Korean War

Korean War


Although it is often described as the "forgotten war," the conflict in Korea cost some 3 million lives over the course of three years, and helped set the tone for the larger Cold War. Both an international and a national conflict, the Korean War demonstrated the strengths and limitations of the United Nations (UN), and established the framework for the policy of containment that would lead the United States into the much longer conflict in Vietnam. Korea also solidified American attitudes toward communism, and

Korean war spy John T. Downey, freed after 20 years in Chinese prison, when asked in 1973 if he had revealed any secret information answered, "I can say, yes. I revealed about every information I had." ©BETTMANN/CORBIS.
Korean war spy John T. Downey, freed after 20 years in Chinese prison, when asked in 1973 if he had revealed any secret information answered, "I can say, yes. I revealed about every information I had." ©

reaction to events there served to influence both the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the fear of communist "brainwashing." As much a war of intelligence as of arms, Korea saw the birth of the modern U.S. signals intelligence framework as the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) gave way to the National Security Agency (NSA). In the end, an allied force of South Korean, American, British, Australian, and Turkish troops frustrated the aspirations of the North Korean Communist government, aided by the People's Republic of China, to control the Korean peninsula. The truce in 1953 established an uneasy framework—not quite war, not quite peace—that nevertheless remains in place half a century later.


The roots of the Korean War, like those of the Vietnam conflict, lay in World War II. Soon after 1945, the British and American alliance with the Soviet Union broke down in Europe, and the Korean hostilities brought the end of this partnership in Asia as well. The Soviets had fought World War II entirely on their western front, and only entered the Pacific war on a last minute bid for territory. Years earlier, the little-known tank battle between Soviet and Japanese forces at Nomonhan in August 1939, had discouraged Japan from any hope that a war with the Soviets would yield easy victory. Therefore, when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, his Japanese allies did not join him in making war on Russia.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's lack of participation in the Pacific theatre did not preclude his plans to extend the reach of Soviet Communism into that area. He was aided by an agreement with the United States that the Japanese would surrender to Soviet forces north of the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, which enabled him to establish a Communist government in Pyongyang under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. (Despite North Korean state hagiographers' later attempt to recast their "Great Leader" as a war hero, in fact he had spent the entire war under Stalin's protection, behind Soviet lines.)

By 1947, it had become apparent that Korea, in Japanese hands since 1910, would not easily be reunited under a non-Communist government. Soon another event served to further raise the specter of Communist expansionism in Asia. In October 1949, the victory of Mao Zedong's forces placed the world's largest population under the Communist rule of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Meanwhile, the United States had withdrawn its troops from Korea, and it now petitioned the UN to ensure free elections in Korea. The Soviets had withdrawn their troops as well, but refused to agree to these elections. On June 25, 1950, Kim's armies swept southward to unite the country by force.

An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council resulted in a resolution to stop the North Korean assault. Though the Soviet Union was one of the five permanent Security Council members—along with the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Republic of China—it had boycotted the meeting in protest of the U.S. effort to block the admission of the PRC. Because of their failure to show up at the Security Council meeting (a mistake they would not again repeat), the Soviets were unable to exercise their veto power against the American call for a "police action" on the Korean peninsula.

Although the Korean conflict is rightly called a war, there was no accompanying declaration by the U.S. Congress; instead, President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. troops into battle as part of a UN peacekeeping force on June 27, 1950. Four U.S. divisions landed on the Korean peninsula to join the South Korean forces there, but the North Koreans soon drove them all the way to Pusan, at the extreme southeastern end of the peninsula. Soon afterward, however, General Douglas MacArthur abruptly shifted the tide of the war by landing a massive force at Inchon, some 100 miles (160 km) south of the 38th parallel and well behind North Korean lines. He thus, cut the North Korean army in two, and began moving northward, toward what now looked like an easy victory.

As the UN forces moved toward the Yalu River, which separated North Korea from China, Beijing issued a stern warning that it would not look lightly on the presence of a hostile force just across the border. MacArthur, however, remained confident, and at Thanksgiving 1950 promised Americans that their sons would be home for Christmas. This was not to be, as on November 25 the Chinese People's Liberation Army swept across the border with a force of some 180,000 soldiers. By December 15, the allied forces had fallen back below the 38th parallel, and two weeks later, on the last day of 1950, a Chinese-North Korean force numbering half a million troops pushed into South Korea again.

Thanks to relentless bombing by allied forces, the Communist force did not manage to move any further into South Korean territory, and thus began a lengthy stalemate that would characterize the remainder of the war. American leaders were sharply divided as to the means of resolving the conflict. MacArthur favored an extremely aggressive policy toward China, and proposed a naval blockade combined with bombing of Chinese bases in Manchuria. Truman, however, recognized the danger of such action, which he believed would bring a swift response from the Soviet Union. In the sharply polarized world climate, the price of aggression in Korea would almost certainly be armed conflict with the Soviets, and since they had managed to acquire atomic secrets through spies in the West, the result could very well be nuclear war.

The difference of opinion between MacArthur and Truman characterized that which would come to prevail between hard-line anti-Communists on the one hand, and pragmatists on the other. Overstepping the bounds of his authority as a military leader, MacArthur called on the American people to support his war plans, and for this act of insubordination, Truman relieved him of duty on April 11, 1951. Replaced by General Matthew B. Ridgway, MacArthur returned to the United States a hero, as much for his determination to defeat Communism as for his leadership against the Japanese in World War II. He would become a powerful symbol for the most extreme anti-Communist elements, who soon gained a voice in the Senate under the leadership of McCarthy. Thus began a sort of cold war within the Cold War, a division of the American public that would culminate with the bitter disagreements over the Vietnam War that emerged nearly two decades later.

Eisenhower and the War's End

Meanwhile, on July 10, 1951, the allied forces began a lengthy series of talks with the Communists. The situation remained unresolved during the 1952 presidential elections, and helped pave the way to victory for Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the most misunderstood of modern American leaders, Eisenhower was neither a fool nor a hard-liner, and precisely because he had led U.S. forces in Europe during World War II, he recognized the dangers of military adventurism, and tended to be even more of a pragmatist in military matters than Truman had been. Eisenhower, who years later would coin the phrase "military-industrial complex" as he warned against its rise in his farewell presidential address, opposed the Korean War, and vowed to end it.

Winning the presidency with the promise "I shall go to Korea," Eisenhower soon made good on his vow. His policy was the embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt's famous dictum about walking softly and carrying a big stick: though mild on the surface, in private discussions with Chinese leaders he made it clear that he would take aggressive steps, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, if the talks were not soon brought to resolution. Though fighting resumed briefly in June 1953, in the end Eisenhower's gambit won out, and on July 27, the two sides signed an armistice. Although the South gained possession of some eastern mountains north of the 38th parallel, the line virtually served as the boundary between North and South Korea.

In keeping with the emerging modern face of warfare, the Korean conflict was as much a battle of propaganda and intelligence as it was one of military forces. Both sides took large numbers of prisoners of war (POWs), which they exchanged at the end of the fighting, and the Communists in particular made heavy use of the propaganda value to be gained from POWs. Eight different POW camps dotted a stretch along the Yalu River, and in these facilities the Communists sought to demoralize their captives by segregating them according to rank, nationality, and even race. They bombarded the POWs on a daily basis with lessons on the superiority of Communism over capitalism, but the purpose of these activities seems to have been harassment rather than an actual effort to win converts.

The experience added a new term to the English language: brainwashing. The term referred to a variety of psychological and sometimes physical techniques intended to obliterate an individual's beliefs and replace them with new ones. Despite fears of brainwashing that spread through American society in the war's aftermath, there was never any conclusive psychological proof that brainwashing as such actually occurred. Some servicemen did make statements favorable to their captors, and others collaborated with the Communists, but these actions were the result either of fatigue under captivity, or of a simple desire for self-preservation.

Allied signals intelligence. In the behind-the-scenes dimension of the Korean War, the success of allied efforts in signals intelligence (SIGINT) was much more firmly established than that of the Communists in brainwashing. Continuing their record of achievements established in World War II, British and American cryptanalysts proved highly adept at breaking Chinese ciphers. Of particular significance was the breaking of Chinese one-time pad ciphers, which had been supposedly unbreakable, by American cryptanalysts. This was especially noteworthy in light of criticisms that U.S. intelligence had failed to predict the coming of the war itself.

In fact, the modern U.S. intelligence community had only barely come into existence at the war's outset, and Korea marked a turning point. Before the war, budgets for intelligence operations had been lean, but after the out-break of hostilities, Washington made a much firmer commitment to its intelligence community. Only three years before the war began, the National Security Act of 1947 had established the Central Intelligence Agency, and NSA had yet to be born. Instead, AFSA coordinated all cryptographic activities, though the leading SIGINT agency for the U.S. forces was the Army Security Agency (ASA).

Whereas AFSA is remembered as an administrative failure, and was further tainted by the discovery that one of its personnel, William Weisband, had been working for the Soviets since 1934, ASA had a number of notable successes. It cultivated a program of Korean linguists, and used a signal intercept technique from World War I to great effect. This was the ground-return intercept, which used the principle of electric induction to pick up Chinese and North Korean telephone traffic. Also significant was the work of the Air Force Security Service (AFSS), which regularly intercepted information on planned bombing runs and helped allied forces protect their facilities. As for the AFSA, it had been formed to coordinate the SIGINT activities of the military services, but by 1952 Washington had recognized its lack of success in doing so, and in that year a secret memo from Truman established the NSA.

The Legacy of Korea

Some 37,000 Americans died in Korea, along with smaller casualties among the British, Australian, and Turkish forces. The North Koreans lost half a million soldiers, and the Chinese sustained losses of one million. By far the worst casualties belonged to the South Koreans, who lost 1.3 million civilian and military personnel. Though the war resulted in a stalemate, it preserved South Korean independence, and resulted in the establishment of boundaries that remained in place 50 years later.

The war helped draw sharp lines between the Communist world and the West, and in its immediate aftermath, Americans were confronted with the specter of not one but two Communist superpowers allied against them. The Soviet-Chinese alliance would not hold, however, and by 1969 the two nations had become more hostile toward one another than either was toward the United States.

By gaining what could be construed as a victory in Korea, American leaders came away with the mistaken impression that large commitments of troops was a viable means of containing Communist expansion in small Asian nations. Thus, within a year of the Korean War's end, U.S. forces would become involved in another effort to roll back the Communist tide on the Asian continent, this time much further south, in Vietnam.

As for the two countries whose conflict had drawn the world's attention, the war only solidified the division between them. For many years, South Korea would maintain a strict authoritarian regime that, while liberal in comparison to that of North Korea, was hardly so by modern standards. In the 1980s, however, it would emerge as an economic powerhouse, and as its populace prospered, they began to demand greater political options. In time, their nation would become an example of the relationship between economic and political liberalization.

By contrast, North Korea would serve to exemplify the disastrous consequences of strict totalitarian control in practice. An Orwellian state, it was the virtual kingdom of Kim, which he would pass on—along with the gruesome cult of personality that developed around him—to his son Kim Jong Il upon his death in 1994. Plagued by famine, unable to sustain even the most basic needs of its populace, North Korea survived on the remittances sent home by citizens living in Japan, and by arms sales to other rogue dictatorships. Its development of missile technology, which it exported to extremist regimes of the Islamic world, would earn it a place, along with Iran and Iraq, on the "axis of evil" described by President George W. Bush in 2002.



Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Goulden, Joseph C. Korea, the Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Ridgway, Matthew B. The Korean War: How We Met the Challenge; How All-Out Asian War Was Averted; Why MacArthur Was Dismissed; Why Today's War Objectives Must Be Limited. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of the Korean War. New York: W. Morrow, 1988.

Toland, John. In Mortal Combat, Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Morrow, 1991.

Tomedi, Rudy. No Bugles, No Drums: An Oral History of the Korean War. New York: Wiley, 1993.

Weintraub, Stanley. MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero. New York: Free Press, 2000.


Korean War 50th Anniversary Commemoration. U.S. Department of Defense. < http://korea50.army.mil/ > (April 12, 2003).

NSA Korean War 1950–1953 Commemoration. National Security Agency. < http://www.nsa.gov/korea/ > (April 12, 2003).


Army Security Agency
COMINT (Communications Intelligence)
North Korea, Intelligence and Security
North Korean Nuclear Weapons Programs
NSA (United States National Security Agency)
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence)
South Korea, Intelligence and Security
United Nations Security Council
Vietnam War
World War II

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