Korean War History
Learn the history of the Korean war. Recently declassified documents shed light on the causes of the Korean War.
The causes of the Korean War have always been vague in history. Declassified U.S. government documents and histories became available in the 1980s. Historians also used official papers from the archives of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. These included some five hundred previously secret diplomatic messages given by the Russian government to South Korea in 1994. Many historical investigators also conducted interviews with participants from China and the Soviet Union.
On August 6, 1945, the first A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. More than 80,000 Japanese civilians were killed in one blast. Two days later, on August 8, the USSR declared war on Japan. Over one and half million Russian soldiers and 5,500 tanks and artillery invaded Manchuria and reached the Korean border in less than two weeks. Soviet marines occupied Manchuria and the Chinese 8th Army took over villages and small towns. Chiang's KMT troops took over large cities in Manchuria from the Soviets as part of an agreement between Stalin and Chiang Kai Shek. Chiang's troops and US soldiers provided safe havens to Japanese civilians.
On August 9, 1945 the second A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japanese authorities in Korea began to transfer power to Korean leaders. On Aug. 10 and 11 Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel and Lt. Colonel Dean Rusk formulated General Order No. 1. James Bymes (US Secretary of State) instructed the colonels to draw up a borderline as far north as possible. The colonels were unable to find a good map of Korea and used a small wall map of the Far East. Lt. Col. Rusk found the 38th parallel on the tiny map. A young junior officer determined the fate of the Korean people. Stalin accepted the 38th parallel and ordered all Russian units already in S Korea to pull back north of the 38th.
After World War II Soviet and American troops occupied the Korean peninsula, under Japanese control since 1895, one on each side of the 38th parallel. Marxists under Kim Il Sung took control of North Korea and with Soviet assistance began to organize a totalitarian state. In South Korea, General John R. Hodge began in the autumn of 1945 to establish defense forces and police and to move toward a separate administration and permitted the return of leader Syngman Rhee. By the time Washington and Moscow paid attention to Korea, the Cold War had begun and the temporary partition became permanent. South and North Korean governments officially formed in 1948, each claiming responsibility for the whole country and each threatening to force Korean unification. Between October 1949 and June 1950 a few thousand soldiers were killed in border incidents.
There is now ample evidence of collusion among Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing in creating and carrying out the Korean War. In April 1949 Kim II Sung met with China's Mao Tse Tung in an effort to gain China's support for an offensive on the south. Kim asked for the return of two Army divisions of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) made up of Koreans who had fought with the PLA. Mao assured Kim that China would help the North Koreans in their planned conquest of South Korea.
In August 1949, Chinese and Soviet government leaders met in Moscow and agreed on international spheres of influence. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed to help arm and finance Beijing's role in the eastern expansion of communism. During the winter of 1949-50, Mao visited Moscow and discussed the planned invasion of South Korea with Stalin.
Mao and Stalin evidently discussed the possibility of American resistance but it seems that Stalin believed the risk was worth taking. On January 30, 1950, Stalin sent a message to North Korean leaders that the Soviet Union was ready to discuss the forced unification of Korea and would help North Korea. Kim visited Moscow in April 1950 and made final plans with Mao during a May visit to Beijing. Kim said he doubted that the United States would have time to intervene because most of the U.S. troops had left the country and the conquest of the South would only require about two weeks. He did not request Chinese support but three Chinese armies were stationed along the Yalu River.
On the eve of the invasion, between thirty and forty thousand Koreans, former PLA soldiers supplied by China had arrived in North Korea and were preparing for an invasion of South Korea. Soviet equipment, in great supply, greatly outnumbered the small number of armaments the United States had left to South Korea. China had given Kim II Sung a large number of men, and the Chinese force assembled on the China/North Korea border in case of American intervention.
On Jan. 12, 1950, Acheson outlined his Asian policy in a speech before the Press Club in Washington, D.C. Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines were included within the American defense plan but Taiwan and Korea were not. The State Department considered South Korea vital to the defense of Japan. Acheson's failure to mention Korea probably meant that the United States did not intend to station its own troops in Korea and that the United States was purposely withholding support from Rhee in case he took it as an endorsement to invade the north. Acheson was trying to prevent a war and ensure that if hostilities did occur, the Communists would be responsible. On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans invaded across the 38th parallel. He later called North Korea's attack an act of stupidity. Khrushchev's memoirs indicate that it was Kim's idea to invade and that Stalin approved it.
The Truman administration viewed Korea as a test case for the policy of containment. The United States appealed to the Security Council (the Soviets could not veto. They were boycotting because of Nationalist China's seat) and got it to condemn North Korea. It was evident that South Korea would be overrun and Truman ordered General MacArthur to transfer forces from Japan to Korea. They barely established a perimeter around the port of Pusan.