July 27 marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War. Although only a young child at the time, it was a war that I was vaguely cognizant of.
One reason for this awareness came via household chatter about a Chicago cousin losing a toe to frostbite while serving with the American army there.
Another reason was an unruly neighbouring Dublin housing estate was popularly known as Little Korea, an appellation not intended as a compliment.
The conflict’s origins could be traced to the closing days of the Second World War. Japan had occupied Korea since 1910, so the 1945 Japanese collapse created a void that was filled by the Soviets in the northern part of the peninsula and the Americans in the southern part.
In due course, independent states were established in both halves, neither of which was remotely democratic. Still, the fact refugee traffic ran overwhelmingly from north to south gives an indication of relative desirability.
Then, with prior Soviet blessing, North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, operating under the assumption the Americans wouldn’t get involved. After all, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had publicly excluded South Korea from America’s defensive perimeter.
That turned out to be a significant miscalculation on North Korea’s part. Under the auspices of the UN, the Americans quickly organized an international response. By autumn, the initially triumphant North Koreans were in dire straits, at which point 300,000 Chinese troops came to their rescue.
And so it went back and forth until the July 1953 armistice. When the war concluded, the new boundary line was little changed from prior to the invasion. But the human cost had been substantial.
Counting Korean civilians, several million people were dead, including more than 36,000 American soldiers and more than 300 Canadians.
Inevitably, the war had a mixed effect on reputations. U.S. President Harry Truman left office at the beginning of 1953 with his popularity at a low ebb among both the general public and the commentariat.
Although not the only reason, the Korean stalemate was a significant contributing factor.
General Douglas MacArthur also had problems.
Thanks to his Second World War exploits and subsequent key role in the reconstruction of post-war Japan, MacArthur was an obvious choice to command the UN forces in Korea. And his stock rose further following the successful amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950.
But things went downhill after the Chinese entered the war, and MacArthur’s public disagreement with Truman led to his being removed from command in April 1951. It was an extremely controversial decision, so much so MacArthur’s considerable popular support and oratorical skills even led to speculation he might nab the 1952 Republican presidential nomination.
But he didn’t. Instead, MacArthur gradually faded from public life, while remaining a hero to significant numbers of people. When he died in 1964, an estimated 150,000 mourners paid final respects.
Running for president in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower dramatically promised if elected he would “go to Korea” to personally assess the situation.
He did just that as president-elect, and the war ended six months after his inauguration.
While the mutually exhausted stalemate had undoubtedly created propitious conditions for an armistice, Eisenhower’s propensity for discreet ruthlessness was also called into play. South Korean president Syngman Rhee wanted to continue fighting, so Eisenhower cut back on fuel and ammunition supplies for Rhee’s army. Then, to underline the point, he threatened a total withdrawal of American forces. Rhee got the message.
Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has noted two things about the Korean War. One, it established the precedent of a country with nuclear weapons being involved in a bloody and protracted conflict without opting to use those weapons. And two, although Soviet and American pilots did surreptitious battle with each other over Korean skies, the mutual interest in preventing escalation was such that both countries chose to cover it up.
So here’s the question. On balance, would it have been preferable to stand back and allow North Korea to have its wicked way?
Different people will honestly answer that differently but there’s no doubt about one fact. Sixty years on, South Korea has evolved into a full-fledged democracy and economic powerhouse, while North Korea remains a Stalinist basket case.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.