Korea: The Unknown War

By Bill Wilder 27 Jul 2003 0


If the war in Vietnam is the one we want to forget, then Korea is the war that no one remembers. Both took place at a time of major upheaval mutually in the world and in the United States. There are striking similarities yet notable differences between the two. Korea was a worldwide affair - resistance against the Communist invasion supported by the United Nations.

When the Security Council of the UN voted on intervention in Korea, the only major power not present was the USSR, who in anger had walked out of the conferences the day before. Their absence prevented them from voting and casting the one negative vote that would have stopped the effort.

Vietnam was a US show, with a few other nations backing up the move. It was never fully supported by the UN and often condemned as western aggression of sorts in a country where its citizens were struggling to come to their own destiny. America was seen as a meddler, an unwelcome savior.

When the conflict in Korea began, America was still in the euphoria of victory in World War II and trying to enjoy the role as the big brother to all the smaller nations, divinely ordained to protect and promote liberty around the world. It would be a sobering experience in which it was discovered that the United States did not have all the answers and was not the panacea for the grief of smaller nations wrapped in internal conflict.

Of the ten major conflicts in which the United States of America has been involved since its institution, the Korean War is perhaps one of the least known. In July 1995, some forty-five years after the fighting the Korean War monument was unveiled in Washington D.C. to finally acknowledge the sacrifices made there. Sadly, most people, including military history enthusiasts, have little knowledge of that period.

It was, however, a most important time in the history of the United States and the world. The Cold War had begun and animosity between the free countries and Communist controlled nations was beginning to manifest itself not only in philosophy, but also in limited physical confrontations. Thus the importance of this period in Korea should not be minimized. Consider the following:

  • (1) Over six million men and women served as active participants in the conflict during that time, and casualties were over 100,000, with over 33,000 US troops killed in action. Though misnomered as "A Police Action" by President Truman, it was in fact a World War. Not only were the United States and Korea active participants, but the great communist nations of China and Russia entered the war to support North Korea's invasion of the South. The United Nations condemned the invasion, and 18 western nations entered into the conflict under that flag.
  • (2) It intensified the "Cold War" between the Soviet bloc and western powers. By actively opposing each other, the participants clearly defined their determination to resist the other. Also the nuclear arms race became a major factor as a result of Korea.
  • (3) The policy of limited involvement was first instituted during this time. In all major involvements prior to Korea, the United States entered with the purpose of total victory. The dictate to the enemy was unconditional surrender. The political turmoil created by the insidious advance of communism, as well as the first successful nuclear testing by the USSR, created a fear in the U.S. that total commitment in Korea could result in a nuclear confrontation between western powers and the Soviet bloc nations.

This philosophy dictated military policy. The danger of winning a total victory would be that the Communists would then use nuclear weapons to save itself, thus creating a worldwide holocaust that was totally unacceptable. Rather than risk that consequence, the United States would only seek to contain communist aggression, not annihilate it.

This point of view, which led to a tragic stalemate in Korea, would be carried over into Vietnam some 10 years later and give the United States of America a sour taste of defeat. It would be shown that it was not firepower that necessarily wins wars, but resolve and determination.

  • (4) There were other less important reasons why the Korean War is an important part of history. For example, modern body armor was introduced in Korea, and put in use first by the Marines. In an unprecedented form, the press was allowed to be at the front in all situations. The photos and written word by eyewitness reporters and photographers during the Marine withdrawal at the Chosin Reservoir have become a living memorial to all.

Black troops were first widely used in a combat role in Korea. It marked the beginning of the integration of our armed services. The ghastly policy of brain washing prisoners was also widely initiated during the conflict in Korea. Although our prisoners had suffered intensely during the Second World War, no massive effort at poisoning the mind of prisoners against their own country and people had ever been attempted before.

Air support for ground units was refined and perfected. Helicopters began to find their place in warfare, and although used primarily for medical evacuation, the vision was instilled in many military leaders for the wide use of the choppers in transportation, supply and support of infantry forces.

Jet versus jet warfare was seen for the first time in Korea. Toward the end of World War II, jets were introduced to air combat, but there was never any conflict between jet fighters until Korea. It marked the beginning of a new era in aerial combat. So intrigued were they that countries from all over the world sent fighter pilots to Korea to gain experience in these situations. It is now known that even Russians were flying some of the MIGs that took on the F-80s and F-86s in combat.

Finally the Korean conflict would provide the United Nation with their first test of standing together against oppression from an aggressor nation toward a less prepared country. In all, the war in Korea is an important part of history, and is often not appreciated as it should be.



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