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Lead up to the War

The spread of communism to East Asia by the end of the 1940s prompted fears among Western democracies that more and more countries would eventually be under communist rule. America, especially, dreaded the thought of an entirely anti-capitalist Asia, influenced, if not controlled by the Soviet Union. When China became the People's Republic of China in 1949, many of their worst fears seemed to have been realised. The theory was that if China fell, then so would other Asian countries like India, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma and possibly even Australia. This was later named the 'domino effect' by the American President General Dwight Eisenhower. He saw the East Asian nations like a row of dominoes set on their ends - if one toppled (fell down), all the others would follow. Therefore when it looked as if all of Korea was going to fall into communist hands, the United Nations reacted. See image 1

The division of Korea after the Second World War had led to a political as well as geographical split in the country. Syngman Rhee's anti-communist government in the South had been endorsed by the UN General Assembly as the only lawfully-elected government in the country. The UN aimed to re-unify Korea under his leadership. In December 1948, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from North Korea and six months later, the Americans withdrew from the South. Rhee's leadership of the South was as corrupt and undemocratic as Kim Il-Sung's in the North. When elections were held in 1950, Rhee polled poorly and many people voted for re-unification, under Northern rule.; By then a UN commission had already reported on the failure to mediate between the North and South and concluded that a civil war was very likely.

The outbreak of War

On 25 June 1950, North Korea decided to unify the country by force. Troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the South. There had been many minor battles and skirmishes between the two armies along the border since it had been established, but this was a decisive attack. Stalin had given Kim Il-Sung his permission for the invasion, as he thought that America would not intervene. He was wrong. Surprising the Soviet Union, President Truman declared the West was bound to come to South Korea's aid, as it could be a trigger for World War III. The Truman Doctrine of containing communism where it already existed was also a deciding factor. The possibility of South Korea 'toppling' and becoming the next communist domino forced the West into action. Twenty-one nations sent troops, ships and aeroplanes.

Given its geographical position in the Pacific, Australia had also become increasingly concerned about the spread of communism in Asia. The fear of invasion from the North was long standing in Australian history. The threat Japan had posed during the Second World War and the new wartime collaboration with the United States had changed Australia's foreign policy. The traditional ties with Britain still existed, but Britain was not a Pacific country and therefore not really able to come to Australia's aid in the event of invasion. The government at the time was keen to keep a close relationship with the USA, which did have a Pacific location. The military and naval presence of the United States in the Pacific was also very reassuring. Australia immediately answered Truman's call to arms to support the South Korean Army. This relationship was cemented in 1951 with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. See image 2

Australia joins the Korean War

On 26 July 1950 the Menzies Government committed Australian troops to fight in Korea. Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment left their base in Japan and started a new tour of duty in South Korea. The battalion was only made up of about 500 men - some of them too old to serve and some of them only just graduated from officer school. As well as the battalion being only half its usual strength, it was under-equipped and heading for a country about which it knew nothing. The Australians came under the command of Lieutenant Colonel F.S. Walsh and his Second-in-Command, Major I.B. Ferguson. See image 3

In Australia, the outbreak of war did not even make the front pages of the newspapers. Floods in Northern New South Wales took top place in the news agenda. Even when two Royal Australian Navy ships had been sent to serve with UN forces in the waters around Korea, there was not much comment made. It did not really have much of an impact on Australian life until volunteers were called for to join the ground troops, after which many men came forward to join the troops already serving. Again, like the soldiers stationed in Japan, they had little idea of where they were going or what they were going to face. Some of them had missed out on action in WWII because they were too young, many had fought but in completely different terrain. All they really knew was the leaders of the Western countries had said the 'Free World' was at risk and communist aggression had to be stopped.

In South Korea the communist aggressors had captured the capital, Seoul, only three days after they first invaded. By the middle of July, the People's Republic of Korea, due to their superior manpower and firepower, had pushed as far south as the town of Taejon, and had all but broken the Republic of Korea's army. They were held back at the edge of the port town of Pusan denying them access to the rich seaport. When the soldiers of the RAR 3rd Battalion arrived in Pusan in September, reinforcements from the UN countries had already counteracted the communist offensive and the North Korean army had been pushed back to Seoul again. The South Koreans backed up by the allied forces then kept pushing further north - to the 38th parallel. It was at this point the other major communist power came into the fray, when China announced in October 1950 that if UN troops crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea, it would enter the war. The UN troops pushed on regardless and went north.

Stalemate

Unbeknown to the American field commanders, by October the Chinese already had more than 180 000 men in North Korea lying in wait for the allied forces. By November the UN force of 150 000 men faced 300 000 Chinese and 80 000 North Korean soldiers. Unsurprisingly the UN advance into North Korea was defeated and they were pushed back once more to the 38th parallel. Any hope of a fast military resolution to the conflict was over. For the remainder of the war each side dug into their positions and neither side was able to make any real advances. The war became a stalemate with a negotiated truce the only way out. It took two years of peace talks, but finally, in July 1953, an armistice was signed. Korea was to remain divided.

Australian soldiers on the ground were involved in many battles, raids and ambushes in the guerrilla warfare that took place in the mountains of northern Korea. One of their most famous military engagements was against a Chinese offensive on the Kapyong River in April 1951. See image 4

The cost of the Korean War

By the end of the war, Australia, as part of the British Commonwealth forces, had sent in three infantry battalions, four destroyers, an aircraft carrier and an Air Force squadron. A total of 339 Australian soldiers were killed and over 1200 were wounded, but the war did keep popular support back home because most Australians saw it as the only way to stop the spread of communism before it was too late.

In America, on the other hand, nearly 33 000 men lost their lives to stop the North Koreans from creating a united communist country and American involvement became very unpopular with voters. President Eisenhower was elected in 1952 on a promise to bring the war to an end as soon as possible. On the other side, the Chinese and North Korean loss of life was massive - over one and a half million people died fighting for the communist cause.

At the end of the war, there was no longer a popular movement in the South for unification under a Northern government. The horrors of war and the devastation caused by the invasion had made those sympathetic to communism turn away from it. Korea was to remain divided along the same geographical and political lines as before. The Truman Doctrine of containing communism where it already existed had won out, but at the cost of a great many lives.


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1. Who named the 'domino effect' Theory?

Kim Il-Sung

Dwight Eisenhower

Harry Truman

Winston Churchill

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