On Sunday, June 24, 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea with little warning. At the time, the U.S. Army had fewer than 600,000 soldiers and half of those were based in the states. Yet, the Truman administration had pledged to oppose expansion of Communism, even if it had issued confusing statements about Korea itself.
The war affected rural America in several ways –
- First, it pulled young people off the farm, albeit at much lower levels than during World War II.
- It provided a dramatic, though temporary, spike in farm incomes as demand for food to support the troops increased.
- The war also increased the government’s commodity support payments to farmers and shrank the glut of over-produced farm products that had been stockpiled by the Commodity Credit Corporation in the late 40s.
- After the war, farm prices came under pressure by consumers demanding lower food prices.
In 1950, the North Koreans attacked with over 90,000 troops and 150 tanks. President Truman immediately ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to send U.S. troops from Japan to protect Americans in Seoul, but just as quickly decided to approach the United Nations for a response. The U.S. was helped out by the fact that Russia was boycotting the UN in a dispute over admitting the Communist Chinese as the legitimate government of China. So, Russia couldn’t veto the resolution authorizing the UN to send troops. On June 27, that resolution was approved. On June 28, the South Korean capitol of Seoul fell. On June 30, Truman authorized U.S. troops to lead the UN force.
In the next couple of months, the North almost succeeded in pushing 45,000 South Korean troops and 50,000 Americans off the peninsula. Then, in September, MacArthur counterattacked with a daring – some said foolhardy – landing of 70,000 men at Inchon, a port about half way up the western coast of Korea. By October the combined allied forces had pushed the North almost to the North Korean border with China.
MacArthur defied orders from Washington and actually ordered a few attacks into China itself. That was too much for the Chinese, and they invaded Korea on November 6, 1950. A huge Chinese army forced the UN troops back south of Seoul once again. Eventually it’s estimated that around 780,000 Chinese fought in Korea with a total force of 260,000 North Koreans. All told, 480,000 Americans saw action, with 590.000 South Koreans, and smaller forces from Britain, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Turkey, France and other nations.
Over 36,000 Americans lost their lives, along with 673,000 South Koreans. The North Koreans lost more than 200,000 and the Chinese lost 145,000. Millions of civilians on both sides lost their lives.
To take care of that many casualties, the Army developed mobile surgical units with helicopters deployed to evacuate the wounded. These units, of course, became the basis for the popular movie and television program MASH.
Eventually a frustrating stalemate developed on the battlefield. MacArthur was fired as overall commander of the allied forces for not obeying direct orders from President Truman. President Eisenhower took over in January, 1953, and finally an armistice agreement (not a treaty) was signed on July 27, 1953. The armistice has held for 50 years, but it has been an uneasy peace with troops massed on either side of a demilitarized zone (DMZ).
After the war was over, conservative critics blamed the Truman Administration for the initial military setbacks. They charged the administration was more concerned with domestic policies than military preparedness. Life magazine, for instance, argued that during the 1948 presidential campaign, Truman had promised voters that he would continue high farm price supports and increase social security benefits. Life claimed that these expensive programs hurt the military. While that argument was true, as far as it went, it failed to note that conservatives like Robert Taft wanted to cut the military even more. So, after the war, succeeding American administrations have almost been forced to maintain high levels of military spending.
The legacy of the Korean War was an immensely costly arms race that strained domestic government spending, including farm programs. Money that otherwise would have been spent on farm subsidies was spent on ships, planes, men, missiles and munitions.
Don Reeves (right) was a conscientious objector during the Korean Conflict and that caused rifts in his community. “Just by coincidence, there was another fellow in the service from the church who was killed,” Don remembers. “[It was] pretty hard for his parents and several other women in the church to tolerate my being a conscientious objector… Two or three of them died without ever speaking to me again.”
Virgil Obermier (left) was a farm boy from York County, Nebraska, before he was drafted into the Army. He became a tank commander and saw heavy action in Korea. “I think being in Korea was right,” he says, “because I never seen poverty anywhere as there was in Korea.” Virgil believes that the UN action allowed the South to rebuild. But he had seen enough of foreign wars when his tour was up. “They wanted me to re-enlist. I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘It’s not a life for me.’ I said, ‘I’d rather get a hold of a pitchfork and pitch manure.’ ”
So, like so many other veterans of foreign wars from rural communities, Virgil returned home and became a farmer with the help of the GI Bill.