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What does the Korean War reveal about the ‘special relationship’?

Refugees fleeing North Korean troops. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans fled south when the North Korean army struck across the border. (US Defense Department, 1950, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Korean War needs to be seen in the wider context of the Cold War which developed in the years after the Second World War (1939–45). As German and Japanese forces surrendered in 1945, the former wartime allies – the US, the UK and the USSR – began to fall out with each other. The USSR’s leader Stalin was determined to secure the future of his country after being devastated by German invasion in the war. He effectively took control of Eastern Europe by supporting Communist governments in all the states there. Stalin also supported the spread of Communist activists in other parts of the world, especially in Asia.

When Japanese forces were driven out of Korea in 1945 there was much debate about how to govern the country. Eventually the peninsula of Korea was temporarily split along the 38th Parallel North, along the geographical circle of latitude, in 1945. The North became Communist, supported by the USSR and then by China when the latter became Communist in 1949; the South became a Capitalist democracy supported by the US. The division of the country was a real source of tension in the area. Once the Cold War developed, and Mao Tse-tung and the Communists gained control of China in 1949, the tension increased. Finally, in June 1950, the North Koreans, perhaps pushed by Stalin, invaded the South.

The US led the protests against this invasion at the United Nations Organisation. The UNO had been set up to deal with international crises. The most powerful element within the UNO was the Security Council. Before 1949 the Permanent Members of the Security Council were the US, UK, France, China and the USSR. When Communists under Mao Tse-tung took power in China in 1949 the US blocked communist China from taking its place in the Council. The USSR boycotted the UNO in protest. But this backfired as it enabled the US to get UN approval for intervention in Korea.

US marines, part of the UN forces, landing at Inchon in September 1950, during the Korean War
(Photo by Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In 1950, a large UNO force, mostly of US forces, entered the civil war on South Korea’s behalf, against the invasion of communism. This was the first time the Cold War turned ‘hot’ and neither side wanted to lose. The war turned in to a bloody fight up and down the Korean peninsula, back and forth across the 38th Parallel until, finally, stalemate led to negotiations and a truce, at the 38th Parallel where the war had started. That truce still holds today – there hasn’t yet been a negotiated end to the Korean War.

Churchill became Prime Minister for the second time in October 1951 when the Korean War had already been going on for fifteen months. He was seventy six on re-election and increasingly unwell, suffering strokes during his premiership. He had a lot to deal with, too: there was still rationing in Britain and the war-damaged economy hadn’t fully recovered. India had become independent; there was a communist-led insurgency in Malaya and problems in Africa and the Middle East. Yet Churchill was determined to hold on to the Empire; as he’d said some years earlier, he didn’t wish to ‘preside over the liquidation of the British Empire’. His leadership was probably less decisive than in the Second World War and he was increasingly preoccupied with international politics. He was eager to use his position as a world renowned statesman to contribute to world peace through diplomacy and his own personal standing. Churchill tried hard to rebuild his ‘special relationship’ with the US throughout his second term in office, with little real return.

Churchill thought security in Europe was much more important than Korea. Britain played a minor part in the fighting in Korea, compared to US troop involvement, but the US wanted Britain’s political support too. Britain was a permanent member of the Security Council of the UN and was thus bound to support UN Resolutions to send troops to resist aggression. Throughout the course of the war, nearly 100,000 British troops (many of them National Servicemen) fought in Korea and over a thousand died. The death of Stalin in 1953 perhaps played a large part in ending the fighting in Korea, even if no political settlement has yet emerged.

American Lieutenant General Mark Clark signing the Korean Armistice at Munsan, South Korea, 27 July 1953. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

➜ Investigation page

➜ The sources

➜ Notes for teachers

Find out more

Korean War chronology
Overview for schools
National Churchill Museum
Imperial War Museum: The Korean War
The National Archives
Winston Churchill and the Cold War – Kevin Ruane
The Birth of the Anglo-American 'Special Relationship' – David Woolner
The Century of the 'Special Relationship': Britain and America in the Age of Churchill – David Woolner