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

The Stalemate

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Biewen: So then we get into, we have…fully two more years of peace negotiations and war. What's going on during that time?

Weathersby: There are a number of factors that contributed to the war continuing for another two years. One is that both sides dug in in the summer of '51 and there was a lull in the fighting and when arms negotiations began the Communist side used that, well they quite intentionally used the armistice negotiations as a way to buy time to reinforce their position. And they did that quite effectively by digging in. So the Americans were just militarily not able to [advance], at least not at a level of casualties that they were willing to accept. If it had been worth doing anything necessary to reach the line that would have been another matter, but given the limitations they weren't. So the military situation became rather difficult. Deeply entrenched artillery positions and so forth, it was just difficult to make an advance on the ground. Secondly, on the Soviet side, on the Communist side, Stalin, and we have good documentation on this from the Russian archives, seems to have concluded by the fall of '51 that the war was now safely a stalemate.

So no longer was the Soviet border threatened by an American advance, possible American advance. North Korea was saved. He was going to still have his buffer in North Korea, buffer zone against Americans and Japanese. And moreover the Americans are suffering, they're losing their resources, their relations with their allies are tense because of the war, so this all looks pretty good. Moreover this is a wonderful opportunity to gain intelligence information. Information on military equipment. So he began taking advantage of that quite systematically, to gather up all kinds of equipment. The highest prize was airplanes and they did get a couple of F-86s that were shot down and were then gathered up in whatever pieces and then put on a train and then sent to Moscow and were reverse-engineered and contributed very significantly to the development of Soviet aviation and many other things as well, weaponry. And then it was also a very good opportunity to interrogate American POWs to find out about the organization of the U.S. armed forces. Even domestic policy information, social information, they were getting from the POWs. So Stalin took a very hard line to the armistice and encouraged the Chinese and the North Koreans to maintain a hard line in the negotiations because he told them the Americans have more need to bring the war to an end than we do.

So that's a big part of the picture. Now what happened in March '53 was that Stalin died suddenly, and as soon as Stalin died the new leadership in Moscow immediately adopted a decision to bring the war to an end. We have those records again from the archives. The decision was formally adopted 2 weeks after Stalin's death, which is remarkable. That means all the drafts went through and were approved and all that, which is really remarkable because the situation was so extremely tense and alarming to all of the leadership in Moscow. Once the tyrant died they didn't know first of all whether all the constituent parts of the Soviet Union would hold together, you know, whether it would break apart with riots and with uprisings, whether Eastern Europe would stay, whether they could maintain their control. They almost lost it in East Germany in the summer of '53. And, most immediately, who among them would seek to become the next Stalin and start killing off the others. So there was tremendous tension within the collective leadership over what the other ones within that group of mass murderers were going to do to each other. So it was a very difficult time and it appears that they just concluded that it was too costly to keep this mess going in Korea when they've got such a delicate situation going at home. So let's bring an end to this thing in Korea.

So they sent instructions to the Chinese and North Koreans to respond positively to the latest American negotiating position. It still, however, took from March to July but that's because the POW issue was such a matter of national pride to the Chinese and North Koreans, especially to the Chinese. And because the South Koreans were very obstinate. So it took a while still to reach a settlement, but basically when Stalin died then the die was cast to bring the war to an end.

Next: Avoiding World War III