In August 1945, at the end of World War II, Korea was divided into two nations, North Korea and South Korea. Two American military officers drew the boundary line at the 38th Parallel, which author David McCullough, in Truman, observed was an “arbitrary” line having “no basis in Korean history, geography, or anything else.”
Japanese troops north of the line surrendered to the Soviet army and those south of the line surrendered to the U.S. army. In the north, a communist government was installed while in the south, a non-communist government was established. Between 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the United Nations tried to sponsor free elections for the purpose of uniting Korea under one government. Those elections never took place.
Between 1947 and 1949, President Harry S. Truman ordered the removal of most U.S. troops from Korea. In an oral history interview that is available on the Harry S. Truman Library’s website (see https://trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/bond.htm), Niles Bond, a U.S. foreign service officer, recalled that there were about 50,000 American troops in South Korea in 1947; by 1949, there were about 8,000. In June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, a 500-man U.S. Korean Military Advisory Group was the only American force remaining to assist South Korea.
The Korean War was an important issue during the 1952 presidential campaign. The Republican nominee, Dwight Eisenhower, criticized the Truman administration’s conduct of the war. In a speech he made in Detroit on Oct. 24, less than two weeks before the election, Eisenhower said the “biggest fact about the Korean War is this: it was never inevitable.” He blamed the White House and the State Department for ignoring warnings against the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea during the period from 1947-49. He also took issue with a speech that Secretary of State Dean Acheson made in January 1950; that speech did not include Korea as part of a defense perimeter of nations considered vital to U.S. security interests. Furthermore, Eisenhower vowed that, if elected, “I shall go to Korea” to see the situation there for himself.
On Oct. 27, President Truman, who was not running for re-election, reminded Eisenhower that Ike bore some responsibility for the withdrawal because he was Army Chief of Staff, and therefore a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1947, when the phased withdrawals began. Eisenhower, Truman put it bluntly, “was one of the men who recommended the decision which he now so bitterly criticizes.”
Truman pointed out that in September 1947, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s assessment was that “United States had little strategic interest in maintaining our troops and bases in Korea.” Furthermore, “our limited military manpower could be better used elsewhere.”
On Nov. 2, Truman issued a statement concerning the withdrawal of American troops from Korea prior to the outbreak of the war. He pointed out that the decision “involved both military and diplomatic factors” and was reached through “the honest cooperation of both military and civilian officials.”
Eisenhower overwhelmingly won the 1952 election, in part because of public frustration over a war with no victory – or end – in sight. In a congratulatory telegram to president-elect Eisenhower, Truman offered the use of his plane, the Independence, if he should “still desire to go to Korea.” Staying true to his word, Eisenhower flew to Korea on Nov. 29, but he didn’t use the Independence. Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose noted that Truman resented Eisenhower’s implication that he could go to Korea and “find some magic formula to end the war.”
Korea was an item of discussion between Truman and Eisenhower on Inauguration Day, 1953. Riding together in a limousine, Eisenhower asked Truman if he knew who had invited Ike’s son, John, then serving in Korea, to attend the Inauguration. Truman replied that he himself had issued the order. A few days later, Eisenhower wrote Truman to thank him for the gesture.
The fighting in Korea ended with the signing of an armistice and cease-fire on July 27, 1953. More than 33,600 Americans were killed in combat, as were hundreds of thousands of South Korean, North Korean and Chinese soldiers.
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.