The Cold War (1945–1963)


The Korean War: 1950–1953

Summary The Korean War: 1950–1953

Disaster at the Yalu River

MacArthur’s crossing of the 38th parallel troubled the Soviet Union and Communist China, especially considering that Truman had entered the war vowing to restore peace and the status quo—not to conquer the entire peninsula. China therefore warned the United States not to approach the Chinese–North Korean border at the Yalu River. However, MacArthur ignored the warning and pursued the North Koreans farther up the peninsula. Interpreting this move as an act of war, the Chinese sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the Yalu to meet MacArthur’s men in North Korea. Overwhelmed, MacArthur and his forces retreated back to the 38th parallel.

MacArthur’s Dismissal

Stalemated once again at the 38th parallel, MacArthur pressured Truman to drop nuclear bombs on mainland China. Doing so, MacArthur reasoned, would not only allow his forces to take the entire Korean Peninsula but would also topple the Communist regime in Beijing. Truman and U.S. military officials, however, knew they lacked the resources to fight a war with China, defend Western Europe, contain the Soviet Union, occupy Japan, and hold Korea at the same time. They also wanted to keep the war limited and knew that the deployment of nuclear weapons would bring the Soviet Union into what could quickly devolve into World War III. MacArthur rebuffed these arguments and instead tried to turn the American people against Truman by criticizing him in public. Truman removed MacArthur from command in April 1951, for insubordination.

The Election of 1952

Even though MacArthur had disobeyed orders and publicly rebuked the commander-in-chief, blame fell on Truman for “losing” Korea to the Communists. Since Truman had little chance of being reelected, Democrats instead nominated Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson for the presidency in 1952. Republicans, meanwhile, nominated former World War II general and NATO supreme commander Dwight D. Eisenhower for president, with former Red-hunter Richard M. Nixon as his running mate. Eisenhower’s status as a war hero and Nixon’s reputation for being tough on Communists gave the Republicans an easy victory. They won the popular vote by a 7 million-vote margin and also won a landslide in the electoral college, with 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89.

The End of the Korean War

By the time Eisenhower took the oath of office in 1953, American soldiers had been entrenched in Korea for nearly three years. In the time since MacArthur’s final retreat to the 38th parallel, thousands more Americans had died without any territorial loss or gain. Eisenhower eventually brought about an armistice with North Korea, in part by making it known that he, unlike Truman, would consider the use of nuclear weapons in Korea. Despite the armistice, however, the border between North and South Korea has remained one of the most heavily fortified Cold War “hot spots” in the world for more than fifty years.

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