Korean War: A Brief Summary
On June 25, 1950, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) launched a surprise attack on South Korea. People in South Korea were unaware of the upcoming attack on that morning, which started a war that would kill more than 3,000,000 lives. Seoul, the capital of South Korea was quick to be captured by the North Korean troops, due to the fact that the attack had been unaccounted for.
Korean War Veterans Memorial commemorating men and women who died in the Korean War at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. [Corbis]
The war had begun with North Korean leader Kim Il Song's desire to unify the peninsula under Communist rule. Before WWII, the peninsula had been one country. The UN decided to draw a line between the 38th parallel to avoid a conflict between the US and the Soviet. However, with the Soviets occupying the northern side and the US troops occupying the southern side, the two sides became increasingly different in their giverning systems.
South Korea was aided by the UN troops and the US troops, led under McArthur. North Korea held out for as long as they could, then turned to the People's Republic of China for aid. When the UN and US troops had managed to push the DPRK troops up to the border between Manchuria and North Korea, a desperate Kim Il Song turned to the Chinese. With the use of thousands of foot soldiers, the Chinese were able to push the UN and US troops back to the 38th parallel.
The result was a three-year war in the peninsula, the war ending in 1953 w
ith an armistice.
the Chinese. With the use of thousands of foot soldiers, the Chinese were able to push the UN and US troops back to the 38th parallel.
ThIt's in the Korean War's inconclusive end that we can, perhaps, see its greatest historical significance.
In Korea, for the first time, Americans fought a war knowing that their enemies possessed nuclear weapons. This meant that the traditional American strategy of total war—doing anything and everything necessary to achieve total victory—might no longer be possible, as overly aggressive acts might cause the conflict to escalate into an apocalyptic nuclear exchange.
In Korea, American leaders had to develop, on the fly, new doctrines of limited warfare, carefully balancing the pursuit of strategic interests against the mortal threat of World War III.
They were only partly successful. American intervention saved South Korea from collapse, but efforts to go further to roll back the communist North Korean regime ended in defeat and bitter acrimony among top American leaders. The reputations of both General MacArthur and President Harry Truman suffered as the Korean situation bogged down into frustrating stalemate.
In Korea, the mighty American fighting force that had conquered Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan just five years earlier proved unable to defeat a seemingly inferior foe. The war in Korea, which cost billions of dollars and more than 36,000 American lives, taught a hard lesson: in the context of a nuclear Cold War, American power had its limits.
And as the subsequent, even more disastrous experience in Vietnamdemonstrated, it was a lesson that Americans had a hard time learning.