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This weekend marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Why should it matter? Two RUSI Journal articles examines the unanswered questions from this seminal moment in the Cold War.
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Sixty years ago on 27 July 1953, an armistice was finally signed between North Korea and China on one side and the US-led UN Command on the other, ending the international conflict over the Korean Peninsula that had started in June 1950 when the forces of the Korean People's Army crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. The war ended with no clear victory on either side, and for decades afterwards it remained a forgotten war, with the global Cold War and other conflicts claiming the attention of the public and scholars alike. Yet after all this time, the Korean conflict remains a fascinating episode with many questions left unanswered.
Unlike the Vietnam experience, the Korean War does not seem to have left a strong mark in the collective imagination of the West. Popular culture seems to have passed Korea by, when compared to the vast amount of film, ink and music dedicated to Vietnam - and even in the official realm of remembrance, the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington was only approved by the US Congress in1986 and completed in 1992. And yet the Korean War still has many facets of interest, both as a key event in shaping the early Cold War and as a peculiar conflict in itself - for its ultimate resolution resulting in a complete return to pre-war conditions, if nothing else.
Harry Truman's initial interpretation of the conflict as a Cold War confrontation sparked by Soviet-inspired expansionism and a US-led desire to stop the spread of communism was used at the outset of the war to garner domestic support for US involvement and remained accepted wisdom until the 1970s. As policy-makers, scholars and the public turned their attention to other events, Korea became the 'forgotten war'. However, once the archives started to become available to historians, scholarship gradually started to unravel the multiple layers of this complex conflict. Documents from the archives of the US and its allies, as well as Soviet and Chinese sources, were the basis of a wealth of studies that dissected the origins of the conflict, bringing its roots back to the emerging East-West confrontation in East Asia but also to internal Korean political dynamics, showing the inescapably dual nature of a conflict that was at once a civil war and an international one.
They also showed the importance of gaining domestic support for interventionist policies, in the US above all, and how Truman's failure to maintain sufficient support for his Korean policy was a fundamental factor in US electoral politics which eventually affected the overall American approach to ending the conflict. And they delved into Sino-Soviet relations and the two countries' influence over North Korea, as well as the role of the UN in the conflict. Different schools of thought emerged, disagreeing over the years about the origins of the war, the relationship between its domestic and international dimensions, and also to a large extent about how and why it eventually ended as and when it did.
Perhaps of greatest interest to anyone looking back at this conflict today in order to better understand the political rather than the military dynamics of war-fighting is the fact that the war was eventually brought to an end by what was, essentially, a return to the status quo ante. Armistice talks were opened in July 1951, yet no agreement was reached until two years later, in July 1953, and fighting continued throughout. The conventional wisdom was that Eisenhower's election to the US presidency in November 1952 and his willingness to use the threat of nuclear weapons ultimately won the day.
This, however, has increasingly come under scrutiny: many other factors were at play, including Stalin's death in March 1953 - which brought a sense of instability to the communist camp - the desire of the allies of the US to avoid an escalation and to bring the conflict to an end, their willingness to put pressure on the Eisenhower administration to ensure this outcome, and a shared desire in Washington and Beijing to stem the drain on economic and military resources caused by their involvement in Korea. The armistice was signed without either side achieving its initial war aims: North Korean forces neither won the rest of the peninsula nor were they defeated, and the US had certainly not pushed back on a communist advance beyond maintaining the original division between North and South along the 38th parallel. Although the Eisenhower administration tried to package the end of the war as a victory for its domestic audience, it was clear to all that no military victory had been achieved.
This makes the Korean War a fascinating - and as yet open-ended - study in how and why wars end - and perhaps why some are forgotten.