The outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, is referred to publicly with some regularity, but the same is not the case for the end of that brutal war three years later. On July 27, 1953, the combatants finally signed an agreed upon armistice.
Signatories included Communist China and North Korea, the aggressors in the war, and the United Nations, which defended South Korea. The government of South Korea never signed the armistice. President Syngman Rhee was outraged that not all of Korea had been liberated before the ceasefire agreement.
Repatriation of prisoners from both sides in the war began in August and continued until the end of the year. Earlier, there had been a limited exchange of sick and wounded prisoners during April and May, an indication of an emerging desire finally to end the war.
The significance of both the war and the tense ambiguous peace that followed, and remains in place, were profound. The divided Korean peninsula symbolizes the stark global divide brought about by the Cold War
Previously, the Cold War essentially involved Europe. That continent divided starkly between Eastern Europe, dominated by the Soviet Union and client states, and Western Europe allied with the United States and committed to the new NATO alliance.
The Korean War made that political and ideological conflict, and military confrontation, global. President Harry Truman deserves great credit for acting quickly and decisively in support of the United Nations decision to defend South Korea from invasion. Truman deemed this sufficient for U.S. involvement and did not seek authority from Congress.
Initially, North Korea forces made enormous gains and overran most of South Korea. Brilliant flanking by UN forces under General Douglas MacArthur at the port of Inchon reversed the situation. UN forces liberated almost all of North Korea, only to be driven south again by massive intervention of the People’s Liberation Army of China.
A stalemate developed roughly at the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. Often brutal but indecisive fighting dragged on for two more years, along with inconclusive armistice talks, cynically manipulated by Pyongyang and Beijing.
As during the Vietnam War in the next decade, the other side shrewdly perceived that Americans in particular are impatient people. We tend strongly, instinctively to place a premium on quick over careful action, decisive over deliberate decision and quarterly over annual or longer-term financial returns. Moreover, true Communist ideologues view themselves as agents of inevitable history. Patience is encouraged, reinforced by the quality of some cultures to take a long-term, collective strategic view.
Mostly young men from the U.S. engaged in the war were steadily dying. By February 1952, President Truman’s approval according to the Gallup Poll was 22%.
This situation directly confronted newly inaugurated President Dwight D. Eisenhower in early 1953. After the 1952 presidential election, he visited the front in Korea and concluded only a far larger UN force could break the stalemate.
A massive U.S. bombing campaign began against North Korea infrastructure. By 1953, few military targets remained; bombers hit nonmilitary targets. Curiously, accounts of the end of the war minimize or omit this aspect. Eisenhower successfully deflected public attention, not for the first or last time.
Eisenhower feared devastated South Korea might fall to Communism. He immediately undertook comprehensive reconstruction and development, with exceptional long-term results.
Ike, unlike some presidents, understood the brutal realities of war, and difficulty of maintaining peace.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org