In 1950, the new Cold War suddenly turned hot when Communist North Korea invaded anticommunist South Korea. The United States immediately intervened in the conflict by sending combat troops to aid the South. The Americans halted the North Korean advance, then drove the North Koreans into retreat by launching a brilliant amphibious assault far behind enemy lines. By October 1950, it appeared likely that the Americans would not only save South Korea, but liberate North Korea from Communist control as well. However, just as victory seemed at hand, Communist Red China launched its own surprise intervention, inflicting heavy casualties while driving the Americans back into the South. After 1951, the war settled into a frustrating stalemate along entrenched battle lines not far from the 38th parallel—the same line that had divided North and South Korea before the war began. Active combat involving American forces in Korea ended in 1953 with the signing of a cease-fire.
Nearly 36,000 American soldiers lost their lives in Korea in a war that ultimately ended in a frustrating draw. America's failure to achieve total victory in Korea, just a few years after defeating much more powerful enemies in World War II, hinted at the new challenges confronting American military power in the Cold War era. In an age of nuclear weapons, total victory might prove impossible to obtain.
Korea has been called "the forgotten war," "the century's nastiest little war," "a sour war," and "the coldest winter."1 It was an unwanted conflict that dragged on interminably and ended with no satisfying resolution. As events in Vietnam would soon painfully prove, Korea was only a sign of things to come.
Sandwiched between the storied glory of the Second World War and the televised tragedy of Vietnam, the 1950-53 war in Korea—the first hot spot of the Cold War—today often goes unremembered. The fiftieth anniversary of the conflict came and went from 2000-03 with little fanfare. In 2004, when author David Halberstam walked into the Key West, Florida public library while researching a book on the Korean War, he found its shelves held 88 books on Vietnam and only four on Korea.2
But the Korean War shouldn't be forgotten; in one sense, it's not even over yet. It has now been nearly twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. Vietnam has long since made peace with the United States and entered the capitalist marketplace. But Korea still remains divided along the 38th parallel, with Communist and anticommunist forces—including Americans—staring each other down every day across the no man's land of the demilitarized border. The Cold War may be over, but North Korea still has a totalitarian Communist government—and the country's recent development a of nuclear weapons program makes it a major threat to the United States, even today. It is impossible to understand the ongoing clashes between the United States and North Korea without understanding the context of a fifty-year-old conflict.
Understanding the Korean War, which ended in frustrating stalemate, is also critical to understanding the even more disastrous quagmire that developed the next time American soldiers went into battle against a Communist foe in Asia—the Vietnam War. As historian Richard Whelan has argued, "In many terrible ways, Korea was a dress rehearsal for Vietnam. It should, on the contrary, have provided a warning clear and potent enough to avert the later exercise in savagery and futility."3 But American leaders in the 1960s didn't learn the history lesson of the Korean War, blundering into a great catastrophe because of it. Don't make the same mistake.