Wrong Turns In Korea

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Rhee’s campaign to remove all leftists from political influence, in addition to such unconstitutional actions as arbitrary arrests, detentions, and torture of opponents, soon provoked nationwide anger that swelled into armed resistance. Observing this, Kim believed that should his armies cross the parallel, they would be welcomed as liberators.

It was the Truman administration’s misfortune to have two such overbearingly self-righteous figures vying for power over Korea. Their parallel pursuit of despotic unification left little room indeed for any genuine consideration of the well-being of the Korean people. Each considered bloodshed and unconstrained repression a small price to pay for fulfilling his dreams of becoming the founder of a modern Korean nation. With such leaders, the Korean people needed no foreign occupiers to abuse them. But full-scale war broke out on June 25, 1950, only as the consequence of an extraordinary combination of events and judgments in at least five countries: North and South Korea, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States.

In 1949 Rhee’s government had initiated a series of attacks upon the North Korean forces stationed along the 38th parallel. Because he lacked sufficient troops and equipment to launch a serious push north, Rhee provoked the fighting not only to command Washington’s attention and stimulate an outpouring of military and financial aid but also to provide a pretext for cracking down on leftist opponents.

Rhee’s success against the leftists, along with his developing relationship with Japan that promised to strengthen South Korea’s economy, prompted Kim to step up his plans to strike the South. In 1949 Kim had pressed Stalin for permission to invade the South. But the Soviet dictator had equivocated, urging Kim instead to support the insurgencies. At the beginning of 1950, however, Stalin’s opposition had softened, due in part to the Soviets’ acquisition of the atomic bomb, Mao’s victory in China, an emerging alliance with Peking, and the conviction that Washington would shortly reach a peace agreement with Tokyo that would station U.S. forces in Japan indefinitely and threaten Moscow’s Far East possessions. An East–West standoff in Europe had shifted Stalin’s focus to Asia, where opportunities for communist gains seemed greater. Secretary of State Acheson’s description of a Northeast Asian defense perimeter in January 1950 seemed to confirm Stalin’s belief that the United States would not interfere in Korea, a factor that he believed left South Korea open to an unchallenged attack from the North.

Stalin also saw little downside should America reverse course and intervene in Korea. He believed that U.S. involvement in the peninsula would reduce the threat to Soviet forces in Germany and to Moscow’s control of Eastern Europe. A drawn-out conflict that eventually pitted China against the United States would further “distract the United States from Europe to the Far East,” wrote Stalin to Czechoslovakian President Klement Gottwald in an August 1950 cable. “And the third world war will be postponed for the indefinite term, and this would give the time necessary to consolidate socialism in Europe.” It also gave the Soviets time to develop a hydrogen bomb, for which their spy Klaus Fuchs, whom the Soviets playfully called “Santa Klaus,” had secretly passed them the American design Edward Teller had developed in 1946.

Yet Stalin would not sanction the attack unless Kim sought Mao’s support before he acted. It was possible that the Chinese would oppose a war on the peninsula out of concern that it could bring U.S. intervention, the defeat of Kim’s regime, and the establishment of a dangerous pressure point against the Bejing government, developments that would reverse Moscow’s apparent triumphs in Asia.

But the Chinese did not resist Kim’s war plans. Like Kim and Stalin, Mao doubted that the Americans would fight to prevent unification of the peninsula. Communist convictions that South Korea would be abandoned by its sponsor were reinforced in May 1950, when Tom Connally, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic ally of Truman, publicly acknowledged that the United States probably could not stop a communist takeover in Seoul. Not long after, Acheson reiterated the administration’s Korean policy, brushing aside suggestions that the United States would intervene.

Although the Chinese would have preferred to oust Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists from Taiwan before war broke out in Korea, they could not deny Kim’s request for moral and materiel backing, as well as a commitment to join in should U.S. forces threaten Pyongyang. Saying no would have made the Chinese seem less revolutionarily zealous than the USSR, with which they already had a keen, if muted, rivalry. Moreover, a sense of obligation to North Korea’s communists, who had fought under Mao against Chiang, made it difficult for Peking to discourage Kim from fighting his own civil war.

In the final analysis, the war was the result of misjudgments by the heads of government in Pyongyang, Moscow, Peking, Seoul, and Washington, none of whose calculations proved prescient. If Stalin, Mao, and Kim had had a better understanding of the political pressures on the Truman administration, they would have more realistically judged the likelihood of U.S. intervention. If Truman and Acheson had anticipated the irresistible pressure that the United States would feel to intervene, they would have openly guaranteed support for Seoul against any attack and warned North Korea not to test America’s resolve.