Study Guide

The Korean War

The Korean War Introduction

The U.S. was involved in a lot of wars in the 20th century. World War I and World War II, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Iraq...

But wait. Aren't we forgetting something? Like another war? Ah yes, now that you mention it, we also fought a three-year war in Korea from 1950 to 1953.

Yes, just five years after the enormous conflict of WWII, the U.S. was fighting another war. But the Korean War was very different from ol' WWII. The fighting was contained to the small space of Korea, which most Americans couldn't find on a map.

Heck, they couldn't find their own houses. How could they find Korea? So, how did we end up in a war in Korea?

  • After WWII, Korea was divided by the Allies into zones, just like Germany had been.
  • The Soviets occupied North Korea and the U.S. occupied South Korea.
  • Unlike East or West Germany, the two Koreas weren't content to live apart. Both wanted to unify, but each wanted to unify on its own terms. (Hint: that's not how you do unity.)
  • North Korea couldn't wait for South Korea to change its mind about becoming a communist state, so it attacked South Korea in 1950. The United States-led international force that swung into action pushed North Korea way back, and we were all set to win a quick victory and create a unified, democratic Korea.

And then, in a puff of orange smoke, wicked old communist China turned up and ruined everything. With Chinese forces fighting with the North Koreans, the Korean War lasted three years. 36,000 Americans, 3,000 UN soldiers, about 150,000 Chinese soldiers, and—worst of all—about 3 million Korean civilians were killed.

It's hard to believe a war this costly could be so invisible. Part of the reason was that it didn't have a traditional ending with a winner and a loser. The war ended with a ceasefire agreement in 1953 and Korea was left exactly where it started, divided at the 38th parallel. 

America didn't win. We didn't lose. What we did do was forget about the unsatisfactory Korean War.

What is The Korean War About and Why Should I Care?

Sandwiched between the storied glory of the Second World War and the televised tragedy of Vietnam, the 1950 to 1953 war in Korea—the first hot spot of the Cold War—today often goes unremembered. The 50th anniversary of the conflict came and went from 2000 to 2003 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.

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.

The Korean War Resources

Books

Bruce Cumings, Origins of the Korean War (2004)
Bruce Cumings is perhaps America's pre-eminent academic scholar of the Korean War, and this two-volume work is the gold standard for developing a comprehensive understanding of the conflict. It is, however, both academic in tone and quite long.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (2005)
Gaddis, one of America's leading Cold War historians, uses previously classified and newly available documents to reassess the Cold War, which are absolutely useful for understanding the broader context in which the Korean War unfolded.

David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2007)
A very good history, well told and illustrated by one of America's greatest journalists and public historians. Halberstam well understood the contemporary and historical significance of Korea and was in a unique position to write this book. He died tragically in a car accident shortly after its publication.

John Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Korea: The Unknown War (1988)
Much more approachable than Cumings' longer and more academic Origins of the Korean War, this collaborative work pairs a brief journalistic overview of the war's events with a rich collection of photographs and images.

Music

Hank Williams, Sr., Cold Cold Heart (2003)
Many consider Hank Williams, Sr. to be to country music what James Brown is to soul. He was a prolific singer songwriter who produced some of his most enduring recordings, including "Rambling Man" and "Cold, Cold Heart," during the Korean War years.

Cole Porter, You're Sensational—Cole Porter in the '20s, '40s, and '50s, Volume 3: High Society, 1948–1956 (2002)
American composer Cole Porter has produced hundreds of pop songs, including a slew of hits adored by Americans at home and abroad during the Korean War.

Johnny Otis, The Capitol Years (1989)
Like the music of Ray Charles, Hank Williams, and Cole Porter, the unique compositions of R&B pianist Johnny Otis thrilled and inspired Americans on the home front and on the war front during the years of the Korean conflict.

Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman, M*A*S*H: The Official Film Soundtrack (1970)
Mandel and Altman present a collection of tracks inspired by the widely popular satirical film about the Korean War. It includes the haunting theme song, which also opened the beloved, long-running television sitcom series of the same name.

Ray Charles, Ray Charles: Ultimate Hits Collection (1999)
Just as Vietnam War soldiers enjoyed the stirring sounds of rock artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix, men on the Korean warfront found comfort in the crooning of country-blues greats like Ray Charles.

Images

MacArthur at the Front
Douglas MacArthur at the front lines above Suwon, Korea.

POWs
North Korean prisoners of war under guard before they are interrogated at the 21st Infantry Regiment's command post, south of Chonui, July 10th, 1950.

Charting the War
This interactive map charts the U.S. and ROK retreat and subsequent pushback from 1950 to 1953 on a map of Korea.

ROKs
A South Korean soldier comforts a wounded buddy before he's evacuated, July 28th, 1950. Troops of the Republic of Korea (ROK) were responsible for defending the eastern portion of the peninsula. Photo: Department of Defense. Source: Truman Library.

Battling Through the Winter
An artillery officer directs UN troops as they drop white phosphorous on a communist-held post in February 1951.

A Tenuous Dynamic
President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur meet for the first time on Wake Island, October 14th, 1950. Source: Truman Library.

Movies & TV

M*A*S*H (1970–1983)
An antiwar movie directed by Robert Altman at the height of late-'60s anti-Vietnam protests, M*A*S*H centered on a Korean War field hospital and depicted the comedic tactics employed by the characters as a means of retaining their sanity amidst the atrocities of war. M*A*S*H went on to become a long-running television sitcom, one of the most successful and beloved television programs of all time. Though nominally set in Korea, M*A*S*H reflected more of the sensibility of the Vietnam era.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
This film's a legendary political thriller about an elaborate communist plot to infiltrate the highest levels of the United States government, beginning with the brainwashing of an American POW in the Korean War. The heinous conspiracy, first imagined by author Richard Condon, haunted plenty of American moviegoers in the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War era.

Pork Chop Hill (1959)
A favorite of war film buffs, Pork Chop Hill depicts one of the most brutal battles fought between the U.S. Army and communist forces during the final stages of the Korean War. The film launched the careers of several young actors, including Rip Torn, Martin Landau, and Norman Fell.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
William Holden, Mickey Rooney, and Grace Kelly star in this war drama based on a novel by James Michener. When a World War II fighter pilot is called to serve again during the Korean War, the U.S. war veteran worries that his dangerous new mission could be his last.

Retreat, Hell! (1952)
Released in 1952, Retreat, Hell! was one of the few films about the Korean War that appeared in theaters while the conflict continued to rage abroad. Its cast featured few Hollywood heavy-hitters but boasted the work of actor and real-life war hero Peter Ornitz.

Websites

Looking Back
You can read a historical analysis of the Korean War by historian James I. Matray through the National Archives.

Documenting the Era
The Truman Library provides an array of primary sources from photos to excerpted documents on the Korean War.

Recalling the Experience
The Library of Congress has compiled the oral histories of women who experienced Korea and Vietnam firsthand.

Bringing War Buddies Home
Listen to a National Public Radio story about a Korean Vet who still struggles to bring his fallen comrades' remains home, even over half a century after the war.

Video & Audio

Images of the War
The song in the background may be awful, but the photographs, newsreel clips, and interviews on the screen provide a clear picture of the experience of American soldiers in Korea.

M*A*S*H Theme Song
Here's the theme song for one of the most successful TV programs of all time, M*A*S*H, which was set in a Korean War medical unit.

Historical Documents

Truman Doctrine
We've got an entire learning guide devoted to the Truman Doctrine. You know, that one where Truman says we'll do whatever it takes to crush communism. This foreign policy ultimately leads the U.S. into the Korean War.

NSC-68
Full text of the secret 1950 report of Truman's National Security Council laying out a new, more aggressive strategy for waging Cold War against communist forces abroad.

NSC-68 (Summary)
The U.S. State Department provides a solid, brief summary of NSC-68 and its significance.

UN Resolution
June 27th, 1950 resolution of the United Nations Security Council authorizing international assistance to South Korea and defining North Korea as the aggressor in the two-day-old war.

Truman Speaks
President Harry Truman's statement to the American people on committing troops to the Korean War, June 27th, 1950.

Wake Island Meeting
Accounts of President Truman's fateful meeting with General MacArthur at Wake Island, October 15th, 1950.