Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

The Korean War
Mera Kriz
US History
Time Frame:
5 days
Korean War
Cold War

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • Prior to beginning this class, the students will need to have no extensive knowledge on Korea, but maybe understand the importance of this country in retrospect with other Asian countries.
  • WWII has ended and the United States is currently in a Cold War with the Soviet Union East vs. West.
  • Make sure that students understand that many Americans feared the spread of communism.
  • Understand the new role that United States stepped into as WWII end.   (SUPER POWER ---what does this mean)
  • Iterate to the students that history often repeats itself, and as historians we try to learn from our previous mistakes.
  • It is important that the students remember the Munich Agreement between Adolph Hitler and Neville Chamberlain.  
  • How does the Munich agreement play a role with Korea?
  • In this class we will read an array of primary and secondary sources.
  • The students will also watch a documentary on Korea.
  •  The students will analyze the theme song from MASH- Suicide is Painless.
  • Did Truman handle Korea correctly?   What kind of impact did Korea have on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam?

  • My rationale for covering this topic is because I want to focus more time on Asia.
  • So many of my students are of Asian decent (primarily Chinese and Vietnamese), they barely study any Asian history in the curriculum.   Even though the Korean War will be studied in an United States history context, I think it is still important for my students to study the war and hopefully have their interest piqued –to want to continue studying but maybe from a different perspective.
  • To understand the Korean War and how it changed the Cold War.
  • To compare Vietnam and Korea.   Did the actions in Korea have much of an impact as to how Vietnam was handled?

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Massachusetts Frameworks

  •      United States History Learning Strands
  •                   Cold War America at Home:  Economic Growth and Optimism, Anticommunism and                   Reform.
  •                   USII.22, USII.23

Kansas Standards

Benchmark 3: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas,
developments, and turning points in the era of the Cold War (1945-1990).
2. analyzes the origins of the Cold War (e.g., establishment of the
Soviet Bloc, Mao’s victory in China, Marshall Plan, Berlin Blockade,
Iron Curtain).
3. (A) evaluates the foreign policies of Truman and Eisenhower during
the Cold War (e.g., establishment of the United Nations,
containment, NATO, Truman Doctrine, Berlin Blockade, Korean
War, Iron Curtain, U-2 incident).

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.
3.(A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S.
history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating
on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary and secondary sources
to interpret a historical-based conclusion).

Missouri Standards

3aW:  Describe and evaluate the evolution of United States domestic and foreign policies including the Cold War.
3aY:  Describe the changing character of American society and culture.
6N:  Predict the consequences that can occur when institutions fail to meet the needs of individuals and groups.
7A:  Distinguish between and analyze primary and secondary sources.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Boose Jr., Donald W. "Fighting While Talking: The Korean War Truce Talks." OAH Magazine of History 14.3 (2000): 25-29. Print.
  • Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. The American Nation: A History of the United States. New York: Longman, 2000. Print.
  • Guyburgundy. "Korean War Documentary Part 1-3." YouTube. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 July 2012. .
  •  McCullough, David G. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.
  • O'Neill, M. "Soviet Involvement in the Korean War: A New View from the Soviet-era Archives." OAH Magazine of History 14.3 (2000): 20-24. Print.
  • Pierpaoli Jr., Paul G. "Truman's Other War: The Battle for the American Homefront, 1950 - 1953." OAH Magazine of History 14.3 (2000): 15-19. Print.
  • Roberts, Priscilla. "New Light on a "Forgotten War" The Diplomacy of the Korean Conflict." OAH Magazine of History 14.3 (2000): 10-13. Print.
  • Tucker, S. C. "Why Study the Korean War?" OAH Magazine of History 14.3 (2000): 3-5. Print.
  • "Suicide Is Painless (Mash Theme Song)." Suicide Is Painless (Mash Theme Song). N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. .

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • "Speech on the Far East." By Dean Acheson. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. .
  • "Truman Library - Public Papers." Truman Library - Public Papers. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. .
  • Hess, Jerry. "Truman Library - George M. Elsey Oral History Interview, July 7, 1970." Truman Library - George M. Elsey Oral History Interview, July 7, 1970. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2012. .

Full description of activity or assignment.
  • At the beginning of class I will distribute the speech by Dean Acheson given on January 12, 1950, I will ask each student to read the speech.  
  • After the speech is done, I will the students the following questions:
  1. 1.      Who is Dean Achenson and why is he important?
  2. 2.   What is the message in the speech?
  3. 3.   What countries does Dean Achenson mention?   Do you think that he forgets to mention anything?
  • After reading Dean Achenson’s speech, I will hang the map I have of Asia up on the wall – and once again I will ask the class if there are any other countries that maybe he should have mentioned in his speech?
  • I will pass out a map of Korea from the OAH Magazine PG 5 and I will ask the students to keep the map on their desk.
  • I will give a little bit of background on Korea.


KOREA (my class notes) many of my notes are taken from the Teaching Company series.


  • The Korean War really put the containment policy to the test for the first time.
  • Kim Il-Sung, who was the Northern Korean dictator, invaded South Korea in June of 1950.
  • Korea had been one of the many places that had been invaded by Japan during WWII, and it had been temporarily partitioned at the 38th parallel when the Second World War ended – into a Communist and anti-Communist Zone, in the expectation that it would then be reunited by the elections.
  • A speech by Secretary of State Dean Acheson appeared to exclude Korea from the nations under American protection, and it was probably what gave the North Korean dictator confidence that it could get away with an invasion.
  • President Truman and Dean Acheson agreed that they must support the South Korean dictator, SYNGMAN RHEE, who was anticommunist to prevent this invasion from succeeding.
  • American policy makers after the war had in mind what had happened in the 1930s.
  • They said, “Look at the mistakes that Neville Chamberlain and the French leaders made in the late 1930s.  They appeased Hitler.  Instead of standing up to him and fighting back against his straightaway early, when they could have defeated him with relative ease, and they waited and temporized and in the end they fought Hitler when he was much stronger.  Let’s make sure we do not make that mistake again.”
  • American foreign policy after the war was strongly impregnated with this memory: “Let’s fight the enemy when he’s weak and far away, even in places like Korea or Vietnam, rather than having to fight him later, when he is stronger and closer.
  • Because the Soviets were boycotting the United Nations Security Council due to it’s refusal to seat a member from the Communist China, the Americans were able to get a United Nations resolution condemning the North Korean invasion of the South and supporting a United Nations Military invasion action to repel the invasion. (Truman never asked Congress to go to war with Korea)
  • It was overwhelming an American campaign, although it did have the support of other western nations.
  • General Douglas MacArthur was presiding over the rebuilding of the Japanese society on a democratic basis, took command over the American invasion.
  • MacArthur had been in Japan ever since the war had ended and was now laying the foundations of the Japanese economic miracle, and its very rapid recovery and return to the world economic leadership, which it achieved in the 1960s, 1970s and also its conversion to the things like baseball, elements of the American way of life.
  • The invasion of Korea, which MacArthur arranged in the 1950s, was technically very brilliant.
  • However it did not succeed initially as MacArthur had hoped.
  • For 3 months fighting went bad for the Republic of Korea (ROK) and UN Forces.
  • By mid September they were barely hanging onto the Pusan perimeter in the Southeast Corner of Korea.
  • On September 15a new force landed at Inchon synchronized with the breakout at Pusan and the blow made the North Koreans hurry back to North Korea.
  • On October 20 the UN Forces entered Pyongyang (the NK capital)
  • On October 26 they had reached Chosan on the Yalu River border with China.
  • MacArthur had predicted that it would be a total victory by Christmas.
  • On November 25 – 260,000 Chinese volunteers counteracted the UN with support of tanks and planes and turned the tables on the UN.
  • It had become an entirely new war.
  • MacArthur criticized the administration for allowing him to conduct a limited war.
  • He wanted 34 atomic weapons and wanted an air raid on China, a naval blockade and an invasion into the mainland of China through Taiwan.
  • He thought that if they went through Taiwan it would allow Chiang Kai Shek back into the mainland of China.   DM wanted to attack China from 2 different places and if his plan went accordingly they would be pushing back communism.
  • The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley and the other Joint Chief of Staff, in collaboration with President Truman, disagreed, because they said, “If we escalate the war in this way into a campaign against China, there’s every possibility that the other major Communist power, the Soviet Union will enter the war on the Chinese side, and that we’ll have is a terrible escalation, possibly up to nuclear exchanges, over the issues of Korea.  It’s too dangerous.”
  • Truman opposed a bloody war with China.
  • Bradley and Truman himself wanted to concentrate their Cold War energies primarily on Western Europe.
  • Although they favored maintaining a non-Communist zone in South Korea, they did not think that apocalyptic war in this place was adequate.
  • Bradley was quoted as saying. “Total war against China would be the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.  It would be too much of a diversion from the principal concerns, which have to be in Europe.”
  • On April 5 on the floor of the House, the Republican minority leader read a letter by MacArthur that criticized the president.
  • On April 11, 1951 Harry Truman removed the popular MacArthur from all of his command and replaced him with General Mathew B. Ridgeway.
  • By the time the time the truce was finally reached on July 27, 1953 – Truman had relinquished power to Dwight Eisenhower.
  • The truce line followed north of the 38th parallel.
  • No final peace conference ever took place and Korea like Germany remained divided.
  • 33,000 American deaths
  • 103,000 were wounded or missing
  • South Korea had 1 million deaths and North Korea and China had 1.5 million deaths.


Notes that I would also like to include from the David McCullough book

  • Truman was home in Independence when North attacked the South.
  • It was Dean Achenson that called Truman at home.   Dean Achenson was calling from his country home in Maryland
  • He had received a report from the United States Ambassador to Korea, John Muccino.
  • The North attacked the South hard.
  • Achenson took it upon himself to alert the General of the United Nations and to organize a meeting between the U.N. Security Council.   The emergency meeting would be at the Blair House.   The Soviets could have prevented a UN attack but they were boycotting the council because the other countries of the UN were not recognizing Communist China.
  • The attack was a total surprise and never figured high on anyone’s list.


After I lecture the students on Korea…I will show them the documentary on the Korean War.

I will ask the students to take notes  --- and use their notes as a way for me to assess them.


As I watched the documentary here are a few of my notes / questions that I might like to bring up into conversation with my students because a lot of the info will not be in their textbook.


  • There were 24 nations that were involved in this conflict
  • Who were the leaders of North and South Korea?
  • Did anyone know that North and South Korea were still officially at war?
  • Did the physical line that divided North and South Korea surprise anyone?
  • How long did it take the North Koreans to capture Seoul?
  • Were the South Koreans prepared to fight the attacks of the North?
  • Were the North Koreans content with just claiming the capitol of South Korea?
  • Why were the South Koreans scared by the North's attacks?
  • Why were the Americans so quick to get to Korea?
  • Where did the Americans arrive?
  • When the documentary introduces the audience to Douglas MacArthur did anything surprise you?
  • I had no idea that the Operation that MacArthur had orchestrated at Inchon was the largest operation since D-Day.
  • I also think it is fascinating how everything has to go right in battle for it to be successful –weather, tide and time if there are not cooperating could lead to huge disasters.
  • Do you agree with MacArthur’s actions to fight the North?
  • Do you think a different tactic should have been implemented?
  • Did you find anything interesting about the Chinese before they began fighting?
  • I think it is important to remember that Asian countries had very different tactics to Western countries to fighting war.


  • Even though the documentary does not cover this do you think Truman did the right thing by firing MacArthur?


After the students watch the documentary, I will give the students the article why Study the Korean War? By Spencer Tucker.

I will give the students a set of questions to answer as they read the article.


  1. Why was the Korean War a turning point in 20th century history?
  2. What kind of impact did the war have on Korea?
  3. The Korean War impacted the United States how?
  4. The Korean War impacted Germany, the Peoples Republic of China and Indochina how?
  5. What kind of impact did the war have on the military?
  6. Why was the Korean War called the “Forgotten War”?
  7. What is the situation currently in Korea?


Once the students are done reading the above article, I will split the class into groups of 4.  I will then pass out to each group a different article pertaining to the war. 

The articles all come from the OAH Magazine of History Spring of 2000


  • New Light on a “Forgotten War”: The Diplomacy of the Korean Conflict by Priscilla Roberts
  • Soviet Involvement in the Korean War: A New View from the Soviet- era Archives by Mark O’Neill
  • Fighting While Talking:  The Korean War Truce Talks by Donald W. Boose Jr.
  • Truman’s Other War: The Battle for the American Homefront, 1950 -1953 by Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.

Each group will read their given article and read it well enough that they will be able to present to the other students.

After each group has presented…I would like to draw a very large Venn diagram on the board and see if these 4 articles overlap at all.


Pass out pg 783 of David McCullough’s book to the class.   

  • It is a memo from Harry Truman to Dean Achenson ---Harry is thankful for Achenson’s reaction to the fighting in Korea and how he addressed the issue with the United Nations.
  • Hopeful this could generate another class discussion

                        How did the Security Council pass the resolution to go to war?

                        Does Dean Achenson have the power to take the initiative?

                        Why did Truman not go to Congress with a declaration of war?   Should he have?


Role-play the conversation between Jerry Hess and George Elsey  -- with 2 students.

Start with line 356, the conversation took place in July 1970.

What is significant about the conversation about the 2 men?

What do we learn about the interview?


At the end of the unit, give the class lyrics and play the song Suicide is Painless the theme song from MASH.


Have a discussion about the lyrics.

  • After studying the Korean War in great depth…what do the students think about the lyrics to the Song?
  • Maybe even show the first episode of MASH and talk about the significance of the show             and what kind of impact it had on American Pop Culture.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:
  • Create an ABC booklet for the war in Korea using all of the material that we used in class or found on your own.
  • The booklet must be handwritten and written in your own words.
  • You must use all of the letters of alphabet and then you must use terms applicable to unit and explain its significance.
  • Also each word also must have some sort of visual.    (you may be creative)



Syngman Rhee was the president of South Korea.    He was the first president of South Korea.          He was educated in the United States and was president of Korea from 1948 –1960.   Although he          was a strong Nationalist and believed in a capitalistic society.   He was also viewed as being             authoritarian and his politics were believed to be corrupt.  He was exiled to Hawaii in 1960.


  • For XYZ you may use these letters within the word.




The final outcome is sophisticated and thoughtful.


5                      4                      3                      2                      1                      0


The information is accurate, organized and relevant to the topic.


5                      4                      3                      2                      1                      0


Handwriting is neat and legible.


5                      4                      3                      2                      1                      0


Is the project creative and original?


5                      4                      3                      2                      1                      0


Work Cited page written correctly.


5                      4                      3                      2                      1                      0


The project was turned in on time.


5                      4                      3                      2                      1                      0