Korean War Memorial

(New York Korean War Veterans Memorial)

Korean War Memorial

Sculpture (c) 1991 Mac Adams.

Korean War Memorial inscription (part)

The "Forgotten War"

The Korean War began on 6/25/1950 and ended 7/27/1953. This memorial wasn't dedicated until 38 years later.

Symbolism

On the complex symbolism of the sun and this sculpture, see the Parks Department website.

The Korean War

Back in 2008, I wrote a series of essays on American foreign policy that was eventually published in 2010 as Key Concepts in American History: Internationalism. For the sake of its intended high-school audience, I was told not to use words of more than 2 syllables or sentences with more than one clause; and the series editor considerably altered what I did submit.

I stand by this original version - but I suspect it’s somewhat different from the version that appeared in print. I checked enough of the essays to make me cringe at the thought of checking more.

The Korean War was the first military action taken to enforce the American Cold War policy of containing communism. It was also the first military action to involve troops raised by the United Nations.

Korea Split into North and South

Korea was conquered by the Japanese in 1895 and annexed in 1910. When the Soviets declared war on Japan in August 1945, they marched into Korea as far south as the 38th parallel.  

By that time, Korea had been under foreign rule for almost 50 years. Negotiations failed to establish a government that would rule all of Korea. The Soviets were given control of the North, the Americans the South.

In November 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution calling for elections in Korea. South Korea (the Republic of Korea) elected Syngman Rhee, who had been educated in the United States after fleeing Japanese rule. Rhee immediately assumed the powers of a dictator. He tortured and killed communists and other opponents.

The Soviets refused to allow United Nations observers to supervise elections in North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Not surprisingly, the elected head of state was a communist, Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung had the backing of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1922-1953).

The Soviets withdrew their troops from North Korea in late 1948. Americans withdrew from South Korea in June 1949. Since both Kim and Rhee wanted control of all Korea, armed clashes frequently occurred along the border between North and South Korea.  

North Korea Attacks

On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that in the Pacific, America would defend the Aleutian Islands (off Alaska), Japan, and the Philippines. He said Korea’s defense would be the responsibility of the United Nations. Kim Il Sung promptly asked Stalin to help him overthrow the government of South Korea. Stalin agreed in April 1950.  

 North Korean troops launched a surprise attack across the border on June 25, 1950. The South Koreans, with far fewer troops and much less military equipment, retreated. President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) wanted to send help quickly, so rather than asking Congress to declare war, he sent American planes and troops to South Korea for what he called a “police action.” By August, however, South Korean and United States forces had been driven into the very southeast corner of South Korea (Pusan).

The day North Korea invaded, the United Nations Security Council called for it to withdraw. North Korea ignored the demand. The United Nations General Assembly then voted to send troops to Korea—the first time since its foundation in 1945 that the United Nations had made such a decision. The troops were from 16 different nations. Almost 90 percent were supplied by the United States.

In September 1950, United Nations troops arrived in Korea. They were commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, an international hero who had commanded the final phase of World War II in the Pacific. Most recently he had been in charge of the post-war occupation of Japan. The United Nations troops landed at Inchon, behind the North Korean lines, and routed the North Koreans. By October, they had driven the North Koreans to the 38th parallel, and were still driving northward.  

The Course of the War

Communist China (the People’s Republic of China) shares a long border with North Korea. Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1949-1976) had warned that if non-Korean troops moved into North Korea, China would enter the war. Once the United Nations troops crossed the 38th parallel in October 1950, Mao sent Chinese troops to support North Korea.

Although these troops very few large weapons, they were adept at guerrilla warfare. They used camouflage, kept to small groups, and took advantage of the mountainous, heavily forested landscape. The bombing raids and tanks that had been so successful in Europe during World War II (1939-1945) did not work against guerrilla fighters in Korea. Soon the United Nations troops were once more driven south.  

 MacArthur was eager to chase the Chinese troops out of the Korean peninsula. He even mentioned using the atomic bomb to do it. America’s NATO allies disagreed, fearing that if the United States became involved in a major war in Asia, it would not be able to defend its allies in Western Europe against Soviet invasion.

Truman and his advisors wanted to keep the war in Korea to a limited size. It would be enough, they thought, if the North Koreans were driven back north of the 38th parallel. In April 1951, after MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’s policy, Truman dismissed him.  

Negotiations for ending the war

Peace negotiations began in July 1951, but dragged on for two years. One major problem was that many North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war refused to be returned to their Communist homelands.  

An armistice was finally signed between the United Nations command, the North Koreans and the Chinese on July 27, 1953. It established a demilitarized zone on either side of the 38th parallel, which 50 years later is still heavily guarded.

The United States lost about 33,000 troops on the battlefield and another 20,000 or so from disease and other causes. Other members of the United Nations force lost a total of about 3,000 men. In Korea, about one million soldiers and two million civilians died. The Chinese admitted to 382,000 deaths, but the United States estimate was 1.5 million.  

Effects

The participation of the United States and the United Nations in the Korean War proved that both were willing to use military force to stop communist invasions. It was the first time the United Nations had called for such military action.  

 The immediate consequence of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea was to make the United States and Western Europe worry about communist East Germany invading capitalist West Germany. This worry led to a massive rearmament program in the West, and indirectly to an arms race between the Americans and the Soviets that lasted until the 1980s.

On the other hand, not all Americans shared the internationalist view that the United States ought to protect the whole world. General Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election partly by telling Americans he would quickly get the United States out of Korea. And once the United States was out of it, it soon became the “Forgotten War.”

The Korean War deserves attention because in many ways it was like the war in Vietnam. In Vietnam, as in Korea, the United States was not officially at war. In Vietnam, as in Korea, Americans were fighting guerrillas in mountainous, heavily forested areas, where high-tech equipment did not give Americans an advantage. In Vietnam, as in Korea, the goal was only to push the enemy back to his own territory.

In fact, Korea was the first war to which the United States committed troops without planning to destroy the enemy’s will or his ability to attack again. This no-win policy had disastrous effects when applied in the Vietnam War (1950-1975), the Persian Gulf War (1991), and even the War on Terror (starting in 2001).

Today South Korea has a republican government and a thriving free economy. North Korea is Communist, with an economy about 4 percent the size of South Korea’s. It is best known for the development and sale of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and for a horrendous human rights record.  

See also the entries on Communism and the Cold War; Truman Doctrine; United Nations; Vietnam War

Further reading

For more on the Korean War Memorial, see From Portraits to Puddles: New York City Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center (Reflecting Absence).