In 1910 the Japanese military defeated Russia and seized colonial control over the Korean Peninsula. This occupation continued until both Soviet Russia and the United States occupied the region in 1945 following the Japanese surrender. While the United States attempted to use the justification of popular sovereignty to unite the country under one government, Moscow refused to consider that possibility. The Soviets feared a western friendly nation on their border and instead pushed for a compromise, splitting the country on the 38th parallel and providing the Soviet Union with a buffer zone against any future American assault.1 The southern Republic of Korea received American military personnel and equipment while the northern Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea was completely reliant on the Soviet Union for military aid. Americans saw this aid to South Korea as part of the global containment strategy set for by President Harry Truman’s administration. The American government was prepared to accept the status quo but future communist incursions into capitalist spheres of influence would be countered with economic aid and military force.2
On June 25, 1950 The North Korean Army invaded South Korea. Although taken completely by surprise the United States, under President Harry Truman, quickly mobilized achieving both United Nation and American Congressional recognition for a military response. Thinking this invasion might be tied to plans for global Communist military expansion Truman quickly ordered General Douglas MacArthur, Military Commander of American Forces in Japan, to repel the North Korean invasion. MacArthur became Commander of all United Nations forces in the conflict and in quickly commenced with a tactical reinvasion of South Korea. On the brink of defeat and stranded at the very south of the Korean Peninsula MacArthur executed a flanking maneuver with a seaborn landing at Inchon. MacArthur effectively destroyed North Korean military supply lines forcing a disorderly and disastrous retreat on the part of the North Korean Army. The North’s retreat proved so disastrous that MacArthur was able to march UN forces deep into North Korea.3 The counter attack proved so effective that UN forces reached the 38th Parallel on September 30 only 15 days after the amphibious landing at Inchon.4 Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Truman took the massive success as an encouraging sign. They proposed to the United Nations that North Korea’s ability to wage future conflict must be rectified. The UN vote was 57 to five, with seven abstaining, in favor of Korean unification.5 UN forces continued their assault up the Korean Peninsula hoping to reach the Yalu River, North Korea’s border with China. Seeing this as an aggressive attempt to eventually assault mainland China, the Chinese military launched a 100,000 man counter offensive integrating Russian arms and planes. By January 1951 MacArthur retreated far below the 38th Parallel while the North Koreans along with their Chinese allies captured Seoul, the capital of South Korea, for the second time in eight months.6
This reversal of fortune for UN forces brought Truman to the bargaining table with the North Koreans and Chinese. He hoped to peacefully achieve his initial goal of returning the region to stability, abandoning the prospect of all out war with China. MacArthur on the other hand had different plans; again driving the North Korean forces north of the 38th Parallel and entrenching UN troops while he argued in favor of expanding the conflict to include attacking mainland China. The fighting between MacArthur and Truman resulted in MacArthur being fired and replaced by Mathew Ridgeway in April of 1951.7 The firing of MacArthur meant the ensuing conflict would be one of attrition while Truman attempted to negotiate a suitable and sustainable end which might return the Korean Peninsula to its pre-war configuration.
The tactical strategy proved trying for American troops who fought tirelessly over hill tops which only provided token strategic advantage while awaiting North Korean counterattacks. Fighting on the ground seemed fruitless as American and UN troops waited two years for their governments reaching viable terms with China and North Korea. The air war in Korea came to be dominated by UN forces. American planes eventually defeated Korean and Chinese fighters and commenced with a massive bombing campaign to destroy North Korea’s civil infrastructure. However little could be done to prevent the continued efforts on the part of the Chinese military as bombers and pilots were instructed not to engage over mainland China. All the while the American Navy maintained complete control over the seas in Korea, experiencing very little fighting aside from the initial invasion at Inchon.8 Even with negotiations for an armistice in progress, fighting continued.
By the time the conflict ended on July 27, 1953, Dwight Eisenhower had become President of the United States and served as Commander and Chief for over six months. Eisenhower escalated the war for a short period and at times threatened the use of nuclear weapons if the Chinese and North Koreans continued to resist ending the war. Much of the delay is attributed to the refusal on the part of both the American and Chinese governments to release POWs to one another. There were over 125,000 Chinese and North Korean troops taken prisoner by UN Forces. The communists demanded their soldiers’ repatriation while the UN wanted to offer them the freedom to remain in the South. Eventually more then 22,000 Communist troops opted out of repatriations and 25,000 were released by the South Korean government, only 70,000 returned to North Korea.9 During the entire three year conflict UN forces suffered 88,000 deaths, 33,000 of which were American. 100,000 Americans were wounded in the conflict which lasted three years after the initial American objective had been achieved. The Koreas, both North and South, suffered a million casualties each.10
Truman and the American Democratic Party ended up being another casualty of the conflict. After being fired, General Douglas MacArthur returned to the United States only to be greeted with an unparalleled heroes welcome. An estimated 500,000 people awaited his midnight arrival in San Francisco. After making an unprecedented speech denouncing Truman’s handling of the war before a joint session of congress, MacArthur participated in a New York City parade attended by 7.5 million people. All the while Truman and the Democratic Party were seen as soft on Communism and lacking necessary willpower to solve the Korean War.11 It was in the midst of these events that General Dwight Eisenhower seized on popular discontent over Truman’s handling of the negotiations. Referencing his own war record Eisenhower claimed proficiency in solving the Korean War. He won over 55% of the vote in 1952, defeating Democrat Adlai Stevenson, and would go on to be elected for a second term. Along with electing the first Republican president since Herbert Hoover, the Republican Party was able to take over Congress for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency began in 1932.12