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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

What Communist Leaders Were Thinking

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Kathryn Weathersby spoke with American RadioWorks Correspondent John Biewen.

Biewen: Tell us what the assumption was in 1950 about the Soviet role. The North Koreans cross the 38th parallel, and how is this perceived in the halls of power in the United States?

Weathersby: In the U.S. and in all of its allied capitals, the North Korean attack on South Korea was perceived as a Soviet action, as a Soviet proxy action. It was viewed very much in the lens of World War II, naturally enough. That was only five years before that that terrible conflict had ended and all the people who were in power then, in 1950, had been through that conflict as political actors in some way or another. And so they viewed this attack across a boundary that had been established since the war - the boundary between the Soviet sphere and the non-Communist sphere - [as] another version of the Nazi aggression of the '30s that was piecemeal.

The Nazis first took over parts of Czechoslovakia, then into parts of Poland and so forth. And they all understood that because the Nazi advance step by step had not been stopped they ended up in the terrible conflict of World War II. And so it was a unanimous response in this country and in all non-Communist countries that this had to be stopped, that we were headed to World War III if we didn't do a better job with this conflict than we had done in the 1930s.

And so the assumption was very immediate and very profound that this was an action by the Soviets. Decided by the Soviets, implemented by the Soviets, taken for reasons of Soviet policy. The Korean side of it wasn't much looked at. Korean attitudes in the North versus their rival regime in the South [were] not so much on the minds of people. It was really what the Soviets were doing.

And the Chinese too. Also a very big part of why this was so alarming was that the Chinese Communist party had just come to power a few months earlier, in October of 1949. That of course was a gigantic expansion of the Communist world into the huge state of Southeast Asia. And Ho Chi Minh also had come to power in the northern part - not really come to power exactly but had moved into a position of considerable strength in Vietnam. So it looked like the Communist world was expanding very rapidly in Southeast Asia. So that added to the fear.

Next: The Red Scare