Wrong Turns In Korea

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The various despots involved operated with a casualness about potential war costs that set them apart from the Truman administration. The two Koreas, China, and the Soviet Union were never as put off by the prospect of a civil war as was Washington. Kim, Rhee, and Mao rationalized their actions as serving various greater goods that transcended a few million deaths; when the results of their policies brought unspeakable suffering, they lauded these sacrifices as the cost necessary to bring about their peoples’ long-term well-being. Stalin could feel less troubled about a Korean outbreak than Peking, Pyongyang, or Seoul because he would not commit Soviet troops to the fighting. The deaths of Koreans, Chinese, and Americans in the conflict he had authorized weighed little on him. Having shed so much Soviet blood by mistakenly aligning himself with Hitler in 1939, and having previously crushed all real and perceived opposition to his rule, he was indifferent to having others die in the pursuit of what he believed would serve his country and enhance his personal power. Later, as the Korean conflict dragged on and casualty rates soared, Stalin would observe that the North Koreans “lose nothing, except for their men.”

The news that Kim had finally made his move shocked official Washington, not because a Korean civil war had seemed so unlikely but because a defeated South Korea would undermine America’s international position and public confidence at home. Truman’s decision to resist the attack with U.S. forces was no surprise. A failure to respond, he believed, would be comparable to the Anglo-French appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938. He knew that the Soviets had inspired North Korea’s aggression; if unresisted, other communist offensives in Europe and Asia would soon come.

Truman did not openly acknowledge how much domestic politics influenced his decision. When Under Secretary of State James Webb asked to discuss the political aspects of the situation at a White House conference, Truman replied, “We’re not going to talk about politics. I’ll handle the political affairs.” The president himself would deal with domestic pressure on the right from the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who would pillory the administration if it let South Korea fall.

Not only Republicans were eager for a strong response: in the spring of 1950, communist advances in the cold war had dropped the president’s approval rating to 37 percent. America’s eagerness for strong military leadership was evident in a 1952 presidential poll in which Gen. Dwight Eisenhower earned 60 percent, Truman 31. Once the president deployed troops to Korea, 65 percent of the respondents in a survey applauded the decision, even though 57 percent believed that World War III had begun.

By not acknowledging that domestic politics had played a role in his decision, Truman was reluctant to concede that he had acted to counter complaints about “losing” China and “allowing” Soviet spies to steal atomic secrets. Yet he understood that another cold war setback could decisively cripple his capacity to govern 18 months into his elected term. To be sure, Truman and Acheson believed it essential to stand up to aggression were they to avert world war. Countering Kim’s attack and blocking Mao from invading Taiwan would sustain a balance of power in the Far East and convince European allies that the United States would defend them against aggression. For Truman to maintain effective governing authority during the remaining two and half years of his presidency, it would be essential to assuage the country’s anxiety about the communist threat by meeting it head-on in Korea and the Taiwan Strait.

However popular the administration’s response to the invasion, it did not excuse Truman and Acheson’s failure to forestall it by making clear that South Korea could not be forced within a totalitarian sphere. America’s inattentiveness to developments on the peninsula had licensed the communist attack. And while no one should palliate the communists’ prime responsibility for the fighting, Washington’s overt avoidance of the Korean question before June 1950 contributed to the conditions that led to war.

To downplay the fear that the world was teetering on the brink of a worldwide conflict, Truman sensibly described America’s military intervention as a “police action” under the auspices of the United Nations. His decision, however, had adverse long-term consequences. By committing forces to fight in Korea without congressional authorization, he set a precedent for the unilateral presidential decisions that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush would use to fight in Vietnam (1964), Cambodia (1970), and Iraq (2003). While presidents had sent troops into combat without congressional authorization before 1950—the State Department sent Truman a memo listing 87 such instances—they had typically been limited forays to protect and remove U.S. citizens from war zones.

Because Congress never speaks with one voice, it is vulnerable to the “imperial presidency” in times of crisis. Nevertheless, the legislature’s 1950 failure to assert itself more forcefully against the executive’s preemption of its war-making power was an invitation to future presidents to fight without the democratic debate that the founders of the Republic considered essential. The Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq conflicts should serve as cautionary tales about what happens when robust debate does not take place within and between the two branches of government that are responsible for the decision to make war.