At 10 o’clock sharp on the evening of July 27, 1953, the shooting stopped in Korea. The cease-fire ended three years of bloody and inconclusive fighting between Communist and United Nations forces that killed an estimated total of 1.2 million people. Technically, a state of war still exists on the Korean peninsula, and the North Koreans have repeatedly renounced the 1953 agreement. Still, the last six decades of tentative peace have proven beneficial for South Korea and for the world.
For Americans, the cease-fire inspired few celebrations, either at the time or in the years that followed. At best, Americans viewed the war’s outcome as a tie. Many critics depicted it as a humiliating American defeat — at least, until the U-2 incident, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and the Iranian hostage crisis forced us to recalibrate that particular term.
Today, few Americans outside academia know much about the war itself. This ignorance is disappointing but understandable in a nation that has grown increasingly isolated from the military professionals who guarantee its security. Neither military nor diplomatic history garners much space in secondary and collegiate history courses, and the conflicts that receive attention are generally limited to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the two World Wars, and maybe Vietnam. Military history attracts more attention in Hollywood than in the classroom, but, again, the Civil War and the Second World War dominate the box office and our imagination. These conflicts lend themselves to the popular imagination because of their relative simplicity and their decisive outcomes.
Recent military history, however, suggests that modern warfare is rarely simple or decisive. In that sense, Korea provides an important model of complicated, indecisive warfare. Sixty years later, the Korean War still matters.
That conflict radically altered the nature of the Cold War. North Korea’s invasion across the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950 — sponsored, planned, and approved by the Soviet Union — exposed the threat of Communist aggression in a manner that provoked global outrage and compelled the Truman administration to commit military forces, reinstitute the draft, and launch a massive re-armament plan that locked the United States and its taxpayers into a massive, expensive, and dangerous arms race with the Soviet Union. The conflict also forced the United States into long-term security commitments to defend South Korea and Taiwan, while bolstering the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a check on further Soviet expansion.
For the Soviets, the war provided an opportunity to bleed United Nations forces and embarrass Washington politically, but it strengthened anti-Communist sentiment in the West and eventually led to an irreparable break between Moscow and Beijing. The outcome also committed Moscow to supporting a dysfunctional and increasingly embarrassing North Korean client state.
The war had an even more dramatic impact on Korea’s immediate neighbors. Communist China’s bold military intervention in the fall of 1950 prevented the establishment of a unified, pro-Western Korea on its northeastern border, bolstered domestic support for Mao’s fledgling government in Beijing, and firmly established the People’s Republic of China as a major regional power.
To Japan, the war proved both a political and an economic godsend. Ignoring a number of unresolved issues, including outstanding claims against the Japanese for war reparations, the U.S. accelerated the finalization of a peace treaty with Tokyo in order to create an anti-Communist bulwark in northeast Asia. Meanwhile, the war turned the Japanese islands into an American arsenal, and billions of dollars of American military spending jump-started the Japanese economic recovery.
But the war’s most significant impact, of course, was on the Korean peninsula itself. During the fighting, heavy artillery and air attacks devastated the countryside, flattened nearly every Korean city, and made refugees of millions. In the six decades since then, the constant threat of another war has turned both Koreas into armed camps. North Korea under the Kim regime has become an increasingly isolated pariah state that starves its own citizens and provokes international confrontations in order to attract attention and stifle internal dissent. South of the demilitarized zone, six decades of U.S. military and financial support have given the Republic of Korea sufficient breathing room to transform itself from a police state into a modern democratic society and a global economic powerhouse.
None of these outcomes were anticipated by the leaders who waged the war. That said, what should we learn from our experience in Korea?
First, geopolitical rivals can and will misinterpret each other’s intentions. In the months prior to the North Korean invasion, the Truman administration sent all the wrong signals to our friends and our enemies. Critics later blamed Secretary of State Dean Acheson for excluding Korea from his famous “defensive perimeter” speech in January of 1950, but the 1949 withdrawal of U.S. combat troops sent a far more important signal that U.S. forces would not fight to defend South Korea. The Soviets, meanwhile, assumed that a North Korean invasion would unify the peninsula under Communist rule before the Western powers could react. Instead, the war provoked widespread condemnation while fracturing Moscow’s control over the Communist bloc.
Second, the international community can occasionally join together as a force for good. In Korea, the Truman administration managed to forge an international military coalition that fought bravely and successfully to defeat Communist aggression. Since then, the United Nations has amassed a decidedly mixed record of success in addressing the world’s problems, and policymakers in Washington will always be tempted to favor unilateral action. Nevertheless, as we saw more recently in Operation Desert Storm and the international effort to help victims of the 2004 tsunami, international coalitions can muster widespread moral and political support, factors increasingly important in the age of CNN.
Finally, conflicts are generally much easier to start than they are to finish. In Korea, most of the dramatic battles took place during the war’s first twelve months, as both sides launched major offensive campaigns that fell short of victory because of the logistical challenges of fighting a modern conflict in mountainous terrain. When delegates met in July of 1951 to discuss an armistice, both sides assumed the negotiations would be quick. Instead, the talks lasted over two years, while the fighting lapsed into a bloody stalemate amidst the barren ridges of Korea. Washington tried a variety of sticks and carrots to force a compromise, but in the end, it took Stalin’s death to provide a face-saving avenue for the Chinese to reach an agreement. Had Stalin’s guards been less terrified of him, and had he not had his physicians thrown in prison, the war might have lasted another five years.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the cease-fire, let’s remember the 36,000 Americans who died in the conflict, and the nearly 8,000 Americans still listed as missing. Let’s praise the success of our staunch allies in South Korea, and let’s hope for a brighter future for the starving masses of North Korea. Finally, let’s recall the unpredictable nature of modern warfare, and let’s celebrate and preserve the uneasy peace that began 60 years ago in Korea.
— William C. Latham Jr. is a course director at the United States Army Logistics University at Fort Lee, Va. His Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea was recently published by Texas A&M University Press.