Research Paper: US Military Involvement in the Korean Conflict

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Korean Conflict

How did the Korean conflict begin? What were the dynamics behind this war? How and why did the United States get involved? How was the Korean conflict linked to the Cold War? These and other issues will be addressed in this paper. Thesis: The Korean conflict was indeed the first battle of the Cold War, and the United States, although it was thoroughly unprepared when it went into battle, came out a winner even though the end was a virtual standoff.

Background on how the U.S. become involved in the Korean conflict

In the book, Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War, author and professor Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr. explains that after World War II the Soviet Union emerged in a "new and more powerful stance," a direct challenge to America and its "…fragile allies" (Pierpaoli, 1999, p. 17). And notwithstanding the fact that the Cold War really began to take hold in 1947 and 1948 President Truman -- known as a "legendary fiscal conservative" -- was very reluctant to increase the amount of money spent on the military after WWII (Pierpaoli, 1999, p. 18).

Truman and the Congress were trying to keep defense budgets down even though they knew that there were potential dangers in the world. Moreover, Pierpaoli writes that Truman distrusted "flashy…military officers" because he had fears that the country could become a military dictatorship (18). Truman was pragmatic about keeping the country on a peaceful path if possible and certainly he did not like the "national security establishment" and specifically did not trust the National Security Resources Board (a group that warned that a big military buildup was necessary) (Pierpaoli, 18).

In fact, Truman won the battle of wills over the military budget, until, that is, Dean Acheson replaced General George C. Marshall as secretary of state in 1949; Acheson began lobbying vigorously for a military buildup, and the "young Turks" he added to his staff were articulating a policy that included a great deal more money for the military (Pierpaoli, 21). At about the same time world events were causing consternation in Washington as well. The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in September, 1949, and in October of 1949 Mao Tse-tung and his Communist forces won the Chinese civil war; hence, "China was now 'lost' to the Communists" (Pierpaoli, 23). A few months later Senator Joseph McCarthy began his "…first barrage against alleged communist infiltration into the highest levels of the federal government" (Pierpaoli, 24).

Given these disturbing events -- and other political problems too numerous to include in this paper -- Truman began to relent on his hard line against military spending. And on June 25 of 1950, Truman had no choice but to agree to begin building up the military; that is the day that the North Koreans invaded South Korea. The president mistakenly believed that the Soviets were behind the invasion so he ordered the Air Force to "…prepare plans for destroying all Soviet airfields in the Far East" and after he ordered the mobilization of troops into combat his "…approval ratings soared" albeit some of that public admiration came from the fear in the American society that the U.S. was headed to World War III (Pierpaoli, 29).

Once the Chinese intervened into the Korean war, the Truman Administration worked to speed up the mobilization. And even though the public was unaware of it, the Truman Administration had "…reconciled the 'Korean' mobilization with the larger Cold War mobilization"; and this was a wise strategy as it turned out.

The launch of the Korean War -- a mini Cold War confrontation

In the Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command, author Burton I. Kaufman explains that contributing to the dynamics of the Korean conflict was the Truman Administration's National Security Council's report about the Cold War and how the U.S. should prepare for eventualities and hostilities vis-a-vis the Cold War. Called the "NSC-68," the report became a "key document" in terms of American foreign policy for twenty years after the outbreak of hostilities in Korea. It was originally created in response to the Soviet's explosion of an atomic bomb, but Kaufman explains that NSC-68 was actually a "…field manual for waging the Cold War" (Kaufman, 1983, 28). The narrative in the NSC-68 sounded the alarm for what might be ahead militarily for the U.S.:

"The assault on free institutions is worldwide, and in the context of the present polarization of power a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere" (Kaufman, 28). The NSC-68 continued:

"Soviet efforts are now directed toward the domination of the Eurasian land mass," and any additional expansion of territory held by the Soviets (and dominated by the Kremlin) "…would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled" (Kaufman 28). As mentioned, the report was issued prior to the invasion of the south by North Koreans; and albeit the NSC-68 offered "no specific figures," it flatly asserted that the U.S. was wealthy enough to spend "…up to 20% of its Gross National Product for military purposes" (Kaufman 28).

When the North Koreans invaded the south, they had "…nearly 110,000 soldiers, more than 1,400 artillery pieces, and 126 tanks"; hence, this was formidable aggression, and it seemed to confirm what the National Security Council had alluded to in NSC-68 (Kaufman, 30).

Kaufman (31) asks, why did the north invade the south on June 25? Was Truman pressured politically to commit American ground troops to Korea? While the motives behind the north's aggression appeared initially to be part of the Cold War tensions, Kaufman believes it was not part of the Cold War, or a spin-off of the global conflict between the U.S. And the Soviets. The author asserts that the North Koreans did not attack at the "behest of the Soviet Union" and the North Koreans did not seek and receive the approval of Mao and the People's Republic of China (PRC) (32). It was truly a civil war issue, Kaufman insists, because the north attacked the south "…unilaterally and without the knowledge of either the Soviet Union or the PRC" (32).

And although the U.S. took the matter before the United Nations, because the U.S. perceived that the North Korean aggression was Soviet-inspired and Soviet backed, the U.S. was going to respond unilaterally, Kaufman continues (34). Indeed, the U.S. was paranoid about the Soviet Union's intensions, and the Truman Administration and other U.S. officials believed that if America didn't respond to North Korea's aggression, it would "…cause significant damage to America's prestige in Europe and the Middle East" (34).

Quietly the Truman Administration held the believe that the U.S. must not allow "another case of appeasement" to be carried out, similar to how the British and French were fooled into appeasing Adolph Hitler in 1938 at the Munich Conference; in that negotiation, the French and British gave Hitler part of Czechoslovakia, thinking he would be appeased (Kaufman 34). That was a disaster, and Truman did not want a repeat of that kind of diplomatic disaster in the case of Korea.

Moreover, the credibility of the Truman Administration's foreign policy was at stake; Truman could not appear to be weak, but on the other hand he had to worry about getting the U.S. into another long and bloody shooting war. Meanwhile, in the first phase of the U.S. involvement, American forces were prohibited from attacking North Korea past the 38th parallel. Truman did this hoping to avoid a direct showdown with China and the Soviets. But by the fifth day of fighting, the president authorized "…strikes against military targets in North Korea" albeit U.S. forces were asked to take care not to get into Manchuria or the Soviet border (Kaufman 38).

Primary source communication from General MacArthur to U.S.. Command

On November 4, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur wrote a "Top Secret" classified message to his superiors in Washington D.C. In the communique, MacArthur said that it "…is impossible at this time to authoritatively appraise the actualities of Chinese Communist intervention in North Korea. While MacArthur didn't believe the Chinese would intervene (which turned out to be one of the major miscalculations of the U.S. war effort), he wanted the top brass in Washington to know it was possible.

"First, that the Chinese Communist Government proposes to intervene with its full potential military forces, openly proclaiming such course at what it might determine to do…" as a follow-up to that possibility, MacArthur said such a "…contingency" by the Chinese "…would represent a momentous decision of the gravest international importance. While it is a distinct possibility and many foreign experts predict such action, there are many fundamental logical reasons against it and sufficient evidence has not yet come to hand to warrant its immediate acceptance" (MacArthur, from the Truman Library).

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