Korean War (1950-1953)

Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Major Figures

Matthew Ridgway

General Matthew Bunker Ridgway (1895-1993) is widely considered the most underrated American soldier of the twentieth century. His greatest contribution to modern warfare was transforming a lackluster U.N. force into a motivated killing machine that saved South Korea from certain defeat.

Ridgway’s Early Years

Ridgway was born on March 3, 1895, into an upper middle-class family at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. His father, Thomas, was a full colonel in World War I. His mother, Ruth, was a concert pianist from Long Island, New York. Ridgway, a well-bred and charming boy, spent his childhood moving from military post to military post. Determined to become a general, Ridgway went to West Point as soon as he could. He graduated in 1917, just two weeks after the United States entered World War I. He was eager to join the fight in the French trenches, but was instead sent to the Mexican border for the duration of the war. At the war’s end, Ridgway returned to West Point where he became a Romance language instructor. Because he was the only one of six regular army officers fluent in Spanish, Ridgway won several high-level assignments in Latin America in the 1920s. During the 1930s he studied at the best military graduate schools in the country, including the U.S. Army Infantry School, the Command and General Staff School, and the Army War College. Although he rarely commanded troops in the years leading up to World War II, he proved a master motivator when given the opportunity.

Becoming a Commander

Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall was Ridgway’s greatest champion during peacetime. After serving under the influential general on four separate occasions, Ridgway was promoted to brigadier general, assisting the command of General Omar Bradley’s Eighty-Second Infantry Division after the start of World War II. When Bradley was promoted in early 1942, Ridgway was named commander. Under his tutelage, the division was transformed into one of the Army’s first airborne units.

Ridgway led his forces in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, subsequent battles in Salerno, Normandy, Holland, and Germany, and the December 1944 Battle of the Bulge. His paratroopers, as they were called, fought so magnificently that their exploits became the stuff of legend. Following the Normandy invasion in 1944, Ridgway was chosen to head the Eighteenth Airborne Corps, which he commanded through Germany and across the Elbe River into advancing Soviet forces on May 3, 1945. He emerged from the war much decorated and admired. A three-star general by this time, Ridgway was regarded as one of the best Army combat corps commanders of the war. His troops found his mere presence to be awe-inspiring. His reputation was well earned. While commanding forces from the front, Ridgway often exposed himself to heavy fire and possible injury. A well-known incident involving a German grenade left Ridgway with a fragment in his shoulder after he refused medical treatment for the wound.

The Korean War

In December 1950, Ridgway was appointed commander of the Eighth United States Army in Korea. Ridgway’s new appointment was considered one of the most difficult of the Korean War. The Eighth Army’s morale had been destroyed by Peng Dehuai’s tactics. After massive Chinese forces pushed United Nations troops below the 38th parallel, mauling the First Cavalry Division, the Second Infantry Division, and the South Korean forces, the Eighth Army was exhausted. At this point, some military experts doubted the United States’ ability to maintain a foothold on the Korean peninsula. But the U.S. military had faith in Ridgway, a man known for his motivational genius. To combat the superior Chinese forces, Ridgway reorganized the Eighth Army’s potentially catastrophic retreat by transforming the distraught troops into a highly motivated fighting force. On February 21, 1951, he launched Operation Killer, an enormous counterattack involving eight infantry divisions of more than 100,000 troops backed by twenty-two artillery battalions, five tank battalions, and the Far East Air Force. The reinvigorated U.S. forces fought superbly. They retook Seoul and forced Chinese forces above the 38th parallel where the war stalled. The feat was regarded as one of the finest examples of military leadership of the century.

When General Douglas MacArthur was relieved of command on April 11, 1951, Ridgway was selected to serve simultaneous duties as commander in chief of the Far East command, commander in chief of the United Nations command, commander in chief of U.S. Army forces in the Far East, and supreme commander of Allied forces occupying Japan. He oversaw the war from Tokyo for the rest of the year. By now, Ridgway was celebrated as an American hero. The press, who described him in glowing terms, loved his approachability, charm, and articulate manner. Other officers, on the other hand, disliked him. They found him humorless and pretentious.

Ridgway replaced General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the supreme commander of European Allied forces and head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in May 1952. In 1953, he left that post to become the Army chief of staff. As chief of staff, Ridgway played a leading role in keeping the U.S. military out of the French-Indochina conflict in 1954 and steadfastly defended the Army when Republican senator Joseph McCarthy attacked it. In 1955, Ridgway retired from the Army as a four-star general and America’s top soldier. He then served as director of the Mellon Industrial Research Institute in Pittsburgh until 1960.

Vietnam and Beyond

During the 1960s, Ridgway became famous for his criticism of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to become militarily involved in the Vietnam conflict. Later, in March 1968, Johnson invited Ridgway to the White House as one of the “wise men” who advised Johnson to negotiate a withdrawal from Vietnam. Ridgway actively supported Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) during the 1980 presidential election and accompanied the president on his controversial trip to Bitburg’s German army burial ground in 1985. On July 26, 1993, Matthew B. Ridgway died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the age of ninety-eight. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Major Battles and Events


Seoul’s History to 1945

Seoul was the center of administration and culture during the Yi Dynasty and was chosen for its favorable and protected location. The Yi palaces and massive city wall were built on the granite base of the surrounding mountains. The well-drained floodplains of the Seoul basin and the Han River were just south of those. Although the city suffered from Manchu and Japanese invasions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city maintained its vitality.

From 1910 to 1945, the years of the Japanese colonial regime, Seoul was forced to change. Japan built up Korea’s infrastructure, especially its street and railroad systems. In Seoul, the area between the Han River and the old city became the Japanese military, residential, and commercial center. An imposing granite government building was constructed on the site of an old palace and other large banking and commercial buildings were built around the city. But Japan did not just change the Korean landscape. While Japanese leaders built up Korea’s infrastructure, they simultaneously sought to eradicate the country’s culture. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, convert to the native Japanese religion of Shintoism, and were forbidden to speak Korean in school and at work. The March First Movement of 1919, also known as the Samil Movement or the Mansei Demonstrations, was one of the first displays of Korean nationalism. It resulted in the killing of thousands, the maiming and imprisoning of tens of thousands, and the destruction of hundreds of homes, schools, churches, and temples.

When the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided into two distinct republics. After that date, the Soviet Union occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel, while the United States occupied the peninsula south of that line. In 1948, Seoul became the capital of the Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the government of South Korea was democratic. That same year, the Communists established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea. Pyongyang became the capital of Communist North Korea. Ideological differences led to skirmishes along the 38th parallel, ultimately leading to the Korean War.

The Korean War

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army crossed the South Korean border and started the Korean War, hoping to unify the two republics under a single Communist government. Within three days, northern forces captured Seoul, just thirty miles south of the 38th parallel. American troops were sent to assist South Korea, and Chinese Communist volunteers assisted North Korea in a war that lasted three years and claimed millions of lives on both sides.

During the course of the war, Seoul changed hands four times. North Korean forces occupied Seoul on the afternoon of June 28, 1950. After much fighting throughout September 1950, Seoul was retaken by U.N. forces at the end of that month and returned to President Rhee. In early January 1951, Seoul fell to North Korean and Chinese forces. Finally, in mid-March 1951, U.N. forces retook Seoul after expelling North Korean and Chinese troops from the city. On July 27, 1953, a cease-fire was established. The Korean War resulted in a stalemate, ending not far from where it began.

The disruption of civilian life during the back-and-forth movement of Communist and democratic forces was phenomenal. Homes and personal possessions were damaged or destroyed by shelling or bombing; crops were trampled and livestock was stolen for food; and civilians were killed or injured by stray gunfire or spontaneous violence inflicted by soldiers. Male civilians were often forcefully drafted to fight, and Koreans were routinely imprisoned or summarily executed if they were suspected of supporting the “other” side. The city of Seoul was severely damaged during the conflict. The prominent buildings erected during the Japanese occupation were reduced to ravaged shells. The rest of the infrastructure became rubble after three years of intense fighting.

Invasion of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

When troops from the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, crossed into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, a fateful new chapter of the Korean War began. U.S. Commander Douglas MacArthur made the single most important decision of the Korean War, when he ordered the crossing despite warnings that it would provoke Chinese resistance. The bold and dangerous move resulted in the Chinese forces entering the war.

United Nations Forces Support South Korea

On June 25, 1950, North Korean armed forces crossed the 38th parallel, the demarcation line that separated Communist North Korea and nationalist South Korea, thus beginning the Korean War. The South Korean army was small, ill-prepared, and poorly equipped. Their adversary, on the other hand, possessed a skilled army of 135,000 men equipped with a plentiful supply of Russian weapons, including 150 to 200 combat airplanes. Despite U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s (1893-1971) statement on January 12, 1950, that Korea was not within the “defensive perimeter” of America’s vital interests in the Far East, the United States government’s reaction to the invasion was swift and determined.

Prodded by the U.S. government, the U.N. Security Council convened in a special session on the day of the attack and unanimously passed a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of North Korean forces to their former positions north of the 38th parallel. When the aggressors failed to comply with the resolution, the U.N. Security Council met again two days later and passed a second resolution recommending that United Nations members furnish South Korea with assistance so that they might repel their attackers. Ignoring recommendations of caution, President Harry S. Truman moved to enforce the United Nations resolution and committed U.S. military forces to South Korea. The president appointed General Douglas MacArthur as commander in chief of the Far East and supreme commander of U.N. forces.

The committed U.S. forces proved inadequate. By the end of June, more than half of the army of the Republic of Korea had been destroyed. By early August, U.N. forces had been pushed to the southeast corner of the peninsula where they dug in around the port of Pusan. After stabilizing a defense line around the important port, General MacArthur conceived of a brilliant yet risky strategy that was almost unanimously opposed. Instead of employing his forces in a frontal offensive from the Pusan Perimeter, MacArthur decided to dare an amphibious landing at Inchon, the west coast port near Seoul, behind enemy lines.

Landing at Inchon

The Inchon Invasion, also known as Operation Chromite, was a controversial and daring amphibious operation on September 15, 1950, that General Douglas MacArthur conceived. Widely considered MacArthur’s finest military moment, the landing at Inchon immediately changed the course of the Korean War and led to the recovery of the Korean capital city of Seoul.

The Korean War Before the Inchon Invasion

By the end of July 1950, North Korean forces had pushed U.N. forces to the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula. Unable to retreat any further, the American and South Korean troops dug in around the port of Pusan. General MacArthur, commander of U.N. troops, and Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, commander of the U.S. Eighth Army, ordered their men to “stand or die.” For the next six weeks, a bloody, desperate struggle ensued as the North Koreans battled to defeat American and South Korean forces and to gain complete control over Korea. Meanwhile, MacArthur was conceiving a strategy to move inland, retake the capital, and cut the already tenuous North Korean supply lines.

Preparing for the Strategic Landing

Operation Chromite, or the landing at Inchon, took less than three weeks to plan. Given the scope of the forces involved and the tactical challenges they faced, that time frame seems almost incomprehensible. Among the forces gathered for the operation were the First Marine Division, the Army’s Seventh Infantry Division, a handful of South Korean units, virtually every available amphibious ship, and dozens of other Navy warships. The majority of Marines involved had recently arrived from the United States, while the rest were taken from the Pusan Perimeter defenses.

Inchon, located on the west coast of South Korea near Seoul, was a tactically challenging amphibious target. The primary obstacle to landing there was the area’s 32-foot tidal range, which restricts landing operations to a few hours a day. The Operation Chromite planning commission determined that the tides would only be high enough to allow a big landing craft three brief hours inshore on September 15, September 27, or October 11. Beyond that, the coast would become an impassable quagmire of mud. Another challenge was the narrow channel the landing force would have to maneuver. Seawalls along the beach threatened to make the initial assault and disembarkation of vehicles and stores quite difficult.

On August 23, 1950, a contingent of high-ranking U.S. military commanders flew from Washington, D.C., to McArthur’s Tokyo headquarters for a briefing on the planned mission. After the officers heard a summary of the details of the assault, including weather, landing craft, beaches, naval gunfire, and air support, Rear Admiral James H. Doyle said, “the best I can say is that Inchon is not impossible.” To sell his idea to Doyle and the other doubtful officers, MacArthur relied on his well-known theatrical style. He launched into an awe-inspiring forty-five-minute speech, ending his performance with the words, “we shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them!” Three days after the briefing, MacArthur received the formal consent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to proceed with Operation Chromite.

Lieutenant General Edward M. Almond (1892-1979), MacArthur’s chief of staff, was appointed commander of the Inchon landing force, which was designated the X Corps. Two divisions, the First Marine Division and the Seventh Infantry Division, comprised the X Corps. The First Marine Division, comprised of a total of twenty thousand men, was to be the first ashore. A small fleet of cargo ships and landing ships, including six attack transport ships, eight attack cargo ships, three high-speed transports, one medium landing ship, three dock landing ships, seventeen U.S. tank landing ships, and thirty-one Japanese dock landing ships, were rounded up to move the division and their supplies from Kobe, Sasebo, and Pusan to Inchon.

The Seventh was supposed to follow the Marines in the landing, but by early August, their numbers had diminished dramatically. Nearly ten thousand of the infantry’s officers and troops had already been posted in Korean divisions. To make up for the loss, over eight thousand South Koreans were sent to the Seventh Infantry Division in August. American infantry and artillery reinforcements arrived between the end of August and the beginning of September. Although the strength of the Seventh Infantry Division reached nearly 250,000 soldiers, less than half were effectively trained for battle.

A Successful Landing

Despite all odds, the amphibious landing at Inchon was a near-perfect logistical execution. Roughly 250 ships, including the flagship, two escort carriers, a bombardment force, screening and protective ships, minesweepers, supply and hospital ships, and freight and transport vessels carrying the X Corps, began their trek to Inchon as early as September 5. Air attacks began on September 10 with shore bombardment following three days later. On the morning of September 15, the Advance Attack Group, supported by naval and air forces, assaulted and captured the tactically critical island of Wolmi-do in roughly an hour and a half. That afternoon, just as the tide started to come in, the order to “land the landing force” was given. That day, thirteen thousand troops and an impressive amount of assault equipment were unloaded. On September 16, the Seventh Infantry Division arrived. General unloading was ordered, and for the next six days, unloading continued as rapidly as tidal conditions and unloading facilities would permit. During this period of time, nearly fifty thousand military personnel, five thousand vehicles, and more than twenty thousand short tons of cargo were brought ashore.

The Results of the Landing at Inchon

Over the course of the first several days of fighting, as supplies and troops poured ashore, the Marines moved relentlessly toward Seoul. On September 17, Kimpo Airfield was taken and two days later it was in use to support operations. On September 27, MacArthur received permission to pursue the retreating enemy into North Korea. On September 29, after two weeks of fighting, Seoul was returned to the South Korean government and North Korean supply lines were cut. Then, on October 1, South Korean forces chased the North Koreans past the 38th parallel. This last, fateful move marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Korean War.

The Invasion of North Korea

The decision to pursue the retreating foe across the demarcation line was fraught with peril. On the one hand, the American public was pressing for a decisive victory. On the other, Chinese Communist forces warned that an American invasion into North Korea would be met with Chinese resistance. Despite the threat, the United Nations and President Truman ordered South Korean forces north across the 38th parallel. The first crossings by South Korean forces took place on October 1, with backup forces following soon thereafter. The troops sped north, nearing the Yalu River, the boundary between North Korea and Communist China. Chinese Communist troops were assembled near the Yalu, but MacArthur was unaware of their strength or position. On November 1, the leading South Korean divisions were ambushed while a U.S. regiment located at Unsan was attacked. As soon as the U.N. forces stabilized their lines after the violent setback, Chinese forces withdrew northward as quickly as they had struck.

MacArthur pressed for permission to take the fight into China, believing the only remaining course was a bold advance. His “all-out offensive” to the Yalu was met with a powerful Chinese strike on the night of November 25. Roughly 180,000 Chinese troops smashed the right flank of the Eighth Army in the west, while 120,000 others mauled the X Corps near the Chosin Reservoir. On November 28, a shaken MacArthur told the U.S. Joint Chiefs, “We face an entirely new war.”

MacArthur’s men fought courageously just to avoid being annihilated. They were forced to retreat southward down the peninsula past Seoul, which was recaptured on January 5, to about seventy miles south of the occupied capital. On January 15, General Matthew Ridgway, commander of the Eighth Army, began to lead U.N. troops slowly northward, inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese and North Korean forces as they went. On March 15, his troops recaptured Seoul for the fourth and final time. MacArthur, meanwhile, stepped up efforts, pushing Washington to allow him to bomb targets in China. Being denied permission to do so enraged him. He launched a very public campaign in the press for an increase in U.S. military commitment. He sought an extension of the war into China and complained that military operations were being hamstrung by Truman’s political considerations. Truman responded by relieving General MacArthur of his dual command of U.S. and U.N. forces on April 11, 1951. Ridgway took MacArthur’s place and Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet (1892-1992) replaced Ridgway as commander of the Eighth Army.

Key Elements of Warcraft

United Nations Troops

The vast majority of anti-communist troops in Korea were American, and an American general, Douglas MacArthur, commanded the overall war effort. However, the war was prosecuted by an international United Nations (U.N.) force, which included troops from seventeen nations, including South Korea.

The United Nations and Korea

In 1945, world leaders met in San Francisco to draft the charter of the United Nations. The first goal of the new international body was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” However, the guns of the Second World War had not even cooled before the nations began to prepare for the next great conflict, between Soviet-dominated communists and the American-dominated capitalists.

Nowhere were the battle lines so clearly drawn as they were across the Korean peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union came to a hasty agreement in 1945, dividing the country along the 38th parallel. The United Nations ruled in 1947 that the Koreas should be reunited and that nation-wide free elections should be held. Russia blocked this resolution, refusing to allow inspectors to supervise the voting in North Korea. As a result, U.N. elections were only held in the south, and the country’s partition continued.

A Police Action is Declared

In the rainy pre-dawn hours of June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army (NKA) launched a surprise invasion into South Korea, sweeping all resistance before it.

The news took the international community by storm. The U.S. State Department warned that the North Koreans’ aggression, if left unchecked, could set off “a disastrous chain of events which would probably lead to a world war.”

Most international observers discounted out of hand Pyongyang’s assertion that the South Koreans had attacked first. Despite Joseph Stalin’s denials, it was widely—and correctly—believed that the invasion had been sanctioned and supplied by Moscow. U.S. President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, among others, thought that the Soviet Union was testing the West’s commitment to defend non-communist countries. If the international reaction was weak in Asia, they reasoned, Stalin would next set his sights on Western Europe.

An emergency session of the United Nations Organization Security Council was called on June 26. The United States put forward Resolution 82, calling for North Korea to pull back beyond the 38th parallel. The motion passed almost unanimously. The Soviets could not veto the resolution, because they had boycotted the U.N. since the People’s Republic of China was denied membership.

The next day, the U.N. passed Resolution 83, which recommended the world community help repel the North Korean invasion.

An International Army

Truman hailed the United Nations’ decision and pledged that American troops would support it. The U.S. Congress never made an official declaration of war on Korea.

The British responded immediately, sending ships from their Far East Fleet to the coast of Korea. Britain also sent two army battalions from Hong Kong to reinforce the beleaguered port of Pusan.

Other Commonwealth nations joined the fray, particularly Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Eventually, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Thailand each contributed battalions. Turkey sent an infantry brigade. Australian and South African fighter squadrons flew with the U.S. Air Force.

Altogether, fifteen allied nations fought with America and South Korea, providing around 150,000 soldiers, while five non-combatant nations—Denmark, Norway, Italy, India, and Sweden—provided medical units. These twenty countries suffered 3,360 dead, almost 12,000 wounded, and 1,801 missing in action. After the armistice, 1,376 prisoners of war were returned to their respective U.N. homelands.

In addition, over a hundred vessels from eight foreign countries joined the American navy; they helped in the Inchon landing, in ground troop evacuations, in the blockades, and in the naval shelling of the Korean coast.

Over the course of the war, the bravery of small international units often made the difference between victory and defeat. The volunteer French unit distinguished themselves at the battles at Wonju, at Twin Tunnels, and at Heartbreak Ridge. The third battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) received a U.S. Presidential Citation for their bravery in the Kapyong Valley. The Gloucestershire Battalion of Britain’s Twenty-Ninth Brigade were surrounded south of the Injim River, and despite their heroic resistance they were annihilated—twenty dead, thirty-five wounded, and almost six hundred missing or captured.

The war changed the dynamic of international relations in many ways. The Turks’ participation forged closer bonds to Western Europe and antagonized their Eastern Bloc neighbors, while European countries banded closer to the United States against the perceived Communist threat.

Soviet MiGs

Towards the end of 1950, the Communists introduced a new weapon into the skies above Korea—the newly developed Soviet MiG-15 “Fagot,” which could dominate any U.N. aircraft except the American F-86 Sabre. The MiG pilots—Soviet WWII veterans—faced off against American airmen, their recent allies. The air war over Korea represented both a battle of technologies and of personal skill.

The Old Guard

On June 25, 1950, with North Korea’s surprise attack underway, the U.S. Air Force was called upon to help evacuate U.S. citizens from Seoul and to provide cover for American ships.

By June 27, the United States had committed to the fight. The Fifth Air Force, commanded by Major General Earle E. Partridge, engaged the enemy in the air for the first time. At the same time, B-26 light bombers attempted air strikes against North Korean positions.

It was not long before the Americans had established supremacy in the air. The North Korean pilots, flying YAK-9Us (piston-engine, propeller-driven planes), had received minimal training and had never seen actual combat. They stood no chance against seasoned American pilots in fighter jets.

For a while, the U.S. Far East Air Forces (FEAF) targeted enemy military installations almost without challenge. Close air cover bought time for the retreating Americans and then facilitated MacArthur’s counteroffensive to and beyond the 38th parallel.

The Turn of the Tide

In November 1950, however, the allied troops led by General Douglas MacArthur overreached themselves. As they approached the Yalu River and the Manchurian border, China went on the offensive. Soon the U.N. forces on the ground were retreating in a rout back towards the Pasun perimeter.

In the sky, another unexpected opponent appeared, with equally devastating results. On November 8, 1950, the first jet-to-jet dogfight took place, between an American F-80 and a Soviet MiG-15.

The MiG-15 was a superb aircraft with a British-style engine—the Russians had acquired the engine design in a 1946 trade agreement. The USAF had nothing in its class. Furthermore (though the USSR denied it for decades), most of the MiGs were flown by the best of the Soviet WWII pilots.

In mid-December, the U.S. rolled out its answer to the MiG—the F-86 Sabre fighter jets. The Sabres were roughly equivalent to the MiGs, though the Soviet jets still enjoyed some advantages, especially at high altitudes.

On December 17, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hinton became the first Sabre pilot to score a MiG-15 kill. Five days later, a Sabre was shot down by a MiG for the first time.

The Alley

As the war stalled on the ground, fighting continued in the sky throughout 1952 and 1953. Both the Russians and the U.N. could boast high-tech machines and ace pilots. Dogfights were most common over northeast Korea, nicknamed “MiG Alley” by U.S. airmen.

In the Alley, MiGs bore down on U.N. planes during the day, making it difficult to conduct heavy bombing raids over North Korea. They proved remarkably effective in this task, despite Sabre escorts on all bombing raids. On October 23, 1951, MiGs managed to down or damage at least nine American planes. The U.N. was forced to resort to mostly night bombing raids. Nevertheless, American bombers continued to inflict heavy damage of North Korean infrastructure, ultimately forcing Pyongyang to cooperate in an armistice.

Accurate air battle statistics are not easy to determine, as Soviet and American accounts of their respective victories and losses differ wildly from each other.

Kill-ratios aside, pilots of both sides delighted in the fight. For the first time in history, they were engaged in supersonic aerial warfare, a high-technology, high-risk, high-skill game. Pilots on both sides also tended to respect a capable enemy. U.S. Sabre pilots called excellent MiG pilots “honchos,” from a Japanese word meaning “squad leader.”

Russians and Americans alike chafed under the political restrictions of the war. Washington, terrified that the war would spread and escalate, had commanded American airmen not to cross the Yalu River into China. (This order was frequently quietly ignored.) Moscow, terrified of the same thing, had ordered their planes not to fly in non-communist air space, where they risked revealing Russia’s involvement in the war. When Lieutenant Yevgeny Stelmakh was downed over U.N. territory, he shot himself before he could be captured.

By 1952, the Chinese and North Korean Air Force had taken over much of the war effort in Korea. Though they had gained training and experience under the Russians, they still suffered in comparison to U.N. airmen.

In April 1953, America launched “Operation Moollah.” The Air Force dropped leaflets over North Korea, offering huge cash awards to any pilot who would defect with their MiG. The quality of MiG fighters dropped dramatically, leading many Americans to speculate the Soviet Union had grounded their pilots altogether in order to prevent them from taking advantage of the offer. In 1953, a young North Korean pilot defected with his MiG, though he later insisted that he had never heard of Operation Moolah.

Impact of the Korean War

As the first major confrontation after World War II, the Korean War played a crucial role in shaping the Cold War world. Both the communists and the capitalists learned important (though occasionally incorrect) lessons from the conflict. Thus, even though it ended in a draw, the Korean conflict—a civil war assisted on both sides by superpowers—became the pattern for many wars to come.

The West

While Western leaders correctly detected Moscow’s hand behind the North Korean army, they tended to draw exaggerated conclusions from the fact. Western Europe and the United States sincerely believed that they faced an international Communist conspiracy, personally directed from Moscow and intent on conquering the world.

As it turned out, the Western world gave the Soviets too much credit. While Marxist rhetoric spoke passionately of the international revolution, the Communists were simply not that organized.

However, Stalin’s brutal and secretive regime made the Western world’s paranoia more than plausible, and the sudden attack on South Korea seemed to confirm Moscow’s reach and aggressive intent. The countries of Western Europe, still recovering from World War II, worried that they would be next. These fears strengthened their ties to America through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which had been founded in 1949.

The war caused a general consolidation of the anti-communist block. In order to maintain an American presence in Europe, the United Kingdom fought hard in Korea even though they had no national interest in the region (and in spite of the fact that General MacArthur’s megalomania seriously alarmed British leadership).

To better defend Europe, America also insisted that NATO re-arm West Germany. This infuriated France, who nonetheless managed to leverage the situation for greater American support in the French-Indochina war. This support, minimal though it was, ultimately pulled America into the Vietnam conflict.

In America, the war caused general anti-Communist hysteria, which found expression in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for “Red” sympathizers. Also, the U.S. forces in Korea integrated black and white soldiers far more than they had in the past. When the troops returned home, this contributed to the growing Civil Rights movement.

Possibly the most profound legacy of the Korean War was not political but military. The West had been caught flat-footed by the North Korean army’s initial advance. The Americans had drastically cut back on military spending after World War II, and consequently they took heavy losses at the outset of hostilities. Washington took the lesson to heart. The U.S. defense budget quadrupled, and the American military has maintained a high level of combat readiness, in peace and in war, ever since.

On the other hand, China’s devastating counterattack in late 1950 would haunt U.S. military planners for decades. Their determination not to provoke another such intervention profoundly influenced America’s strategies in the Vietnam War.

The Communist Block

If the Korean War consolidated the world-wide capitalist conspiracy, it damaged international Communist solidarity. Mao Tse Tung and Stalin had both agreed to support North Korea should the West intervene. However, Moscow did not expect the speed or the scale of the U.N. counterattack. Fearing an escalation of the war, the Sovie Union denied any involvement and provided only secretive military aid. China resented this standoffishness.

Beijing’s distrust of Moscow only hardened after Stalin’s death. New Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev started to seek “peaceful co-existence” with the Western world. Mao, convinced that world war was inevitable, was determined to wean his country from dependence on the Soviet Union.

The Korean War had a lasting effect on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. Though their generals had provided brilliant leadership, they had suffered massive and disproportionate losses—around 400,000 casualties. The Chinese had put too much stock in the People’s War Concept, developed by Mao Tse Tung, which stressed true patriotic fervor above all else. In Korea, America taught the PLA leadership that modern warfare required modern weapons, technology, and training. Although the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution interrupted their efforts, the Chinese military has steadily improved its fighting capability to this day.

The Korean War was the first limited war of the nuclear age, the first UN “police action,” and the first jet war. Yet, the conflict is often referred to as the “Forgotten War,” lost after the cataclysm of World War II and before the threat of global nuclear annihilation diminished the importance of conventional warfare.