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.
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, 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).
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.