June 25, 1950 dawned cool and cloudy like the day before and the day before that at the 38th parallel, an invisible but very real line across the Korean Peninsula. Like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, seasons in Korea change smartly. In October, the Manchurian
Map of the Korean War
and Siberian gates open, releasing bitter cold and icy winds from the northwest. In May and June the winter gates are forced shut by the southerly monsoon flows and Korea becomes hot and humid. In June the days are mostly cloudy and 98 percent comfortable, except for June 25, 1950, when the North Koreans swept across the 38th parallel and caught almost everyone by surprise. The North Korean invasion heated up the South Koreans and the remaining U.S. forces. In two days, the North Koreans were knocking on Seoul’s back door.
Gaining the reigns of Korean War history and legacy approximates the challenge of bringing a run-away 24-mule team back under harness. Everything—Korean Peninsula historical context, foreign policy, post WWII military mission re-alignments, Communist hysteria, egos, and politicians—played into the complexity. Once the U.S. finally decided the Korean situation was serious and it really, really wanted to contain the ‘communist’ threat, it came very close to having its hind-quarters kicked courtesy of politicians passing the general-for-a-day card around a table.
Historically, the poor little Korean Peninsula has been on somebody’s ‘to occupy’ list for centuries but it has been a tough nut to crack. It always amuses me to read about China’s lack of imperial ambition. Imperial ambition is why China’s boundaries are in place and it still fights for more. The Sui, Tang, Ming and Manchu Dynasties of China all had eyes on the Korean Peninsula and tried, with various degrees of success, to take it. Japan recognized the strategic value of Korea as a buffer from and path to conquer China. In the late 1500s, Hideyoshi mounted Japan’s first effort at Korean conquest. Through the centuries, Japan’s Yamato emperors, who still rule today, also tried at various times to occupy Korea. Japan, in fact, had control of Korea at the end of WWII in the Pacific. Japan was ousted by the allies and Korea was divided roughly according to the two ancient original Korean countries and is the North and South Korea we know today. In 1950, North Korea was ruled by the government the Soviet Union had enthroned. South Korea had held a successful elections and the U.S. was on its way out.
The U.S. considered Korea a victim of Japan, not an ally. The United States, China, and Great Britain issued a joint statement in December 1943, after the Cairo Conference, which said: “The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” As a victim, South Korea was assisted back to independence. The South Korean army was built to a point the U.S. considered adequate for self-protection and, beginning in 1947, the U.S. military began to withdraw to its home with the 8th Army in Japan. The Soviet Union went a different direction in North Korea and by 1947, the Soviet’s hand-picked leader, Kim Il Sung, had violently suppressed any opposition. The U.S. did not view Korea as a strategic area but it knew that Russia did. Korea, like many countries freed from the Germans or Japanese, was at risk of becoming a political football in the rising tide of American-Soviet interests, which was apparent well before WWII ended.
U.S. foreign policy was in the shop for a major overhaul in 1950. The Truman administration was re-tooling for the Cold War (1947-1991). The primary mechanics were George C. Marshall and Dean G. Acheson under the direction of Truman. Their work was mostly focused on the perceived Communist threat to Europe but they also had an opinion or two on Asia. Right up until June, 1950, the folks ‘in the know’ were convinced the U.S. would not defend South Korea in the event of an attack by North Korea.
“The decision to intervene in Korea grew out of the tense atmosphere that characterized Cold War politics. On the eve of the North Korean invasion, a number of events had made Truman anxious. The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949, ending the United States’ monopoly on the weapon. In Europe, Soviet intervention in Greece and Turkey had given rise to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which funneled aid to war-torn Europe in the hopes of warding off communist political victories. In early 1950, President Truman directed the National Security Council (NSC) to conduct an analysis of Soviet and American military capabilities. In its report, known as “NSC 68,” the Council recommended heavy increases in military funding to help contain the Soviets.”
The U.S. Military was in transition in Japan as well as in Korea on that fateful June day in 1950. Kim (don’t forget last names are first in Korea) had asked Papa Stalin for permission to invade South Korea many times before he received the two thumbs up in 1949. Stalin had waited for the U.S. to withdraw the last of its ground troops before approving any aggression. In support, Stalin sent significant amounts of both supplies and ‘advisors’ to support Kim. The U.S. was of the general opinion that the Soviets would not risk WWIII over the likes of Korea. The U.S. was wrong. The U.S. was also of the general opinion that it could not lose, militarily. The U.S. was almost wrong; it was close.
The North Koreans were well supplied. Kim, in possession of a Soviet invasion plan, controlled an
A member of the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion at the 38th Parallel in Korea. (Courtesy of George Brooks)
invasion force of 135,000, about half of whom were trained veterans. He also controlled eight complete divisions and two half-strength divisions, an armored brigade with 120 Soviet tanks; and 5 border constabulary brigades. The Soviets also supplied 180 Soviet aircraft, mostly fighters and attack bombers, and a few naval patrol craft. However, Stalin drew the line at permitting the Soviet advisers to accompany the North Koreans once they crossed the 38th parallel.
The South Koreans, on the other hand, controlled an Army of 95,000 men, which was a light infantry force. Its artillery totaled eighty-nine light 105-mm howitzers, which could shoot farther than North Korea’s artillery, which is handy. Unfortunately, South Korea had no tanks or antitank weapons that could have countered the Soviet tanks. While the North and South Korean navies were fairly evenly matched, the South Korean Air Force had only a few trainers and other light airplanes. “U.S. equipment, war-worn when furnished to South Korean forces, had deteriorated further, and supplies on hand could sustain combat operations no longer than fifteen days.”
The ranking U.S. officer in South Korea was Major General William F. Dean and, according to
Major General William F. Dean
military historians, he fought gallantly as the U.S. rushed to fortify the south. Eventually, he was wounded and captured. General MacArthur’s Pacific survey showed he had limited capacity to respond. He would be able to muster the “1st Cavalry Division and the 7th, 24th, and 25th Infantry Divisions, all under the Eighth U.S. Army in Japan, and the 29th Regimental Combat Team on Okinawa”, according to the military records. It took until about the middle of July to even mount a faint-hearted counter attack.
Meanwhile back at the United Nations, UN, fifty three countries ratified United Nations Security Council Resolution 82 on June 27th, 1950 clearing the way for an internationally sanctioned military response. Twenty nine of the approving countries offered a variety of types of support that ranged from medical and logistical support to full military support. The Soviets could have blocked the resolution with a veto but did not do so because they were, at the time, boycotting the UN. Truman was in a tough spot. Senator Joseph McCarthy was ramping up his anti-communist rhetoric. Then, too, the Alger Hiss espionage trial was fresh. Truman certainly didn’t want to come across as ‘soft’ on Communism and, like Stalin, he did not want a third world war. Both leaders danced. Stalin refused to have his Soviet troops cross the 38th parallel and Truman stopped just short of saying the Soviets were behind the June 25, 1950 invasion. Instead, the invaders were labeled ‘communists’ and the Soviets were never directly blamed.
The Korean War’s legacy continues to define today’s conflicts. It was a political war fought to ‘contain’ an enemy; not to win. Today Korea looks very much like it did 60 years ago. The 38th parallel still cuts the country in half, including the road and railway infrastructure and over 50 rivers. There has never been a peace treaty so the war never officially ended and no one ever won; the Soviets were not out by the end of 1950, the Koreas were not united, and the U.S. did not significantly impede the progress of ‘communism’. A Kim ruled North Korea and repeatedly made threats, eventually carrying one out. A Kim still rules North Korea and repeatedly makes threats but, so far, has not carried any out. Political wars fought with political egos playing general-for-a-day do not accomplish anything except the loss of American service members. Over 50,000 died in Korea. The U.S. maintained in Korea but lost in Viet Nam, and accomplished little in Bosnia. The U.S.failed in Nicaragua and the Congo, and broke even in Panama and Grenada. At the moment the U.S. is engaged in another political war it has no intention of winning, just fighting. So far, the U.S. has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade with no end in sight and little progress. The only difference is the technology. Now the politicians can ‘see’ what each soldier ‘sees’ and direct the soldiers’ actions on a moment-by-moment basis without ever leaving the comfort of the command center. As John Wayne would say, “that is a helluva way to run a railroad.”
 Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, Dept., of State Publication 7187 (Washington, 1961), p. 448.
 National Archives; Teaching With Documents: The United States Enters the Korean Conflict; (Originally published in Social Education, the Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies).