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Essays for the Presidency

Wikimedia Commons U.S. President Harry Truman with Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson (seated) and Alabama Senator John Sparkman.
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Korea in Perspective

THE strength of America is rooted in a great principle--individuals are an end, not a means. That is the American idea. Schools, colleges, labor unions, political parties and the Government of the United States exist for American men and women; never the other way round. The corollary of the idea is that every individual must take responsibility for the whole. He must himself take responsibility for the safety and the wise development of his country, and for the selection of policies which determine its safety and progress. The basic requirement for the success of a democratic system of this sort is, of course, that individuals see their country's problems whole. In a word, they must have perspective.

This is especially true, and especially difficult to achieve, in problems of foreign relations. "Foreign policy," in the year 1952, covers the globe. In no other area is it so easy to have a picture of many single trees and no idea what the forest looks like. But the neatest description of a tree is not a dependable map for making one's way through a forest.

Gaining perspective on American foreign policy begins with gaining a view of America's position in the world--her position as a World Power. This can be indicated in half a dozen words: American interests, power and responsibilities are world-wide. Alongside this must be set two other basic facts which are revealed in any full view of the field of foreign policy. One is that a world-wide imperialist war is now being carried on by the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites. The other is the existence of a world-wide organization of states "united in strength to maintain international peace and security"--the United Nations. The relationship of these three great world forces--the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations--are the primary elements in the American problem of foreign policy today.

There is no possibility of doubting (and no reason for ignoring!) the fact that the Soviet objective is one world--one Communist world. Thanks to the interconnections of Soviet imperialism and international revolutionary Communism the Soviet Government is able always to pursue a dual strategy. The strategy is implicit in Bolshevik theory. From the day Lenin seized power in Russia--and indeed even earlier--his strategy was one of "double diplomacy:" a long-range policy, a short-range policy; a set of slogans for home consumption, a set of slogans for foreign confusion; warfare against the Russian people, warfare against all foreigners; political warfare and military warfare, simultaneous or interchangeable. No American foreign policy which does not allow for the over-all view of this Soviet duplicity, and which does not have both political and military weapons to counter it, can provide for our safety or enable us to carry out our responsibilities. The effort to achieve the over-all view is the basic task of Americans.

This is a campaign year in America, and we must expect oversimplification of issues and contradictory advice regarding them. Men, even responsible men, will wander far afield in search of votes. They will capitalize every discontent, every prejudice, every credulity, even in the deadly serious business of foreign policy. Will we emerge from the ordeal of the campaign more aware of the true causes of our difficulties and the magnitude of the stakes involved? Or less aware? Will we emerge better prepared to turn with fortitude to the work in hand? Or worse prepared? These are the central questions which should be answered decisively by the elections.


The election campaign has not begun too well in this respect. What, for example, are we to make of the repeated charge that the Korean war is "Truman's war," that the President thrust the United States into it lightly, inadvisedly and against the best interest of the Republic, that it is a "useless" war, and that "we stand exactly where we stood three years ago"? What is the purpose of the petulant animosity shown in some quarters toward the United Nations, and of the despairing conclusion in others that the United Nations has "let us down" and has become more a danger to us than a source of strength? This kind of talk is deplorable because it belittles the heroic sacrifices of American and Allied soldiers and depreciates the value of an international effort that cost us an even greater war to achieve. But it seems to me more than deplorable. It seems to me dangerously misleading. What are we to think of statesmen who don't lead, but who mislead?

The purpose of such utterances apparently is to seek to make a single individual responsible for developments resulting from past actions taken by all the American people. Our present troubles do not stem from the bad judgment or weakness of particular individuals, any more than it would be true to say that any one man's insight has been responsible for our successes--which have been notable. Our setbacks and our victories are alike the products of the full sweep of recent history; and for that we are all of us responsible. Twice within 25 years this country felt compelled to intervene in wars to redress the balance of power in the world. At the close of World War II, with Britain exhausted and France demoralized, with German and Japanese power crushed, the United States and the Soviet Union stood virtually face to face, with other nations polarized around them. Imperial Russia, historically a great expanding Power, now heavily armed and equipped with the seductive weapon of revolutionary Communism, soon showed that she was on the move again, seizing weaker nations here, probing there, pressing relentlessly with propaganda and infiltration against the free world. During the Second World War, and with the experience of the prewar period fresh in their minds, our people concluded that isolation was no solution to the problem of security in a shrunken world. Their decision was reinforced by this rising spectre of another ruthless imperial power on the march. They concluded that the time to stop aggression, like a plague, was before it started; and that the way to do it was by organized community action.

It is now some time since we engaged in the formidable task of developing the community of free peoples--first through the United Nations, since the problem is inexorably world-wide; then through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, designed to strengthen a particularly exposed salient--the Western European "peninsula" of the vast central "Heartland," as the great geographer Mackinder called it; simultaneously by strengthening the important Organization of American States in our own hemisphere; and by numerous other treaties and agencies. The American response to the North Korean aggression, which was supplied and equipped by the Soviet Union and could not have occurred without its instigation or approval, was therefore neither erratic nor impetuous. It was part and parcel of a strategy of collective security which had been in the making for a long time and which had been urged, welcomed and agreed upon long since with virtual unanimity by the American people.

When North Korean forces invaded the Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950, with the full support of Peking and Moscow, most of us knew what was at stake. One of the men who took part in the long, anxious meeting at Blair House gave the simplest explanation of the decision: "This attack on South Korea is like Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland." Historians have for years commented on the tragic mistake of France in not ordering the instant mobilization of the French Army when Hitler's troops started marching--and on the shortsightedness of the British and others who failed to urge and support such action.

An American columnist pointed out in June 1950 that President Truman's decision, taken with the virtually unanimous support of the American people and their representatives in Congress, recalled the words of former Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson following what he termed "the tragedy of timidity" in the Far Eastern crisis of the early thirties: "I broke out and said," wrote Mr. Stimson, "that I was living in a world where all my troubles came from the same thing . . . where we are constantly shut in by the timidity of governments . . . and I said that the time had come when somebody has got to show some guts."

Senator Knowland, Republican, of California, a frequent critic of Administration Far Eastern policy, was the first to take the floor of the Senate in support of the President's announcement: "I believe that, in this very important step the President of the United States has taken to uphold the hands of the United Nations and the free peoples of the world, he should have the overwhelming support of all Americans, regardless of their partisan affiliations." In similar vein the approving chorus swept the Congress and the country. One Member of Congress only opposed American armed aid to the victims of Communist aggression--Representative Marcantonio of New York, subsequently defeated for reëlection.

To call Korea "Truman's war" distorts the entire historical significance of our prompt response through the United Nations to the cynical Communist challenge to the whole concept of collective peace and security--the concept which we are pledged to defend and which only the Soviet Union has an interest in destroying. Mr. Truman happened to be the President of the United States when the challenge came. Did the American people wish it to go unanswered, did they wish all hope for the new community of nations banded together in strength to limit war to collapse? Time magazine, with a backward glance at the equivocation of the League of Nations, summed up the matter simply: "This time, when the challenge came, the United States accepted it." So did the United Nations. To call this "Truman's war" is to deny the manifest common approval of our prompt action.

Inevitably there are differences of opinion now about the course of events in Korea. The decision to defeat the challenge of aggression by force brought grievous losses in blood and treasure. The first feeling of relief which welcomed the stern, swift action of two years ago has given way to criticism and impatience. In taking stock of where we now stand, however, we should not talk about our problems out of context.

There is nothing to be gained by what General Marshall used to call "fighting the problem." The problem is that the Soviet rulers and their Communist satellites consider themselves at war with us, but that we are not in fact at war with them. It is complicated by the further fact that war in their sense is waged interchangeably by military and political instruments. In view of this it is proper for us to ask ourselves what would have happened if we had "fought the problem"--that is, evaded it--in June 1950. What would have happened if the United States and the United Nations had ignored the Korean aggression?

I can venture a guess. Our friends throughout Asia and in the Pacific would with perfect reason have doubted our intention to resist Soviet design elsewhere in that area, and they would of necessity have taken the path of appeasement. Disillusionment would also have swept Western Europe at this impressive demonstration of Soviet-satellite power and of American indecision in the face of a direct challenge. Then would not the Soviet Union, having challenged us successfully in Korea, have followed that challenge with another? And still another? Munich would follow Munich. Our vacillation would have paralyzed our will and worked havoc in the community of like-minded nations. Then when we did succeed in pulling ourselves together we would have found it too late to organize a common front with our friends. I think there is good reason to believe that the resolute action by the United Nations forces in Korea not only gained time in the East but saved NATO in the West. The alternative was to surrender all positions of strength, to enfeeble if not destroy the grand alliance of the free--and then, perhaps, to resort in desperation to a general war when our moral, political and strategic position had been weakened disastrously.

There is, of course, no tidy solution to the Korean problem, precisely because it is only a part of the whole Soviet imperialist drive--an episode, really, in the sweep of history which relentlessly confronts freedom with thralldom. In a world where the objective of the Soviet Union is to eliminate every rival center of power we must measure our gains and our losses not in absolute terms but in relation to the over-all situation. The Soviet rulers themselves describe their struggle with the non-Soviet world as war. In Korea we have made plain to the Kremlin that we are not fooled by its use of catspaws, and that we recognize war fought at second hand when we see it. Our object is to convince them that other aggressions, disguised or direct, will meet the same response, and thus deter them from a perhaps fatal gamble. At the same time, by limiting the war in Korea, we hope to avoid a third general holocaust. We are trying to use force not only to frustrate our immediate antagonists in the hills of Korea but to preserve world peace. For that reason the full settlement of the Korean problem is likely to take a long time and to wait upon the settlement of many other issues. Once again, perspective.

It is possible, of course, that we may fail in our effort to keep the Korean fighting limited: for just as it takes only one to start a war, so it takes only one to prolong it. The aggressor is the one who decides whether or not the war he has started can be limited. But we have diligently and painfully sought to keep it from spreading. Given the terms of the problem, there is no guarantee of success. It simply seems wiser to pay large insurance premiums than to look forward to rebuilding after the fire.

Meanwhile, some of the positive gains of our policy thus far may properly be noted. Talk of the "uselessness" of the Korean war gained currency only when negotiations for an armistice dragged out, and after we had in fact accomplished the primary objective of stopping the aggression and driving the aggressors back from whence they came--across the 38th parallel. Assured of satisfactory armistice terms, we would have little purpose in continuing hostilities. But what sort of logic is it to say that because the continuation of the war does not serve our interests, the entire enterprise was futile from the start?

And while it is too early to make any final estimate of the Korean experience, it is also foolish and misleading to say we "stand exactly where we stood three years ago." The first reason is that the Korean engagement put the American rearmament effort into high gear. Having virtually obliterated our armed strength after World War II, we were slow to reconcile ourselves to the economic dislocation and sacrifices needed to recreate it. Proof that the Soviet Union would speed the advance of troops across a national frontier dissolved our reluctance. Now our increasing strength not only puts us in a better position to answer further military aggression. We also are in a position to conduct a bolder diplomacy--in other words, to take the initiative politically.

Second, our leadership in fighting aggression in Korea not only saved the moral and psychological defenses of Western Europe from possible disintegration but sparked the rapid build-up there of physical defenses. The demonstration that there could be successful resistance to the Soviet Union and imperial Communism gave the leaders of Europe hope and persuaded their peoples to accept more readily the burdens and risks of rearmament. It is routine politics for even the timid and faint of heart among us to talk about the necessity for American "leadership." Had America not in fact led, but shrunk from the challenge of Korea, would Europe have tackled the vast, costly and painful program of organizing Western defenses?

Third, the Soviet Union now knows that the path of conquest is mortally dangerous. The Korean aggression very likely was planned as merely the first of a series of military actions--initially by satellites, finally to be undertaken by the Soviet Union itself. If so, the lesson of Korea may be of historic importance. Speculation about possible adjustments in the thinking of the men in the Kremlin must be cautious. Perhaps for a time the Soviet Union will now content itself with manœuvres in the cold war; or perhaps Western strength of will is to be further tested by some other military challenge; or perhaps Stalin and his partners will reason that a full-scale war (which Communist theory foreshadows) had best be waged in the immediate future rather than when the armament programs of the West become more fully effective. It can be argued that Stalin, in his old age, will never risk the loss of the empire he has built up; but it can also be said that he may believe what his sycophants tirelessly chant--that he is "the greatest commander of all times and peoples"[i]--and that if the "terrible collisions" prophesied in Communist dogma are indeed to come, then they had best come while he is still alive. We dare not tie our policies to any one assumption regarding Soviet intentions. Whatever those intentions are, however, the Soviet miscalculation in Korea will make them harder of fulfillment.

Fourth, our support of the first great collective military effort of the United Nations to resist aggression demonstrated that the organization is adaptable to the rôle of enforcement as well as that of conciliation. In the crisis there emerged proof of the viability of the concept of collective security, a fact of inestimable importance for the security of every free country--including our own. Sixteen countries contributed fighting forces. The policies of the free nations have been concerted consistently in the votes relating to Korea. While troops of the Republic of Korea and the United States have been obliged to carry the main burden of the fighting and we may properly regret the absence of more help from others, we should not overlook the fact that the responsibility for resistance to Communist military aggression in certain other areas is borne more by others than by ourselves. If another showdown is provoked elsewhere, the system of collective security is in better shape now to meet it than it was before June 1950. In short, while Korea has not proved definitively that collective security will work, it has prevented the Soviet Union from proving that it won't work. And the Korean experience, moreover, has hastened the development of the General Assembly of the United Nations as an agency of enforcement, free from the Soviet veto.

Fifthly, we may record that the successful resistance in Korea has contributed greatly to the successful negotiation of a Treaty of Peace with Japan, as well as of arrangements satisfactory to us regarding the future security of that country. A failure on our part to give evidence of a willingness to act in a time of crisis would not have encouraged the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Japan to enter into the recently negotiated network of the Pacific security treaties.

One further national advantage from this "useless" war deserves at least to be mentioned. We have learned vital military lessons in Korea. I am not competent to discuss improvements in tactics and weapons, nor would it be appropriate here to do so. But a more effective use of forces and armaments as a result of long testing under actual combat conditions is to be counted as an important residual return on our investment in this savage conflict.


So much for this historic frustration of Communist military conquest. Soviet policy, however, is dual. Indispensable as was the United Nations for the repulse of the aggression in Korea, it is needed even more in the political struggle in which we are engaged.

Obviously the United Nations has not fulfilled all the high hopes that some people entertained when it was founded. The idea that it would automatically usher in an era of sweetness and light was exaggerated at the start, as was soon demonstrated when Soviet imperialism made plain that it was determined to prevent the organization of the world on any but its own terms. But again look at the woods, not the trees. Although the United Nations has worked haltingly, at times badly--it has worked. Since the present world-wide coalition of free peoples is inconceivable without a central forum and instrument for discussion and adjustment, it remains an indispensable part of our foreign policy. The problem is to make the organization function more perfectly. Granted that it has done little to adjust the differences between the Soviets and the free world: so long as the Soviet rulers prosecute their dual war--against their own people and against all outsiders--there is no reason to expect that it will. Even so, it maintains at least formal contact between the two worlds. Our willingness to keep the door open for talk and negotiation is essential evidence for our friends (who stand more deeply in the shadow of the Russian fist than we do) that we will accept any reasonable opportunity to better relations and avoid all-out war.

Again, the United Nations is indispensable as an agency for concerting policies among the free states, including (as we found in the case of Korea) enforcement action. The bulk of the members of the General Assembly are free nations. In spite of the discouraging and frustrating debate with the Russians--or perhaps thanks in part to their recalcitrant and dogmatic postures--policies have been developed in the General Assembly to cope better with many of the perils to economic stability and international justice. Obviously not all international questions need or should be put before the United Nations; and certainly we should use our influence to preserve a safe boundary line between those domestic affairs which are our own concern and the external affairs which are of concern to all. These are matters for careful study and progress by stages. But surely to prevent a trespass it is not sensible to shoot the watchman; nor to burn down the barn to roast a pig.

The audible yearning to escape from it all, the murmurs and cries of disdain for the "meddlers," the "globalists" and the "foreigners" now sometimes heard in our midst, are strangely familiar. Are they groans from the ghost of America First, still looking for an unassailable Gibraltar, safe from assault by men--or ideas? I doubt if many Americans will be drawn into a renewal of that wishful search. I think the eagle, not the ostrich, will continue to be the American emblem.

The reality of the matter is that American power is going to be preponderant on our side of the Iron Curtain for many years to come, and that without this concentration of power there would be no possibility of pulling the free world together or providing for an effective common defense. Our friends abroad know this. And the reality is likewise that a successful military defense, and a successful political advance, depend on the coöperation of a large number of governments--in the Far East and the Middle East, in Europe and in this hemisphere. More, our ability to take the initiative depends not simply on the coöperation of governments, but on the good will of peoples who support these governments. We live in a new world--a world where the stronger need the help of the weaker!

We should not be too surprised that the same nations that formerly were alarmed at our isolationism are now concerned about how we will use our power. Just because of our strength we are a target for much unjust resentment. Surely we can call upon a sufficiently long historical perspective, and a sufficiently intelligent understanding of human nature, not to be too much surprised by that. Men in lands which have recently freed themselves from old tyrannies know all too well the temptations of power. Their fear that we may fall into old errors is not unnatural. And indeed, who among us would dare say that we do not have much to learn? No single nation, viewing the world from a particular perspective, can have a monopoly of insight. We must take the criticisms as they come--sometimes as fair warning--and redouble our efforts to develop mutual policies based on adequate understanding between sovereign but interdependent partners.

Sovereign international authorities over a wide area, or fully unified political councils in the whole of the free world, are not in prospect. We must concert our policies with those of our friends by the instruments available. Our aim should be to improve the machinery for mutual give and take, both in the United Nations and in regional agencies. Fortunately, the menace of the Soviet Union tends to promote a common view among those marked out as prey; and it can further be said that despite differences in approach and emphasis, much of the free world now shares a wide range of political and economic interests which move it in the direction of unity. The United Nations is an invaluable instrument for harmonizing differences in those interests. It and other agencies such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have given us--and our friends--considerable experience in this unceasing task of mutual accommodation. The United States will find support among peoples in the free states to the degree that they believe that we do not simply consult our own interests but give consideration to their interests as well--that we in truth have a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Other nations have a reciprocal obligation to give weight to our interests too. There is no doubt that our power gives us an advantage in this process. But neither is there room to doubt that if we wish allies who will go forward with us with courage and fortitude into the risks of the future, they must be willing and confident allies.

Let us also remember that the alternative to the United Nations is not a vacuum. There would at once be formed another "world organization." The Soviet Union, true to its policy of duplicity, has this alternative organization already in hand--presumably to be based on the "World Peace Council," formed on November 22, 1950, at the "Second World Peace Conference" in Warsaw. Professor Frederic Joliot (known better as Joliot-Curie through his appropriation of a revered name on which he has no claim of blood) presided, as "President of the Bureau," at the most recent meeting, in Vienna last November. Various trained seals were brought from all corners of the world. For the gist of the program one can take almost any of the old Marxist fighting slogans and substitute the word "peace" for the word "revolution." In Soviet double-talk they mean the same.


The burden of my argument, then, based on the meaning of our experience in Korea as I see it, is that we have made historic progress toward the establishment of a viable system of collective security. To deprecate our large and decisive share in that undertaking as "useless" is both mischievous and regressive. It will stiffen no backs, lift no hearts and encourage no one except our enemies.

The particulars of the forward political movement which our successful acceptance of the Soviet challenge in Korea has made possible for us would form the beginnings of a new analysis, not a conclusion for this one. What is incontrovertible, I think, is that America needs and wants allies. I think most Americans know this. I think we believe that the redress in the balance of power in the world must be completed, and quickly. I think we believe that the great experiment in collective security on which we embarked in 1945 is still in the long run our best chance for peace. I think we believe that international coöperation is more than elocution. In short, I think most of us have convictions about the position of the United States in the world today and accept the risks and responsibilities inherent in that position. The nature of the American decision was shown--is shown--in Korea. Shall we retreat from that decision? Shall we go it alone? Or shall we go forward with allies? When our experience in Korea has been placed in perspective, this remains the issue behind the dust and turmoil of this election year.

[i]Pravda, November 6, 1951.

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