The United States entered the Korean War (1950 to 1953) after soldiers from Communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, which makes up the border between North and South Korea, to invade neighboring South Korea. By the time the war ended, 5 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives in the conflict. Government leaders during that time feared that the Korean War would lead to a broader conflict with China or the Soviet Union and possibly even to World War III. U.S. officials feared that the North Korean invasion of South Korea was the beginning of a Communist movement to take over the world.
The Beginning of the Conflict
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Korean peninsula was part of the Japanese empire. After World War II, the Allies had to decide how to divide up the lands that had once belonged to the Japanese. Two young State Department aides decided in August 1945 to divide the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. Russia would occupy North Korea, and the U.S. would occupy South Korea. Border skirmishes between North and South Korea were common even before the war began. Over 10,000 Koreans were killed in border conflicts before the North Korean invasion.
Harry S. Truman was the President of the United States when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. He and other government officials believed that Communism had to be contained in every place that it sought to expand so that the Soviets did not see an opening to take over non-Communist lands all over the world. Truman framed the U.S. entry into the Korean War as a fight not only to restore South Korean sovereignty but also to fight the perceived global threat posed by Communist countries. Truman tapped General Douglas MacArthur to lead the Asian theater and to orchestrate Korean War strategy.
Unfortunately, MacArthur sought not only to liberate South Korea but also to provoke all-out war with China, which entered the war on behalf of North Korea in spring of 1951 when U.N. troops drew close to the Manchurian border. MacArthur sent a letter that was critical of Truman to Congressman Joseph Martin, who leaked the letter to the press. Truman fired MacArthur in April 1951 and opened talks Panmunjom to try to end the conflict.
Negotiations for an armistice stalled because the U.S., China and North Korea could not agree on the forcible repatriation of prisoners of war. The U.S. did not want POWs to be forcibly returned to their own countries, while China and North Korea staunchly disagreed. After two years of arguing, the U.N., China and North Korea signed an armistice on July 27, 1953. The terms of the armistice allowed POWs to live wherever they liked, reinforced the 38th parallel boundary and created a two-mile demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. South Korea never signed the armistice. Officially, the Korean War never ended.
The Korean Peninsula Today
Since the end of the Korean conflict, South Korea had evolved into one of the Asia-Pacific region’s most prosperous countries. The country is one of the world’s leading exporters of automobiles and electronics thanks to the growth of companies like Hyundai and Samsung.
North Korea, on the other hand, remains one of the world’s most cloistered societies. Totalitarian government, grinding poverty and human rights abuses have made economic and social progress within the country stagnant. Additionally, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons capability, which presents a major national security concern for both the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies.
The year 2013 will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Overall, the U.S. lost more than 36,000 service members during the war. Over 92,000 were wounded, 8,000 are considered missing in action, and 7,000 were taken as prisoners of war.
Veterans from all over the U.S. have held commemorative events to honor those who fought in the war and to remember those who lost their lives. In 2010, President Barack Obama declared that July 27 would be commemorated as National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day.
Korean War Records. These documents compiled by the National Archives provide insight into the events of the Korean conflict.
Primary Sources: The Korean War. This collection from the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidential library provides an educational resource for anyone studying the Korean War.
Teaching and Learning Resources from Federal Agencies: Korean War. This website lists free resources provided by the federal agencies for educators.
Korean War: Teacher Resource Guide. A wealth of resources provided by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Books and Website About: Korean War. A list of resources from the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Korean War Project. A wealth of information compiled by a photojournalist and a Korean War veteran including maps, casualty lists and Korean War history by military branch.