On the other side were the Communist powers, centered around the USSR and mainland China.
There were also ‘unaligned’ nations, who either in reality or in mere words sought to remain neutral or independent of the two groups which opposed each other in the broad framework of Cold War conceptualization.
There were many points of geographical contact between the two sides of the Cold War: the boundary between East German and West Germany, extending into the whole ‘Iron Curtain’ which ran up and down Europe from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean; the uneasy and unclear borders through southern and southeastern Asia; and the Pacific coast along eastern Asia, where sometimes narrow stretches of water separated Communist and nonCommunist nations by only a few miles.
While the NATO Allies were making efforts to be prepared should the Soviets launch a surprise attack across central Europe, they were surprised when North Korea attacked South Korea in June 1950. The North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) succeeded in overrunning almost all of South Korea, as historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski note:
Korea had been a backwater of American postwar diplomacy, and it did not loom large as a military concern. Divided in 1945 by an arbitrary line at the 38th Parallel so that occupying Russian and American forces could disarm the Japanese and establish temporary military administrations, Korea had by 1950 became part of the Cold War’s military frontier. In North Korea the Russians had turned political control over to the Communist regime of Kim Il Sung and helped him create an eleven-division army of 135,000 seasoned by service in the Soviet and Chinese communist armies. The NKPA was a pocket model of its Soviet counterpart, armed with T-34 tanks, heavy artillery, and attack aircraft.
Although the North Koreans experienced sweeping success in the first phase of the war, due to the element of surprise, to the unreadiness of the U.S. forces in South Korea, and to the small numbers of those U.S. forces, the South Koreans, aided both by the United States and by the United Nations, would turn the tide. The South would be freed of the NKPA invaders, the North would be largely in the hand of the U.S. and U.N. forces.
While the North Korean war planners were correct in their estimation that they could quickly advance through the South, they were wrong in believing that they could hold that ground for long. The United States had resources very close by, as Russell Weigley writes:
The authors of the North Korean invasion of South Korea had also miscalculated the American response. Despite the weaknesses of the American armed forces, hardly another place on the boundary between the Communist and non-Communist worlds could have been so well selected as a setting for the frustration of a Communist military venture by the military resources of the United States. Korea is a peninsula which at the narrowest point of the Strait of Tsushima is little more than a hundred miles from Japan. Therefore Korea lay within ready reach of the largest concentration of American troops outside the United States, the four divisions of General Douglas MacArthur’s army of occupation in Japan, and within ready reach also of American sea power.
Only two months before the NKPA invaded the south, a famous document known as NSC-68 hinted at the possibility of unilateral and unprovoked action by the Soviets or one of their proxy states, like North Korea. This document arrived too late, and even if it appeared earlier, it is not clear that the Truman administration would have taken significant actions to put South Korea on a more defensible footing.
To arrange U.S. and NATO forces to respond the dangers listed in NSC-68 would have required a reallocation of the resources inside the defense budget. Much of the thought in the Truman administration centered on deterring, defending against, or fighting in a global strategic nuclear conflict, or at least a massive conventional invasion through central Europe. A smaller regional war was not fully anticipated, as William Donnelly reports:
North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950 occurred as senior U.S. civilian and military officials were considering what to do about recommendations in an April 1950 State Department paper submitted to President Truman. This paper, NSC 68, had argued that there was an increasingly dangerous imbalance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States, an imbalance that favored the former and would lead the Soviets to take greater risks in advancing their interests. The United States, NSC 68 urged, should undertake a major military buildup to reassure its allies and deter the Soviet Union. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had not provided by June 1950 a final estimate of the forces required by NSC 68, there was no doubt that its implementation would involve a major increase in defense spending. But before June 1950, President Truman was not convinced such a step was necessary.
Domestic policy, foreign policy, and military policy should ideally harmonize to serve the national interest. Periodic reallocations within the defense budget are a necessary part of keeping policy both on task and congruent to current global realities.
The Korean conflict would serve to alert American policy makers to unanticipated dangers coming from the communist powers, as Mark Levin writes:
The moral imperative of all public policy must be the preservation and improvement of American society. Similarly, the object of American foreign policy must be no different.
The ‘improvement’ which is the goal of proper policy is the increase of personal freedom and individual political liberty. In domestic policy, this takes the forms of deregulation, tax cuts, and the defense of property rights. In foreign policy, and in military action, it takes the form of acting always to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of United States citizens.
South Korea survived the North’s attack, despite initial unpreparedness on the part of the United States, because major U.S. forces were able to be quickly redeployed from nearby Japan, and because those forces were large, well-equipped, and well-trained, relative to the NKPA and their Soviet supporters.