In agreement with the Potsdam Conference of 1945, Korea was divided into the North and the South along what was called the 38th parallel. The South (Republic of Korea) was to fall under the sphere of influence of the U.S., while the North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) was to fall under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The leader of the recently formed North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, sought to unify Korea. In a meeting with Stalin in April 1950, Stalin supported his cause for reunification, only if the People’s Republic of China did so as well. In May 1950, Mao Zedong also approved Il-Sung’s plan for reunification and assured him the United States would not interfere with a Korean conflict because of the 38th parallel agreement in place with the U.S.S.R. Since China was not involved in the agreement, they were free to participate and not worry about U.S. intervention. On June 24, 1950, the North Korean Army, also known as the Korean Peoples Army, crossed the 38th parallel border and invaded South Korea.
By the next morning, 89,000 KPA crossed the 38th parallel and had almost reached Seoul. Upon hearing this news, President Truman cut his vacation short and travelled to Washington where he was immediately hounded by reporters. To offset this already grim situation in Korea, he instructed all of them to not exaggerate the attack and not to make it alarmist. Although Truman and his entire administration believed in taking action in Korea, he did not want to scare the public into thinking this was a full scale war. Truman believed failing to handle the crisis carefully would lead the domestic public to demand a strong response against the real perpetrators, the Soviet Union.
For the next two days, the media bombarded the press offices in the White House, State Department and Pentagon with questions ranging from whether there were alerts ordered by U.S. commanders in Alaska to the level of veracity of the claim that General MacArthur “would defend Korea as he would the shores of California.” To this point, no one in the media knew how America would respond. As NBC’s David Brinkley said, “Just what this government will do now aside from rushing in more arms, is not made public…..A kind of lid has been put on all the town’s usual sources of information-maybe because no one is sure of what to say.”
As the North Koreans were approaching Seoul, President Truman ordered U.S. Air and Naval power to support the South Koreans, however, any American military action was to occur below the 38th parallel. Truman stressed that he did not want to go to war. He then held a briefing and released a statement to the press announcing that the U.S. was working with the United Nations to deal with the crisis. As the days passed and confusion grew regarding the U.S. response, President Truman attempted to provide clarification. At a press conference on June 29, a journalist asked “Mr. President, everybody is asking in this country, are we or are we not at war.” Truman emphatically declared “we are not at war.” The journalist then asked would it be correct “to call this a police action under the UN,” Truman replied “that is exactly what it amounts to.”
That day, General MacArthur visited Seoul and saw shellfire, burning buildings and long lines of retreating troops and refugees. Additionally, he was told that only 24,000 of the 98,000 South Korean troops could be located. MacArthur reached the conclusion that U.S. troops needed to be thrown into South Korea or the North Koreans will have succeeded. After receiving this recommendation the next day, Truman agreed with the assessment and allowed for the immediate use of one combat unit from MacArthur’s command in Japan. Later, the White House released another statement from Truman announcing MacArthur had been authorized to use certain supporting ground units in Korea. On Saturday, Truman went ahead with his pre-planned cruise on a yacht seeking to exude calmness and confidence to America. When he returned on Sunday, the press was forbidden to ask any questions.
By the second weekend of the crisis, as the President tried to relax on his cruise along the Chesapeake Bay, a number of officials in the State Department began to worry that a tension had emerged between keeping the home front cool and keeping Congress up to speed. The U.S. Department of State’s congressional liaison officer, Jack McFall, found that there was a desire from the Hill for a full presidential report to a joint session of Congress. Additionally, there was still the absence of congressional authorization for sending U.S. troops to Korea which caused further controversy. Truman agreed to private consultations with different members of Congress, however, he believed a high profile speech during a joint session of Congress at the current stage of the crisis risked panic and may contribute to “war hysteria.” On July 4, the first American troops were preparing to battle North Korean forces at Osan, just 30 miles south of Seoul. However, Truman continued to present a calm image, instructing his press office to tell journalists he would be spending the holiday relaxing with his daughter.
A survey conducted by the Associated Press found that there was no well-known newspaper opposing Truman’s policies with the exceptions of the Daily Worker and the Chicago Tribune. Some of his critics, such as Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard press told the White House,
We all want to help….no difference of opinion we may entertain about details or methods, and certainly no selfish interests of our own, will ever cause us, knowingly or intentionally, to become obstructionists or to give anything less than our all out support to the effort to win the war.
Further, the Chair of Scripps-Howard ordered his cartoonist who made caricatures of Truman to tone down his illustrations. As he privately explained to the administration,
No matter what anyone thinks of him, he will be the President for the next two years and at a time like this I don’t think it will add to the morale of our readers to picture the commander-in-chief as a grinning nincompoop. Many might wish for Eisenhower or MacArthur, but we have Harry.
Frustration with the White House
It soon became clear that the widespread endorsement President Truman received was only to the extent of the actual decision to intervene. When it came to issues such as why North Korea had invaded South Korea to begin with or how the U.S. intervention fit into the broader pattern of the Cold War, the administration was overwhelmed with criticism from at least two groups. The first was group was the Washington press corps, which was becoming frustrated by the distinct lack of information being produced from official sources. Although this was known to be a period of “objective” journalism, because Truman and the rest of the government made very few “official facts” available, reporters began looking to other places to write their stories. In what became very common, reporters began to purely speculate. The press offices inside the West Wing and State Department were soon bombarded by questions ranging from whether Vyacheslav Molotov, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, was in the Far East directing Korean operations, to the rumor that Truman had called Stalin to discuss the whole crisis.
Since no presidential statement had been made as of June 30, journalists swarmed the White House pressroom on July 5 after being tipped off by sources in Congress that an important new policy announcement was in the making. However, staying with Truman’s policy of “keeping the calm,” the White House played down any announcement of a new policy. Earlier that morning at a cabinet meeting, Truman authorized the Pentagon to increase military forces by more than one hundred thousand within the next twenty-one months with the hope that they would not have to extensively use the draft. Fearing that if he had announced this directly from the White House there would be “war hysteria,” Truman delegated the responsibility to the Pentagon. The only news that came out of the White House that day was the decision to ask Congress for a supplemental appropriation for the Hydrogen bomb, something that had been anticipated for a while and was only for the construction of a facility for a project that had already been agreed on earlier that January.
Consequences of Truman’s Policy
Believing that something serious was in progress and being denied a steady stream of “official facts” regarding Korea, reporters and editors no longer restrained themselves with their articles. On July 6, the New York Times, which was usually measured, took out a page-wide banner headline stating “TRUMAN ORDERS INCREASES IN ARMED SERVICES, DRAFT IF NEEDED.” This incident was an example of the White House’s strategy backfiring. Journalists were forced to rely on their observations of what was going on and determine what was important and how their information should be presented because the White House kept them out of the information loop. Furthermore, the administration lost control over the public debate. More worrying for Truman was that reporters began to do the exact opposite of keeping the home front cool by writing articles that the draft was going to be enforced soon and a Hydrogen bomb was being built.
On July 7, newspapers from all around the U.S. began concluding that the government’s low-key posturing regarding Korea was evidence of excessive confidence. The Scripps-Howard papers, whose Chair had just told the White House days ago that the papers would be more supportive of Truman, began criticizing Truman for his “optimistic” press conference remarks and wrote, “this is no time for politics as usual-no time for Mr. Truman to be encouraging unfounded confidence.” The Washington Star followed in the Scripps-Howard papers’ steps stating “We must do more than we are doing now, and if we err it should be on the side of doing too much.” Drew Pearson, a well-known American Columnist of his day told his listeners, “there is a total war in Korea, but there is only a 50 percent war in Tokyo and about 10 percent war in Washington.”
Since the Truman Administration had a muted stance on providing information, the Republicans were able to present their version of what was going on in Korea. Many within the Republican party, such as New Hampshire Representative, Styles Bridges, suggested that the administration’s bold, but delayed action had finally ended the “appeasement” policy of communism in Asia. Many mainstream magazines and newspapers such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New York Herald Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Wall Street Journal repeated the claims that Truman’s stand in Korea ‘marks an almost complete reversal” in government policy. The New York Times agreed, “The present action comes late…..appeasement does not serve peace.” Furthermore, instead of the situation in Korea being interpreted as a matter of the U.S. and the UN uniting to halt a bold act of communist aggression the situation could now also be interpreted as another byproduct of the Truman administration’s previous neglect of Asia. By mid-July, it became clear the situation in Korea would require more than a short, sharp infusion of men and material. It was a full-scale war that may take months to win. Thus, Congress would have to request as much as $10 billion in additional funds. Truman realized he had to work on an address to tell the public what the war was about. During this time, the attention shifted from Washington D.C. to Korea and the battlefield.
Since journalists were not given any information from the government, they began focusing on Korea where General MacArthur was leading the troops. Unfortunately for President Truman, MacArthur was a heavy believer in freedom of the press because it was one of the liberties that differentiated democracy from communism. MacArthur promised “all news of non-strategic value or that will not aid and abet the aggressors will be released as early as possible.” At one point he announced that the U.S. was “actively intervening in the Korean civil war.” To limit the damage of what MacArthur said, the State Department soon sent out instructions to every government official to use terms such as “North Korean invaders” or “International Communist invaders” instead of more neutral phrases such as “North Korean forces.”
MacArthur was such a firm believer in freedom of the press that on July 2, MacArthur issued his press officer, Colonel Marion P. Echols, to release his media policy stating “The word censorship is abhorrent to General MacArthur as it is to all believers in freedom of the news and a true democratic society.” However, he asked the media to exercise voluntary restraint as inaccurate and irresponsible reporting could hurt American interests and endanger the lives of infantry. This policy granted war correspondents many freedoms whilst reporting. They were able to travel anywhere along the front, they were provided officer uniforms and were allowed to report on whatever they saw, only having to remove any detailed information that could assist the KPA.
On June 27, four reporters, Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News, Burton Crane of the New York Times, Frank Ginny of Time, and Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune who had landed at an airfield outside of Seoul just as the U.S. Korean Military Advisory Group was preparing to evacuate the capital, witnessed signs of panic and defeat. Over the next few days, all of them witnessed the catastrophe firsthand. While in Seoul, they were forced to quickly vacate the city because there were rumors of the KPA entering. As they were in the process of heading south, along with thousands of refugees, a group of South Koreans prematurely blew up a major bridge leaving them all stranded until they were able to clamber to the other side.
Tom Lambert of the Associated Press asked Major General John H. Church, head of the military survey team sent by Truman and unaware of his “keep the home front cool,” approach, what would happen if the U.S.S.R. intervened. Church replied, “If the Russkies come down, we’ll fight the Russkies.” After hearing these comments and seeing the destruction by the Soviet-supplied North Korean army, Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News wrote in a widely syndicated report, “I have a feeling that I have just witnessed the beginning of World War III.”
Lambert also wired home news that the South Koreans had given up by June 30. According to his sources at the U.S. command post, the South Koreans had “refused to mine roads and walked away from the fighting after having told the Americans they would keep battling.” The United Press recounted how the South Koreans “blew up a bridge without warning when both Americans and South Koreans were still on it” and described the South Koreans as “trigger happy” explaining that “they laugh uproariously when a gun is discharged accidentally. Some South Korean guards have a habit of shooting first and challenging afterward, and several soldier hitchhikers have fired on jeep drivers who would not give them rides.” An American soldier went as far as telling the UP “South Koreans fight with 25 percent ferocity, when they actually fight, and there has been no report that they have taken prisoners on a mass scale. If World War III broke out, South Korea would be safer than New York.”
By the end of the first week of intervention, Gallup reported that 81 percent of the mass public supported Truman’s decision to aid South Korea, while the White House press office informed reporters that the President was receiving letters from the public amounting to ten in one Americans in favor of sending U.S. aid to Korea.
A poll was conducted on July 28, 1950, almost a month after the U.S. had sent troops to South Korea, asking “Do you think the United States is now actually in World War III–or do you think the present fighting in Korea will stop short of another world war?” 53% of respondents believed that they were in World War III while 30% believed the fighting would stop short of another World War. The same poll was taken again on September 29, 1950, this time with 45% of respondents believing they were in World War III, while 39% believed the fighting would stop short, an 8% decrease in belief of a third world war from the first poll. It was taken for a third time between November 12th-17th 1950, this time with 50% believing they were in World War III and 30% again believing the fighting would stop, a 5% increase in belief of a third world war from the second poll. Additionally, a poll conducted in August of 1950 asking “Do you think the United States made a mistake in going into the war in Korea, or not?” 65% said it was not a mistake while 20% believed it was.
While the military was free of many of the problems that plagued the Vietnam experience with the absence of television, the ease of controlling journalistic access to the fighting, and a more rigid code of censorship detailing what reporters could write, the Korean War was still an unpopular conflict. President Truman had good intentions when he attempted to limit information leaving the White House for fear of starting a war hysteria, however, this approach ended up backfiring in many instances. It is possible there would not have been such a frenzy and the public may have even been more supportive of the war in the long term had Truman fully entrusted the media from the beginning.