Last updated on January 1, 2020
It is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South. Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained. For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist. Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health. Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years. And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have. But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?
Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission. In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased. His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none. He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor. Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994), North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives. News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history. On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK). At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.
From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea. Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course. But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unsure of what to do with South Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move. And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down. North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides. but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.
Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies. Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants. And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War. At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties. But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level. Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust. Today we know that did not happen. But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault? The answers are here and this is the crux of the book. Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.
What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale. The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world. President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary. Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him. But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative. And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.
The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today. But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war. In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story. Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.