The Korean War (The First?)

Considering the modern events and the recent rise in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, it is very interesting to have a general grasp of what the history is between our two nations.  This is a history of the Korean War, which occurred in the early 1950’s.  (For the record, I am not saying necessarily that I think that the modern tensions will escalate.  The post title was merely a nod to the current significance of this post.)

The Korean War

            The Korean War is one of the United States’ more recent wars and is unique in many ways.  Despite these facts, the Korean War is also one of the most forgotten wars in United States history.  The reason for this historical neglect is often attributed to what most Americans at the time, and even now in hindsight, considered the unsatisfactory ending of the war.  American perception of the war changed significantly over the course of the war, and this change in popularity still negatively affects our modern view of this important conflict.

The Korean War was unique and significant in many ways.  It was the first military conflict that was a result of the Cold War.  In many ways, this war was the precursor to the Vietnam War, and symbolized the way the Cold War would be handled for the years to come.  This war was also unique in that it was the first war in which the threat of atomic weapons was present throughout the entire course of hostilities.  Additionally, the Korean War saw the advent of the helicopter as a military asset, and the jet fighter slowly began to come into wide service.  Another difference that separates the Korean War from other wars, can be observed in that armored operations, as were executed and perfected in World War II, was not possible due to the mountainous terrain of the Korean Peninsula.  This was also the first limited war that America had fought since before the Civil War.  It was the first war conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, and the first war that the United States conducted under the authority of an outside organization.  Taking all these things into consideration, the war posed new challenges that American commanders were not accustomed to or prepared for.  These conditions are some of the factors that played into the way the war was conducted, and consequently affected the way that Americans perceived the war.  This perception of the war made it what it is today, a little known, and an even less appreciated conflict.

Korean War Helicopter

            The Korean War was a war of changing fortunes and extremes.  When the U.S. entered the fray in July 1950, it was intervening on behalf of the losing side.  More than this, by the time substantial American forces were available, South Korean forces and the American garrison troops previously deployed from Japan were pushed into a small pocket called the Pusan Perimeter, and were all but thrown into the sea in a matter of weeks.

However, a bold stroke was planned by General MacArthur, and the landing at Inchon Bay was conducted on September 15, 1950.  This amphibious attack changed the fortunes of the war completely in favor of the U.N. forces.  The North Korean Army was, in just as short a time as it had taken to force the South Koreans into the Pusan Perimeter, fleeing in great disorder back across the 38th parallel.  Great changes in fortune were already evident.  Large swings had taken place in each direction.  The pendulum was swinging north, and the U.N. forces were following, ignoring Chinese warnings, and consequently unaware that gravity was already slowing down that same pendulum.  That gravity came in the form of 300,000 Chinese Troops already in the central mountains of North Korea.  When the Chinese counterattacked, the unprepared, and over extended U.N. forces were sent packing right back across the 38th parallel, and farther, until Seoul, the South Korean capitol, was in the hands of the Communists for the second time in the war.  But the Chinese also over extended, and with the United States’ complete control over the skies, they could no longer sustain their forces in the South.  They to had to retreat northward, once again, and the war ground to a halt at the infamous 38th parallel.  Each side was left there as the pendulum had come to a stop, hanging in the middle of the peninsula.

korean war 38th Parallel

            During all this back and forth, all these changes in fortune, the American public was quite supportive of the war.  The seeds for the lack of support, however, were sown after the first northward pendulum swing when President Truman authorized the invasion of North Korea.  This move was in and of itself, not unpopular.  The problem it caused is that it broadened the scope of the war.  Before this change, the goal of the war was simply to push the North Korean Army out of South Korea and to prevent its return.  That goal had been accomplished.  The North Koreans were in no state to attempt another invasion.  However, once the invasion of the North and the unification of the country by elections was declared the goal, the old objective of maintaining the national boundaries was no longer adequate in the public eye.  This new goal was what success and failure must be measured against.

When the pendulum stopped swinging, Communist forces could not mount amphibious operations and therefore, could not get it going again.  The U.N. leaders were unwilling to try to restart it.  All they wanted was to end the war. They were willing to renounce the goal of unification and settle for the original goal by simply working out a treaty that would maintain the status quo.  Unfortunately, to the American public, this now looked like a compromise.  This was not viewed as a victory, which it would have been had the goal not been expanded to include unification.  The unwillingness of the U.N. leaders to pursue the goal of unification, after the involvement of the Chinese, and the long and seemingly fruitless negotiations ending in what appeared to the public as a compromise, and not victory, seriously undermined popular support for the war. The public view of the war as being unsuccessful is the most significant reason why the Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War”.  It was forgotten because it was not viewed as being won.

M20 75mm  korean war

            Another important longstanding effect the Korean War had was the precedent it set for future conflicts with Communism.  The Korean War was Communism’s second test against of the Truman Doctrine, and the first test requiring armed conflict.  Many considered this to be the first true test of how far the Americans were willing to go to uphold their doctrine of containment.  In this sense, this war set the precedent for American involvement worldwide in the fight against the spread of Communism. Due in great part to this action, America would become involved in many different conflicts, both directly and indirectly.  Vietnam is the most common example of this, and it is this precedent that keeps troops in South-East Asia even today.

In conclusion, the Korean War was a landmark conflict in many ways.  It saw the use of new weapons and technology, while still greatly resembling the Pacific conflicts of World War II.  It was the first test of American will in regards to the practical outworking of the Truman Doctrine.  It was the first war fought under the supervision and direction of the United Nations.  It truly was a conflict that changed history.  Despite all these things, it remains unfamiliar to most Americans.  The Korean War is just another example of the many important things that we forget.

-Wyatt Fairlead