Author: Cody Johnston, senior in the History major
Editor: Brittany Von Kamp, second year student in the M.A. in History
This is a public presentation written as part of HIST4001, Professional Practices in History and HIST4804, Seminar in Diplomatic and Military History.
The Korean War was the first time that the Cold War turned hot. This was due to the increasing tensions between the Capitalist and Communist superpowers of the world after WWII. In fact, this war is one of many firsts. The Korean War is the first proxy war that the United States engaged in. It was the first time that the United Nations (UN) had held a role in a military capacity. These were unprecedented times. Marred by the numerous and complex geopolitics of Asia during the 1950’s, coupled with fears of the conflict escalating to a nuclear holocaust, the Korean War is one that was controversial from the outset. Despite the fear of communism spreading across the United States, the American public did not have much support for the Korean War and it’s goal of containing communism.
In order to understand why the American public didn’t support the Korean War, it’s important to look at the attitudes expressed by the typical American family. For this project, a rural family from Lima, OH was selected to act as a reference for American sentiments towards the Korean War in the Northwest Ohio region. The Hefner family was not extraordinary by any means. They were not wealthy. No one in the family had an education above high school level, which was the norm at the time. They held no political stake in the war. They were an average family, living their lives during a tumultuous time. The Hefners were a large Christian family, typical of rural families in the area in the 1950’s. As a large family, each had their own beliefs when it came to the wars in which they were involved. This makes them ideal to act as a reference of the sentiment of the area.
The Hefner family consisted of John and Zelma and their ten children. Of those children, three would serve in a war in a short span of just nine years. Eugene, the oldest son of Zelma and John Hefner, served in the Pacific Theatre during the final year of World War Two. Walter, the second oldest son, enlisted in the Air Force in 1948 and would soon after find himself in Korea. Glenn was the third oldest son and was drafted sometime in early January of 1952. These young men had sent letters to their mother during their time away, and she did the same. These letters, primarily sent from Zelma to her sons, give insight to the war through a mother’s eyes. Through her eyes, we can better understand what thoughts a typical family would have held in regards to the Korean War, and how those thoughts changed from World War II.
To begin, we must look at Zelma and her attitude towards World War II. Zelma, as with any mother, was horribly worried about Eugene and feared that he might not come back home. However, she doesn’t seem to be angry or upset about why he had to leave. “I am sorry that any boy has to leave and I feel bad about it all…” but she seems to understand that there is a reason for him being there (February 13). This is an important distinction that can be seen throughout the nation, and not just solely in Northwestern Ohio. During the time of World War II there was an obvious threat to American citizens, especially the threat that the Japanese posed. The Japanese had, after all, attacked Pearl Harbor. The fear of another imminent attack on US soil was made very clear with the mass internment of Japanese-Americans. Even in the case of WWI, there was the Zimmerman Telegram and the sinking of the Lusitania that rallied Americans to the war in Europe. In Zelma’s eyes, however sad as she may have been, she thought that Eugene had a duty to fight in this war against a clear evil.
The United States government knew that the Korean War was socially and politically distinct from the previous one. The circumstances surrounding the two were drastically different. With the Korean War, there was no clear and obvious evil to rally against. The fear of the spread of communism was definitely prominent across the United States, however they did not pose an immediate threat as other enemies had in previous wars. This is clear with the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He gained his influence through the use of fear to intimidate his political opponents, the Democrat Party. His infamous “Enemies from Within” speech at Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950 brought his staunch anti-communist movement to the minds of Americans. Many investigations were brought up against alleged communists– a witch hunt of the modern era. Soon many members of the government were feeling the pressure to look tough on communism, for fear of being accused of being a communist. Even President Truman felt this pressure, and was one of the few influences on Truman’s decision to enter the Korean War (Storrs). Despite their best efforts on selling it, the American people began to grow sour for the war. This can be best evidenced by Zelma.
When we compare Zelma’s view of World War Two to those indicated by the tones of the letters sent from Zelma to Glenn, there is an obvious shift. When writing to Glenn, the son who was drafted in 1952, she expresses deep sorrow for her son. Although there were only a handful of letters from Glenn, we can infer simply from Zelma and Walter’s letters that Glenn did not want any part of the Korean War. I believe that this deeply wounds Zelma, and alters her seemingly neutral tone that she takes in her letters to Gene and Walter, to one almost resembling resentment. In countless letters, she agonizes over Glenn’s predicament. In one particular letter written in January, just shortly after Glenn was shipped off to Camp Cooke, California, she admits to seeing the war as one of corruption. She tells Glenn that “God understands that you are not part of this corruption” and that he will be forgiven of anything he may have to do (January 16).
In addition to understanding what she was saying, it is equally important to know what she wasn’t saying. When compared to her later letters to her younger sons, she does not let Eugene know that she is worried, aside from the occasional sentence or two reminding Eugene to be careful. This is something that she doesn’t reveal until years later until when she is writing to Glenn. She admits to Glenn about having many tireless nights while Eugene was away, and that she prayed sometimes for hours at a time for Eugene to come home safely (January 19). She knew how important it was for Eugene to fight in the war, and thus made every attempt not to show her concern or true feelings, as this would only make Eugene worry about her more. This is important to note because Zelma clearly does not make that same effort to hide her fears from Glenn, because she does not believe in this particular war as much as she had during WWII. She constantly brings up God and what she believes are his plans for Glenn: “Even though we do not see it as good, perhaps it is (January 16).” While these lines are meant to bring at least some comfort to her son, Zelma is most assuredly also saying it for her own benefit as well.
Gordon, poor kid, thinks he knows what he wants. Not long ago he was figuring out ways to get out of this mess. Now he’s swung the other way and ‘get in and get it over with’ is all he talks about now. Oh, I do wish things would quiet down so you kids could lead normal, happy lives.Zelma Hefner, January 30,1952
Zelma also talks about another son named Gordon, then around the age of 18, and his thoughts about joining the Naval Reserve. This seems to be the last straw for the mother desperately trying to keep it together for her children. Instead of trying to be comforting to Glenn, she shifted her focus to the military. She let Glenn know what she really felt about the military, saying that the recruiters visit high schools and use their “psychology” to brainwash young men into thinking that the military is the best route for their future. She then went on to say that Gordon was a victim of this brainwashing. Apparently his wanting to join the Naval Reserve is a new idea, completely opposite of the stance he used to take. He was looking for ways to be disqualified from service, but now just wants to “get in and get it over with”. This is her most telling letter. She reveals to Glenn that she is dealing with the possibility of having another son join the military and possibly serve in a war that she doesn’t seem necessary (January 30). “A mess”, as she often refers to it.
“A mess” is a good way to describe what she and many other Americans felt at this time. Unlike with World War Two, there was no rallying call like Pearl Harbor, for example, that unified the American public with a clear and present threat. Prior to the war, most of the population couldn’t even find Korea on the map. That, with the added conundrum of no justifiable reason to send their children to fight for a country that had no influence over the United States whatsoever, there was no love for the Korean War. People did not see the point in fighting in a country on the other side of the world. Along with polls gathered at the time, and other correspondence from families in the Northwestern Ohio region, Zelma is just one of the many examples of Americans who felt this exact way.
“MS 858 – Hefner Family Papers,” U.S. In Wartime: Korean War, Center For Archival Collections, BGSU University Libraries. Accessed March 2021.
To Know More:
Casey, Steven. Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States ; 1950-1953. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Storrs, Landon R. Y. “McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, July 2, 2015. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-6.
Suchman, Edward A., Rose K. Goldsen, and Robin M. Williams, Jr. “Attitudes Toward the Korean War.” Public Opinion Quarterly 17, no. 2 (1953): 171. https://doi.org/10.1086/266452.