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Korean War

The Korean War, from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953, was a conflict between communist North and anti-communist South Korea. It was also a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Principal combatants were North and South Korea, the United States and the People's Republic of China, although many nations sent troops under the aegis of the United Nations. The Soviet Union also supplied combat advisors and aircraft pilots, in addition to arms, for the Chinese and North Korean troops. In US parlance Korea was officially a police action, not a war.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 The War Begins
3 Western Reaction
4 Inchon Landing
5 Entrance of the Chinese
6 Stalemate
7 Legacy
8 Artistic Depiction
9 Further reading
10 External links


The origins of the Korean War have long been a matter of debate. Originally western historians saw North Korea as a pawn of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 1970s the view that the war was just as much caused by western and South Korean provocation became popular. Today, with the opening of Soviet archives, the war is most often blamed on Kim Il-Sung who convinced a reluctant Joseph Stalin into supporting the venture.

On January 12, 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson told the National Press Club that America's Pacific defence perimeter was made up of the Aleutians, Ryukyu, Japan, and the Philippines implying that America would not fight over Korea, and that the country was outside of American concern in the Pacific. This omission, which was not deliberate, encouraged the North and the Soviets.

Both South Korean leader Syngman Rhee and Kim Il-Sung were intent on reuniting the peninsula under their own system. Because of Soviet support the North Koreans were the ones able to go on the offensive, while South Korea with only limited American backing had far fewer options.

China was very wary about a war in Korea. Mao Zedong was concerned it would encourage American intervention in Asia and would destabilize the region. He was not consulted on the decision, however and acquiesced once the war began and began to support the North Koreans.

The War Begins

On June 25, 1950 the North Korean forces moved south in force. Using Soviet equipment and with huge reserves on manpower the surprise attack was a crushing success. Within days the South Korean forces were in full retreat. Eventually the South Korean forces, and the small number of Americans in Korea, were driven into a small area in the far South around the city of Pusan. With the aid of American supplies and air support the ROK forces managed to stabilize this frontier. This became a desperate holding action called the Pusan Perimeter. But even as more U.N. support arrived the situation was still perilous, and it looked as though the North could gain control of the entire peninsula.

Western Reaction

The invasion of South Korea came as a complete surprise to the United States and the other western powers; Dean Rusk of the State Department had told Congress on June 20 that no war was likely. However, a CIA report in early March had predicted a June invasion.

On hearing of the invasion, Truman agreed with his advisors to use US airstrikes, unilaterally, against the North Korean forces. He also ordered the Seventh Fleet to protect Formosa. The United States still has substantial forces in Japan that allowed for a quick intervention. The actions were put under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who was in charge of American forces in the Pacific. The other western powers quickly agreed with the American actions and volunteered their support to the effort.

The Americans organized Task Force Smith, and on July 5 engaged in the first North Korean/American clash of the war.

American action was taken for a number of reason. Truman was under severe domestic pressure for being too soft on communism. Especially vocal were those who accused the Democrats of having 'lost China.' The intervention was also an important implementation of the new Truman Doctrine, which advocated the opposition of communism everywhere it tried to expand.

The western powers gained a United Nations mandate for action because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council while the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China held the Chinese seat. Without the Soviet veto and with only Yugoslavia abstaining, the UN voted to aid South Korea. The US would have fought whatever the outcome, and Douglas MacArthur later told Congress "I had no connection with the UN whatsoever". US forces were eventually joined during the conflict by troops from fifteen other UN members: Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxembourg. (Truman would later take harsh criticism for not obtaining a declaration of war from Congress before sending troops to Korea. Thus, "Truman's War" was said by some to have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the United States Constitution.)

The US forces were suffering from demobilization which had continued since 1945. Excluding the Marines, the infantry divisions sent to Korea were at 40% of paper strength, and the majority of their equipment was found to be useless. Other powers were even further demobilized, and other than the British it was many months before sizeable forces arrived from other coalition partners.

The Chinese Nationalists, now confined to Taiwan, asked to participate in the war, but their request was denied by the Americans who felt the would only encourage Chinese intervention.

American soldiers in Korea

Inchon Landing

In order to alleviate the pressure on the Pusan Perimeter upon the entrance of the UN forces MacArthur, as UN commander in chief for Korea, ordered an invasion far behind the North Korean troops at Inchon. This was an extremely risky operation, but it went extremely successfully. United Nations troops landed at Inchon to only mild resistance and quickly moved to recapture Seoul. The North Koreans, finding their supply lines cut, began a rapid retreat northwards and the ROK and UN forces that had been confined in south moved north and joined those that had landed at Inchon.

The United Nations troops drove the North Koreans back past the 38th parallel. The goal of saving South Korea had been achieved, but because of the success and the prospect of uniting all of Korea under the rule of Syngman Rhee convinced the Americans to continue into North Korea. This greatly concerned the Chinese, who worried that the UN forces might not stop at the end of North Korea. Many in the west, including General MacArthur, also sought spreading the war to China was a good idea. Truman and the other leaders disagreed, however, and MacArthur was ordered to be very cautious when approaching the Chinese border. MacArthur disregarded these concerns, however.

Entrance of the Chinese

The communist Chinese had issued warnings that they would react if the UN forces encroached on the frontier at the Yalu River. Mao sought Soviet aid and saw intervention as essentially defensive. "If we allow the US to occupy all of Korea... we must be prepared for the US to declare... war with China", he told Stalin. Zhou Enlai was sent to Moscow to add force to Mao's cabled arguments. Mao delayed his forces while waiting for Russian help, and the planned attack was thus postponed from 13 October to 19 October. Soviet assistance was limited to providing air support no nearer than sixty miles (96 km) to the battlefront. The MiG-15s in PRC colours were an unpleasant surprise to the UN pilots; they held local air superiority against the F-80 Shooting Starss until the newer F-86 Sabres were deployed. The Soviet role was known to the US but they kept quiet as to avoid any international and potential nuclear incidents.

A Chinese assault beginning on October 19, 1950, under the command of General Peng Dehuai with 380,000 People's Liberation Army troops repelled the United Nations troops back to the 38th parallel, the pre-conflict border. The Chinese assault caught US troops by surprise, as war between PRC and the United States had not been declared. The United States X Corp retreat was the longest retreat of a US unit in history. The Marines, on the eastern side of the peninsula, faired better, mainly due to better training and discipline.

On January 4, 1951, communist Chinese and North Korean forces captured Seoul. The battle of Chosin Reservoir in winter was a terrible defeat for the United Nations troops, who were mainly American Marines. The situation was such that MacArthur mentioned that atomic weapons may be used, much to the alarm of America's allies.

MacArthur was removed from command by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. The reasons for this are many, and well documented. They include MacArthur meeting with Chiang Kai-Shek in the role of a US diplomat. MacArthur also was wrong at Guam when President Truman asked him specifically about Chinese troop buildup near the Korean border. Furthermore, MacArthur openly criticized the Commander in Chief during press conferences. He also was rude, and flippant when speaking to Truman.


The rest of the war involved little territory change and lengthy peace negotiations (which started in Kaesong on July 10 of the same year). A cease-fire established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) around the 38th parallel, which is still defended today by North Korean troops on one side and South Korean and American troops on the other. No peace treaty has yet been signed, fifty years later. Newly-elected US President Dwight D. Eisenhower on November 29, 1952 fulfilled a campaign promise by traveling to Korea to find out what could be done to end the conflict.


The Korean War was the first armed confrontation of the Cold War, and it set a model for many later conflicts. It created the idea of a limited war, where the two superpowers would fight with out descending to an all out war that could involve nuclear weapons. It also expanded the Cold War, which to that point had mostly been concerned with Europe.


600,000 Koreans had died in the conflict. The war left the peninsula permanently divided with a garrison state in North Korea and a pro-American capitalist one in the South. American troops remain on the border today, as do even large numbers of Koreans. It is the most heavily defended border in the world.

United States

US troops suffered about 50,000 fatalities, roughly equal to the Vietnam War, but in a much shorter time. Later neglect of remembrance of this war, in favor of the Vietnam War, World War I and II, has caused the Korean War to be called the Forgotten War or the Unknown War. On July 27, 1995 in Washington, DC, the Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated.

The war was instrumental in re-energizing the US military-industrial complex from their post-war slump. The defense budget was boosted to $50 billion, the Army was doubled in size, as was the number of Air Groups, and they were deployed beyond American soil in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, including Vietnam, where covert aid to the French was made overt. The Cold War became a much stronger state of mind for American policy makers.

The war also changed America's view of the Third World, this is most notable in Indochina. While before 1950 the Americans had been very critical of the French actions there, after Korea they began to heavily support the French.


Around a million Chinese were killed in the Korean War. The war also lead to other long lasting effects. The American forces in the Taiwan straits permanently ended PRC hopes of retaking that island. The war was used as an excuse by the authorities to crack down on dissent and impose stronger censorship. It also contributed to the decline of Sino-Soviet relations. The Soviets had used the Chinese as proxies. They had given them out of date and often shoddy equipment and had forced the Chinese to pay for it.


Japan was a key beneficiary of the war. The US material requirements were organized through a Special Procurements system, which allowed for local purchasing without the complex Pentagon procurement system. Over $3.5 billion was spent with Japanese companies, peaking at $809 million in 1953, and still significant in 1955. Other foreign non-military investment was less than 5% of this. US Aid Counterpart Funds gave Japan, by 1956, the most modern shipyards in the world and a 26% share in launched tonnage. Left-wing organizations were closed down, and the zaibatsu went from being distrusted to being encouraged - Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo were amongst the zaibatsu that thrived, not only on orders from the military but through American industrial experts, including W. Edwards Deming. Japanese manufacturing grew by 50% between March 1950 and 1951. By 1952, pre-war standards of living were regained and output was twice the level of 1949. The 1951 peace treaty returned Japanese sovereignty (excluding Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands) and the non-belligerency clause in the constitution was being considered a "mistake" by 1953.

Artistic Depiction

In the United States far and away the most famous artistic depiction of the war is the movie and television series M A S H, which depicts the misadventures of the staff of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as they struggle to keep their sanity through the war's absurdities through ribald humour and hijinks when not treating wounded.

See also: Korean War order of battle

Further reading


External links