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The Cold War Turns Hot
by John Biewen

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National Archives and Records Administration

The news came, finally, on July 27th, 1953. After three years of staggeringly bloody warfare and two years of halting negotiations, a U.S.-led United Nations team and Communist representatives from North Korea and China signed a truce in Panmunjom, North Korea.

A Universal Studios newsreel put it this way: "The long war, undertaken to stop Red aggression, is over. The enemy holds less territory than before his troops marched, but the cost has been bitter for both sides…."

The war had ended in stalemate, with Korea still divided. Two million or more Koreans and Chinese were dead - along with almost 37,000 Americans. The Americans who fought in Korea returned home not to parades but, mostly, silence.

In this special report, we explore a war that's often overlooked, but that helped to define global politics, and American life, for the second half of the 20th century.

Vince Krepps at the Korean War Memorial
Photo: Steve Schapiro
Vince Krepps is a smallish, soft-spoken man, 72 years old - a typical age for a Korean War veteran. He's one of the roughly one million veterans of that war alive today. Vince steps lightly on the big granite map under his feet, the map of the Korean peninsula. It's part of the Maryland State Korean War Veterans Memorial, which lies along a little-traveled part of Baltimore's inner harbor.

Vince walks off the north end of the map, into where China would be, and points to the list of names etched into the slightly-elevated stone arch that wraps around the memorial.

"I think the K's start in the next tablet over," he says. He finds what he's looking for. "He's the third marker, the third name down that's etched in marble here. 'Krepps, Richard W.'"

Losing a brother is devastating for anybody. But when Vince Krepps came into the world in the little coal and steel town of Linwood, Pennsylvania, in 1931, his twin brother Richard came right behind him.

"We were never parted," he recalls. "Oh, we got measles together, we got everything together, you know. And as we got older we went on dates together with the girls that we met. We joined the Army together - was in the same platoon, just different squads."

The 19-year-old twins landed in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division in the summer of 1950. They'd come for what President Truman called a 'police action.' That's a phrase that infuriates Korea veterans to this day.

"I heard it started from a reporter and he [Truman] just picked up on it," says Vince. "Somebody says, 'You mean this is a police action?' He says, 'Yes, that's what it is, it's a police action.' We was only over there for a short period of time to chase the North Koreans out of South Korea and the war would be over in a few months and we'd all be home.

"But it didn't turn out that way."

In the late 1940's, with World War II freshly behind them, Americans hoped peace and prosperity had finally come to stay. Millions bought new homes in the suburbs and had babies; there was talk of a new gadget called a television; Perry Como sang about doing as you please "in a land where dollar bills are falling off the trees," in his hit, "Dreamer's Holiday."

But as the 40s closed, an emerging global enemy looked ready to cut the holiday short.

President Truman delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, January 4th, 1950
National Archives and Records Administration
In September, 1949, President Harry Truman announced that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb the previous month. Just weeks later, Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung took power in China. In January, 1950, accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury.

The Red Scare was on, in Senator Joseph McCarthy's speeches and in radio debates about whether to officially ban the U.S. Communist Party.

American leaders said they'd learned from their experience with the Nazis that the U.S. needed to confront the world's bullies sooner rather than later.

At the same time, though, the United States had dramatically downsized its military. Especially in Asia. Almost nobody guessed that the first big test of the Cold War would come in Korea, the Utah-sized peninsula that juts out from Asia's east end. It had been sliced in half at the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union occupied the North and the Americans the South. The two occupation zones had hardened into separate countries, one a communist dictatorship tied to the Soviet Union, the other a corrupt, authoritarian society linked to the United States. In 1948 and '49, the Soviets and the Americans had pulled most of their troops off the peninsula.

Neither South Korea nor its American protector were ready for what happened on June 25th, 1950.

Next: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered…

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