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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Korea and the Cold Warhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 8:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Two:
Lessons Learned from Korea

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The other thing that happens is not only the extension of the Cold War into a kind of affirmative process, but the mistrust; they come to the conclusion that nuclear arms were a dead end, ironically at the same moment in which the Soviet Union and the United States rapidly develop not only large numbers of weapons, but the delivery systems to make their use mutually assured destruction.

The other lesson that Americans learn from Korea is the inadequacy of their conventional forces. It starts a rapid build-up, a readaptation of the military. New recoilless rifles are rushed to the Korean peninsula for use. New equipment, jets, are introduced. One of the first things that Americans learn is that their vaunted B-29, which was supposed to be an impregnable airplane because it was so heavily armed, because it flew so high, was in fact vulnerable to Russian-made MIG fighters.

Korea also, in the form of conventional warfare, convinces Americans of the need for greater and better technology. When confronted with the massive numbers of Chinese troops, Americans learned very quickly that their advantage had to be in terms of technology, the ability to kill more people at a faster rate than the Chinese could provide on the battlefield. And so war needed to be turned in a new direction, towards massive rearmament, the massive expansion of conventional forces.

Korea also provides an object lesson in how containment could work. The Soviet Union did not want to confront the United States, and Korea starts a pattern by which proxies fight the Cold War, where the Americans will not confront the Soviets at any given point and vice versa. It will be fought through intermediaries.

And finally Korea creates the domino theory, the sense that if not Korea, then where else? And in the second major episode of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, many of the same arguments are then brought out that had been resolved in Korea, and resolved in the way that had built a large consensus. Both the successes and failures on the Korean battlefield came to shape American expectations of triumph in Vietnam: superior technology, superior firepower would counteract numbers; the preoccupation with the kill ratios; the—also, the sense and the expectation that Americans ultimately would triumph because of technology. When American technology started to fail, it also called for the introduction of different variants, of special forces, of different kinds of groups that are intended to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.

In the process, what Korea has done, did for American foreign policy through the Vietnam War was to shape American expectations of triumph, to shape the way in which the war was to be fought. Given what John Kennedy said in his University of Washington speech—the cause of freedom was the cause of Americans—Vietnam becomes a logical extension of that policy. And so intervention is all but ordained because of the processes brought about by the Korean War. Thank you.

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