Korea: America’s Point of No Return

As Robert Higgs noted in his 1994 speech, “War and the Leviathan State,” World War II acted as one of the most pervasive changes to the psyche of the average American in regards to foreign policy. Not only this, but unlike previous wars, World War II did not see a return to a peacetime constitution like in previous conflicts. In many ways, it acted as the birth of the Military-Industrial Complex, leading our politicians into continuous, seemingly never-ending government involved in foreign conflicts. One such foreign conflict was Korea, the war that never was.

Often remembered as the Forgotten War, the American psyche around Korea is the polar opposite of that surrounding the Second World War. Despite this, Korea serves as one of the most important points in the birth of Post-War America. The mentality that came out of World War II, which viewed any sort of non-interventionism as the sort of “isolationism” that eventually led to U.S. involvement, would finally be tested. The MIC would truly become ingrained into American politics. Korea, as will be shown, was the final blow in returning to the foreign policy that made America great, instead turning it into a global occupier, eager to maintain an empire abroad.

The Geography of Nowhe... James Howard Kunstler Best Price: $1.17 Buy New $11.88 (as of 10:41 UTC - Details) Prior to the conflict, Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel by the Soviets and the United States. This was due to the previous Japanese occupation of the peninsula during the Second World War, when both sides had the understanding that at some point, the two Koreas would need to be united. However, as could’ve been predicted by any previous observer, this would be a disastrous idea. Each side had their own “democratic” government ruled by their influencer’s chosen strongman, Syngman Rhee and Kim Il-Sung, and both quickly became an area of focus for the two burgeoning superpowers. However, during this period, the relationship between the Soviets and the Americans was still up in the air, as highlighted by Paul Pierpaoli, Jr.,

Between 1945 and 1950, the United States oftentimes struggled to formulate a consistent, coherent foreign policy that would keep the Soviet threat at bay, protect vital national interests, and expand liberal, free-market capitalism. And although the Truman administration had decided to “contain” communism even before the concept was articulated and later expanded upon by George Kennan in 1946 and 1947, it is clear that the United States adhered to this containment mechanism – until war broke out in Korea in 1950. Prior to the Korean War, initiatives such as the IMF, the Marshall Plan, GATT, and even NATO would feature economic and political – rather than military – containment of the Soviet Union.

In essence, while an underlying idea existed that America needed to be the antisocialist bulwark, in practicality, the way that the United States was to bring this about was completely unknown.

The Soviets, too, were in a similar situation. Prior to the conflict in 1950, Stalin had been providing weapons and ammunitions to communist groups in China. With the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, military intervention was not necessarily the top priority of the Soviet Union. Instead, it seems to be the case that the Soviet Union had little involvement in the start of the war. While the actual reasoning for the beginning of the conflict is shrouded in mystery, like most things involving North Korea, what is known is that many around Stalin and Kim seem to suggest that Stalin was unaware of the conflict before it occurred. In Khrushchev’s memoirs, he is even quoted as saying, “I must stress that the war wasn’t Stalin’s idea, but Kim I1-Sung’s. Kim was the initiator. Stalin, of course, didn’t try to dissuade him.” This is also the narrative held by a close advisor to Kim Il-Sung by the name of Lim Un who revealed that Stalin would not back fighting the United States even if they got directly involved in the war.

This continues to be a reappearing narrative. Prior to American involvement, Korea should have been thought of as more of a country on the verge of civil war. Robert Simmons concludes that the start of the war was most likely due to a nationalism which surrounded both sides and a political struggle between Kim Il-Sung and Pak Hon-yong, who was the head of the Communist Party of South Korea before it was banned by Syngman Rhee. Since both were in a rush to see who could unite the peninsula first, it seems that the power struggle led one of the two to eventually start the war.

Although, it should be noted that South Korea also bears responsibility, as pointed out by Karunakar Gupta, “While the United Nations Commission on Korea heard the North Korean broadcast on 25 June 1950 alleging the South Korean attack on Haeju, it simply brushed aside that complaint without any enquiry and accepted South Korea’s complaint of an unprovoked aggression to be true.” He suggest that the border skirmishes started by the Rhee administration also helped to provoke the invasion, which would seem to back up the view that the war in Korea was more akin to an inevitable civil war than any sort of Soviet invasion.
Soviet and Communist Chinese intervention seemed to be limited even after the start of the war and the Soviets seemed unprepared for the conflict. For instance, the Soviets weren’t present at the United Nations vote for intervention in the conflict. Chinese support for the war also was rather limited, with much of it being a response to the success of UN forces and fear of having an American puppet right on their border. The idea that the war was primarily fought by Chinese hordes was mostly a myth and the majority of Chinese forces were out of the peninsula before the end of the war. China was more focused on their interior than on the conflict abroad, which is one of the main reasons Kim received few Chinese armaments before the war started.

However, this was not the perspective of the United States. Once the war officially started, McCarthyism came into full swing, with Korea becoming the first domino in the Domino Theory. From here, there was no turning back. During the Korean Conflict, America permanently entered its modern state of affairs. The Truman administration controversially passed NSC-68, which saw military expenditure increase from $13 bil. in 1950 to $50 bil. by the end of 1951. Most importantly, much of this was marketed not for the Korean War, but instead acted as the nexus for the continuation of the military-industrial complex, along with the Marshall Plan being shifted to focus on rearmament during this period as opposed to economic growth. Pierpaoli notes “The decision to mobilize for the long haul of the Cold War meant that balanced federal budgets in America were no longer sacrosanct. The limited social Keynesianism that had guided American economic thinking since the late 1930s was to be wedded to the military Keynesianism of the World War II era.”

The effects of Truman’s policies were unpopular, acting as one of the greatest power grabs for the office of the president. Unlike previous administrations, no formal declaration of war was ever launched by the Truman administration and, despite saying the policy of the United States was that of containment, the US crossed north of the 38th parallel in order to unite the entire peninsula, which, as highlighted earlier, acted as the catalyst for Chinese involvement and directly increased the scale of the conflict.

This decision by Truman would lead to unprecedented human casualties. As Charles Armstrong notes,

The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war’s end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population. The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South; although the DPRK does not have official figures, possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.

Much of this was due in part to the indiscriminate bombing campaign of the United States, which dropped more bombs in the span of the Korean Conflict than the entire Pacific theater during World War II. In the end, this resulted in the death of over a million civilians in the North alone, leading to a psychological fear of the United States that persists to this very day.

It is believed that the Korean Conflict was one of the primary reasons for the Democratic defeat in 1952, however the Eisenhower administration failed to reduce the scope of the federal government in his presidency. Instead, Truman’s precedent would come to influence American foreign policy in Vietnam and his “limited aggression” would go on to be a major influence on the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger.

Of course, despite all this bad, I imagine there are those out there still thinking the conflict was worth it. I would instead suggest that this is not the case at all. America essentially traded away it’s freedom for a massive military base in Asia and used American and Korean lives to pay for it. However, that is not the complete scope of the tragedy. The consistent military training directly on the North Korean border can be attributed to much of the nation’s continuation of Stalinism and has led to repeated human travesties. It also cannot be said that America brought freedom to the nation. For decades, the American puppets, Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee, ruled the South with a brutality that caused the North to have a larger economy than the south until the mid-1980s. Only later, with the assassination of Park Chung Hee and the protest that followed was South Korea’s current, more pleasant government founded in 1987. The Puppeteers: The Pe... Chaffetz, Jason Best Price: $2.29 Buy New $9.00 (as of 10:17 UTC - Details)

On the other hand, if America stayed out of the Korean affair, the end result cannot be determined. What is known, however, is that the DPRK could not rely on it’s unending nationalist cause of reunification to empower the regime, nor could it fall back on fear of foreign invasion to justify the Kim family’s rule. These reasons are primarily what caused North Korea to reject unification after the fall of the Soviet Union and remain in the situation it is now. However, by looking at other dictatorships like Ceausescu’s Romania or China after the death of Mao, it seems clear that without these causes, the eternal communism held today by the nation could not continue to exist without a true outside threat to “the people’s way of life”. At best, Korea could have ended up a united and prosperous post-soviet state like that of East Germany and at worst ended up in a similar situation to Vietnam or China, but it seems unlikely that the Juche regime could persist forever.

In conclusion, Korea should not be a forgotten war. Instead, it should be remembered as the war that the state used to greatly increase its power on false pretense. Korea permanently ingrained the Military-Industrial Complex into our society and began the policy of domino theory. It also saw the end of constitutional war, with the President being able to essentially deploy the US military wherever he wants globally. During the Great Depression and World War II, the federal government increased to an unprecedented size, as desired by the despotic nature of FDR. However it was his successor, Harry Truman, which ended any hope of returning to peace and it is Korea that acts as the point of no return.