The US had just defeated 1 Axis power and contributed greatly to the defeat of another. Its soldiers saw wide ranging combat experience over the 3 years in conflict against veteran soldiers of Germany and Japan. Both Axis powers also have much higher technical expertise and industrial output than North Korea or China. Yet, the US was unable to commit itself and win the war decisively, or even conduct any operation which dealt heavy damage to the communist forces. Why?

The period of time was also during the middle of the 'Red Scare' so motivations could not possibly be the reason. The Korean war, unlike the Vietnam war, was also not a guerrilla conflict but involved large army formations which should've played right into the US military's strengths.

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    Single-handedly?!! I'm not sure where you get that from, but you might want to check your sources again.
    – Luke_0
    Aug 13, 2013 at 17:52
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    @AmericanLuke - I suspect he's thinking of Japan. Not that this would be totally true either...
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 13, 2013 at 18:04
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    To go on the off-topic tangent, I don't consider the token forces the commonwealth committed during the pacific campaign to be in any way a significant contribution when compared to the astronomical amount the US put in to defeat Japan. Sure, there were heroes in Burma and New Guinea but they were all sideshows when dealing with the defeat of Japan as a whole (much like the Philippines campaign was, except the Philippines sucked in much more Japanese men and material). If you would like to discuss my views, please take it to chat or a new question :) Aug 13, 2013 at 18:12
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    But bulk of the fighting against the Japanese was done by the Asians themselves, such as the Chinese and the Indians (through British Indian Army).
    – Arani
    Aug 13, 2013 at 18:55
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    @Arani yes you're right Aug 13, 2013 at 19:29

4 Answers 4


Its soldiers saw wide ranging combat experience over the 3 years in conflict against veteran soldiers of Germany and Japan.

I believe you have answered your own question: The USA was war weary and looked forward with optimism to a time of peace. "The Red Scare" was simply that - a scare - nothing more. The country was trying put itself back together: There was very little interest or motivation on the part of those combat scarred veterans or their families to shove off to the distant shores of China and Korea and fight a nebulous red chimera in another brutal war. In short "motivation" was the indeed the determining factor.

It was not a question of not being able to win, but of not wanting to devote the requisite blood and treasure victory would have required. Unlike some other nations, ruled by despots and military leaders, in the USA the domestic political climate directly impacts foreign policy particularly with respect to wars: The President and Congress are in charge of waging war, and they are civilians, who owe their power directly to the civilian electorate. If the electorate objects to a war, the elected officials will very soon take notice. This pattern has been repeated many times in the course of American History, back to the USA's earliest days.

Initially, the USA was very wary of becoming engaged in a ground conflict in Korea: At the same time, the Administration was worried that a war in Korea could quickly widen into another world war should the Chinese or Soviets decide to get involved as well... The Administration still refrained from committing on the ground because some advisors believed the North Koreans could be stopped by air and naval power alone.

But the Korean conflict was becoming increasingly protracted, complex and deadly - the first of the modern American "quagmires": There were serious setbacks in the fighting around the 38th parallel in early 1951, and the USSR had started getting involved in the Spring of 1951. At that point, Truman himself, who had gone into Korea (under the cover of a UN 'police action') hoping the the US could limit its involvement principally to air strikes and some naval action, became pessimistic about the situation in Korea, as the prospect of a large scale ground war loomed imminent - something he never wanted, and knew would be be politically unsustainable: MacArthur threatened to destroy China unless it surrendered. While MacArthur felt total victory was the only honorable outcome, Truman was more pessimistic about his chances once involved in a land war in Asia, and felt a truce and orderly withdrawal from Korea could be a valid solution. Certainly, the USA could have used nuclear weapons (as McArthur suggested) to settle things, but in Truman's mind, that was the last, worst option, both internationally and domestically.

In fact, the failure to quickly resolve the Korean Conflict was a factor in Truman's decision not to run for President in 1952 (the 22nd Amendment did not apply to Truman: "...But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress..." the 22nd was proposed in 1947, ratified in 1951 - all while Truman was President) - his popularity had sagged in part due to the situation in Korea, not unlike the situation Lyndon Johnson faced in 1968, when the conflict in Vietnam was so problematic for him, due to its domestic unpopularity, and was a factor in his decision not to run for re-election at that time.

It would have been impossible for Truman to muster the political support necessary for an extended full blown war against China and possibly the USSR in such a domestic political climate, simply because of a "scare" on the other side of the world, and Truman knew it.

In the presidential campaign of 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who subsequently emerged victorious, included a promise to end the war in Korea: Many of his radio and television commercials discussed topics such as... ending the war in Korea. i.e : It was an unpopular war.

UN intervention and Armistice, engineered by Eisenhower's administration, was really the only viable option.

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    You have forgotten the 22 Amendment to the US Constitution: "Limits the number of times that a person can be elected president: a person cannot be elected president more than twice, and a person who has served more than two years of a term to which someone else was elected cannot be elected more than once" from here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Truman could not have run again in 1952. Aug 14, 2013 at 3:02
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    @PieterGeerkens : Good catch, but "...But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress..." 22nd was proposed in 1947, ratified in 1951 - all while Truman was President: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1952 : Unpopular incumbent President Harry S. Truman decided not to run after a poor primary showing.. (Nor did it apply to Johnson, who had only served a little of 1 year of Kennedy's term)
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 3:19
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    Of course it applies only to Truman! Truman was the very reason that clause was written (by Republicans. mostly who were still angry at FDR). Aug 14, 2013 at 3:26
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    I had to think a bit about the wording, but you are correct; Truman could (and actually did briefly) run in 1952. I suspect Truman was exempted as a compromise to get States' ratification faster. Aug 14, 2013 at 3:47
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    @PieterGeerkens: "was written (by Republicans. mostly who were still angry at FDR": I object to this language. Considering the power of the modern American president (which has increased almost continually since the Civil War and WW1) and the tremendous power that FDR acquired for himself, the 22nd Amendment serves a very valuable purpose in protecting American liberty:
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 5:01

Actually , given the dire situation in Korea when the US entered the war, with only a shrinking beachhead around Pusan left in South Korean hands, I venture that the US did win the Korean War.

We are misled by the hopes that MacArthur engendered with his amazing landing at Inchon. Unfortunately MacArthur's complete mismanagement of both supplies and his own perimeter ensured that the initial success of the landing was only ever going to be just that.

For North Korea to win, given the immense initial advantage they obtained, they would have to have made serious inroads on the starting border. After three hard years of fighting the border was essentially back to where it had begun, and South Korea became an economic success story for the North to pine at jealously.

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    P.S.: MacArthur was a bold, imaginative and charismatic leader of men, but only a competent commander overall due to his complete disdain for the niceties such as logistics, as evidenced by his famous quote on Eisenhower: "The best clerk I ever had.". He was perhaps ideally suited for the Island Hopping that the US engaged in for three years in the Pacific Theater, but while Eisenhower could easily have replaced MacArthur in the Pacific, MacArthur could never have replaced Eisenhower in Europe. Aug 14, 2013 at 3:17
  • I will not downvote because it's an interesting perspective. But victory in war must be measured by the objective of that war: The USA's objective in Korea was as much to protect Japan its protecterate and nexus of power in that part of the world at that time, as it was to protect Korea. And in that respect, it's highly questionable IMO if the US succeeded: the large communist presence in N.Korea continued to pose a threat to Japan, albeit not to the same degree that it would have, had they taken the whole Korean Peninsula. –
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 4:03
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    @Vector North Korea was never a huge threat after the war. Japan and South Korea prospered economically. The objectives you state was clearly achieved. Aug 14, 2013 at 4:09
  • Deleted 8 comments here, starting roughly where things started to veer from "clarifying the answer" to "discussion". Not that the dicussion wasn't interesting, but it doesn't belong here. Please take it to chat if you'd like to continue.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 14, 2013 at 14:18
  • @LennartRegebro North Korea was never a huge threat after the war. I'm pretty sure South Korea will disagree with you. North Korea has the 5th largest army in the world, which currently stands twice as big as the South's. Japan can't feel too good about that either.
    – DrZ214
    Aug 26, 2015 at 22:04

What does win mean?

Did you achieve what you originally aimed to do? Then maybe U.S. and allied forces did "Win" as they achieved the mandate of Security Council Resolution 84 to "furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the attack".

References 1. UN Security Council, Resolution 84 (1950) of 7 July 1950, 7 July 1950, S/RES/84 (1950), available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f1e85c.html [accessed 14 August 2013]


In World War II, the United States had the assistance of the Soviet Union and China, countries with two of the largest armies in the world, that tied down large numbers of Axis troops while the U.S. administered the coup de grace.

In Korea, the United States was fighting both China and the Soviet Union, the former, "officially," the latter, tacitly, who provided T-34 tanks (then, among the best in the world) to the North Koreans, as well as diplomatic support. Not to mention MIGs, some of which may have been manned by Soviet pilots.

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    @SchwitJanwityanujit Again your claims are obviously contra-factual. Claiming that the US has as much manpower as China is ridiculous. Aug 14, 2013 at 4:06
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    @LennartRegebro - I don't think Schwit is talking about head counts, he means what he mentioned in his question: "Its soldiers saw wide ranging combat experience over the 3 years in conflict against veteran soldiers of Germany and Japan. Both Axis powers also have much higher technical expertise and industrial output than North Korea or China" - so I suggest you be more judicious in your use of such terms as "ridiculous" - they serve no purpose but to inflame tempers, particularly when your claims miss the point. Make your point and leave out the gratuitous and dismissive adjectives.
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 4:26
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    @SchwitJanwityanujit The answer is actually quite good because it highlights the importance of the Soviet assistance to North Korea, a very important factor in the war. Tom did over-assess the strength of the T34 tank which was beaten by M26 but there is a fine point here too: the M26s only arrived at the point the US forces were holed up in Pusan. Perhaps without the T34s the North Korean offensive before Pusan would not have been that successful. Aug 14, 2013 at 6:23
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    @SchwitJanwityanujit And another thing that ought to have been mentioned in the answer is the major Air assistance of the USSR to North Korea (actually, the air war was being fought mainly by Soviet pilots). See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Aug 14, 2013 at 6:24
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    @SchwitJanwityanujit: China just completed a civil war featuring 3-4 million men on each side in 1949. That's far more men with recent combat experience than the United States had (its World War II veterans had been mostly demobilized, and were engaged in civilian pursuits like creating a baby boom), and the "new generation" of soldiers wasn't as good.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 14, 2013 at 12:53

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