The Korean War


Korea before 1945

  • Korea has a long history of being dominated by foreign powers
  • Prior to 1895, Korea's giant northern neighbour China was the greatest threat
  • From 1895-1945, Korea was controlled by Japan
  • During WW2 1941-5, US and USSR were allies
  • Although Korea was very low on their list of priorities, they discussed its future
  • Suggested that after Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation that it would be guided towards independence
  • the proposed trustees were the US, China and the USSR
  • there were more concrete proposals for the taking of the Japanese surrender, which the Soviets were to take in the north of Korea and the Americans south
  • After Japan was defeated, Soviet droops entered the Northern half of Korea and American troops entered the southern half
  • By the time Russian and American troops finally left, two Koreas had been created
  • one was pro-Soviet and the other pro-American
  • Could be said that the origins of the Korean War lay in these military decisions taken in 1945 which became significant because of the development of the Cold War
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Korea 1945-9

  • Late 1945, USA and USSR began 18 months of what proved to be unsuccessful negotiations over the reunification of Korea
  • Meanwhile, Korea divided into 2 by their occupying forces
  • initially, USA keen to get its troops out of south Korea
  • in September 1947; JCS said it was pointless keeping them there as Korea had no strategic significance
  • As Cold War tensions increased, Truman, who feared domestic criticism and damage to US credibility rejected JCS arguments for early withdrawal
  • As both great powers had troops stationed in Korea, not surprising USA tried to create a state in its own image in southern part of the country
  • Soviets did likewise in the northern part
  • USA wanted to gain international approval for its policies and ambitions for Korea
  • 1947: USA successfully pressured UN into issuing resolution favouring reunification following nationwide elections in Korea
  • Under further US pressure, UNN supervised elections but only in American controlled south
  • As a result, pro-American anti-Communist Syngman Rhee elected as leader of Republic of Korea in May 1948 (South Korea)
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Korea 1945-9

  • September 1948, Democratic People's Republic of Korea i.e North Korea was established under the leadership of Kim Il Sung
  • Some historians say the USSR was determined to establish and dominate a Stalinist government in North Korea
  • Other historians say the Soviets sponsored North Korean self-government and wide-ranging economic and social reforms
  • Many believe that Kim had considerable popular support and that if free nationwide elections had been held in Korea, he would have won
  • Late 1948: Soviet troops left North Korea
  • In contrast, American troops only left in sprint 1949
  • US exit was delayed because of a major uprising against Syngman Rhee in October 1948 and American soldiers were needed to keep him in power
  • Eve of the Korean war, there were 2 Koreas
  • North Korea was Communist: pro-Russian and pro-Chinese
  • South Korea was anti-Communist and pro-American
  • North Korea was militarily superior to South Korea, having been armed by the USSR
  • Both Koreas wanted reunification but each wanted it on his terms
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The US Position on Korea in Early 1950

  • British historian peter Lowe believed that an "unquestionable foolish" combination of US statements and acts contributed greatly to the outbreak of the Korean War
  • These were:
  • 12 January 1950,  Secretary of State Dean Acheson defined the American "defence perimeter" in the pacific
  • this was an imaginary line drawn from north to south through the Pacific Ocean
  • Acheson said that any attack on the country east of that line would be seen as an attack on America itself
  • The Democrat chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Connally, made a speech in which he seemed willing to accept a Communist takeover of the whole peninsula
  • January 1950, Republican dominated Congress rejected a bill that gave aid to Korea
  • Here, Republicans were trying to make the point that they opposed the Democat Truman's China policy
  • Congress passed the bill in February but damage had been done as the initial rejection suggested that Korea did not matter greatly to the US
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The Korean Civil War

  • Most historians agree that the 2 Koreas were already waging civil war before North Korea's attack triggered the full scalle internationalised Korean War
  • Korean civil war was caused by the nationalism and ambition of Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee 
  • There had been frequent border clashes, mostly initiated by South Korea, beginning in the summer of 1948 and peaking in the summer of 1949
  • Seems that Kim Il Sung thought his June 1950 invasion of South Korea would inspire rebellion against the autocratic Syngman Rhee
  • West was certain that North Korea was the aggressor however some Western historians remained unconvinced it was all Communists' fault
  • Whatever the reality, US convinced USSR and China were behind an aggressive North Korean attack on South Korea
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The Soviets, the Chinese and the Outbreak of the K

Stalin's role

  • Essential that Kim had Stalin's approval for the invasion of South Korea
  • North Korean leader could not have made an effective attack without Soviet fighter planes
  • Throughout 1949, Stalin repeatedly stopped Kim from attacking South Korea because the Soviet leader feared that this would lead to US intervention
  • In the end, Stalin gave him the go ahead
  • Reasons for this include:
  • After China became Communist in late 1949, Communist parties throughout the world were keen to see Korea become totally Communist
  • Yugoslav representative at the UN said Stalin encouraged Kim in order to get the US embroiled with Communist China
  • Stalin was anxious about a resurgent Japan which semed to be changing speedily from US foe to US friend
  • Korean War would distract the US from Europe, enabling Stalin to feel more secure in that region
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The Soviets, the Chinese and the Outbreak of the K

Mao's role

  • The US believed Moscow and beijing colluded in the North Korean attack on South Korea
  • Mao feared a resurgent Japan and his concern for his frontiers was demonstrated by his invasion of Tibet a few adys before Chinese troops poured into Korea
  • A more persuasive argument is that it was not "Mao's war"
  • China had only recently emerged from civil war and the new Communist regime was still not fully established 
  • Were Mao to undertake any foreign adventures, Taiwan was surely a greater priority
  • Kim Il Sung preferred Stalin to Mao, partly because he feared China more as it was closer and historically had worked to dominate its smaller neighbour
  • Although Mao followed Stalin in giving his approval for the attack, Stalin clearly took the lead
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The US Entry into the Korean War

Reason 1: American anti-Communism

  • Underlying all other reasons was American anti-Communism
  • US feared an ideology that rejected capitalism and political democracy 
  • Americans beleived that their security would be threatened in a world where more and more countries went Communist
  • Anticipated that those countries would refuse to trade with the US and thereby damage the US economy
  • It was believed that those countries would try to export their ideology by persuasion or force to all other countries including the US

Reason 2: the world balance of power

  • From the time Russia became Communist, US feared Communist dominated world
  • By 1950, this eventuality became likely
  • Prior to WW2, USSR remained world's only Communist country
  • Towards end of WW2, they began to create pro-Soviet regimes in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia
  • By 1950, all of Eastern Europe and Soviet half of Germany effectively disappeared behind Stalin's "Iron Curtain"
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The US Entry into the Korean War

Reason 2 (continued)

  • Early in 1948, opposition to Communism in Czechoslovakia was stopped
  • This was seen as proof of Soviet expansionism
  • Spring 1948, Stalin blocked Western road, rail and canal access to West Berlin
  • West perceived his actions to be a highly aggressive attack on the status quo
  • August 1949, US monopoly of the atomic bomb came to an end
  • Soviet testing of their first bomb was a great and frightening blow to US confidence and security
  • October 1949, China became Communist. Truman was now vulnerable to Republican accusations that by ceasing aid to Chang Kai-shek he had "lost China"
  • After the fall of China, Communism seemed to be entering a dynamic expansionist phase
  • Some historians emphasise US Cold War credibility as a major cause of US entry into the war 
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The US Entry into the Korean War

Reason 3: McCarthyism and domestic political concerns

  • February 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy declared that there were Communists in the State Department
  • Generated large-scale anti-Communist hysteria
  • In this atmosphere, Truman had to be seen as tough in handling with Communist threat
  • Initially, wars tend to make the American people rally around their president, so Truman's political motivation in entering the Korean War has long been emphasised by historians, although others deny that he went to war to increase his own popularity

Reason 4: NSC-68

  • Early 1950, Truman commisioned the National Security Council to produce a planning paper
  • Wanted it to summarise where the US stood and in which direction it should move in relation to Communism
  • NSC-68: classic Cold War document as it describes a polarised world in which the enslaved faced the free
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The US Entry into the Korean War

Reason 4 (continued)

  • The paper recommended the following
  • the development of a hydrogen bomb even more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan so that the US could resist Communist attempts at domination 
  • the build up of US conventional forces, in order to defend American shores and to enable the US to fight limited wars abroad
  • Higher taxes to finance the struggle
  • Alliances that would gain help for the United States
  • the mobilisation of the American public as the country needed to be united in the waging of this war

Reason 5: Fears for Japan

  • After WW2, American occupation under General MacArthur had revitalised Japan which was beginning to develop into a friend
  • Japan only 100 miles from South Korea and was within Acheson's defence perimeter
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The US Entry into the Korean War

Reason 5 (continued)

  • Safety of Japan would be jeapordised if it were to be faced by a totally Communist Korean peninsula with Communism apparently on the march
  • Defence Department told Truman that Japan was vital in the defence of the West against Communism

Reason 6: The United Nations and lessons from history

  • Collrctive security had been tried in the years between the 2 world wars in the form of the League of nations
  • Failure of this body was thought to have played a role in the outbreak of WW2
  • Truman felt that the 1930s had taught that collective security needed to be supported and appeasement needed to be avoided
  • Truman believed that the UN was being tested when North Korea attacked South Korea 
  • Truman felt certain of support from Western allies such as France and Britain as they were anxious about Communist unrest in their colonial possessions
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Key debates on the Korean War

Debate 1: A war of Communist aggression

  • For many years, traditional orthodox viewpoint on the Korean War among Western historians was that this was a war of Communist aggression
  • However, it has been emphasissed that this was, initially, a Korean civil war
  • the consensus that has emerged since then is that the North korean attack was motivated more by Korean nationalism and by the desire for the reunification of peninsula than by Communist aggression

Debate 2: Chinese and Soviet motivation

  • There had been much disagreement about the roles played by Stalin and Mao in Kim's invasion
  • Some historians still agree with the Truman administration and believe the USSR ordered North Korea to attack
  • New evidence has emerged since the opening of Chinese and Soviet archives and has illuminated Chinese and Soviet motivation
  • Soviet documents show Stalin repeatedly refused to approve the invasion but after Mao's victory in China, pressure grewn on him to facilitate a similar victory in Korea
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Key debates on the Korean War

Debate 3: US motivation in East Asia

  • Traditional interpretation of US interrvention in East Asia remains popular
  • According to his interpretation, US was motivated by anti-Communism, containment and the Cold War
  • Revionist historians accuse the US of a neocolonialinist policy which aimed at achieving US economic hegemony in East Asia
  • this neocolonialism can be said to explain the strong Washington support for British effots to reassert british colonial rule in Malaya, the Dutch in East Indies or the French in Indochina
  • Some historians see the USA as a benevolent occupying power
  • Some see the Cold War dictating US policy in Japan
  • Post-revisionists see US policy as combining the several elements, especially the desire to promote democracy and capitalism during the Cold War
  • US intervention in Korea is variously interpreted 
  • Some emphasise containment whereas others emphasise US economic ambitions
  • USA believed Japan's economic revival required access to markets and raw materials in other countries such as Korea and Malaya
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

The Internationalisation of the War

a) the course of events in summer 1950

  • 25 June 1950: North Korea attacked South Korea which prompted UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie to assert
  • The attack debated in the UN Security Council in the absence of the USSR and encouraged by the USA, Security Council passed a resolution that asked the aggressor, North Korea, to withdraw
  • On 27 June, another Security Council resolution declared that the UN should oppose North Korea
  • On hearing of the North Korean attack, Truman said to his secretary of state, Dean Acheson "We've got to stop the sons of ******* no matter what"
  • Truman did not ask Congress to declare war
  • As the South Korean capital, Seoul, fell to the Communists, Truman sent US troops to korea on 30 June
  • General Douglas MacArthur warned that without them, the Communists would take over the whole of Korea
  • From the first, there were major tensions between Truman and MacArthur
  • Internationalisation of Korean civil war raised several questions such as why US entered war and whether MacArthur was a wise choice as UNC commander
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

The significance of the US entry into the Korean War

  • US taking a sigificant risk entering the Korean War
  • General Omar Bradley, chairman of JCS was convinced that the USSR and China would not get involved
  • When Truman ordered American forces into Korea, he was "significantly expanding and militarising" US foreign policy in Asia
  • When Truman sent the 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Straits, he was reinjecting the US into a Chinese civil war from which America had extricated itself in 1947
  • While dispatch of 7th Fleet was motivated of US fear that a Chinese Communist takeover would take place in Taiwan, Communist China saw this as an aggressive move
  • Chinese fears were confirmed when General MacArthur made a high profile viist to Taiwan to see Chiang Kai-Shek on 30 July and publicly praise him
  • Britain criticised this extension of the Korean conflict to China
  • Dispatch of the 7th Fleet created confusion over US war aims
  • Within the context of American domestic politics, Truman was taking a great risk
  • Truman concerned as to whether he needed congressional declaration of war
  • Truman's failure to do this led to great political difficulties, giving his opponents the opportunity to call the Korean War "Truman's War"
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

The choice of MacArthur as UNC commander

  • General Douglas MacArthur was a career soldier with a great reputation
  • Americans considered him one of the heroes of WW2 
  • With a reputation as a great soldier and an expert on East Asia, he seemed to be a logical choice as UNC commander
  • However, MacArthur had his faults
  • John Foster, Dulles, the leading Republican spokeman on foreign affairs warned Truman that tact would be needed by the UN commander and that this wasn't MacArthur's strongpoint
  • JCS Chaiarman Omar Bradley thought MacArthur was domineering, vain and arrogant
  • Truman himself had great reservations about macArthur 
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Key Debate: A US or UN War

  • Truman frequently maintained that the Koeran War was a UN War, a UN "police action"
  • US troops painted "Harry's police" on the sides of their tanks and jeeps
  • 15 other nations fought alongside the US and South Korea
  • On the other hand, the US and South Korea provided 90% of the fighting men and although MacArthur headed UNC, he never communicated directly with the UN
  • There was disagreement among America's allies over issues such as the dispatch of the US 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Straits
  • No doubt that throughout the war, the US did what it wanted to do without reference to the UN and its allies
  • In some ways, MacArthur's refusal to deal with the UN is understandable as there were difficulties in co-ordinating the war effort
  • Around 40,000 troops from other UN countries joined American troops in Korea
  • Roughly 20,000 of these were from Britain, Australia, NZ and Canada
  • Communications between the different nationalities proved difficult
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

The Military Situation, June-September 1950

American troop preparation and motivation

  • American, South Korean and UN forces struggled throughout the summer of 1950
  • they were on the defensive as they were unprepared for the attack
  • US Army had been rapidly run down after WW2
  • Although under experienced and aggressive Major Walton Walker, the US 8th Army had gone soft on occupation duty in Japan
  • For 5 years, they had been like policemen in a crime-free society
  • Morale was high at ffirst 
  • However, as the war dragged on, there was little to provide inspirational motivation for the American soldiers who fought in Korea
  • Fighthing a limited war for ideology made it difficult to maintain morale
  • There had been no motivating attack on American soil, as at Pearl Harbour
  • there were no strong ancestral links to Korea as there had been for many American soldiers fighting in Europe during WW2
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

American troop preparation and motivation (continued)

  • Korea seemed to a particularly unpleasant place to fight
  • Temperature was over 38 degrees 
  • Thirsty American soldiers drunk water from rice fiels and caught chronic dysentry
  • Americans could not tell who was North Korea and who was South Korea
  • Early in the war, co-ordination between the US air force and American ground troops was very poor
  • On 3 JUly, US planes bombed an ROK train and 2 train depots killing 200 ROK soldiers
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Early retreat, July 1950

  • American confidence soon disappeared as the US forces failed to halt the North Korean tanks
  • US military planners had previously decided that mountains and rice paddies of Korea made it's landscape unsuitable for tanks
  • As a result, none were given to Syngman Rhee
  • Performance of the North Korean Soviet-built T-34 tanks proved those US military planners wrong
  • Retreat became chaotic and inexperienced American troops frequently fled which became known as "bugout fever"
  • North Koreans were a tough enemy and from the first there American bitterness about North Korean tactics and atrocities
  • Fighting was brutal and the number of casualties was very high
  • Of the 4000 Americans who fought at Taejon, 1 in 3 ended up dead, wounded or missing
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

The Pusan Perimeter, August 1950

  • During August, retreating US and ROK troops were pinned behind the Pusan Perimeter, an area 100 miles by 50 miles in southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula
  • Within the area were the only port and airfield left where the US could land more troops and supplies
  • A ROK "bugout" looked imminent but the ROK commander rallied his troops and he and walker managed to hold the line of the Pusan Perimeter
  • By late August, the North Koreans also had problems
  • They were outnumbered and down to around 40 tanks
  • Americans still controlled the skies and seas with the North Korean supply lines overstretched
  • Within the Pusan Perimeter, North koreans could not use their favoured tactic of flanking the enemy as American and South Koreans were bordered by the sea to the south and east
  • Americans and South Koreans now had less territory to defend and more troops with which to defend it
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

September 1950

  • By September, there had been 8000 US casualties and although 50 countries had pledged some kind of support, only the British arrived
  • Military situation naturally aroused a considerable degree of doubt in the US as to the wisdom of involvement however supporters were still in the majority in Washington in summer 1950
  • Some American fears that Korean War could escalate into WW3, but the Truman administration remained convinced that the USSR and China wouldn't enter the war
  • September 15 1950, military situation was revolutionised by a stroke of MacArthur's genius
  • Against advice of other military experts, MacArthur undertook a highly successful assault on Inchon
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Inchon and New American War Aims


  • In WW2, MacArthur's strategy had been to bypass enemy strongholds with amphibious assaults that left enemy forces cut off and surrounded
  • In September 1950, he suggested using that idea in Korea
  • Advocated a landing 200 miles behind North Korean lines at Inchon
  • However, generals, admirals and staff officers and the JCS all told him not to do it 
  • there were many objections
  • it was rumoured that the Soviets had mined the harbour
  • If the seaway on the approach to Inchon was blocked, the assault would stall
  • There was an island in the seaway that would have to be seized before the main landing which would hten be delayed until the evening
  • Inchon had no beach, just  a 15 foot seal wall that would need to be scaled or blown up
  • Relucant US Navy said that there had to be a landing 50 miles south of Inchon however MacArthur insisted on Inchon as it had airfields, roads and railroads
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Inchon (continued)

  • Ridgway had called the landing a "5000-to-1 gamble"
  • MacArthur contended that "impracticalities involved will tend to ensure for the element of surprise"
  • He won the backing of Truman and Defence Secretary Louis Johnson so the assault went ahead
  • MacArthur watched the assault from his boat accompanied by his trademark press following
  • Amphibious force had a bad start however after that, luck was with macArthur
  • Despite every South Korean and American seeming to know and talk about the landing, North Koreans were still taken by surprise
  • North Koreans did not atttack
  • In the afternoon, more marines landed and scaled or blew up the sea wall
  • Despite all the doubt and problems, MacArthur's plan succeeded and Inchon was soon taken
  • As Americans who landed at Inchon advanced towards Seoul, other Americans and South Koreans sorked their way out of the Pusan Perimeter by late September
  • MacArthur had triumphed and this would have dramatic political and military implications in the months to come
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Confused and confusing war aims, September 1950

  • The Communist position had deteriorated to the extent that Stalin was considering whether to dump North Korea or to encourage Chinese intervention
  • He chose the latter and the Chinese proved willing to intervene because the triumphant Americans had dramatically changed their war aims
  • The USA had entered the war to restore the status quo, which was to evict the North Koreans from South Korea
  • Declared UN war aim had been "to repel armed invasion and restore peace and stability in the area"
  • Wording sufficiently vague to give respectability to the US/UN/ROK forces crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea following Inchon
  • US/UN/ROK war aims were now to destroy the North Korean forces and reunify the Korean peninsula
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

New US war aims

  • In September 1950, US changed its war aims from the restoration of status quo in Korea to the destruction of North Korea
  • there were several reasons for this change
  • After the great victory at Inchon and military surge towards Seoul, military momentuum and a surge of optimism made the idea of stopping at the 38th parallel seem ridiculous to most Americans and South Koreans
  • Halt at the 38th parallel would have damaged American and South Korean morale
  • War had evoked a bitterness that engendered more conflict
  • There was a great American desire for revenge against the North Korean aggressor
  • Important inviduals such as Syngman Rhee and General macArthur were desperately keen to reunify the Korean peninsula
  • As a result, when the invasion of N.Korea went wrong, Truman administration tried to deflect the blame by emphasising MacArthur's role in changing the war aims
  • MacArthur's advice was certainly taken very seriously, especially give his great triumph at Inchon
  • Considerable political calculation and motivation in Truman's decision
  • Republican attacks on him for his "loss" of China coupled with the McCarhy scare made him anxious to maintain his anti-Communist credentials
  • Another factor pushing him towards more aggressive war aims: the forthcoming congressional mid-term elections
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Key Debate: Why China intervened in the Korean War

  • On several occasions, Chinese warned the US that if American troops crossed the 38th parallel, China would intervene in the war
  • Truman ignored these warnings
  • Recently, with unprecedented access to their national archives, historians have emphasised factors other than security
  • firstly, like many other countries, China traditionally believed it was a superior power to which others were supposed to defer
  • China called itself the "middle kingdom" or "central kingdom" which was another way of saying it was the most important country in the world
  • The Korean War offered China the change to re-establish its prestige and status on the world stage
  • When Mao and his Communists had fought Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists in the Chinese civil war, N.Korea had sent thousands of soldiers to help so Mao felt an obligation to help N.Korea
  • Chinese research has proven that Stalin pressed and encouraged Mao to enter the war
  • This was probably because he knew that if China and the US fought eachother, it would strengthen his position in relation to both of them 
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

The fighting in Korea, October-December 1950

a) Changing fortunes in October 1950

  • In October, the Chinese prepared to enter the war with US/ROK/UN forces moved northwards
  • MacArthur ignored General Walker's advice and split his ground forces
  • Removed the inspired forces who had taken Seoul from the battlefield just when they could have chased the enemy further north and sent some of them off by sea for an amphibious assault on Wonsan
  • Plan was to surrroundd North Koreans nce more but splitting forces in this way was against all conventional military operational procedure
  • macArthur also moved troops for the Wonsan landing southward so they could sail out through Inchon
  • Those troops clogged roads and stopped remaining US/UN/ROK troops moving swfitly north
  • When the diverted troops got to Wonsan Harbour it contained 3000 Soviet mines
  • By the time Americans were able to land there, ROK ground troops were there before them
  • Took 2 weeks to clear the mines
  • Severe outbreak of dysentry on board the ships made it possible to smell them many miles downwind
  • 15 October, with both men still thinking victory was imminent, Truman and MacArthur flew to Wake Island
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

a) Changing fortunes in October 1950

  • When Truman asked MacArthur if the Soviets or Chinese were likely to intervene, MacArthur said there was "very little" chance of this but that the Chinese would not fighg very well anyway
  • Truman responded with an equally optimistic public statement about the "complete unity in the aims and conduct of our foreign policy"
  • Optimism seemed justified, as on the 19 October, American and South Korean forces liberated the North Korean capital, Pyongyang
  • Mid-October, MacArthur given orders that only ROK forces should operate near the Chinese border
  • But on 24 October, reversed the order and US forces headed for the Yalu which was the border between North Korea and CHina
  • MacArthur described this as a military necessity however it represented a great change in US policy
  • American and South Korean troops reached the Yalu River with a great sense of triumph 
  • Chinese stealthily moved 150,000 men into North Korea 
  • US were blind to all signals 
  • American air surveillance struggled to detect Chinese troop movements
  • At the same time that Chinese had their dramatic impact on the war, weather turned dramatically
  • North Korean war arrived before US/UN/ROK forces didn't have proper winter clothing
  • By 1 November Americans were surrounded by Chinese 
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

b) MacArthur's November offensive 

  • MacArthur wanted the offensive to begin on 15 November however the 8th Army Commander, Walton Walker knew that he had insufficient supplies
  • as a result, the attack was delayed until 25 November
  • Even then, Walker's army was still short of ammo, winter equipment and rations
  • MacArthur talked of "getting the boys back by Christmas" but he made speedy victory unlikely when he broadcast the battle plan on Armed Forces Radio
  • this infuriated commanders and made the Chinese task a lot easier 
  • Looking back on the failed offensive, Acheson explained why they did nothing
  • "It would have meant a fight with MacArthur, charges by him that they had denied his victory"
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

c) The Chinese November Offensive

  • Truman tried to reassure the Chinese that there was no threat to Chinese territory 
  • The Chinese thought otherwise and took advantage of the November delay to prepare their offensive
  • The Chinese (300,000 men) and North Koreans (100,000) outnumbered the 270,000 US/UN/ROK forces
  • Chinese pretended to retreat and waited for the US/UN/ROK forces with eager anticipation
  • Chinese believed that the South Koreans were even worse, puppets who were "deficient" in warfare
  • Due to this, they attacked the South Koreans and opened up the UN lines
  • MacArthur now admitted he faced an "entirely new war"
  • American troops were astounded by the cold which frequently froze motor oil and weapons
  • Chinese suffered even more with many freezing to death in their foxholes
  • One of the hardest fought battles was waged by 25,000 Americans surrounded by 120,000 Chinese in the mountains of N.Korea near the Chosin Reservoir
  • Chief of staff criticised the "insane plan" that had sent them there
  • Of the 25,000 American troops who fought in the Chosin Reservoir campaign, 6000 were killed, wounded or captured while 6000 others suffered severe frostbite
  • this 50% casualty rate was far higher than that of WW2
  • Survivors of "frozen Chosin" told the American press the Chinese burned wounded POWs alive and danced around the flames
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

d) Trouble in Washington DC

  • Back home, Truman was in considerable political trouble
  • His poll ratings were falling and his Democratic Party suffered losses in November 1950 elections
  • Also in trouble with America's allies 
  • In a press conference he said he had "always" considered using atomic weapons in Korea and that the "military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons as he always has"
  • British PM, Clement Attlee rushed to Washington, fearful that MacArthur had his finger on the nuclear button
  • Truman hastily reassured everyone that he was in ultimate control of the use of all weapons
  • Atmosphere in Wsahington was one of panic
  • JCS feared a Soviet attack on Europe while on 15 December 1950, Truman declared a state of national emergency
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

e) US military leadership, Christmas 1950

  • Instead of being "home for Christmas", US forces and its allies were once more behind the 38th paralel by early December 1950
  • US/UN/ROK forces had abandoned Pyongyang and MacArthur seemed to be a beaten general
  • However, the split US forces were no reunited and the US/UN/ROK forces would soon make a recovery
  • General Walton Walker's replacement, General Matt Ridgway was a brilliant leader who raised the morale and improved the performance of his troops
  • Ridgway's performance served to show up MacArthur's failings
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The Course of Events in the Korean War in 1950

Key Debate: How well did General MacArthur do in Korea

  • MacArthur entered the war with a great reputation which he gained in the Phillippines and WW2
  • Reputation was even greater after the triumph at Inchon
  • However, there are many criticisms of him
  • Some accuse MacArthur of waging "war by remote control"
  • this meant he spent most of the war in Tokyo
  • Some said MacArthur failed to relieve ineffective officers or pointed out that MacArthur was dangerously overconfident when he repeatedly reassured Truman that China would never enter the war
  • Assurance proved incorrect, can be aegued that he led the Truman administration into disaster
  • Although MacArthur was considered an Asian specialist, could be argued he and his advisers should have investigated and considered the possibility more carefully
  • Ultimate responsiblity lay with the President
  • Could be argued MacArthur received confused and confusing instructions from Washington
  • During October 1950, he was ordered not to use US troops near the hinese border
  • Also told by Secretary of Defence George Marshall he could do as he liked
  • historian Peter Lowe contends that as well as being too powerful, he was simply too old, (70+), and was probably past his best by the time of the Korean War
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Winter 1950-1: A change of Leadership

a) The new US ground commander

  • Winter of 1950-1 was one of turning points in the Korean War
  • US/UN/ROK fortunes were revived partly due to a new US ground commander
  • 55 year old Matt Ridgway had earned a great reputation in WW2 and was the army's deputy chief of staff in December 1950
  • When appointed ground commander in Korea, Ridgway set about evaluating the morale of the 365,000 US/UN/ROK troops
  • Morale was low
  • The troops liked him and he made them feel that he cared 
  • His actions became legendary due to his kindness towards the troops
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b) Ridgway's task

  • JCS told Ridgway that his brief was to secure South Korea
  • MacArthur disagreed with the JCS and wanted to destroy North Korea and unleash Chiang Kai-shek's forces on China 
  • By now, Chinese were caught up in optimism and military momentum that encouraged the Americans to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea in autumn 1950
  • January 1951 - Chinese crossed 38th parallel into South Korea
  • Nearly 500,000 Chinese drove for Seoul 
  • Chinese aimed at ROK forces whose panicky retreat shocked Ridgeway
  • Seoul was lost to Communists yet again and hundreds of thousands of South Korean refugees poured southward for the second time in 6 months
  • by now, war was highly unpopular in the USA
  • January 1951 poll revealed that 49% of Americans felt sending troops to Korea had been a mistake
  • 66% believed the US should abandon South Korea however Truman had no intention of getting out
  • Ridgway's task was not easy as US troop morale was low in January 1951
  • Tide turned in favour of US/UN/ROK forces for several reasons: Chinese supply lines had reached their limits and the flatter lands of South korea favoured tanks and artillery Chinese lacked but US had in abundance
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MacArthur's dismissal

a) Disagreements and dismissal

  • Truman and MacArthur had long had major disagreements over
  • the relative strategic importance of Asia as opposed to Europe
  • the use of nuclear weapons in the war
  • whether or not the US should further provoke Communist China
  • In short, Truman committed to waging limited war in Korea, MacArthur wanted an all-out fight against Communist China

MacArthur's popularity

  • At the time, dismissal was a highly unpopular decision
  • Truman's approval rating sank as MacArthur and his admirers engaged in emotional farewells
  • Gallup poll revelead that 69% of Americans believed Truman was wrong to sack him
  • Truman who described MacArthur's speech as "100% bullshit" received 27,000 letters and telegrams most of which criticised him
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c) Support for the dismissal

  • Some contemporaries supported Truman
  • Leading newspapers felt that the president had preserved the constitutional principle of civilian control over the military
  • MacArthur had committed two acts of insubordination
  • First related to Truman's March 1951 peace initiative plan
  • Truman made it clear the situation was highly delicate and no one was to release policy statements without State Departmet clearance
  • Second act of insubordination came in spring 1951 when he sent a letter to Republican congressman Joseph Martin and gave him permission to read it out in Congress
  • in the letter, he werote that if they lost the war to Communism in Asia then Europe would follow
  • Letter made it clear that he opposed Truman's doctrine of containment 
  • JCS fully supportive of Truman and they feared MacArthur might deliberately provoke an incident in order to widen the war into an all out conflict between US and China
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Ending the Korean War 1951-3

Chinese Aims in 1951

  • February 1951, UN proposed peace talks but Chinese rejected the proposal
  • Under US pressure and to the irritation of some US allies such as Britain, UN denounced China as an aggressor
  • THis prompted Chinese to articulate demands that help to explain Chinese motivation in the war
  • China wanted:
  • the United States to get out of Korea
  • The US 7th Fleet to leave the Taiwan Straits
  • the UN seat for China which was currently held by Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan
  • China launched another great offensive in Korea on 22 April 1951
  • Cost in lives proved to be too high
  • 12,000 Chinese troops died on the first day of the offensive and this helped prompt China to request an armistice in June 1951
  • China now modified its aims concentrating on the armistice, which might get most of the American troops out of Korea
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The Signing of the Armistice in 1953

  • Although China proposed an armistice in June 1951, was not fully signed until July 1953
  • In those 2 years, the bitter fighting continued and it was calculated that 2 soldiers died for every minute the peace talks were on 
  • Military situation had reached stalemate and the front lines of the combatants had stabilised near the 38th parallel

Why did the Korean War come to an end?

Why the US wanted peace

  • Financial burden of the war was great
  • War had cost many American lives
  • Pressure from America's allies to end the military stalemate
  • Communist accusations that US was using bacteriological warfare was damaging America's international reputation 
  • some feared the USSR would join in the fighting and it would escalate to WW3
  • JCS emphasised that the US shouldn't be pinned down by the Korean conflict and that trouble could erupt in Europe
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Why the other combatants wanted peace:

  • China needed to concentrate on its domestic problems as its economy was suffering
  • hundreds of thousands of soldiers were dying 
  • China was anxious lest the conflict escalate
  • Soviet desire for peace was partly due to the death of Stalin in March 1953
  • This caused a power struggle amongst his likely successors
  • North Korea was suffering food shortages and Kim was increasingly anxious to end the conflict because he was clearly not going to attain reunification

How peace was achieved

  • Change in personnel in both USSR and USA made it easier to achieve peace
  • New leaders had neither started nor sustained their nations' involvement in the war
  • their prestige was not at stake in the way that their predecessors' prestige had been
  • New president and many other Americans were convinced Eisenhower's threats over the use of atomic weapons helped persuade the Chinese to sign the armistice
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Why had it taken so long to arrange the armistice?

  • June 1951- both Americans and Chinese issued public statements about the desirability of ending the conflict
  • Chinese suggested laying down arms and then talking
  • Americans feared that China would use this pause to prepare for another offensive said agreement on armistice terms had to precede the cessation of hostilities
  • Great preoccupation with saving face
  • On day 1 of negotiations, North Korean representative quickly put up a larger North Korean flag than the UN flag
  • After a few weeks, the talks were moved to Panmunjom which was midway between the front lines
  • After a bitter war, it is usually difficult to get the participants to agree on peace
  • Truman played a major part in delaying the pace as he refused to allow Communist POWs to be returned to China
  • Truman insisted that the POWs were Communists who wanted to defect the "Free World"
  • Some historians attribute Truman's inflexibility on the POWs to principle and humanitarian motives
  • Others say he sought a propaganda victory in the Cold War
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The results and significance of the Korean War: the impact on American society and politics


  • Korean War intensified the McCarthyite hysteria 
  • Schools had atomic bomb attack drills in which children were trained to hide under desks in the event of a Soviet bomb being dropped onto them
  • Communists were banned from employment as teachers or civil servants
  • Free speech was badly affected as left-wingers and suspected Communists were persecuted

The American economy

  • the war had a great impact on the American economy
  • Cost the US $67 billion and subsequently billions more were spent on rebuilding S.Korea
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The results and significance of the Korean War

Truman's presidency

  • Korean War greatly damaged Truman's presidency
  • After the war caused inflation, 500,000 steelworkers struck for better wages in April 1952
  • In response, Truman seized the steel mils which led to a constitutional crisis
  • Truman was humiliated when the Supreme Court ruled his actions unconstitutional
  • Truman's failure to obtain congressional declaration of war helped to saddle him with all the blame for the war
  • The American people felt that Eisenhower could be trusted to bring an acceptable peace in Korea
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The results and significance of the Korean War: the impact on US foreign policy

a) Containment Worked

  • Containment could be said to have worked
  • US had gone to war to save South Korea from Communism and to restore the status quo in the Korean peninsula
  • In that, the US had succeedd
  • US was willing and able to halt Communist expansion and had "saved" South Korea and also ensured Japanese security

American prestige and credibility

  • Korean War helped this in some way
  • US held the line vs Communists and restored status quo
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Results and significance of Korean War: impact on foreign policy

Sino-American relations

  • Korean War damaged these greatly
  • In the fighthing after Chinese entry into the Korean War, China impressed the wworld
  • Troops had effectively held the Americans to a draw as welas standing up to the world's leading power

MacArthur's dismissal

  • Dismissal was significant in 3 ways
  • 1) showed Truman's commitment to his doctrine of containment of Communism
  • 2) Truman was asserting the constitutional principle of civilian control over the military
  • 3) sacking signalled that Western Europe remained vital to US security
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The results and significance of the Korean War: the impact on the US foreign policy

Arms race and US alliances

  • Korean War was important in escalating arms race between US and USSR
  • prompted a massive US and Soviet military build up 
  • Truman ordered a speeding up of the US hydrogen bomb programme which aimed to give America a weapon with even greater destructive power than that of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan

Cold War turning point

  • Korean War seen significant in that it constituted a critical turning point in the whole Cold War due to
  • massive increase in US defence expenditure and commitment to NATO
  • poisoning of Sino-Amreican relations
  • cementing of relationship with the odious regimes of Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek 
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Absolutely brilliant, had every bit of detail over the course and really helped me revise. Thank you!



A superb resource with huge amounts of detail and accurate information. It has cards on the events of the war, the causes / reasons for US involvement, the impact and the key controversies, including China's entry and MacArthur's sacking. 48 cards. Excellent for Edexcel Unit 1 Option D6.

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