This Korean War summary is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's book A Brief History of the Cold War It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Korean War summary - An offshoot of Cold War politics
Toward the end of World War II, Korea, which had been forcibly annexed by Japan in the early twentieth century, was divided across the middle, along the thirty-eighth parallel, the northern part occupied by the Soviet Union, the southern part by the United States. Following Japan's surrender, Soviet troops evacuated North Korea, leaving behind them the “Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” headed by Kim Il Sung, a Moscow-trained communist. American troops then withdrew from the South, led by the firmly anti-communist Syngman Rhee.
Many events led up to the war, but to offer a short Korean War summary, it primarily came down to Cold War politics. In January 1950, while discussing vital U.S. security interests in the Pacific area, Secretary of State Acheson spoke of a “defensive perimeter” that ran along the Aleutians to Japan and the Ryukyu Islands and then to the Philippines. He described these islands as “essential parts” of the Pacific area that “must and will be held.” Because he did not specifically mention Korea, many observers (including the communists) assumed that the United States would not come to its aid if attacked. They should have read what Acheson said at the conclusion of his remarks “about the military security of other areas in the Pacific”: “Should such an attack occur… the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations.”
Eager to take advantage of what he wrongly perceived to be American indifference to Korea's security, Kim Il Sung pressed Stalin hard for permission to “liberate” South Korea. In February, Stalin ordered the preparation of a “Preemptive Strike Operations Plan” and on June 10 gave Kim the final go-ahead. The Soviets prepared a cover story: the United States was allegedly developing an attack plan against North Korea to be executed in the summer of 1950 by some one hundred thousand South Korean troops armed by the United States. There was in fact no such U.S. plan.
Korean War Summary - The North Korean invasion
On June 25, 1950, a large North Korean army invaded the South and soon controlled most of the lower part of the Korean peninsula. As we now know from documents in the Kremlin archives, Stalin not only approved the invasion but provided substantial military and economic assistance to Kim, including up-to-date Soviet motorized equipment, artillery, aircraft, and manpower.
The communists expected no American interference in their imperial plans. But when informed of the invasion, Truman said to Acheson, “Dean, we've got to stop the sons-of-bitches no matter what.” He ordered an emergency session of his military and foreign policy advisors, who decided South Korea had to be defended both for the sake of its people and because of its strategic position across the straits from Japan. In accordance with NSC 68's philosophy that a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere, the president ordered General Douglas MacArthur, based in Japan, to counter the communist tide; he also asked for action by the United Nations Security Council.
The council ordered North Korea to desist and called on all UN members to come to the aid of South Korea. Ten members, led by the United States, eventually did. Since January 1950, the Soviet representative had been boycotting meetings of the Security Council because China's seat was still occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan). The Soviet Union could not therefore veto Truman's moves to commit the UN to the defense of South Korea.
Truman placed the fighting in Korea in the broader context of “the struggle between freedom and Communist slavery.” While not playing down the military aspect of the Cold War, the president talked at a White House conference on children and youth about the moral and spiritual dangers of communist ideology: “Communism attacks our main basic values, our belief in God, our belief in the dignity of man and the value of human life, our belief in justice and freedom. It attacks the institutions that are based on these values. It attacks our churches, our guarantees of civil liberty, our courts, our democratic form of government.” The president wanted the American people to understand, as fully and deeply as they could, the larger meaning of the Cold War.
Under MacArthur's leadership, UN forces began a counteroffensive that by mid-November had brought its forces deep into North Korea and close to the Yalu River and the Chinese border. To MacArthur's surprise, the People's Republic of China launched a massive counterattack, sending two hundred thousand Chinese troops across the Yalu River against the outnumbered American forces.
Forced to retreat, the American army was soon once again below the thirty-eighth parallel. By mid-March 1951, however, with heavy reinforcements and naval command of both coasts and under a new field commander, General James Van Fleet, the U.S.-UN army recaptured Seoul and recovered South Korea to just above the thirty-eighth parallel, a return to the status quo before the North Korean invasion.
For Douglas MacArthur, however, there was no substitute for victory. Ignoring a presidential order to make no public statements, MacArthur personally wrecked a U.S. armistice initiative by threatening that if the Chinese did not withdraw at once, they would be “forced to their knees.” With the concurrence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his secretary of state, Truman on April 11, 1951, dismissed General MacArthur, a great American general with an even greater ego.
Armistice negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations began on July 10, 1951, and continued until March 1953, when the North Koreans finally agreed to an armed truce. No formal peace treaty has ever been signed. Regarding the repatriation of North Korean prisoners, the UN command rejected the communists' demand that all of them be returned to North Korea. Every prisoner was allowed to decide his destination. Three out of four elected to stay in the South, a damning indictment of the communist regime.
To conclude this Korean War summary, some historians have described the outcome of the Korea war as a “tie,” but the eventual remarkable economic success and vibrant democracy of South Korea suggest strongly that it was a war worth fighting.
This article is part of our larger collection of resources on the Cold War. For a comprehensive outline of the origins, key events, and conclusion of the Cold War, click here.