The Second World War ended with an incredible bang. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Empire of Japan in August 1945 and started the atomic age of warfare (Morton, 1957). With those two strikes, the United States ended the need for a war in mainland Japan while simultaneously putting the rest of the world on notice. With Germany and Japan defeated, the United States stood alone as the world’s superpower. Unlike China, who found themselves gripped in a civil war, the Soviet Union was not too far behind. A power vacuum left by the defeat of the Japanese Empire would soon test the resolve of the United States as the Soviet brand of communism began to spread across the region. Hesitant to get into any more conflicts and uninterested in what was happening outside of Japan in East Asia, the United States would spend very little time or energy on Japan’s neighbors to the west. Ironically, it was the United States’ lack of interest in preventing the spread of communism that caused the Cold War to begin where World War II ended.
President Harry S. Truman took over the presidency from Franklin D. Roosevelt who died in April 1945 (Steinberg, 2012). Although the war in Europe was just about over, the war in the Pacific still raged on. President Truman, eager to end the war with Japan, knew the Japanese would not easily give up. The Japanese earned a reputation for fighting to the death before surrender (Powers, 2011), a characteristic they displayed during the many deadly battles on the Pacific islands. Truman hoped that Stalin would support him in the fight against the Japanese. Truman sent several requests to Moscow but found himself without an answer and a daunting task ahead if the United States would have to go at it alone. With that in mind, and with many at home calling for an end to the war, Truman’s options were very slim. In order to avoid fighting on mainland Japan, which would inevitably drag on from several more months to a year, and cost thousands of more American lives, President Truman decided to use the atomic bombs (Morton, 1957). The use of the atomic bombs resulted in the surrender of the Japanese armed forces. The war in the Pacific would come to an official end on September 02, 1945, when Japan formally signed their surrender (Wilde, 2017).
With a victory already in Europe, and now in Asia, America began its celebration. The post-war era in the late nineteen forties is commonly known as the “baby boom,” but the population is not the only boom that the United States would undergo. The United States would experience booms in the economy, technology, medicine, and education (Carnes, 2007). Times were good in the United States, and there was no reason to believe anything would change. After all, the United defeated the evil forces trying to conquer the world, what could possibly stand in our way now? We had the atomic bomb, and that made us feel invincible.
The Rise of Communism in China
While the United States was enjoying a prodigious transformation, East Asia was undergoing a transformation of its own. Post-World War II marked a time of rebuilding for many countries. Much of Europe and Asia were in ruins, and their economies were devastated by the cost of war. The post-War transformation would be especially crucial to China and Korea. Both countries suffered great loss at the hands of the Japanese and looked to reconstruct.
For China, reconstruction meant reuniting the country that once dominated East Asia. The Japanese held territories and waters that China used to claim as part of its nation. Re-establishing those territories would be crucial to China’s reemergence onto the world stage but a civil war between the countries political leaders would have to be settled first.
Mao Zedong’s Revolution
Mao Zedong was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, also known as the C.C.P. (MacFarquhar, 2017). Mao’s party directly opposed the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek. Even during anti-Japanese movement during World War II, Mao spent time gathering support for his party against the Nationalist (MacFarquhar, 2017). Many saw Mao as a liberator, and one that empowered the people (Salmon, 2013). The poor and middle-class in China saw the Nationalist party as corrupt and mismanaging China’s affairs (Salmon, 2013). Mao would capitalize on that belief organize a revolution to take Chiang Kai-shek down.
Not Our Problem
The United States initially supported Chiang Kai-shek and helped reinstate him as the leader in China. However, the United States focused much of its attention on Japan and left Chiang Kai-shek to fight the Chinese Communist Party on his own. The United States believed that Chiang Kai-shek was better equipped and also outnumbered Mao’s forces, so he should easily defeat him without the United States intervening. However, Mao had the support of the Soviet Union, and with that, he gained an advantage that Chiang Kai-shek could not match. With the support of the Soviet Union and growing support of Chinese people, Mao Zedong was able to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s National Party and drove the former leader out of the country and into exile in 1949 (Salmon, 2013).
Mao Zedong Rises to Power
Moa Zedong raised the People’s Republic of China flag on October 1, 1949, and proclaimed it as the new Chinese government with himself as the leader (Terrill, 1980). China was now officially communist, and the United States would no longer have any influence in the country. The Soviet Union now had the most influence in China and became a major partner in both politics and economics. The United States lost a major partner in East Asia and simultaneously gained another enemy. The Cold War was now starting to take shape, but the United States was still wary of getting involved in anyone else’s affairs as evident by the stance the United States took in South Korea.
The Korean Peninsula
For Korea, the rebuild meant a split between the North and the South. The United States and the Soviet Union both played a vital part in liberating Korea from their Japanese oppressors. When the Japanese surrendered, the United States and the Soviet Union split the country in two at the 38th parallel. The split was not too much of a concern for the United States at the time. The main focus was on Japan and restructuring the nation we had defeated during World War II. Ensuring Japan would not be able to reestablish a military was important the United States’ peace of mind. How we handled them would have to be a mixture of finesse and power. With so much effort in Japan, only a small group of political and military advisors went to Seoul South Korea to help establish an American influenced government and armed forces.
The Communist Leaders meet in Moscow
After the Communist victory in China, Stalin saw an opportunity to expand the communist reach deeper into Asia. He met with Mao Zedong and Kim, Il-Sung in late 1949 to discuss the future of the party. Initially, Mao and Stalin did not see the advancement of the party, in the same way, however, Kim, Il-Sung showed a determination to spread communist rule throughout Asia, starting with the unification of the Korean peninsula (Jervis, 1980). Kim’s ambition was refreshing to Stalin, and between the three communist leaders, they agreed that an attack on South Korea would see with very little resistance and little concern from the United States.
Lack of U.S. Presence in South Korea
It was no secret that the United States had little interest in the Korean peninsula after World War II. Outside of holding off the Soviet Union from gaining an additional foothold in the region, the United States prioritized Asia by Japan and then everyone else. It is understandable why the U.S. leaders felt that way. Japan was a formidable adversary and cost many American lives and many American dollars and therefore rebuilding and restructuring Japan became a center of gravity to the United States. After World War II ended, the military underwent a substantial and rapid reduction (Vogel, 2000) The reduction specifically targeted a decrease in personnel so having forces in Japan and South Korea did not seem feasible or even necessary.
The Fight for Unification
The leader of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, and the leader of North Korea, Kim, Il-Sung each had a desire to unite the Korean peninsula. Each man lived through a tumultuous time in Korea’s history when Japan annexed the nation of Korea and devastated the culture. The Japanese Empire ruled over the Korean peninsula from 1910 until 1945 (Kang, 2001). During that time, Japan ravaged the Korean culture, people, and traditions. Many years had passed since the country had claimed the land as their own and both sides wanted to seize the opportunity to re-unify and restore what they lost. Soon the Korean people would feel the effects of a unification effort, but it would come at a tremendous cost.
America Caught off Guard
The United States was feeling pretty good about itself, we had recently won World War II, and we had the atomic bomb. We were sitting on top of the hill and dared anyone to try and knock us down from it. What we did not expect was for the tiny, seemingly insignificant nation of North Korea to be the ones to try and do it. As stated previously, the United States underwent a significant reduction in force after World War II. The reduction was made deliberately to focus more on the progression of the U.S. economy and to build on the outdated U.S. infrastructure. It was a very logical step to take after fighting in a very devastating war. The Truman administration was still very aware of The Great Depression the United States had just recovered from a decade earlier and was not about to put the United States through that again. President Truman’s administration made their efforts with the greatest of intentions. However, they left the United States vulnerable to attack.
Demobilized Military not Prepared for War
In the early morning hours of June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked their neighbors to the south catching them and the rest of the world off guard. It was a surprise attack, and the United States was not ready nor did we have the ability to react in time to help our South Korean allies repel the forces invading from North Korea. The Communist leaders saw their prediction come to fruition. The invasion appeared to go nearly uncontested; the smaller, ill-equipped South Korean army was no match for the superior manned and superior equipped North. It also seemed that the United States was not worried about an attack on the Korean peninsula as the small group of political and military advisors were sent into retreat and avoiding the North Korean forces at all cost.
Truman Requests United Nations Support for the War in Korea
To say that the attack by North Korea on South Korea was a complete surprise may be a little deceiving. The truth is that several intelligence reports indicated that North Korea could be planning an attack. It was the belief by many in Truman’s cabinet that those threats were not credible (Jervis, 1980). Coincidentally, President Truman was away with his family for the weekend of June 24, 1950. He was residing at one of his favorite places in Independence, Missouri when he got the call from Secretary of State Dean Acheson that war had broken out on the Korean peninsula (Whitman, 2010). President Truman’s worst fears had become a reality. Not even five years after the end of World War II, the United States potentially would be pulled back into war. President Truman knew he would not be able to go to war with the Soviet-backed North Koreans without some help from his friends. The day after being notified of the attack, President Truman flew back to Washington D.C. to meet with his military advisors and shortly after, call on the United Nations to take up arms against North Korea (Whitman, 2010).
Understrength, Underequipped and Undertrained, the U.S. Military in 1950
President Truman obviously realized that the United States military was not ready to take on the fight in Korea on their own. His request to the United Nations was evidence of that. He was aware that the rapid reduction in force had now come back to bite him. He was now facing a formidable advisory with an understrength, underequipped, and poorly trained military. Looking for a silver lining, the President called on his military leaders to find a unit the was ready to go into battle and meet the North Korean aggressors head on. His silver lining turned out to be an undermanned Task Force led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Smith and his battalion which served under the command of Major General William Dean and the 24th Infantry Division, stationed in Japan (Seelinger, 2015) .
When Task Force Smith arrives in Korea, Major General Dean gives very little guidance on what their mission actually is. Major General Dean tells Lieutenant Colonel Smith to stop the advancing North Korean forces. Task Force Smith arrives just north of Osan, a small city located twenty-nine miles south of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The Task Force armed with outdated and undermaintained equipment and facing North Korean tanks fresh off the Soviet assembly lines. Lieutenant Colonel Smith and his men quickly find themselves no match for the North Korean tanks. Task Force Smith did not stand a chance. It was clear that the Soldiers of Task Force Smith were the sacrificial lambs sent to the slaughter by a government that had overestimated the power of the atomic bomb.
President Truman let the atomic bomb fool him into believing that the United States and its interest were untouchable. President Truman seemingly welcomes in the arms race after World War II and dares the Soviet Union and their Communist allies to mess with the might of America’s bomb. President Truman focused his attention on Europe and Japan and lacked interest in the rise of Communism in Asia which led to further aggression in a region that he and his constituents deem unimportant. It is unfortunate that the United States rushed to deplete the military down to skeleton crews, that decision led to the spark that ignited the Korean War and subsequently, the Cold War. Although the United States did not start the fire which would become the Cold War, we certainly set the conditions for it to burn.