On June 25, 1950, Communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea, beginning a three-year war. Three days later, the South Korean capital of Seoul fell to the North Koreans. President Truman immediately ordered U.S. air and sea forces to "give the Korean government troops cover and support."
The conflict lasted until July 27, 1953. The United States suffered 54,246 battle deaths and 103,284 wounded.
Tensions had festered since the Korean peninsula had been divided into a Communist North and a non-Communist South in 1945. With the partition, 10 million Koreans were separated from their families.
For three months, the United States was unable to stop the communist advance. Then, Douglas MacArthur successfully landed two divisions ashore at Inchon, behind enemy lines. The North Koreans fled in disarray across the 38th parallel, the pre-war border between North and South Korea.
The initial mandate that the United States had received from the United Nations called for the restoration of the original border at the 38th parallel. But the South Korean army had no intention of stopping at the pre-war border, and on Sept. 30, 1950, they crossed into the North. The United States pushed an updated mandate through the United Nations, and on Oct. 7, the Eighth Army crossed the border.
By November, U.S. Army and Marine units thought they could end the war in just five more months. China's communist leaders threatened to send combat forces into Korea, but the U.S. commander, Douglas MacArthur, thought they were bluffing.
In mid-October, the first of 300,000 Chinese soldiers slipped into North Korea. When U.S. forces began what they expected to be their final assault in late November, they ran into the Chinese army. There was a danger that the U.S. Army might be overrun. The Chinese intervention ended any hope of reunifying Korea by force of arms.
General MacArthur called for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to unleash American air and naval power against China. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Omar Bradley, said a clash with China would be "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy."
By mid-January 1951, Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway succeeded in halting an American retreat 50 miles south of the 38th parallel. A week and a half later, he had the army attacking northward again. By March, the front settled along the 38th parallel and the South Korean capital of Seoul was back in South Korean hands. American officials informed MacArthur that peace negotiations would be sought.
In April, President Truman relieved MacArthur of his command after the general, in defiance of Truman's orders, commanded the bombing of Chinese military bases in Manchuria. The president feared that such actions would bring the Soviet Union into the conflict.
The Korean War was filled with lessons for the future. First, it demonstrated that the United States was committed to the containment of communism, not only in Western Europe, but throughout the world. Prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, the Truman administration had indicated that Korea stood outside America's sphere of vital national interests. Now, it was unclear whether any nation was outside this sphere.
Second, the Korean War proved how difficult it was to achieve victory even under the best circumstances imaginable. In Korea, the United States faced a relatively weak adversary and had strong support from its allies. The United States possessed an almost total monopoly of sophisticated weaponry, and yet, the war dragged on for almost four years.
Third, the Korean War illustrated the difficulty of fighting a limited war. Limited wars are, by definition, fought for limited objectives. They are often unpopular at home because it is difficult to explain precisely what the country is fighting for. The military often complains that it is fighting with one armed tied behind its back. But if one tries to escalate a limited war, a major power, like China, might intervene.
Finally, in Korea U.S. policymakers assumed that they could make the South Korean government do what they wanted. In reality, the situation was often reversed. The South Korean government played a pivotal role in defining military strategy and shaping the peace negotiations. In the end, the United States was only able to extricate itself from the war by making a long-term commitment to the South Korean government in terms of money, men, and materiel.
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