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Five Korean War 'Firsts' Had Lasting Impacts

The Korean War, which ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953, is sometimes referred to as the "forgotten war" or a "police action" because it was overshadowed by World War II several years earlier, and Congress never declared war on North Korea. 

A statue depicts armed service members on the move.
Memorial Statue
Flags from the United Nations, South Korea and the U.S. flags fly behind a statue depicting United Nations soldiers fending off a North Korean attack during the Korean War. The display is located outside the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul, South Korea.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 160604-O-D0439-001A

Despite being sometimes forgotten, the war had five unforgettable firsts. 

Air Force Combat Tested 

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, creating a new military department, the Air Force, which had been part of the Army. The Korean War was the first major combat action of the new department. 

Although the Air Force still relied on World War II-era, propeller-driven combat aircraft, the war debuted the first U.S. use of jet fighters in combat. 

Jets fly in formation.
In Formation
Air Force F-80 Shooting Star fighter jets fly in formation during the Korean War in 1951.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 510604-O-D0439-001A

The National Security Act also placed the War and Navy departments into the Defense Department, which was under leadership of the defense secretary.  

The act created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, as well. 

United Nations Combat Tested 

The United Nations Command was established on July 7, 1950, following the U.N.’s recognition of North Korean aggression against South Korea. 

The command signified the world’s first attempt at collective security under the U.N. U.N. Security Council Resolutions 83 and 84 provided the legal authority for member states to restore peace on the Korean peninsula and designated the United States as the leader of the unified command.   

A service member looks out from a plane.
Frank E. Petersen Jr.
During the Korean War, Frank E. Petersen Jr. become the first Black Marine Corps aviator. He also was a naval aviator during the Vietnam War and became the Marine Corps’ first Black general.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 620604-O-D0439-003A

During the war and reconstruction period following the signing of the armistice, 22 nations contributed either combat forces or medical assistance to support South Korea under the U.N. flag. 

Since the Korean War, forces under the U.N. have participated in multiple peacekeeping missions around the world. 

Containment Policy 

The Truman Doctrine, also known as the policy of containment, laid out a key tenet of Truman's foreign policy, which stipulated that the U.S. would provide political, military and economic aid to democratic countries under communist threat. 

The Korean War was the first wartime test of this new policy, ending the de facto pre-World War II policy of isolationism. 

Today, the U.S. still provides defensive security assistance to democracies under threat, most notably from China and Russia. 

Integration of Armed Forces 

The Korean War was the first war in which the military was desegregated. On July 26, 1948, Truman signed an executive order, desegregating the armed forces. 

Four soldiers sit in a foxhole; one aims a weapon.
Foxhole Fighters
African Americans in the United States military served in integrated units for the first time during the Korean War.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 520604-O-D0439-001A

Although African Americans had served in previous wars, they did so in mostly segregated units. 

The executive order stated that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." 

Code of Conduct 

The code of conduct is an ethics guide for the armed forces, addressing how to act honorably in combat. 

Although the code didn’t exist during the Korean War, it was a result of that war because the communists tortured and tried to brainwash prisoners. 

When the war was over, 21 Americans chose not to be repatriated, attesting to a degree of brainwashing effectiveness, according to a history of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Korean War. 

A poster advertises a movie.
Movie Poster
Poster for the release of the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate” in theaters in the United States.
Photo By: Courtesy of United Artists Corporation
VIRIN: 620604-O-D0439-001

The topic of brainwashing was relatively new to the American public until the 1959 novel "The Manchurian Candidate” was published. The plot involves a U.S. soldier who was taken prisoner during the Korean War and brainwashed. He was repatriated and became a communist sleeper agent who was later tasked with killing a U.S/ political figure. 

The book was adapted to a 1962 film of the same title starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury. 

In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted an executive order for the Code of Conduct. It states: "Every member of the armed forces of the United States are expected to measure up to the standards embodied in the Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity." It is an ethics guide and a Defense Department directive consisting of six articles that address how service members should act in combat when they must evade capture, resist while being held prisoner, or escape from the enemy. 

The Code of Conduct: 

  • I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense. 
  • I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist. 
  • If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy. 
  • If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way. 
  • When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause. 
  • I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America. 

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