If there is a single factor which more than other explains the predicament in which we now find ourselves, it is our readiness to use the specter of Soviet Communism as a cloak for the failure of our own leadership. — Sen. J.W. Fulbright
How could American intervention in Korea have happened?
In 1950 Korea was not a legal ally of the United States, which the year before had entered into an alliance with Western Europe called NATO. (It wasn’t until 1953 that Korea and the United States signed an alliance.) By its own admission, the United States had no strategic interest in the Korean peninsula.
Before the war, it hardly had any troops there. And they were mostly garrison troops in no condition to fight a major war. They were there in the South only because they had accepted the Japanese surrender after World War II under an international agreement that allowed the Soviets to take control of the North.
The irony was that the United States, prior to the war, had little interest in Korea. But anti-communism, fueled the year before by the victory of Mao’s communists in the Chinese civil war, led the United States to blunder into a war over a country that was not strategically important. Mao’s victory in China had led to increased fears that there would be a worldwide communist push and that Korea was the beginning of it.
The proud Korean people, like the Vietnamese, had suffered through centuries of domination by the Chinese and Japanese empires. The United States was in the process of pulling its insignificant number of troops out of the country when the war broke out.
In a famous speech at the National Press Club in Washington just before the war, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had placed Korea outside the U.S. defense area. Acheson said the U.S. defensive perimeter ran from the Aleutians to Japan. He also said it ran “from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands.”
Nothing was ever mentioned about South Korea. Acheson said countries outside of the U.S. defense perimeter would depend on their own resources or seek help from the United Nations.
Who was Dean Acheson?
Acheson was the secretary of state who helped destroy the U.S. tradition of nonintervention and replace it with an imperial policy. He was an admirer of the British Empire in the 19th century, as detailed in John T. McNay’s Acheson and Empire.
Acheson wanted the United States to revive the international system presided over by the British (a system of worldwide intervention criticized by British radicals and by Americans opposed to empire). To do that, he said during World War II, the United States must first make itself “so strong that we shall not be caught defenseless or dangerously exposed in any possible eventuality,” according to Dean Acheson, the State Department Years, by David S. McLellan. Later in this series we will see that Acheson put that “so strong” principle in effect in a secret paper of the National Security Council.
Still, by 1950, even as the tide was moving toward a permanent American warfare state, there was a good reason for the United States not to provide a blank check to South Korea. Its leader, Syngman Rhee, was a megalomaniac dictator. He crushed civil liberties after World War II. He ruled only with U.S. backing. That was a familiar feature of post–World War II American imperial policies. Rhee often threatened to march North and forcibly unite the country.
The United States, which maintained him in power, was careful not to give his army heavy weapons. His cabinet was composed of “his cronies,” wrote former naval officer William Lederer in A Nation of Sheep. Without U.S. assistance, Lederer wrote, “it is unlikely that he would have come to power.” In 1960 Rhee was overthrown by South Koreans, who objected to his rigged elections.
The Korean War was, without doubt, a tragedy as great as the one that would follow in Vietnam, twice more in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. It was a war that the Americans never needed to fight. And, lamentably, it was a war against North Korean aggression that inevitably led to a bigger war and might even have triggered World War III.
But the war also had profound constitutional implications. It would further imbalance the separation of powers, the constitutional balance through which presidents were supposed to be prevented from waging war at their whim.
The missed opportunity
But it might have been different if America’s new policeman foreign policy hadn’t foreclosed peace or compromise as options. Military spending tripled in the Korean War period. That was not only because of the expenses of the war, which Harry Truman thought would be part of a worldwide attack, but because Truman sent more divisions to fulfill the obligations of the NATO alliance.
This “we must defend everywhere” mindset also led to myriad missed opportunities for peace and possibly increased trade. Trade represents the opposite of an interventionist foreign policy. It is the essence of the now-spurned isolationist tradition.
Greater trade or at least some sort of dialogue might have resulted in avoiding war with the Chinese. It might also have led to détente with the Chinese two decades before it was initiated, ironically enough, by Richard Nixon, who, as a member of Congress in the 1940s, had been an ardent anti-communist. He called for the firing of State Department experts who wanted to recognize Mao’s regime.
As a U.S. senator in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nixon incorrectly argued that the Truman administration had been soft on communism. That’s something that was not true, as we have seen in this series. Yet an opportunity to have a peaceful relationship with a divided communist world had existed in the 1940s, as some of Truman’s allies told him.
The Korean War
For instance, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee advocated relations between the West and China as a way of potentially splitting the communist world. Truman told Attlee, in a meeting during the Korean War, that the Chinese would someday realize that the Americans were their friends.
“You won’t bring them to that realization if you keep fighting them,” Attlee said, as noted in Clement Attlee, by Trevor Burridge.
Still, after Tito’s Yugoslavia had broken with the Soviet Union just after World War II, Soviet expert George Kennan speculated that Mao “might already be infected with the Tito virus,” according to Walter Hixon’s George Kennan, Cold War Iconoclast.
But the United States, under the spell of the Cold War ideology that some would call “the militarization of containment,” missed that chance to talk with the Chinese communists. It misread the unique nature of China’s experience and the bad blood between communists.
An example of the latter was Soviet-Chinese communist relations in the 1940s. Stalin privately complained that the Chinese communists weren’t “true communists.” He called them “radish Communists — red on the outside, but white on the inside,” according to Gao Wenqian in his book Zhou Enlai.
This missed chance for de jure or de facto recognition would have tragic results. Late in 1950, seemingly victorious American troops in North Korea, supposedly about to win the last victory of the war, neared the Chinese border. Unfortunately, neither side recognized the dangers. The Americans suffered a military defeat. And tens of thousands of Chinese died in subsequent American bombing.
So who won the Korean War?
Nobody. Everybody lost. It was a typical war. Americans soured on it when there seemed to be no victory or constitutional justification for the war.
“Polls reflected that the American people were fed up with a war they could not win; but at the same time they were fearful of becoming involved in a greater war should the affair escalate,” wrote Gary A. Donaldson in America at War since 1945.
Truman’s militarization of foreign policy was a risky approach to the world. And when there was no victory in the Korean War, many Americans began to question it.
The policy was part of a series of errors that still plague foreign policy today in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But there were also domestic consequences of the new policy.
What were they? One was the permanent expansion of military spending, as detailed in a secret National Security Council paper called NSC-68, a wildly belligerent paper that numerous administration officials before the Korean War never thought could be adopted. It had been under discussion when the war broke out.
The war changed the dynamic of the discussion, since a more effective case could then be made for the nation’s arming to the teeth. Thus, the U.S. government suddenly approved this controversial paper. It was another critical step on the road to the permanent warfare state.
What was NSC-68? We will examine it in our next segment.
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).