Chapter 4 – U.S. “Containment” Strategy from Truman to Johnson - 1950 to 1968

4. The Korean War—1950 to 1953

The Cold War crisis in Korea, a “hot” war involving the superpowers and their allies, was an event that greatly affected U.S. strategic thinking. U.S.-Soviet tensions on the Korean peninsula following the Second World War had grown as had Western regional concerns after the Communist victory in China and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in November 1949. In June 1950, concern and crisis reached a flash-point with North Korea’s all-out Soviet-supported invasion of South Korea.

The Background: Divided Korean Occupation Zones. In December 1945, the Moscow Conference of the “Big Three” allies of the Second World War called for the establishment of an elected provisional Korean government for the entire Korean peninsula. It would take over from Japan’s occupation forces and be facilitated by a U.S.-Soviet commission. The commission represented the two superpowers administering southern and northern occupation zones separated by the Thirty-Eighth Parallel. In December 1946, initial steps toward a legislative assembly were taken in the South, but after continuing problems in the Communized North Korean zone, the U.S. referred the Korean issue to the United Nations. In November 1947, the U.N. General Assembly recognized Korea’s claims to independence from Japan, planned for the establishment of a government, and called for the withdrawal of the U.S. and Soviet forces.

Elections and the Two Koreas. In January 1948, a U.N. commission to supervise national elections in Korea was barred from the Soviet zone, but full national assembly elections were held in the South in May. After the South’s invitation to the North to send delegates to the assembly was rejected by the North, a “Republic of Korea” (ROK) was proclaimed in the South in August 1948, the U.S. military government was officially terminated, and a U.S.-ROK agreement was signed to train ROK defense forces. In September 1948, the North’s Stalinist leader Kim Il Sung proclaimed a Communist “Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea” (DPRK) based on the Soviet model and claiming authority over both the North and the South. In December 1948, the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the government of South Korea as the only lawfully elected government in Korea. At the end of December 1948, the last Soviet forces withdrew from the North.

Election Issues to Mid-1950. The last U.S. forces withdrew from the South in June 1949 at about the same time as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other U.S. officials began to leave references to Korea out of U.S. documents and statements concerning areas to be protected within the U.S. defense perimeter. In a developing vacuum, a U.N. commission pointed in September 1949 to the danger of civil war as fighting broke out along the Thirty-Eighth Parallel. When elections in the South on May 30, 1950 produced a majority of moderate forces in the national assembly elections, North Korea proposed all-Korean elections a week later, but then refused to deal with Syngman Rhee, the ROK government’s elected, though authoritarian, president.

North Korea Invades South Korea—June 1950. On June 25, 1950 North Korea launched a surprise multi-division invasion of South Korea across the border at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel. Though far from U.S.-Soviet Cold War confrontation lines in Central Europe, the invasion was supported by Soviet arms, military personnel, and diplomacy. This was not simply a “civil war.” The Communist’s invading forces had crossed an internationally recognized border, thereby committing a violation of international law as serious as if one of the two Germanys (East or West) or two Vietnams (North or South) had invaded the other while competitive elections and peaceful unification were pending.

The United Nations Response for Collective Self-Defense. In the face of an international outcry about North Korea’s invasion at the United Nations, which had major responsibilities in Korea, the Soviet Union sought to obfuscate and stall discussion. However, a Soviet boycott of the U.N. ordered by Stalin on the issue of Communist China’s role in the U.N. temporarily paralyzed the Soviet ambassador’s ability to exercise a Soviet veto in the Security Council, which thus enabled the U.N. to take decisive international action. On June 27, 1950, the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly supported a United Nations Resolution on Korea that invoked Article 51 of the U.N. Charter on collective self-defense and committed U.N. forces to resist North Korea’s unprovoked aggression. Truman’s Statement on the Situation in Korea followed later that day committing the United States to support the planned U.N. military operations. After the U.N. requested that Truman appoint a U.S. commander for the U.N. forces, Truman selected General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander in Korea on July 7. MacArthur was a popular choice, having commanded the victorious Allied land forces in the Pacific Theater during the war against Imperial Japan. In Korea, he now

[Book pg. 77]