After World War II, Korea was divided into two occupation zones along the 38th parallel (akin to the division of Germany). With the Soviet Union overseeing of the North and involved in providing arms, supplies and political advice to Kim Il-sung and the Communist forces in the North, the US became belatedly involved in the non-communist (but dictatorial) South to "fight communism."

After a buildup of arms and tensions, on June 25, 1950 the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) rumbled across the 38th parallel in Soviet tanks, and pushed the southern Republic of Korea (ROK)'s forces south to the very southern tip of Korea, at Pusan. The US sucessfully convinced the UN to intercede with a largely US force1. An amphibious landing by General Douglas MacArthur and his X-Force Marines at Inchon allowed the NKPA to be enveloped by a pincer movement and crushed. Seoul was retaken and the ROK forces moved North.

MacArthur's forces crossed the 38th parallel and pursued the NKPA deep into North Korea. This brought the People's Republic of China (PRC) into the fight, as they feared a US assault against Manchuria. The PRC army forced the UN and ROK forces back to the 38th parallel. MacArthur retrenched, and later forced a second assault into North Korea, against the explicit instructions of President Harry S Truman.

MacArthur was releived of command for violating orders, and his successor entrenched heavily at the 38th parallel. The resulting stalemate dragged on until a peace treaty was signed at Panmunjom in 1953. Even then the tensions remained, and the demilitarized zone (DMZ) still stands2 as a reminder.

The United States still has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea.

1. Non-korean UN forces makeup: 300,000 from the US; 14,000 from the UK, 6,000 from Canada, 5,000 from Turkey, 2,000 from Australia, and many UN nations with 1,000 to 1,500. Luxembourg sent 44.
2. According to November 2000's Discover magazine, a Korean scientist has proposed turning the DMZ into a huge wildlife preserve, but he faces an uphill battle convincing the two Korean governments.
June 25th, 1950 to July 23rd, 1953
  • Parties involved
    Initially, North and South Korea fought; several UN members (most notably the U.S.) entered as allies of South Korea; China did so later on, allied with North Korea. The North Korean army used Soviet-supplied weapons and training.
  • Underlying Causes
    • Korea had been under Japanese control since the late 19th century. During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union undermined Japan’s empire and divided Korea into two "temporary" nations, with U.S. troops stationed below the 38th parallel and Soviet troops above it.
    • It became clear that there would be no reunification, so in 1949, the U.S. and USSR withdrew most of their troops from the peninsula.
    • The United States may have given the impression that South Korea was vulnerable by omitting it from their Asian defense perimeter.
  • Igniting Spark
    North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel boundary between North and South Korea and swept down the peninsula, through the ill-trained and equipped South Korean Forces. The U.S. assumed that China and Russia had organized the invasion, and so intervened immediately, under auspices of the U.N. (In reality, it was discovered - when previously classified documents were released in the early '90s, after the USSR's breakup - that North Korea had acted alone, China's eventual assistance was to only to protect its own border, and the Soviet Union provided supplies and technology only with much prodding.)
  • Location
    The entire war took place on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean Army advanced southwards, deep into South Korean territory, until repulsed by a southern army reinforced by the U.N. (mostly the U.S.). This army then swept northward until repulsed by a northern army newly reinforced by China. The rest of the fighting was close to the starting point, the 38th parallel.
  • Weaponry
    • The Korean war was the first in which jet aircraft fought each other. The area between North Korean capital Pyongyang and the Yalu river was known as MIG alley for the frequent dogfights there between American-built F-86 Sabers and Soviet-built MIG-15s.
    • The war was also the first in which helicopters played a major role (at least for the U.S. and its allies), ferrying soldiers to battle and carrying away injured troops and downed pilots.
    • Artillery and tanks of the WWII type were used by both sides. North Koreans used Soviet holdovers from World War II; the southern allies and China had their own technology.
    • Massive bombing campaigns were carried out.
    • America denied using chemical warfare; small creatures were killed along with the bombed troops, however.
    • Truman hinted at use of the atomic bomb (but didn’t actually use it).
  • Scale
    • The war began as a local conflict between North Korea, with about 135,000 soldiers, and South Korea, with about 95,000.
    • Many UN members joined South Korea immediately, and total allied forces at their peak stood at almost 1,100,000 (590,000 were South Korean and 480,000 American).
    • Later, China joined the North Koreans, eventually bringing the Communist army to 1,400,000 (260,000 were North Korean, 780,000 Chinese).
    • Though it spent over $67 billion in Korea, the United States never declared war; to do so would have meant getting U.S. intervention approved by congress, and president Truman thought that congress might not support it. The entire conflict was technically a police action.
    • The Korean War was the first major battle in an ongoing cold war between the U.S. and USSR The two countries never fought each other directly, for fear of nuclear Armageddon, but they did engage in a series of indirect skirmishes.
  • Public Reaction
    • The Korean War deepened existing fear of communism in the United States. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that he had a list of respected Americans who were closet communists. It was in due course discovered that there was no list, and McCarthy’s career was destroyed. That the imaginary list was able to garner so much attention in the first place, destroying the careers of countless writers, politicians, and others, illustrates the magnitude of anti-Communist fear.
    • The war’s popularity decreased once fighting became confined to battle-line skirmishes and victory seemed elusive.
    • MacArthur was a popular general, and his removal from command was widely criticized.
  • Turning Point
    • On April 11th, 1951, President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff removed General Douglas MacArthur from his command of the allied armies, replacing him with Matthew Ridgway. MacArthur was unwilling to fight a limited war of the type Truman wanted; he had undermined peace negotiations and proposed a war with China, which Truman feared might lead to an deadly, atomic Third World War.
    • In his retirement speech, MacArthur stressed the need to continue fighting until all of Korea was won. General Omar Bradley gave a counter-speech proposing that the war be ended with now, with the U.S. and Allies ahead. The UN agreed with Bradley and commenced peace talks.
  • Casualties
    • The United States suffered 162,167 casualties. 54,246 soldiers were killed, 103,284 were wounded, and 5,178 were prisoners or missing in action.
    • South Korea suffered 400,167 casualties. 58,127 soldiers died, 175,743 were wounded, and 166,297 were prisoners or missing in action.
    • North Korea suffered about 624,000 casualties. About 522,000 were dead or wounded, and 102,000 taken prisoner.
    • China suffered about 967,000 casualties. About 945,000 were dead or injured, and 22,000 taken prisoner.
    • U.S. allies (not including S. Korea) suffered 17,260 casualties; 3,194 deaths, 11,297 injuries, and 2,769 soldiers taken prisoner or missing in action.
    • About a million South Korean civilians were killed and several million made homeless.
    • In all, the Korean war killed over 2.5 million.
  • Ending
    • In June, 1951, following Douglas MacArthur’s forced resignation, the Soviet delegate to the UN proposed a cease-fire.
    • A treaty that made the existing battle line - which stretched diagonally near the 38th Parallel - the final divider between North and South Korea was soon proposed, and a truce seemed close at hand.
    • The truce talks stagnated by early 1952, however. A total prisoner exchange had been proposed, but many UN prisoners did not want to return to their communist nations. For North Vietnam and China to accept an exchange in which each prisoner would decide their own fate would mean admitting communism’s failure to secure the prisoners’ loyalty. Skirmishes continued along the battle line.
    • On March 5th, 1953, Soviet premier Josef Stalin died, and the communists soon accepted an earlier peace offer involving voluntary prisoner exchange. The last remaining snag had been cleared.
    • On July 23rd, 1953, an armistice was signed. North and South Korea agreed:
      • Not to increase their respective militaries
      • To allow a 2.5 mile demilitarized zone between the two countries
      • That all prisoners be voluntarily repatriated; this would be supervised by a neutral committee
  • Outcome
    • The Korean war had accomplished almost nothing. The new boundary was very close to the one that had existed before, though after years of fighting it made a bit more geographic sense. In addition, the demilitarized zone insured that small sparks couldn’t ignite another war.
    • No peace treaty was signed between North and South Korea. In 1991, the two countries agreed to work towards that goal.
  • Effect on International Affairs
    • The cold war deepened.
    • The U.S. had assumed that the invasion of South Korea was a communist conspiracy, a diversion to draw attention and troops away from Europe. America more than tripled the number of troops stationed in Europe from 81,000 to 260,800, and made plans to rearm West Germany.
    • Truman ordered troops into Vietnam for the first time.
    • The U.S. alliance with Japan strengthened as the Japanese economy boomed.
    • Australia and New Zealand joined the U.S. in a mutual defense agreement.
    • The U.S. expanded its defense perimeter with treaties and offensive allies.
    • No president until George Bush would ask congress to declare war, as is specified in the constitution. The failures of Nixon and Johnson to ask permission for the Vietnam War were large contributors to public resentment of that war.

Node your homework.

Matthew Bunker Ridgway is the author of two books including the extensively titled The Korean War : How We Met the Challenge : How All-Out Asian War Was Averted : Why MacArthur Was Dismissed : Why Today's War Objectives Must Be Limited. Doubleday first published this book in 1967, but its most recent publication is by Da Capa Press in 1988.

Matthew Ridgway is exceedingly qualified to author a book on the Korean War. In the war's beginning, he was attached to the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and from this vantage point was able to see the overall happenings of the war in the small Asian country. Later, he was to take command of the United States Army's Eighth Army and then become Commanding General of the United Nations forces and Allied occupation forces in Japan.

This book is written as a first-person narrative with a bird's-eye-view and overall scope from General Ridgway's standpoint as the Commander. It seems to be directed toward those interested in the Korean War, foreign policy in times of war, as well as the controversy over the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur. It is not directed at the general public, and could not be considered a popular or widely read novel.

On the whole, this book is organized chronologically. There are some slight exceptions to this however, since the book is broken up into ten chapters each of which is its own topic. Some of the chapters must do some backtracking to get the reader into the new topic, and the last two chapters are overall perspectives of the MacArthur controversy and the so-called "Lessons Learned" respectively. Inserted throughout the book are photos and images from the war including strategic areas/geography; troops and leaders of the Allied, North Korean, and Chinese forces; as well as various pictures of such things as unit patches and equipment. Along with the pictures were several maps depicting land, movements, and battles. In addition, the book contained a brief calendar of the war and several appendices that included excerpts of official letters and documents.

General Ridgway's book included three major ideas, the first of which are General MacArthur's failings in Korea, and our political leader's reluctance to do anything about it. Though always maintaining a respectful air for one of our histories greatest generals, Ridgway pulls no punches when writing about MacArthur. The critique begins when the author explains how MacArthur refuses to relinquish control of the X Corp to the Eighth Army and how he lets his past victories (Inchon) allow himself, his superiors and his subordinates believe that he cannot make mistakes. There was also the idea that MacArthur discounted military intelligence reports, which stated the presence and large number of enemy forces in the area including both North Korean and Chinese troops. There were claims that MacArthur stubbornly wanted to push toward Yalu despite all that blocked him or regardless of the lives that were lost. Though ceremonially present at the first shots of the major battles, MacArthur was leading the troops from to great a distance (Japan) and did not fully understand the situation.

The second thought was Ridgway's aversion to one of General MacArthur's major ideas about the war. This idea of there being "no substitute for an all-out victory", and the way MacArthur wanted to apply it in China was ultimately one of the major reasons for his dismissal. Ridgway was against MacArthur's plan to "knock down China so hard that they would not get up for a generation". Doing this would have entailed the use of nuclear weapons, and the destruction of not only China's military forces, but also their means of supplying them. This would include eradicating factories, farms, and means of transportation and figuratively place the country back into the Stone Age. General Ridgway instead fought a limited war. From his point of view, he pushed the enemy back to simply free South Korea and get his troops home.

Lastly, even though General Rideway did not agree with all of MacArthur's leadership, he was flatly against the fact that he was dismissed, and the method by which the dismissal came about. If the President Harry S. Truman and other political leaders had been forceful enough to say no to this man beforehand, MacArthur may not have gotten out of control and put up such a fight for his stubborn ideas. MacArthur's abrupt dismissal and the method of communicating it to him were very unprofessional. The book states that MacArthur found out about being relieved of his command through newspaper correspondents. To do this to a man who devoted his entire life to the service of his country was simply disrespectful.

I thought the book to be quite dry and a very slow read. I also found it somewhat hard to follow along with the events and locations referred to in the book even though I spent a year and a half stationed in the South Korea myself. It's as if the author knows what he is talking about, and therefore assumes the reader does as well.

Obviously the Commanding General played an important role in the war, but I found the book to be very self-centered. Though worded harshly, one recent amateur book review had this to say:

Gen. Matthew Ridgway is so full of himself that he cannot err. He is quick to point out his perfection by comparing himself to others of his calling, and although forced by history and fact to admit the other fine leaders of the 8th army did actually perform well in Korea, he is obviously reluctant to write of anything unless the sentence begins with "I".

This review, surprisingly, was the exception and not the rule. The reviews given at its original publishing date were either completely objective or full of praise. It was said to be insightful, informative, and forthright. "Those who read it will not be disappointed." "Buy the book!" Though published about 15 years after the "end" of the Korean War these positive reviews may have been due to the fact the Ridgway was still a war hero both from his involvement in the Korean War and World War II.

In addition to coming from the hand of a primary source, this book is very well documented. It contains a rather large bibliography including 52 books, 18 magazines, three congressional hearings, as well as government documents, and personal files and letters along with the maps stated above.

Matthew B. Ridgway's The Korean War was an informative book on this conflict. If you would like to read about the history of the war, the mistakes of some of our military and political leaders, and especially about the great and wonderful feats of the author, this book hits the mark.


This book review was written by me for an undergraduate history class. Node your homework. The amateur review quoted above was taken from a customer review by 75262.1415(AT)compuserve.com on Amazon.com.

A Node your homework enterprise.
In eleventh grade I interviewed a Korean War veteran, transcribed below. I, of course, am C. Naim, and the veteran is D. Warnock.
Please excuse the lack of talent on the part of the interviewer. The interviewee is much better.


C. Naim: Just in general…Let’s start at the start. How did you get there?

D. Warnock: Well, I was drafted in January of ’51. And I’d been living at Kann’ City, Missouri, at the time. And I was married, got married just about six months before. So anyway, I got drafted, and I got sent to Camp Cook, California, which is now Vandenberg Air Force Base. But I got sent out there and assigned to the 40th infantry division, which was California National Guard Division. And as a draftee, well they put about five thousand of us in that division to bring it up to strength. So I got my basic training at Camp Cook, California, and then I got a leave, and after that I got shipped from San Francisco to Japan, northern Japan, for six months, and I did training there, and then the 40th Division we all went to Korea, and I was there ‘till June or November of ’52.

C. Naim: Just about two years.

D. Warnock: Yeah. At that time when you got drafted it usually was two years. Yeah, the month I got drafted, the war started in June of ’50, and they instituted the draft that fall, and I think the month I got drafted there were about 70,000 young people were drafted for the army, because of the Korean War.

C. Naim: Did you believe in the cause of it? I mean, did you want to go there? I don’t mean it the way it quite sounds. I doubt that you wanted to go there—

D. Warnock: (laughs)

C. Naim: But if you, would you have, if you could have stayed home would you have preferred that we won? Do you know what I mean?

D. Warnock: Well yeah, to put it in perspective I was, well, probably about your age during World War II, from 1941 to ’45, so I was used to the war and a lot of our friends and relatives, of course, in fact everybody, able-bodied men were all drafted or went into the service, so in that sense it wasn’t anything new. And, I think my attitude probably was well, if you got called, why, you just went and served. The war itself, well, yeah, you know, it was kind of built up as fighting communism, and by 1950 communism was perceived to be the big threat to our country, and in Korea, the idea was well, if it was communist there, they would take over all of Korea. And of course, Japan was still recovering from World War II and so it would probably take over Japan. And in that sense, yeah, I felt it was a justified war. Of course it helped too, that this was the first war that we’ve ever been in the United Nations as a group was involved in. There were soldiers from a lot of different countries. So it was kind of an interesting, multi-national armed forces. But yeah, the cause was perceived as something as, you know, communism was considered the big evil, almost on the level of Germany, or you know, Hitler.

C. Naim: Almost. (Laughs)

D. Warnock: Yeah, almost. But there was nobody that knew too much about Korea. I mean, you know, I knew it existed. But there wasn’t nobody who knew too much about it really. (Laughs)

C. Naim: Just about as much as I know. (Laughs)

D. Warnock: Right, yeah. (Laughs) Probably.

C. Naim: What were your first impressions when you got there?

D. Warnock: Well my first impression was when we got to Japan, and of course, there, I think I was twenty-one, being a young guy, in the service, my first impression was that the country had a horrible smell. Both Japan and Korea smelled like fish. You know, it really did, and after you were there for a month, you didn’t, you know, you didn’t notice it, but I guess it was a different culture. But yeah, that was a big thing, that and, uh, they all looked alike. I couldn’t tell a Japanese from a Korean or a Chinese. (Laughs) You know, after you were there for a while you got so you could tell people that were Japanese, and when you got to Korea they had a, you see they had a distinct little different look, and their language was enough different that you caught on. But initially they all (Laughs) looked alike to me. They were Oriental. What was your question though?

C. Naim: Just your impressions in general.

D. Warnock: Oh, yeah, that was kind of my impression. And they were very misfortunate in Korea, because the people, they all didn’t have a thing. We landed at Inchon and that, and all the towns that we went through were just demolished. I mean, there was nothing there. And we worked around the—I was a combat engineer—and we worked around some Korean army units, and the South Korean government at that time. Course they were, they were fighting for their lives. You know, with all the fighting going on. So they had national conscription. And they would just go through a village and load people on trucks, all able-bodied men. And you were either in the army or in what they called the Korean Service Corps. And it was kind of like civilian, Korean workers, but they worked under army authority. They had army sergeants and officers over. But they did a lot of helping. They helped the engineers helped us build roads and things like that. So, I had a lot of contact, probably more than a lot of people did, with the actual Koreans themselves. So that was interesting.

C. Naim: Are you ready for a really broad question?

D. Warnock: Okay. (Laughs)

C. Naim: What did you do there?

D. Warnock: Well I was in the fortieth infantry division, and I was in a combat engineer company, and our duties—they assigned one company of engineers to every infantry regiment, and we did all the engineering work for that regiment. We had to make sure all the roads and bridges were intact, we laid minefields, and we took up minefields. The Chinese laid minefields—Their army was different from ours. In the American army, if you laid a minefield, you had to shoot azimuths, it had to be plotted, and you had to get approval very high up, at division or corps level to lay a minefield, and you kept good records of it. And we did some of that. But the Chinese, when they laid mines, they just laid them. They thought, well, the Americans or the Koreans or will be coming through here, so they might just lay mines across an area, but they kept no record of it. So you might be going down the road, and, you know, a truck might get blown up or some soldier might get blown up, and that would be the first knowledge you would have of there being mines there. Americans, when they built, we fought in the European style. If we laid a minefield, we strung barbed wire around it with triangular signs that had a death-head on it, which was the international symbol, “This is a minefield, stay out.” (Laughs) And we did that, of course, to protect our own troops, but also if the enemy would know well, if you go in there, there’s mines. The Chinese didn’t do any of that, they just buried the mines, and that was it. If they retreated, they laid mines, and if they came back and took that land again, they just took their chances. They lost a lot of their own people because they had no idea where the mines were. Even the ones they laid. But anyway that’s the kind of work we did. We were usually stationed back where the field artillery was. We were usually a mile or two behind the front lines. By the time I got to Korea there was a main line of resistance. In other words, there was a whole series of trenches and strong points all the way across Korea. There were the North Koreans on one side and we were on the other. It was kind of like World War I type fighting. We had a lot of trenches, mountain, a lot of outposts, but generally you knew that the enemy was up here and you were here. When Korea first, before we got there, before I got there, six months before, they were fighting up and down Korea, so nobody knew where the front lines were. I mean, you know, it would just change every day. So, you might end up with the Chinese and the Koreans in back of you, on each side of you, nobody knew for sure where the enemy was until you started, until they started shooting at you. But by the time I got there it had gotten stabilized. Generally you knew where the front line was defined. In our sector, the American sector, and I imagine in others, there were no civilians allowed within five miles of the front lines. If you were caught there, you’d be shot. You were just assumed to be the enemy. So they didn’t want scavengers or farmers or anybody else roaming around, because a lot of American and United Nations troops had no way of identifying a North Korean from a South Korean or a Chinese. It was kind of like in World War II, when the Japanese Americans were, you know, looked like the Japanese, so people said “Well, you look Oriental, ergo we’re fighting them and you’re the enemy.” It was kind of—But anyway, that’s what I did.

C. Naim: Were you ever involved in any actual attack?

D. Warnock: Um, yeah, once or twice, nothing major. Yeah, the sector we were in, we were attacked several times, but as I said, we were kind of back where the artillery was. We got shelled a few times. The Chinese were very good with mortars, and they would lob those mortars shells back where the artillery was, in the front lines and right in back of it, trying to disrupt our line of communication and supplies. And mortars don’t make any noise. They shoot a high trajectory, and they shoot up and they come down. There’s no whistling or nothing. All of a sudden there’s just explosions. It’s not like an artillery gun—an artillery shell you can hear it coming. If you’re on the receiving end of it it’ll whistle going through the air because it’s going so fast. But a mortar shell just goes straight up and then kind of, kind or goes like this. (Arms move in an arc to demonstrate.) And it doesn’t make any noise. So you never know when it is coming. (Laughs) It just explodes.

C. Naim: That’s pretty scary.

D. Warnock: Yeah, well we didn’t—we had a few people in our outfit injured, and we had a few that were seriously hurt trying to deactivate enemy mines. You had to go in and—Chinese would set up these anti-personnel mines that would have a mine and would have a trip-line out, and, you know, if a soldier walked across it and tripped it, it would have a little shotgun shell which would kind of shoot like a hand-grenade, shoot it up in the air about six feet and it would explode. Come down like that (demonstrates with his hands) with shrapnel, and the Chinese like to lay those little rascals. And the engineers, we went in and get in an area where we knew they had those, and go in and try to locate them and disarm them. They usually had a—once you knew what they were and you saw the tripwire, then you could carry little pins, and you could stick one of those in a mine to prevent it from firing to deactivate it.

C. Naim: So was it a difficult thing to do?

D. Warnock: Yeah, it was nerve-wracking. (Laughs) Once you could find it you knew where it was you could put a pin in there, but it was the fact that you were working around other guys in the area and somebody accidentally set one off. It could hurt people for, you know, fifteen or twenty yards around; throw shrapnel on them. They called them Bouncing Bettys. They would just shoot up in the air about six or eight feet and then they would explode. They would just shoot shrapnel down like that, so that anybody that was within range of it would get hurt. But, yeah, we weren’t in any—we were in several smaller campaigns but no major major battles. By the time we got over there the front lines were pretty well stabilized. We didn’t have too much trouble. But, yeah, there were people getting killed, but usually the infantry had it the worst, because they were right up on the front lines. Engineers spent some time up there, built bunkers once in a while or we would be building roads right up to the front line. Because that part of Korea, around the thirty-eighth parallel it was all hilly like this (demonstrates with hands), small mountains, so usually you tried to—the idea was that you wanted to have the high ground so you could look down and see where the enemy was. It was a lot of fighting to take these hills and ridges. By the time I got over there, there was a lot of fighting, give and take, taking a hill, or getting knocked off a hill, or having to take it back. We were trying to negotiate a peace or a truce, so, the Allies and the United Nations and the Koreans and the Chinese were meeting and discussing a truce. At the same time both sides were jockeying to be in the best position militarily, because they knew that the ceasefire would take place wherever each side was.

C. Naim: Greatly help negotiations.

D. Warnock: Yeah, I guess it would. Yeah, the Chinese wanted to see how—they were testing us, what our resolve was, how much we really wanted peace. I read this later, but I knew that the Chinese, the Americans, and the United Nations would get tired of the war. But that didn’t happen. They got an armistice, but that’s all. They’ve had a state of war in Korea I guess ever since.

C. Naim: Still?

D. Warnock: Yeah, they have an armistice, but there’s still no peace. They just agreed not to fight, but they didn’t end the war (Laughs). At that time, 1952, the presidential election was coming up, and Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower was running for president. One of his positions he was running on was that he would end the war in Korea. And of course if you were in the army in Korea, that was—you were all in favor of that. (Laughs) And Eisenhower said he would come to Korea if he got elected, and he did. He was elected in November of ’52, but, you know, he didn’t go into office until January. But right after he got elected, in November or December, or first part of January, he flew over to Korea. And that, I think that helped influence the Chinese and the Koreans, because Eisenhower had a reputation as the big general in World War II. You know, that helped.

C. Naim: Did you know MacArthur? I mean, not personally, but did you have anything to do with—

D. Warnock: No, no. MacArthur was—I was in Japan I think he was relieved of his command. Harry S Truman, President Truman, relieved him. I was serving in Japan, but no, I didn’t know him. He was not—he was thought of as a great general. Most GI’s thought he was good. He had done a lot in Korea. The Chinese, Koreans, the North Koreans, were about to throw us out of Korea. MacArthur turned all of that around. He was a pretty brilliant soldier, and he helped stop the Chinese, we were able to drive them back up North. But the time I was in Korea, most of the fighting we were doing was around the thirty-eighth parallel, which was a line that separated North from South Korea. At the end of World War II the Japanese had occupied Korea for forty years. At the end of World War II, part of the unconditional surrender of Japan, was that Japan gave up Korea. So, when Japan gave it up, the communists were the dominant political party in northern Korea, and the southern part was more democratic. So there was a big hassle, we wanted a free Korea, but was it going to be communist or was it going to be democratic? So they couldn’t—the politicians didn’t know what to do so they split it. So they used the thirty-eighth parallel and divided the country in half. Everything north of it was North Korea, communist controlled, and everything south was basically democratic, and was supported by the United States, and England and Australia. That’s kind of what the situation was at that time. Yeah, it was a long, it was a long war. 1950 probably until the armistice in ’53, November of ’53. There were about three years of heavy fighting, then after that when the cease-fire came they just sat down and looked at each other. There would be some little firefights once in a while. The United States for years had twenty to thirty thousand soldiers stationed there, ever since 1953. There were three army divisions that were there all the time, usually up around the thirty-eight parallel. Just to keep the North Koreans—keep them honest. (Laughs) Because South Korea was shattered; it took them a long time to rebuild their economy. Pumped a lot of money in themselves. Of course, today it’s big—basically democratic—but it’s a big country. Well developed, industrialized, big rebuilding.

C. Naim: So what was it like down there? I mean, the atmosphere. Was it constant fear, or you just didn’t think about it?

D. Warnock: Yeah, you really didn’t think about it that much. Our outfit, all the guys I was with, we had all trained together, we were all in the same outfit for two years, which helped. We didn’t, I mean, none of us didn’t look upon the war like World War II, like we had to be in this thing to win or lose. I think we all sensed that, probably, it would be a standoff. And of course, knowing that it’s a standoff is—you get a little of the feeling that I suppose came along in Vietnam. Which was, you were there, but you didn’t necessarily want to sacrifice your life, I mean, you would do it for your friend, or for your buddies; your outfit, you felt a strong loyalty to them, but outside of that you didn’t have a desire to conquer all the rest of North Korea or anything. You just wanted to get the thing over with and get out of there. But yeah, there was some fear, but once the line got stabilized, it wasn’t too bad. It had periods of time when there’d be a lot of action and people would be scared, but other times it was like—it had some advantages, because you were left living out in the field. You know, we lived in squat tents, we had foxholes and entrenchments dug, and that was just kind of the way you lived, but by the same token we didn’t need to have any parades or spit and polish, if you know what I mean. It was kind of like being on a big campout, so you didn’t—the military— the brass and all the military—discipline and things that were in a regular base wasn’t there because everybody knew their job and so, you know, you were enlisted men and officers basically worked very close together. It was kind of like a job really, especially for the engineers, because everybody usually had a skill, we had carpenters, we had guys that knew how to run bulldozers. It was like construction out there.

C. Naim: Some job, huh? (Laughs)

D. Warnock: Yeah, yeah, it was what life was like. You always had enough excitement that it never got too boring. But, winter was kind of bad because it would be awful cold, but the summers were nice, reminds me of the weather we get around here. As I said, it was all hilly where we were, small mountains.

C. Naim: Did anyone you knew die?

D. Warnock: Yeah, yeah we had three or four guys in our company that got killed, two of them by mines that blew up while they were working on them. And then we had a couple—one of our platoons was up on the line doing some work, and a couple of them got killed, got hit by artillery. And in Japan, one guy in our company committed suicide. That was just before we left for Korea. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not. He was in the bunk right next to the one I was in, and he stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I remember because we all had to go to the funeral. (Laughs) They just shipped the body home.

C. Naim: How would you deal with the death? I mean, if they were your friend—

D. Warnock: Well you’d, yeah, you’d miss them, and you’d feel bad about it, but at the same time you knew it could happen. Kind of like the police, today. You’re there in a normal everyday life, you know that something can happen, and a shell could land on you, you could get shot. After a while, you don’t think too much of it really.

C. Naim: Next day you just go on?

D. Warnock: Yeah, you just go ahead and do your thing. And I think it helped a lot being with the same guys, because you knew them, and in the service you would have a lot of camaraderie, a lot of closeness. Like if you and I were together, in the same squadron, and spent six months to a year together, I would know you, you would know me, I would know the people that I could depend on if something happened, and vice versa. And I think that cohesiveness in the military was one of the strongest assets we had. You had a lot of pride in your outfit, if that’s the right word. Well, you had a lot of feeling of support. You get comfortable because you know these people around you. But, no, everybody was pretty careful. At that time in Korea, people got rotated out of Korea based on points. And you got points based on how long you were in the service, if you were in Korea you got extra points for that, if you were up in the front lines you got extra points for that. And that’s how you got—once you got I forget what it was, I think it was thirty, thirty-five points, then you would be rotated home, go back to the states. Or if your enlistment was up, then you’d go back. For draftees like me that was usually two years. They could have kept us in for the duration if they wanted to, but they didn’t.

C. Naim: So you were expecting it when you finally got out.

D. Warnock: Yeah, you knew—it wasn’t like World War II, where, generally, you were there for the duration of the period. I think the army air force was the only thing in World War II where you could get shipped back to the states for training. But that was—for most of the army that didn’t happen. You were in the army until the end of the war, period. Which gave you a lot of motivation. (Laughs) To end the war and get it over with, because you knew that you weren’t going to get sent home. But I knew that I was going to get sent home, and the closer you get to that, the more you get a feeling of “God I hope nothing happens,” and you don’t take a lot of chances. You don’t really, you don’t have the sense of “I really need to get this thing over with, because that’s the only way I’m going to get sent home.” So in that sense, it was probably a little like Vietnam, I imagine. And then, when we came home, it was a lot like Vietnam. The Korean War generated a lot of economic activity in the United States, a lot of economic well-being, and it wasn’t a total war, so not everyone was drafted into the service, so when you came out and came home, I mean there was no fanfare. You were sent to a base and discharged and you went home, and you went back to the job you had or found a job, and that’s it. I mean, there was no—It wasn’t like World War II where you got all these millions of veterans becoming civilians. We just blended back into—Got on with our lives. It wasn’t any—I don’t think most people at that time felt like it was an unjustified war or didn’t feel like Vietnam. But, the time when I came in, there were a lot of World War II veterans, so there were a lot of veterans out there, so when you got back it was sort of like “Well good, Dave, I’m glad that you’re back.” But I mean no, there wasn’t anybody; they’d all been in the service too. So it wasn’t any big deal. You just put in your time and served your country.

C. Naim: When you left did you have any—aside from being happy, did you have any feeling like you accomplished anything, it was all a waste…

D. Warnock: Yeah, well, at that time, with the peace talks, it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t the objective of the United States government to win that war, it was just to stop the Chinese from taking over South Korea, and in that sense, yeah, it was satisfying, but it wasn’t in the sense that you won a war. None of us really had a sense of total closure, it was just; “All right, I was in there and I did my part and now I’m coming home and somebody else was going over there.” (Laughs) That type of thing. But no, there really wasn’t any sense of closure. You got to remember that a lot of the people that were drafted and called up in the Korean War never went to Korea or Japan. A lot of them were sent to Europe, to bolster the English and French and the German army, which was very small at that time, and they were very afraid that the Russians might start a war in Europe, to conquer the rest of Europe. So, during the Korean War there were a lot of soldiers that were sent to Europe, rather than to the far east. In that way it was kind of a world war against communism from a military standpoint.

C. Naim: Anything else you want to add?

D. Warnock: No I don’t think so. It was quite a long time ago. We have reunions quite often, the guys that were in my outfit. After we got out of the service, there was about twenty or twenty-five years that I knew a few guys, because they lived around me, but then we got on with our own lives. Getting married and having families and jobs, and being transferred here and there. For about twenty-five years I never really heard much from anybody else in our outfit, and then, about eight years ago, several of the guys in our outfit kind of got a, got some information about who was where and got together and made a reunion, and we had them for about six or seven years afterward. But we have, yeah, we get together, in Texas, or the Ozarcs, or wherever. A lot of our guys came from the Midwest. Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Alabama. We have reunions, it’s amazing the continuity. Our last reunion we had thirty-five, forty guys from our company. And one of the things that statistically was amazing was that all of them were still married to the same person. There had been very little divorce. It was kind of interesting. I think politically, that most of us are conservative, and I guess that proves that you get more conservative as you get older. (Laughs) We did believe that communism was a threat to our country and our way of life. So in that sense we had a more clearly defined sense of where we stood, but there was no animosity towards the North Koreans. And I think that those of us that were in the war better understood the people there. We had a lot of contact with civilians, a lot of contact with children. A lot of their parents had been killed and been separated. And we used to hire these kids, we had a squad of ten, and we would hire these Korean kids to be kind of like houseboys, to come in and keep the tent clean and they would wash clothes and do things like that. You know, kids ten, twelve, thirteen years old. No parents. They helped a lot of those kids. Gave them employment, something to do. And I was surprised in there, the churches had done an awful lot in Korea. There were a lot of missions in there. They usually became the orphanages. And some kids, some of them lived by themselves in packs. They’d steal you blind. You know, the houseboys would work for you, and you knew them and all of that, but when it came time for them to leave, you’d come back one day and they’d be gone and they would have taken the shoes or what ever was lying around. But I mean, that was part of their survival. At the time we would get a little upset, but then we’d start thinking, what do they got really, what do they got to look forward to. And uh, well, anything else?

C. Naim: No. Thanks. You’ve been a great help.

D. Warnock: Good. I hope you can get enough out of that.

C. Naim: Oh, I’m sure that I have plenty.

(End of tape)

Origins

People often say that Korea is America's forgotten war and there are many reasons to want to forget it. Over 42,000 Americans were killed or MIA and over twice that number were mutilated, all so that at the end of the war the border between the two Koreas could shift slightly. Korea was the first indication that during the Cold War, armed conflict would be more about superpower credibility and political solutions than military victory; that the United States was limited in dealing with even a small peninsular like Korea; and that its military might was not infallible.

The Korean War was, first and foremost, a Korean civil war. Korea was occupied by the Japanese Empire in 1905 and brutally exploited to aid the Japanese war effort, causing deep divisions between the collaborators and the resisters. Then, at the end of World War II, the country was split into two between the Soviet Union and the United States for the ostensible purpose of administering the surrender of Japanese forces. The country was supposed to hold elections on reunification under a United Nations mandate, but the Soviets refused to hold polls in their sector.

This was an early indication in the post-war world that the operation of the UN depended ultimately on the co-operation of powerful member-states. U.S. intervention would eventually take place under a UN mandate and with contributions from many other countries, a situation that was allowed to come about because the Soviets were boycotting the UN and so could not exercise their veto. They would not make the same mistake in the future.

Neither the North or the South's leaders wanted the division to stay permanent, and both plotted in the early years to see the peninsular reunified by force. In Seoul and Pyongyang, the Soviets and the Americans had to restrain their allies. Eventually, after repeated provocations by the South - which hoped to spark an invasion by the North and then use it as an excuse to conquer the whole country - the North rolled over the border in 1950. The invasion had finally received Soviet approval after U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had said in a speech that Korea was not part of the U.S. "defensive perimeter" in Asia, implying that the U.S. would not intervene to protect South Korea.

This was later seen as a disastrous move as it invited the invasion and did not even turn out to be true. Meetings of the National Security Council in Washington did not even take time to cover whether or not an intervention was necessary, but simply took it as a given. The invasion was seen as part of a global Communist plot, driven by the Soviet Union, to test the United States. It was commonly seen as the breaking down of the post-war settlement and could easily have been interpreted as the first shot in World War III. And, if things had turned out differently, it might well have been. However, the decision to escalate always lay with the United States or China, as the Soviets actually provided very little direct support to the North; Soviet forces, of whom there were few, only rarely and accidently clashed with Americans during the war, and Soviet arms shipments to the North did not escalate markedly when the war began.

Course

North Korea is a country that is often - and rightly - seen as a basket case, but its military has been first-class from the start. Tens of thousands of North Koreans had fought in the Chinese Civil War and become adept at guerilla warfare, whereas its armoured units were modelled on the Soviet example and carried out an effective blitzkrieg in the South. American forces rushed to the defence of their ally but suffered a number of embarrassing defeats at the hands of the North, until eventually all the Americans and South Koreans had left was a small sliver of land around the city of Pusan in the southeast of the peninsular. The U.S. then carried out a brilliant amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Inchon, and the course of the conflict was reversed.

While the defence of South Korea had been the original goal, the U.S. now switched to a strategy of trying to unify the whole of Korea under the Southern government. The North's forces collapsed under the renewed American onslaught, but very few of them were actually being defeated in battle; most were carrying out what the North called the "great strategic retreat", a process that continued right up until the mountainous redoubt on the Chinese border. They knew something that the Americans, who followed them gleefully to the top of the peninsular, didn't. As soon as U.S. forces crossed the border between the two Koreas, the Chinese had taken the decision to intervene in force.

The Chinese decision to intervene had the potential to escalate the war into the ever-elusive World War III, but it was carried out primarily for Chinese reasons rather than because of a global Communist plot. The Chinese Communist regime had not yet solidified its control in China itself, and worried that a heavy American presence on its border could be used for counter-revolutionary purposes. The Chinese also felt a great deal of fraternal sympathy for the North Koreans, many of whom had fought in the Chinese Civil War and helped the Communists achieve victory; Chinese intervention in Korea hence made sense for ideological and material reasons.

The American and South Korean forces again collapsed under the Chinese offensive, until the fighting stabilized around the border between the two Koreas; the South Korean capital Seoul changed hands twice during this period. After the front had stabilized, several years of positional warfare ensued which was reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. After a while it appeared that neither side could achieve final victory and a ceasefire was signed at Panmunjom, solidifying the division of the country for decades amid an armed truce on the border which broke down - with heavy casualties on both sides - on a yearly basis.

Controversies

A number of episodes during the war were highly controversial. Firstly, both sides carried out massacres of civilians who they suspected of being their ideological opponents, and there have been unsubstantiated claims that American forces participated in these massacres. What is certainly clear is that the Northern strategy of total war, in which every man, woman and child was expected to take up arms against their enemies, resulted in arms being taken up against these civilians in retaliation. This was not only true on the ground but also during the air war, in which the United States Air Force demolished every modern building in the North during the period of the war, including strikes on the country's dams that flooded whole areas. Two million Koreans died on both sides in the conflict.

Then there was the role of the American general, Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was a hugely popular figure in the United States and the closest the American Republic has ever had to a Caesar. Massively insubordinate and not unwilling to appeal to the American people and their elected representatives in the legislature over the head of the civilian leadership of the military, MacArthur was also a proponent of what was known as "rollback". He wanted to expand the war into China, drop nuclear bombs on Chinese cities, and try to finally "settle" the question of Communism in East Asia; such extreme action seemed at least plausible so soon after World War II, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At one point he recommended creating a belt of radiation through China using Cobalt-60 to permanently separate Korea from China.

President Truman eventually fired MacArthur for insubordination, but he returned to America to be greeted by jubilant crowds and a pliant Congress. Thankfully, the danger to the Republic was headed off as the rest of the military establishment rallied around the President and declared MacArthur's plans to be unworkable. The most convincing argument against him was that opening up such a massive offensive operation in Asia would not only decisively lose any moral advantage the United States might possess in the battle against Communism, but also invite a Soviet invasion of Europe. Hence, the superpower conflict that had driven U.S. involvement in this far away land and imbued it with such importance contributed to restraining its escalation, a pattern that would be repeated in the decades to come.

Further reading

Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History and Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History provide the best overviews of modern Korea, including the war.

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