With U.S. forces in Korea beleaguered and demoralized in 1950, American prestige and the future of South Korea hung in the balance
In August 1945, at the end of World War II, Russia and the United States divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel into communist north and western-aligned south, setting the stage for one of the first great conflicts of the Cold War. After North Korea invaded the south on June 25, 1950, U.N. forces, led by the United States, entered the war on South Korea's behalf. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's daring landing at Inchon on September 15, 1950, pushed the North Koreans almost to the Yalu River on the Chinese border. MacArthur, however, had made a disastrous miscalculation—that the Chinese would not enter the war. In November 1950, 300,000 Chinese routed U.N. troops, forcing a retreat. It was at this dark hour, following the death of Lt. Gen. Walton Walker in a jeep accident, that Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway was ordered to Korea.
Ridgway, however taciturn in temperament, was also courageous and fair-minded. A brilliant tactician, he was also a general who was willing to share the hardships of life on the front. While MacArthur had conducted the war from Tokyo, never spending a night on the peninsula, Ridgway rarely departed South Korea. As a consequence, he earned the respect and even the admiration of the men he commanded.
He was, moreover, a strategic genius. Immediately upon arriving in Korea, he had sized up the situation, soon discerning that the Chinese were ill-equipped and under-supplied. The key, he believed, would be to bring in American firepower, inflicting casualties on the Chinese until a stalemate was achieved. Only then, he was convinced, would the enemy be persuaded to come to the negotiating table.
In every respect, his analysis proved prescient. By March 1951, Ridgway's leadership and tactical breakthroughs had turned near-certain defeat of U.N. forces into a stalemate. On April 11, 1951, President Truman removed MacArthur from command; Ridgway succeeded him as Allied Commander of the Far East. A cease-fire was declared on July 27, 1953. The peninsula remained divided at the 38th parallel.
U.S. casualties numbered 33,000 dead and 105,000 wounded. The South Koreans suffered 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded. The Chinese and North Koreans maintained secrecy about their casualties: estimates are 1.5 million dead. A state of tension endures between the two Koreas, poised on either side of a 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone. The United States maintains a force of some 28,000, including soldiers and marines, in South Korea.
An adaptation of The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam, originally published in the November 2007 issue of SMITHSONIAN. All rights reserved.