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Paranoia on both sides caused the Cold War, but when the war turned hot in Korea (and later in Vietnam, which you can read about in Chapter 19) the U.S. took hits rather than use weapons that could destroy the world. Senior U.S. policy makers believed in the domino theory that said if one nation went communist, its neighbor would follow.

Korea was divided between Communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea after World War II. In 1950, the North, prodded by Stalin, invaded the South, and the Korean War (1950 to 1953) was underway. The United States called the fighting a "conflict" since war was not officially declared, but it certainly seemed like a war to the people who were getting shot. The Communist North, armed with Soviet weapons, pushed the South Koreans back to a small pocket on the edge of the peninsula.

Taking command from Japan, Douglas MacArthur engineered a brilliant landing behind Communist lines at Inchon and pushed the North Koreans back across their border. MacArthur then made the mistake of taking over all of Korea, right up to its border with Communist China. The Chinese sent in huge waves of soldiers and pushed the Americans and South Koreans back to the South's border.

After years of sniping, both Koreas signed a peace treaty in 1953, putting things back the way they were before the invasion.

The Korean War got a U.S. military buildup going that eventually ate up 10 percent of the gross national product. With Communism in the past, the U.S. defense figure is now less than 5 percent of the GDP, still almost as much every year as the rest of the world combined.

In the 1950s, the U.S. spent money and lives to defend its democratic capitalist system, but it avoided touching off a nuclear war that could destroy the world. When Chinese Communist troops stormed into Korea, General MacArthur wanted to use atomic bombs and risk a global meltdown. President Truman fired him for insubordination.

Short of using nuclear bombs, Truman was aggressive in defending Korea in part to answer critics that his administration had been soft in letting China go Communist. Nonetheless, he wasn't going to let Korea lead to World War III.


Question: What influenced President Truman in responding with toughness to Communist aggression in Korea?

Answer: Truman wanted to correct the impression that his administration had turned soft on Communism because it had watched the Communists take over China without launching military opposition.

The Korean War finally ended after President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the front and hinted that he might use atomic weapons. Korea had cost more than 30,000 U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese deaths. Troops still guard the border between the two Koreas to this day.

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