1.8 million American soldiers served in combat during the Korean War, resulting in a total of 37,000 U.S. casualties and over 100,000 wounded soldiers (by comparison, the Vietnam War totaled 58,000 dead over the course of about a decade). Over 7,000 American soldiers who fought in Korea still remain unaccounted for, and the United States spent approximately $67 billion by the conflict’s end.
According to Carter Malkasian’s The Korean War, the world has arguably never been as close to a third world war as it was during the conflict in Korea—including the Cuban Missile Crisis—and many of the major world powers involved believed it would be a precursor to a much larger global conflict. It was also the only occasion during the entire Cold War in which the U.S., China, and Soviet Union met in combat. Malkasian writes:
“On the ground, Chinese armies engaged in huge battles with the American-led United Nations command (UNC). In the air, hundreds of Soviet, Chinese, and American jet aircraft fought for air supremacy over North Korea. […] The war changed how the East and the West dealt with one another and was part of a revolution in the conduct of war”
And yet, even with a relatively large number of American casualties and wide international involvement, the Korean War has never captured the American public’s imagination quite like WWII or Vietnam, and remains one of the least discussed and least understood conflicts in U.S. history.
For those reading who need a brief refresher, the war began when the Soviet-backed North Korea invaded the U.S.-backed South at the 38th parallel line (though North Korea still maintains that they were the first to be attacked). The peninsula had been divided on the line since the end of the Second World War, when the U.S. and Soviets agreed to divvy up the former Japanese colony in order to maintain strategic strongholds in the Pacific. Until this completely arbitrary divide, Korea had been one land of a relatively homogenous people and culture for over 1,000 years.
After China, the Soviets, and the U.S.-led U.N. forces became involved in order to protect their interests in the region, the conflict soon reached a relative stalemate, but dragged on—with considerable loss of life—for another two full years until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Nearly five million people died in total, nearly half of which were Korean civilians (about 10 percent of the Korean population), and the war technically is still ongoing to this day as a treaty has never been signed.
In terms of American perceptions of the war, history professor Melinda Pash notes that Americans did not think much about the conflict when it was happening. She writes:
“When the war first broke out, people worried that American involvement would usher in the same type of rationing and full mobilization that had characterized the Second World War. That failed to occur and within a few months most Americans turned back to their own lives, ignoring the conflict raging half a world away. Newspapers continued to report on the war, but with the entrance of the Chinese in late fall 1950 and the resulting stalemate in late 1951, few Americans wanted to read or think about Korea”
In his book The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished, historian Stanley Saunders also notes that if one were to have visited the United States on a typical day in 1951, they would find virtually no indication that the country was engaged in its fourth most bloody war to date. There were no rallying patriotic songs as there had been during WWII, and there was a noticeable lack of coverage about the conflict on the news.
Furthermore, Pash notes that one of the most distinguishing features of Korean War veterans is their silence; whereas WWII and Vietnam veterans returned home to talk about their experiences and join veteran groups, the majority of Korean War vets seemed to simply want to return to life as usual, with many not even telling their wives and children that they served.
So why does Vietnam continue to inspire public debate, imagination, and outrage, when the majority of U.S. citizens couldn’t tell a thing about the Korean War?
Unlike WWII and Vietnam, the Korean War did not result in a definitive victory or a definitive defeat. Charles K. Armstrong, Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, wrote over e-mail that, “Neither a resounding victory like the former or a humiliating defeat like the latter, Korea ended in a draw and has therefore been more difficult to categorize.”
Basically, when the American public and popular news sources could not create a simple narrative to understand the conflict (i.e. courageous victory, or humbling defeat), it began to fade out of our collective consciousness, even as it was happening. A stalemate simply did not produce the exciting framework that most citizens needed to remain engaged, regardless of how significant the conflict truly was.
The good news is, recent years have seen a resurgence and interest in the conflict in Korea and its pivotal role in Cold War history. A Korean War Memorial was finally created in Washington D.C. in 1995 (a whole 45 years later) and an increasing number of soldiers began to come forward to share their wartime experiences and feelings of invisibility.