Recently on our way back to Gainesville from the gymnastics camp in Athens, my granddaughter asked me, "why did the U.S. get involved in the Korean War?" In her history class, she had studied other recent wars fought by our military, but that study did not include Korea.
At the Potsdam conference near the end of World War II, Britain, Russia and the United States agreed to divide Germany along a north-south line 100 miles west of Berlin, and Korea along the 38th parallel.
In Germany, Soviet troops would occupy the eastern portion, Britain and the U.S. (and later France) would occupy the western portion. In Korea, Russian troops would occupy the northern part, and the United States the southern part.
The occupied portions would be demilitarized, and peaceful governments established to replace the former Nazi and Japanese administrations. The division was to be temporary and the country reunited when the occupying troops were withdrawn.
In the portions of Germany and Korea that we occupied, we established pro-democratic governments. In the portions of Germany and Korea occupied by Soviet troops, communist governments were established.
I had no questions about the temporary division of Germany. That country was the main enemy that threatened all Europe and its government should never return to Nazi control again.
But the division of Korea puzzled me. Japan was our main enemy in Asia and the Pacific, not Korea. In fact, Korea was the victim of Japan's military. After winning the Sino-Japanese War 1894-95, Japanese troops remained in Korea. After the end of the Russian-Japanese War 1904-05 Japan declared Korea to be its protectorate, and in 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea. During World War II, approximately 2.6 million Koreans were conscripted into forced labor for their Japanese overlords.
Perhaps why Korea was chosen for division and not Japan was that Japan is a group of islands while Korea is a peninsula that could easily be cut into two parts. This is speculation. Maybe the records of Potsdam might be declassified to reveal why Korea as chosen.
I do know that the U.S. and U.K. wanted the Soviet Union to join the war in the Pacific. Yet Josef Stalin did not want to fight a two-front war in the West against Germany and also against Japan in the East. Perhaps dividing Korea was a ploy to tempt Stalin to join in the anti-Japanese war.
After President Franklin Roosevelt died, Harry Truman became president. Sometime in 1949, Truman ordered the Pentagon to cut some of our military costs. They looked at the troops we had stationed in South Korea, and also those stationed on the Japanese homeland which was only 100 miles distant from Korea at the closest point. "Why do we need to have duplicate facilities in both Japan and South Korea?" Pentagon analysts asked. They could withdraw most troops from South Korea and rely on the American forces in nearby Japan for protection, if needed.
Thus in early 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson drew a line on a map at a luncheon of the National Press Club in Washington. The line was our "defensive perimeter," and we would defend ourselves east of it. Included was Alaska, Japan and the Philippines. South Korea and Taiwan were on the other side of the line we had announced we would not defend.
I have no report of Communist reaction to that defensive perimeter but I believe they must have clapped for joy thinking we were giving South Korea to them. It was after all on the undefended side of that line.
On June 25, 1950, the army of North Korea invaded South Korea by moving across the 10-mile wide demilitarized zone along the 38th Parallel. Truman immediately changed his mind about not defending South Korea. We entered the war as leader of a 16-country United Nations police action to repel the invaders.
Hostilities ceased on July 27, 1953. Although the fighting stopped, that war never ended with a peace treaty. Last May, North Korea announced its decision to withdraw from that armistice agreement, but I have no indication that anything has changed.
During the three years of the Korean War, we lost more than 33,000 soldiers. Today, North Korea is threatening peace with its nuclear and missile development programs. Let us pray that the Korean War does not resume because of mistakes in the ways we communicate with each other.
Clarity of intent and purpose are absolutely vital in today's complicated, difficult world.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.