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Truman Accepts the Korean Challenge (1950)

President Truman was forced to make a series of agonizing decisions: the Truman Doctrine (1947), the Marshall Plan (1947), the Berlin airlift (1948), the North Atlantic Pact (1949), the Korean intervention (1950). Speaking later (1959) at Columbia University, he was asked, "Mr. President, what was the most complicated, the one single, most difficult decision you had to make?" Unhesitatingly he replied: "Korea. The reason for that was the fact that the policies of our allies and the members of the United Nations were at stake at the same time as ours." Here in his Memoirs he explains more fully the reasons for intervening with armed forces to support the South Korean republic, a special ward of the United Nations. Remembering that the League of Nations had collapsed in the 1930s because it failed to act resolutely, assess the validity of Truman's view that his intervention in Korea averted World War III.

On Saturday, June 24, 1950, I was in Independence, Missouri, to spend the weekend with my family and to attend to some personal family business.

It was a little after ten in the evening, and we were sitting in the library of our home on North Delaware Street when the telephone rang. It was the Secretary of State calling from his home in Maryland.

"Mr. President," said Dean Acheson, "I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea."

My first reaction was that I must get back to the capital, and I told Acheson so. . . .

The plane left the Kansas City Municipal Airport at two o'clock, and it took just a little over three hours to make the trip to Washington. I had time to think aboard the plane. In my generation, this was not the first occasion when the strong had attacked the weak. I recalled some earlier instances: [Japan in] Manchuria, [Italy in] Ethiopia, [Germany in] Austria. I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead.

Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier. I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores. If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threats and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors. If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on the second world war. It was also clear to me that the foundations and the principles of the United Nations were at stake unless this unprovoked attack on Korea could be stopped.

Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope (1956), vol. 2, pp. 331-333.