Korea: Lessons and Legacies of a Memorable War

On 25 June 2010, we will commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of the conventional phase of the Korean War when Communist forces staged a massive military offensive southward across the 38th parallel to reunite the nation.  At first blush, this event would seem to provide few lessons or legacies still relevant twenty years after the Soviet-American contest for global hegemony ceased to define international politics.  The United States today struggles to find a strategy to eliminate the use of terror as a political weapon and then unite the world behind its implementation.  Understanding the origins, course, and consequences of the Korean War in fact can provide meaningful guidance for world leaders in pursuit of international peace and stability in at least two important ways.  First, Korea’s war demonstrates the primacy of nationalism and local circumstances as the forces that decide events in human history.  Second, this conflict confirms how flawed leaders act on erroneous assumptions and dubious expectations to make decisions resulting in unwanted and often disastrous outcomes.  Proving both points, President Harry S. Truman publicly declared on 27 June 1950 that “communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war.”  This same profound detachment from reality afflicted his counterparts in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul, leaving Korea divided and in ruins.

That Truman exaggerated the threat North Korea’s invasion posed to the United States certainly is not surprising, given how he had justified U.S. policies to contain Soviet expansion after 1947.  As important was his insistence on reducing defense spending, as he withheld approval for National Security Council Paper 68, calling for a huge expansion of U.S. military power.  Chinese military intervention in the Korean War motivated Congress to authorize increases in the defense budget from $13.5 billion in 1950 to $60.4 billion for fiscal 1952.  One of Korea’s important legacies was the U.S. government’s adoption of a mobilization strategy of perpetual military preparedness, enormous military expenditures, and budget deficits.  This pattern would not have taken hold in the absence of mistaken beliefs about nationalism that caused Truman to think he was liberating North Korea and not provoking China’s entry in the war.  To be sure, domestic political pressure for complete victory virtually eliminated halting at the 38th parallel as an option.  But the fact remains that the humiliating U.S. military retreat and the bloody, frustrating stalemate that followed would combine to create a toxic political environment in the United States.  Truman’s escalation of the war destroyed any hope of ever restoring a bipartisan foreign policy and assured instead the triumph of McCarthyism.

Lessons learned in the 1930s dominated the thinking of Truman and his advisors, causing them to conclude wrongly that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, like Adolph Hitler, had ordered North Korea to attack as a first step in his global plan for expansionist aggression.  Consequently, the vast increase in U.S. defense spending was not entirely for Korea, but a large portion financed a larger deployment of U.S. forces in Western Europe and an enlargement of military assistance to the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  The United States also started to lobby for rearmament of West Germany, finally realizing this goal in 1955.  Similarly, the Truman administration sharply increased military assistance to Indochina, the Philippines, and the exiled Guomindang regime on Taiwan.  But revolutionary unrest persisted, persuading U.S. leaders that the direct application of military power alone could counter what they now perceived as a dire Soviet threat menacing the entire world.  A regrettable legacy of the Korean War was that the United States thereafter practiced a policy of global intervention, relying largely on military means to maintain the status quo.  This resulted in U.S. support for assorted odious regimes worldwide and the needless waste of the nation’s blood and treasure, especially in Vietnam.

Korea convinced American leaders that communism was a monolithic global movement under the direct control of the Kremlin, a belief that moved U.S. policy in misguided directions for many years.  Communist sources now depict a relationship between the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea that was the complex, fractious, and suspicious.  A long-hidden legacy of Korea was the divisive, rather than unifying impact of the war on this Communist alliance.  Stalin, who had opposed an invasion until April 1950, definitely was peeved at Kim Il Sung for misleading him into thinking that his forces would triumph before Washington had time to intervene.  Kim, for his part, never forgot how Stalin stalled on giving approval for Chinese intervention and even was prepared to allow U.S. forces to conquer North Korea, before Mao Zedong acted to save his regime.  Wartime friction grew steadily in Sino-Soviet relations as Stalin limited support for the Chinese war effort and delayed an armistice.  Oblivious to these divisions, Truman instead invited confrontation with Beijing when at the start of the Korean War he sent the U.S. Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, preventing impending Communist reunification.  He then gained passage in February 1951 of a UN resolution condemning China as an aggressor in Korea.  Truman’s policies in the Korean War would poison Soviet-American relations for over two decades.

Creation of an alliance system to block further Communist expansion in East Asia became the primary goal of U.S. policy after the start of the Korean War.  North Korea’s attack ended division in Washington about Japan’s future, as the Pentagon agreed to an early restoration of sovereignty and the State Department reciprocated with agreement to Japanese rearmament.  In September 1951, the Japanese Peace Treaty resulted in independence the following spring.  Simultaneously, Japan signed a separate bilateral security treaty with the United States allowing U.S. troops to stay in Japan indefinitely.  Reacting to fears of a revived Japan, the United States sought the parallel goal of Communist containment in negotiating security agreements with a series of nations in East Asia.  In August 1951, it signed a mutual defense pact with the Philippines pledging protection from aggression, although not automatic in contrast to NATO.  The next month, the United States signed a similar agreement with Australia and New Zealand known as the ANZUS Treaty.  In 1954, the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Security Treaty and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization came into effect, while the U.S.-Republic of China (Taiwan) Mutual Defense Pact followed in 1955.  Imaging this enormous postwar projection of U.S. political and military power into the Pacific would be difficult absent the Korean War.

Many early writers defined the legacy of the Korean War as a victory for collective security, but in fact U.S. control over decision-making severely strained relations with its allies.  Nor was it an example of effectively waging limited war in a nuclear age, since the United States was prepared to use atomic weapons from the outset and air bombardment laid waste to North Korea.  These two misconceptions distract attention from perhaps the important lesson of the Korean War that military power has limited utility in resolving a political dispute.  Similarly, references to the “Forgotten War” obscure what is the most significant legacy of Korea that after three years of ghastly conflict, this tragic country was still divided.  Foreign powers had not only partitioned the peninsula in 1945, but intervened militarily twice during 1950 to prevent its reunification.  More than two million Koreans died in the process and the survivors on both sides of the demilitarized zone lived under brutal dictatorships for over three decades after the Korean War ended.  Recent naval incidents in disputed waters off Korea’s west coast are jarring reminders that an armistice in July 1953 did not end the war.  Wiser leaders, conscious of the determinative power of nationalism and their own imperfections, would have placed a higher priority on helping meet the needs and desires of Koreans after World War II.  As in Iraq and Afghanistan today, this would have brought a positive outcome worthy of welcome remembrance.