Last modified on March 5, 2022, at 00:13

Korean War

United States Marines land at Inchon, near Seoul, on 15 September 1950.

The Korean War was a conflict between communist and anti-communist states fought in Korea during the Cold War era. It that lasted from June 1950 to July 1953. Korea was a Japanese colony until August 1945, when it was divided into American and Soviet spheres of influence at the 38th parallel. In the South, Syngman Rhee became president as a result of elections supervised by the United Nations in May 1948. The Soviets installed a communist government under Kim Il-sung in North Korea in September 1948. American casualties were immense, though not as large as initially asserted by the Pentagon and engraved in the monuments; actual American war deaths were 33,652, while non-battle deaths in the war zone were 3,262, for a total of 36,914.[1]

The war began on June 25, 1950 when the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel to enter South Korea. Anti-communist forces retreated to a perimeter around the southern city of Busan. The U.S. staged a landing behind communist lines at Inchon, near Seoul, on September 15, 1950. This tactic routed the North Koreans. In a controversial move, Truman ordered US forces to pursue the North Koreans across the 38th parallel.

Facing imminent defeat, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin asked China to intervene on October 1. US troops crossed the 38th parallel on October 7. They briefly reached the Yalu River on November 21 before they were turned back by the Chinese. By June 1951, the military line had stabilized at approximately the 38th parallel, the pre-war dividing line.

The Korean War is often called the "forgotten war." But lessons learned and misunderstandings of Korea played a major roll in shaping later conflicts, notably the Vietnam War.

Lessons of war

Despite the "forgotten war" nickname, the Korean War had several enduring legacies, especially with regard to American policy during the Vietnam War.

Police action

The phrase "police action" has its origin in a press conference U.S. President Harry Truman gave on June 29, 1950. A reporter asked if it would be accurate to call the fighting in Korea a "police action" under the United Nations. "Yes," replied Truman. "That is exactly what it amounts to." Truman was making the point that the action was approved by the UN. But Truman's critics latched on to this phrase. It is one of the few things about the war that has never been forgotten.[2]

Crossing the 38th parallel

One of the best-remembered episodes of the war is Truman's decision to cross the 38th parallel in October 1950. Truman made this decision in secret on September 11, 1950 on the advise of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just before the Inchon landing. The staff of the National Security Council advised against it.[3]

Going to the "gates of Vladivostok" was likely to provoke a Soviet response, according to George Kennan, a leading Soviet specialist.[4] As an alternative, the French and British proposed a defensive line across the waist of Korea, located just north of Pyongyang. On September 29, the Joint Chiefs authorized South Korean troops to operate north of the 38th parallel. That same day, Kim asked Stalin for "volunteer units" from China. Stalin requested Chinese intervention in a cable to Mao on October 1.[5]

In a much discussed episode, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai woke Indian Ambassador K.M. Panikkar so they could have tea together in the wee hours of October 3. Zhou was Mao's closest associate. Zhou told Panikkar that China would intervene if American forces crossed 38th parallel. The South Korean forces that had already crossed were acceptable to China, he added.[5]

The Zhou-Panikkar meeting led to the misunderstanding that Chinese intervention was triggered by U.S. forces crossing the 38th parallel. It was Stalin's request of October 1 that allowed Mao to unveil his plans to the Politburo the following day. His was the only vote that mattered in Beijing. That is to say, Zhou knew that military intervention was a done deal before he met Panikkar. An impatient Stalin sent a bullying telegram on October 5 to demand that Mao act as soon as possible. The UN General Assembly voted on October 7 and American forces crossed the parallel later that day.[5]

Learning all the wrong lessons from Korea, Vietnam-era policymakers were careful not to violate that country's partition line. Thus Vietnam's communists had less motivation to seek a ceasefire than did those in Korea. In both countries, a defensible a northern border was required to allow a viable non-communist state to develop in the South. Yet the legal partition line was drawn in an arbitrary way.

Dismissal of MacArthur

Another well-remembered Korean War episode was Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951. The takeaway for most writers was that a president asserted civilian authority over the military. Truman supposedly saved the world from a nuke-crazed general. In fact, the dispute had nothing to do with nukes. It was triggered by General MacArthur's request to bomb Chinese bases in Manchuria and to use KMT forces from Taiwan. Truman and MacArthur already had a history of disputes of this type. It was MacArthur's decision to go public that led to his dismissal.

The popular narrative about nukes represents a form of blame shifting by pro-Truman historians. In reality, Truman's attitude toward nuclear weapons was, if anything, less responsible than MacArthur's. When asked by a reporter about the use of nuclear weapons in Korea on November 30, 1950, Truman responded, "I'm not a military authority that passes on those things....The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has."[2]

At their meeting at Wake Island on 15 October 1950, MacArthur had assured Truman that the chance of China intervening was "very little." The Eighth Army would be out of Korea by Christmas, he said. The basis for his confidence was not so much intelligence from the field as his understanding of "the Oriental mind." This was egotism posing as strategy. It took only ten days for the Chinese to prove MacArthur wrong at Unsan. In short, Truman had good reason to dismiss MacArthur prior to their dispute about using KMT soldiers.[2]

Among other things, the Truman-MacAuthur episode inspired U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to divide up authority among various generals in Vietnam.

No more Task Force Smiths!

A less well-known, but more uplifting example of generals fighting the last war is the increase in American military preparedness that followed the Korean War. The war left the U.S. military determined to never again demobilize to the extent it had at the beginning of the Korean War. To demobilize at the end of a war, leaving America unprepared for the next war, had been a recurring pattern in American history. The unprepared Task Force Smith, used at the beginning of the war, was the emblem of everything the post-Korean War military hoped to avoid.[6]



A Japanese colony until the end of World War II, Korea was divided by the Yalta agreement into two administrative zones in 1945, along the 38th parallel, occupied by the Soviet Union and the United States. In both zones competing government organizations were created to rule a unified Korea, and military forces raised.

In 1947, General Albert Wedemeyer made his report on China and Korea. The part on Korea was suppressed:

American and Soviet forces . . . are approximately equal, less than 50,000 troops each, [but] the Soviet-equipped and trained North Korean People's (Communist) Army of approximately 125,000 is vastly superior to the United States-organized constabulary of 16,000 Koreans equipped with Japanese small arms. The North Korean People's Army constitutes a potential military threat to South Korea, since there is strong possibility that the Soviets will withdraw their occupation forces and thus induce our own withdrawal.[7]

Wedemeyer warned that the communist would invade the South as soon as:

they can be sure that the North Korean puppet government and its armed forces ... are strong enough ... to be relied upon to carry out Soviet objectives without the actual presence of Soviet troops." General Lyman L. Lemnitzer said that before June 1950, when the attack occurred, no aid had been sent but a few hundred dollars worth of baling wire.[7]

The United Nations issued a resolution calling for withdrawal of both Soviet and American troops. Troops began withdrawing September 15, 1948. This left in South Korea 16,000 Koreans and 7500 Americans, both groups lightly armed, against 150,000 fully armed North Korean Communists. General Roberts, head of the U. S. Military Mission said the South Koreans were not permitted to arm adequately.

On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech to the National Press Club excluding South Korea from the defense perimeter.[8] Omar Bradley blamed Truman and Acheson in his memoir A General's Life, and historian Bill Shinn concurs.[9][10] During his address to the UN General Assembly, Truman said, “The men who laid down their lives for the United Nations in Korea will have a place in our memory, and in the memory of the world, forever. They died in order that the United Nations might live.” [11]


In the summer of 1950, North Korean forces under Kim Il-sung, 135,000 strong and supported by 200 aircraft, thrust southwards. The 95,000 strong South Korean army, created under US control, was unmotivated, inefficient and had been deliberately denied heavy weapons; within hours most formations had fled south, often abandoning their equipment. After a week, almost half of the South Korean army had disappeared.

A United Nations resolution, passed in the absence of the USSR, which was boycotting the UN at the time, condemned the attack and demanded the withdrawal of the North Korean forces. The United States was the most enthusiastic in pursuing these demands. A second resolution invited member nations to provide forces to repel the invasion, which the United States had already started doing.

The United States Air Force was the first (non-Korean) force to respond to the invasion. Initial action, however, was limited to making sure American citizens were evacuated safely. Once the first UN resolution was passed, attention turned to stopping the North Korean advance. USAF planes flew from bases in Japan and Okinawa, and two aircraft carriers were in the area, the USS Valley Forge and the British HMS Triumph. In addition, US cruisers and destroyers off the coast lent fire support to the retreating South Korean forces.[12]

The North Koreans had the latest piston-engine fighters from the Soviet Union, but they were outclassed by the first-generation jet fighters flown by the USAF and the US Navy. UN aircraft made several strikes on North Korean air bases, and by July 5, the NKAF had lost over a hundred aircraft and the UN had complete air superiority.[13]

No modern conventional war has been won without air superiority, but air power alone has never won a war, and the first months of the Korean War were a case in point. Air strikes by bombers and fighter-bombers slowed the North Korean advance, but the communist troops were just too numerous to stop, especially with the South Korean resistance crumbling. UN troops, mostly American, were sent in to help hold the line, but they were outnumbered, and forced back. In August, the lines finally stabilized along the Naktong River, establishing the Pusan perimeter.

Pusan perimeter

Pusan is a large port on the southern tip of Korea, through which came thousands of UN troops and hundreds of tanks and other heavy equipment. By August, enough troops had come through that they could successfully hold the line against the North Koreans. Knowing that time was not on their side, Kim Il-sung ordered his soldiers to breach the line by any means necessary. The North Korean army attacked repeatedly, but every attempt failed.[14]

Air power played a huge role in the defense of the perimeter. With the skies firmly in UN control, American and British fighters and bombers had free reign. B-29 Superfortresses, based on Okinawa, hit North Korean supply lines and rear areas. F-82 Twin Mustangs, F-80 Shooting Stars (America's first combat jets), and propeller-driven medium bombers flew from Japan constantly, usually targeting North Korean troops. F-51 Mustangs operated from rough airfields inside the perimeter itself, some only a few minutes flying time from the enemy lines. In addition, the carrier USS Philippine Sea had arrived, and joined the Valley Forge and Triumph in strikes on the North Koreans. By the second week of September, UN planes were averaging around 700 sorties per day in support of the troops holding the line.[13]

In early September, enough UN troops had entered Pusan that the perimeter was secure, and attention could be turned toward a counter-attack. Time, for the North Koreans, had run out.

Inchon landings

With the situation in the south finally stabilized, in September, 70,000 UN troops under General MacArthur, with massive support, landed at Inchon, near Seoul, surprising the exhausted North Koreans. The landings were an extremely risky operation; if any significant resistance had been encountered, the landing craft would probably have been stranded by the extreme tides of the landing zone, leaving the forces landed vulnerable to complete annihilation. However, they were lucky and only two days after the capture of Seoul from the 20,000 North Korean defenders was announced, it was actually achieved.

China intervenes

Led by Mao Zedong, the communists captured Nanjing, then the capital of China, from the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT, in April 1949. Mao's army was enormous, but he was dependent on money and weapons from Russia. During a trip to Moscow in early May, Mao concluded that only war with America would convince Stalin to continue funding his army.[5]

Until October, Mao was distracted by remnants of the KMT in southern China. His next target was the French in northern Vietnam. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung kept the date of his initial offensive in June secret from China to discourage Mao from intervening. In late August 1950, Mao began to move forces north toward Korea. U.S. forces landed at Inchon near Seoul on September 15, 1950. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized operations north of 38th parallel on September 29. Soviet specialist George Kennan warned that an American conquest of North Korea would put U.S. soldiers "at the gates of Vladivostok," a Russian naval base. Stalin approved Chinese intervention on October 1.[5]

There was an emergency meeting of the Chinese leadership at Zhongnanhai in Beijing from October 2-6. Military intervention was approved by "one and a half men," as Mao put it. The "half" was Zhou Enlai. The other party leaders, including Lin Biao were opposed. The decision was always Mao's to make as he had exercised dictatorial authority since 1943. Lin Biao had been Mao's first choice for commander. When he refused, General Peng Dehuai was appointed instead.[5]

American forces crossed the 38th parallel on October 7, intent upon destroying North Korean forces. They captured the capital Pyongyang in mid-October. The first Chinese counterattack was at Unsan on October 25. China broke off this offensive on November 6. By the time UN forces had reached the Yalu on November 21, China had sent hundreds of thousands of troops south from Manchuria, supported by Russian built MiG-15 fighters that were superior to any UN aircraft then in-country. The UN offensive was halted and by December UN forces were in retreat. In January, the Chinese captured Seoul.

Truman dismisses MacAuthur

In March 1951, a UN operation recaptured Seoul. In April, General MacArthur asked for permission to bomb Chinese bases in Manchuria and to use KMT forces from Taiwan. When President Truman rejected both of these proposals, MacArthur went public with his criticisms. Truman then replaced MacArthur with Gen. Matthew Ridgeway.


Ike ended the war by threatening to use nuclear weapons against China

By June the communist forces had had enough and called for a ceasefire, although it took until 1953 before an armistice was signed. As several participants have never formally made peace, the conflict remains technically active today, even though there has been no major combat since 1953; the ceasefire line (Demilitarized Zone) remains heavily fortified and militarized to the present day.

According to R.J. Rummel, forced labor, executions, and concentration camps were responsible for over one million deaths in North Korea from 1948 to 1987;[15] others have estimated 400,000 deaths in concentration camps alone.[16] Pierre Rigoulot estimates 100,000 executions, 1.5 million deaths through concentration camps and forced labor, and 500,000 deaths from famine, for a total of 2.1 million victims (not counting 1.3 million dead in the war).[17] Estimates based on the most recent North Korean census suggest that 240,000 to 420,000 people died as a result of the 1990s famine and that there were 600,000 to 850,000 unnatural deaths in North Korea from 1993 to 2008.[18] The famine, which claimed as many as one million lives, has been described as the result of the economic policies of the North Korean government,[19] and as deliberate "terror-starvation".[20]

Strong evidence exists that American POWs in the war were taken to the Soviet Union.[21]

Air War

The Korean War was the first conflict in which jet aircraft fought each other. (Both the Luftwaffe and the RAF had operational jets in WWII, but they never came into direct conflict.) Most jet battles took place near the Yalu River, in the airspace over north-western North Korea known as "MiG alley." The UN forces generally retained air superiority throughout most of the war, and air power helped compensate for the Communists' superior numbers on the ground.

The general lack of permanent runways in Korea hindered the use of jet aircraft and bombers, forcing the Allies to use piston aircraft. The F-51 Mustang was the most numerous Allied aircraft in the early months of the war. In November 1950, the first of the MiG-15 aircraft appeared, and was able to outperform all Allied fighters until the introduction of the F-86 Sabre. The Sabre was arguably slightly inferior to the MiG-15, but the veteran American pilots eventually produced a kill ratio of approximately 12:1 in their favor. Many of these aerial dogfights took place in the northwestern corner of Korea, a place given the name 'Mig Alley' by Allied pilots.

Another noteworthy point during the Korean Conflict was the first significant use of helicopters, for transport, reconnaissance and rescue missions.

Overall, Korea was not a good place to deploy advanced aircraft. The climate provided extremes of temperature and much abrasive sand. The marsh-like rice fields and mountainous terrain were poor areas for runways, which tended to be rudimentary at best. The helicopter, however, proved itself in Korea, as it could perform the reconnaissance missions of planes without airstrips and the transport tasks of ground vehicles without the need to cross the rugged terrain.


UN Multinational Forces

Communist Forces

See also


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Patterson, James T., Oxford History of the United States, vol. 10, chapter 8 "Korea."
  3. Stueck, William W, "Korean War," Dictionary of American History.
  4. Chi Young Pak, Korea and the United Nations
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Chang, Jung; Halliday, Jon. Mao: The Unknown Story. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. "Why Mao and Stalin Started the Korean War." Chang had access to the Russian archive, which is ignored by most writers on this subject.
  6. Fehrenback, T.R., This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History, "Forward" by Gordan Sullivan.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hearings before the Senate Committee on Armed Services and Committee on Foreign Relations, June 6, 1951.
  9. A General's Life by Omar N. Bradley, pg. 528
  10. The Forgotten War Remembered, Korea: 1950-1953: A War Correspondent's Notebook & Today's Danger in Korea by Bill Shinn, pg. 52
  12. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy, by Craig L. Symonds, the Naval Institute, 1995
  13. 13.0 13.1 Rolling Thunder: Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War, by Ivan Rendall, Dell Publishing, 1997
  14. Battle, by R.G. Grant, DK Publishing, 2005
  15. Rummel, R.J. (1997), Statistics Of North Korean Democide: Estimates, Calculations, And Sources, Statistics of Democide, Transaction.
  16. Omestad, Thomas, "Gulag Nation", U.S. News & World Report, June 23, 2003.
  17. Black Book of Communism, pg. 564.
  18. Spoorenberg, Thomas and Schwekendiek, Daniel (2012). "Demographic Changes in North Korea: 1993–2008", Population and Development Review, 38(1), pp. 133-158.
  19. Stephan Haggard, Marcus Noland, and Amartya Sen (2009), Famine in North Korea, Columbia University Press, p.209.
  20. Rosefielde, Stephen (2009), Red Holocaust, Routledge, p. 109.
  21. Kirkwood, R. Cort (September 1, 2018). Evidence of American POWs in the Soviet Union. The New American. Retrieved September 1, 2018.