The Conflict That Changed America and Defined an Age

65 Years on from the Korean War


In a period full of anniversaries commemorating significant moments in the history of modern war, we find ourselves at the date of the Korean War’s start. It is a war I have spent considerable scholarly time with as a military historian. I have read the campaigns up and down the peninsula, tarrying particularly with the Marines and soldiers at Chosin, as well as giving due attention to the political machinations which surrounded it from near and abroad in the world. It is, in its details and grand narratives, a fascinating bit of history. Oft considered the forgotten war, the conflict in Korea is less overlooked than perhaps unseen, as it is in fact the primordial framework of the Cold War. Its many details are written into the terms of the era’s intensely fraught international competition. In the military strategy and tactics, national security conceptualizations, political constructs and policies which defined the period were evident in that war. Rather than looking at its contents, to within it as an event, this essay will take this moment to examine this transformational influence.

To begin, a brief sketch of the conflict in context sets the scene for this discussion. The years between the end of WWII and the start of the Korean War — and the Cold War as we know it — were marked by clear tensions among the great powers and uncertainty regarding the way ‎forward across economic, political and military fronts. The potential for chaos lurked at key crossroads of humanity, and in China was manifested in the Civil War — remember they had been fighting since 1937. Within the American foreign policy, national security and defence sectors there were many ideas contending in an as yet to be defined soupy mess. Then, on the 25th of June, 65 years ago, North Korea rolled its forces across the diplomatic border separating the two regimes on the peninsula in a bid to rewrite the map and governance of the whole.

The conflict lingers to today, as yet unresolved.

The first panicked days would give way to international diplomatic action, the tottering initial military deployments ‎growing eventually to a formidable army. Sinews and muscles of American war a bit atrophied from the intervention would rebound in short order. Near defeat at Pusan was mirrored by a hair’s breadth in the north in five short months. The fortunes of the war would ebb and flow from the over increasingly smaller geographical gains across the original border. As neither side could prevail the only answer was political. It took three years of fighting to little avail save death and destruction to recognize that truth only partially in an armistice. The conflict lingers to today, as yet unresolved.

If those are the broadest strokes of the war’s contents, what are the contours of its influence?

Unfortunately, NSC-68 also deranged aspects of American diplomacy.

The conflict, and its understood causes and terms, settled thinking on threats, risks and consequences in the emergent post-war international order. The outbreak of the war by way of military aggression by a Communist regime had a signal effect upon American perceptions of, and actions in, the world. It confirmed the ascendance of those who believed the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, West and East, democracy and communism was existential and dangerous. Out of this emerged the national security, foreign policy, and defense concepts of the Cold War. The defining framework of the era was promulgated with NSC-68. Assessing the Soviet and Communist threat as significant, opportunistic, and not unlike an active conflict, NSC-68 recommended an activist policy to confront the threat. Languishing a bit in D.C. after its publication within the government, the outbreak of hostilities half a world away gave the document’s perspective weight and authority to shape policy and strategy for nearly five decades.

Unfortunately, NSC-68 also deranged aspects of American diplomacy. First, it created the threat in absolute terms, allowing little room to imagine as non-threatening even the smallest hint of the ideology, and establishing the less than useful practice in American international relations of refusing or limiting diplomacy with states as a reasonable course of action. Furthermore, it mischaracterized the nature of relations between mentor and protégé states, overestimating the latter’s influence because it fit with the assumption of an international communist movement which centrally, by way of Moscow and perhaps Beijing, directed the actions of other states. Assuming communist mono-causality for tensions between states blocked out the recognition of the many factors which affect the interaction of states.

…the Cold War would be marked by the reliance upon the military component of American policy.

This national security strategy and supporting foreign policy ushered in with the Korean War was also bound by a preference for force. Committed to contain communist expansion anywhere as necessary, the Korean War particularly gave primacy to the military component of foreign policy. Mimicking North Korea’s recourse to force, the Cold War would be marked by the reliance upon the military component of American policy. Never before a significant peacetime military power, this tradition changed in the second half of the 20th century, which marked the greatest transformation of defense and foreign policy in the country’s relatively brief history. The strategic preferences of this militarized policy would shift, from a reliance upon nuclear weapons to a more balanced mix which included expanded conventional capabilities, but the essential belief in the strength and necessity of significant standing peacetime military forces remained unchanged throughout the Cold War.

President Bush’s “with us or against us” mantra continued the unyielding binary construct of the era.

Finally, it is worth considering whether these influences are limited to the Cold War. While the threat posed by communism seems a distant memory, many habits of the period linger and can be seen in the emergent construct of the “Global War on Terror.” President Bush’s “with us or against us” mantra continued the unyielding binary construct of the era. Deepening the effect of that, the threat posed by extremism is being written in absolute and existential terms, inspiring fear-based political support for the “conflict” and making more difficult the recourse to diplomacy with potentially troubling states. And having spent trillions of dollars on wars and military operations in the almost fifteen years since 9/11, there is no denying the continuation of an overwhelming preference for military solutions. The Cold War may have ended, but the Korean War’s influence remains.

Considering the Korean War in the context of its time and effects makes clear that while a human endeavor, war exceeds the control of its seeming masters. That war is political is little contested, but we too often define this by the agency of the actors. However, the active motivations and objectives which the actors create do not limit war’s political character. Rather, war in its own right as well is an agent of political change, as its influence across the human experience shapes the inputs and contexts for state and international politics.

Exceeding the will of the actors, the political effect of war is neither limited to its geography nor constrained by its scale. More importantly, its politics cannot be foreseen. This state of things is nowhere better exemplified than in the Korean War, a local conflict whose consequences should have been limited to the region, the ramifications and consequences of this relatively minor act were in excess of its any expectations.

Image: Men of the 9th Infantry Regiment man an M26 tank to await an enemy attempt to cross the Naktong River, 3 Sep 1950.


This post was provided by Jill Sargent Russell, a PhD student at the King’s College London. Her dissertation is an ambitious look at subsistence, logistics, and strategic culture in the American military tradition, from the Revolutionary War to WWII. She holds an M.Phil. in Military History from George Washington University, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins SAIS, and was a West Point Fellow in 2004.‎ Find her on Kings of WarStrifeSmall Wars, and CCLKOW blogs.


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