The Korean War and the Incoherence of U.S. Foreign Policy

by Mario Loyola

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Over on the homepage, William C. Latham exhorts us to “recall the unpredictable nature of modern warfare, and [to] celebrate and preserve the uneasy peace that began 60 years ago in Korea.” Latham argues that the Korean War remains vitally instructive. I couldn’t agree more. 

If you want to demonstrate how difficult it is for a democratic government to conduct a stratetic foreign policy, the Korean War is the textbook case. Back in 2010, on the 60th anniversary of the start of the war, I wrote a piece for NRO (“Echoes of Korea“) arguing that the lack of foresight in U.S. policy made the Korean War inevitable. Because we couldn’t agree to defend Korea before the war, we had to fight a war to defend it. Then, because we couldn’t agree on what our aims were, we fought without strategic purpose and had to settle for an inconclusive armistice. 

Sure, today we have a happy, strong, and prosperous South Korea. But with a strategic foreign policy the U.S. could have achieved the same result — or better — without firing a shot. 

The key mistake was the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea in the two years before the Korean War started. Someone in the Truman administration should have realized that this decision made a North Korean invasion almost inevitable, and that a decision to defend the South after that would only maximize the loss of American lives and minimize the prospects for a favorable outcome. It made no sense to defend the South after an invasion that we could have prevented in the first place simply by making our intentions clear and leaving our troops in place. The decision facing Truman in 1948 should have been simple: either commit to defending South Korea and leave the garrison in place, or leave the South to its own devices and withdraw the garrison. Withdrawing the garrison while retaining some vague commitment to defending South Korea made absolutely no sense. In Shield of the Republic (1942), Walter Lippmann railed agaisnt the U.S. habit of making commitments abroad that exceeded the assets it had to back them up — what he called a bankrupt foreign policy. He was right, and we made exactly the same mistake in Korea. 

Today we honor the nearly 45,000 Americans who lost their lives fighting “for democracy.” But the real reason they died was the Truman administration’s failure to devise a coherent national-security strategy fast enough after the end of World War II. From my 2010 article:

So why did Truman withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea in 1949? The unanswered questions that Korea raised for U.S. strategy in the pre-war period — chiefly, how vital was our interest there, and how far should we be ready to go in defending it — made it almost inevitable that the U.S. would make grave strategic mistakes, and indeed it did. Once the war broke out, those unresolved questions fed right into the policy failures of the Korean War itself: the inability to define an attainable war aim, the inability to gain consensus for a coherent strategy, the inability to avoid conflict at the highest levels of the administration.

I don’t mean to blame the Truman administration, mind you. I like Dean Acheson a lot and discount the theory that his infamous “perimeter” speech had anything really to do with the invasion. There was something terribly inevitable about the mistakes the Truman administration made. The thing is to understand why they made the mistakes they made, because we’re still making them, and for the same reasons.

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