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The Korean War (1950-1953)

Eisenhower, War's End, and the Aftermath

The Long Path of Negotiations

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After taking office, Eisenhower soon replaced General James Van Fleet, who had started arguing for an all-out invasion, with Lt. General Maxwell Taylor. No immediate progress was made in the negotiations other than the exchange of a few prisoners in March of 1953. In order to show strength, the Communists made an attack on Americans at "Pork Chop Hill" in April. Eisenhower was unfazed, and by the end of April talks were once again underway Panmunjom. On June 8, the two sides finally came to an agreement over the tricky POW (Prisoner of War) issue, outlining their solutions in a document call the "Terms of Reference." Under this agreement, those POWs that refused to return to Communist territory would be placed under the auspices of a neutral commission for a period of three months. If, after the end of those three months, the POWs still refused to be repatriated, they would be allowed to go free. With the POW issue solved, it seemed that a final peace treaty was in sight.

After the "Terms of Reference", however, the Communists pressed for some final negotiating leverage with a one-week offensive in June. And on a second front, the US had to deal with the problem of Syngman Rhee, who continued to spout promises about Korean reunification, and who promised to invade North Korea even if he only had the ROK army on his side. The US considered organizing a coup to remove Rhee from power, but never carried the action out. Instead, the US convinced Rhee to stop shouting for reunification by promising to intervene on South Korea's behalf if North Korea ever did invade, and by promising $1 billion in aid for South Korea's economic recovery after the war.

Despite these minor crises, agreement was finally reached at Panmunjom. On July 27, 1953, The UN, China, and North Korea signed an armistice. South Korea refused to sign, but with little effect. Under the terms of the treaty neither side would be allowed to increase the number of non-Korean military personnel stationed in Korea. The armistice also established a 2.5 mile wide buffer between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel, termed the "demilitarized zone." Within this zone, all troops and weapons were banished. In practice, however, the zone was heavily militarized, with over 1 million troops facing off. In fact, because South Korea never signed the armistice, the two countries remain technically at war even today.

After the war, North Korea and South Korea remained divided, a symbol of the effect of the Cold War similar to the division of Germany and Berlin. Families were broken up by the war and lived on opposite sides of the demilitarized zone, unable to visit or even communicate with each other.

Syngman Rhee's southern regime became even more dictatorial, and in 1960 he resigned after student riots. South Korea only became more unstable with his departure, and it is only in the last two decades that South Korea has really seen sustained economic growth. In North Korea, Kim Il-sung developed a full-scale personality cult, and ruled until his death in 1994. Tensions between the two countries remain to this day, perhaps seen best in North Korea's boycott of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, to which the USSR and PRC sent athletes. The legacy of the Korean War continues to haunt the United States, as the US worries about North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons.


Along with his vast military experience and easy-going attitude, part of Eisenhower's confidence in the spring of 1953 stemmed from the fact that the US had successfully tested an which was vastly more powerful than an A- Bomb, and had thereby surged ahead in the arms race with the USSR (the Soviets shocked the US by testing their own H-bomb in late 1953). Eisenhower considered nuclear bombs to be just another weapon and was considering using small nuclear bombs in Korea, especially because, for their price, they packed more punch than conventional weaponry. He never actually authorized their use, however.

The Panmunjom Peace Treaty gave the PRC nearly everything it wanted with the exception of control of Formosa. This peace probably would have been accepted earlier by the Communists, but Truman, a Democrat, could not afford to offer such a peace to the Communists, since the Republicans would have attacked him for being "soft on Communism." Eisenhower, a Republican, could get away with it, since his own party did not attack what actually was a fairly conciliatory peace agreement.

Although it ended the war and restored an uneasy peace to Korea, the Panmunjom treaty was a failure in many ways. After three years of fighting and 4 million dead and wounded (including over 50,000 American combat deaths), Korea remained divided into two armed camps just as before the war. Furthermore, the treaty and the war did almost nothing to bring the Cold War closer to an end. US-USSR tensions were as high or higher after Korea as they had been before.

The war was disastrous for Korea as well, destroying most of its industrial plants. North Korea, despite its mineral and hydroelectric resources, fell into poverty and couldn't keep up with South Korea's economic pace: South Korea soon boasted a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) quadruple that of North Korea. North Korea did, however, remain fairly independent of USSR and PRC influence. And in fact, Chinese and Soviet squabbling over who should pay the bill for the Korean War was one factor in the Sino-Soviet Split evident later in the Cold War.

The Korean War, as a terribly negative experience for the United States, and as the initial significant military encounter of the Cold War period, seems as if it should have provided the US with an object lesson of the nature of warfare in the Cold War era, and the impossibility of keeping that war limited. However, the US made many of the same mistakes in the Vietnam War, in which the US yet again backed a corrupt southern regime against a Communist-Nationalist northern regime that effectively fought a guerrilla war. In Vietnam, once again fighting a non-industrialized country, the US nevertheless employed strategic bombing to an even greater extent, not surprisingly with little result. Had American military and political policymakers considered the lessons of Korea, rather than the lessons of World War II and appeasement, they might have avoided the Vietnam quagmire.

The Korean War had a further legacy as well, not the least of which were the 4 million deaths claimed by the conflict, including 50,000 American soldiers. But as the first war that the US entered and did not win, the Korean War demonstrated to the US that though it had emerged from World War Two as a superpower, it's desires and will were neither inviolable nor imminently achievable. In its ambiguous, unvictorious ending, the US encountered a new, and even frightening outcome in war, and this outcome helped define and solidify future American Cold War policy. Perched as it was during the opening of the Cold War, the Korean War stalemate, full of sound and fury, served less as an object lesson than as a prophecy of what was to come.

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