Friday marks a significant milestone in America’s longest war. Sixty years ago Friday, North Korea invaded its neighbor, the Republic of Korea, initiating what historian William Stueck describes as “an orgy of violence.” Within 24 hours, the United States committed air and naval units to support the South Koreans. Within a week, American ground forces began arriving from Japan. President Truman and his advisers thought American intervention would quickly resolve the crisis, but the “police action” lasted more than three bloody years and resolved very few of the issues at stake.
Both sides signed an official cease-fire in 1953, but continued fighting since then has killed more than 100 Americans, 500 South Koreans and more than 1,000 North Koreans. The recent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the loss of more than 40 lives merely represents the latest skirmish in the continuing conflict. Today, the Korean Peninsula remains divided by ideology and a thin demilitarized zone, while the open warfare that paused in 1953 threatens to resume at any moment.
Created by a Soviet-American agreement at the end of World War II, the North and South Korean regimes were already engaged in a bitter cross-border struggle by the spring of 1950, and leaders in both countries sought to unify the peninsula by force. On the morning of June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel. Using Soviet weapons and tactics, the invaders easily overwhelmed the outnumbered defenders, captured the South Korean capital of Seoul and threatened to destroy the pro-Western regime of Syngman Rhee.
The invasion and subsequent collapse alarmed Washington. Truman earlier had withdrawn American combat units from South Korea, leaving a small contingent to train South Korea’s new army. Shortly before the invasion, the senior American adviser labeled this ill-equipped force the “best damn army outside the United States.”
That miscalculation was hardly the worst. In fact, multiple Soviet and American misperceptions contributed to the invasion. In Washington, policymakers dismissed mounting evidence of an imminent assault and assumed no attack would come until Josef Stalin was ready to fight a global conflict.
In Moscow, Stalin reluctantly agreed to underwrite the North Korean invasion, based on two false assumptions: that South Koreans would rally to the communist cause and that American forces would not intervene. The popular uprising proved ephemeral, and despite Washington’s ambivalence about defending Korea, Truman rapidly committed American combat units to repel the invaders. Three months later, the invasion had stalled in the face of American and South Korean defenses along the Pusan Perimeter.
After Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon, North Korean forces collapsed, and Truman gambled that the communist Chinese would not interfere with reunification of the peninsula under United Nations control. To the inexcusable surprise of Truman and his advisers, the Chinese launched a massive counterattack in November 1950, provoking a second crisis.
Mao Zedong’s forces drove U.N. troops back below the 38th parallel, recaptured Seoul and threatened to complete the conquest that their North Korean allies had left unfinished the preceding summer. Fortunately, Truman rejected MacArthur’s demands to use nuclear weapons against Chinese targets in Korea and Manchuria. Stalin, meanwhile, provided equipment and advisers but refused to commit Soviet forces in Korea.
With both superpowers consciously refraining from further escalation, the conflict eventually ground its way toward a stalemate. Mao’s generals launched several major offensives, but these achieved only limited success. In turn, U.N. forces exploited greater fire power and air superiority to ravage communist supply lines and decimate the attacking forces. After a year of fighting and several hundred thousand casualties, the communists finally agreed to talk. The negotiations, however, moved forward in fits and starts as further miscalculations prevented the two sides from reaching a mutual agreement.
The July 1953 truce left the peninsula bitterly divided, with both sides armed to the teeth. By then, the frustrating war had helped end Truman’s presidency and pushed the Eisenhower administration to forge troublesome alliances with other anti-communist regimes across Asia. Korea also exposed the weakness of America’s European allies and underscored the inherent problems of coalition warfare.
The war’s greatest victims were the Koreans themselves; as many as 3 million civilians perished on both sides of the 38th parallel. The North became, and remains, the world’s most brutal and dangerous police state, but in the South, survivors rebuilt their war-torn nation into a modern economic powerhouse.
More than 2 million Americans fought to save Korea, and 54,000 of them died in combat. Another 103,000 Americans were wounded, and more than 8,000 are still missing in action. While their sacrifice saved the Republic of Korea, they were largely ignored by Americans who considered the war a costly and embarrassing defeat. There were no victory parades to welcome home the survivors.
Today, most of these veterans are in their 80s, their ranks growing progressively thinner due to age and infirmity. While we still can, let us remember America’s longest war and thank the men and women who fought in it.
Bill Latham teaches at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He is author of the forthcoming “A Cold Day in Hell: The Korean War and the American POW Experience” (Texas A&M University Press).