Music played an outsized role in the Cold War. Look for our articles about the Jazz Ambassadors, the Beatles and Blue Jeans theory of the fall of the Soviet Union, Vietnam protest music, and atomic (nuclear) music. Today I thought I’d give you just a taste by posting an article on Korean War Music. Here goes!
KOREAN WAR MUSIC
Songs about the Korean War aren’t among the most memorable tunes of the 20th century. But the music does represent an interesting shift from the overtly patriotic lyrics of World War II to the anti-war protest melodies of the Vietnam War era. Songs linked to the Korean War are dominated by the same themes found in earlier war lyrics: patriotism, the soldier in battle, faith, and emotional pain. These topics are expressed in populist genres from pre-rock times: country, blue grass, and blues.
The Korean War was a long time coming. Negotiations had been ongoing since the Cairo Declaration of 1943 which stated that “Korea shall be free and independent.”
The United States and the Soviet Union had agreed that — following the Japanese surrender — Korea would be divided at the 38th parallel into Northern and Southern zones of military occupation. In August 1945 Soviet forces entered Korea from the North, and in September 1945 American troops landed in the South of Korea.
In May 1948 parliamentary elections were held in the Southern zone under the supervision of the United Nations transitional commission. The USSR refused to admit UN representatives in the North.
On August 25, 1948, the Soviets severed diplomatic relations with the United States under the pretext that the Americans were holding two Soviet teachers against their will. The US reported that the teachers had decided to stay in American custody of their own accord.
In December 1948, the UN General Assembly recognized the South Korean government in Seoul as the country’s lawful government and recommended the withdrawal of military occupation.
On Christmas Day 1948, the Soviet Union declared that it had pulled its troops out of North Korea. Still, both superpowers continued building up their presence on the Korean Peninsula. The mutual antagonism of the two Korean regimes was increasingly apparent.
North Korea mounted a military offensive against the South on June 25, 1950. The same day, the United Nations convened to discuss the Korean issue at the request of the Americans. Subsequently, The UN adopted Resolution 83 demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean troops South of the 38th parallel.
On July 7, 1950, the UN Security Council established a unified command over US led troops operating under the UN flag against North Korea. Although 16 countries deployed troops and 5 nations dispatched medical units, US troops made up more than 90% of the UN force.
An early song about the Korean War picked up on the uncertainty and trepidation of the times. “God Please Protect America” by Jimmie Osborne, was an overtly religious song that asked God to protect American soldiers in Korea. It was a pretty standard war song, highlighting the heartache of family back home and the necessity of victory. The song first appeared on the Billboard charts on October 7. It peaked at #9.
At this point, nobody really knew what was ahead or what kind of war the US would be fighting. America’s military was in decline in the aftermath of World War II, and most experienced combat troops had retired. South Korean troops were seriously outclassed by North Korea’s army.
The situation changed, though, after General MacArthur’s victory at Incheon on September 19, 1950. North Korean troops scattered and fell into disarray. Soon Allied forces were on the streets of Pyongyang (North Korea), and the war seemed as good as over. At least that’s what Jimmie Osborne thought when he wrote “Thank God for Victory in Korea,” recorded on October 2, 1950.
Now, you probably know the Korean War didn’t end in 1950, so this song was very premature. In fact, Chinese forces entered the conflict three weeks later, changing the character of the war.
A crack at communist China was exactly what MacArthur had wanted. But with the Chinese intervention in October 1950, the UN and South Korean forces suffered a series of setbacks. On December 15, UN forces recrossed the 38th Parallel back into South Korea. Some Americans began to wonder if President Truman would once again authorize the dropping of the atomic bomb. This is reflected by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers in their song “When They Drop The Atomic Bomb.”
MacArthur supposedly wanted to use 50 atomic bombs to lay down a permanent radioactive belt along the Yalu River, but President Truman was opposed to this course of action. After MacArthur made a series of statements against Truman’s war policy, he was fired for insubordination, an action supported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A number of songs were written in tribute to MacArthur, with names like “Old Soldiers Never Die” by Gene Autry. Most of these songs praised the General’s World War II achievements and grieved his retirement without mentioning his performance in Korea.
By the fall of 1951, American and UN forces were locked in a bloody stalemate, epitomized by the battle of Heartbreak Ridge. Casualty figures in that battle were estimated at over 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Koreans and Chinese. The battle inspired “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge,” a popular song performed by a number of musicians, including Ernest Tubb, Wesley Tuttle, and Gene Autry. This is Ernest Tubb’s version.
As we just heard, the narrator misses his girlfriend as well as the love letters that never came. The topic of soldiers leaving loved ones at home was a common theme, and the fear of a “Dear John Letter” was often in the forefront of a soldier’s consciousness. So it’s hardly surprising that the most popular song to come out of the Korean conflict was “A Dear John Letter” by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, recorded on May 3, 1953. The song held the #1 spot on the country charts for 6 weeks, and remained on the charts for 23 weeks.
The “Dear John” song tells the tale of a woman leaving her boyfriend for his brother, a cruel end to a relationship — especially when you’re stranded in a war zone. This song inspired a sequel titled “Dear Joan” by Jack Cardwell in which John writes back that it’s okay because he loves her sister anyway. “Forgive Me John” is by the same original artists (Shepard and Husky), and tells about Joan changing her mind.
On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. Also, the exact same day, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe released the uplifting song “There’s Peace in Korea.”
Blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins released his own song “The War is Over” two days later commemorating the end of the war. This tune emphasizes returning to life’s little problems, as well as the anxiety over “that woman,” with some domestic violence added in. The war’s end also brought a number of sad songs as the survivors counted the dead and arranged for POW exchanges, as well as dealing with the challenges of adapting back into civilian life.
One such song is “Searching for You, Buddy” by Red River Dave, a soul-searching song about a fellow soldier who died in war.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the music. Look for the playlist coming soon on the Cold War YouTube Channel.