To adjust to this new technology, and to this new era of warfare, the United States Air Force (USAF), which was created between 1947 and 1949 out of personnel and aircraft which had been used by the Army, Navy, and Marines, focused on developing its Strategic Air Command (SAC).
By 1950, SAC was functional and ready to meet any strategic situations which might arise. But the all branches of the military were forced to neglect other elements of readiness in order to prepare a nuclear strategy.
The United States was prepared to face, and win, a major nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But it was not ready for battlefield combat in a conventional war.
Roughly speaking, the logic was that if we have a dominant nuclear arsenal, no other nation would dare to engage in small military actions against us. The weakness in that logic was that a small rogue state, like North Korea, might understand that if it did launch a small land attack, the United States would be forced into a position in which it could not use its nuclear weapons, because to do so would constitute a massively disproportionate overreaction.
Thus it was, that by early 1950, the U.S. military was still working on building its conventional forces up to an effective level of readiness. Historian Russell Weigley writes:
When the troops of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea invaded the Republic of Korea on June 24, 1950, they therefore imposed upon the United States a strategic surprise in the deepest sense. Perceiving the invasion as Soviet-sponsored and believing a failure to resist would amount to a new Munich, President Truman attempted instantly to shift his military gears and to halt and punish the Communist Koreans not with all-out atomic retaliation but with military strength proportioned to the threat. To respond with atomic weaponry would have seemed indeed disproportionate both in morality and in expediency; it would have risked both a holocaust of Soviet retaliation and the possibility of using up the relatively small store of atomic bombs against a minor power, to cite only two of the considerations of expediency. To proportion the American response to the scale of the Communist challenge proved hazardous, however, not only because of the inappropriate condition of the American armed forces. Any strategy other than the now familiar strategy of annihilation proved so frustratingly at variance with the American conception of war that it upset the balance of judgment of American officers in the field and threatened the psychological balance of the nation itself.
Throughout the Korean War, the U.S. military would be playing catch-up. Having sunk massive amounts of time, money, and manpower into developing a strategic nuclear force in the late 1940s, the early 1950s would find America fighting the Korean War in an ad hoc manner.
There was, however, another obstacle to properly equipping and strengthening the U.S. forces in Korea: at the same time, from 1950 to 1953, the military had not only to maintain its strategic nuclear arsenal, and not only resist the Soviet-backed and Chinese-backed North Koreans, but also to establish and maintain a credible defensive force in Europe, and to develop and implement a domestic defense system for the North American continent.
In light of the emphasis which had been put on the development of SAC and of a strategic nuclear force, the major risk in the minds of many military planners was not a local conventional war in a place like Korea, but rather the advent of World War III, which seemed to some officers to be not only possible but even probable.
In this situation, the war in Korea was conducted on the fly and on a shoestring budget. Some American soldiers in Korea complained that they were given a pitiably small share of the army’s resources at a time when they were the only segment of the army which was actually engaged in combat. Historian William Donnelly writes:
Writing from Korea in December 1952 about the “Fighting, Waiting Eighth Army,” Time correspondent John Osborne concluded that Eighth Army was “not the best army the U.S. can put in the field. It is the best army that can be put in the field in the circumstances.” This description applies equally well to the entire U.S. Army between July 1951 and July 1953, the final years of the Korean War. President Harry S. Truman assigned the service several demanding missions in the early months of the Korean War: to support one field army fighting in Korea, create a second field army in Germany preparing for World War III, build a continental air defense system in cooperation with the Air Force, and maintain a strategic reserve in the continental United States capable of deploying overseas in a crisis. The last three missions reflected the concern of senior U.S. leaders that the North Korean invasion was a sign of growing Soviet aggressiveness which could be deterred only by a massive U.S. military buildup.
The initial response of the United States, in the wake of the June 1950 attack which was largely a surprise, was a reactive attempt to simply slow and hopefully stop the communist North Korean advance. As the war continued, the Americans had time to consider its goals in the conflict.
General Douglas MacArthur saw rightly that, if the Americans were to push for victory as traditionally understood, then they would eventually find themselves fighting directly against the Chinese and the Soviets, and fighting on Chinese soil and on Soviet soil.
President Truman, concerned about the possibility of Korea being the occasion for the much-anticipated WWIII, developed a strategy of limited war. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski write:
The Truman administration had an appropriate substitute for victory in the Korean War, and that substitute was the rearmament of the United States, the development of a collective security alliance based upon NATO, and the strengthened deterrence of the Soviet Union with both nuclear and conventional forces. When Truman submitted his four supplemental budget requests for fiscal year 1951, he made his dual goals clear: “The purpose of these proposed estimates is two-fold; first, to meet the immediate situation in Korea, and, second, to provide for an early, but orderly, buildup of our military forces to a state of readiness designed to deter further acts of aggression.” The President presented his priorities in reverse order, since the administration eventually spent 60 percent of the FY 1951 – 1953 defense budgets on general military programs and 40 on waging the war.
The Korean War was a psychological burden on the voters in the United States, who could still clearly remember WWII. In the 1952 presidential election, Eisenhower persuaded many voters by arguing that he could bring an end to the war. Eisenhower won by a landslide.
Eisenhower was inaugurated in January 1953, and by July of that year an armistice was signed. The armistice is a ceasefire agreement; more than sixty years later, no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved. The July 1953 document signed to end the fighting envisioned, in its words, such a “final peaceful settlement,” which has since demonstrated itself to be elusive.