Korean War

Korean War

Korea is a peninsula east of China. It became part of the Chinese Empire in 1637 and did not receive its independence until 1895 (Treaty of Shimonoseli).

In the early 20th century Russia and Japan both tried to gain control of Korea. This resulted in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). On 8th February, 1904, the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur.

The Russian Navy fought two major battles to try and relieve Port Arthur. At both Liao-Yang and Sha Ho, the Russians were defeated and were forced to withdraw. On 2nd January, 1905, the Japanese finally captured Port Arthur. The Russian Army also suffered 90,000 causalities in its failed attempt to Mukden (February, 1905).

In May, 1905, the Russian Navy was attacked at Tsushima. Twenty Russian ships were sunk and another five were captured. Only four Russian ships managed to reach safety at Vladivostok.

These defeats led to criticism of the Russian government. Bloody Sunday and the Potemkin Mutiny were both partly caused by the unpopularity of the war. The increase in revolutionary activity in Russia convinced Nicholas II that he needed to bring an end to the conflict and accepted the offer of President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate between the two countries.

Sergi Witte led the Russian delegation at the peace conference held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in August, 1905. Under the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth: (i) The Liaotung Peninsula and the South Manchurian Railway went to Japan; (ii) Russia recognized Korea as a Japanese sphere of influence; (iii) The island of Sakhalin was divided into two; (iv) The Northern Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway remained under Russian control.

In November 1905 Japan took control of Korea and began settling Japanese families in the country. By 1932 Kim Il-Sung had become leader of a guerrilla group based in Korea. Over the next ten years he launched a series of attacks against the Japanese. During the Second World War the Japanese Army arrived in Korea in large numbers and Kim was forced to go and live in the Soviet Union.

The Yalta Conference in 1945 agreed that Soviet and American troops would occupy Korea after the war.The country was divided at the 38th parallel and in 1948 the Soviet Union set up a People's Democratic Republic in North Korea. At the same time the United States helped establish the Republic of South Korea.

After the war Syngman Rhee emerged as the main right-wing politician in South Korea and in 1947 he received the unofficial support of the United States government. In 1948 Rhee became the first president of South Korea. He soon developed a reputation for authoritarian rule and his political opponents were quickly silenced.

In June 1949 the United States Army began to withdraw from South Korea. Statements made by General Douglas MacArthur and Dean Acheson suggested that the United States did not see the area as being of prime importance. Acheson argued that if South Korea was attacked: "The initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations."

Kim Il-Sung, the communist dictator of North Korea, became convinced that the people in the south would welcome being ruled by his government. At dawn on 25th June 1950, the North Koreans launched a surprise attack on South Korea. Three days later, communist forces captured the South Korean capital, Seoul.

The Security Council of the United Nations recommended that troops should be sent to defend South Korea. As the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council at the time, it was unable to veto this decision. Fifteen nations sent troops to Korea, where they were organized under the command of Douglas MacArthur.

The surprise character of the attack enabled the North Koreans to occupy all the South, except for the area around the port of Pusan. On 15th September, 1950, Douglas MacArthur landed American and South Korean marines at Inchon, 200 miles behind the North Korean lines. The following day he launched a counter-attack on the North Koreans. When they retreated, MacArthur's forces carried the war northwards, reaching the Yalu River, the frontier between Korea and China on 24th October, 1950.

Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, told MacArthur to limit the war to Korea. MacArthur disagreed, favoring an attack on Chinese forces. Unwilling to accept the views of Truman and Acheson, MacArthur began to make inflammatory statements indicating his disagreements with the United States government.

MacArthur gained support from right-wing members of the Senate such as Joe McCarthy who led the attack on Truman's administration: "With half a million Communists in Korea killing American men, Acheson says, 'Now let's be calm, let's do nothing'. It is like advising a man whose family is being killed not to take hasty action for fear he might alienate the affection of the murders."

In April 1951, Harry S. Truman removed MacArthur from his command of the United Nations forces in Korea. McCarthy now called for Truman to be impeached and suggested that the president was drunk when he made the decision to fire MacArthur: "Truman is surrounded by the Jessups, the Achesons, the old Hiss crowd. Most of the tragic things are done at 1.30 and 2 o'clock in the morning when they've had time to get the President cheerful."

While this conflict was taking place in the United States, the Chinese government sent 180,000 men to North Korea. This back-up enabled North Korean forces to take Seoul for a second time in January 1951. U.N. troops eventually managed to halt the invasion sixty miles south of the 38th parallel. A counter-offensive at the end of January gradually recovered lost ground.

Once in control of South Korea, representatives of the United Nations began peace talks with the North Korean government on 8th July 1951. An armistice agreement, maintaining the divided Korea, was signed at Panmunjom on 27th July 1953. Over 25,600 American troops were killed during the war and other U.N. contingents lost 17,000 men. It is estimated that including civilians, the Korean War cost the lives of around 4 million people.

Primary Sources

(1) Marguerite Higgins, New York Tribune (18th September, 1950)

Heavily laden U.S. Marines, is one of the most technically difficult amphibious landings in history, stormed at sunset today over a ten-foot sea wall in the heart of the port of Inchon and within an hour had taken three commanding hills in the city.

I was in the fifth wave that hit "Red Beach," which in reality was a rough, vertical pile of stones over which the first assault troops had to scramble with the aid of improvised landing ladders topped with steel hooks.

Despite a deadly and steady pounding from naval guns and airplanes, enough North Koreans remained alive close to

the beach to harass us with small-arms and mortar fire. They even hurled hand grenades down at us as we crouched in

trenches, which unfortunately ran behind the sea wall in the inland side.

It was far from the "virtually unopposed" landing for which the troops had hoped after hearing of the quick capture of Wolmi Island in the morning by an earlier Marine assault. Wolmi is inside Inchon harbor and just off "Red Beach." At

H-hour minus seventy, confident, joking Marines started climbing down from the transport ship on cargo nest and dropping into small assault boats. Our wave commander. Lieutenant R. J. Schening, a veteran of five amphibious assaults, including Guadalcanal, hailed me with the comment, "This has a good chance of being a pushover."

Because of tricky tides, our transport had to stand down the channel and it was more than nine miles to the rendezvous

point where our assault waves formed up.

The channel reverberated with the ear-splitting boom of warship guns and rockets. Blue and orange flames spurted from

the "Red Beach" area and a huge oil tank, on fire, sent great black rings of smoke over the shore. Then the fire from the big guns lifted and the planes that had been circling overhead swooped low to rake their fire deep into the sea wall.

The first wave of our assault troops was speeding toward the shore by now. It would be H-hour (5:30 P.M.) in two minutes. Suddenly, bright-orange tracer bullets spun out from the hill in our direction.

"My God! There are still some left," Lieutenant Schening said. "Everybody get down. Here we go!"

It was H-hour plus fifteen minutes as we sped the last two thousand yards to the beach. About halfway there the bright

tracers started cutting across the top of our little boat. "Look at their faces now," said John Davies of the Newark News. I turned and saw that the men around me had expressions contorted with anxiety.

We struck the sea wall hard at a place where it had crumbled into a canyon. The bullets were whining persistently, spattering the water around us. We clambered over the high steel sides of the boat, dropping into the water and, taking shelter beside the boat as long as we could, snaked on our stomachs up into a rock-strewn dip in the sea wall.

In the sky there was good news. A bright, white star shell from the high ground to our left and an amber cluster told us that the first wave had taken their initial objective, Observatory Hill. But whatever the luck of the first four waves, we were relentlessly pinned down by rifle and automatic-weapon fire coming down on us from another rise on the right.

There were some thirty Marines and two correspondents crouched in the gouged-out sea wall. Then another assault

boat swept up, disgorging about thirty more Marines. This went on for two more waves until our hole was filled and Marines lying on their stomachs were strung out all across the top of the sea wall.

(2) Relman Morin, Associated Press (25th September, 1950)

Long after the last shot is fired fired, the weeds of hatred will be flourishing in Korea, nourished by blood and bitter memories.

This is the heritage of the short weeks during which most of South Korea was learning Communism.

Only weeks ago in the region around Seoul and Inchon, people were being killed, dispossessed of land and homes, left to starve, or driven away from all they held dear - because they were not Communists and refused to act like Communists.

Today, in that same region, the same things are still happening - because some Koreans are Communists and propose to remain so.

Hidden in the hills a mile off the road to Seoul, there is a village of twenty-four mud-stone huts with thatched roofs. The

people raise rice and corn. Once they had a few cattle. There were no rich here and, by Koreans standards, no poor either.

Even before the North Korean military invasion last June, nine of the men in the village were Communists. The headman didn't know why. He simply said they belonged to a Red organization, and frequently went to meetings

in Inchon at night. They talked of the division of land and goods.

"It made trouble," the headman told an American intelligence officer through an interpreter. She says the lectures talked about life in Russia, how things are done there, and how good everything is. She says it was convincing, and people believed what they heard. "But she is not a Communist. She went because she was hungry."

As a result, the headman said, some of the other villages banded together and beat the Communists. "There was always trouble and fighting," said the headman, "and we talked of driving the Reds away."

Then the North Korean army swept southward over this little village. The nine Communists suddenly appeared in uniforms. They killed some of their neighbors and caused others to be put in jail at Inchon. The headman himself fled to safety in the south. One of the villagers went with him.

"He did not want to go," said the headman. "He was to be married. The girl stayed here. She is 18 and a grown

woman, but she did not know what to do."

Back in the village the nine Communists began putting theory into practice. First they confiscated all land. Then they

summoned landless tenant farmers from nearby villages and told them the land would be given to them if they became


(3) Keyes Beech, Chicago Daily News (11th December, 1950)

"Remember," drawled Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, "whatever you write, that this was no retreat. All that happened was we found more Chinese behind us than in front of us. So we about-faced and attacked."

I said "so long" to Puller after three snowbound days with the 1st Marine Division, 4,000 feet above sea level in the sub-zero weather of Changjin Reservoir. I climbed aboard a waiting C-47 at Koto Airstrip and looked around.

Sixteen shivering Marine casualties - noses and eyes dripping from cold - huddled in their bucket seats. They were the

last of more than 2,500 Marine casualties to be evacuated by the U.S. Air Force under conditions considered flatly impossible. Whatever this campaign was - retreat, withdrawal, or defeat - one thing can be said with certainty. Not in the Marine Corps' long and bloody history has there been anything like it. And if you'll pardon a personal recollection, not at Tarawa or Iwo Jima, where casualties were much greater, did I see men suffer as much.

The wonder isn't that they fought their way out against overwhelming odds but that they were able to survive the cold and fight at all. So far as the Marines themselves are concerned, they ask that two things be recorded:

1. They didn't break. They came out of Changjin Reservoir as an organized unit with most of their equipment.

2. They brought out all their wounded. They brought out many of their dead. And most of those they didn't bring out they buried.

It was not always easy to separate dead from wounded among the frozen figures that lay strapped to radiators of jeeps and trucks. I know because I watched them come in from Yudam to Hagaru, 18 miles of icy hell, five days ago.

That same day I stood in the darkened corner of a wind-whipped tent and listened to a Marine officer brief his men for the march to Koto the following day. I have known him for a long time but in the semidarkness, with my face half-covered by my parka, he didn't recognize me. When he did the meeting broke up. When we were alone, he cried. After that he was all right.

I hope he won't mind my reporting he cried, because he's a very large Marine and a very tough guy.

He cried because he had to have some sort of emotional release; because all his men were heroes and wonderful people; because the next day he was going to have to submit them to another phase in the trial by blood and ice. Besides, he wasn't the only one who cried.

In the Marines' twelve-day, forty-mile trek from Yudam to the "bottom of the hill," strange and terrible things happened.

Thousands of Chinese troops - the Marines identified at least six divisions totaling 60,000 men - boiled from every canyon and rained fire from every ridge. Sometimes they came close enough to throw grenades into trucks, jeeps, and


(4) Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea (1951)

I met the Eighth Army commander. Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, for the first time when I returned to the front in mid-July after MacArthur had lifted the ban on women correspondents in Korea. General Walker was a short, stubby man of bulldog expression and defiant stance. I wondered if he were trying to imitate the late General George Patton, under whom he served in World War II as a corps commander.

General Walker was very correct and absolutely frank with me. He said he still felt that the front was no place for a woman, but that orders were orders and that from now on I could be assured of absolutely equal treatment.

"If something had happened to you, an American woman," the general explained, "I would have gotten a terrible press. The American public might never have forgiven me. So please be careful and don't get yourself killed or captured."

General Walker kept his promise of equal treatment, and from then on, so far as the United States Army was concerned, I went about my job with no more hindrance than the men.

(5) Adlai Stevenson, speech, Louiseville (27th September, 1952)

Last Monday General Eisenhower spoke in Cincinnati about Korea. He said that this was a "solemn subject" and that he was going to state the truth as he knew it, "the truth - plain and unvarnished."

If only his speech had measured up to this introduction! And since he has tried, not once but several times, to make a vote-getting issue out of our ordeal in Korea, I shall speak on this subject and address myself to the record.

We are fighting in Korea, the General declares, because the American Government grossly underestimated the Soviet threat; because the Government allowed America to become weak; because American weakness compelled us to withdraw our forces from Korea; because we abandoned China to the communists; and, finally, because we announced to all the world that we had written off most of the. Far East.

That's what he says - now let's look at the record.

First, the General accuses the Government of having underestimated the Soviet threat. But what about the General himself? At the end of the war he was a professional soldier of great influence and prestige, to whom the American people listened with respect. What did he have to say about the Soviet threat? In the years after the war, the General himself saw "no reason" - as he later wrote - why the Russian system of government and Western democracy "could not live side by side in the world." In November, 1945, he even told the House Military Affairs Committee: "Nothing guides Russian policy so much as a desire for friendship with the United States."

I have no wish to blow any trumpets here. But in March, 1946, I said: "We must forsake any hope that the Soviet Union is going to lie still and lick her awful wounds. She's not. Peace treaties that reflect her legitimate demands, friendly governments on her frontiers and an effective United Nations Organization should be sufficient security. But evidently they are not and she intends to advance her aims, many of them objectives of the Czars, to the utmost."

(6) Douglas MacArthur wrote about the arrival of General Matthew Ridgway in his autobiography, Reminiscences (1964)

On December 23rd, General Walker was killed in a freak jeep accident. It was a great personal loss to me. It had been "Johnny" Walker who had held the line, with courage and brilliant generalship, at the very bottom of Korea, until we could save him by slicing behind the enemy's lines at Inchon. It had been Walker who, even in the darkest hours, had always radiated cheerful confidence and rugged determination.

It was a difficult time to change field commanders, but I acquired one of the best in General Matthew Ridgway. An experienced leader with aggressive and fighting qualities, he took command of the Eighth Army at its position near the 38th parallel. After inspecting his new command, he felt he could repulse any enemy attempt to dislodge it. On New Year's Day, however, the Reds launched a general offensive in tremendous force, making penetrations of up to 12 miles. It forced the Eighth Army into further withdrawal. By January 4th, the enemy had recaptured Seoul, and by January 7th, the Eighth Army had retired to new positions roughly 70 miles south of the 38th parallel.

(7) Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea (1951)

Despite large-scale reinforcements, our troops were still fallingback fast. Our lines made a large semicircle around the city of Taegu. The main pressure at that time was from the northwest down the Taejon-Taegu road. But a new menace was developing with frightening rapidity way to the southwest. For the Reds, making a huge arc around our outnumbered troops, were sending spearheads to the south coast of Korea hundreds of miles to our rear. They hoped to strike along the coast at Pusan, the vital port through which most of our supplies funneled.

It was at this time that General Walker issued his famous "stand or die" order. The 1st Cavalry 25th Division were freshly arrived. Like 24th Division before them, the new outfits had to learn for themselves how to cope with this Indian-style warfare for which they were so unprepared. Their soldiers were not yet battle-toughened. Taking into account the overwhelming odds, some front-line generals worried about the performance of their men and told us so privately.

(8) In an article in Newsday on 28th July, 1993, , Murray Kempton suggests that General Matthew Ridgway helped to control the actions of Douglas MacArthur in Korea.

In his autobiography, Ridgway recalls a 1950 meeting where the Joint Chiefs of Staff wondered what they could do to restrain General Douglas MacArthur from his head-over-heels plunge toward the Chinese border and disaster in Korea. The chiefs could already look at the map and recognize that MacArthur had arrayed his troops as for a parade, divided their columns and left between them the mountain where enemies could assemble in peace and await the securest chance for war. The chiefs had passed the hours helplessly struggling between their awe of a commander who had been riding with the Cavalry when they were in rompers and their awareness of his terminal folly.

Ridgway was then only deputy Chief of Staff and forbidden to speak up in the company of his superiors. Crisis compelled him to break the laws of silence at last. "We owe it to ourselves," he said, to call MacArthur to halt; and it must be done now because even tomorrow could be too late. The chiefs sustained the shock of this breach of Old Army custom and continued to sit inert until what they knew might happen did and all too soon.

After the meeting, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg congratulated him for his courage. His answer was not thanks for the compliment but renewed urgings that MacArthur be curbed. "Oh, what's the use," Vandenberg replied. "He won't listen." And, thereafter of course, it would be for Ridgway to restore the ruin of the Korean campaign.

(9) Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea (1951)

A reconnaissance officer came to the improvised command post and reported that the soldiers landing on the coast were not a new enemy force to overwhelm us, but South Korean allies.

On the hill, soldiers were silencing some of the enemy fire. It was now seven forty-five. It did not seem possible that so much could have happened since the enemy had struck three quarters of an hour before.

As the intensity of fire slackened slightly, soldiers started bringing in the wounded from the hills, carrying them on their backs. I walked over to the aid station. The mortars had been set up right next to the medic's end of the schoolhouse. The guns provided a nerve-racking accompaniment for the doctors and first-aid men as they ministered to the wounded. Bullets were still striking this end of the building, and both doctors and wounded had to keep low to avoid being hit. Because of the sudden rush of casualties, all hands were frantically busy.

One medic was running short of plasma but did not dare leave his patients long enough to try to round up some more. I offered to administer the remaining plasma and passed about an hour there, helping out as best I could.

My most vivid memory of the hour is Captain Logan Weston limping into the station with a wound in his leg. He was patched up and promptly turned around and headed for the hills again. Half an hour later he was back with bullets in his shoulder and chest. Sitting on the floor smoking a cigarette, the captain calmly remarked, "I guess I'd better get a shot of morphine now. These last two are beginning to hurt."

(10) Tom Hopkinson, the editor of Picture Post lost his job after publishing a story on the Korean War. He wrote about the controversy in his book Of This Our Time (1982)

During their time in Korea Hardy and Cameron made three picture stories, the most dramatic of these being the record of General MacArthur's landing at Inchon, the port of Seoul. Seoul was not only the capital of Korea but the key centre of

communications for the invading armies - North Koreans backed by Chinese - now operating far down to the south after

driving the South Koreans and their allies into what Cameron called "the toehold enclave of Pusan". The Inchon landing effectively cut the legs from under the attackers, dramatically reversing the whole military situation. This was the second most powerful seaborne invasion ever launched - only that against Normandy five years earlier having been bigger - and our two men were the only British photo-journalists present.

The Inchon landing was not the only story our two men had sent back, and one of the others posed a problem. Text and

photographs showed vividly how the South Koreans, with at least the connivance of their American allies, were treating

their political prisoners, suspected opponents of the tyrant Synghman Rhee. Rhee himself would in due course be ditched

as the insupportable head of an intolerable regime by the American protectors who had kept him in power for so long; but that was still ten years on into the future, and in the meantime Rhee and his henchmen were our gallant allies and the upholders of our Christian democratic way of life. By the 1980s we have all seen treatment of prisoners more openly murderous than that revealed in Hardy's pictures, and Cameron's accompanying article would today be accounted mild. But in the climate of that time, with British and Australian troops involved in the fighting, any criticism of South Koreans was certain to be regarded as criticism of 'our' side. Such criticism, moreover, being anti-Western, must inevitably be 'pro-Eastern', and hence - with only a small distortion of language - 'Communist propaganda', a crime of which I was already being accused by my employer.

(11) John Hightower, Associated Press (26th March, 1951)

The dispute that rages between General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration over how to win the Korean war has reached fever heat again. The administration may shortly ask the general to clear with broad foreign policy issues.

This may or may not prove acceptable to MacArthur, but State Department officials as well as some others with great influence at the White House privately say something must be done to prevent a repetition of last week's exchange of shocks and harsh words between Tokyo and Washington.

President Truman circulated last December a firm, government-wide directive declaring that any statement on foreign

policy by any official or employee of the government in a speech, article or other public utterance, should be cleared with

the State Department. Informants said today that order was called to MacArthur's attention at that time.

Friday night, Washington time, MacArthur left Tokyo for the Thirty-eighth Parallel area of Korea to order United Nations forces to cross into North Korea as tactical requirements made necessary. Before leaving Tokyo he issued a statement to the press.

In this statement he made a bid for peace talks with his opposite number on the Communist side, said the Chinese Reds were licked and incapable of waging modem war and warned that if the United Nations launched attacks on Chinese bases and coastal area the Red nation would probably suffer military collapse.

This statement, a check showed, caught the State Department completely unawares. It apparently also caught President Truman without advance notice. After several hours of parleying, including a talk between Secretary of State Acheson

and Mr. Truman, a rather meaningless statement was issued, designed to say on Saturday that Washington had nothing to do with what MacArthur had declared Friday night.

The statements said MacArthur had authority to conduct military operations but that political issues which "he has stated are beyond his responsibilities are being dealt with in the U.N. and by the governments having troops in Korea."

The key MacArthur clause which set off the alarm here was that the United Nations could probably succeed in forcing a

military collapse of Red China by a limited coastal attack and base-bombing war. A Tokyo dispatch yesterday suggested MacArthur probably was trying to divert the Chinese Reds' attention from Korea to the danger of a coastal attack.

Whatever his objective, any statement he makes - even mingled in with "ifs" - about extending the war in the Far East always sends huge shudders among the Canadian, French, British and other friendly governments. When the Europeans come in to the State Department wanting to know "what does MacArthur propose to do," Acheson and his aides get upset about the problems of holding together the political side of the coalition of which MacArthur is military commander.