The first major conflict of the cold war began in June 1950 and ended in an inconclusive armistice on July 27, 1953. Long considered a “forgotten war” in which almost 4 million people, including 136,000 U.S. citizens, were killed or wounded, the Korean conflict attracted increased academic and popular attention in the early 21st century.
Partition of the ancient former kingdom of Korea resulted from Allied maneuvers near the end of World War II. Occupied by Japan during the war, Korea was divided in 1945 at the 38th parallel. The Soviets occu- pied the northern area while the United States supervised the southern sector. As the cold war between these former allies intensified, this partition line became a new “Iron Curtain” dividing Koreans from each other.
So when the U.S. State Department learned in June 1950 that Communist North Korean forces had crossed the 38th parallel into anticommunist South Korea, President Harry S. Truman feared that South Korean forces alone would be unable to stop apparent Soviet plans to make all of Korea a communist regime. Taking advantage of a temporary Soviet boycott of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Truman persuaded UN members to declare North Korea the aggressor. This, rather than a congressional declaration of war, became the justification for fielding a joint UN force, dominated by U.S. officers and troops, to launch a “police action” in Korea.
UN forces were overwhelmed and pushed ever southward by the North Koreans until September, when General Douglas MacArthur, a World War II hero and Japan’s postwar governor, executed a daring amphibious assault at Inchon, just west of South Korea’s capital of Seoul. By October the 38th parallel was once again under UN control. But MacArthur wanted to go further. Meeting in October with the president MacArthur assured Truman that neighboring China would not interfere if UN forces reunited Korea under U.S. protection. China, fresh from its own communist revolution in 1949 and secretly armed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, took exception.
By the bitter winter of 1951 waves of Chinese soldiers had entered Korea and were again pushing UN troops southward. Yet MacArthur continued hostile moves against the Chinese and accused Commander in Chief Truman of “appeasement.” By the time Truman, supported unanimously by his Joint Chiefs of Staff, fired MacArthur for insubordination in April, the Korean conflict had settled into a violent stalemate centered on the original partition line. Peace negotiations began in June 1951, but foundered on the issue of repatriation. Many Chinese and North Korean war prisoners were unwilling to return to the regimes that had sent them into war.
The Korean stalemate became a venomous election issue in the United States, inspiring Republicans like Senator Joe McCarthy of Minnesota to question Truman’s and the Democrats’ patriotism. Elected president by a large margin in 1952, former General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, visited the Korean front lines after taking office, but no formal peace treaty ever resulted. A July cease-fire was declared, and the 38th
With her brother carried on her back, a Korean girl walks past a
stalled U.S. M-26 tank at Haengju, Korea. parallel, augmented by a DMZ (demilitarized zone) on either side, again marked the continuing division between North and South Korea. Over the years fighting occasionally broke out along the DMZ. North Korea remained a secretive and fanatically communist regime, while South Korea, despite difficulties adapting democratic political processes, became a major manufacturing power in Asia, rivaling Japan.