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

Choosing Restraint

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Biewen: So now the question was, well, now what? Tell us, what sort of interplay took place there between MacArthur and Truman - and for that matter, what was the role of the British and other allies, the U.N., and so on, in coming down on the side of restraint?

Stueck: MacArthur wanted to expand the war. He wanted to maintain the revised objective of September, 1950, which was to clear all Korea of enemy forces and unite Korea under U.N. auspices. The administration in Washington rather quickly moved its objective back to the status quo ante, that is, the situation prior to June 25 1950 and the North Korean attack.

And of course this led to the famous Truman and MacArthur controversy because MacArthur constantly pressed for more aggressive military action, including bombing Manchurian bases and a naval blockade of the Korean coast - and the China coast as well. And finally in April of 1951, by which time the United States had basically gotten back to the 38th parallel in Korea and was doing pretty well militarily, Truman decided to fire MacArthur.

That generated a huge controversy and there's some disagreement among historians as to why he ultimately did it. My own view is that he did it in part because MacArthur was publicly dissenting from American policy, but he did it perhaps even more so because he was afraid that if MacArthur stayed in power he would figure out a way to expand the war unnecessarily. In early April, there was an anticipation of a Chinese spring offensive in Korea. As it turned out the offensive began on April 22nd. There was a fear that the Communists would use air power based in Manchuria to a much greater extent to influence the battle situation than they had previously. And that this air power might tip the balance on the ground in Korea and enable the Communists to break through United Nations lines.

In such circumstances the Truman administration, the Joint Chiefs especially, wanted to give the commander in the field the authority to attack Manchurian bases. That is to say, they believed that it would be necessary to do that in order to defend U.N. ground forces in Korea. But they didn't trust MacArthur with that authority, to use it wisely. They thought it was quite possible he would use that authority to attack Manchurian bases when it wasn't really necessary.

So in early April, the administration was pretty much united that MacArthur had to go. And I think the British were somewhat of an influence as well, although not necessarily the decisive influence, because they had been very anti-MacArthur for quite some time. And they certainly were delighted, as were most of our other allies, certainly our European allies and Canada, with the dismissal of MacArthur.

I think it's important to understand, in the period to late November of 1950 to April of 1951, the role of the British and our other allies in restraining the United States. The United States of course had committed to work through the United Nations after the outbreak of the war in June of 1950. And through the summer and into the fall the United States was basically able to dictate policy in the U.N. towards Korea - that is, through the general assembly. But after the Chinese intervened, America's allies and neutrals like India became more aggressive in trying to restrain the United States. And the United Nations became an institutional framework within which they could do that perhaps more effectively than through a series of bilateral relationships.

The United States was of course very angry at China after its intervention, and even more so after China launched its offensive across the 38th parallel, moving southward again, to try and push U.N. forces off the peninsula at the beginning of 1951. And in fact, had the Chinese been successful in that endeavor, I think it's quite likely that the war would have been expanded to China. Certainly the United States would not have accepted a total Chinese victory in Korea any more than they would have accepted a North Korean victory the previous year.

So containing the war was very much tied up to the Americans' ability to hang on, the Americans and the South Koreans, in South Korea. But it was also tied to an allied and neutral effort in the general assembly of the United Nations, to slow the Americans down in passing resolutions condemning China and calling for additional measures against China. As it turned out a resolution to that effect was held up until February of 1951, when it did indeed pass. By that time, the brunt of the Chinese thrust into South Korea had been halted and American and South Korean forces had begun to regroup, and in fact the Chinese were never able to mount another offensive that threatened to push U.N. forces off the peninsula.

But those maneuvers in the United Nations in December of 1950 and January of 1951 I think were quite important in slowing the Americans down at the point of greatest peril to U.N. forces in Korea.

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