The Korean War in Britain explores the social and cultural impact of the Korean War (1950–53) on Britain. Coming just five years after the ravages of the Second World War, Korea was a deeply unsettling moment in post-war British history. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Britons worried about a return to total war and the prospect of atomic warfare. As the war progressed, British people grew uneasy about the conduct of the war. From American ‘germ’ warfare allegations to anxiety over Communist use of ‘brainwashing’, the Korean War precipitated a series of short-lived panics in 1950s Britain. But by the time of its uneasy ceasefire in 1953, the war was becoming increasingly forgotten, with more attention paid to England’s cricket victory at the Ashes than to returning troops. Using Mass Observation surveys, letters, diaries and a wide range of under-explored contemporary material, this book charts the war’s changing position in British popular imagination, from initial anxiety in the summer of 1950 through to growing apathy by the end of the war and into the late-twentieth century. Built around three central concepts – citizenship, selfhood and forgetting – The Korean War in Britain connects a critical moment in Cold War history to post-war Britain, calling for a more integrated approach to Britain’s Cold War past. It explores the war a variety of viewpoints – conscript, POW, protestor and veteran – to offer the first social history of this ‘forgotten war’. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Britain’s post-1945 history.
This introduction first gives an overview of Korean War historiography alongside a summary of the war itself, before exploring the position of the Korean War and the Cold War in British history-writing. It highlights how selfhood and citizenship have emerged as growing categories of analysis in Cold War studies and argues why it is important to consider them in the context of post-1945 Britain. It closes by exploring the challenges and possibilities of writing the social history of warfare and bringing domestic and military ‘spheres’ together in a meaningful way.
This chapter uses Mass Observation (MO) survey material to assess initial responses to the outbreak of war in the summer of 1950. It first explores the utility of MO surveys and diaries to the social history of the war, before analysing responses in detail, alongside early television and newspaper reports. It concludes that the first few months of the Korean War were a worrying time for many Britons, as anxieties gathered around several areas: aerial attack, nuclear warfare and the mobilisation of male citizens.
This chapter uses letters, diaries and under-explored ‘battle experience’ forms produced by British servicemen to understand the everyday lived experience of fighting the Korean War. But it also traces how, through the repeated discussion of ‘experience’ and collective memories of the Second World War, the seeds for Korea’s subsequent cultural obscurity were sown. Korea lacked the moral virtue of the 1939-45 conflict, despite the harsh toll it exacted on its participants. Constant comparisons often concealed the unique elements of the Korean War, including the unfamiliar and often inhospitably landscape to the physical and psychological demands of both rapid movement up and down the peninsula. These forgotten elements of British military experience in Korea are vital to any social history of the conflict.
This chapter examines how citizenship and selfhood were subtly recalibrated through conscription in Cold War Britain and uncovers details of the lives of young national servicemen in Korea. It begins with a discussion of military citizenship in the era of the Korean War, before turning to specific moments in national service life. Starting with recruitment (a recurring feature in most memoirs of national service), it explores the significance of masculinity, age, class and humour for the young men who were sent to Korea during their two years’ service. Together with the previous chapter, it sets out again the importance of experience to the social history of the Korean War in Britain. It considers how opinions on national service further informed the British views of the Korean War and how, like Korea, national service fitted uneasily within the narratives of post-war British society and culture. Like Korea, was national service obligatory, unglamorous and potentially of limited overall purpose?
This chapter starts by examining the experiences and treatment of British POWs in Korea before exploring how they were regarded by British society upon their return. This chapter traces the broader cultural implications of Korean War captivity in Britain, emphasising the lived experience of imprisonment for British POWs, before examining how the term brainwashing emerged from rumours and half-truths about Korean War captivity. It explores both the popular and official responses to allegations of brainwashing and its broader cultural significance within post-1945 Britain.
This chapter examines the actions of opponents to the Korean War, the consequences for the British state and how British people felt about such forthright critics of the war. This chapter first starts by analysing the heavily criticised Communist Party of Great Britain. It unpicks the central elements of Communist opposition to the war and the largely poor reception their campaign received. This chapter nevertheless highlights the cultural tenacity and appeal of one recurring component of British Communist opposition – anti-Americanism. This sentiment chimed with other strands of post-war British culture and set the tone for later protest movements and cultural responses to Americanisation in the second half of the twentieth century. This chapter also explores instances of frontline resistance from British servicemen, showing how servicemen and others in Korea - most notably war correspondents - were appalled by the level of violence directed at the civilian population. It examines allegations of biological or ‘germ’ warfare put forth by the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury’ Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966) and the scientist Joseph Needham (1900-95), before concluding with a detailed examination of the infamous town planner Monica Felton, who visited North Korea during the war.
This chapter suggests that the awkward nature, purpose and outcome of the Korean War led to its relative neglect in British history and popular culture, unlike in the United States where both its anti-Communist rhetoric and proximity to the Vietnam War gave its veterans greater prominence. Together with its distance from Britain, unclear war aims and the growing dominance of the Second World War in British culture, charted in the other chapters of this book, this final chapter examines the ‘forgotten’ war in the context of post-1953 British history. It first examines the significance of forgetting war in the twentieth century, before turning to Korea’s cultural history in the post-1953 era and the lives and attitudes of its ‘forgotten’ veterans. It suggests that Britain’s Korean War veterans have a unique degree of agency as guardians of this war.