There’s an old cliché about politics and the bedfellows it creates, and this was never less a cliché than during the turmoil following the end of World War II. Countries whose soldiers had fought side by side just months before became hated enemies; enemies became allies. During the Great War, Korea was under the control of Korea and that situation offered a threat to world peace that was so strong it led to a unity of purpose betwee the US and the Soviet Union. Turning a blind eye to their differences in ideology, the two future superpowers came together with the purpose of freeing Korea from Japanese control. To facilitate rebellion from within, they went so far as to promised independence for a Korean state “in due course.”
Due course means many things, of course, and whatever it really meant when it was promised was put back even further when the division of the Korean peninsula became necessary in order to arrange the quicker than expected surrender of the Japanese. Korea would be divided along the 38th parallel.
The division of Korea was metaphorical as well as geographical. Two conflicting socioeconomic theories were on the verge of becoming the overweening source of tension across the globe: capitalism and communism. The eyes of the world were focused on a similar bifurcation taking place in Germany and so it came as something of a surprise that the Cold War heated up halfway across the world in Korea.
The simple explanation spoonfed to Americans was that the Korean War was just as much a black and white war between good and evil as was World War II. The Americans painted as being like the cavalry riding in to save South Korea from being overrun by the despotic communist control of the North. The question is whether South Korea was really any more democratic and less oppressive than was North Korea. The US had backed Syngmann Rhee as leader of South Korea, but Rhee was hardly any less of a ruthless despot with his enemies than was Kim Il Sung to the north. Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung shared something else as well: they both had an eye toward uniting Korea in a way significantly less than the democratic ideal.
Each divided section of Korea quickly adopted the sociopolitical ideology of the power behind it and it was exactly this mirroring of ideology that led to the biggest obstacles standing in the way of the unification and subsequent independence of Korea. In addition, both Sung and Rhee were laying claim to sole legitimacy to the leadership of a united Korea.
While little doubt exists that the impetus for the Korean War was the decision by the North Korean army, with the full agreement of Joseph Stalin, to cross the 38th parallel and engage in a full assault on the south. It is far less certain, however, that this act of aggression was precipitated by the formal announcement by the US that Korea was not going to be included as part of the vital defensive perimeter to which troops would be sent to contain the spread of communism. This unfortunate announcement doubtlessly contributed to Kim Il Sung’s vow to destroy Rhee and claim a unified Korea as his own, but the biggest effect of this decision was more likely in the way it polarized the political debate between the left and right in America.
The history of not only Korea, but probably the world would be decidedly different if the US had not responded to Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea. But why exactly did the US decide to send young American men back into the hell of war so soon after the end of World War II; so soon after the dropping of the atomic bomb seemed to suggest that conventional warfare was no longer necessary? Just what was so important about that tiny piece of real estate half a world away from America that justified the deaths of thousands of American soldiers?
The words actually spoken by Pres. Truman seem to indicate a genuine fear that democracy could come under the same attack from communist forces that it so recently faced from fascist forces. Truman used language that tied Korea to the countries that Hitler invaded in order to intimate that if left unchecked, there was a definite possibility for another world war.
That’s what he said, anyway. More likely is that American troops were sent to die in Korea because Pres. Truman was facing intense political pressure from radical conservatives in the Republican Party. Pres. Truman was definitely feeling right-wing pressure as a result of the Republican gains in Congress. Republican gains gotten mostly as a result of anti-communist hysteria. Joseph McCarthy may have been face of this powerful force, but he was far from a lone voice in the wilderness urging the President toward a tougher stance against communist encroachment in Asia.
Pres. Truman’s decision to send troops to Korea to drive the northern armies back across the 38th parallel may or may not have been prompted by political expediency, but it is almost a stone cold solid certainty that his decision to ignore the stated threat of Chinese entry into the conflict should the US push forward beyond the 38th parallel was motivated almost entirely out of political concerns. The folly of Pres. Truman’s decision to trust in madman Douglas MacArthur’s misguided confidence that the Chinese would not be brought in to the conflict raises the question of whether America had imperialist ambitions of its own; ambitions involving the reclamation of China from Mao. Was Pres. Truman’s decision not to stop at the 38th parallel and instead try to completely push the communists out of the Korean peninsula the result of imperialist desires, or was he just afraid to exhibit weakness in the face of the increasingly rabid anti-communist, Asia-firsters in Congress. Regardless, Pres. Truman’s decision to trust in the madman Douglas MacArthur stands as the single most important decision regarding the Korean War. Even this tipping point cannot clearly be defined as the only reason for the Korean War, however.
History, ideology and politics all converged to create a situation that led to the senseless deaths of thousands and standoff that remains unsettled to this day. The simplistic explanation for the Korean War has always been on that traces back to communist imperialist aggression, but clearly that is not sufficient. Aggressive aims were at work on both sides of the 38th parallel, and the politics of fear at play in both the Soviet Union and the United States were ripe for manipulation by two despotic rulers who each had designs to become lord and master over a unified Korean peninsula. By lending support to Kim Il Sung and Syngmann Rhee, both the Soviet Union and the US were drawn into a war that ended up profiting neither.