Crisis in Korea
President Truman interpreted the North Korean attack upon South Korea as direct aggression from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's support for the invasion, however, was limited and not driven by the Soviet leader Stalin. "What the United States got involved with in 1950 was not aggression from the Soviet Union," says historian Walter LaFeber, but "an incredibly bloody Civil War in Korea."
Narrator: Supported by tanks and artillery, seven North Korean infantry divisions - some ninety thousand men - had launched a surprise attack. The crisis that would haunt Truman for the rest of his years in office had begun.
Not long after Truman had become President, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into two hostile parts - a Soviet supported North and an American backed South. Now the North had attacked the South, with just one goal, to unify Korea under communist rule.
George Elsey, Administrative Assistant to the President: He was convinced from the very beginning that the Soviets were behind this. He had no doubts at all of that. We'd seen it as they'd taken over the satellite countries in Eastern Europe, as they had poked and prodded and pressed elsewhere.
Walter LaFeber, Journalist: His initial response was that this was a Soviet directed attack, that he was being directly challenged by Stalin. Stalin did support the invasion but at North Korea's insistence... and it was from a safe distance, by sending Soviet supplies and advisers. What the United States got involved with in 1950 was not aggression from the Soviet Union.
What we got involved with was an incredibly bloody civil war in Korea. There are as many as 100,000 Koreans killed... before the Korean War of 1950 occurred. And I think it's fair to say that Truman knew very little about this background.
Narrator: As Truman headed back to Washington, he turned to the war that had ended just five years before to help him understand the war he was facing now
"Communism was acting in Korea," he wrote, "just as Hitler, and the Japanese had acted earlier... If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea, no small nation would have the courage to resist threats and aggression."
As his plane touched down at National Airport, the President appeared grim. "By God," he would tell his advisers, "I am going to let them have it."
That same evening Truman authorized weapons and supplies to reinforce the South Koreans. The next day, he ordered American planes to strike at the North Korean army.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?