On Friday, March 4, I visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. Truman was president during the majority of the Korean War, and his presidential library holds all of the documents from his presidency, including the war. I visited to see how the Korean War is covered in the museum and also see the current exhibit, “The Forgotten War: Korea 1950,” which is on display until April 2, 2022.
The Forgotten War: Korea 1950 (Exhibit)
My primary purpose for visiting the Truman library was to see this exhibit. The early years of the Korean War were rough for the Korean people as the North Korean army pushed deep into South Korea. This generated a refugee crisis, much like we see today in Ukraine. Photographer Max Desfor was sent to Korea to cover the early months of the war, and many believed the war would be over quickly. Of course, we know that the war would become a proxy fight between the United States, USSR, and China. Desfor captured the war as the US and United Nations forces entered Korea and began pushing the North Korean army back to the 38th parallel.
The exhibit is a collection of 36 photographs arranged in two rooms. They are a powerful reminder of the human toll of war. Captured from September to December 1950, Desfor’s photos depict North Koreans, South Koreans, Chinese, Americans and more on the Korean peninsula. The photos show civilians left homeless and clinging to what little they had. It is hard to put the feelings one gets walking through the exhibit into words. The collection of photographs is on loan from South Korea and will remain on display at the Truman library through April 2, 2022. I highly recommend visiting this exhibit if you are going to be in the Kansas City area.
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
The Truman library reopened in 2021 following a multi-year renovation. I last visited the library and museum in 2018, right before the work began. I was excited to see how the new museum looked, how certain topics were presented, and whether the Korean War would have a larger role in the new exhibits. In the updated museum, you follow a linear path from Truman’s childhood, service during World War I, and political career up to becoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president in 1945. When President Roosevelt died in April 1945, Truman became president and inherited World War II.
The museum really steps into its own when it comes to presenting Truman’s presidency. His unexpected presidential term began at the end of World War II in Europe and with intense fighting with Japan in the Pacific. While the war in Europe would end in May 1945, it wouldn’t be until after he made the decision to use the atomic bomb in Japan that the war in the Pacific would end in August 1945. After World War II, the Cold War between the United States and its allies versus the USSR and its allies would begin. It would be in this context that a cold war would turn hot in the southeast Asian country of Korea.
The Korean War gets a full gallery in the museum. It covers the war from its beginnings through early 1953 when Truman left office. It is a very well put together exhibit, and you learn about the partnership between the US and UN, the Chinese invasion of Korea, and the controversial firing of General Douglas MacArthur. The general was fired after he advocated for the use of nuclear weapons in Korea and defied orders by attempting to expand the war beyond the initial scope. The human factor of the war is not lost in this exhibit. The lives of soldiers, doctors, and nurses are also on display.
At this point, you are probably wondering where the connection to M*A*S*H comes in. Besides being about the Korean War, there are some interesting connections to the show in the exhibit. Truman, the firing of MacArthur, the Chinese invasion, and other topics covered in the exhibit are either featured or mentioned in the series. But the more solid connection to M*A*S*H, is in one of the display cases. The exhibit features a surgical light, litter, nurses uniform, medical kit, and informational text titled, “New ways to save lives.” This is, of course, about MASH units. Korea was the first time the Army used the MASH concept, and it worked very well. Treating wounded closer to the front saved lives. Seeing these artifacts on display brings the stories in M*A*S*H into full context. We see the 4077th as a unit in the middle of a war, but there was so much more going on in Korea and the world at the time. This exhibit does an incredible job of demonstrating that.
Truman Library Physical and Online Archives
Since it is a part of the National Archives, the Truman library holds the full collection of documents from Truman’s administration. This includes a sizable collection from the Korean War. In addition, the Truman library acquired a collection of Korean War items when the Korean War Veterans National Museum & Library closed its doors in 2018. Those items were integrated in to the collection and some are on display in the museum.
As an archive, the Truman library contains the official Korean War File. These 14 boxes contain documents related to the Korean War from the Department of State and Department of Defense ranging from 1945 to 1953. These files provide insight into the war and strategies during the war. While nothing in these files pertain directly to M*A*S*H the television series, they include causality reports and information related to troop movements on the ground. I have not seen these documents, but they most likely include information regarding MASH units and aid stations in Korea. A full description and finding aid are available online for this collection.
The library offers curated collections and lesson plans related to the Korean War on its website for educators and the general public. They have small collections of documents available. They also offer several lesson plans including: “The United Nations in Korea” and “The Firing of MacArthur.” These are great for teachers, and both topics are mentioned a number of times throughout M*A*S*H. The most extensive online archive is titled “The Korean War and its Origins.” The collection includes 275 documents totaling over 1100 pages! It is a great outline of documents that includes communication between Truman, military commanders, and diplomats. One document (below) that stood out in this collection is a series of instructions sent by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to General MacArthur from late June 1950, just as the war was getting started. As we saw in the museum, Truman later fires MacArthur.
The Truman library doesn’t have many documents from Korea after January 1953 since that is when President Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in to office. The Korean War would end in a ceasefire on July 27, 1953. No treaty was ever signed officially ending the war, and that remains the case to this day. Some day I hope to visit the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas. But if you ever find yourself in the Kansas City area, I highly recommend visiting the Truman presidential library and museum. It is a great opportunity to learn more about the war behind M*A*S*H.