In the United States, the Korean War (1950-1953) is sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten War.” It started shortly after World War II and ended just before the Vietnam War, yet received a small amount of press coverage in the U.S. compared to either of those conflicts, and continues to receive relatively little attention to this day. Yet the Korean War was one of the most significant wars of the 20th century. It permanently altered the geopolitical landscape of Asia, set the stage for future Cold War conflicts such as the Vietnam War, and heightened tensions between the United States and Soviet Union that lasted for decades. As the first “hot” conflict of the Cold War, it pitted South Korea, backed by the U.S. and a coalition of capitalist nations, against communist North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union. For a more complete picture of this pivotal moment in world history, here are six facts about the Korean War.
The Boundary Between North and South Korea Was Created From a National Geographic Map
While many borders are drawn with great deliberation and diplomatic care, this cannot be said about the boundary between North and South Korea. The division of the Korean Peninsula occurred in 1945 in the final months of World War II, when the United States and Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea in half, with the U.S. controlling the south and the Soviet Union controlling the north. The decision on where to place the dividing line fell to two young U.S. Army officers, who were told that time was of the essence. In a rush, they used a map of Korea they found a National Geographic map, and chose the 38th parallel as the midway boundary. The rushed decision was made in roughly 30 minutes, with no consideration given to the real-life geography of Korea or the lives of the people who lived there. As a result, the dividing line cut roads and railway lines in half, and arbitrarily sorted the Korean people onto two different sides of the escalating Cold War. The haphazard division of the Korean Peninsula was a prelude to the conflict that soon followed, when North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, marking the start of the Korean War.
President Truman Mobilized Troops Without Congressional Approval
When the North Korean military invaded South Korea in 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman felt he needed to deploy American troops to curtail the spread of communism in the region, hoping to quell criticism at home that he was “soft on communism.” While the U.S. Constitution states that the President must receive approval from Congress before declaring war, Truman circumvented this obstacle by classifying the U.S. military presence in Korea as a “police action” to keep the peace in the region, instead of officially referring to it as a war. This made the Korean War the first time a U.S. President had unilaterally instigated military hostilities without congressional approval.
Baseball Legend Ted Williams Flew Fighter Jets With Astronaut John Glenn
The Korean War saw the unlikely collaboration of two icons of American history: Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. In 1952, while Williams was still in the middle of his baseball career and before Glenn’s historic space flight, the two men were paired together in the same fighter jet in Korea. Williams was Glenn’s wingman for roughly half of the 39 missions Williams flew. Both men praised each other’s piloting skills, and Glenn, not yet the famous astronaut he would become, even admitted to being a little starstruck to be serving with a living major league legend — though he also said that Williams always remained humble about his baseball stardom.
The War Saw the First Dogfight Between Two Fighter Jets
The Korean War saw the advent of one of the icons of modern warfare: the fighter jet. Jet-powered fighter planes had started to appear in small numbers at the end of World War II, but it wasn’t until the Korean War that they became widely used. The world’s first jet-powered “dogfight,” in which skilled pilots try to outmaneuver each other in a close-range aerial battle, took place during the conflict. Soviet fighter jets became such a common sight during the Korean War that an entire region of North Korea earned the name “MiG Alley,” after the huge number of dogfights between Soviet MiG-15 and American F-86 Sabre fighter jets. This powerful new technology made the Korean War quite unlike any that had come before it.
The United Nations Assembled a Military Force to Fight in the War
Although the United States led the war effort in South Korea, it was supported by a multinational military force of 22 countries from the United Nations. This coalition, known as the United Nations Command, was established in 1950 in order to aid South Korea in its war against North Korea. The force participated in all parts of the war, from ground combat and air strikes to logistical planning and the eventual armistice negotiations. The United Nations Command still exists, and maintains a presence in the Korean Demilitarized Zone to help maintain the armistice between North and South Korea.
The War Technically Hasn’t Ended Yet
Armistice negotiations to end the Korean War began in 1951 and lasted for two years, the longest such negotiations in history. While the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 ended active military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, it was not an official peace treaty. The agreement was adopted by the United Nations Command, the North Korean army, and the Chinese army, but South Korea leaders refused to sign. To this day, no official peace treaty has been signed between North and South Korea, and the two nations still technically remain at war. A tense ceasefire is maintained by the Demilitarized Zone that runs across the Korean Peninsula and divides the two nations, but both sides maintain a heavy military presence there, and the area still sees occasional outbreaks of violence. Despite continued negotiations, North and South Korea have been unable to reach an official peace agreement 70 years after the Armistice Agreement.