Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the war that never ended — the Korean war, to be exact, the first real face-to-face armed conflict of the cold war era. Although a truce was declared, a peace treaty was never signed, and the threat that Harry Truman’s war will erupt once more hangs over our heads to this day. Yet the North Koreans are a threat mainly to themselves, as they rail and rant and launch provocations that are almost comical in their extravagance: Pyongyang, which routinely threatens to incinerate the South, has elevated bellicosity into an art form.
However, these odd relics of a half-forgotten past are not what haunts us today: after all, the Korean peninsula is on the outer fringes of the Empire, and what happens there is of little consequence to most Americans. What has the Korean war to do with us, in the here and now?
Well, now that you ask: plenty.
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The war was a turning point in terms of the domestic political debate: when it broke out, the American political landscape was undergoing one of those seismic changes in which left becomes right, right becomes left, and the world is turned upside down.
On the right, the Republican party was recovering from its marginalization during the New Deal era, mobilizing its forces — and the nascent conservative movement — around the banner of militant anti-communism. Having been on the losing side of the foreign policy debate since Pearl Harbor, when the party’s u201Cisolationistu201D wing was soundly defeated, the GOP wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to get their own back, and get it back they did. Except for an anti-interventionist old guard, led by the remnants of the Taft wing, the Republicans went on the warpath, literally, and launched a campaign designed to smear the Democrats as u201Csoft on communism.u201D In very short order, the arguments they had made against the emergence of the US as a global power in the pre-war era were swept under the rug, to be replaced by a militant interventionism. McCarthyism — the movement personified by Senator Joseph u201CTail Gunner Joeu201D McCarthy, the alcoholic loose cannon of the Republican right — was the bridge that allowed the GOP to cross that Rubicon, and there has been no going back ever since.
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The identification of a supposedly all-pervasive domestic enemy — American Communists, who had, in fact, permeated the Roosevelt administration, especially in its lower echelons, during the old Popular Front days — energized their base and paved the way for the party to abandon its former u201Cisolationism.u201D If it was okay to use the police powers of the emerging national security state to hunt down and identify Communists on the home front, then there was very little to stop us from carrying that crusade to the four corners of the earth — and we did just that.
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In taking this path to power, the GOP went down the same road traveled by the Democrats only a few years before, when another form of socialism — National Socialism — was the enemy, and FDR used the threat posed by Hitler to brand his domestic opponents u201Ccopperheadsu201D and worse. Roosevelt and his American Communist janissaries used every opportunity to drive home the point that the anti-war anti-New Deal Republicans and their conservative and libertarian allies were Hitlerites, active agents of the Third Reich intent not only on delivering the world to the Axis powers but also determined to undermine and reverse the glorious achievements of King Franklin. This smear campaign — the u201CBrown Scareu201D — was led by the extreme left wing of the wartime Popular Front, i.e. the Communist party, which was in the vanguard of the literary campaign to tar the Right with the Nazi brush. The fellow-traveling John Roy Carlson, aka Avedis Derounian, wrote a best-selling book that retailed this farrago of lies and established, to this day, the u201Cofficialu201D history of that era which characterized the old America First antiwar movement as a u201Ctransmission beltu201D for Hitler’s propaganda, as one Commuinst-inspired tract put it.
It was only right, or so the conservatives thought, that the Brown Scare should be followed by a Red Scare, and so it was.
The Republicans went on the offensive, after the war, and, eager to recoup their losses — after having been almost completely marginalized during the war years — launched a campaign that accused the Democrats of u201Ctwenty years of treason.u201D As Russian armies moved into Eastern Europe and set up u201Cpeople’s democracies,u201D and China fell into the Soviet orbit, this charge had a certain ring of truth to it. Indeed, the Roosevelt administration had collaborated with the American Communist party, especially in New York, where the Communist-dominated American Labor Party wielded a pivotal influence. The Communists had jumped on the New Deal bandwagon, and, in many instances, ridden it all the way to Washington, D.C., where their agents penetrated government agencies and set up an extensive espionage network, as documents culled from old Soviet archives have recently revealed. Alger Hiss was far from alone.