Prewar Context: Western
On the evening of June 24, 1950, President Harry Truman picked up the phone at his home in Independence, Missouri where he was vacationing with his family. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was on the line with surprising and very troubling news. North Korean troops were invading South Korea. Standing there in his bathrobe, Truman was stunned. He had recently read a CIA report that described North Korea as “a tightly controlled Soviet satellite.” If South Korea came under communist control, the president believed other countries in Asia and around the world would too. If the United States didn’t respond aggressively, Truman, Acheson and others feared the entire Asian continent might fall under Soviet control. Truman told Acheson that he thought he should cut short his vacation and fly back to Washington immediately.
By the next morning, 89,000 heavily armed North Korean soldiers were streaming south from North Korea. The South Korean capital city of Seoul was only thirty-six miles from the border. The safety of the city’s one million residents was in jeopardy, and South Korean troops had been caught off guard. Many of them were on weekend leave when the invasion began. Truman ate a quick lunch, kissed his wife Bess and daughter Margaret good-bye, and hurried back to Washington.
He arrived in the capital to a storm of concern among congressional leaders and the media. Major newspapers like the New York Times urged the president to act or risk “los[ing] half a world.” Republicans already blamed him for China’s communist takeover. Now they worried that Truman would be soft on communism in Korea. The president told them that the United States would take a stand. Under a lot of pressure, he declared, “If we let Korea down, the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one piece of Asia after another.”
Western European governments were also panicking. They watched and waited anxiously to see what the United States would do. European empires that had plundered the world for riches and cheap labor now fretted about their very survival. The French were particularly alarmed. After World War II, they had moved to reestablish their colony in Vietnam, but they were being challenged by Ho Chi Minh’s communist-led forces. The British were desperately hanging on to their colony in Malaya. If the United States didn’t fight back in Korea many westerners feared that countries in the eastern hemisphere and across the world would fall like dominoes to the communists. This fear became known as the “Domino Theory.”
Spinning a globe and pointing to the Middle East, Truman told staffers, “Here is where [the Soviet Union] will start trouble if we aren’t careful. . . . If we are tough enough now, if we stand up to them like we did in Greece three years ago, they won’t take any next steps. But if we just stand by… they’ll take over the entire Middle East.” So Truman, many Americans and many Europeans viewed Korea as a domino. If it fell, they feared it might produce a chain reaction resulting in a communist takeover of large parts of the world.
John Foster Dulles, consultant to the Secretary of State, pressed Truman to act, “To sit by while Korea is overrun by unprovoked armed attack would start a disastrous chain of events leading most probably to world war.” Truman and Acheson agreed. On his way into the White House, the president declared, “By God, I’m going to let them [the communists] have it.”
Truman compared the North Korean invasion to the German invasions of neighboring European just over a decade earlier. Then, the failure of Western nations to reign in Hitler had resulted in a stronger Nazi party and world war. Truman was determined not to repeat the same mistake.
Header Photo: National Park Service, Abbie Rowe, Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library.