Mr. Isaac's Social Studies Site

Historical Overview: The Korean War


Since the beginning of the 20th century, Korea had been a part of the Japanese empire, and after World War II it fell to the Americans and the Soviets to decide what should be done with their enemy's mperial possessions. In August 1945, two young aides at the State Department divided the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel. The Russians occupied the area north of the line and the United States occupied the area to its south.

By the end of the decade, two new states had formed on the peninsula. In the south, the anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) enjoyed the reluctant support of the American government; in the north, the communist dictator Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) enjoyed the slightly more enthusiastic support of the Soviets. Neither dictator was content to remain on his side of the 38th parallel, however, and border skirmishes were common. Nearly 10,000 North and South Korean soldiers were killed in battle before the war even began.

On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began when some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. As far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. After some early back-and-forth across the 38th parallel, the fighting stalled and casualties mounted with nothing to show for them. Meanwhile, American officials worked anxiously to fashion some sort of armistice with the North Koreans. The alternative, they feared, would be a wider war with Russia and China–or even, as some warned, World War III. Finally, in July 1953, the Korean War came to an end. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war. The Korean peninsula is still divided today.

The human cost of the war was catastrophic. In the first month of their operation alone, the Strategic Air Command groups dropped 4,000 tons of bombs. Besides high explosives, the bombers also used napalm, a semi-solid chemical capable of immense destruction. In retirement, American General Curtis LeMay described the devastation saying, "we eventually burned down every town in North Korea... and some in South Korea too. We even burned down [the South Korean city of] Pusan -- an accident, but we burned it down anyway." Estimates of the casualties vary widely, but there is reason to believe that besides the three and a half million military dead, wounded and missing on both sides, more than two million civilians died in North Korea. In the end the border dividing the two countries remained exactly where it had been before the North Korean invasion.  

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