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

Then and Now

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Biewen: Is it wrong, do you think, to think of the Korean War almost as a bookend to what's happening now with the Bush administration's policy of pre-emptive war? That - and there's been of course much discussion of that being a new thing in U.S. foreign policy - that what it's really turning away from is something that was put in place at the time of the Korean War.

Stueck: Well, I think that there is the common factor that at one point in the Korean War, at least, the American administration tried "regime change" with its move across the 38th parallel. But of course the big difference is that we didn't get into the war for that reason and we didn't hold to that objective.

But I think that the contrast is much, much greater. Because I think that the Truman administration exercised a considerable amount of restraint, in most cases, in order to try and build and sustain an alliance system. And it did so basically successfully, in the face of considerable pressure at home not to do so, considerable sentiment against the United Nations, considerable bickering in the United States that the allies were not carrying their weight and so forth and so on. The Truman administration held firm.

And in may ways - I don't deny that they made some mistakes, that they overreacted to a certain extent, overextended themselves in some cases - I regard them overall as heroes in developing a viable system of national security that could in fact protect American interests in the face of a considerable threat from abroad over a long period of time. And I think that that's in sharp contrast with the Bush administration.

Biewen: Finally, the early 1950s is often thought of as a dark era in the history of American democracy. You have some thoughts on that, I think.

Stueck: Yeah, it depends I guess on the old question of whether you want to see the glass as half empty or half full. And in the last chapter of my book I've tried to restore a bit of balance on that issue, because there has been a good deal of emphasis in the historical literature on seeing the glass half empty. That is, the second Red Scare was greatly magnified by the Korean War, and this was a situation in which people were denied their civil liberties, they were run out of the government unjustly, were blacklisted from being involved in television and radio and so forth and so on. And all that is true and I certainly have no intention to diminish the significance of that; certainly that is a black mark on American democracy.

But I think at the same time things could have been an awful lot worse. And the fact is that the Red Scare eventually went away. The fact is that even with the Red Scare, there was a fair amount of freedom and expression at the time. We see certain works of literature that could be seen as dissenting published at that time - Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, for example. There was a revisionist work on the Korean War published during the war by the left-wing journalist I.F. Stone, The Hidden History of the Korean War, published in 1952, which obviously could never have been published in an authoritarian society.

In addition, although the war grew in some ways to an unhealthy increase in presidential power - and we can look back and criticize Truman for not having gone to Congress at the time of the initial intervention and asked for Congressional approval. At the same time, the balance of power between the executive branch and the other branches of government is not totally destroyed with the war. We see Congress taking an active role in 1952 and '53 in limiting the defense budget. The original budget that the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted for the fiscal year 1953 was over $70 billion. The ultimate budget that was passed by Congress was in the high $40 billions, a major change. Truman, in the spring of 1952, in the midst of the threat of a steel strike, actually took over the steel mills and had the Army running the steel mills. Well, the owners of the steel mills went to the Supreme Court; the Supreme Court ruled against the Truman administration.

So the checks and balances system that the founding fathers devised did not by any means disappear with the Korean War, and I think we need to keep that in mind especially when we look at what is going on [at the time] in the Soviet Union and China.