Conflict in Korea Spills Over Into Eisenhower's Presidency

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This is Doug Johnson. And this is Phil Murray with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today we tell about the Korean War.

The biggest problem facing Dwight Eisenhower when he became president of the United States was the continuing conflict in Korea.

Eisenhower was elected in November 1952. At the time, the United States had been helping South Korea fight North Korea for more than two years. About twenty other members of the United Nations were helping South Korea, too. They provided troops, equipment, and medical aid.

During the last days of the American presidential election campaign, Eisenhower announced that he would go to Korea. He thought such a trip would help end the war. Eisenhower kept his promise. He went to Korea after he won the election, but before he was sworn-in as president. Yet there was no permanent peace in Korea until July of the next year, 1953.

The war started when North Korean troops invaded South Korea. Both sides believed they should control all of the country.

The dream of a united Korea was a powerful one.

From 1910 until World War Two, Japan ruled Korea. In an agreement at the end of the war, Soviet troops occupied the North. They accepted the surrender of Japanese troops and set up a military government. American troops did the same in the South. The border dividing north and south was the geographic line known as the thirty-eighth parallel.

A few years later, the United Nations General Assembly ordered free elections for all of Korea. With U.N. help, the South established the Republic of Korea. Syngman Rhee was elected the first president.

On the other side of the thirty-eighth parallel, however, the Soviets refused to permit U.N. election officials to enter the North. They established a communist government there, called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Kim Il-sung was named premier.

Five years after the end of World War Two, the United States had withdrawn almost all its troops from South Korea. It was not clear if America would defend the South from attack. South Korea had an army. But it was smaller and less powerful than the North Korean army.

North Korea decided the time was right to invade. On June twenty-fifth, 1950, North Korean soldiers crossed the thirty-eighth parallel.

The U.N. Security Council demanded that they go back. Two days later, it approved military support for South Korea. The Soviet delegate had boycotted the meeting that day. If he had been present, the resolution would have been defeated.

The U.N. demand did not stop the North Korean troops. They continued to push south. In a week, they were on the edge of the capital, Seoul.

America's president at that time, Harry Truman, ordered air and sea support for South Korea. A few days later, he announced that American ground forces would be sent, too. Truman wanted an American to command U.N. troops in Korea. The U.N. approved his choice: General Douglas MacArthur.

Week after week, more U.N. forces arrived. Yet by August, they had been pushed back to the Pusan perimeter. This was a battle line around an area near the port city of Pusan in the southeast corner of Korea.

North Korean forces tried to break through the Pusan perimeter. They began a major attack August sixth. They lost many men, however. By the end of the month, they withdrew.

The next month, general MacArthur directed a surprise landing of troops in South Korea. They arrived at the port of Inchon on the northwest coast.

The landing was extremely dangerous. The daily change in the level of the sea was as much as nine meters. The boats had to get close to shore and land at high tide. If they waited too long, the water level would drop, and they would be trapped in the mud with little protection. The soldiers on the boats would be easy targets.

The landing at Inchon was successful. The additional troops quickly divided the North Korean forces, which had been stretched from north to south. At the same time, UN air and sea power destroyed the northern army's lines of communication.

On October first, South Korean troops moved into North Korea. They captured the capital, Pyongyang. Then they moved toward the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. China warned against moving closer to the border. General MacArthur ordered the troops to continue their attacks. He repeatedly said he did not believe that China would enter the war in force.

He was wrong. Several hundred thousand Chinese soldiers crossed into North Korea in October and November. Still, General MacArthur thought the war would be over by the Christmas holiday, December twenty-fifth.

This was not to happen. The U.N. troops were forced to withdraw from Pyongyang. And, by the day before Christmas, there had been a huge withdrawal by sea from the coastal city of Hungnam.

In the first days of 1951, the North Koreans recaptured Seoul. The U.N. troops withdrew about forty kilometers south of the city. They reorganized and, two months later, took control of Seoul again.

Then the war changed. The two sides began fighting along a line north of the thirty-eighth parallel. They exchanged control of the same territory over and over again. Men were dying, but no one was winning. The cost in lives was huge.

General MacArthur had wanted to cross into China and drop bombs on Manchuria. He also had wanted to use Nationalist Chinese troops against the communists.

President Truman feared that these actions might start another world war. He would not take this chance. When MacArthur disagreed with his policies in public, Truman dismissed him.

In June, 1951, the Soviet delegate to the United Nations proposed a ceasefire for Korea. Peace talks began, first at Kaesong, then at Panmunjom. By November, hope was strong for a settlement. But negotiators could not agree about several issues, including the return of prisoners. The U.N. demanded that prisoners of war be permitted to choose if they wanted to go home.

The different issues could not be resolved after more than a year. Finally, in October 1952, the peace talks were suspended.

Fighting continued during the negotiations. As it did, President Truman lost support. This was one reason why he decided not to run for re-election. The new president, Dwight Eisenhower, took office in January 1953.

Eisenhower had campaigned to end the war. He was willing to use severe measures to do this. Years later, he wrote that he secretly threatened to expand the war and use nuclear weapons if the Soviets did not help restart the peace talks.

Such measures were not necessary. In a few months, North Korea accepted an earlier U.N. offer to trade prisoners who were sick or wounded. The two sides finally signed a peace treaty on July twenty-seventh, 1953.

The treaty provided for the exchange of about ninety thousand prisoners of war. It also permitted prisoners to choose if they wanted to go home.

The war in Korea damaged almost all of the country. As many as two million people may have died, including many civilians.

After the war, the United States provided hundreds of thousands of soldiers to help the South guard against attack from the north.

Half a century has passed since the truce. Yet Korea is still divided. And many of the same issues still threaten the Korean people, and the world.

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Doug Johnson. And this is Phil Murray. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.