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The Korean War Key Individuals
Learn about the people that were involved in the Korean War, from Kim Il Sung to Dwight Eisenhower.
Harry S. Truman
Truman had been vice president during Roosevelt’s time in office and took over after his death in April 1945. By the time the Korean War broke out five years later, he had been elected to serve another term. Throughout his time in office, he taken a tough approach to Cold War diplomacy and he strongly believed that communism posed a genuine threat to America. Yet, despite authorising billions of dollars to be spent protecting war torn nations from communism subjugation through the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, Truman’s reputation as a Cold War warrior was under threat by 1950. Republican senator Joseph McCarthy had made widely publicised claims that the State Department was infiltrated by communists, sparking a witch hunt and damaging the reputation of Truman’s government. This was made worse by the mistaken belief that Truman had been responsible for ‘losing China’ to communism in 1949. When North Korea invaded the South, Truman was not prepared to allow a communist take-over in another Far Eastern nation and he also saw an opportunity to prove that he was serious about containing it. He did show restraint during the conflict itself though, resisting General MacArthur’s demands for nuclear force and agreeing to early peace talks. This did little to salvage his reputation and the Democrats were to lose the election of 1952 as hopes of a limited war began to fade.
Kim Il Sung
Although he was born in Pyongyang in what would become North Korea, Kim Il Sung grew up in Manchuria and so was heavily influenced by communism from an early age. When WW2 broke out, he was in the Soviet Union after having joined the Communist party and he fought in the Red Army for the duration of the conflict. This enabled him to forge strong links with the Soviet government and when Japanese occupation ended, he returned to Korea and became chairman of the People’s Committee of North Korea. The Soviets then installed him as premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea when they withdrew in 1948. Kim always harboured ambitions to remove the 38th parallel and rule the entire country and he eventually persuaded both the Chinese and the Soviets to support him in this venture in 1950. Although he was reliant on Chinese military and Soviet financial support during the conflict, Kim continued to take decisions independently and he increasingly resented the secondary role that North Korean troops ended up taking in comparison to their Chinese comrades. After the war ended, the North Korean regime became increasingly totalitarian, with Kim establishing a personality cult and system of terror that enabled him to rule overbearingly until his death in 1994.
Syngman Rhee was the only non-communist Korean who was well-known to the US government after WW2 because he had been educated at Princeton University and then lived in Hawaii, where he was president of the Korean Provisional Government in exile from 1919 onwards. Since he was both right-wing and Christian, the Americans were keen to support him as ruler of South Korea after their troops were withdrawn in 1948. This support continued despite the lack of democratic procedures in elections he won in that year, and again in 1952, 1956 and 1960. Whilst he was not the instigator of the Korean War, Rhee also harboured ambitions to rule the whole of Korea and he jeopardised the peace agreement in 1953 by releasing 25,000 North Korean prisoners who were meant to be repatriated to the North. He remained in power until his corrupt and authoritarian rule prompted a rebellion against him in April 1960. He then returned to Hawaii.
General Douglas MacArthur
Douglas MacArthur had a long military career behind him by the time he led UN troops in the Korean War and he was a well-known public figure owing to his command of Allied troops in the Pacific during WW2. Early Korean engagements were not successful and his troops were almost forced off the Korean peninsula but after he masterminded the Inchon landings three months into the conflict, fortunes reversed. Macarthur then ordered troops beyond the 38th parallel and high into North Korean territory, which provoked the Chinese to enter the conflict and led to its stalemate. This was to outlast Macarthur himself, who incurred Truman’s anger by sending an ultimatum to the PRC in March 1951 which promised to bring ‘China to its knees’ despite peace talks having begun two months previously. He further infuriated the President in April by writing to Republican senator Joe Martin with unauthorised plans to use Taiwanese troops in Korea. After Truman sacked him that month, he was greeted in the US as a hero, with great parades held in his honour. However, the official investigation into his sacking found it to be justified.
Eisenhower won the November 1952 US Presidential election as the Republican candidate. He had directly addressed the situation in Korea and the Cold War more generally in his election campaign, arguing that containment was a negative policy that condemned America to a permanent treadmill of trying to resist communism. Instead, he proclaimed a desire to ‘rollback’ communism, by increasing nuclear weapon arsenals and being prepared to use massive retaliation if necessary. This tough approach caused concern amongst both the North Koreans and the Chinese and it is possible that fear of nuclear attack may have encouraged them to sign the armistice within six months of Eisenhower taking office. However, it is unlikely that the President ever seriously considered using nuclear weapons in Korea. A 1952 fact-finding visit convinced Eisenhower that the war needed to be ended quickly but it seems his foreign policy was largely based on bluff and brinkmanship (pushing risky situations to the limits). A military background and the fact that he was Republican made him more immune from criticism of his foreign policy and so he was able to orchestrate the withdrawal of US troops by July 1953.