The Korean War: A College Essay

While I enjoyed almost all of my classes Spring 2019 at the University of Dallas, and loved all of my teachers, American Civilization II and Dr Mark Petersen stood out. It was truly an incredible class taught by an inspiring man. In the first class of the semester, he told the class that we would each get one free extension on any assignment. I didn’t need to use mine until the last, for which he gladly gave me an extra week, til May 7. The more research I did though, the more I realised there was to do, and until the final day I continued diving deeper and deeper into the Korea War, the results of which I now humbly present to you.

The years 1950-53 were eventful around the world and in the United States, politically as well as culturally. The economy, technology, and population of the United States were booming. In 1950, Charles Schultz published the first Peanuts strip, Pope Pius XII declared The Assumption of Mary to be Catholic doctrine, and Shirley Temple retired from show business at age 22. In 1952, Albert Einstein was offered and declined the presidency of Israel, Mother Teresa opened the first Home for the Dying in Calcutta, and every other American household had a television, on which they watched new shows like I Love Lucy and Howdy Doody. Tennessee Waltz sung by Patty Page was a jukebox favorite, and other favorite artists included Nat King Cole, and Perry Como. 1950-3 produced hit movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, War of the Worlds, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

But while life was flourishing at home, things were heating up abroad. Though the Axis Powers had been defeated in 1945, it was clear that peace was a long way off from realization. The spectre of Fascism had been replaced with that of Communism, Germany and Japan with Soviet Russia. No sooner did the world stage curtains close on WWII did they open on the Cold War.

On April 4, 1949, the United States, Canada, and ten nations of Western Europe formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This was a mutual defense pact to counter the looming behemoth of the Soviet Bloc to the East; if any one member was attacked, all the others would come to its defense.

In February 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (R) presented a list which he claimed contained the names of 205 Communist sympathizers and agents within the United States government. This began the Second Red Scare, a kind of witch hunt frenzy in which dozens of suspects’ reputations were ruined or were arrested. It is hard to tell who was actually guilty or to what degree, though it is certain that the actual danger was exaggerated, if unintentionally, in the national paranoia that followed.

Though NATO and the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) never went directly to war, they fought a series of contained wars around the world against each other, in which they supported opposite sides in a country’s civil war. These were political investments in the form of military actions, attempting to get a small country to become either Communist or Democratic and Capitalist. One of the first of these proxy wars was fought on a little peninsula in East Asia, which most Americans had never heard of, called Korea.

For over 50 years, other Asian powers had fought for control over the weaker kingdom of Korea. In 1894-5, Japan and Qing China fought the Sino-Japanese War over Korea, which had previously been a Chinese vassalage. Japan won, gaining dominance over the peninsula as well as the island of Taiwan. In 1904-5, Japan and Russia fought the Russo-Japanese War, also mostly over who would have dominance in the region, particularly regarding Korea. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the peace negotiations in the Treaty of Portsmouth, in which he confirmed Korea as a protectorate of Japan. This negotiation earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, thought no one in Europe or America imagined or cared about the oppressive manner in which Japan ruled her “protectorate.” Finally, in 1910, Japan completely annexed Korea, making it one of the first territories in what would become the Japanese Empire.

Korea remained occupied until 1945, when Japan was defeated in WWII. Soviet Russia and the United States agreed to partition Korea at the 38th parallel into a northern Communist and a southern Capitalist and Democratic spheres of influence, each molding their partitions into their own image. The intention had been for the country to be reunited, but obviously, neither superpower was willing to give up their half to the other, and it became clear, to the grief of the Koreans, that the country would be not peacefully united. In 1948, both superpowers recognized their newly founded states, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, and in 1949 they withdrew their forces, each supporting a prominent Korean to govern them.

Kim Il-Sung, born in 1912 in Pyongyang Korea, was raised in China, and spent several years training in Communist Russia. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he became a guerrilla fighter against Japanese occupation in Manchuria. With the patriotic and heroic reputation this brought him, Kim was elected Premier of North Korea, and began instigating land and labor reforms, the like of which Russia had seen under Stalin, and China would see under Mao Zedong.

During the Russo-Japanese war, Syngman Rhee had traveled to America to meet with President Roosevelt to beg for Korean independence to be recognized. Though this request was denied, Rhee remained in the United States for most of the next forty years, studying at George Washington University, Harvard, and Princeton. During this time in which his homeland was occupied by Japan, his life work was campaigning for Korean independence, including speaking at the League of Nations Convention in 1933. Amid the complex political uncertainty of US/Soviet divided Korea in 1945-50, America begrudgingly supported Rhee as leader of the South. This was not so much because they liked him or his policies, so much as simply because he was anti-communist, was fluent in English, and had spent so long in America; his and the United States’ relationship were cordial at best. There is obviously more to be said about both Kim and Rhee and this period of political change, but unfortunately any more in this direction goes beyond the scope of this essay.

Following WWII, thinking the world could return to a state of “normalcy,” United States President Harry Truman’s administration greatly cut military spending in the budget. The defense budget decreased from around 900 billion dollars (adjusted to the dollar in 2009) in 1945 to around 200 billion by 1949, a drop from about 40% of the federal budget to about 8%. Truman and his staff believed that having a monopoly on the atomic bomb would be deterrent enough to prevent the USSR from overt aggression. This hope, however, was shattered in 1949 when Stalin announced that the Soviet Union had produced an atomic bomb of their own, even more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1949 brought another blow against the United States and NATO, when the Chinese civil war ended in a Communist victory. With Russia and China now allied, and the United States apparently demilitarizing, the Communist powers were ready to attack. 

On June 25, 1950, with approval from Russia and China, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel into the South. There were two levels to the three year long war that followed. It was a local civil war, the like of which happens almost constantly around the world, but it also had global implications, as it was an act of Communist expansion. Citing this threat, on June 27, President Harry Truman declared that the United States would come to the aid of South Korea, saying, “There’s no telling what they’ll do, if we don’t put up a fight right now.” Soon after, on July 7, the United Nations passed Resolution 84, condemning the Northern aggression and allowing countries to come to the aid of the South. In addition to the United States, 15 countries came to South Korea’s aid in some way, including Britain, Canada, Australia, Turkey, France, and the Philippines, together committing some 70,000 troops. Ironically, being one of the permanent members, Soviet Russia could have vetoed the resolution, but they were boycotting the UN, because the UN refused to recognize Mao Zedong’s Communist government.

While the conflict in Korea was nowhere near as celebrated as WWII had been, and nowhere near as condemned as Vietnam, I did find a 1952 song by Wilf Carter, “Goodbye Maria (I’m off to Korea),” supporting the intervention and demonstrating America’s general view of its role in the world at the time, as the primary defender of liberty.

“So now it’s goodbye, Maria, I’m of to Korea

Far across the sea.

It’s that same old story, and it’s up to Old Glory

To win another fight for liberty.”

Making terrific progress with Soviet provided tanks and equipment against the unprepared defenders, the KPA secured the capital city of Seoul on the third day; President Syngman Rhee had escaped the day before.

It has been said that civil wars are the most un-civil wars of all. Aside from combat casualties, the Korean War saw a number of massacres, starting at the very beginning. On June 28, the KPA murdered around 900 medical staff and patients, both civilian and military, in the Seoul University Hospital. South Korea was not innocent of war crimes either. Also beginning June 28, in paranoia and panic President Syngman Rhee instigated the Bodo League Massacre, in which 100,000-200,000 of his own people who were suspected Communist sympathizers were executed over the next several weeks. Incidents like this occurred a number of times throughout the war, such at Geochang and Ganghwa, in which South Korean forces executed hundreds more of South Korean civilians suspected of collaborating in some way with the North.

While United States forces were being assembled, the nearest unit was the 24th Infantry Division, under command of General William Dean, stationed in occupied Japan. These were the first to respond to the invasion, and to whom goes the honor of first American blood. From July 5 to 21, they and rearguard South Korean units fought a series of delaying actions, continually being driven south, but slowing the vastly numerically KPA advance and providing time for more United States forces to arrive. Over two thousand Americans were killed during these actions, and hundreds were taken prisoner, including General William Dean himself, who would remain prisoner until the end of the war.

During the Battle of Taejon, on the night of July 16, KPA soldiers executed 30 wounded US soldiers, cut off in the fighting from friendly forces, and laying on stretcher as well as Roman Catholic chaplain Herman Felhoelter who was giving them last rites, in what became known as the Chaplin-Medic Massacre; Captain Linton Buttrey was the medic, who escaped and lived to tell the tale. Incidentally, actions like this were carried out by small units acting alone, out of anger at how effectively the Americans were slowing them down, and were not condoned by KPA high command. On July 28, UN intelligence intercepted a letter from KPA high command forbidding the killing of prisoners. Nevertheless, there were numerous similar actions, such as the massacres at Bloody Gulch and Hill 303, committed throughout the war by both sides.

From August 4-September 18, the whole of ROK and United States forces held a last ditch defense around the city of Pusan at the southeast tip of the peninsula. The KPA attacked several times, but each time the defenders repulsed them, at last having sufficient numbers and equipment to fight back properly.

General Douglas MacArthur was given command of all United States forces in the Korean Conflict. He had distinguished himself brilliantly in the Pacific Theatre in WWII, and was overseeing the occupation of Japan, and was thus the natural choice. Believing that landing more troops and material in Pusan to push the KPA back head-on would be more costly than necessary, General MacArthur formulated Operation Chromite. This was to be an amphibious assault aimed at the western coast of the island, at about the 38th parallel, thereby attacking the KPA from behind, cutting off their stretched supply lines, and relieving pressure on Pusan. It was a high-risk move, but similar to the numerous engagements he had successfully commanded throughout the Pacific. On September 15, the US X Corps landed at Inchon, catching the North Koreans completely by surprise, and immediately began making swift progress pushing them back; by September 28, the South Korean capital of Seoul was retaken.

Within two weeks almost all of South Korea had been reclaimed. But Syngman Rhee was not satisfied; he as well as Kim Il-Sung wanted a unified Korea, by force if not by diplomacy. On October 1st, President Rhee ordered ROK troops to cross the 38th parallel and invade the North. The Truman administration was frustrated by this, wanting to contain the conflict and satisfied that they had succeeded in reclaiming the South, but General MacArthur agreed with Rhee, and US forces pushed north as well. 

Just as the United Nations coalition was about to reach the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, thus ending the war in total victory for the south, something terrible happened. On November 1st, 1950, human tidal waves swarmed down from the north, overrunning and annihilating UN units. The Chinese had entered the war. If the United States saw a communist Korea as a danger from the other side of the world, then China saw a capitalist/democratic Korea on the border as even more of a threat. If all Korea were united under the Western influenced government, it would be a thorn in China’s side. It is not unreasonable to compare China’s fear of American involvement in Korea to American’s later fear of Soviet involvement in Cuba.

In the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, 30,000 UN troops were surrounded and attacked by 120,000 Chinese soldiers. Commanding “the Chosin few” was 1st Marine Division General Oliver Smith, who had also fought in the Battle of Inchon. “Retreat hell!” General Smith said about the situation. “We’re just attacking in a different direction!” His isolated force “attacked” non-stop for the next two weeks, pushing their way through the Chinese lines and in sub-zero temperatures. On December 13th, they reached the harbor city of Hungnam, where they and tens of thousands of Koreans fleeing Communist rule were evacuated.

Throughout the winter of 1950-51, Communist forces crossed the 38th Parallel a second time, but were repulsed back to it by late spring 1951. More battles occurred between the hundreds of thousands of men on both sides than I am at liberty to discuss in this essay. Just to mention a few, at the Battle of Yultong on April 22-3 Filipino forces distinguished themselves by defeating a much larger Chinese force, and Australian and Canadian troops defeated the Chinese at the Battle Kapyong, April 25, and the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in September 1951 between the United States and China.

Although General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman were both loved by the American people and skilled in their field, the two were frequently on strained terms due to difference of opinion in the Korean War. While President Truman wanted to limit the war and make peace once the 38th parallel had be reached, General MacArthur wanted to go all out absorb North Korea into the South, and even push into China once they got involved. This mindset was summarized in the 1951 song “When They Drop The Atomic Bomb” by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers:

“Old MacArthur has the power to stop those murdern’ thieves,

And he’ll make them sorry for their underhanded schemes

Just leave it to the general for he really has the nerve

To give those no good Communists just what they deserve.”

Fearing the war would last indefinitely and frustrated by the General’s blatant disregard for his instructions, President Truman dismissed him on April 11 1951. MacArthur was welcomed back to the United States and into retirement by a ticker tape parade in New York City similar in scale to the one when Japan surrendered, ending WWII. He ended his career with a famous farewell speech to Congress on April 19, ending with, “I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-by.” The Korean Conflict would continue 27 for more months.

In July 1951, a first attempt at armistice negotiation was brokered by the US and the USSR at Kaesong, North Korea. This failed in great part due to President Rhee’s stubborn refusal, “no unification, no armistice.” In October a second attempt at armistice was made, but this time failed because of the question of returning prisoners of war (POWs). The Geneva Convention stated that all POWs must be returned at cessation of hostilities. However, tens of thousands of Communist soldiers begged to not be returned. North Korea and China insisted that the rule be followed, but again, President Rhee was adamant. Neither side budged, and the war dragged on.

In August 1952, Syngman Rhee was re-elected President of South Korea, and in November, Dwight Eisenhower was elected President of the United States. Though there was frequent fighting, the frontline changed little throughout 1952, remaining within about 30 miles either north or south of the 38th parallel.

On March 6, 1953, the government of the USSR announced that Joseph Stalin was dead. The new government under Georgy Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev was eager to end the war in Korea, and negotiations resumed at Panmunjom in June.

On July 27, an armistice was signed by a North Korea, Chinese, and United States delegate, effectively ending hostilities. President Syngman Rhee refused to participate, so even though the war ended, no South Korean signed the document. Further, the treaty was only a ceasefire for an indefinite period of time, rather than a proper peace treaty, so the two Koreas still consider themselves at war.

Throughout August-December 1953, Operation Big Switch went into effect. China and North Korea had at last relented on the POW question, so this was to discern which prisoners wished to be returned to their country, and which wished to remain in the country that had captured them. While around 76,000 Communist prisoners (both Chinese and North Korean) were returned, some 22,400 declined, choosing instead to remain in South Korea. 12,773 United Nations soldiers were returned, while, surprisingly, 325 South Koreans, 21 Americans, and 1 Briton chose to remain in the communist north.

Throughout the war, tens of thousands of Koreans fled from the northern regime into the southern to escape Communist rule, so it might be asked, how could not only Koreans who had known freedom in the south, but even Americans choose to remain in the communist regime? To explain this in part, (for explaining it in full could be the subject of another entire essay) the first answer is that at the time the south was not much better. Far from being a paragon of democracy, President Rhee’s government was rife with purges, suppression of the press, arresting of political opponents, and other underhanded measures, as will shortly be discussed further. Secondly, it should be understood that the impact of Communist propaganda cannot be overestimated. Something that united all Koreans was a longing for independence and a loathing of occupation, whether by the Japanese or anyone else. While the United States claimed that they respected Korean sovereignty and were helping defend against communist control, the Communist Russians and Chinese claimed the same in reverse.

The logical jump of connecting the United States with the previous Japanese occupation was not a long or difficult one to make. Just as the Americans first had first seen Russia as a necessary ally during WWII, and then the enemy of liberty and world peace throughout the Cold War, America had seen Japan as the second greatest threat to world peace as a major Axis Power during the war, but after the war as a useful ally against the new Soviet menace. The 1943 song “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin'” celebrating the USSR in WWII, and referring to Joseph Stalin as “that noble Russian,” is a testimony to this shift in national view.

The United States condemned Japan for its imperialistic expansion in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But Japan’s very expansion was in response and retaliation to European imperialism in Asia and the Pacific; Britain, Germany, and France claimed portions of China, and the Dutch claimed the East Indies, before Japan did. We often forget that even the United States had claimed Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines in the same imperialistic national philosophy.

“Fight on to Asia with Asia’s own,” read one Japanese propaganda poster in WWII. “Drive out the imperialist, aggressive American. The sole goal of the white peoples of the earth is to exploit colored people.”

This might be dismissed as absurd totalitarian lies, but there was some truth in the attack. Institutionalized slavery lasted in the United States until 1865, and violent racial persecution continued throughout the south for over a hundred years after that. Britain, another good, civilized, western country, built an empire long before the Japanese did on the back of Africans, Indians, and East Asians. In fact, back in 1919, the Japanese proposed racial equality as a provision in the League of Nations, but it was met with resistance, predominantly from, in dark irony, President Woodrow Wilson and the United States.

All the communists had to do was emphasis incidents like this from history, and associate American influence with that of the Japanese and similarly intrusive European imperial influence, and present themselves as the liberating force from them all. To this day, the war is known in China as the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea,” and in North Korea as the “Liberation War.”  

Throughout the war 326,000 American soldiers were deployed to the Korean Conflict, of whom 36,516 lost their lives. While I cannot do service to all of them, I can share one of their stories in brief. In May 1950, Sherman Frank Turner met Rita Mae Emmerth, and three months later in August were married, aged 23 and 19. Two months later in October, Sherman was drafted into the army. After basic training in California and Japan, his unit, the 40th Infantry, “Sunshine,” Division entered Korea in January 1952. After his tour, during which he earned a bronze star for courage in combat, he returned and raised a family of three sons and a daughter. He later also served in Vietnam, rising to the rank of master sergeant. Turner lived until 2001 to see several of his grandchildren, of whom I am one. 

Since the war, scores of movies have been made commemorating it, honoring each respective country’s service men – Chinese such as Assembly (2007) and My War (2016), North Korean such as Wild Flowers in the Battlefield (1974), and South Korean such as Tae Gu Ki (2004) and 71: Into The Fire (2010). American participation was immortalized in the 1972-83 TV series MASH, one of my personal all time favorites.

When the shooting stopped, all Korea, north as well as south, was in ruins. The countryside and cities had been ravaged by battles, the economy was devastated, and tens of thousands of people were homeless and starving. Though the war was effectively over, their challenge of thriving, or even surviving, as a state was just beginning.

North Korea continued to be patronized by China and the Soviet Union, as the United States supported Japan and South Korea, providing food and economic aid, and leaving troops stationed for defense. Starting around 1956, Chairman Mao of China and President Khrushchev of Soviet Russia became significant rivals, and the Communist powers began competing with each other. In the early 1960s, Kim Il-Sung had a falling out with Khrushchev, leading to strained relations and a withdrawal of Soviet economic and military support. The North Korean government increased its military spending to make up for this loss from 2.6% in 1961 to 30% in 1970.

While quality of life were roughly the same in north and south in the 1950s and 60s, North Korea’s economy never improved, while South Korea’s boomed in the early 70s, and had been rising since, becoming one of the strongest in the world. Kim kept a firm grip on his power until his death in 1994, censuring all criticism, purging scores of officials who served under him, and imprisoning thousands in labor camps, whom he deemed a threat. His successors Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un were no better, and the country has remained hyper-militarized and wretchedly poor. As with Russia and China, the famine of 94-98, called in North Korea the “Arduous March,” killed around 2 million. The Country is politically and socially a zombie-state, completely cut off from and in permanent paranoia of the outside world except China, and economically on life-support from China and, ironically, South Korea and America.

Just as relations between China, Soviet Russia, and North Korea were complicated in the decades after the war, so too those of the United States, Japan, and South Korea go beyond the scope of this essay.

Relations between President Syngman Rhee and the United States were so uneasy in the years after the Korean Conflict, there was a secret plan called “Operation Ever Ready.” This plan was for the purpose of eliminating Rhee if he got to difficult to work with, and replace him with Chang Myon, the more cooperative South Korean ambassador to the US.

To maintain his power, Rhee amended the constitution twice. The first instance was during his first term 1948-52, which was to change presidential elections from National Assemblymen (similar to our congressmen) to direct popular vote; he did this not because he wanted the people to have a direct voice in the government, but because he knew he was not popular enough in the National Assembly, and it was easier to cheat in a popular vote. In the 1952 election, he defeated Chang Myon with “74%” of the vote.

The second instance was in 1954 when he forcibly changed the constitution again to allow a president to run indefinitely, which had previously been limited to two terms. Now constitutional amendments required two-thirds vote as in the US to amend the constitution. Rhee’s amendment failed to pass by one vote, but he declared that by rounding the numbers it passed, and forced it through. Two thirds of the assembly was 135.33, so he claimed it needed 135, not 136

Using intimidation tactics that we associate with Communist dictatorships, including censoring criticising newspapers and arresting opposition, he won and third term in 1956 and a fourth in 1960, at the old age of 85. In 1959, he even had Progressive Party’s leader Jo Bongam executed for campaigning on “peaceful unification,” which was in North Korea’s vocabulary too, and made him seem to have communist sympathies. The United States tried to intervene and warn Rhee that executing a political opponent would make him look oppressive and that there was a lack of real political freedom in the South, but to no avail.

Protests erupted all across the country, enraged by this blatant abuse of power and democracy, in which statues of Rhee were taken down, and hundreds were killed by police. In light of this Rhee decided to resign.

One undeniable benefit Rhee gave to his country was having several South Korean scientists travel to America in the mid-50s to study nuclear power, so they could come back and help the national energy shortage and in turn the economy. The first nuclear reactor was established and began operation in 1962, helping make South Korea the technological and economic powerhouse it is today. According to the CIA World Factbook, South Korea has the 14th largest GDP, while North Korea is ranked 113th.

In the 1960s and 70s, South Korea sent over 300,000 troops to the Vietnam War, in exchange for financial aid from the United States. This made South Korea the second most contributing country after the United States. This participation helps demonstrate the long term effects of the Korean Conflict. By coming to the aid of the South, and inspiring others of the western world to do the same, not only did the United States secure freedom for the 50 million people that live there today, but also sent a message to the USSR and China that it was willing to respond to communist expansion, and secured a valuable ally, both throughout the Cold War and beyond. 



Song lyrics found on 

Second poster, North Korea 

Timeline reference

Bodo League Massacre

Battle of Osan

Battle of Taejon

Second Battle of Seoul footage 

Japan annexing Korea

History Channel documentary on Kim Il-Sung and North Korea

Korean Broadcasting System documentary, part 2 and part 3 including interviews with: Kim Suhan, Former Chairman of the National Assembly;  Dr Bruce Cummings Chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago; Dr Nam Jeongok of the Institute for Military History; Dr William Stueck of the University of Georgia; Dr Hong Yongpyo Dean of Hangyong University; Dr Gregg Brazinsky of George Washington University; Dr Lee Cheolseong of ROK National Assembly, 

President Syngman Rhee

The Fall of South Korean Strongman Syngman Rhee — April 26,1960

Kim Il-Sung

Korean War, Hill 303

Korean War, primary source

Battle of Inchon 

History Channel Inchon Documentary including interviews with 1st Marine Division vets David Gottfried, James Skidmore, and John O’Leary, aired 2006  

China enters the war and Chosin Reservoir Battle, period videos 

MacArthur’s farewell speech 

Korean War atrocities

Sungman-Rhee and SK economy 

Operation Big Switch

Japanese proposal for racial equality to the League of Nations

Chinese view on the war

US aid to North Korea

Patterson, James (1996). Grand Expectations: The United States 1945–1974. Oxford University Press. 

Defense budget graph 

By Wikideas1 – Own work, CC0, 

CIA World Factbook


Published by dominicdybala

An aspiring and eager scholar, Catholic, Texan, your humble and obedient servant.

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