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Avoiding World War III

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Biewen: After the Chinese came in - backing up to late 1950 - what significance is there to the fact that the U.S. decision ultimately was, wait a minute, let's not get into the big one here. Let's cut our losses and go home. In terms of setting a tone for the Cold War and for U.S. policy for the next 50 years.

Weathersby: Well, just as Stalin was afraid of war with the U.S. at that time, the American leadership was also afraid of World War III, a global war with the Soviets. The Soviets may have been devastated by World War II, nonetheless they still were a power and after such an extraordinarily destructive war Truman had a healthy appreciation for what could happen if we got into yet another global war. And so there was a determination to keep the war limited to Korea. I personally am very glad that decision was made. If we had attempted to take the war into China, that would have been a catastrophe. We couldn't defeat the Chinese in North Korea, much less all of China. So it would have been a catastrophe. And also possibly forced the Soviets to get into the war. There was a mutual defense treaty between the PRC [People's Republic of China] and the Soviet Union signed in February of 1950. So the Soviets would have been obligated to come to China's aid if we had attacked China. My hunch is that they would have felt very strong pressure to honor that obligation.

Most people are not aware of the extent of the air war in Korea between the Soviets and the Americans, but that's a very clear indication of just how strong the commitment was in both capitols to avoid a war with each other. The Soviets, even though they made it clear that they were not going to send ground troops to North Korea, eventually had to send planes because China didn't have an air force. North Korea had a small air force but that was destroyed at the beginning of the war. China had no air force at all. So if it was going to enter into North Korea across bridges north of the Yalu, it had to have some protection for those bridges from the air. Stalin resisted sending planes to Korea for the same reason he didn't want to sent troops. He didn't want to get into a war with the U.S.. But nonetheless the military logic was just inescapable that they had to have some air protection. And so in November, well, October, he sent air units and they started fighting in November, but their orders were to stay over Manchurian territory guarding the bases and guarding the bridges. They were not allowed to fly over any territory held by the U.N. forces, so that if they were shot down their presence wouldn't be obvious. Their planes were marked as Chinese planes and so forth and they were even instructed to speak Korean over the radio. You can imagine how long that lasted.

Biewen: Did they wear Chinese uniforms?

Weathersby: Yes, and wore Chinese uniforms, right. But it became very quickly apparent to the Americans that these were Russian pilots. They could hear them speaking Russian over the radio, but also they knew that China didn't have trained fighter pilots, so these were Soviet pilots with experience in World War II, very highly skilled pilots.

Stalin attempted to turn over the air war to the Chinese as quickly as possible, to train Chinese and North Korean pilots, but that took quite a while. He was frustrated with how long it was taking. Towards the end of the war there were more and more Chinese and North Koreans flying the planes, but basically it was a Soviet air war against the U.S. Air Force. But Truman very intentionally kept that a secret and conspired in this fiction that these were Chinese pilots precisely so that there would not be a domestic outcry calling for war against the Soviet Union. So this was a pattern that then was maintained for the rest of the Cold War that we would engage in fighting, sometimes very, very fierce fighting such as in Vietnam, but we would stop short of all-out war with the Soviets for fear of the consequences.

Next: U.S. Restraint

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