The Forgotten War Remembered

October 28, 2010
John B. D. Potter '11

The Wilson Center sponsored a symposium on September 21st and 22ndto mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War.  Often called "the Forgotten War," the Korean conflict is frequently overlooked, because it is sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War.  During the first session of the symposium, three H-SC professors - Dr. Eric Dinmore, Dr.  Roger Barrus, and Dr. Caroline Emmons - spoke to the significance of the war.

DinmoreDr. Dinmore stressed the importance of placing the Korean War in the context of a post-colonial northeast Asia.  In 1950, Korea, a former colony of the Japanese Empire, had enjoyed only four years of political autonomy.  In the wake of independence, Korean nationalism was fermenting in two forms.  Radical Marxists, who wanted immediate changes, were waging a civil war against cultural gradualists, who favored western-style institutions.  The Soviets and Chinese backed the former; America supported the latter.  However, the Korean War was "more than a Cold War clash," said Dinmore, because it started as a civil war.

As Dr. Barrus pointed out, this civil war was an unintended consequence of a power vacuum in northeast Asia.  With the Japanese gone, the Soviets, with the support of the Chinese, saw war torn Korea as a target of opportunity. Because there was a stalemate in Europe - the central focus of the Cold War - the Soviets were all too eager to open up a new arena.  This new theatre complicated American foreign policy, which was predicated on avoiding direct conflict with the Soviet Union.  Moreover, America's credibility was on the line; getting involved in the Korean War was critical to demonstrate America's commitment to NATO, which was in its infancy at the time. Although America showed Barrusits dedication, the Korean War had adverse effects on the American public, because the war was drawn out and disliked.  "Americans like quick wars," said Barrus, "not protracted ones."  "It is no surprise," he added, "that President Truman did not run for re-election."

Following Dr. Barrus' remarks, Dr. Emmons gave her insights into how the Korean War was perceived by the American public.  In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Americans were faced with a confusing geopolitical landscape, one that was changing rapidly. Many citizens were anxious and fearful of the Soviet Union, which had acquired the atomic bomb in 1949.  This angst was reflected in culture, movies, and literature of the time. Indeed, Americans were wary of getting involved in prolonged conflicts, or even declaring war.  There was no formal declaration of war in Korea; rather, Truman used the military in a "police action." It is also worth noting that during the Korean War, many American units were integrated, thanks to Truman's desegregation the armed forces.  Despite this first in American history, the war remained limited in Emmonsscope and became increasingly unpopular.  Emmons concluded with, "Limited wars have limited victories."

This panel discussion among these three professors was followed by a lecture by Dr. Charles Neimeyer, a Marine Corps Historian at Quantico, Virginia, and former Dean at the Naval War College.  Dr. Neimeyer discussed the three years of fighting that defined the Korea War.

The "opening gambit of the Cold War" began with a massive land attack by North Korea on June 25, 1950. South Korea, just like the United States, was strategically caught by surprise.  Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was quickly captured by the North Korean Army.  South Korean and American forces were pushed into the so-called "Pusan Pocket," a toehold in southern South Korea.  However, the American military pressed its overwhelming advantage at sea and landed behind enemy lines at Inchon in September 1950.  This counterattack was so successful that it not only recaptured Seoul, but it drove the North Koreans back to the Chinese border.

Alarmed by this development, Mao Zedong, leader of China's new communist government, intervened.  Because U.S. power threatened his regime, he threw nearly a million Chinese soldiers into the fray.  As these troops began pushing American forces back, General Douglas MacArthur, leader of United Nations Command, expressed his desire to expand the war by using nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland.  Because MacArthur's overly bellicose feelings contradicted President Truman's limited-war strategy, the President dismissed him, replacing him with General Matthew Ridgeway.

NeimeyerIn Dr. Neimeyer's opinion, Gen. Ridgeway was "the deciding factor in the war," because he saved the U.S. Army through systematic use of firepower.  From April 1951 until the end of the war, Ridgeway effectively engaged North Korean and Chinese forces near the infamous 38th parallel.  For over two years, control of territory shifted little, and there were no truly decisive battles.  Instead, the communists waged a war of attrition.  By July of 1953, such tactics had worn down both sides; in that month, an armistice was agreed upon. Fighting came to an end, and the peninsula was divided into the two Koreas that we know today.

Dr. Neimeyer pointed out that the Korean War was marked by intense fighting and widespread destruction. A full ten percent of the North Korean Army was a casualty of the war.  Over the course of the conflict, 54,000 American soldiers also lost their lives.  Despite the immense loss of life, the war legitimized the United Nations (U.N.) as an organization that was committed to acting decisively in the name of collective security.  Most importantly, however, the Korean War added a new context to modern warfare.  Future wars would no longer be total wars.  Rather, they would be limited wars with limited objectives.  This change in the nature of warfare is perhaps the most memorable lesson of the Forgotten War.