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

The Red Scare

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Biewen: And let's pause and talk a bit about the fear. What were some other things that were happening about that time that were heightening the fear of international Communism on the march?

Weathersby: In Europe there had been increasing tension over the dividing line that went through Germany and the rest of Central Europe. There had been the Berlin Airlift of course in '48 and then as the Soviets consolidated their hold over the East European countries that created an alarm. In early '48 the coup in Czechoslovakia put Czechoslovakia firmly in the Communist camp. And it just, over time, became clearer and clearer that the Soviets were going to completely control all of the countries that they had occupied at the end of the war. And that line was hardening. It became a fear that that zone would be expanded, that the Soviets might try to take over the rest of Germany or move south into Iran. There had been Soviet actions in Northern Iran right after the war that gave fuel to those fears.

Biewen: I'm also thinking in terms of spies, arrests of spies…

Weathersby: Yes, quite active espionage. The Soviets had a very large number of spies in this country. The West had a few spies planted in Eastern Europe - less successful than the Soviet Union itself in planting spies, but yes there was certainly a fear of espionage in this country….

Another very big event that increased the fear was the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in the summer of '49. So that was one year before the war in Korea. So that broke the atomic monopoly of the U.S. and that made people feel vulnerable. Now, the Soviets didn't have a delivery mechanism at that point, they didn't have a stockpile, but nonetheless they had acquired the bomb.

Biewen: So how does this [sense of alarm] square with things perceived as signals to the Soviet Union that Korea was not in our perimeter of defense?

Weathersby: Well, there was a very odd mixture of forces happening at this time. We always have a mixture of forces happening at any given time. But in the spring, in late '49 and early '50, what was happening is, on the one hand, the U.S. had very severely demobilized after World War II. So our armed forces were very small, they were very weak, they were under-funded. They were not capable of very much, in a word.

And so when it came time to make a strategic policy in a kind of deliberate, you know, let's think about it for a long time, create a lot of committees and decide together how we're going to approach the world, the U.S. government was very constrained by the limitation of its means. It's a little hard for us to remember now because our means have been so great ever since the Korean War. The Korean War very decisively ended this period and began an arms race, the arms race that continued.

So the decision was reached in late '49 and formally adopted in a policy paper called NSC 48. [The Departments of] State, War, [and the] Navy, [made this] collective strategic policy statement that the U.S. would hold on to its control of Japan and the Philippines and everything to the east - in other words, all the islands that had been acquired by Japan at the end of World War II, Hawaii and the west coast.

But it would not try to intervene to the west of that line, which would mean not try to intervene in Taiwan or Korea or anywhere else on the Asian mainland. The reason being not really so much that Taiwan was unimportant or that Korea was unimportant but simply we didn't have the capacity to and those two places were also seen as being less important than Japan, certainly.

But also, then, the Philippines that we had held since the end of the 19th century. So it seemed like a really quite logical decision from that point of view. Well, that decision then is what underlay Secretary of State Dean Acheson's speech at that National Press Club in January, 1950 where he laid out American determination as he saw it in Northeast Asia. In retrospect many people have said that Dean Acheson's speech gave the green light to the Soviets because Korea was excluded from the American defense perimeter. So the Soviets thought, well, okay, then we'll go ahead and get it. To be fair to the Secretary of State I would argue, and I've looked at this quite closely, that the timing of the Soviet decision suggests that it was not Dean Acheson's speech that made the difference, but rather Stalin had changed his mind at the very beginning of January, probably because he found out about NSC 48 from Donald Maclean, the British spy who was in Washington.

Next: Shifting Signals