The Korean War: “Police Action,” 1950–1953

In Europe, East and West eyed each other anxiously across the Iron Curtain. In Asia, the Cold War grew hot. In 1950, North Korean forces, armed mainly with Soviet weapons, invaded South Korea in an effort to reunite the peninsula under communist rule. Within the next couple of days the Truman administration and the United Nations had decided to aid in the defense of South Korea, and soon a multinational army had arrived under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. But while MacArthur was able to prevent the North Koreans from overrunning the South, an unexpected intervention by China soon turned the "police action" (as Truman called it) into a bloody stalemate. Differences between Truman and MacArthur led to the latter's firing in early 1951, and as the war ground on it grew more and more unpopular in the United States. Ultimately it would contribute to Dwight Eisenhower's election as president in 1952, and it would be the Eisenhower administration that brought an end to the conflict through a compromise peace.

This lesson will introduce students to the conflict by having them read the most important administration documents related to it. Specifically it will address four major issues: 1) Truman's decision to send troops to Korea; 2) The decision to cross the 38th Parallel into North Korea, at the risk of a wider war with China; 3) Truman's decision to fire MacArthur; and 4) the war's growing unpopularity in the United States.

Guiding Questions

Did the war in Korea represent a triumph or a failure of American foreign policy?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to: Explain why the United States became involved in the war in Korea

Assess the decision to send U.S. and UN forces across the 38th Parallel into North Korea

Discuss the conflict between Truman and MacArthur, culminating in the latter's dismissal from command

Articulate the reasons why the war became unpopular in the United States

Identify on a world map foreign countries associated with the Korean War</li><li>Identify key terms and individuals associated with the Korean War