The Korean War

The Korean War (1950-1953) is often referred to as America's "forgotten war," because it did not capture the nation's attention as had World War II, nor did it arouse controversy as did the war in Vietnam. In fact, although the Korean War was much shorter than the Vietnam War, the casualties were almost as high, with 54,000 Americans killed and 103,000 wounded. Total casualties for the war reached 1.9 million. In 1995, more than forty years after the conflict ended, a memorial honoring the sacrifices and services of Korean War soldiers was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, D.C., directly across from the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial.

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964)

Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)
Oil on canvas, 1952, NPG.78.271
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Gift of Henry Ostrow

Though General Douglas MacArthur is perhaps best known for his participation in the Korean War, his military service actually began a half-century earlier. In fact, his was one of the longest and most controversial careers of any American military officer. Douglas MacArthur was the son of another famous soldier, Arthur MacArthur II, who led troops in the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and in the Philippines. Encouraged by his father's military successes as well as an ambitious mother, MacArthur entered the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated at the head of his class in 1903.

MacArthur first led troops into combat in World War I, where he earned honors for his bravery and leadership. After the war he served as superintendent of West Point, as army chief of staff under Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, and as military adviser to the new Philippine Commonwealth. After retiring from the U.S. Army in 1937, MacArthur went back into active duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As commander of U.S. troops in the southwestern Pacific, he conducted much of the drive to defeat Japan's quest for domination of the Asian Pacific. At the end of the war in the Pacific, MacArthur presided over the surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay and headed the military occupation of Japan.

After the war, tensions continued to simmer in many parts of Asia. The first armed conflict erupted in 1950, when forces from the northern half of Korea, which had been placed under Russian supervision after World War II, invaded the U.S.-controlled south. The United States and its allies, fearing communist ambition, agreed to help defend the south under the United Nations banner. By the time General MacArthur organized the movement of troops and war supplies, South Korean forces had been pushed into the far southern tip of the Korean peninsula. On September 15, 1950, in one of the most daring and successful military maneuvers of modern times, MacArthur landed troops at Inchon, far behind North Korean lines. The result was a rout of enemy forces, and the North Koreans were pushed back nearly to China. Fearing an invasion of its territory, China joined the war and launched a full-blown counterattack. Eventually a stalemate was reached near the thirty-eighth parallel, where Korea had been initially divided.

Not wanting to expand the conflict, President Harry Truman would not accept MacArthur's urgings to carry the war across the Korean border into Chinese territory. MacArthur, in turn, made public his dissatisfaction with Truman's position. So began a power struggle that culminated in April 1951, with Truman's dismissal of MacArthur for insubordination. While Truman's popularity plummeted, MacArthur returned home to a hero's welcome. In retrospect, however, the consensus among historians is that MacArthur was unwise to challenge Truman as he did, and he left Truman no choice but to fire him. The Korean conflict dragged on for another two years until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, which ended the fighting and created a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

Today opinions about General MacArthur remain strongly divided. Some remember him as a brilliant tactician and brave soldier. Others recall his arrogance, penchant for self-serving publicity, and intolerance for criticism. However he is remembered, MacArthur remains one of the most compelling figures of the twentieth century.


Korean War Veterans Memorial, National Park Service
Korean War Veterans Memorial, by Thaddeus Cooper
Examining the Korean War
Korean War historical documents
The Korean War Project
50th Anniversary of the Korean War
Korean War veteran and military links
Korean War airplane nose art

Douglas MacArthur
The MacArthur Memorial and Museum
MacArthur biography from the U.S. Army Center of Military History
General Douglas MacArthur Foundation
Truman Fires MacArthur
The U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848
Pearl Harbor Remembered