On May 15, 2017, the Asheville Citizen-Times published an article about a Blue Ridge Honor Flight taking 90 veterans of World War II and the Korean War to Washington to see the memorials dedicated to those who had died in those wars. The Korean War veterans were greeted at that memorial by members of the Republic of Korea armed forces, who presented them with medals for their service there. It has been 64 years since the Korean War ended in a stalemate, with nothing resolved. Rumors of war are once again being heard from both South and North Korea.
The Koreans live either in the Republic of South Korea on one hand or the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea on the other, whose common boundary is the demarcation line from the Korean War that was agreed on in 1953. For most of the first half of the twentieth century Korea was a dependency of Japan. At the end World War II, the USSR liberated the north from the Japanese and the United States freed the south. Both agreed to divide the country at the 38th parallel, with the Russians occupying the north and the Americans the south. The Americans and Russian pulled their troops out of the country in 1948. That worked until June 1950.
In the south, an organization headed by Syngman Rhee gained control of the government. The United States refused to give his military heavy weapons because it was afraid Rhee was going to attack the North. Also, the United States was cutting its defense spending, concentrating its armed forces in Europe, where the Russians dominated the eastern part of the continent and the Cold War was heating up. Meanwhile, with the backing of the Soviets and the Chinese, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, built up a strong army. His military forces included Koreans who had fought in the Chinese Civil War on the side of the Communists.
Late in the spring of 1950, rumors were spreading in the south of an attack from the north. The North Korean military, using a fake attack as an excuse to start a war, poured across the 38th parallel on the early morning of Saturday, June 25 , backed by Soviet made tanks and MIG fighter aircraft. The closest American forces were the 8th Army on occupation duty in Japan, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.
As soon as word reached the United States of the North Korean invasion, President Truman’s administration went to the United Nation’s Security Council at the behest of Secretary of State, Dean Acheson . (1) The Security Council met on the afternoon of June 25 and voted 9-0 to brand the North Korean action “a breach of the peace.” That evening President Truman met with his security and military advisors to decide what steps to take next. Gen. MacArthur was instructed to send transportation to Korea to evacuate Americans and get ammunition and other supplies to the ROK army as fast as possible. Thirdly, the 7th Fleet was to deploy at the Formosa Strait. Two days later, on June 27, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on member nations to support the ROK’s efforts to push back the North Koreans to the 38th parallel. (2)
The North Korean army drove the ROK army south and by the time American forces re-enforced them, the Communists had the South Koreans and their allies hemmed in around Pusan in southeast Korea. Even as United States troops were fighting in Korea, President Truman refused to admit the country was at war. He did, however, agree with a reporter who asked if the UN was fighting a “police action” against the North Koreans. (3) To relieve the Pusan Perimeter, General MacArthur planned an amphibious landing at Incheon on the west coast, near Seoul, behind the People’s Army lines. American soldiers landed there on 4 September, 1950, totally surprising the Communists.
After the Americans captured Incheon, the other UN forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter, driving the North Koreans north. As the Communists got closer to the 38th parallel the question was, should the ROK troops and their UN allies follow them? The ROK army did not hesitate to go into North Korea and UN forces followed them. By the end of October as UN forces approached the Yalu River, the border between Manchuria and North Korea, the Chinese Communists attacked in force. Despite warnings from the Chinese they would enter the war if the ROK and UN forces crossed the 38th parallel, both MacArthur and Truman were surprised at the the Chinese actions and the allied fighters suffered heavy casualties while retreating.
At first the Chinese troops made a difference driving the UN forces south across the 38 the parallel. That is, until Matthew Ridgway was given command of the 8th Army early in 1951. ( His predecessor General Walton (‘Johnny’) Walker was killed in an accident on his way to the front in December 1950.) By the time Ridgway reached Korea to take command, UN forces were back in South Korea and Seoul was back in Communist hands. Ridgway re-organized the 8th army at the same time the Communists were having trouble supplying their troops, forcing them to fight with not enough food or clothes. The North Korean/Chinese morale sunk and more and more soldiers surrendered to the UN forces. Ridgway’s responsibilities were widened in April, when Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his command by President Truman.* He was promoted to a full general (four stars), took MacArthur’s place in Japan, and governed until the occupation ended in 1952.
After Ridgway took command of the 8th Army, UN forces forced the Communists back towards the 38th parallel and liberated Seoul again. In the summer of 1951 both sides agreed to begin cease fire talks. Unfortunately, the bickering lasted two years, as did the stalemate on the ground, before an agreement was signed in August 1953. By that time Dwight David Eisenhower was President of the United States.
* – More about that aspect of the Korean War in my next blog.
(1) Cabell Phillips, The Truman Presidency, p. 288.
(2) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Korea, Volume VII , Document 130 (https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1950v07/d130)
(3) H. W. Brands, The General and the President, p. 97
For further reading:
Clay Blair. The Forgotten War : America in Korea, 1950-1953.
David Halberstam. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.
Max Hastings. The Korean War.
Marguerite Higgins. War in Korea. online at: https://ia800303.us.archive.org/35/items/warinkoreatherep011941mbp/warinkoreatherep011941mbp.pdf
William Manchester. American Caesar
David McCullough. Truman.
Cabell Phillips. The Truman Presidency
John Toland. In Mortal Combat : Korea, 1950-1953.