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How the Korean War Started

UN forces' transport vehicles recrossing
Time Life Pictures—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty UN forces' transport vehicles recrossing the 38th Parallel as they withdraw from Pyongyang in 1950

The line between North and South was crossed on June 25, 1950

Though the Korean War started on this day 65 years ago—June 25, 1950—when North Korean tanks crossed the 38th parallel, the boundary with South Korea, TIME’s reporting from the following week reveals it took several days for the United States to realize the scope of what had happened.

It was early Sunday morning in Korea, the middle of Saturday afternoon in Independence, Mo. In the former, TIME reported, “North Korean radio broadcast war whoops” as “past terraced hills, green with newly transplanted rice, rumbled tanks.” In the latter, U.S. President Harry Truman was visiting with friends and supporters in his home state when he received a telephone call from Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

About a day passed. In Korea, American civilians were evacuated as the Southern army rallied to try to hold the line. The 38th parallel was, one State Department official admitted, an entirely arbitrary line, chosen by the World War II victors in Potsdam with no consideration for the geographical, economic or political realities of the country—but it was the border, nonetheless, and it had been crossed. In the U.S., Truman returned to the capital to meet with advisers. The nation had already taken a side and promised help, but the question of how to help was unresolved. “As the tense White House conferences stretched through Sunday night and Monday,” TIME reported, “that question merged with another: Would the rapidly retreating South Koreans be able to hold out long enough for the U.S. to act?”

South Korean President Syngman Rhee said publicly that he was disappointed with the American response: “Our soldiers are very brave. They sacrifice themselves against the tanks . . . Korea is very hard up because aid was so slow. It is too little and too late.” Via North Korean radio, the South was urged to surrender.

Then, on Tuesday, June 27, President Truman and his advisers came to a decision. “Shortly after 11 a.m., the U.S.’s political and military policymakers began to arrive at the White House from the State Department, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill,” TIME reported. “By 11:30 they had closed the high doors of the Cabinet Room behind them. Outside 100 reporters thronged the executive lobby or stood by telephones in the adjacent press room. Exactly at noon, Presidential Secretary Charles Ross stirred them into a whirlwind as he passed out the text of the gravest, hardest-hitting answer to aggression that the U.S. has ever made in its peacetime history.”

The President’s statement, as reprinted in the magazine, began:

In Korea the government forces, which were armed to prevent border raids and to preserve internal security, were attacked by invading forces from North Korea. The Security Council of the United Nations called upon the invading troops to cease hostilities and to withdraw to the 38th parallel. This they have not done, but on the contrary have pressed the attack. The Security Council called upon all members of the United Nations to render every assistance to the United Nations in the execution of this resolution.

In these circumstances I have ordered United States Air and Sea forces to give the Korean government troops cover and support.

The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war.

It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security. In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.

After the statement was read in Congress, though some (like Missouri Senator James Kem) questioned whether the President was in effect declaring war without the proper congressional path to action. Those in Congress who supported the President’s actions carried the day, and the House quickly approved an appropriation bill to fund the military action, which would officially continue for about three more years.

Read more about Truman’s response, here in the TIME Vault: Challenge Accepted

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