Politics & Policy

Echoes of Korea

Obama is reminding us of what happens when we forget our history.

Sixty years ago today — at dawn on a quiet Sunday morning — the Korean War broke like a clap of thunder. After a short artillery barrage along the 38th parallel, more than 200,000 North Korean forces, under the command of Gen. Kim Il Sung, began pouring into the newly born Republic of Korea. There was no warning. South Korea’s tiny security forces were shattered instantly — and, just as quickly, President Truman decided to fight back. Almost overnight, America was at war.

For many of our veterans, the Korean War is still living memory. The anniversary of its beginning is an occasion to honor the sacrifices they and their fallen comrades made for liberty in that faraway land. But unfortunately, today there are more pressing reasons to remember that conflict.

Wednesday’s firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, is only the most obvious. The general is said to have exercised “poor judgment” in disparaging a variety of senior administration officials in candid interviews with Rolling Stone. Defenders were quick to point out that the general was not insubordinate, as was Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Korea: McChrystal never publicly criticized the president’s war strategy.

But that’s not the point. In Korea 60 years ago we had the same essential problem that we have in Afghanistan today: an inability to define attainable war aims that are rationally related to the interests at stake. When there is no consensus on war aims, there can be no consensus on strategy, and conflict within the senior leadership becomes inevitable. People generally agree on the things they understand, and generally disagree on the things they don’t understand. If history is any guide, the entire administration may well be trapped inside an irresolvable dilemma on Afghanistan — in which case, by definition, nobody has the answer. 

Let’s start the story of the Korean War where it really begins, in the five years following the Yalta conference in early 1945, which is all the time it took for the United States to set in motion the forces that made a new war inevitable. 

At Yalta, Joseph Stalin promised Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan within three months of the surrender of Germany. Roosevelt died a few weeks later, and Germany surrendered shortly after. Is it possible that the Korean War was already inevitable at this point, even before the surrender of Japan? Yes, it is possible.

By the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Japanese had been occupying Korea for more than 30 years. The question that then arose was how to liquidate the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately, the answer involved the Soviet Union, which had taken advantage of Japan’s situation — and Roosevelt’s ill-considered entreaties — to enter the region in force. We agreed that the Russians would occupy Korea north of the 38th parallel, and we would occupy the peninsula south of that line. 

Two years later, by the middle of 1947, the U.S. was in full demobilization, and forces were in short supply. In Japan, General MacArthur’s command had dwindled to just a handful of divisions, and he was pining for the 45,000 U.S. forces stationed in South Korea to be withdrawn to Japan. Washington sent several high-level officials — including George Kennan, the father of “containment” — on missions to South Korea to study the situation. They noted that U.S. forces were in a precarious position, caught between increasing numbers of Communist guerrillas infiltrating from the north and a South Korean strongman — Syngman Rhee — who was corrupt, autocratic, and unpopular. They recommended that the forces be evacuated.

The U.S. pushed for a United Nations General Assembly resolution (Res. 112(II)) calling for elections to be held in Korea under U.N. supervision, and for all occupying forces to leave promptly after a government was set up. By this time, it was already quite clear that the same problem that had arisen over the political independence of Poland was going to arise everywhere Soviet forces were present: namely, that instead of holding elections in their zones of occupation as they were supposed to, the Soviets were going to establish heavily armed Communist puppet regimes under their control.

The Soviets naturally refused to hold elections in their zone, but they were more amenable on the withdrawal of occupation forces, so Truman decided that was the best deal he could get. The U.S. went ahead with elections in its zone in May 1948, the first government of South Korea was formed in July, and the withdrawal of U.S. forces began in September.

In a secret cable to the secretary of state dated February 1948, the political officer of the U.S. embassy in South Korea had written:

Rhee thinks that the U.S. has a real moral obligation to retain some U.S. troops in Korea for a period after a South Korean government is established. In addition, he feels that such retention would serve best interests of United States in opposing the Soviets as it would guarantee the holding of South Korea for democracy. As regards size of such force, whether as at present or a smaller token force, he said that this was something for U.S. Government to decide.

Now, in the weeks after the election, the issue of the U.S. withdrawal became even more acute. In another secret cable to the secretary of state, dated June 20, 1948, Gen. John Hodge, then commander of the U.S. garrison in Korea, wrote:

The many press reports and editorials from the United States indicating an early withdrawal from Korea under UN Resolution II have had and are having an adverse effect. [It is feared that] if the United States withdraws before agreements for uniting the two zones are completed the result will be to hand Korea to the Soviet sphere.

These missives slowed but ultimately did not stop the administration’s drive to withdraw forces from Korea. The Americans completed their withdrawal in June 1949, which, ironically enough, was some six months after the Soviets completed theirs. On Jan. 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a famous and much-maligned speech at the National Press Club in which he described America’s “defensive perimeter” as running south from the Aleutians to Ryukyu, Japan, and the Philippines, pointedly excluding Korea, which he implied was the responsibility of the United Nations. Criticizing Acheson for this is not really fair: He was using the formulation that MacArthur and even Hodge himself had used just weeks earlier. The perimeter he described — and its exclusion of Korea — was a matter of widespread consensus in the government.

In hindsight, one is tempted to wonder, How could we have been so blind? If the Truman administration was committed to defending South Korea, and could see that it might get attacked, why did it withdraw the 45,000 troops it already had there, against the wishes of the South Korean government and the better judgment of commanders on the ground? We were inviting the Communists to invade. Indeed, that is precisely how Kim Il Sung saw the matter, and that is how he argued it to his Soviet masters. But the matter was not quite so simple from the Communist point of view. 

There is still debate over whether Stalin ever gave his assent to Kim’s invasion plans; but it seems clear that if he did assent, it was only with considerable hesitation. It wasn’t that Stalin had any interest in peace or in avoiding conflict with the West. He was causing conflict everywhere, and, as George Kennan had observed, he had to do so in order to enhance the internal security of the regime. But Stalin understood better than Western leaders that, despite the overwhelming military advantage he then possessed, and despite the fact that the entire organizing principle of Soviet society was militarism, the real strategic advantage of Communism was not military but political. And he likely understood better than anyone in the West that the great strength of democratic constitutional order was not political but military. In fact, the democratic system’s ability to generate vastly greater military power than any other system had been obvious since the armies of the French Revolution went about destroying the military establishments of ancient kingdoms all over Europe as if all it took were one blow of Napoleon’s breath. That is why Soviet strategy during the Cold War always used political subversion rather than military confrontation in challenging democracy.

The question of Korea was if anything even more complicated from America’s point of view. In Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (1975), Alexander George and Richard Smoke squarely face the question of why Truman would have withdrawn U.S. forces from South Korea rather than leave them in place as a deterrent. “The general theory of deterrence,” they write, “does not contain very useful criteria for indicating when a state should attempt to apply deterrence to protect a weaker country. The answer to this question can be determined only by a country’s foreign policy, not by deterrence theory.” The United States was still thinking in terms of the last war — a global general war. Our government had only begun to understand the importance that small, strategically peripheral countries like Korea might have in our overall strategic defense. As George and Smoke note:

Truman’s decision to oppose the North Koreans was not motivated by a sudden discovery that the strategic importance of Korea to American military security was greater than had been calculated earlier. Rather, the administration now assessed the expected danger to U.S. interests from allowing the North Koreans to take over South Korea on the basis of a much broader and more complex calculus than the earlier strategic criterion.

The U.S. government was only starting to grasp that its Achilles’ heel was not military but political.

The period from 1945 to 1950 was one of very rapid change, and the U.S. government took time to assimilate what was happening. With the fall of Nationalist China to the Communists, the critical U.S. bastion in the Far East became Japan. China now had to be contained as part of a Soviet system that was emerging as a global power. It was still only dawning on the American government that the challenge of Communism would be existential and global; that the new enemy had great military power, and even greater political and psychological strengths; and that the Soviets would not be able to achieve internal security except by exporting insecurity to the rest of the world. 

In April 1950, just two months before the outbreak of the Korean War, a top-secret strategic assessment known as NSC-68 — which would prove to be one of the seminal texts of U.S. strategy in the Cold War — showed that the U.S. was beginning to understand the new situation it faced. It was a long document, full of military facts and figures, but the one key idea was this: “A defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” The key strategic insight of this mostly military document was therefore not military at all, but rather political.

In his classic Cold War history, Strategies of Containment, John Lewis Gaddis explains the reasoning of NSC-68: Even Kennan — then a major proponent of balance-of-power thinking — agreed that “insecurity could manifest itself in psychological as well as physical terms, as the Western Europeans’ demands for American military protection had shown. And psychological insecurity could as easily develop from the distant sound of falling dominoes as from the rattling of sabers next door.” In their own equivalent of trying to win “hearts and minds,” the Soviets were trying to convince world opinion that the democratic order was doomed because of its intrinsic weakness, and if they had succeeded, we might in fact have been doomed. “The implications were startling,” writes Gaddis. “World order, and with it American security, had come to depend as much on perceptions of the balance of power as on what that balance actually was.”

The Cold War marked the emergence of a new force in international relations: world opinion. For a democracy, the implications were and are fundamental. It turns out that democracies boil down to popular self-government even in the field of foreign policy. The Founding Fathers were keen to protect our foreign policy from the vicissitudes of public opinion, but no democratic order can or should protect the policy from public opinion itself. The exertion of strategic power by a democracy depends on public opinion. When the United States projects great power abroad, it is a projection of public opinion, translated into strategic power. And by the same token, public opinion is the great limiting factor on the otherwise virtually unlimited military power of modern democratic states. We saw that in Iraq: An invasion force of 60,000 troops was able to destroy an army five times larger with minimal casualties in a matter of weeks. The ensuing counterinsurgency was hard fought, but public opinion in the U.S. and around the world arguably came closer to defeating the war effort than an insurgency which never achieved sufficient scope or power to have any real chance of winning.

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.

In Afghanistan, Obama is facing all of these challenges. What is the relationship of Afghanistan to our broader defense strategy? What is our broader defense strategy? What are our war aims in Afghanistan? Are we really trying to fashion a lasting democratic government and functioning security forces out of one of the most primitive societies on earth? Or are we merely trying to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing training bases there again, which it apparently has little interest in doing now that it has them in many other places? Is Afghanistan our problem, or is our problem really Pakistan?

Until Americans — and in particular the Obama administration — can answer these questions, we will be walking blind into the unintended consequences of our actions. Until we can define what’s at stake in Afghanistan — define an attainable war aim, and define a consensus strategy for victory — we will be fighting a war without real direction, managed by a government at war with itself. Meanwhile, the June 2011 start date for our withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches relentlessly, setting in motion forces that could quickly take on an inescapable logic of their own.

The appointment of Gen. David Petraeus solves none of these problems. Petraeus was effective in Iraq because the vital U.S. interest at stake was so plain to see within the government; because we had defined an achievable war aim, and developed a rational strategy to attain it; and because he had the steadfast support of the president, and (though it was a close-run thing) just enough public support. But in Afghanistan, Petraeus is likely to have none of these things.

This should worry Obama, but maybe it doesn’t. He probably hasn’t taken much interest in the Korean War, and he appears quite withdrawn from Afghanistan already.

– Mario Loyola is a frequent contributor to NR. 

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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