On June 25, 1950, an army of about 75,000 soldiers from the Soviet-backed communist North Korea surged across the 38th parallel into the pro-Western South Korea. This brazen move started the Korean War and was the very first military action of what would later become known as the Cold War. Within a month, American’s land, air and sea forces joined the battle on behalf of South Korea in what they considered a war against the forces of international communism that aimed to take over the world.
Thanks to the aid of American troops, South Korean forces soon made their way into North Korea, toward its border with China. In return, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops began heavy assaults against the American and South Korean forces. Fighting continued with no clear winners or losers, other than massive casualties on both sides of the conflict.
In July 1951, American officials started peace talks at Panmunjom. The goal was to avoid a larger conflict with Russia and China in what some feared would become World War III. Both sides agreed to a ceasefire that left the 38th parallel boundary in place. But the peace talks stalled over the issue of whether prisoners of war should be forcibly repatriated. The Chinese and North Koreans favored forced repatriation, while the U.S. did not.
While fighting continued, two more years of negotiations eventually led to an armistice that was signed on July 27, 1953. These negotiations were the longest in history—including 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days. Ultimately, commanders on both sides of the conflict agreed to a cease-fire.
The armistice called for a committee of representatives from neutral countries to decide the fate of the thousands of prisoners of war on both sides. The committee agreed that POWs should decide whether to stay where they were or return to their homelands. In addition, a new border was created between North and South Korea, giving South Korea additional territory, while also setting up a demilitarized zone between the two nations that still divides the Korean peninsula today.
The Korean War is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten War” because of its place in the timeline of U.S. history—between World War II and the Vietnam War. To ensure we never forget, each year the President of the United States issues a proclamation announcing July 27 as a day of national observance in honor of the 5.7 million Korean War veterans and their families, including some 50,000 U.S. soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Official observances of National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day are held on military bases and at military cemeteries, such as Arlington National Cemetery, where flags are flown at half-staff.
In 1995, the Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. The memorial is an excellent place to learn about the importance of the Korean War to our military history—and to honor our troops and allies. For those unable to visit the memorial, you can explore it online via the memorial’s website.
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