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The Cold War Turns Hot
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A Necessary War?

Less than a year into the Korean War, Harry Truman had made a series of decisions that would frame U.S. foreign policy for the next forty years. America would try to avoid confronting the big Communist powers head-on, but it would keep its military strong and fight proxy wars to head off Communist expansion.

"I argue that the Korean War was fundamental in shaping the Cold War as we know it," says historian William Stueck of the University of Georgia. In the years just before the Korean conflict, Stueck says, the Soviet Union's vastly superior military strength made the world unstable and dangerous. Korea woke up the West; it kick-started Truman's military build-up and led to a strengthening of NATO. The result: a new balance of power that would contain the Soviet Union until its collapse four decades later, Stueck says. "So I call it in some ways a substitute for World War III, or even, perhaps, a necessary war."

Korea would also serve as a Cold War prelude to the next, far less popular war - in Vietnam.

Korean War Peace talks. Kaesong, Korea, 1951
National Archives and Records Administration
In Korea, meanwhile, U.N. forces rallied in the spring of 1951 under their new commander, General Matthew Ridgeway. They pushed the Chinese back to slightly north of the 38th Parallel, the war's original starting line. Then both sides dug in and started to look for a way out.

Peace talks began on July 10th, 1951, but quickly bogged down in mistrust and recriminations. The talks would continue, haltingly, for more than two years. So would bloody battles for small pieces of ground with nicknames like Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill.

The stalemate broke in 1953 after both superpowers got new leadership. In Moscow, Stalin died and was replaced by the more moderate Georgi Malenkov. President Dwight Eisenhower took office and kept a campaign promise to stop the fighting. An armistice - though not a peace treaty - was signed on July 27th, 1953.

General W. K. Harrison, Jr. and North Korean General Nam Il sign armistice ending 3-year Korean conflict. 07/27/1953
National Archives and Records Administration
Vince Krepps was back home with his family in Maryland. He'd been sent home more than two years earlier after his twin, Richard, went missing in action; if Richard was dead, Vince would be the sole surviving son.

"Oh, I was happy it was over," Vince recalls, "because I would soon learn that my brother might be coming home."

Vince had reason to believe that might happen. He'd learned that Richard had not been killed at Kunu-ri in December, 1950, but had been captured by the Chinese. In the spring of 1951, a relative had spotted Richard in a newspaper photograph of POWs. The photo had been released by the Chinese for propaganda purposes. Now, with the war over, "my family and I just kept looking and looking at the lists of those repatriated [POWs], and we never saw his name."

Chinese and North Korean POW camps were notorious. Some lacked food, shelter and medicine. 2,800 Americans, more a third of those taken prisoner, died in captivity during the war. Many were marched to death. Hundreds were simply executed.

Vince found a few returning men who'd been captured with Richard. They said they'd heard that Richard had died. That was all. Vince got no more solid information until December first, 1998 - exactly 48 years after Richard was captured. That day a letter arrived from one Ron Lovejoy.

Next: Closure

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