A diplomat’s tool is words, and it is reasonable to assume someone who has risen to be the top diplomat for the United States means what he says. So when Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, they were shocked and honestly amazed at the vehement reaction from the United Nations (UN) and the United States. They had every right to be, since effectively they had been given permission to attack by the U.S. secretary of state.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson, on January 12, 1950, made a speech to the National Press Club. This was a policy speech and not casual remarks. It seemed likely that the speech was intended to act as a warning to the now-antagonistic communist Russia, China, and their satellites. In this speech, Acheson described the American post-World War II sphere of influence as it extended all over the world. The problem came when he described the U.S. interest in the Pacific and mentioned Japan, but not Korea. Imagine Kim Il-sung’s joy when he heard that coveted South Korea was not protected by the United States.
The problem of mixed signals on Korea was also complicated by politics. President Truman was a Democrat, and the Congress was controlled by the Republican Party. And the Republicans did not like many of Truman’s foreign policies. As a result, when Truman requested $60 million in aid for South Korea, Congress refused to pass it. Then a bill that would finance 500 advisers and training personnel to assist in equipping the South Korean army with modern weapons was defeated in the House by the close vote of 193 to 192. Those in power in Moscow and Pyongyang saw a clear message. America was abandoning South Korea.
An action taken by Truman on April 25, 1950, might have cleared up the matter and put the North Koreans on notice. This was National Security Directive 68, which committed American resources to counter any communist aggression “anywhere in Asia.” It was a strong and clear statement and could have been an equally clear warning. The problem was national security directives are classified top secret.
A public statement by John Foster Dulles, Truman’s special envoy to Asia, likely was intended to put the communists on notice. Unfortunately, he worded his statement in typical diplomatic terms, obscuring the message. The closest Dulles came to a definitive statement was in his speech to the South Korean Assembly. He said that America was “faithful to the cause of human freedom and loyal to those everywhere who honorably support it.” Not exactly fighting words to warn off an aggressor.
North Korean troops poured over the thirty-eighth parallel on June 17, 1950. The poorly armed and disorganized South Korean army was incapable of serious resistance. The few American units in Korea were quickly forced to retreat south. Then the world responded to the invasion.
After all they had heard, it was likely that both Stalin and Kim Il-sung found the adamant reaction by the United States a shock. Had the Soviet Union or China actually expected a military response from Truman, it is likely that they would have not allowed Kim Il-sung to attack. Certainly they would not have let the invasion happen while they were boycotting the Security Council. Because the Russians were not attending the UN Security Council meetings, the council was able to pass a resolution calling for strong military force to support and restore South Korea. Before the conflict ended, 50,000 UN soldiers, mostly Americans, were killed along with many times that number of North Koreans and then Chinese. It was a high price to pay for what was effectively just sloppy language.