The Road Not Taken: Korea and the United States

Jongwoo Han
Project Director
Korean Peninsula Affairs Center (KPAC)
& Fotini Gan (Undergraduate, International Relations, Class of 2012)
The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
Syracuse University

One of the main questions in my mind when I decided to further my studies at Syracuse University was to find a convincing argument for Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s decision to withdraw the American defensive perimeter from the Korean Peninsula on January 12, 1950—roughly five months before the breakout of the Korean War. Many factors contributed to his decision, which continues to shape the destiny of Korea forever as the division and brotherly confrontation has not yet ended. Essentially, it was the United States’ decision to exclude Korea from American interests and to unwittingly invite the North Korean attack. More accurately, it was a decision made by an array of factors involving major stakeholders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dean Acheson and his State Department, and the military leaders following WWII. The decision was to give up the Korean Peninsula in order to protect Europe and establish an emasculated Japan under American influence.

As a young student from America’s allegedly strongest ally, I could not avoid asking another question: what did Korea mean to the United States? Though it may not uncover the whole truth, I dare to provide my own interpretation on the past and current relations between the Republic of Korea and the United States. My humble perspective on this question also clarifies my confusion on the following question: what does America mean to Koreans like me? The ultimate answer is in the sacrifice of young, American men and women who fought in the Korean War and supported its people.

After many years, since 1985, as a student and teacher in Syracuse University, I came to a partial answer to another personal question: Why have I ended up spending a significant portion of my life in Syracuse? Though I may need more time to have complete closure on this question, I am confident that the friends I made through the Korean War Veterans’ Association CNY Chapter #105, Inc. in Syracuse justifies the time I have spent across the Pacific from my country. The Korean War Veteran Digital Memorial is the direct outcome of my association with them, and helps answer how Koreans and Americans have come to where they are now: the strongest alliance in the global economy supporting free and democratic values.

It has been a long and winding road to reach this conclusion. It is dialectical that once Korea was of no interest to the American leadership, it was ignored completely and divided at the 38th parallel. America is responsible for the Korean division and unwittingly inviting the North Korean attack; however, America also shed blood and secured freedom for Koreans during the Korean War. Today, the Republic of Korea as the most substantial and vibrant democratic state in Asia and the 13th largest economy in the world is impossible to imagine without the contributions made by brave young Americans.

In the homepage of this website, the Korean War Veteran Digital Memorial (KWVDM), users can see a map of the Korean Peninsula as a mosaic of pictures submitted by KWVs of CNY Chapter #105. The image falsifies the statement that the Korean War is “forgotten” because, in fact, it is covered by the memories, experiences and lives of the KWVs. The pictures brought back from the Korean War serve an important role as a primary witness to the tragedy that exists permanently in our memories and consciousness.

In this article, I intend to show the long, winding road between these two nations by locating evidence at each fork in the Korean nation’s modern history citing well-known scholars along the way. These scholars are all experts in the following topics I will discuss: American Korean policy before and after World War II, the division of the Korean Peninsula, and the Korean War. I believe this approach may help readers find more objectivity in the author’s arguments.

The Korean War has never been forgotten among Koreans and should never be forgotten among Americans. The whole team of the Korean War Veterans Digital Memorial will make every effort to collect the memories of the Korean War seen through the eyes of KWVs. This project began with KWVA Chapter #105 of Syracuse and will try to expand to KWVs in other parts of the United States and 15 other countries before it is too late.

The Road Not Taken: Korea and the United States

Koreans, liberated from the most atrocious form of colonial control in the 20th century and motivated to change their unfortunate and unhappy past, did not have the slightest idea of what lay ahead of them. Could the division of Korea, the Soviet occupation of North Korea, and the breakout of the Korean War have been avoided? These are questions we can only hypothesize about, but I will attempt to answer them after some explanation of the post-WWII and pre-Korean War world.

Two roads ushered Korea into a journey that never existed before in Korean history: a road for communist North Korea and a road for capitalistic and democratic South Korea. Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” perfectly describes the situation Koreans were confronted with right after the end of the Second World War:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20

Paths in the woods and forks in roads affected Koreans for over 5000 years of their recorded history. However, the two roads that were ahead of them around the end of WWII were unprecedented, cost the lives of millions of people and still determine the paths and fate ahead of them. The journey has not yet ended. Contrary to the freedom given to those travelers at forks on the paths of Frost’s poem, Koreans at the time of the Korean War did not have much choice but to choose one foreign direction over the other: Soviet or American, communist or capitalist, North or South.

Goulden (1982:20) describes how these two roads assigned to Korea frustrated the Korean people who had been waiting so long for independence:

“The Koreans had waited half a century for independence and dignity: they thought they had both in their grasp. They had neither. The Japanese commander, after surrendering, asked for authority to keep Japanese police armed to protect his troops and the 600,000 Japanese civilians in Korea from reprisals. Already Korean street mobs were throwing rocks and garbage at the hated foreigners who had occupied their country. No problem, replied [General] Hodge. He said that he considered Koreans “breeds of the same cat as the Japanese” and that he intended to treat them as conquered enemies. Later General George Marshall ordered him to disband the Japanese policy and to avoid further insulting comments about the Koreans.” (Goulden,1982: 20).

Cumings (2005:235) explains that as Koreans embarked on two new roads, their original “passion of liberation produced the two very different Koreas that are still with us today.” These two roads are still modus vivendi for Koreans, a situation that has separated the Korean nations and choked them between the United States and Soviet Union for more than a half century. These two rivals were also on a journey without knowing what lay ahead of them.

“Frenemy”: The United States and Union of Socialist Soviets Republic (USSR)

It was not only the Koreans who were uncertain about what lay ahead of them. The United States and Soviet Union emerged as hegemonic rivals after defeating the Axis powers together in World War II, causing leaders of both parties to be indecisive with their post-war relationship. They seemed to understand that their temporary alliance during WWII created a volatile relationship between themselves in peacetime, forcing them into a “frenemy” situation. The roads that were ahead of these two superpowers were as insecure and distrustful as for the Koreans after they had been divided North and South. Gaddis (2005: 46) explains:

“Victory in World War II brought no sense of security, therefore, to the victors. Neither the United States, nor Great Britain, nor the Soviet Union at the end of 1950 could regard the lives and treasure they had expended in defeating Germany and Japan as having made them safer: the members of the Grand Alliance were now Cold War adversaries.”

Dean Acheson already noticed mutual distrust and hostility:

“Each [the United States and Soviet Union] had been molded by its position, its experience, and its conception of its interests to view the other with distrust amounting to hostility. Unfortunately, but inevitably, this attitude has affected the replacement of the old world-order of the nineteenth century, European-oriented and based upon the dominance and concert of the great European empires” (Acheson, 1971: 3).

In this era of uncertainty, these two superpowers had to cooperate and take full advantage of their ironic relationship as “frenemies.” Gaddis (2005: 6) concludes, “[WWII] had been won by a coalition whose principal members were already at war—ideologically and geographically if not militarily—with one another.”

American Democracy and Bolshevik Soviet Union

These two nations, with opposite ideological orientations, began to bisect the whole world into two poles, two roads. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the French historian and philosopher Alexis Tocqueville visited America, he found that Americans were experimenting with a new type of political community wherein citizens actively participated in community affairs by joining various volunteer associations. To Tocqueville, such a phenomenon, which later came to be known as 'grassroots democracy', seemed “exceptional” (Lipset 1996, 18) and represented a new social and political type of experimentation.

The Bolshevik Revolution, in contrast, was based on concentrated authority in order to purge antagonistic classes and to consolidate a proletariat. As a result, when Russians were moving southward, Americans felt compelled to confront Russian expansionism:

“The Russians’ history had taught them for centuries, as Kennan said, that “penetration by the Western world was [their] greatest danger….Thus, in dealing with the outside world, the Soviet Union followed its Russian past in seeking to expand outward along its borders, since strong neighbors were bound to be enemies and dangerous, while weak ones were natural victim” (Acheson, 1971: 7).

Moscow’s reaction over Western allies’ attempts to check and balance against rising Soviet power was vehemently expressed in their official rhetoric. However, the Soviet Union carefully calculated its attempts to use ‘peripheral actions’ to influence international negotiations over the course of post-WWII settlements without threatening the superficial balance with the United States. Moscow was well aware of the risks of challenging American hegemony—the only state with nuclear capabilities.

Gaddis’ observation supports this argument:

“The U.S.S.R. needed peace, economic assistance, and the diplomatic acquiescence of its former allies. There was no choice for the moment, then, but to continue to seek the cooperation of the Americans and the British: just as they had depended on Stalin to defeat Hitler, so Stalin now depended on continued Anglo-American goodwill…” However, Stalin said later that “the alliance between ourselves and the democratic faction of the capitalists succeeds because the latter had an interest in preventing Hitler’s domination. In the future we shall be against this faction of the capitalists as well” (Gaddis, 2005:12).

Such an insecure and uncertain relationship rapidly worsened when the American government refused to provide economic aid to the Soviet Union:

“By the spring of 1946, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had deteriorated to the point where the chances of cooperation between powers over such places as Korea had become virtually nil when the Soviets refused to follow the British and Americans in withdrawing their troops from oil-rich Iran. (Kaufman, 1986: 13-14). Meanwhile, in an effort to mobilize the Soviet people for the task of reconstruction after the United States rejected a Soviet request for a one-billion-dollar loan, Stalin delivered a speech in which he talked about the incompatibility of communism and capitalism (Kaufman, 1986: 14).

However, the Soviet Union was willing to recognize American dominance in the Korean Peninsula as a means to maintain the status quo with U.S., which seems to provide an important clue in answering the questions “Could the division of Korea, the Soviet occupation of North Korea, and the breakout of the Korean War have been avoided?”

“Shocked by this sequence of events [America’s immediate intervention in the war], Stalin was on the verge of accepting a lost war, even the prospect of the Americans occupying North Korea itself, which directly bordered on China and the Soviet Union: “So what,” he commented wearily. “Let it be. Let the Americans be our neighbor.” (Gaddis, 2005: 44-45)

What did Korea mean to the United States?

Under such circumstances, the United States’ major concern was to protect Japan from Russian expansionism by using Korea as a buffer zone. Acheson clarified the reason for American occupation of the Korean Peninsula:

“Occupation of Korea—American or otherwise—was never more than a temporary expedient of the United States Government, and then only as a means of liquidating the Japanese rule over that country” (Acheson, 1971: 1).

The American decision to divide Korea after WWII, among other nations mentioned in the General Order No. 1, identifies Korea’s position as simply another piece that needed to be moved on the global chessboard. By treating Korea so indifferently, the U.S. would begin a sequence of events that would steer them into war. Cumings is unequivocal about American accountability for the Korean War:

“There is no historical justification for Korea’s division: if any East Asian country should have been divided it was Japan (like Germany, an aggressor). Instead, Korea, China, and Vietnam were all divided in the aftermath of World War II. There was no international pretext for dividing Korea, either: the thirty-eight parallel was a line never noticed by the people of, say, Kaesong, the Koryo capital, which the parallel cut in half….The political and ideological divisions that we associate with the Cold War were the reasons for Korea’s division; they came early to Korea, before the ones of the global Cold War, and today they outlast the end of the Cold War everywhere else…The national division, however, was not their doing: it is Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the thirty-eight parallel” (Cumings, 2005: 186).

U.S. Disinterest in Korea (1882–1945)

The first phase of the U.S.-Korea relationship is characterized by American disinterest in Korea led by President Theodore Roosevelt and continued by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. The Katsura-Taft Secret Agreement in 1905 succinctly summarizes U.S. disregard for Korea while recognizing Japan as the only Asian nation capable of civilizing other Asian countries. Through this secret agreement, President Theodore Roosevelt simply gave Korea to Japan, and Japanese Prime Minister Katsura promised not to form any aggressive plans against the Philippines. American disinterest in Korea can also be explained by America’s obsession with Japan, their non-Western and non-Christian partner in Asia described as “Honorary Aryans” or “Yankees of the Far East” (Bradley, 2009: 183). President Theodore Roosevelt’s “principled belief” (Ruggie, 1998) about Korea is succinctly expressed in his own writing: “[Korea] had shown herself utterly impotent either for self-government or self-defense (and) was in actual fact almost immediately annexed to Japan” (Roosevelt, 1913: 545, re-quoted in James Bradley, 2009: 370).

Cumings (2005: 188) clearly confirms this:

“No previous administration [before President Franklin D. Roosevelt] had the slightest interest in American involvement in Korean affairs, and Congress and the American people knew nothing about the proposed commitments. Several of these planners were Japanophiles, however, who had never challenged Japan’s colonial prerogatives in Korea and now hoped to reconstruct a peaceable and amenable postwar Japan.”

President Theodore Roosevelt admired Japanese “strength and energy” and accepted the judgment of advisors that the Koreans were “unfit” for self-government. Roosevelt’s chief goal in the Orient was to maintain U.S. control of the Philippines, recently wrested from the Spanish, over which Roosevelt felt the U.S. had the divine right of “Manifest Destiny.” As a result, Roosevelt made a trade with Japan: In return for his support of Japan’s claim of a “special interest” in Korea and Manchuria, Japan would not pursue the Philippines (Goulden, 1982: 7).

According to Goulden (1982: 14), Syngman Rhee (the first President of Korea) was meeting with President Roosevelt while Roosevelt’s War Secretary discussed the destiny of Korean nation with Japanese Prime Minister Katsura. Upon the request from Syngman Rhee on the independence of Korea, “Roosevelt gave polite and totally misleading double-talk” As Rhee recounted years later, Roosevelt stated he “would be glad to do anything [he could] on behalf of [Korea],” but any requests must come through official diplomatic channels. However, President Roosevelt neglected to tell Rhee two things:

“Secretary of War William Howard Taft at that very moment was en route to Tokyo to formalize the agreement [Katsura-Taft secret Agreement in 1905] giving the U.S. free rein over the Philippines in return for Japanese control of Manchuria and Korea. And Roosevelt knew full well that the pro-Japanese Korean embassy in Washington would do nothing to disrupt the deal” (Goulden, 1982: 8).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared similar views on Korea with his cousin, particularly Theodore’s low esteem of the Korean people. At the Teheran Conference of 1943, he told Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin the Koreans “are not yet capable of exercising and maintaining independent government and…they should be placed under a forty-year tutelage” (Goulden, 1982: 14).

Goulden concludes that “ultimately Korea was fitted into a broad strategic mosaic for the Pacific war, as part of attractive bait intended to lure the Soviet Union into the war with Japan. Here some background is in order. Given the desperate struggle with the Germans on the eastern front, the Soviets remained technically at peace with Japan even after the attack on Pearl Harbor and declarations of war on Tokyo by its major allies, the U.S. and Great Britain” (Goulden, 1982: 15)

Division: From Disinterest to Ignorance

The US policy toward the Korean Peninsula near the end of the WWII shifted from a position of disinterest to unavoidable involvement. First of all, the American government, by overestimating Japanese strength in Northeast Asia, was determined to minimize their losses in the war against Japan by inviting the Soviet Union, the frenemy, into the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. In the midst of this shift in the war, the interest of the Korean nation to have an independent and unified government was completely ignored:

“But even after knowing that atomic warfare was a reality, United States military leaders insisted that the Soviet Union be brought into the Far Eastern war. They grossly overestimated that strength of the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria, and thought that this self-contained force, with its autonomous command and industrial base, was capable of prolonging the war even after the Japanese islands had been subdued, unless Russia should enter the war and engage this army. Stimson estimated that the fighting would not end until the latter part of 1946, at the earliest, and that such operations might cost over a million casualties to American forces alone” (Cho, 1967: 40-41).

Division was a due outcome of American disinterest in the Korean Peninsula and the “frenemy” relationship between the United States and Soviet Union. Forced division was the beginning of the new fork in the road presented to Koreans. From the outset, the U.S. knew it had to acquire half of the Korean Peninsula. While the Japanese were deciding the timing for their unconditional surrender American leaders deliberated their plan of action:

Truman received a warning message from Ambassador Edwin W. Pauley, who was in Moscow to negotiate an agreement on reparation matters with the Russians: discussions on reparations and on other matters have “led me to the belief that our forces should quickly occupy as much of the industrial areas of Korea and Manchuria as we can, starting at the southern tip and progressing northward” (Cho, 1967: 46).

Moreover, since, “on Korea, Roosevelt decided almost everything himself with little or no reference to the State Department,” after Roosevelt’s death, Truman was left with many choices to make, but no clear direction to follow (Cho, 1967: 277). Divided opinions existed within the Truman administration on how to handle the newly liberated Korea, so Truman chose to gravitate toward the advice of Roosevelt’s military leaders to base his Korean policy. Unfortunately, this choice would be only one in a series of poor decisions building up to the Korean War:

The prestige of the State Department, which had severely declined under Roosevelt, continued to decline during the initial period of the Truman administration; the President depended upon the military staff in the tradition of his predecessor” (Cho, 1967: 57). “At this time, there were within the Department of State and the Foreign Service many experienced officials who sent the White House repeated warnings against the “soft” course adopted toward the Soviet Union....The basic fault of American Korean policy during this period thus seems to lie in the political indifference, incomprehension, and unpreparedness of American military planners.” (Cho, 1967: 58).

Causes of the Korean War
The Biggest Foreign Policy Blunder of the U.S. Government in the Twentieth Century

For North Korea and its supporter, the Soviet Union, conquering the southern half of the peninsula was an option only if it would be a quick endeavor without U.S. resistance. Consequently, it is because of the American military evacuation from Korea that South Korea was left a vulnerable and attractive target. There is no need to mention that it was North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung and supported by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, who attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950. As we came to know more about the inconsistency in the U.S. government’s policy on Korea from 1945 to early 1950 , the legacy of Korean War Veterans and their ultimate contribution to Korea’s vibrant economy and democracy as well as the strong alliance between the United States and South Korea appear to be critical.

1945 marked the end of World War II, but for Americans it meant a return to peace and normalcy. Pelz explains how President Truman and his administration prepared for significant military demobilization in the Pacific to respond to American domestic sentiment:

The abrupt end of the war forced Truman and his unprepared staff to make many detailed policy decisions on military demobilization and on the easing of wartime economic controls, in addition to producing a domestic program to replace the New Deal (Pelz, 1983:106).

Pelz points out that nuclear deterrence was the most significant factor in justifying the withdrawal of troops from the Korean Peninsula. Though they did not have enough soldiers on the ground, the world already saw the Americans’ atomic bomb capabilities, and the military believed this fact alone would deter aggression in Northeast Asia:

After the end of the Second World War, Truman had allowed demobilization to progress so far that he had only 1.5 million men under arms in 1946-47, while Russians retained 4 million.…. Since the military planners lacked funds for the necessary conventional forces, they increasingly turned to atomic weapons as the only way to deter the Russians from attacking Europe. (Pelz, 1983:113).

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula, the Soviets seriously considered their chances of reclaiming territory lost to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. Also, with fewer troops on the ground in East Asia, Russian expansionism southward was not unfathomable. Pelz explains the U.S. strategic choices at this time and how it encouraged Russians, Chinese and North Koreans:

Korea was worth the risk of a war and, if they decided affirmatively, to deter the North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians. The United States, however, never made a conclusive decision to hold Korea, nor did it make a credible military threat against its adversaries there. (Pelz, 1983: 94).

Acheson Declaration

There were many reasons for Truman’s awkward handling of Korean policy after WWII. Among them was the FDR-Truman relationship before Roosevelt’s death. President Roosevelt kept Vice President Truman largely in the dark about his dealings with Stalin during WWII, forcing Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson to blindly continue the path Roosevelt left him:

President Roosevelt, who died on April 12, 1945, had drawn a new map of postwar Asia, “with little or no reference to the State Department or to the government of China….The situation was further aggravated by the fact that neither incoming President Truman nor the State Department knew much about the personal negotiations between Roosevelt and Stalin. Herbert Feis has written that Truman “knew nothing of” the contents of the Yalta Pact before entering the presidential office…However, mainly because of his unpreparedness, Truman decided that he would stand behind what Roosevelt had done, and it was only in the shadow of his predecessor that Truman was able to develop his own policy” (Cho, 1967: 35-36).

In the grand scheme of Asian political dynamics, Korea was repeatedly overlooked as a backwater of East Asia. Its lack of importance to American military leaders accelerated the demobilization of the region. Coupled with the fact that few in the leadership seemed to have a clear impression or understanding of Korea, Acheson made decisions based on limited, biased information. The final blow was made by Acheson when he publicly announced the U.S. defensive perimeter in Asia omitting any reference to an American-involved Korean nation. This speech provoked a strong surge of confidence from the Soviet Union who saw a new opportunity:

“What made the difference, it appears, was Stalin’s conviction that a “second front” was now feasible in East Asia, that it could be created by proxies, thus minimizing the risk to the U.S.S.R., and that the Americans would not respond….On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Acheson had even announced publicly that the American “defensive perimeter” did not extend to South Korea. Stalin read the speech carefully—as well as (courtesy of British spies) the top-secret National Security Council study upon which it was based—and authorized his foreign minister, Molotov, to discuss it with Mao Zedong. The Soviet leader then informed Kim Il-sung that “[a]ccording to information coming from the United States… [t]he prevailing mood is not to interfere.” Kim in return assured Stalin that “[t]he attack will be swift and the war will be won in three days…. A particular advantage of this strategy was that it would not require direct Soviet involvement: the North Koreans and the Viet Minh would take the initiative, operating under the pretext of unifying their respective countries.” (Gaddis, 2005: 42).

The careful balance of power in Korea would quickly deteriorate, but initially after the North’s first attack, Acheson and Truman attempted to preserve the peaceful frenemy relationship of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. one more time:

“Nonetheless, Truman and Acheson went to great lengths to avoid a direct accusation that the Soviets were the true culprits in the war, a failure that in essence proved the Soviet’s point—that is, that the USSR could use satellites to nip at America’s flanks without fear of provoking direct retaliation. Such was the basic flaw of the Truman-Acheson policy in Korea” (Goulden, 1982: xviii)

As Goulden explains, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military were the leaders in anti-Korean policy, but when North Korea finally invaded the South, realizing their error, these leaders provided no justifications for their original strategy. It was clear that the military leaders’ advice to President Truman to pull out of the Korean Peninsula was gravely mistaken:

“The JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) bear much responsibility for what went wrong in the Korean War, beginning from the first days. In 1949 the JCS, after extensive study of how America’s limited military strength could be deployed around the world, had written off South Korea as of “little strategic value” to the United States. Occupation troops there should be withdrawn, and the United States should not come to its defense if the North Koreans invaded. Acheson’s State Department, the National Security Council, and Truman all concurred. Then came June 1950. The JCS sat silently as Acheson persuaded Truman to reverse established national policy and intervene in the war” (Goulden, 1982: xx).

Once the invasion took place the U.S. was forced to engage. Not just for the sake of defending their new American-occupied Japan, but because the invasion became an international sensation and criticism to U.N.-led world order:

“South Korea in and of itself was of little importance to the global balance of power, but the fact that it had been invaded so blatantly—across the 38th parallel, a boundary sanctioned by the United Nations—appeared to challenge the entire structure of postwar collective security” (Gaddis, 2005: 43).

This is how so many young men and women found themselves being drafted or compelled to enlist to defend the Korean nation—to them only a strange, faraway land. The responsibility to recover the errors and misjudgments of American government leaders was left to average American men and women. When they returned home after the war, many of their sacrifices were disregarded and the Korean War would begin to acquire the disheartening nickname “Forgotten War.” Though their efforts and legacy live on in the successes of the Republic of Korea, they have yet to receive their fair share of recognition as true war veterans.


The war fundamentally transformed the destiny of the Korean nation at the end of WWII. What awaited Koreans, liberated after 35 years of the most atrocious form of colonial rule by Japan in 1945, were roads that had never been taken by them before. The choice of these two roads was given to Korean nation: two new political and economic ideologies with two new superpowers. South Korea took the road of capitalistic democracy with the United States, while North Korea chose the road of communism with the U.S.S.R. Tracing back through the histories of American foreign policymakers, few were at all concerned with the state of Korea before or during WWII. After abandoning the peninsula by demobilizing the military during the Truman administration, it was only following the North Koreans’ attack across the 38th parallel that the U.S. decided to defend the Korean peninsula.

Though Americans were weary of war and balked at the thought of sacrificing more young Americans in a new series of conflicts, it is probable that the U.S. government’s initial plan for military demobilization of the region were inconsistent with its long-term plans anyway. Politically, entanglement in future Asian conflicts was not unwanted by American foreign policymakers. While avoiding the Korean Peninsula was part of their aims to provide relief to the American people post-WWII, it was a long-term goal to maintain some involvement in East Asia as a way to stifle the spread of Soviet ideology:

The United States was waiting for an incident, which, perhaps unwittingly, the North Koreans supplied, to launch a whole series of European and Asian initiatives aimed at reversing what was perceived as an unfavorable (to use the middlest term) trend in world affairs” (Gardner, 1983: 57).

It was the young, innocent American men and women who risked their lives to save a people they never met, a culture they did not understand, in a place they could not even locate on the map until their ships docked at the ports of Pusan and Inchon. The modern bilateral relationship between South Korea and the U.S. sprang out of the anomaly of international politics following WWII, but the lasting bond forged between them is attributed to these veterans. Without them, South Korea’s success as the most vibrant democracy in Asia would have been impossible.

To simply reference the Korean War as a “turning point” in American history would be an understatement. The events that took place on the Korean Peninsula immediately after 1945 defined an era of global interaction, and led to the bifurcation of the world into two spheres. If one really considers the scale and impact of the Korean War, calling it simply the “Korean Conflict” is not only a misnomer, but an insult to those who lost their lives on the Korean Peninsula during that time.

We diminish the struggles of the veterans who fought on the Korean Peninsula and the civilians who perished in the war’s wake by refusing to recall history accurately. The Korean War was one of the most vicious, dreadful wars fought in the 20th century. More napalm was dropped on the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War than on Japan—a country that launched an attack on U.S. soil—during all of World War II. The scale and scope of the Korean War in three years in many aspects rivals the Vietnam War which was fought over a decade. Overall, the U.S. action in Korea was much more than a “limited” military mobilization.

The Korean War Veterans Digital Memorial (KWVDM) strives to remember the Korean War in the most authentic way possible: by interviewing, archiving, and recording the first-hand experiences, original artifacts, and personal memories of Korean War Veterans (KWVs). The KWVDM is both a memorial and limitless museum for Korean War Veterans to share their personal stories and experiences uncensored with the world. The database is searchable, making it easy for new users to access specific artifacts or interviews by searching keywords. Beginning with the Korean War Veterans Association Central New York Chapter #105, Inc., the KWVDM has already collected 37 interviews and 1,266 artifacts from 32 KWVs, their families, and civilians, and is growing nationally—and internationally if possible (seeking out veterans from other UN member states that committed troops).

The ultimate goal of the KWVDM is not to merely digitalize the past, but to engage the younger generation and prevent the Korean War from becoming a truly forgotten war. Taking advantage of the fact that there are still more than 2 million KWVs left in the U.S., the KWVDM will host a Youth Program and Internship program for middle school through college students that will connect them with a veteran in their area. Through this program, veterans will mentor students about the war and lessons they took away from their experience—which students will put to use for projects during their program—and students will utilize the KWVDM to upload more of their veteran’s information or artifacts online.

We must preserve this part of history because it is by no means merely a blip on the radar screen of the Cold War. From 1950-1953, the Korean peninsula saw more than 2.5 million civilians perished, 54,000 American soldiers sacrificed, up to 500,000 opposition forces lost, and more than 3 million Koreans turned into refugees. By the war’s end, territory gained by the U.S. and South Korea was minimal and the ceasefire treaty holding the 38th parallel remains today. Koreans, veterans, and Americans are left asking, how much longer must the North and South tread down their two predestined roads before they can meet again? For Koreans and Americans on the peninsula, the war continues:

“Some 40,000 American troops remain on duty there as a trip-wire defense against any North Korean invasion. And from time to time the new generation of soldiers asks, ‘What am I doing in this obscure little part of the world?’—exactly what many Americans asked when it all began, in June 1950” (Goulden, 1982: xxvi).

On September 2, 2010, I attended the funeral of Corporal Frank Herbert Smith (May 6, 1927-July 25, 1951) whose remains had finally returned from the Republic of Korea to his family in Syracuse, NY. A poem was dedicated to Frank that I believe speaks not only to his ultimate sacrifice in 1951, but to the spirit and commitment of all Korean War Veterans. We cannot change or correct past roads taken, but now it is time to recognize the legacy of our Korean War Veterans. I believe that the Korean War Veterans Digital Memorial will be the first small step to truly honor them.

God grant me the
serenity to accept the
things I cannot change….
Courage to change
the things I can and
wisdom to know
the difference.


Acheson, Dean. (1971) The Korean War, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Cumings, Bruce. (1983) Introduction: The Course of Korean-American Relations, 1943-1953, in Cuming, Bruce. Ed. (1983) Child of Conflict: The Korean-American Relationship, 1943-1953, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

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Roosevelt, Theodore. (1917) Autobiography, New York: Harper & Row.

“A sour little wars” by W. Averell Harriman, “police action” by Harry S. Truman, The Republicans called it “the foreign policy blunder of the century” General Omar Bradley “ Frankly, a great military disaster” (Goulden, 1982: xiii)