How we forgot the Korean War

When conflict erupted on the Korean peninsula 70 years ago, many Britons feared the worst, anticipating a return to conscription and air-raids. So why, asks Grace Huxford, did anxiety soon turn into apathy – and why has that sentiment dominated British attitudes to the war ever since?

A girl, with her brother on her back, trudges past a stalled American tank, South Korea, June 1951. (Photo by Alamy)

Today, not many people know the names Hewlett Johnson or Monica Felton. But during the Korean War (1950–53), these two figures were well known, even notorious, for their opposition to British involvement in Korea. Their stories tell us an alternative history of the Korean War, of the social response to the conflict back in Britain. Even though the fighting raged many thousands of miles away, Felton and Johnson show us the complex impact it had in Britain, the legacies of which we continue to live with today.

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To grasp why these two Britons opposed the Korean War so passionately, we need first to understand why the conflict erupted in the first place – and, to do that, we must return to the climax of the Second World War. When the Japanese empire collapsed in August 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide the Korean peninsula into two occupation zones, along a latitude line – the 38th Parallel North.

By 1948, the two areas of occupation had become separate states championing bitterly opposing ideologies: Kim Il-sung’s communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and Syngman Rhee’s western-aligned Republic of Korea in the south. Over the following two years, tensions between the two rivals increased inexorably until, on 25 June 1950, North Korean troops invaded their southern neighbour.

Britain soon become one of many nations to pledge their military support to the United Nations force – led by the charismatic American general Douglas MacArthur – tasked with defending the south. The war took on a whole new – and far more dangerous – dimension when the People’s Republic of China entered the fray in October 1950 to support North Korea. In short, for Britain, the Cold War got considerably hot in 1950. And the situation would remain serious until, after three years of rapid advances, retreats and then grinding stalemate, an armistice was signed in July 1953.

The Labour councillor and anti-war campaigner Monica Felton, pictured in 1952. After Felton visited North Korea on a “fact- finding mission”, one Conservative MP suggested that she should be tried for treason. (Photo by Topfoto)

The Labour councillor and anti-war campaigner Monica Felton, pictured in 1952. After Felton visited North Korea on a “fact- finding mission”, one Conservative MP suggested that she should be tried for treason. (Photo by Topfoto)

At first, many Britons supported the government’s decision to throw its weight behind the UN intervention. But not Hewlett Johnson and Monica Felton. Johnson was a senior Church of England clergyman, known as the ‘Red’ Dean of Canterbury because of his support for leftwing causes. A committed pacifist, he and others claimed that the United States was using aerial “germ warfare” against the enemy (historians now overwhelmingly believe that such claims weren’t based on any credible scientific fact.). One report accused US air forces of dropping diseased rodents over three Chinese provinces in 1952. Johnson himself visited China and attracted considerable attention – and derision – for siding with the communists, not least from others in the Church of England. The Kent Branch of the British Legion even discussed moving their Remembrance Day celebrations away from Canter-bury, so that this “avowed communist” would not take their service during this time of war.

Dr Monica Felton was the chair of the Stevenage Development Corporation, the first female chair of one of Britain’s new postwar towns, and a Labour councillor. In spring 1951, she visited North Korea as part of a sponsored “fact-finding mission” and similarly accused American and South Korean forces of widespread brutality, with Britain standing by. Felton even later claimed that she had visited Korea “for Stevenage”, to protect the postwar vision “for a new and better kind of world”.


Listen on the podcast: Grace Huxford describes the key events of the Korean War and explains how it played out in Britain


Felton’s vision attracted a storm of criticism. When she returned to Britain, she found she had been sacked by Hugh Dalton, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Others clamoured for a harsher punishment. Nigel Fisher, Conservative MP for Hitchin, argued that she should be indicted for treason. He stated in parliament that if, during the Second World War, “a British subject had gone to Germany, consorted with the enemy, returned to this country and spread Nazi propaganda here, it seems to me he could have been indicted for treason… What is the difference in this case?” And in 1951, the punishment for treason was still the death penalty. Felton escaped this fate, but she never returned to public service after her fateful visit to east Asia.

The uncertain peace

Felton and Johnson’s opposition to the Korean War – and the backlash that their opposition provoked – shines a light onto Britain’s view of its place in the world in the early 1950s. Britain at this time was adjusting uncertainly to peacetime and was concerned about what the new Cold War would bring. When it pledged its forces to the UN effort as part of an allied “police action” (as US president Harry Truman termed it), it was still recovering from the massive social and economic effects of the Second World War. Many staple items, such as tea, were still rationed, and on the outbreak of war in Korea, many British people worried that they would again have to fight. A few even considered redigging their Anderson shelters or hoarding food.

Yet for all the fear and the fury of the summer of 1950, over the following three years something strange happened: the Korean War retreated in the public consciousness, mutating from a cause celebre to a bloody sideshow. When news of an armistice filtered back to Britain in July 1953, it was greeted with widespread indifference. One newspaper quipped that the public had shown more enthusiasm for the England cricket team’s victory over Australia in that summer’s Ashes.

Survivors of the Gloucestershire Regiment after the battle of Imjin river, 1951, one of the fiercest clashes of Britain’s postwar history. (Photo by Jim Pringle/AP/REX/Shutterstock)
Survivors of the Gloucestershire Regiment after the battle of Imjin river, 1951, one of the fiercest clashes of Britain’s postwar history. (Photo by Jim Pringle/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

That general indifference was far from short-lived: it informed attitudes to the conflict in the following decades. With the notable exception of the sitcom Fawlty Towers (Basil Fawlty was probably the nation’s best-known Korean War veteran), few British novels, TV shows and films remembered Korea – and the war was commemorated by only a handful of national memorials.

On the outbreak of the Korean War, many British soldiers couldn't even locate Korea on a map

So why did a conflict that cost more than a thousand British lives not become a bigger part of British culture? Why are Hewlett Johnson and Monica Felton now footnotes in modern British history? In short, how did we forget the Korean War?

One reason perhaps lies in its location. Unlike other areas of east Asia, Britain had few historic links with the Korean peninsula. Many British soldiers could not even find Korea on a map prior to 1950.

Despite this, some British troops had encountered their Korean counterparts just a few years earlier – recalling their harsh treatment at the hands of Korean guards in Japanese PoW camps. But not even these bitter memories could prevent Korea from seeming incredibly remote to most Britons.

Ambiguous aims

Another potential reason why the Korean War failed to capture Britons’ imagination was its ambiguous aims. Britain pledged first naval and then land forces to support the UN mission in Korea, eventually forming a crucial part of the 1st Commonwealth Division from 28 July 1951. In a broadcast in 1950, Labour prime minister Clement Attlee implied that it was in Britons’ interests to face down aggression in the far east, just as they had done in the last war. He told the British people: “The fire that has been started in distant Korea may burn down your house.”

Attlee’s government is often better known for the foundation of the postwar welfare state, most famously its establishment of a National Health Service in 1948. Yet this reforming administration dealt in warfare as well as welfare, becoming embroiled in violence in Kenya, Palestine, Malaya, Greece – and, of course, Korea. Such wars did not fit within Britain’s postwar vision of itself, so Korea and other wars in the 1950s slipped through the net of British national memory.

China turns the tables

But what did combating aggression and supporting the UN actually look like? In the first half of the war, it clearly involved repelling the invasion. But from autumn 1950, having turned the North Korean invasion into a retreat, UN forces pressed on beyond the 38th Parallel. When China joined the war in the autumn of 1950, it turned the tables completely, forcing the UN troops back south of the 38th Parallel. MacArthur even talked of using nuclear weapons against China, something that caused significant trepidation in Britain.

The war did not fit with Britain's postwar vision of itself, so it slipped through the net of national memory

For Britain, the war looked even more troubling by April 1951, when British forces engaged in one of the most ferocious battles in its postwar history, at the Imjin river. This was the scene of the Gloucestershire Regiment’s famous ‘last stand’ on ‘Gloster Hill’ (Solma-Ri). Some 527 British soldiers were captured and marched north to prisoner of war camps. Among them was their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Carne, who was awarded the Victoria Cross on his release in 1953 for “gallant and distinguished service in Korea”. A naturally quiet man, Carne withstood months of solitary confinement as a PoW; a stone cross he carved is still on display in Gloucester Cathedral, testament to his bravery.

While Carne and his fellow PoWs were being held captive, the nature of the war changed again. With the sweeping retreats and advances of the first year of the conflict being largely replaced by patrols and skirmishes around the frontline – amid lots of watching and waiting – the war now lacked the narrative arc to capture the public imagination. As a result, it gradually slid off the front pages of newspapers.

This photograph, taken by Bert Hardy for the Picture Post, shows political prisoners in South Korean custody, Pusan, September 1950. The Picture Post’s editor, Tom Hopkinson, was sacked for refusing to withdraw images of South Korean atrocities and poor conditions in UN-run camps. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This photograph, taken by Bert Hardy for the Picture Post, shows political prisoners in South Korean custody, Pusan, September 1950. The Picture Post’s editor, Tom Hopkinson, was sacked for refusing to withdraw images of South Korean atrocities and poor conditions in UN-run camps. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Above all, there appeared to be a growing disconnect between the war’s stated objectives and the reality of what was unfolding on the ground. One soldier wrote in 1951 that “the events of spring have gone” and the “futility of it becomes more and more apparent every day”. Korea did not match up with his idea of what war should be.

That sense of futility was only exacerbated by Britain’s recent experience of conflict. The Korean War was fought in a very long shadow – one cast by the Second World War. Keith Taylor remembered how the reservists in his battalion “had seen it all before”, having carved out distinguished careers between 1939 and 1945, and “one acknowledged their great experience”.

Back in Britain, too, Korea was often compared with the struggle against Nazism: in July 1950, the social surveying organisation Mass Observation captured many responses that referenced the Blitz, mass mobilisation and fears about the prospect of returning to air-raid shelters. Aerial bombing was never a real possibility, but that didn’t stop people feeling that it was. In comparison with the vast scale and clear moral imperatives of the fight against fascism, the Korean War appeared ambiguous and distant.

Thirst for drama

Of course, this sense of remoteness and futility didn’t apply to everyone. For many of Britain’s National Service conscripts, Korea offered a break from the monotony of their temporary military life. Lieutenant Gary Smith wrote to his family that the outbreak of war “is a wonderful opportunity to travel which I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise” and was desperate to get to Korea before it was “just policing”. For many, this thirst for drama went unquenched. As early as July 1951, the two sides had begun to negotiate, discussions that seemed to stretch on and on. One particular sticking point was the repatriation of prisoners of war: should Chinese and North Korean PoWs held by the UN be automatically repatriated back to their home countries when many had been forced to fight in the first place? China (and the Geneva Convention) suggested yes, but the UN forces were reluctant.

The experience of British prisoners of war would have a particular cultural and political impact domestically. After their repatriation, military authorities interviewed many former British PoWs and began to hear more about their experiences. Some had been forced to take part in extraordinary ‘re-education’ classes in Chinese-run camps, asked to produce ‘confessions’, keep diaries and even take part in classes on the communist system.

Most took this ‘re-education’ with good humour or bemusement, but some listened. One, Royal Marine Andrew Condron, even opted to travel to China at the end of the war to see a communist society in action. In 1961, it was discovered that British diplomat and secret service agent George Blake, who had been imprisoned during the Korean War, had become a Soviet double agent. His dramatic escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1966 caused even greater consternation, and led many to ask: what exactly had happened in those camps?

A new word emerged that would have a long cultural afterlife. In 1950, American writer Edward Hunter wrote of “brainwashing”, a term based on the Chinese word hsi-nao, to describe these mind-control methods. While the scientific community largely distanced itself from this idea, its cultural power was immense: it featured in films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Ipcress File (1965) and was repeatedly used by politicians, commentators and ordinary people throughout the late 20th century to describe seemingly inexplicable changes in viewpoint. It remains one of the most enduring legacies of the Korean War today.

Many British POWs were asked to provide 'confessions' and take part in classes on communism

There were other sensational stories that brought the Korean War briefly back to the front pages. Tom Hopkinson, the editor of the magazine Picture Post, was sacked for refusing to withdraw photographs of atrocities committed by South Korean forces and poor conditions in UN-run PoW camps. Opposition to the Korean War was an important prelude to the oppositional politics of the peace movement – most obviously the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which organised its first Aldermaston March in 1958.

But, for all this, the anti-Korean War movement never gained the same momentum as the anti-nuclear or anti-Vietnam campaigns. In the words of the historian Charles Young, the war’s subtleties and ambiguities failed to offer a “usable past” in the way that other 20th-century conflicts did.

A sharp contrast

The uneasy armistice signed at Panmunjom on 27 July 1953 did little to provide clarity. In fact, as no peace treaty was signed, the war technically continues to this day. Soldiers returned home to “utter apathy on the part of the public”, the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer noted. Popular culture dwelt little on the experiences of Korean War veterans. There was but one British film on the war: A Hill in Korea (1956), starring a young Michael Caine, fresh back from National Service in Korea himself.

Many veterans did not seek out their comrades again until they were retired, forming the British Korean Veterans Association in 1981. Some returned to the Korean peninsula, where they marvelled not only at South Korea’s economic progress in the decades after the war but the generous reception they were given by the country’s people. It contrasted sharply with their remembrance back in Britain.

But despite decades of oversight, there are tentative signs that Britain’s amnesia over the Korean War is clearing. December 2014 saw the unveiling of a memorial to the conflict on London’s Victoria Embankment, and Korea has gained greater visibility in drama and television – even producing a traumatised veteran in Call the Midwife.

Few people still know the names of Monica Felton and Hewlett Johnson. But their stories tell us something of how the Korean War influenced life back in Britain. In Stevenage, a pair of almond trees planted in Felton’s memory forms one of the only reminders of this fascinating chapter in Britain’s Cold War history.

Grace Huxford is a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Bristol. Her book The Korean War in Britain: Citizenship, Selfhood and Forgetting was published by MUP in 2018

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This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine