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The Coalition War: The United Nations in Korea

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) launched a massive invasion into the Republic of Korea (ROK). Two days later, the United Nations (U.N.), under pressure from the United States, condemned the invasion and asked member nations to help Uncle Sam repel the invaders. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on July 3, 1950, recommending the establishment of a united command under U.S. leadership and the use of the U.N. flag by that command. This action solidified the U.N.’s role in the Korean War and made it the first war (at the time U.S. President Harry S Truman called it a “police action”) to be fought under the U.N. flag.

From the beginning, the United States was anxious to get the support of as many U.N. members as possible.

From the beginning, the United States was anxious to get the support of as many U.N. members as possible, regardless of the kind or amount, and the U.N. secretary general, Trygve Lie, acting under the U.N. Security Council Resolution of July 3, made numerous appeals to member states during the first year for military contributions to help defend the ROK.

57 mm Anti-tank Gun

During the evacuation of South Korean forces from Suwom Airfield, a 57 mm anti-tank gun is hauled out of the area by a weapons carrier. National Archives photo

“The U.S. essentially bankrolled the operation,” explained Lewis H. Carlson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and the author of an oral history of an American POW in the Korean War. “The Korean War was close to the end of World War II, and several nations were still financially destitute. Many U.N. members were not as adamantly anti-communist as was the U.S., but because of its power and influence, the U.S. was able to put a lot of pressure on them.”

Initially, 53 of the U.N. countries that endorsed U.N. intervention in Korea promised some kind of support (food, materials, and medical supplies). “A small number of them actually delivered, so the U.N. coalition was one dominated by the U.S. and its Western European allies,” said J. Edward Lee, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, S.C., and an expert on military history.

“Many U.N. members were not as adamantly anti-communist as was the U.S., but because of its power and influence, the U.S. was able to put a lot of pressure on them.”

During the entire U.N. operation, the U.S. contribution far exceeded that of any other country. The United States clothed, armed, equipped, and fed most of its allies, although each agreed to repay the U.S. government $14.70 per man, per day in the field. The exception was Canada, which paid $16.50.

The U.S. policy on what nations should contribute limited the participation of some nations. The U.N. commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, wanted nations to contribute military units of at least 1,000 men who had received prior training. The countries were also expected to supply their own equipment and artillery support. Later, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who succeeded MacArthur in April 1951, tried to convince U.N. members to increase their forces to no less than a brigade or a regimental combat team.

Royal Marine Commandos

Royal Marines of 41 Commando plant demolition charges along railroad tracks of an enemy supply line, which they demolished during a commando raid, eight miles south of Songjin, South Korea, April 10, 1951. U.S. Air Force photo

This action significantly reduced the number of nations capable of making military contributions, but eventually 15 nations provided ground combat forces, and several others army and air force units. Those nations included Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, the Philippines, and Belgium (whose battalion included personnel from Luxembourg). In addition, Denmark, India, Italy, Norway, and Sweden provided medical detachments.

The South Koreans themselves provided a contingent of so-called “Katusas” for duty with many U.S. Army units, in addition to its own divisions, which were reformed and retrained after being badly mauled in the initial invasion and later during the intervention by Chinese forces. South Korea ended the war with three corps, 16 divisions, and nearly 600,000 men.

Despite its desire to drum up support for the Korean campaign, the United States was influenced by political as well as military considerations.

Despite its desire to drum up support for the Korean campaign, the United States was influenced by political as well as military considerations. Taiwan, for example, was one of the first nations to volunteer ground troops, but this offer was rejected because the U.N. feared Taiwan’s entry into the war would provoke China. The U.N. tried to put a spin on the decision by claiming the rejection of Taiwan’s offer was based on the fact that “its troops were considered to be untrained and [that it] had no artillery or motor transport.”

In October 1950, a U.N. Reception Center (UNRC) was established at Taegu University to “clothe, equip, and provide familiarization training with U.S. Army weapons and equipment to U.N. troops as determined essential for operations in Korea.” Troops from eight countries were processed through the UNRC during the next eight months. Great Britain, however, conducted its own training and didn’t use the center.

United Nations Forces Korean War

United Nations troops of several different countries, distinguished by their headgear and weapons, pose for a photo along the Nakdong River, Sept. 28, 1950. U.S. Department of Defense photo

Britain sent the first non-U.S. or ROK troops into the war, but its relations with the United States deteriorated as the conflict progressed, largely because Britain felt the United States kept it in the dark about the nature and purpose of U.N. operations in Korea. But Britain had to temper its feeling of frustration. “In expressing its criticisms of American policy, Britain had to be aware of the limitations of so doing,” explained Korean War historian Peter Lowe, the author of The Origins of the Korean War. “Britain couldn’t afford a major row with the United States because this would undermine the alliance and the recovery of Western Europe. The frustration was the price that had to be paid for sustaining the alliance.”

On Sept. 15, 1950, U.S. and ROK troops landed at Inchon and forced the North Korean army into headlong retreat. As a result of this brilliant military maneuver, it looked as if the war would soon be over. In anticipation, several nations speeded up the arrival of their troops or pared down the size of their units, or did both. But when China entered the war and countered with a massive force of 300,000 troops, the U.N. coalition realized the war would be protracted, and that it would have to deal with the considerations and issues of maintaining and operating a coalition.

“Coordinating a multinational force in the heat of battle required skill and flexibility,” Carlson explained. “The problem was that the coalition was in a unique situation and had no plan on how best to get the job done.”
Lee said the lack of coordination is best illustrated in the way the United States sent troops to Korea. “It was chaotic,” he revealed. “The U.S. had demobilized after World War II because, historically, it doesn’t like to keep standing armies. So we weren’t ready for Korea, and that reality directly impacted on the course of the war. We took troops that were in San Diego on military leave and literally threw them into the Korean campaign.”

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