John B. D. Potter ’11
The Wilson Center sponsored a symposium on September 21 and 22 to 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 enduring significance of the war.
Dr. Dinmore placed the Korean War in the context of post-colonial northeast Asia. In 1950, Korea, a former colony of Japan, had enjoyed only four years of political autonomy, and 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, starting as a civil war.
As Dr. Barrus pointed out, that civil war was an unintended consequence of a power vacuum in northeast Asia. With the Japanese gone, the Soviets and the Chinese saw war-torn Korea as a target of opportunity. Stalemated in Europe, the central focus of the Cold War, the Soviets were eager to open a new arena.
This move 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, then in its infancy. Although America showed its 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."
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 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, even of 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 of the armed forces. Despite this first in American history, the war remained limited in scope and became increasingly unpopular.
Dr. Charles Neimeyer, Marine Corps historian at Quantico and former Dean at the Naval War College, discussed the three years of fighting that defined the Korea War. The "opening gambit of the Cold War" was a massive land attack by North Korea on June 25, 1950. South Korea, 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" southern South Korea. However, the American military, pressing its advantage at sea, landed behind enemy lines at Inchon in September 1950. This counterattack not only recaptured Seoul, but drove the North Koreans back to the Chinese border.
Alarmed because U.S. power threatened his regime, Mao Zedong, leader of China's new communist government, intervened, throwing nearly a million Chinese soldiers into the fray. As these troops began pushing American forces back, General Douglas MacArthur, leader of United Nations Command, asked to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland, prompting President Truman to dismiss him in 1951. His successor, General Matthew Ridgeway, said Dr. Neimeyer, was "the deciding factor in the war," using systematic firepower to hold North Korean and Chinese forces near the infamous 38th parallel. By July of 1953, the war of attrition had worn down both sides to the extent that an armistice was agreed upon, and the peninsula was divided into the two Koreas we know today.
The Korean War was marked by intense fighting and widespread destruction. Fully ten percent of the North Korean Army was lost to the war, while 54,000 American soldiers also died (including two Hampden-Sydney alumni, Dashiell Rouse '42 and Cecil A. Barnett '49).
Despite the immense loss of life, the war legitimized the United Nations (UN) as an organization 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, but limited wars with limited objectives. This change in the nature of warfare is perhaps the most memorable lesson of the Forgotten War.