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Was the Korean War a Product of the Cold War tensions? Essay

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A. Plan of Investigation.

The aim of this investigation is to asses if the Korean War was a product of the Cold war tensions. This investigation evaluates the long and short term causes of the Korean War. As well as looking at the Cold War as a factor for the Korean war I will also go on to evaluate the importance of internal factors such as Korea wanting to become self determined. I will be looking at the role of the opposing ideologies (communism vs.

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capitalism) and at the role China took in the Korean War.

B. Summary of Evidence.

In the long term the conflict occurred as a by-product of the Cold War tensions, this began after WW2. The USA no longer saw the Soviet Union as its ally but now as an enemy seeking to dominate the world1. By 1949 the cold war tensions were at boiling point because of such events such as the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Aid, and the Berlin Blockade. The USSR and America also had opposing ideologies (communism vs. capitalism)2. After F.Roosevelt died in April 1945 H.Truman took over as president3. He regarded the Soviet Union as an ideological rival prepared to use treason, disruption, and bullying tactics to promote communism and gain ground and power in Europe4. He saw the creation of satellite states in Eastern Europe as proof of a Soviet aim to spread communist control abroad5.

To counter this Truman set up a policy of containment which he hoped would control the spread of communism around Europe which became known as the Truman Doctrine. This stated that the US would aid any county or government under attack by armed minorities6. Also around this time the NSC-68 was published by the US national security also suggesting a new hard line approach towards the Soviet Union7. So to now have the USA occupying the South of Korea and the USSR occupying the North of Korea, both with armed forces, was never going to be a peaceful relationship.

The USA had just opted for a new hard-line aggressive attitude in containing communist expansion and the Soviet Union was set on world domination so both countries had their own reasons to control the whole of Korea. Plus all the mistrust and tensions that had been building up it was no surprise that a war broke out between these two countries in Korea. The USA’s saw the spilt of Korea as a temporary arrangement and their long term aim was to unify Korea under a government chosen by free and fair elections8, but just before the war began both America and the Soviet Union had pulled out of Korea9.

Since 1905 Korea had been ruled by Japan and in 1949 after the defeat of WW2 Japan stepped down as ruler which left a power vacuum in Korea10, this was soon stepped in by America and Russia. This meant from 1905 Korea had been occupied by other countries and not purely by itself. The United States, along with the Soviet Union, decided to split the country in half at the 38th parallel. The Russians occupied North Korea, which now became a Communist state (known as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, DPRK), led by Kim IL Sung. Meanwhile, Syngman Rhee became president of South Korea (known as the republic of Korea, ROK), which was supported by America11. Both dictators believed in nationalism and wanted Korea to be self determined. Also both the dictators wanted the unification of Korea to be under there own name believing that they would be seen as the liberators of Korea and have the greatest respect from their people12.

But to achieve this one of the dictators, from the south or north, would have to invade and take over the other side. Civil conflict in South Korea and growing opposition to the president, Syngman Rhee, persuaded the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, that he would be welcomed by many south Koreans as a liberator intent on overthrowing the Rhee government and reuniting the two Koreans. As a champion of Korean unification Kim would also undermine continuing opposition to his own regime in North Korea. With Moscow’s approval and extensive military aid, Kim sought to unite the Koreas swiftly by force of arms. The North and Kim IL Sung were not only supported by the USSR, China had now come forward to support the communists with men and military aid13.

Evaluation of two Sources:

Containment and Cold War: Conflict in Korea 1950-53 written by Callum MacDonald is a brief article discussing the fact that the Korean War was a product of the Cold War. Callum MacDonald was a senior lecturer in history at the University of Warrick; therefore this gives us a neutral look on the Korean War being a product of Cold War tensions. However even though he is a neutral, as not from coming from a country to involved in the war, he may have a biased view towards this war.

This is quite a valuable source because it talks about facts such as Korea and the Cold War, the eve of the War, if it was a limited war and the intervention of China into the war. This article was published over 10 years ago so it might be that new information about the Korean War has been discovered. This is also quite a limited article because it only talks about the fact that the Korean War was a product of the Cold War and doesn’t discuss the Korean War further into that there may have been other internal factors contributing to the war.

The Origins of the Korean War: Second Edition written by Peter Lowe is the next source I am evaluating. Unlike the first source this is an in-depth book on the origins of the Korean War looking both the social and political evolution of Korea and the policies and motivations of the major powers during the Cold War, he also looks at the importance of the influences of China and other countries into this war This is a quite reliable source because it takes many factors into account and discusses each one fully. The only problem is that once again it is only written by one person, Peter Lowe, who may have had a biased view towards the Korean War.


The American and the USSR’s relationship was already in turmoil because of the events like the Berlin blockade and Truman Doctrine, these flash points had caused tension and misunderstanding between the USA and the USSR because of the actions they each country took. The fact that America and the Soviet Union had different and opposing ideologies meant that, if the USA or USSR brought about any policies they would be a direct threat to each other because their ideologies wanted to achieve different things. Truman becoming president in 1945 is a big turning point in the Americans action against communism; Truman had a strong dislike of communism and thought America should opt for a new hard line approach towards the containment of communism and I believe this was one of the big reasons why the war began.

To show that the relationship was well and truly over in 1950 the NSC-68 was published by the US national security. It was a report by the USA which blamed the communist expansionism of Stalin for the continuation of the Cold War and in it the Soviet Union was considered to be aiming to dominate Europe and Asia as part of the spread of world communism. It recommended much stronger action against communism14. America now saw this as a chance to see if this new more aggressive tactic was going to prove a success in containing the Soviet Union. Even though Both the Americans and the Russians had pulled out of Korea they both were constantly supplying their half of the country with aid and military support15.

Since 1905 Korea had been ruled by a foreign power, who were Japan, and to now have this power vacuum after the war which saw America and the USSR move in meant that Korea still were under foreign rule. Both halves of the country had their own rulers who though were slightly seen to be puppets of their super powers but this wasn’t entirely the case because both dictators believed in self determination and wanted to unite Korea under their own name and nationality and not by some other country16.

By the time the war actually began both countries had pulled out of Korea so it was actually the dictators who had the last say in the beginning of the war and not the super powers. Both dictators from the south and north wanted to unify Korea under their own name so they would not listen to every thing their superpower would have to say. The joining of China to the war also played a big part in the beginning of this war. China was now supporting the communists in the north, this gave Kim IL Sung a lot more support and therefore confidence that he would easily defeat the south17. Syngman Rhee saw this Chinese intervention as maybe another country trying to spread its influence and control in to smaller less wealthy countries, he wanted to unite Korea as one under his name with no other colonial influences and wanted to push China back out of this war.


From looking at all the causes of the Korean War I have come to the conclusion that the Korean War was a product of Cold War tensions. The Cold War by this time was at such a boiling point that any action or policy published by the USA or USSR would seem to be a direct threat to each other. By this time America were in full swing of their policy of containment to prevent the spread of communism by stopping any more spread of this communism into smaller countries such as Korea because the Americans believed in a domino theory18 that if this country fell into the hands of the communists so would the next and so on.

So to have these two countries occupying different sides Korea was always going to cause problems. Even though there was two leaders of South and North Korea trying to untie the country in their own name they were puppets of the USSR and USA because Kim IL Sung was a communist and Syngman Rhee was capitalist so these two dictators would also be aware of the Cold War tensions and would not trust each other. So all the problems encountered in Korea ended up being related to the Cold War.

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