Significance of Truman’s decision for a declaration of war in Korea

Published 25 Apr 2017

While the world was still reeling from the wreckage brought on by World War II, another war took place: the Cold War. While it was deemed a war, it had no military engagements; instead severe threats and intimidations served as the main weapons. The main players in this so-called Cold War were the United States and the Soviet Union. The standoffish between the two nations brought on the term Cold War. The U.S. regarded the Soviet Union as wanting to inject communism while the Soviet Union thought of the U.S. as a nation yearning to extend capitalism by any coercive means such as atomic diplomacy and sedition (Jordan and Litwack, 1991, p. 740). In other words, the Cold War was a clash between communism and democracy.

Worried about the impending danger of communism, President Truman developed a policy that would attempt to put a stop in communism. The operative word was containment. Dubbed as the Truman Doctrine, it ruled that U.S. should “support free peoples who are resisting…outside pressure” (Jordan and Litwack, 1991, p. 741). Truman’s policy was put to a test following the North Korean invasion of the noncommunist South. Truman, without consulting Congress, sent U.S. forces to “push back the North Koreans back over the thirty-eight parallel” (p. 471). It must be noted that since World War II, Korea had been divided along the 38th parallel, the north commanded by the Communist government while the south steered by a dictatorship. When news of North crossing the 38th parallel became lucid, the reality of another world war, this time with nuclear weapons, seemed imminent. Instead of declaring war, Truman, through the U.N. Security Council, sent U.S. naval and air units to keep at invasion at bay. He called it a “police action” (p. 471). It was the first time in America military history that the country did ask Congress for a declaration of war. Truman’s decision set a dodgy pattern. For one, it put the sole authority in the country’s commander-in-chief. Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon did not ask Congress for approval in declaring the Vietnam War.

As country striving to uphold democracy, Truman’s decision seemed contradicting at the time. It gave the impression that Truman wanted to show off, to prove his control. This may not be the case but anyway one looks at it, it circumvented the legalities of the process. In a way, it undermined Truman’s leadership. It also did not help that Korea, the country in hot water, was not even a key U.S. interest. As in the case of the Vietnam War, Americans did not understand why they had to be on the core of the Korean battle front. The Korean War had cost the country an estimated 140,000 casualties (p. 748). The government at that time could have stressed was how powerful nuclear weapons were and how, they could turn into another global war, this time more powerful and with the advent of the nuclear weapons, more violent. In addition, Truman could have asked the Congress for a war declaration. This way, the U.S. military could have prepared for it and a better understanding for the sake of the entire nation could have been achieved.

Furthermore, in using the support of the United Nations in pursuing the Korean War, Truman set a precedent that would later be followed by President Bush during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In essence, Truman’s decision not to ask Congress for approval of a war declaration in Korea paved the country’s role in another conflict that figured in so much controversy- the Vietnam War. It also set a precarious pattern of commander –in-chiefs’ capitalizing on their power at the expense of the country.


  • Jordan, W.D. & Litwack, L.F. (1991). The United States Combined Edition 7th ed.
  • New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
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