Between 1950 and 1953, the United States intervened in a military conflict between North and South Korea known as the Korean War. Though sometimes called “The Forgotten War” because of its overshadowing by the World Wars preceding it and Vietnam thereafter, the Korean War had a profound impact on American foreign policy, representing the first major fight between democracy and communism in the nuclear age.
In the decades leading up to World War II, the Korean peninsula had been forcefully occupied by the Japanese, who ran the country as an authoritarian military outpost. However, after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union hastily agreed to divide the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel, with the Soviets occupying the north and the Americans occupying the south.
As America’s military struggled to install self-government in Korea, it relied on corrupt Japanese officials—known enemies of the Koreans—to keep things running smoothly. The United States pinned its hopes for leadership on the charismatic Syngman Rhee, who was the son of a Korean scholar, spoke fluent English, and had earned a doctorate at Princeton. On July 20, 1948, Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea and began running the country as a dictator backed by the U.S. military. Rhee quickly enacted laws to suppress political dissent, ordering the arrest and murder of leftist activists.
While American forces backed Rhee’s nationalist, anti-communist government, the Soviet Union established a communist regime in North Korea led by Kim Il-sung. Both leaders hoped to unite the peninsula again under their particular government, with each making threats to invade their neighbor.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, occupying the capital city of Seoul with a few days. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations’ Security Council asked members to provide military assistance to South Korea, though in reality these support troops were almost entirely American. (Notably, the Korean War was the first to be fought with racially integrated American units.)
Since China had declared itself a communist country in 1949, American foreign policy reflected the fear that neighboring countries were endangered by a spreading tide of communism. Although the Soviet military wasn’t directly involved in the conflict, it did provide supplies and intelligence to North Korea.
Rhee had his government relocate to Busan (then known as “Pusan” in the West) on the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, where American troops first clashed with the North ...
MacArthur wanted to send a strong message of defeat to the communists, so he ordered troops to continue pushing into North Korea in an attempt to reunify the entire Korean peninsula. However, the People's Republic of China viewed this as hostile to its own interests, particularly in Manchuria, and sent its own military into the fray, forcing the United States army back into the South.
In April, 1951, President Truman relieved MacArthur of his role in the Korean War and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway, a move that was highly controversial in the United States. Before his removal, MacArthur had hoped to bomb China in retaliation, but Ridgway was aligned with Truman in believing the U.S. should limit the size of this Korean conflict to prevent another World War.
While the American and South Korean militaries held off the communist forces just north of the 38th parallel, the various players engaged in peace talks for the next two years. Finally, on July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed at Panmunjom, which formally reinstated the divided status of Korea. Rhee and Il-sung both remained in power after the war, though Rhee was later overthrown by an uprising in 1960.
More than 5 million citizens and soldiers had been killed by the time the war ended, including around 36,000 Americans. Though the violence was over, in many ways, the Korean War was a harbinger of the disastrous Vietnam conflict, which began less than a year later.
Much of the field gear employed by United States forces in the Korean War was similar to that used during World War II—from weapons and ammunition bags to uniforms and cooking supplies. Some of the most desirable militaria from the Korean conflict includes items like wartime letters, slides, and photographs, or decorated hats and helmets associated with particular squadrons.