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Korea and the Cold War at Home

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Stueck spoke with American RadioWorks' John Biewen.

Biewen: What are we missing about Korea? How important, how interesting is this war, for those of us who know little and care little about it?

Stueck: I argue that the Korean War was fundamental in shaping the Cold War as we know it. That although it was certainly a very destructive and in many ways tragic conflict, it did have a stabilizing influence in general in international politics. That is to say that on the eve of the war there was a dangerous imbalance emerging…between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the Soviet Union in the advantage, and that the Korean War altered that situation fundamentally. It led to a great increase in American defense spending, it led to a great strengthening of the NATO alliance in Europe, and therefore established what I think was a stable balance of power that was very important in avoiding another world war. So I call it in some ways a substitute for World War III, or even perhaps a necessary war - not a good war but a war that had some important stabilizing effects.

Biewen: You write about a mismatch, a disconnect, between U.S. policy in the early Cold War, really a containment policy, and the military preparedness, what the military was set up to do in that regard.

Stueck: If you're looking at the origins of the Korean War, obviously the starting point is 1945, when the peninsula was divided into occupation zones between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the two sides failed to negotiate a reunification of the peninsula - which led to the creation of two hostile, indigenous regimes, one tied to the United States, one tied to the Soviet Union. The United States withdrew its troops from South Korea in June of 1949, and in subsequent months there was a major buildup of North Korean forces with the assistance both of China - now communist China - and the Soviet Union. And so by late in the spring of 1950 there was a very serious imbalance of power on the Korean peninsula.

Which in some ways was - it was more extreme than the imbalance of power that was developing in a broader sense, for example in Europe. But it was fundamental in the belief that Josef Stalin, the premier of the Soviet Union, had, that the United States was unlikely to resist a North Korean attack into South Korea.

That imbalance of power on the peninsula was a result of the fact that the U.S. had reduced its military forces to a point that was really inconsistent with the broad obligations that it was taking on in the world. I argue that this is not an unusual circumstance in American foreign policy. The American people don't like to pay taxes, they don't like to be subjected to the military draft, and these are two fundamentals in sustaining a major military power. And it took the shock of Korea to get the United States to make the adjustments that were needed.

But it's conceivable that had the United States maintained a larger military force in Korea or at least a stronger position in Japan, that would have had a stronger deterrent effect on what the Soviet Union was willing to let the North Koreans do in the South.

Biewen: The United States was relying on its nuclear superiority to deter….

Stueck: Yes, and again, that goes back to, in some ways, our democratic system. That is to say, nuclear power provides what some refer to as a bigger bang for the buck, it costs less money, it requires fewer troops, and therefore a lot of people after World War II felt that this was the way to maintain American security on the cheap. Well, it didn't turn out to be that way.

Next: Korea Sparks the Arms Race

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