The Black Hole of the Korean War in American History
Are you a war buff? Or do you know several? People who can walk the battlefields of the Civil War declaiming on the tactics and errors of the generals on both sides. Are the bookshelves, attics and basements of friends and family filled with tomes on World War II or Vietnam? Probably.
But how many people know anything about the Korean War? The Korean War, The Forgotten War according to Clay Blair, is the black hole in American history. Oh, Korea, the retreat from the Frozen Chosin (ironically, Chosin in the Japanese name for the location) is probably the limit of people’s knowledge of that war. It was not a war, it was a “police action”, remember?
Now, a new book, The Korean War: A History by Bruce Cumings, the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Chicago, comes along to put the Korean War in its proper place as an important event in American history and, most surprisingly, the real starting point of the military aspects of the Cold War.
In war, traditionally, the capital is the last place to fall. The outlying defensive armies, protecting the leadership, need to be defeated before the war is won. The north needed to conquer Richmond in the American Civil War. The Germans were stopped at the gates of Paris in World War I. The American and Soviet armies raced for Berlin in the European theater in World War II.
But in the Pacific theater, the war was ended suddenly with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan was defeated, but its army, its empire, was largely intact. Both the Korean and Vietnam wars were a result of the operational decisions stemming from the need to disarm the intact Japanese armies in Vietnam and Korea. The sixteenth parallel in Vietnam was the dividing line: to the north, the Chinese replaced the Japanese; to the south, the British replaced the Japanese. [The fact that the Chinese and Russians forced the Vietnamese to accept the seventeenth parallel as the dividing line between north and south at the Geneva Conference in 1954, and to give up land they had won militarily above the sixteenth parallel, was a major cause of Vietnamese distrust of the Chinese and Russians as intermediaries for negotiating an end to the war and why Quang Tri province turned out to be such a killing ground for US troops during the war.] In the end, the French relieved them both. And Ho Chi Minh actually preferred the return of the French to the continuation of Chinese presence. This fact should have been a red flag for American decision-makers about the relationship between the Vietnamese and Chinese.
In Korea, the Soviets disarmed the Japanese north of the 38th parallel and the Americans disarmed the Japanese to the south. In essence, when the United States defeated the Japan, it inherited its empire. In the interests of stability and anti-communism, it basically rehabilitated the colonizers in the Far East and made them American clients. Hence, the United States inherited the aura of the French colonialists in Vietnam and the Japanese occupiers in Korea. Neither the 16th parallel nor the 38th parallel were originally intended as international boundaries. The United States decided to make them boundaries by force of arms, in the name of anti-communism.
Cumings’ book makes post World War II American foreign policy comprehensible. Like most historians who want to keep their jobs and get their books published, he assiduously avoids the third rail of American foreign policy: Israel. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, wanted to send Israeli soldiers to fight in the United Nations coalition in Korea. This was a mere two years after the creation of Israel with the new country allegedly threatened with extinction by its more numerous neighbors.
When Israel was created, it proclaimed a policy of neutrality between east and west. It was the Korean War that got Israel to side irrevocably with the west. Ben Gurion failed to get Israel to send troops, partially because a significant section of his Mapai Party wanted to support the north, not the south. As a compromise, Israel sent humanitarian aid to the south. And six years later, in collusion with the French and British, Israel conquered Egypt’s Sinai Pennisula in six days. And eleven years after that, nineteen years after its creation, Israel invaded and seized the West Bank, which it still holds today in violation of international law. Does this sound like the record of a small, weak country surrounded by numerically superior neighbors threatened with extinction? American foreign policy in the post-war world has been foremost about protecting the religious state of Israel while opposing religious states in the Muslim world.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union more than twenty years ago, and China’s emergence as a global military and economic power, archives of both nations have been opened to researchers. There is a flood of excellent scholarship on the Cold War, now based on hard data, rather than speculation, and two generations of graduate students to mine this rich seam. For example, Mao: The Unknown History by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Lorenz Luthi’s The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the communist world, Mercy A. Kuo’s Contending with Contradictions: China’s Policy toward Soviet Eastern Europe and the Origins of the Sino-Sovet Split, 1953-1960; and Nicholas Khoo’s Collateral Damage: Sino-Soviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance, all deal with one of the major events of Cold War that affected every other, the Sino-Soviet Split. Part of the reason for the global economic crisis is the unaffordable military spending predicated on outdated ideas of national defense.
And the Sino-Soviet split was the elephant in the china shop during the Cold War. Not a single issue can be understood without looking at it in the context of the Soviet-China rivalry for leadership in the Communist world. It is as important as the Korean War, the 1956 Suez War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Arab -Israeli wars and the Vietnam War. And now the archives are open and we can learn who did what and why.
The problem is that the United States is becoming more and more ignorant about anything other than sports and entertainment. It turns out that in the run up to the 2000 election, when Bush was being briefed by his foreign policy advisors, he did not know if Germany was part of NATO. Is it any surprise he stumbled into two wars, especially since he lost the election? Far from being a free, democratic country, Americans are kept in a state of vincible ignorance, all the easier to play them like a piano for political purposes. At the moment, the international news is all: Syria, Syria, Syria, Iran; Syria, Syria, Syria, Iran; like one note Johnny, the voters are being manipulated and played for fools.
And the ultimate outrage has come in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation trial. The surprise witness permitted by the judge was heresay by two janitors of a third janitor who now has dementia and can not testify for himself. His colleagues claim that he said he saw Jerry in the shower with a ten year old boy. Further, they testify that he said it was worse than anything he had seen in Korea. Really? Worse than Korea? A war that took over 54,000 American lives (20,600 were “accidental”), at least 132,000 Chinese lives (probably 400,000) and about 3 million Korean lives, half of them civilians. Really, a child molester is worse than American soldiers being ordered to shoot women and children? And the jury and public will believe this, because they know nothing about the Korean war and the vast majority of public officials and voters have never served in the military and have a Disneyland idea of warfare and combat.
Post-war American foreign policy was predicated on an opposition to a monolithic communism that, if it ever existed at all, ended after the Korean War.
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