This year marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean Conflict. It has been called our ‘forgotten war,’ although recent efforts have been made to remind the American public what it was all about. These articles are a small effort in that direction.
The Korean peninsula protrudes from the Asian mainland directly west of southern Japan. Although the northern portion that became the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is almost totally bordered in the west by China, that country’s portion of the peninsula also shares a small stretch of border with Russian Siberia. Korea was under the brutal occupation of Japan from 1910 until 1945. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. Its involvement lasted one week, and had little effect on the outcome of the war. Joseph Stalin hoped to get a piece of Japan as a result of his late entry into the war. He was not very successful (gaining only the barren Kuril Islands). However, Russia was able to make a huge land grab in mainland Asia. Hundreds of thousands of captured Japanese troops in Manchuria and Korea were marched off to the Gulag. Many were never seen again.
At the end of the war, Europe was the United States’ main concern. Unwisely, U.S. leaders agreed with Russia to share the post-war occupation of Korea, dividing the Russian and US zones along the 38th Parallel similar to the partition made in Germany. It proved to be a horrible mistake.
In October 1945, Syngman Rhee proclaimed himself head of a provisional government in South Korea. In the north, the Soviet Union installed a brutal communist strongman, Kim Il Sung. By 1948, there were two de facto countries. Rhee’s government was hardly the epitome of a ‘liberal democracy’, but it compared very favorably to the Soviet and Red Chinese supported north.
Korean tension was part of a larger world-wide drama. By the end of 1945, Stalin’s Soviet Union had effected a complete takeover of Eastern Europe. Stalin’s murderous regime was in full stride. The Soviet communists made no bones about their intent at world domination. “Uncle Joe” was no longer our ally against the Germans. Having allowed themselves to be duped by the Soviet Union as to its intentions in Eastern Europe, the West looked on in growing horror as entire countries were occupied and placed under the thumb of a totalitarian dictator who had cause the deaths of literally millions of his own countrymen The ‘Iron Curtain’ had come down.. Then in 1949, the Red Chinese achieved victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists who then fled to the island of Formosa. Was there anything that could stop this seemingly monolithic juggernaut? ‘Containment’ became US policy. But ‘containment’ was defined differently at different times. Containment bounced back and forth between just defending ‘strong points’ like Western Europe and Japan and fighting the communists wherever they cropped up, like in Vietnam. And in early 1950, very mixed signals were being sent as to the West’s will to defend South Korea from invasion. .
Apart from the U.S. signals to the communist bloc that its interests in Korea were limited, other serious problems existed. After World War II, US military was dismantled too quickly, without a lot of thought to the consequences. Attempts at ‘trimming the fat’ cut deeply into the muscle and fiber of the armed forces. The US and its allies failed to adequately arm the Republic of Korea (ROK) army, in part because of Rhee’s opposition to any occupation of the peninsula by outside countries and his saber rattling against the North. The military draw-down left South Korea with approximately 500 U.S. military advisors in country. This was done in spite of intelligence that showed that the Soviets had provided substantial arms and training to the North Korean army and air forces (KPA).
The stage was set for war. Unfortunately, the United States and South Korea were caught totally off guard when it occurred. Flare-ups and border incursions along the 38th Parallel between the North and South had occurred since the division of the peninsula, but the events of the summer of 1950 escalated a tense stand-off into a conflagration.
On June 24th, the KPA struck south in a well coordinated attack with tanks, artillery, aircraft, and over 200,000 well trained troops. The poorly trained and armed southerners never stood a chance. Many soldiers were on leave to assist in the rice harvest. The ROK had no heavy artillery, aircraft, or tanks. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, was captured within days. Aided by large numbers of infiltrators posing as refugees, the KPA moved south without any appreciable opposition.
How would the US respond? President Truman sidestepped Congress by not asking for a declaration of war (a precedent that would get the U.S. in trouble in later years), and instead asked the U.N. to authorize a ‘police action’ by its members. In a rare display of solidarity, the United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion (the Soviet Union was not in attendance to veto the resolution). U.S. Army troops were pulled from comfortable occupation duty in Japan and thrown piecemeal into the maelstrom on the Korean peninsula. The result was predictable – poorly armed contingents of the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions were chewed up trying to slow the North’s progress. The area controlled by the ROK and US was shrinking fast, and it was just a matter of time until South Korea ceased to exist.
Hurriedly the United States and it allies (Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Turkey and others) began assembling additional troops and equipment. The question was whether this effort would be in time. It would be a close run thing.
NEXT: The Pusan Perimeter and the Inchon Landing.