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The Closest Calls

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Biewen: So it seems that what happened here was a kind of series of overreaches on the part of the two sides. But ultimately - you [said] in the beginning that this war in effect took the place of World War III. How close did we come to World War III, to this war turning into World War III?

Stueck: Well, that's arguable. Some historians have suggested that I have argued that we were a bit closer than we actually were. It is clear that Stalin did not want a third world war. And it's clear that American leaders, by in large, in Washington at least, did not want a third world war. But had the United States expanded the war into Manchuria in 1951, it might very well have split apart the Western alliance in a manner that would have made Stalin believe he had a great opportunity in Europe. That is to say that if our allies in NATO split with us on expanding the war in Korea, and the American ability to cooperate with the Europeans in developing a defense in Europe against a possible Soviet conventional attack had been undermined, then the possibility that Stalin would have seen an opportunity to move into Western Europe with conventional forces would have been substantially increased.

I think there's one other thing here that's very interesting about the later period - that is, early 1953. Stalin of course died in early March of 1953, and there's a new book just coming out that argued that he was actually killed by his underlings, perhaps Berea, perhaps a couple of others. And that this action by Stalin's underlings may well have been related to the fact that he refused to end the Korean War and that he might very well have been willing to accept a global confrontation with the United States. Now, we don't have definitive evidence to that effect. But certainly that was the other period, early 1953 when a new administration had come in in Washington under Dwight Eisenhower, an administration that was determined to end the war after a long stalemate in negotiations, and was certainly making noises about expanding the war in the Communists did not accept an armistice on our terms.

So that really the two times when there was a significant chance of the war expanding into a global war were December 1950 through, oh, January of 1951…and then in the winter and spring of 1953. In the aftermath of Stalin's death, however, the momentum to end the war increased tremendously and of course it was ended in July of 1953.

Biewen: And the fact that the war wasn't widened, and that ultimately both sides, and particularly the decision on the U.N., United States side to use restraint and to keep the war limited - how important was that in setting the tone for the next decades in the Cold War?

Stueck: I think it was very important because the American alliance with Europe was strengthened during the Korean War. And certainly the United States had more success than did the Soviet Union in sustaining its alliances, and that was a very significant factor in the ultimate victory of the West in the Cold War. Although the Soviet Union and China worked very closely during the war, I think most historians would argue that for the long term the war weakened the relationship. First, it strengthened China's self-confidence because it had essentially fought the Americans to a stalemate. But it also brought forth dramatically the fact that the Soviet Union had a limited commitment to the Chinese. That is to say, the Chinese were rather dissatisfied with the amount of material support that the Soviets gave them in sustaining their effort in the Korean War.

Another thing about the war is that by leading to a substantial increase in military spending in the Soviet Bloc, it greatly weakened the economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In fact, in the spring and early summer of 1953 there were revolts; there was considerable social, political, civil unrest in several places - Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany. And certainly one of the factors here was that the Soviets had imposed an economic policy on Eastern Europe that was heavily weighted towards heavy industry, to sustain military spending. And as a result consumer items were increasingly scarce and that led to increasing dissension in Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, on the American side, although the Korean War was expensive, the American economy and the European economies actually became stronger during that war, and therefore that helped to sustain and strengthen the alliance as well.

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