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Image of an American M 60 A1 tank firing in a night exercise in Korea.The Korean War
The Cold War between the Communists and the Western Worlds began in earnest at the end of World War II. In order to maintain political prestige among the uncommitted nations of the world, neither side could allow the other any advantage or concession. The Soviets tried to blockade Berlin, and the West answered with the Berlin Airlift (1947-49). In Korea, the armies of both the U.S. and USSR withdrew, but each side armed their respective section of the country. The North Koreans clamored for unification and fomented several armed uprisings in the South in the late 1940s. However, South Korea did not collapse, but grew stronger. This may be why North Korea launched a massive surprise attack against the South on June 25, 1950.

The first year of the Korean War was an incredible seesaw: Seoul (in the middle of the peninsula) changed hands four times. The remaining two years of the war became a brutal bashing of both sides along a heavily defended battle line, whose location changed only slightly from month to month. The final cease-fire line showed no significant gain for either side.

A sequence of 27 maps adapted from the West Point Atlas of American Wars has been assembled here to vividly show the dynamics of battle. The sequence may be viewed as a QuickTime movie.

In brief, the Korean War began with the invasion of the South by North Korean troops. Troops in the South were unprepared and were pushed into a small corner of South Korea in a matter of weeks. The situation was quickly reversed by the first United Nations (UN) offensive in the southeast, coupled with a daring high-tide landing at Inchon near Seoul. The landing forces quickly cut the North Korean supply lines, forcing the now unsupported North Korean armies to flee back north.

The UN armies pressed north of the 38th parallel with the intent to take over North Korea, and the disorganized North Korean army was unable to stop them. A few UN units actually pressed north to the Amnok (Yalu) River, the border between Communist China and Korea. The Chinese warned that they would not accept the conquest of North Korea by the UN and massed for a counter attack. Though less well armed than the UN armies, the Chinese armies were much larger and quickly overwhelmed the UN forces. Some 40,000 U.S. troops were cut off by the advance and evacuated from near Wonsan in mid-December 1950. Seoul was retaken by the Chinese as they pushed south. This time, the Communist forces were stopped about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula. A second UN offensive began in late February 1951, which pushed the Chinese back north of Seoul again. The UN advance stopped near the 38th parallel. A second Chinese offensive was launched in April. Once again, huge waves of Chinese soldiers cut off and destroyed advance UN troops.

Image of a war memorial commemorating the complete loss of a valiant unit of British soldiers.This time the Chinese armies stopped north of Seoul. A third UN offensive in May and June of 1951 pushed the Chinese back up near the thirty-eighth parallel again. For the next two years, the war was fought mostly in the air as the battle line on the ground hardened into a massive defensive network on both sides. Incursions on the ground by either side during this time could only be made with great loss of men and little territorial gain. Battle on the ground in Korea was hampered by the extremely rugged terrain. The picture below of an American tank crossing a stream in the central Korean highland in the 1970s gives an idea of how hilly the terrain is and how difficult it was for military maneuvering. Desperate battles in that terrain gave rise to gruesome nicknames for places of bloody fighting like Pork Chop Hill, T-Bone Hill, and Heartbreak Ridge.

Image of an American M 60 A1 tank crossing a stream in the central mountains of Korea.The Korean War finally ended in July 1953. Left in its wake were four million military and civilian casualties, including 33,600 American, 16,000 UN allied, 415,000 South Korean, and 520,000 North Korean dead. There were also an estimated 900,000 Chinese casualties. Half of Korea's industry was destroyed and a third of all homes. The disruption of civilian life was almost complete. Try to imagine for a moment what life must have been like for civilians trying to avoid invading armies during the first year of the war when battle lines shifted back and forth through the countryside every few months. Each time opposing armies swept through an area, homes and personal possessions would be damaged or destroyed by shelling or bombing, crops would be trampled, livestock would be stolen for food, and civilians would be harmed by stray gunfire or random violence by individual soldiers. If found, male civilians could be forcefully drafted to fight, and anyone could be accused as being a supporter of the "other" side and then imprisoned or summarily executed.

The result of the Korean War was a stalemate, ending not far from where it began. Was the war a loss for the UN and the United States? Many viewed it as such, even while the war was still being fought. General Douglas MacArthur, World War II hero and commander of the UN forces in Korea, wanted complete victory in Korea and advocated attacking bases inside Communist China that were supporting forces in North Korea. But U.S. President Harry S. Truman and other leaders of the UN forces feared that attacking China would lead to a larger conflict that could easily plunge the entire world into World War III. These leaders felt that the human misery and political humiliation associated with pursuing a limited war was preferable to the much greater loss and doubtful outcome of a global war. As it was, Truman was President and Commander-in-Chief; MacArthur was his subordinate. When MacArthur persisted in his opposition to Truman's political and military objectives, Truman replaced MacArthur with a general willing to pursue a limited war.

The Korean War, the first shooting conflict of the Cold War, remained confined to the Korean peninsula. The fact that it did not expand into a wider war helped confirm the West's policy of containment of Communism, a policy which dominated most international relations during the Cold War. Was containment a misguided policy? On the one hand, it prevented a major war. On the other hand, it led to a seemingly endless string of small, bloody battles all over the world: Cuba, Central Africa, South East Asia, Afghanistan, and many others. Containment also led to massive infusions of economic and military aid by leading nations of both the Communist and Western worlds into developing nations considered to be of strategic importance, while others were bypassed. Repressive political regimes were supported in many poor nations in the name of containment. The debate over containment continued through armed conflicts in the 1960s, nuclear stalemate in the 1970s, and on into the present.

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