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Korea Sparks the Arms Race

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Biewen: Why was the U.S. withdrawing from South Korea in 1949?

Stueck: Well of course the United States had maintained an occupation of South Korea from 1945 to '48, and then in 1947 it had gone to the United Nations, the general assembly, because the Soviet Union had a veto in the Security Council, and it had pushed through a resolution providing for national elections in Korea. And the Soviet Union refused to permit U.N. inspectors in there to supervise the elections, that is, in North Korea. So the United States got the United Nations to approve elections in the South alone and that led in the summer of 1948 to the creation of an independent South Korea, the Republic of Korea, which was clearly an American / U.N. creation. And of course that fact was crucial in understanding why the United States reacted as it did in June of 1950 when North Korea attacked. This was an attack on a government that was recognized and supported and had in effect been created by the United States and the United Nations.

Biewen: Could you talk about - as we got into 1948-49, some of the things that were raising concern about international Communism. And I don't know when the term Red Scare came into usage.

Stueck: I'm not sure when Red Scare was coined either, although there had been a Red Scare after World War I as well.

But after [World War II], the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as clearly the strongest powers on earth, and American leadership was extraordinarily sensitive to what had happened during the 1930s and the American government's role in its happening - or perhaps I should say its lack of role. That is to say, had the aggressors of the 1930s - Japan, Italy, Germany - been stopped or resisted at an earlier point, in the early- and mid-30s, the conventional wisdom was after the war that World War II could have been prevented altogether.

So the conventional wisdom after World War II was that the United States must take a more active role and that wherever aggression might appear it must be nipped in the bud, it must be resisted up front, or else it would simply continue and get worse and worse and worse. And that particular idea is one that has survived right to the present day. It was prominent in the older George Bush's war against Iraq and has been used in the current situation as well.

So in the aftermath of the war there were a series of cases on the Soviet periphery - in Eastern Europe, in Turkey, in Iran - where it appeared that the Soviet Union was taking aggressive action. And the United States was determined to stand up to the Soviet Union - not so much in Eastern Europe…. On the other hand, Soviet pressures against Turkey and Iran were resisted in 1946, and the first Cold War crises, really, were in early and mid-1946 over those two areas and Soviet pressures in northern Turkey and northern Iran. Then in 1947 and 1948, the U.S. first took strong action to repulse a Communist effort to take control of the government in Greece, an effort the American government felt was being supported by the Soviet Union. And then with the Marshall Plan, the United States offered massive assistance to Western Europe in order to rebuild those economies in an effort to prevent the spread of Communism to Western Europe, perhaps by peaceful means.

And then in 1949 the United States took the lead in forming the NATO Alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which in essence guaranteed Western Europe against aggression, whether it be from Germany or from the Soviet Union.

But it wasn't until the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb in August of 1949 that the American government became really heavily concerned that Soviet military action beyond its boundaries might be in the works in a foreseeable period of time, over say a 5-year period of time. The idea that developed in the administration over the months of late 1949 and early 1950 was that now that the Soviet Union had an atomic weapon, it was likely to build up a stockpile and it was likely to build up a delivery capability that would enable it to strike the United States directly. And that once this happened, the Soviet Union might become a good deal more aggressive on its periphery, because it would calculate that it could use its advantage in conventional forces to overrun areas on its periphery and the United States would choose not to resist because the Soviet Union would launch a direct attack on the United States.

So in the spring of 1950 the idea became prevalent within the administration that the United States really needed to develop not only its nuclear strength to a greater extent than it had, but also its conventional strength - especially in Europe.

Unfortunately, in the political situation at home, it was not possible to build a broad coalition behind a great increase in defense spending. Congress was deeply divided on defense spending. Truman himself had a domestic agenda that involved new expenditures. There was strong sentiment against raising taxes. This was also a time when people took balancing budgets very seriously, including President Truman. And therefore there was no significant initiative from the administration in Congress to increase defense spending prior to the Korea War.

Well, the outbreak of war in Korea changed all that. And we see in the summer and the fall the Congress passing substantial supplementary defense spending bills, and then especially after China intervenes in the war in late 1950, which continues the war for over two more years, we see those increases as being consolidated into what amounts to a kind of permanent semi-mobilization of American armed forces.

Next: Who Lost China?

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