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

Shifting Signals

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In the spring of 1950, a new policy document [called NSC 68] was adopted or written in April of 1950 by [State Department policy planner] Paul Nitze primarily arguing that the Soviet threat was very acute, the Soviets only understood strength. They would not negotiate in good faith, they had to be deterred very forcefully, the U.S. had to gear up its weaponry, its military forces, to resist Soviet expansion all over the world. It was a very alarmist kind of policy arguing that we really need to be very vigilant, very active in resisting Soviet expansion. But it wasn't really implemented. It was written, President Truman apparently read it and put it on a shelf.

It did begin to seep into the consciousness a bit with regard to Korea so that in the spring of 1950 there was more active engagement with the government of South Korea that the U.S. had put in power, promising economic support, not going so far as to make a military alliance but promising a more substantial kind of engagement with that country - but far from making any pledge of support against any coming attack from the North. So there were sort of these contradictory signals going to the Soviets by the end of the spring of 1950. On the one hand there was NSC-68 and increasing indications of American determination in Asia and support for South Korea. On the other hand there was the established policy that had been adopted in late December '49 establishing the American defense perimeter that excluded Korea.

Biewen: And also the U.S. had pulled its troops out of South Korea.

Weathersby: The Soviets had too. The Soviets pulled out first and then the Americans pulled theirs out. That happened the end of '48 for the Soviets, the summer of '49 for the Americans. It's very interesting on the Soviet side how this played out. Stalin, in the spring of 1949, thought that the Americans were planning to unleash South Korea to attack North Korea, and so the [Americans'] announcement of a withdrawal of their own forces was designed to pave the way for South Korea to attack the North - because it could be done then by proxy without actual American troops, which would make the situation more vulnerable for the Americans.

We have to keep in mind that South Korea has twice the people that North Korea does and much of the wealth of the country, although there wasn't very much wealth anywhere in the country but whatever there was at that period was centered in the South and so North Korea - just in pure demographic terms - was vulnerable. So Stalin really thought the American withdrawal really meant not a disengagement but a danger of an attack on the North. So he was very worried about that in the spring of 1949. But then the withdrawal happened and there was no attack and so he seemed to get more bold.

In early fall of 1949 he entertained a proposal from [North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung that he support the North Korean forces invading the South in order to take over and reunify the country by military means. He ultimately decided against that plan but he considered it seriously. He sent a list of questions to Kim Il Sung's government to answer and send back to him. Deliberated about it with his military officials and his embassy people and ultimately decided not to for very practical reasons, sensible reasons. The superiority of North Korean forces was not pronounced enough and so in pure military terms they were not ready. He thought that if they were not superior enough, that the war would drag on. If the war dragged on then the Americans would have time to intervene. If it could be over in a week, the Americans weren't in the country, they might not be able to get there at that time. .

But then, primarily, though, why in the fall of '49 he decided against it was that he thought that this violation of the agreement about the 38th parallel which had been reached in 1945 between the Soviets and the Americans dividing Korea into two zones of occupation.

The original intention was not that it would be permanent but simply that the Soviet Army would take care of the Japanese surrender north of the 38th parallel, the American army would take care of the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel. Then of course we know what happened. It hardened into two separate occupation zones sealed off from each other and then they became separate countries.

But that nonetheless was an agreement with the United States that Stalin took seriously, still in 1949, because it was part of that larger agreement he had reached particularly at Yalta with the Americans about a division of zones of influence. That agreement had benefited him tremendously. In the Far East it had meant that the Soviets were given the occupation of Sakhalin Island, which it still has, and of the Kurile Islands, which it still has just north of Japan; it had the right to move into North China.

So he didn't want to lose all the advantages he made in the Yalta Agreement. So he said, well, if we violate the Yalta Agreement here that will give the Americans the pretext for trying to revise it in other places as well. They might challenge our control of the Kurile Islands, for example, and the Kurile Islands protect the Soviet far eastern coast. So everything gets very interrelated, so he was hesitant to challenge the Americans in Korea for that reason.

Next: Stalin's Fear of America