The Korean War
The Cold War between the Communists and the Western Worlds began in earnest at the end of
World War II. In order to maintain political prestige among the uncommitted nations of the world,
neither side could allow the other any advantage or concession. The Soviets tried to blockade
Berlin, and the West answered with the Berlin Airlift (1947-49). In Korea, the armies of both the
U.S. and USSR withdrew, but each side armed their respective section of the country. The North
Koreans clamored for unification and fomented several armed uprisings in the South in the late
1940s. However, South Korea did not collapse, but grew stronger. This may be why North Korea
launched a massive surprise attack against the South on June 25, 1950.
The first year of the Korean War was an incredible seesaw: Seoul (in the middle of the peninsula)
changed hands four times. The remaining two years of the war became a brutal bashing of both
sides along a heavily defended battle line, whose location changed only slightly from month to
month. The final cease-fire line showed no significant gain for either side.

A sequence of 27 maps adapted from the West Point Atlas of American Wars has been assembled
here to vividly show the dynamics of battle. The sequence may be viewed as a QuickTime movie.

In brief, the Korean War began with the invasion of the South by North Korean troops. Troops in
the South were unprepared and were pushed into a small corner of South Korea in a matter of
weeks. The situation was quickly reversed by the first United Nations (UN) offensive in the
southeast, coupled with a daring high-tide landing at Inchon near Seoul. The landing forces quickly
cut the North Korean supply lines, forcing the now unsupported North Korean armies to flee back

The UN armies pressed north of the 38th parallel with the intent to take over North Korea, and the
disorganized North Korean army was unable to stop them. A few UN units actually pressed north to
the Amnok (Yalu) River, the border between Communist China and Korea. The Chinese warned
that they would not accept the conquest of North Korea by the UN and massed for a counter
attack. Though less well armed than the UN armies, the Chinese armies were much larger and
quickly overwhelmed the UN forces. Some 40,000 U.S. troops were cut off by the advance and
evacuated from near Wonsan in mid-December 1950. Seoul was retaken by the Chinese as they
pushed south. This time, the Communist forces were stopped about two-thirds of the way down the
peninsula. A second UN offensive began in late February 1951, which pushed the Chinese back
north of Seoul again. The UN advance stopped near the 38th parallel. A second Chinese offensive
was launched in April. Once again, huge waves of Chinese soldiers cut off and destroyed advance
UN troops.

Image of a war memorial commemorating the complete loss of a valiant unit of British soldiers.This
time the Chinese armies stopped north of Seoul. A third UN offensive in May and June of 1951
pushed the Chinese back up near the thirty-eighth parallel again. For the next two years, the war
was fought mostly in the air as the battle line on the ground hardened into a massive defensive
network on both sides. Incursions on the ground by either side during this time could only be made
with great loss of men and little territorial gain. Battle on the ground in Korea was hampered by the
extremely rugged terrain. The picture below of an American tank crossing a stream in the central
Korean highland in the 1970s gives an idea of how hilly the terrain is and how difficult it was for
military maneuvering. Desperate battles in that terrain gave rise to gruesome nicknames for places
of bloody fighting like Pork Chop Hill, T-Bone Hill, and Heartbreak Ridge.

Image of an American M 60 A1 tank crossing a stream in the central mountains of Korea.The
Korean War finally ended in July 1953. Left in its wake were four million military and civilian
casualties, including 33,600 American, 16,000 UN allied, 415,000 South Korean, and 520,000
North Korean dead. There were also an estimated 900,000 Chinese casualties. Half of Korea's
industry was destroyed and a third of all homes. The disruption of civilian life was almost complete.
Try to imagine for a moment what life must have been like for civilians trying to avoid invading
armies during the first year of the war when battle lines shifted back and forth through the
countryside every few months. Each time opposing armies swept through an area, homes and
personal possessions would be damaged or destroyed by shelling or bombing, crops would be
trampled, livestock would be stolen for food, and civilians would be harmed by stray gunfire or
random violence by individual soldiers. If found, male civilians could be forcefully drafted to fight,
and anyone could be accused as being a supporter of the "other" side and then imprisoned or
summarily executed.

The result of the Korean War was a stalemate, ending not far from where it began. Was the war a
loss for the UN and the United States? Many viewed it as such, even while the war was still being
fought. General Douglas MacArthur, World War II hero and commander of the UN forces in Korea,
wanted complete victory in Korea and advocated attacking bases inside Communist China that
were supporting forces in North Korea. But U.S. President Harry S. Truman and other leaders of
the UN forces feared that attacking China would lead to a larger conflict that could easily plunge
the entire world into World War III. These leaders felt that the human misery and political
humiliation associated with pursuing a limited war was preferable to the much greater loss and
doubtful outcome of a global war. As it was, Truman was President and Commander-in-Chief;
MacArthur was his subordinate. When MacArthur persisted in his opposition to Truman's political
and military objectives, Truman replaced MacArthur with a general willing to pursue a limited war.

The Korean War, the first shooting conflict of the Cold War, remained confined to the Korean
peninsula. The fact that it did not expand into a wider war helped confirm the West's policy of
containment of Communism, a policy which dominated most international relations during the Cold
War. Was containment a misguided policy? On the one hand, it prevented a major war. On the
other hand, it led to a seemingly endless string of small, bloody battles all over the world: Cuba,
Central Africa, South East Asia, Afghanistan, and many others. Containment also led to massive
infusions of economic and military aid by leading nations of both the Communist and Western
worlds into developing nations considered to be of strategic importance, while others were
bypassed. Repressive political regimes were supported in many poor nations in the name of
containment. The debate over containment continued through armed conflicts in the 1960s,
nuclear stalemate in the 1970s, and on into the present.