President Harry S. Truman found himself entrenched in a major dilemma as the Korean War unfolded. The consensus among most political leaders in the United States was that the Soviet Union was intending to export communism to the rest of the world. This consensus formed the basis of the American foreign policy with the goal being to contain communism at home and abroad. In Europe, this policy was characterized by the Marshall Plan but, in Asia, this policy became identified by the United States’ participation in the Korean War.
Korea had been divided at the end of the Second World War into two halves. This division had occurred as a result of the Soviet Union having invaded Korea during the War and the Japanese subsequently surrendering to the Soviets. The United States, fearing that the Soviet Union might try to establish a communist government on the entire peninsula moved troops into southern Korea toward the end of the War. Subsequently, the United States and the Soviet Union peacefully agreed to divide Korea at the 38th parallel. In the North a communist government was organized while a rival government was established in the South. Unfortunately, each government was intent on uniting the nation under its own principles which created an unstable condition.
Despite this situation the Truman administration had adopted a position of withdrawal from Korea. The State Department had argued that Korea lay outside the United States’ defense perimeter and that they had no intention of defending South Korea from any potential attack from North Korea. Several World events, however, caused the United States to reconsider its position. First, the news that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb caused great concern as America’s monopoly on the weapon was now eliminated. Additionally, the Soviet Union began to intervene in political affairs in both Greece and Turkey. Finally, in China, a communist government under the leadership of Mao Tse Tong was established. This series of events caused the Truman administration to re-evaluate its position so that when the North Koreans invaded the South Truman determined that he needed to take action to protect the democratic South Korean government. Based upon the events in Europe and China, Truman reasoned that the Communists were determined to expand their sphere of influence throughout not only Europe but also throughout Asia and that in order to stall their efforts the United States needed to make a statement in Korea.
Truman, although he strongly believed that the North Koreans needed to be stopped, did not want to act unilaterally against the North Koreans. He categorically believed that the Soviet Union and Red China were behind the North Koreans’ efforts but felt that any assistance provided to the South Korean government must be done under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations. Through the urging of the United States, the United Nations sent forces to South Korea but the United States sent the bulk of the forces and directed the operations.
Although Truman was dedicated to stalling the expansion of Communist influence throughout the World, he was also determined to not allow political events to deteriorate into another World War. This caused Truman to be placed in a position of attempting to limit Communist expansion but not being able to wage an all-out military offensive. As a result, Truman ordered that the United States limit its activities in Korea so as to not irritate either the Soviet Union or Red China too severely. This position caused a major rift to occur between Truman and his commanding general, Douglas MacArthur, who favored a more aggressive approach. Matters between the two developed into a major media event that resulted in Truman actually being forced to dismiss MacArthur. MacArthur emerged from the dispute a national hero while Truman suffered significantly in the polls.
Shortly after MacArthur’s dismissal, the North Koreans, who had been forced back deep into their own country, mounted a major offensive that allowed them to push the United Nation forces below the 38th parallel. During this offensive the North Koreans were heavily assisted by the Red Chinese government with both manpower and armaments. This action by Red China confirmed Truman’s suspicions and he became more determined to take a position that would neutralize matters as much as possible in Korea.
The sides eventually became divided along the original 38th parallel line and the war settled down into a battle along this line for the remainder of the next two years as representatives from the United Nations and the North Korean government began protracted peace talks. An armistice agreement, maintaining the divided Korean peninsula, was signed at Panmunjom on July 27th, 1953. A horribly bloody conflict was thus ended but Truman was able to at least stall the feared Communist expansion and to avoid a third World War breaking out.
Throughout the entire Korean conflict Truman was forced to address concerns that the United States would be forced to address for most of the next thirty years. The War revealed how difficult it was for any force, no matter how large and powerful, to defeat an enemy that is fiercely determined. The United States and the United Nation forces greatly outnumbered the North Koreans; they enjoyed a huge advantage in military equipment and technology; and the United States possessed the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. None of these advantages, however, were enough to defeat the determined North Koreans.
The War also displayed how difficult it is to fight a limited war. Truman and the U.S. military was never able to establish clear objectives and fought the entire war fearing the likelihood that other forces, primarily the Soviet Union and Red China, would intervene in the war. These two factors caused severe morale problems for the American forces. The U.S. military leaders never fully bought into the approach advocated by the Truman administration and there was considerable political pressure in the U.S. Congress, led by the controversial Joseph McCarthy, suggesting that Truman’s approach was inappropriate for the circumstances. Finally, the Korean War also demonstrated how difficult it often is to end military conflicts. Truman entered the Korean conflict attempting to send a message to the Soviet Union and Red China that the United States would go to great lengths to defend democracy throughout the World but the War never officially ended as the best the United States could do was to negotiate an armistice. The Communist government in North Korea remained in place and the United States, just a few years later, found itself engaged in another similar conflict in Vietnam.
On a positive note, Truman was able to successfully maintain a democratically elected government in South Korea and to do so without hostilities developing into an escalated worldwide war. He was also able to withstand the pressures from his military advisors who suggested that the United States use atomic weapons in their battles with the North Koreans. There was pressure applied to him, just like in the waning days of the Second World War, by military leaders to bomb the North Koreans into submission but Truman adopted a policy that eschewed the use of such weaponry. It was a policy that has been adopted by subsequent administrations as well and one that likely avoided, at a minimum, a possible world war.
Griffith, Robert. “Truman and the Historians: The Reconstruction of Postwar American History.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History (1975): 20-47.
Jervis, Robert. “The Impact of the Korean War on the Cold War.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution (1980): 563-592.
Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security the Truman Administration and the Cold War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Marra, Robin F. “Foreign Policy and Presidential Popularity: Creating Windows of Opportunity in the Perpetual Election.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution (1990): 588-623.
Matray, James I. “Hodge Podge: America Occupation Policy in Korea, 1945-1948.” Korean Studies (1995): 17-38.
— . “Truman’s Plan for Victory: National Self-Determination and the Thirty-Eight Parallel Decision in Korea.” The Journal of American History (1979): 314-333.
McCormick, Thomas J. America’s Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After (The American Moment). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Pearlman, Michael D. Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Ridgway, Matthew B. The Korean War. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1986.
Snyder, William P. “Dean Rusk to John Foster Dulles, May-June 1953: The Office, the First 100 Days, and Red China.” Diplomatic History (1983): 79-86.
Truman’s Dilemma in the Korean War
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