Wrong Turns In Korea


In the Soviet Union, Stalin understood that the Korean fighting could serve him domestically as well—as a valuable tool for suppressing his domestic opponents, the men and women in his inner circle whom he saw as angling to replace him, and the ethnic groups he believed were intent on subverting his rule. Sending them to exile in the gulags would prove far easier if external dangers continued to make him the country’s indispensable leader, as World War II had done. It is a universal truth, wrote James Madison prophetically, “that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”

In September 1950 Stalin’s assumptions about what Moscow might gain from U.S. involvement in Korea fell victim to a brilliant American campaign that drove the invaders back across the 38th parallel. Suddenly the destruction of Kim’s regime and the incorporation of the North into one united country legitimized under the authority of the United Nations mandate seemed within reach.

After an October meeting during which Gen. Douglas MacArthur predicted an easy victory without Chinese intervention, Truman agreed to a conclusive invasion of the North. Truman had doubts that MacArthur’s scenario would play out, but domestic politics still loomed large in his thinking. To have stopped at the parallel would have brought a firestorm of criticism from right-wing politicians, who would charge that his containment policy was no prescription for cold war victory but rather a formula for defeat.

Once America threatened to establish, as they saw it, a garrisoned client state on the peninsula, the Chinese felt compelled to enter the conflict. They hoped not only to prevent an American military presence on their Manchurian border, save Kim’s ideologically acceptable regime, and inspire Third World revolutionaries in general to continue the struggle against Western imperialism, but further to energize one more domestic campaign to suppress “reactionaries and reactionary activities.”

The Korean War now became a toxic brew for everyone who supported it. None of the participating nations would escape the consequences of prolonged war on the peninsula. Two and a half more years of bloodshed gained nothing for any of the combatants. The Koreans, who suffered 3 million casualties, ended the war essentially where it had begun—more or less along the 38th parallel. Neither side was able to end the divide between North and South; each was left to govern not a unified Korea, which each had sought, but shattered individual nations more deeply antagonistic to one another than before. Although the Chinese took some comfort in their belief that they had frustrated the U.S. attempt to occupy Korea and use it as a forward base against their new revolutionary order, they had lost as many as 900,000 lives and embittered relations with America, delaying the day when they could use the United States to help build their economy and enlist it as an ally of sorts in its emerging conflict with the Soviet Union. As for Moscow, instead of limiting the U.S. ability to build its worldwide defenses by tying it down in an Asian land war, the Korean conflict spurred a worldwide American defense buildup that in due course forced the Soviets into a frenzied military counterexpansion its economy could not sustain.

In America, the extended bloodletting in Korea caused the political collapse of the Truman administration. By January 1951, 49 percent of Americans believed that U.S. participation in the war was a mistake, and only 38 percent endorsed it. Truman’s approval rating plummeted to 26 percent in February 1951. Political opponents joked, “To err is Truman.”

Douglas MacArthur’s intemperate demands to expand the war against China brought an end to his great career. He urged the United States to drop 34 atomic bombs on Manchuria, creating a 60-year radioactive belt against further invasion of Korea from the north. Truman wisely dismissed the general.