Welcome Party Ted Zuber Korean War
July 27, 2011

The Korean War

July 27, 2011 is the 58th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. Look back at the three-year conflict that took more than 26,000 Canadians overseas, causing 516 to lose their lives.

In December 1947 Prime Minister Mackenzie King chastised his external affairs department for agreeing to membership on the UN Temporary Commission for Korea. Nevertheless, on 27 July 1950, after King’s funeral, his former colleagues decided in principle to contribute a Canadian Army unit to assist UN forces in Korea. In the government’s view, Canada would fight not for Korea but for the UN and the principle of collective security.

Welcome Party Ted Zuber Korean War

Welcome Party, Ted Zuber, alkyd on canvas, 1993, 24" x 32". Canadian replacement troops report to the forward platoon sergeant up on the "hook" position, Korea, January, 1953. One of the dead has his arm up in a posture much like waving; hence the title (courtesy the artist).

The war (1950-53) had begun 25 June 1950. The next day General Douglas MacArthur informed US President Harry Truman that South Korean defences were collapsing and defeat was imminent. The Americans decided to help the south defend itself against the communist north, but through the UN. The UN General Assembly was dominated by Western countries and, since the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council because of the UN’s refusal to seat the new communist Chinese regime in Council, they could not exercise a veto. The Security Council thus condemned the North Koreans and called on UN members “to render every assistance” to the beleaguered south. The Americans quickly offered air and naval assistance. On 28 June 1950 Lester Pearson, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs, commended them, believing that Canada must respond as well through the UN and under US military leadership.

In 1950, perhaps the worst period for Cold War fears, Canadians accepted and even encouraged American leadership in resistance to communist expansion. There was, however, some fear that the Americans were too impetuous in defending the “free world.” Pearson therefore emphasized that Canada’s participation was part of a UN, not an American, operation. Initially, Canada contributed 3 destroyers and an air-transport squadron. The Americans, thinking this inadequate, used UN Secretary General Trygve Lie to pressure Canada and other nations to expand their efforts. The Canadian government needed little external pressure; domestic interests exerted the necessary influence. Even the socialist CCF urged the government to commit ground forces. Canada’s major difficulty was the weak state of the armed forces, but on August 7 Prime Minister St. Laurent announced rearmament measures and plans for a Canadian Army Special Force (CASF) to carry out Canada’s UN obligations.

At first it appeared that Canadian soldiers would never fire a shot. Under MacArthur UN forces drove the North Koreans back to the border at the 38th parallel. Canadians and most others expected MacArthur, having vanquished the aggressor, to halt. To Pearson’s shock and disappointment, he did not. Canada nevertheless publicly supported the US decision to carry the war into the north. Now the Canadians sought to restrain the American-dominated military action lest the Chinese communists be drawn into battle. By the end of October Chinese “volunteers” crossed the Yalu River, driving back the UN forces. Pearson’s concern was expressed publicly in mid-November when he emphasized that Canada had always sought a “confined and localized” war that did not imperil the security of “Korea’s neighbours.” MacArthur did not exaggerate when on 28 November 1950 he called it “an entirely new war.” Canadians would not escape the battles.

Korean War

Patrol in Korea: Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry returning from patrol in Korea, 1951 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-128073).

In December 1950 the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry landed in Korea, and in May the CASF followed. The Canadians fought on rough terrain and in an unfamiliar environment. The UN forces established a stable front near the 38th parallel, and until the war ended 27 July 1953, the fighting took place along this line. Canadians distinguished themselves in a major engagement at Kap’Yong on April 1951. There were 21 940 Canadians who served in the army and approximately 3600 naval personnel. Eleven army officers, 298 other ranks and 3 sailors fell in action. Fifty-nine officers and 1143 other ranks were wounded or injured. By all accounts, the Canadians performed admirably.

Pearson and his colleagues had thought American leadership essential, but its character became increasingly troubling. First, there were careless remarks by President Truman about General MacArthur’s right to decide alone on the use of atomic weapons. Then, MacArthur clearly indicated that he wanted to expand the war into China, an action that might have caused World War III. Even Truman’s firing of MacArthur on 10 April 1951 failed to remove many concerns.

During the war, Canadian diplomats sought to “constrain” the American decision makers from the risky actions they sometimes considered. Certainly the Canadians worked with exceptional zeal and skill in UN corridors and in Washington offices to advance arguments for a negotiated peace. Their influence, however, remains open to question. Although some Canadians believe Canada’s actions did restrain American aggressiveness, it must be admitted that American evidence offers little support. The Korean War has thus become part of a larger historical controversy concerning the nature of Canadian-American Relations.

Read the article on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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About John English

John English is a professor of history at the University of Waterloo, a former MP, and the author of the acclaimed two-volume biography of Lester Pearson, The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson, Vol. 1:1949—1972, and Shadow of Heaven: The Life of Lester B. Pearson Vol. 2, along with several other books on Canadian politics.

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