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The Korean War
The Setting
While the end of World War II brought prosperity
to most Americans, it created tension between the
United States and the Soviet Union. The US
believed that the goal of the Soviet Union was to
spread communism to the world. America decided
to “contain” this spread of communism both at
home and abroad. The United States gave
economic and military aid to stop the spread of
communism in Europe and to help rebuild the area
after World War II. Now, the policy of containment
spread to Asia as well.
Strategically, Korea was important. Its location was
important because it adjoins China and the Soviet
Union, and was close to Japan. And conditions
were changing in the region. The Soviet Union
exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. China had
undergone a revolution that brought Mao Zedong
and his communist party to power in 1949.
President Truman and his administration received
criticism for “losing” China to communism. The
United States public, surprised by this event,
viewed it as a failure of the containment policy.
And then, China and the Soviet Union signed a
treaty of alliance in 1950.
No wonder people felt tense. Criticism of President
Truman for his policy of containment. Criticism in
the United States for anticommunist efforts there.
The hunt for communists within the United States
had begun. The pressure was on President Truman
not to appear to be “soft” on communism. But,
more on that later.
Historical Background
Korea was a Japanese colony from the early 1900s
until the end of World War II when Japan had to
surrender all of its possessions to the victorious
Allies. After the war, both the United States and the
Soviet Union began a military occupation of Korea,
dividing it into two regions along the 38th parallel.
The Soviets occupied North Korea, while the U.S.
occupied South Korea. Occupying forces withdrew
from the areas in 1948 and 1949. During the
occupation period a communist government, supported
by a large, well-equipped army was set up in the
industrial north and a democratic government, with a
weaker army, was set up in the agricultural south. The
governments of both South Korea and North Korea
each hoped to reunify the country under its own rule.
The War
North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25,
1950. Americans were alarmed. Would the United
States allow another country to fall to communism?
President Truman feared that the invasion of Korea
signaled an expansion of communism throughout Asia
by the Soviet Union and China. To describe this
threat, he said: “communism has passed beyond the
use of subversion to conquer independent nations and
will now use armed invasion and war.” President
Truman decided to take military action and did so
without Congress declaring war. In fact, this became
known as a “police action.” He ordered military
support for South Korea and sent American troops to
join the United Nations forces in South Korea. United
Nations and South Korean forces were under the
command of General Douglas MacArthur(now where
did we last talk about him?). Despite the efforts of
South Korean and United Nations troops, the North
Korean army quickly moved south and captured Seoul,
the capital. In a month, the North Koreans had forced
UN and South Korean troops into the area near Pusan.
©2000 MCPS Social Studies
Korean troops reversed the war by an
amphibious assault at Inchon behind the North
Korean lines. UN forces then destroyed much
of the North Korean army and advanced
northward toward China. This angered China
who warned that it would resist threats to its
security. In November 1950, Chinese troops
crossed the border into Korea and defeated UN
troops and drove them out of North Korea.
Eventually, the fighting centered near the 38th
parallel. As the war became a stalemate, peace
talks began in 1951. This police action
continued until an armistice was signed in 1953
during the first year of Eisenhower’s
The Consequences
From the perspective of the Cold War, the
police action contained communism in Korea
and prevented further expansion in the region.
In this way, Truman’s containment policy
worked in Korea. It stopped communist
aggression without developing into a world
war with the use of atomic weapons. Because
of this conflict, the United States expanded its
military and sent more US troops to overseas
bases. On the other hand, Korea was still two
nations rather than one. North Korea and
China continue to be ruled by communist
governments. The United Nations continues to
have troops stationed on the border of North
and South Korea.
The war affected Americans in other ways.
The war was judged by many as the first
“unpopular war” in the United States. Unlike
the support for mobilization during World
War II, many Americans resented the cost of
33,665 lives and between $69.3* billion for a
police action in East Asia. (In World War II
291,557 were killed in action and cost $816.3
billion* Politically, Americans rejected
Truman’s Democratic Party to elect a
Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
(Remember him?)
To learn more visit:
*Military spending in constant 1967 dollars. The
conversion in $2000 dollars is $355.3 billion for
Korean and $4149 for World War II.
©2000 MCPS Social Studies