Why Korea Mattered

July 1, 2003

Late this month, Americans will mark the passage of 50 years since the Korean War armistice, which came into force on July 27, 1953. A newspaper on that day described the 37-month struggle as a “bitter war which nobody won.” Today many call it, simply, “The Forgotten War.”

That label, however, is highly misleading—as Peter Grier demonstrates in “The Remembered War,” which starts on page 68. He shows Korea is anything but forgotten. Indeed, the events of a half-century ago still exert an influence on world affairs.

Korea militarized the Cold War, an event of lasting impact. In the wake of World War II, the US slashed its air, land, and naval forces, assuming that a relative handful of atomic weapons would deter Soviet-backed expansionism. Korea shattered that illusion.

The shock of the June 25, 1950, Communist attack on South Korea threw the US onto a dramatically new course. The military budget nearly tripled in a single year and topped $500 billion just one year later.

The armed forces expanded. On the day that Communist units crossed the 38th parallel, the Air Force had a single airman and no bases in Korea. At war’s end, Korea was home to 44,000 airmen and 34 bases. USAF had 48 active wings in 1950, but three years later it was headed toward 143 wings.

The other services also launched buildups in response to the war in Korea, and the US never stood down. Thus did the Korean War lay the groundwork of a large standing force deployed around the world.

When it comes to war, success is a poor teacher. Korea, a war without a declared victory, provided its share of lessons, most of them as valid today as they were back then.

Americans learned that unpreparedness has a heavy cost. The US was not ready for Korea, and it turned out to be one of the most destructive wars of the 20th century. The US suffered 36,914 deaths and 103,284 wounded. The Korean War took the lives of thousands of allied forces. It killed perhaps as many as four million Koreans, whose country was devastated.

These losses had a profound impact in the US, which has remained determined—properly so—never to be caught short again.

The Korean War gave Americans an up-close-and-personal look at “limited war,” something never before experienced. It was fought under political restrictions without victory as the objective. For the first time in its history, Washington used its forces to send political signals, impose costs, manipulate images in the mind of the enemy, and so forth—but not to win the war.

President Truman kept what he called a “police action” under tight control. In the war’s desperate early days, the Air Force could not even attack targets in North Korea. US forces later were barred from striking sources of Communist power in China and the Soviet Union. US officials put electrical power plants and dams off limits to US attack.

This prolonged the war, increased US casualties, demoralized the troops, and fanned public opposition. Incredibly, Washington made the same kinds of mistakes in Vietnam.

Korea demonstrated that raw physical power counts for little without political staying power. Technically, the conflict never ended, the shooting just stopped. South Korea became free and prosperous in part because the US stationed roughly 40,000 servicemen and -women in Korea for these past five decades.

In June, the US agreed to close front-line bases and pull troops back from positions in the Demilitarized Zone. These troops will still train and operate far forward, however.

Korea taught—actually, retaught—the US the value of airpower.

Air-to-air combat between F-86 Sabres and MiG-15s got the publicity (the Sabre “won” 792 to 76, a favorable exchange ratio of 10-to-one). However, nearly 80 percent of all combat sorties were devoted to attack of Communist forces in the field. Whenever North Korea or China concentrated their armored forces, the Air Force pounded them to bits. Airpower accounted for 75 percent of all tanks kills.

USAF airlifters transported 579,000 tons of cargo and 2.2 million passengers into, within, or out of Korea during the war.

The price of this effort was high—the war claimed the lives of 1,180 airmen, not to mention thousands in the other services. The Air Force also lost a total of 1,466 aircraft to hostile action or other causes.

There is no doubt, however, that airpower, by harrying the invasion force in the early weeks, prevented a swift Communist victory. Later, it took a heavy toll on Chinese forces.

Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, commander of the Army’s 24th Infantry Division, referred to those grim early days when he said: “Without this continuing air effort, it is doubtful if the courageous combat soldiers, spread thinly along the line, could have withstood the onslaught of the vastly numerically superior enemy.”

Veterans of the Korean War are a dwindling group. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, they number about 3.9 million, only 16 percent of the total veteran population of 24.4 million. The VA estimates that the number will shrink to 2.5 million over the next decade, thinning the ranks by 37 percent.

Long after they are gone, however, the world will continue to see “their” war as a pivotal event of the tumultuous 20th century.