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

Stalin's Go-ahead

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Weathersby: We have a record of [Stalin's] talks with Kim Il Sung in April of 1950. Kim went to Moscow and was there for a month with his foreign minister planning the war. And those were the records we didn't have for the longest time. Finally we got a summary of the talks prepared by the Central Committee of the Communist party. And in it Stalin lays out his reasoning, and this is really very important for our larger discussion of deterrence from the American side. He explains to Kim how it was that the international situation had changed in a way that now made it possible to support his request. He said, first of all, the Chinese Communist party has come to power. And that's important because it means that China can send troops to Korea if Korea needs help. This is interesting. He hadn't talked about it yet to Mao that China would send troops but he's just volunteering Chinese troops. But in other words the Chinese Communist forces are no longer fighting a civil war so they can go fight in Korea. But moreover and more importantly, he said that the Chinese victory shows the weakness of the West, especially of the Americans. They didn't intervene in China to prevent in any significant way to prevent a communist victory in China.

So if they're not going to intervene for the big prize of China then they're not going to intervene for little Korea. That's reasonable. And then he went on to say [that] information from the U.S. shows that this really is so. The mood is not to intervene. And that's what I think refers to the intelligence information about the actual American policy. So he was right. I mean he had good intelligence, he was reading the information correctly.

Biewen: He didn't count on the Americans changing their minds.

Weathersby: Exactly. And then he went on to also add that the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb also makes the Americans less likely to intervene and the alliance that he had just concluded with China also would…but he nonetheless was worried and so he told Kim they had to be very cautious. They had to maintain absolute secrecy. So he remained worried about an American intervention all the way up until the day of the attack. Increasingly worried about it, actually. But those were his reasons. So it sort of gives fuel to this 'who lost China' debate. And it's important for us to see the logic: Well, they didn't intervene in China, they're not going to intervene in Korea. And this tends to make me also draw the conclusion, then, that had we not intervened in Korea and North Korea had taken the rest of the country…then Stalin would have drawn from that the conclusion that unless he had other signals to the contrary that we were not likely to intervene in some other place.

Biewen: Formosa.

Weathersby: Certainly Formosa, perhaps Northern Iran, who knows where.

Biewen: In other words, in that regard some version of the domino theory appears to be working, that at some point it was important for the West to--

Weathersby: However, another lesson from that is that this whole war, this incredibly destructive three-year war, could have been prevented had the U.S. given a signal in advance that we would intervene. If we had made it clear that we would defend South Korea, Stalin never would have given the go-ahead and that's a rather tragic lesson to draw.

Next: Saving North Korea