[An all-out war with China] would be the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place against the wrong enemy.
GENERAL OMAR BRADLEY
TRUMAN HAD PRIED THE MONEY FOR CONTAINMENT IN EUROPE FROM A reluctant Congress only with the help of the crises in Greece and Czechoslovakia. In June 1950 he badly needed another crisis, one that would allow him to prove to the American people that he and the Democratic Party were not soft on Communism, to extend containment to Asia, to shore up Chiang’s position on Formosa, to retain American bases in Japan, and most of all to rearm America and NATO. The whole package envisioned in NSC 68, in short, could be wrapped up and tied with a ribbon by an Asian crisis.
The possibilities were there. In China, Mao’s armies were being deployed for an assault on Formosa, where the remnants of Chiang’s forces had retreated. The United States had stopped all aid to Chiang, thereby arousing the fury of the Republicans. Truman was under intense pressure to resume the shipment of supplies to the Nationalist Chinese. Former President Herbert Hoover joined with Senator Taft in demanding that the U.S. Pacific Fleet be used to prevent an invasion of Formosa.
In Japan, the United States was preparing to write a unilateral peace treaty with that country, complete with agreements that would give the United States military bases in Japan on a long-term basis. But in early 1950 the Japanese Communist Party staged a series of violent demonstrations against American military personnel in Tokyo. Even moderate Japanese politicians were wary of granting base rights to the American forces. The U.S. Air Force was confronted with the possibility of losing its closest airfields to the eastern Soviet Union.
In Korea all was tension. Postwar Soviet-American efforts to unify the country, where American troops had occupied the area south of the thirty-eighth parallel and Russia the area to the north, had achieved nothing. In 1947 the United States had submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly for disposition. Russia refused to go along. Elections were held anyway in South Korea in May 1948 under UN supervision. Syngman Rhee became President of the Republic of Korea. The Russians set up a Communist puppet government in North Korea. Both the United States and the Soviets withdrew their occupation troops; both continued to give military aid to their respective sides, although the Russians did so on a larger scale.
Rhee was a rigid right-wing leader and thus something of an embarrassment to the United States. In April 1950, Acheson told Rhee flatly that he had to hold elections. Rhee agreed, but his own party collected only 48 seats in the Assembly, with 120 going to other parties, mostly on the left. The new Assembly immediately began to press for unification, even if on North Korean terms. Rhee was on the verge of losing control of his government.
Rhee’s position was also tenuous because he was losing American backing, despite having held free elections. On May 2, 1950, Senator Tom Connally, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was afraid that South Korea would have to be abandoned. He thought the Communists were going to overrun Korea when they got ready, just as they “probably will overrun Formosa.” Connally said that he did not think Korea was “very greatly important. It has been testified before us that Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines make the chain of defense which is absolutely necessary.” His statement was widely reported in the United States and Japan, causing consternation in both MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo and in Rhee’s capital, Seoul. Connally’s position was consistent with the entire policy of the Truman administration to date,9 but it ran counter to the thoughts just then being set down in NSC 68, and with the concurrent rise of McCarthyism, the abandonment of Rhee and Chiang was rapidly becoming a political liability of the first magnitude.
By June 1950 a series of desperate needs had come together. Truman had to have a crisis to sell the NSC 68 program; Chiang could not hold on to Formosa nor Rhee in South Korea without an American commitment; the U.S Air Force and Navy needed a justification to retain their bases in Japan; the Democrats had to prove to the McCarthyites that they could stand up to the Communists in Asia as well as in Europe. The needs were met on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops crossed the thirty-eighth parallel in force.
Within hours of the attack, Truman moved boldly. He began with a massive diplomatic counterattack. In the Security Council the United States pushed through a resolution branding the North Koreans as aggressors, demanding a cessation of hostilities, and requesting a withdrawal behind the thirty-eighth parallel. The resolution’s sweeping nature gave the United States the advantage of United Nations approval and support for military action in Korea. This was the first time ever that an international organization had actually taken concrete steps to halt and punish aggression (Russia failed to veto the resolution because she was boycotting the United Nations at the time because it refused to give Chiang’s seat on the Security Council to Mao), and it lifted spirits throughout the country. Despite the UN involvement, however, the overwhelming bulk of equipment used in Korea and the overwhelming number of non-Korean fighting men came from the United States.
They came almost immediately. On June 26, the day after the assault, in a statement released at noon from the White House, the President formally extended the Truman Doctrine to the Pacific by pledging the United States to military intervention against any further expansion of Communist rule in Asia. He announced that he was extending military aid to the French, who were fighting Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh in Indochina, and to the Philippines, where the Huks continued to challenge the government. Truman also ordered the Seventh Fleet to “prevent any attack on Formosa,” declaring that the determination of Formosa’s future status “must await the restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan, or consideration by the United Nations,” America had thus become involved in the Chinese civil war, the Philippines’ insurrection, and the war of national liberation in Indochina, in one day.
Simultaneously the United States entered the Korean War. Truman announced that he had “ordered United States air and sea forces to give the Korean Government troops cover and support.” His Air Force advisers had convinced him that America’s bombers would be able to stop the aggression in Korea by destroying the Communist supply lines. Truman believed that it was possible to defeat the North Koreans without any commitment of American ground troops, just as he evidently expected that the French could defeat Ho Chi Minh without having to use American soldiers.
Truman tried to limit the sweeping nature of his actions by carefully refraining from linking the Russians to the Korean attack. On the day of his White House announcement Truman sent a note to Moscow assuring Stalin that American objectives were limited and expressing the hope that the Soviets would help in restoring the status quo ante bellum. This implied that all the United States wished to do was to contain, not conquer, North Korea.
The underlying assumption of Truman’s approach to the war was that Communist aggression in Asia could be stopped at a fairly low cost in lives. American money and equipment would do the job in Indochina and the Philippines; the American navy would save Chiang; American bombers would force the North Koreans to pull back. Much of this was wishful thinking. It was partly based on the American Air Force’s strategic doctrine and its misreading of the lessons of air power in World War II, partly on the racist attitude that Asians could not stand up to Western guns, and partly on the widespread notion that Communist governments had no genuine support. Lacking popularity, the Communists would be afraid to commit their troops to battle, and if they did, the troops would not fight.
That last point was a big mistake. The North Korean Army drove the South Korean Army down the peninsula in a headlong retreat. American bombing missions hardly slowed the aggressors. The South Koreans fell back in such a panic that two days after Truman sent in the Air Force he was faced with another major decision: He would either have to send in American troops to save the position, which meant accepting a much higher cost for the war, or else face the loss of all Korea, at a time when the Republicans were screaming, “Who lost China?”
On June 30, Truman ordered United States troops stationed in Japan to proceed to Korea. America was now at war on the mainland. The President promised that more troops would soon be on their way from the United States. In an attempt to keep the war and its cost limited, he emphasized that the United States aimed only “to restore peace and ... the border.” At the United Nations, the Americans announced that their purpose was the simple one of restoring the thirty-eighth parallel as the dividing line. The policy, in other words, was containment, not rollback.
It had been arrived at unilaterally, for Truman had not consulted his European or Asian allies, not to mention Congress, before acting. Once again, as in FDR’s war in the Atlantic in the summer of 1941, the United States found itself at war without the constitutionally required congressional declaration.
In Korea, American reinforcements arrived just in time, and together with the South Koreans they held on the Pusan bridgehead through June and July. By the beginning of August, it was clear that MacArthur would not be forced out of Korea and that when MacArthur’s troops broke out of the perimeter they would be able to destroy the North Korean Army.
In Washington there was a surge of optimism. Perhaps it was possible to do more than contain the Communists. MacArthur wanted to reunify Korea, an idea that found great favor in the White House. It would mean rollback, not containment, and thus represented a major policy change, but the opportunity was too tempting to pass up. On September 1, Truman announced that the Koreans had a right to be “free, independent, and united.” Pyongyang, the Americans boasted, would be “the first Iron Curtain capital” to be liberated. This seemed to imply that others would follow.
The risks were obvious. Truman moved to minimize them by building up American military strength. Congress had voted all the funds he had requested for defense since June; on September 9, he announced that the rapid increase in the Army would continue and that he was sending “substantial” numbers of new troops to Europe. Simultaneously, Acheson met with the British and French foreign ministers at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. On September 12, he dropped—as one official called it—“the bomb at the Waldorf.” The United States proposed the creation of ten German divisions. French and British protests were loud and numerous, but Acheson insisted. To make German rearmament on such a scale palatable to the Europeans, the United States sent four divisions to Europe, and three months later Truman appointed Eisenhower, who was extremely popular and trusted in Europe, as the supreme commander of an integrated NATO force.
On September 15, MacArthur successfully outflanked the North Koreans with an amphibious landing at Inchon, far up the Korean peninsula. In a little more than a week, MacArthur’s troops were in the capital, Seoul, and they had cut off the North Korean forces around Pusan. On September 27, the Joint Chiefs ordered MacArthur to destroy the enemy army and authorized him to conduct military operations north of the thirty-eighth parallel. On October 7, American troops crossed the parallel. The same day the United Nations approved (forty-seven to five) an American resolution endorsing the action.
MacArthur’s broad authority to invade North Korea, it is important to note, came after full discussion and consideration at the highest levels of the American government. Truman, with the full concurrence of the State and Defense departments and the Joint Chiefs, made the decision to liberate North Korea and accept the risks involved, changing the political objective of the war from containment to liberation.
The Chinese issued a series of warnings, culminating with a statement to India for transmission to the United States, that China would not “sit back with folded hands and let the Americans come to the border.” When even this was ignored, the Chinese publicly stated on October 10 that if the Americans continued north, they would enter the conflict. The Russians were more cautious, but when on October 9 some American jet aircraft strafed a Soviet airfield only a few miles from Vladivostok, they sent a strong protest to Washington. Truman immediately decided to fly to the Pacific to see MacArthur and make sure he restrained the Air Force. Fighting Chinese forces in Korea was one thing, war with Russia another. The Americans were willing to try to liberate Pyongyang, but they were not ready to liberate Moscow.
The Truman-MacArthur meeting at Wake Island in October accomplished its main purpose, for the Air Force thereafter confined its activities to the Korean peninsula. More important was what it revealed. Commentators have concentrated almost exclusively on MacArthur’s statement that the Chinese would not dare enter the war. On this point, everybody—not just MacArthur—was wrong. Other differences between Truman and MacArthur were more those of method than of goals. MacArthur was excessively dramatic in the way he put things and he had a millennial quality about him, but like Truman his immediate aim was to liberate North Korea. At various times he indicated that he also wanted to help Chiang back on to the mainland, a long-range goal that Truman had not accepted as realistic, but for the immediate future the general and the President were together. They differed on means: MacArthur was not at all sure he could unify Korea without striking at the Chinese bases across the Yalu. Truman, more concerned about Europe and the dangers there, especially since neither the German nor the American rearmament programs were yet well under way, insisted on keeping limits on the area of military operations.
MacArthur advanced into North Korea on two widely separated routes, with his middle wide open. The Chinese poured thousands of “volunteers” into the gap and soon sent MacArthur’s men reeling. In two weeks the Chinese cleared much of North Korea, isolated MacArthur’s units into three bridgeheads, and completely reversed the military situation.
The Americans, who had walked into the disaster together, split badly on the question of how to get out. MacArthur said he now faced “an entirely new war” and indicated that the only solution was to strike at China itself. But war against China might well mean war against Russia, which Truman was not prepared to accept. Instead, the administration decided to return to the pre-Inchon policy of restoring the status quo ante bellum in Korea while building NATO strength in Europe. All talk of liberating iron curtain capitals disappeared. Never again would the United States attempt by force of arms to free a Communist state.
A lesson had been learned, but not fully accepted immediately, and it was enormously frustrating. Just how frustrating became clear on November 30, when at a press conference Truman called for a worldwide mobilization against Communism and, in response to a question, declared that if military action against China was authorized by the United Nations, MacArthur might be empowered to use the atomic bomb at his discretion. Truman casually added that there had always been active consideration of the bomb’s use, for after all it was one of America’s military weapons.
Much alarmed, British Prime Minister Attlee flew to Washington, fearful that Truman really would use the bomb for the third time in five years against an Asian people. Attlee, in a series of meetings, hammered away at the Americans. There was much talk in Washington (and Tokyo) of pulling out of Korea altogether. Attlee thought that if this were done the humiliation of defeat would lead the Americans to an all-out war with China. He suspected that such a development was exactly what MacArthur had in mind. Truman, Acheson, Bradley, and the newly appointed Secretary of Defense, General Marshall, all assured Attlee that every effort would be made to stay in Korea and then promised that as long as MacArthur held on there would be no atomic bombs dropped.
With Attlee’s departure, Truman and Acheson quickened the pace of their policy. They accomplished so much that by the end of January 1951 only the most extreme McCarthyite could complain that they were ignoring the Communist threat. Truman put the nation on a Cold War footing. He got emergency powers from Congress to expedite war mobilization, reintroduced selective service, submitted a $50 billion defense budget that followed the guidelines of NSC 68, sent two more divisions (a total of six) to Europe, doubled the number of air groups to ninety-five, obtained new bases in Morocco, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, increased the Army by 50 percent to 3.5 million men, pushed forward the Japanese peace treaty, stepped up aid to the French in Vietnam, initiated the process of adding Greece and Turkey to NATO, and began discussions with Franco that led to American aid to Fascist Spain in return for military bases there.
Truman’s accomplishments were breathtaking. He had given the United States a thermonuclear bomb (March 1951) and rearmed Germany. He pushed through a peace treaty with Japan (signed in September 1951) that excluded the Russians and gave the Americans military bases, allowed for Japanese rearmament and unlimited industrialization, and encouraged a Japanese boom by dismissing British, Australian, Chinese, and other demands for reparations. Truman extended American bases around the world, hemming in both Russia and China. He had learned, in November of 1950, not to push beyond the iron and bamboo curtains, but he had made sure that if any Communist showed his head on the free side of the line, someone—usually an American—would be there to shoot him.
There had to be a price. It was best summed up by Walter Millis, himself a Cold Warrior and a great admirer of Forrestal. The Truman administration, Millis wrote, left behind it “an enormously expanded military establishment, beyond anything we had ever contemplated in time of peace.... It evoked a huge and apparently permanent armament industry, now wholly dependent ... on government contracts. The Department of Defense had become without question the biggest industrial management operation in the world; the great private operations, like General Motors, du Pont, the leading airplane manufacturers had assumed positions of monopoly power....” The administration produced thermonuclear supergiant weapons, families of lesser atomic bombs, guided missiles, the B-52 jet bomber, new supercarriers and tanks and other heavy weapons. It had increased the risk of war while making war immeasurably more dangerous.
Truman gave America power and a policy, but it seemed to many that with all power he had generated, and the justification he had given for the policy, the policy itself was much too modest. Containment had never been very satisfying emotionally, built as it was on the constant reiteration of the Communist threat and the line that divided the world into areas that were free and those that were enslaved. Millions of Americans wanted to accept their Christian obligation and free the slaves. Other millions wanted to destroy, not just contain, the Communist threat, on the grounds that if it were allowed to exist, the Cold War would go on forever, at a constantly increased cost. There were those who felt that the only justification for a garrison state was the old one of putting it on a temporary basis, which was to say, to fight a war to destroy the threat.
This criticism of the Truman-Acheson foreign policy, which centered around the towering figure of MacArthur, turned Attlee’s criticism on its head. The Prime Minister had warned the Americans that they could not do it all alone, not forever anyway. He said they would either have to fight all out in Asia or negotiate, and he urged them to negotiate. MacArthur wanted to fight all out. American liberals derided MacArthur and his followers for the simplicity of their views, but there was no denying MacArthur’s appeal or the frustration built into the containment program, an appeal and a frustration based on Truman’s and Acheson’s own descriptions of the world scene.
If America made permanent Cold War its policy, with a commitment to continuous military superiority to back an attitude of unrelenting hostility toward China and Russia, without ever doing anything to destroy the Communist nations, it would be accepting permanent tension, permanent risk, and a permanent postponement of the social and economic promises of the New Deal.
The difference in outlook soon erupted into one of the great emotional events of American history. In January and February 1951, MacArthur resumed the offensive and drove the Chinese and North Koreans back. By March he was again at the thirty-eighth parallel. The administration was now ready to negotiate. MacArthur sabotaged the efforts to obtain a ceasefire by crossing the parallel and by demanding an unconditional surrender from the Chinese. Truman was furious. He decided to remove the general at the first opportunity.
It came shortly. On April 5, Representative Joseph W. Martin, Jr., a Republican, read to the House a letter from MacArthur calling for a new foreign policy. The general wanted to reunify Korea, unleash Chiang for an attack on the mainland, and fight Communism in Asia rather than in Europe. “Here in Asia,” he said, “is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest. Here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomats there still fight it with words.”
Aside from the problem of a soldier challenging presidential supremacy by trying to set foreign policy, the debate centered on the doctrine of containment. Initially MacArthur had a large majority of the people with him. After Truman had relieved him of his command, MacArthur returned to the United States to receive a welcome that would have made Caesar envious. Public opinion polls showed that three out of every four Americans disapproved of the way Truman was conducting the war.
The American people seemed to be rejecting containment, and Truman had rejected victory; that left only Attlee’s alternative of peace. Even Attlee, however, had wanted peace only in Asia, and as Truman pointed out to him time and again, Congress would not accept a policy of intervention in Europe and isolation in Asia. As it was, Truman was in trouble because he spent most of the money Congress voted for defense on NATO at a time when most Americans wanted the effort to go into Korea. If the Korean War came to a sudden end, so would NSC 68 and the entire program that went with it.
The pressure from the United Nations and the NATO allies to negotiate could not be totally ignored, however, and on July 10, 1951, peace talks—without a ceasefire—began. They broke down on July 12. For the remainder of the year they were on again, off again. The front lines began to stabilize around the thirty-eighth parallel while American casualties dropped to an “acceptable” weekly total. The war—and rearmament—continued.
Truman had won. Administration witnesses at the MacArthur hearings in the Senate (held to examine foreign policy and MacArthur’s dismissal) argued convincingly that America could neither destroy Russia or China nor allow them to expand. Public opinion swung back to Truman. America remained committed to containment and permanent Cold War. MacArthur’s alternative of victory, like Attlee’s of peace in Asia, had been rejected. America girded for the long haul.
The Cold War would be fought Truman’s way. There would be clashes on the periphery but none between the major powers. America would extend her positions of strength around the Communist empire. The military-industrial complex in the United States would become a major social and economic force. The United States would make no settlement or compromise with Russia or China. America would build up the mightiest armed force the world had ever known and, if necessary, defend the barricades of freedom alone.
When Truman became President, he led a nation anxious to return to traditional civil-military relations and the historic American foreign policy of noninvolvement. When he left the White House, his legacy was an American presence on every continent of the world and an enormously expanded armament industry. He had turned America decisively away from the policy of the 1930s of unilateral disarmament and neutrality to an arms build-up and collective security. He had established the policy of containment of America’s enemies rather than their destruction. The measure of his triumph was that all his successors stayed with his policies.