royal Marines, and the US Infantry froze to death while attempting to fight off the Chinese.  It was ultimately a major loss for the UN, with 15,000 casualties, almost 75% of the UN forces in the area (half of the casualties related to the cold).


*Eventually the overwhelming mass of Chinese troops pushed the UN and ROK forces back towards the old demarcation line.  On 4 January 1951, the NKPA and PVA captured Seoul.


*MacArthur demanded a naval bombardment of China and wanted to use atomic bombs against the Chinese armies and possibly their major cities.  However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that this would surely spark a major Asian war, perhaps a World War, and the US and the world could not afford such a conflict.  MacArthur ridiculed the idea of a ‘limited war’ and claimed that there was ‘no substitute for victory,’ while calling Truman a pig, an imbecile, a Judas, and an appeaser.  He even criticized the president openly in press conferences, and was ultimately fired by Truman in April 1951.  MacArthur went home to a ticker-tape parade and offered his formal farewell to Congress, saying ‘old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ 


*Seoul was liberated again by 21 April 1951, and the lines would shift some until October 1951, after which they would move little, if at all. 


*The war dragged on into 1953, when newly-elected president Eisenhower, fulfilling a campaign promise, went to Korea to try to create peace.  Even he failed. 


*One of the major problems was the issue of prisoner exchanges.  Many captured communist POWs did not want to go home.  Likewise, the Chinese claimed that many Americans they captured wanted to stay in their communist paradise.  The rumour got out that American POWs had been brainwashed by their captors.  In any event, the Chinese would not release their POWs until we released ours.  Despite objection from many senior officials, Truman proclaimed: "we will not buy an armistice by turning over human beings for slaughter or slavery."


*Happily, in 1953, Stalin died, and tensions eased between the East and West slightly.  It was agreed that any POWs who did not want to go home would be sent to neutral countries, whence they could make their way wherever they pleased.  Of over 98,000 PVA and NKPA POWS, over 22,000, about 22%, chose not to be repatriated.  Of just over 13,000 UN and ROK POWs, 359, or about 3%, almost all of them Koreans, chose not to be repatriated.


*After years of negotiation, an armistice was finally signed on 27 July 1953 at the border village of Panmunjon.  The North Korean and American generals signed, but the South Korean general did not.  However, the fighting was officially ended and a 2 ½ mile wide de-militarised zone was drawn along the battle line, not far from the old 38th Parallel demarcation line.  To this day, the Korean War has never officially ended, and the DMZ remains the most heavily fortified border in the world, guarded by North Korean, South Korean, and US troops.


*54,246 Americans service men and women lost their lives during the Korean War.   This includes all losses world-wide.  However, the war boosted the economy of Japan, which served as a base for most US operations, and especially spurred the economic growth of the United States, leading to one of the most prosperous periods in the nation’s history.

This page last updated 26 March, 2011.
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