Taekwondo>History>Chapter 23: Taekwondo in the United States

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Chapter 23: Taekwondo in the United States


In 1952, Masutatsu Oyama, traveled across the United States giving demonstrations of intricate karate katas/forms. Few Americans were able to appreciate his skill, so his demonstrations were met with boos and hisses until he began his board and brick breaking. This was something Americans could appreciate, so the boos changed to applause. Unfortunately, this preoccupation with breaking implanted a false notion of what martial arts were all about in the minds of most Americans, which has continued to this day.

The spiritual side of taekwondo and its relationship to meditation and the Buddhist principles of non-violence is still neglected by many American students. According to Master Kiel Soon Park, President of the International Council on Martial Arts Education:
"Taekwondo is a way of life. Its purpose is to enable men and women to realize their full potential both mentally and physically. If the mental aspect is ignored, its physical aspect is meaningless."
When karate was first introduced into the United States, Americans, who already had a long tradition of competitive sports, were initially more interested in its mystic, non-competitive aspects. They perceived karate as a mystical short cut to wisdom and power that was not found in Western culture. Korean instructors were quick to perceive this and they exploited this perception when teaching taekwondo to Westerners. They espoused hard training and actual application of techniques against an opponent while also stressing the need to avoid violence. This allowed them to teach supposedly deadly techniques and expound profound philosophies that would likely never be tested.

When karate was first introduced into the United States, few people noticed a distinction between Japanese and Korean karate, so Koreans martial artists got a head start in introducing taekwondo to the American public by sending more taekwondo stylists to the United States than did other styles. As a string of talented Korean kickers arrived in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and began teaching taekwondo, taekwondo practitioners began to gain a reputation as kicking specialists. Some of these early pioneers of Korean karate in the United States are described below.

Early taekwondo pioneers in the United States

Atlee Chittim

In 1948, Atlee Chittim returned to the United States from Korea where he had studied taekwondo. He became affiliated with the USKA and he gave limited instruction at various YMCAs in San Antonio, Texas. In 1955, he began teaching taekwondo at San Antonio College, as a brown belt. Some say Chittim sponsored Jhoon Rhee's entry into the United States. In any event, it was Rhee who later promoted Chittim to black belt.

Ernest Lieb

Ernest Lieb, while a member of the United States Air Force, studied Korean karate under Chun Il Sup while he was stationed in Korea. Lieb later returned the United States, became the first karate chairman of the AAU, and later was the President of the American Karate Association (AKA).

Allen Steen

Another American taekwondo pioneer was Allen Steen. Steen started in taekwondo under Jhoon Rhee in 1959 at the University of Texas. He earned his black belt in 1962, and, in 1963, he promoted his first black belt. In 1966, Steen was a member of the victorious U.S. National Karate Team in Hawaii. In that same year, he won the International Karate Championships in Long Beach, beating both Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis.

Jhoon Rhee

In 1956, Jhoon Rhee arrived in Texas for military training with the United States Air Force. While there, he taught what was possibly the first American class in taekwondo. He was called back to Korea almost immediately to complete a year of active duty in the Korean Army, but he returned to Texas in late 1957 to attend San Marcos Southwest Texas State College. While a freshman at the college, Rhee held taekwondo demonstrations and started a club to teach taekwondo to students. He later transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and taught in an even larger taekwondo club. In 1962, Rhee moved to Washington, D.C. to become a professional instructor. In 1966, he hosted his First National Karate Championships in Washington, D.C. He also hosted events that helped publicize taekwondo, such as giving free taekwondo instruction to Congressmen and having his students march in parades. In the early 1970s, Rhee was the first to introduce padded sparring equipment to taekwondo. Some consider Jhoon Rhee to be the "father of American taekwondo" and he is still a major contributor to American taekwondo.

Sihak Henry Cho

In 1961, Sihak Henry Cho opened a school in New York City that is believed to be the first permanent commercial taekwondo school in the United States. Like Rhee, he originally came to the United States as a student (while working on his MBA). While visiting New York City, he visited a Judo school and gave a taekwondo demonstration. Judo was popular at the time and was about the only martial art with which Americans were familiar. Spectators were amazed at his kicks and wanted to know more about taekwondo. Cho decided to stay in New York and became one of the early pioneers of American taekwondo.

Other early Korean taekwondo masters included Richard Chun (1962), Chong Lee (1964), and Hee Il Cho (1969). Unlike some other oriental martial arts that were being taught by unqualified instructors, these early pioneers of taekwondo offered the public highly qualified instruction and built solid public support for taekwondo. The early migration of these and other skilled taekwondo instructors to the United States gave taekwondo an early lead in American martial arts.


In 1972, the American Collegiate Taekwondo Association was formed to sponsor tournaments and ensure quality taekwondo instruction in American universities. In October of 1974, taekwondo was admitted into the United States Amateur Athletic Union, largely due to the efforts of David Rivenes, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, and Ken Min of the University of California at Berkeley. This official recognition of taekwondo as an amateur sport in the United States launched it into a period of sustained growth.

The First Annual National AAU Taekwondo Championship was held at Yale University in March 1975, followed by a second one in Kansas City in 1976, and a third one at the University of Berkeley in 1977. In September 1977, the AAU hosted the Third Taekwondo World Championships at the Chicago Amphitheater. More than forty-six national teams, consisting of over five hundred contestants, officials, and master instructors, participated in the event. Each year, hundreds of taekwondo tournaments are held in the United States under the sponsorship of various taekwondo organizations.


By the 1980s, American taekwondo martial artists began to resent the continued dominance of both Korean and Japanese instructors in the United States. They felt the oriental principle of loyalty to the head of a style limited the growth possibilities of taekwondo in America.

Oriental martial artists demand absolute loyalty to a single art to preserve the art, honor the instructors, and to preserve and increase their personal power base. Oriental students often sample different styles while children and concentrate on one style by their teenage years, building a strong loyalty to the style. American martial artists do not feel this loyalty to a particular style; they want to experiment. Americans martial artists do not believe a single martial art may encompass all aspects of the fighting arts, so they began to borrow techniques from many different fighting styles and form their own styles.

The American contribution to taekwondo came primarily from the American tournament scene. In the early 1960s, American martial artists generally fought from a stationary position using 80 percent hand techniques and 20 percent foot techniques. Kicks were usually at abdomen level or lower and few fighters would kick using their lead leg. The standard kicks were front kicks or roundhouse kicks off the back leg. The counter reverse punch and the step-through lunge punch were the standard hand techniques. Open tournament competitors in the same period (1962-1964) were better kickers, but their hand techniques were primitive (overhead knife-hand strike, etc.) and they fought from a stationary stance, with no footwork. Counter techniques and combinations were virtually unknown.

Then some fighters began using roundhouse kicks to the head (using both the leading and trailing legs), spinning back kicks, and jumping side kicks. Most of these kickers came from the Southwest, possibly due to Jhoon Rhee's influence in the area. East Coast fighters introduced the jumping double front kick and used a leading leg roundhouse kick more than other early stylists, while West Coast fighters stuck to the older Japanese styles.

In 1965, Mike Stone came home from the Army and won nine consecutive tournaments without being defeated, primarily using a leading leg roundhouse and double ridge hands. In the late 1960s, Chuck Norris became a champion by combining Korean kicks (including a leading leg side kick) with Japanese hand techniques. He was also the first American fighter to introduce combination techniques successfully.

Joe Lewis also came to fame during this time by using a leading leg side kick and crossing back kick, showing the effectiveness of single technique specialization. Lewis also proved the effectiveness of the lead punch.

After these fighters started winning with lead techniques, the techniques began to gain recognition, although they would not become widely popular until the 1970s. Footwork during this period was the standard back and forward movement that is still prevalent today.

After the WTF concentrated on the sport form of taekwondo, Korean instructors began emphasizing competition techniques rather than traditional fighting techniques. For example, touch block replaced power blocks in sparring. American tournament point fighters established the basis for the American style of taekwondo.

For more information about some taekwondo legends from the United States and the world, check out: Taekwondo Hall of Fame.

As taekwondo continued to grow in the United States, taekwondo instructors wanted independence from foreign governing organizations. Instructors began grouping themselves and forming American based taekwondo organizations. One of the first is the American Taekwondo Association.

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