On This Day

korean war, korea 38th parallel
U.S. National Archives
UN forces cross the 38th parallel while returning to South Korea, October 1950.

On This Day: Truman Orders Troops Into Korea

June 27, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 27, 1950, two days after communist North Korea invaded South Korea, President Truman announced that U.S. naval and air forces would be sent to defend the South, thereby beginning the United States’ involvement in the three-year Korean War.

U.S. Enters Korea

Following World War II, the Korean Peninsula, which had been under Japanese control, was divided along the 38th parallel, with the United States overseeing the South and the Soviets occupying the North.

Over the next several years, Kim Il Sung established a communist government in the North and American-backed nationalist Syngman Rhee was elected president in the South. The two governments each aspired to control the entire peninsula and their armies frequently skirmished along the 38th parallel.

On June 25, 1950, the North launched an invasion of the South, overrunning the poorly armed Southern forces. The United Nations Security Council immediately voted 9-0 to pass a resolution condemning the invasion. The Soviet Union could have vetoed the resolution, but it was boycotting the Security Council after it excluded the People’s Republic of China.

Two days later, President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. naval and air forces into Korea to enforce the Security Council resolution. “The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war,” he declared.

“Thus the complexion of the Korean situation was changed overnight,” wrote Anthony Leviero in The New York Times. “Yesterday officials were inclined to see South Korea, with her small, poorly equipped forces, as good as lost. …Today the view was that American air and naval forces could assure overwhelming superiority to South Korea and bring victory, unless, of course, Russia similarly aided North Korea.”

Truman was careful not to antagonize the Soviet Union in his speech. Before committing troops to Korea, the U.S. had privately asked the Soviets to use its influence over North Koreans and end the fighting, a move described by Leviero as “at once a possible face-saving device for Russia in a showdown crisis and a feeler to determine her intentions.”

Truman made no mention of the Soviet Union, blaming only “communism.” According to the National Archives, “Dean Acheson later explained, the administration sought to give the Soviets a ‘graceful exit’ and not provoke open confrontation with Russia.”

Background: U.S. Cold War Policies

Truman’s decision to intervene in Korea grew out of the post-World War II policy of containment, under which the U.S. would attempt to halt the spread of communism to places where it did not already exist.

In 1947, as Greece and Turkey were in danger of falling under Soviet influence, Truman pledged economic and military aid. In a March 12, 1947, speech, Truman laid out what would become known as the Truman Doctrine: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

The communist threat became intensified in 1949, as the Soviet Union successfully tested and atomic bomb and a communist government took control of China. Truman faced criticism from Republicans for being “soft” on communism, which likely influenced his choice to stand firm in Korea.

In early 1950, the Department of State drafted NSC-68, a top-secret National Security Council paper that designed a national security policy for the Cold War age. It called for massive increases in military spending so that the U.S. was capable of defending both itself and allies across the globe.

Several top-ranking officials and Truman himself balked at potential spending, but the North Korean invasion “quickly settled matters in favor of the report's recommendations,” according to the Department of State’s Office of the Historian. “NSC 68’s recommendations thereby became policy, and the United States Government began a massive military build-up.”

The Korean War

UN forces were placed under the control of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In September, a successful invasion was launched at Inchon and UN forces rapidly made their way up through North Korea. But Chinese forces came to the North’s aid, and the UN was pushed back into the South. Truman dismissed MacArthur from his command in April 1951 following criticism from MacArthur over U.S. policy.

Though the two sides pushed and pushed back, they ended up settling on a truce where the war began: at the 38th parallel. It took two years to settle the truce, and the war finally ended July 27, 1953.

According to the BBC, it is difficult to estimate how many people died in the Korean War. True casualty figures for North and South Koreans and Chinese are uncertain, although it is estimated that about 46,000 South Koreans, over 400,000 Chinese, and about 215,000 North Koreans were killed. The U.S. Department of Defense reports that almost 40,000 American servicemen were killed, and the United Kingdom reports that 1,078 of its soldiers were killed in action.

The peninsula was devastated by the three-year conflict; much of its infrastructure was destroyed and most of its people thrown into poverty. And the Cold War would continue elsewhere in the world for several decades.

“The modern world still lives with the consequences of a divided Korea and with a militarily strong, economically weak, and unpredictable North Korea,” according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Resources for Studying the Korean War

The U.S. Army Center of Military History offers several books, brochures and other publications detailing the Army’s actions in Korea.

The Truman Library has an archive of speeches, memos, correspondence and other documents relating to the Truman administration’s involvement in the Korean War.

The Eisenhower Library holds primary documents related to the Eisenhower administration’s actions in Korea.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Cold War International History Project holds a collection of primary source documents from Russian archives, including correspondence between Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung.

Life magazine has two slideshows of photos from Korea: The Korean War You Never Knew and Life in the Korean War.

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