It’s hard to believe, but today is the 69th anniversary of the signing – in Panmunjom, Korea – of the agreement that ceased major fighting and put on hold the Korean War.
On July 27, 1953, the representatives of the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC), the Communist-ruled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea), and the People’s Republic of China (aka Red China, aka Communist China) signed the Korean Armistice Agreement. Effective at 10 PM (22:00 hours) on that date, the warring factions that had fought on the Korean Peninsula since North Korea invaded its U.S.-allied neighbor to the south on June 25, 1950, ceased all military operations after three years, one month, and one day of fighting.
The Korean War is a subject that not many Americans living today seem to remember. As a result, it has been dubbed the “Forgotten War,” even though technically it is still ongoing. The armistice that stopped major combat operations and allowed most of the United Nations forces to return to their respective countries and created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was intended to be followed by a formal peace treaty.
But because South Korea’s autocratic leader Syngman Rhee did not allow any representatives from his nation’s military to sign the armistice agreement, and because the Soviet Union and the United States were facing off in the early stages of the Cold War, no negotiations for a formal, permanent peace treaty took place. Thus, technically, the two Koreas are in a state of war, and the United Nations Command in Korea still exists, with 28,500 American soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen stationed south of the DMZ as part of the United States Forces Korea (USFK).
I have often wondered why Korea – which was a major war in which 22 United Nations member countries contributed troops to the U.S.-led UNC and saw the deployment of over 300,000 Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel between 1950 and 1953 – is not as well-known by Americans, including many people who were alive at the time, compared to World War II (which preceded the Korean War by five years) and the Vietnam War (which, as the First Indochina War between France and the Communist-led Viet Minh, was already ongoing).
I am not an expert on the Korean War; in my collection of books about military history, I only own three non-fiction works on the topic (The Korean War, by Max Hastings; The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam; and On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir–the Greatest Battle of the Korean War, by Hampton Sides). Additionally, I have two novels (Your Own Beloved Sons, by Thomas Anderson; and MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker, a movie (M*A*S*H) and the TV series based on both the novel and feature film.
I think that the Korean War was one of those Cold War events that everyone in the United States – from the government down to the average citizen – seemed to want to forget even while it was still ongoing. Maybe it was because it had bogged down into a stalemate after Mao Zedong’s Communist China intervened in November of 1950 to prevent Kim Il Sung’s regime from being defeated by UN forces commanded by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who not only was the Supreme Allied Commander, Allied Powers in Occupied Japan but was also the Army’s Far East Command commanding officer. Korea was America’s first, frustrating experience with the concept of “limited war,” and even though – unlike Vietnam – it did not end up in the “L” column, it was not a resounding “Win” like World War II had been.
Consider: Aside from a handful of movies set in the Korean War that were made between 1950 and 1959, Hollywood has made fewer movies about that conflict than about the two wars that bookend it. The best-known successful Korean War-set film, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H,(1970) is a dark anti-war comedy set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital south of the 38th Parallel, but thematically and in tone, it’s really about Vietnam, mainly because of its cynical irreverence and obvious anti-military slant.
Most of the decent Korean War movies – Battle Circus, The Steel Helmet, Battle Hymn, The Hunters, The McConnell Story, and Pork Chop Hill – were produced and released in the Fifties. Since then, most movies – including the infamously awful Inchon – set in wartime Korea have been made either by the film industries of the capitalist and democratic South or the dynastic Communist North.
Not even Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker that many people have dubbed as “America’s Storyteller, has made a Korean War movie. The only major movie by a well-known director that alludes to Korea that I’ve seen in theaters is Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge, and that one is about a Marine gunnery sergeant in Reagan-era America who is old enough to have served in Korea.
Apart from the 1970s-era sitcom M*A*S*H – which, like the film that inspired it, is really about Vietnam and began its 11-season run during the last months of that war – no TV series (drama or sitcom) made at the time delved into Korea. I Love Lucy, which premiered on October 15, 1951, never refers to the war, not even obliquely. Leave it to Beaver, which aired for six seasons from 1957 to 1963, has a paterfamilias (Ward Cleaver) who is a Navy veteran – but from World War II.
Not even in The Phil Silvers Show, aka Sgt. Bilko, a sitcom about a scheming Army sergeant and his fellow soldiers’ shenanigans in a fictional Army base in Kansas, is Korea mentioned. You’d think that the war, which went on for three years, one month, and one day and took the lives of 54,246 American military personnel, would merit at least a reference in a series that ran from 1955 to 1959.
Nope. Apparently, in an unspoken agreement between the networks, the government, and the public at large, the Korean War faded into the background, obscured not just by the post-World War II economic boom and the birth of America’s modern consumerism, but by the upheavals of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the overseas challenges of the Cold War era.
Hell, the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC was dedicated on July 27, 1995, 45 years after the start of the “forgotten war” and 42 years after the armistice was signed.
It’s bad enough that the war is, technically, a “frozen” conflict and is still, under international law, ongoing.
Americans need to remember Korea, and they also need to know that a “cease fire” is not the same as a “peace treaty.”