Seventy years ago today, 75,000 North Korean soldiers, supplied by the Soviets and aided by the Chinese, bull-rushed across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. They took Seoul within a few days, and the Korean War – soon to be called the “Forgotten War” – commenced on June 25, 1950.
Split into two countries when World War II ended, the Korean Peninsula became the hotbed in the escalation of Cold War tensions that some feared would lead to World War III.
America led a United Nations coalition that, by July 1950, put troops on the ground to support the South Koreans, with the 38th Parallel being the benchmark over the next three years. Ultimately, more than 20 UN-member countries sent fighting forces; more than 50 countries supported South Korean in some form.
By the time warring sides signed an armistice to stop the fighting on July 27, 1953, nearly 1.8 million Americans had served there, 36,574 Americans died there, and 103,284 more suffered wounds there. In just three years in Korea, the American fatalities equaled 62 percent of the number of U.S. troops killed during the 11 years of the Vietnam War.
All told, more than five million people – more than half of them Korean civilians – died during the war.
Why the “Forgotten War” label? Because the Korean War failed to generate the same fervor among Americans on the home front as did World War II. No Pearl Harbor-like attack that killed Americans and sent the nation into revenge mode. No Victory Gardens to help prevent a food shortage. No Rosie the Riveter posters boasting of patriotic unity.
Congress never declared war and, in the early days, President Truman referred to it as a “police action.” In fact, World War II represents the last time the U.S. Congress made a formal declaration of war – not for the Korean War, not for the Vietnam War, not for any war since.
Politics at home, including those involving the war, overshadowed what transpired in Korea itself. President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for trying to escalate the war. “We are trying to prevent a world war, not start one,” Truman said, which U.S. leaders feared would lead to Soviet expansion in Europe, and possibly the use of atomic weapons.
Additionally, the House of Un-American Activities Committee, led by Rep. Joseph McCarthy, ramped up its hunt for communists and communist sympathizers in early 1950s.
The conflict received so little attention that in 1951 – a year into the fighting – U.S. News & World Report dubbed it the “Forgotten War,” and the name stuck.
Beyond the intensity of the fighting, the blistering summers and freezing winters of the Korean Peninsula led Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under Truman, to say: “If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location to fight this damnable war, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”
Carol Berry, a weather forecaster in the Navy in the 1950s, recalled her conversations with the pilots who flew missions over Korea. “The heat, the cold,” said Berry, now a resident of CalVet’s Veterans Homes of California-Redding. “The pilots who flew through it always said the conditions were terrible.”
A forgotten war? Not by those who fought in Korea, who suffered wounds there, were held as POWs, lost buddies or loved ones there. A memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. honors their service.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 1.2 million Korean War veterans are still alive to remember it. They were among the first American troops to fight in desegregated units under Executive Order 9981, which Truman signed in 1948.
While the U.S. brokered the armistice signed by both Koreas to end the fighting during the summer of 1953, no treaty formally ended the war.
Last week, the North Koreans blew up an empty building used, until the COVID-19 outbreak, as a liaison office where the two sides could communicate at the border. South Korea threatened to respond strongly if the North continues to exacerbate the situation.
Seventy years after crossing the 38th Parallel, the North Koreans still like to remind the world that the “Forgotten war” is anything but.