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A history of the Korean War

We essay here a significant Cold War conflict, but one in which the RAF was not heavily involved in. Let's explore.

In this video we consider the following:

  • Breakdown of the Grand Alliance;
  • the Bomb and;
  • the RAF in the Korean War

The questions we aim to address are:

  1. How early after the Second World War did the ‘Grand Alliance’ unravel?
  2. Did Truman’s ‘Atomic Diplomacy’ really change the agenda?
  3. Soon after the Berlin Air Lift, we had the Korean War – what was the RAF’s involvement there?

Confrontation on the Korean peninsular

The year 1949 was blighted, from an American perspective, by the fall of China to communism, and the first Soviet atomic test. The shock of both had reverberations in America. General MacArthur’s occupying force in Japan ceased trying to re-engineer Japanese society and effectively handed the country back to Japanese direction to ensure that they returned to the capitalist fold.

The Soviet A-bomb

The Soviet A-Bomb test prompted the US into a ‘crash’ programme to develop the ‘super’ (the H-Bomb), and a substantial escalation in the embryonic Cold War arms race.

The United Nations intervention in Korea

This brings us to 1950. Famously, the vote on United Nations intervention in Korea was the one occasion where the Soviet delegate failed to attend a UN Security Council vote.

Therefore, we had the first of the ‘proxy wars’ of the Cold War, with the Soviet-backed, Chinese supported, North Koreans fighting the South Koreans with a UN force made up of troops from 15 nations providing assistance.

Formally, British and American pilots did ‘square up’ against China and the Soviet Union. Practically, Soviet pilots flew in the uniforms of the Chinese and North Korean air forces, taking to the air in the MiG-15 jet fighters Stalin had supplied to the conflict. U. pilots in F-86 Sabres – and a range of other aircraft – engaged with them, including in ‘hot pursuit’ over the border into China.

Some historians suggest now that the Soviets may have deliberately boycotted the UN Security Council Resolution 84 of 7 July 1950 to see how far the United States would pursue the defence of an East Asian nation.

After the fall of China, the answer came back as ‘to the hilt’, with US forces still stationed in and defending South Korea today. The actions of the West in South-East and East Asia pre-dated the Korean War – notably Britain, New Zealand and Australia in Malaya from 1948 and the French in Indochina from 1946.

Asia, Latin America and Africa

However, in parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, the western battle against communism played out as the US, in particular, tried to prevent what President Eisenhower described on 7 April 1954 as the ‘domino theory, with adjacent countries falling to communism as successive regimes were taken over.

The settlement of the Korean War and Stalin’s death, both in 1953, did not end tensions in that regard – the French unilateral withdrawal from Indochina in 1954 emphasised the problem.

The Cold War was fully-fledged by 1954, and we might see 1953 as simply the end of the first phase, rather than the last possible point of its beginning.

If you’d like to learn more about the RAF in the Cold War, check out the full online course from the University of London, below.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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