A 60 YEAR COVERUP
"We continue to send a message to the North. There is another way. There is a way that can benefit the people of the North," Mrs. Clinton said alongside Mr. Gates on Wednesday, as they stood just feet away from leering North Korean soldiers stationed across the North-South border. "But until they change direction, the United States stands firmly on behalf of the people and government of the Republic of Korea." (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2010). Graphic: US Korean War Propaganda Poster
In a political about-face, a South Korean commission investigating a century of human rights abuses has ruled that the U.S. military's large-scale killing of refugees during the Korean War, in case after case, arose out of military necessity.
Shutting down the inquiry into South Korea's hidden history, the commission also will leave unexplored scores of suspected mass graves believed to hold remains of tens of thousands of South Korean political detainees summarily executed by their own government early in the 1950-53 war, sometimes as U.S. officers watched.
The four-year-old Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea probed more deeply than any previous inquiry into the country's bloody past. But a shift to conservative national leadership changed the panel's political makeup this year and dampened its investigative zeal.
The families of 1950's victims wanted the work continued. (Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 11, 2010).
Back to Korea
I keep coming back to the Korean War. Maybe it is an occupational hazard of those who teach foreign policy. Perhaps it is because virtually every administration since World War II has made their narrative of the events on the Korean peninsula a centerpiece for justifying United States foreign policy. And, from the standpoint of those of us who view United States foreign policy from a critical perspective, the Korean War represents a model of what that policy continued to be ever since the 1940s.
I wrote recently about “our forgotten war,” the Korean war, arguing that the U.S. commitment to “defend” the Korean regime south of the 38th parallel militarily opened the door to massive increases in military spending, the unquestioned commitment of the United States to a global anti-Communist agenda, defense of the reactionary Chinese on the Formosa Islands, the total funding of the French effort to crush Vietnamese anti-colonial forces, and the rapid expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Also, with the Korean War, domestic repression of dissent was broadened and deepened, unleashing the FBI, Congressional and state legislative investigative committees, and moves to standardize American popular culture.
I thought I had written enough on Korea for a while until I read a July 11 wire service story announcing that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission established five years ago in South Korea was terminated. The Commission was created to investigate charges that the U.S. puppet government in South Korea before and during the war was responsible for the rounding up and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of anti-government dissidents in the South (with U.S. military support). Also the Commission was to examine claims by historians that South Korean president Syngman Rhee may have slaughtered 100,000 or more of his own citizens in the early stages of the Korean War because they were deemed unsympathetic to the anti-Communist regime in Seoul.
Then on July 21, Secretaries of State and Defense Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates visited the 38th parallel which has divided the Korean peninsula for over 60 years. Photo images of Clinton peering North with binoculars underscored the definition of North Korea as mysterious and demonic. To support the imagery she announced that sanctions against the “Stalinist dictatorship” would be escalated. The North, she claimed, was responsible for the destruction of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, on March 26, killing 46 sailors. She accepted this interpretation from official South Korean government sources.
The Hidden History
I had read many books over the years on the Korea War but just recently took I.F. Stone’s The Hidden History of the Korean War off my shelf. As one of the first definitive studies of the onset of the Korean War, published by Monthly Review, in 1952, it tells a story of how that war started that is radically different from the official story: “the evil communists in the North invaded the democratic South on orders from the Soviet Union and China.” Even for me, the I.F. Stone narrative was shocking about Korea then (and now). Most troubling were the suggestions about how lies, deceit, messianic ideology, and personality disorders along with imperial structures and processes may have affected United States foreign policy in general. Reflecting on these foreign policies led me to realize that their impacts have included the deaths of millions of people, mostly people outside the Anglo-Saxon world.
Stone’s narrative highlights the interests, behavior, ideologies, and personalities of a handful of players who had most to do with creating and prosecuting the Korean War. Most central was General Douglas MacArthur, commanding officer of the U.S. occupation of Japan, headquartered in Tokyo. MacArthur saw himself as the future leader of all of Asia, bringing Christianity, capitalism, authoritarian democracy and his own historic destiny to the region.
His partners including John Foster Dulles, key Republican spokesperson on foreign policy, former representative to the United Nations and U.S. negotiator of the Japanese Peace Treaty which welcomed back that country into the “family of democratic nations.” Dulles had a long legal career, working with corporations and banks that did business with Nazi Germany. He regarded the rise of Communism as a manifestation of the anti-Christ.
Other partners in the Korean War drama were Syngman Rhee, dictatorial president of the South Korean regime who was on the verge of being ousted from power after his party lost parliamentary elections and Chiang Kai Shek, leader of the anti-Communist forces who were defeated by the Chinese Communists in a thirty-year civil war. Chiang’s Koumintang was forced to retreat from the mainland of China to the Formosan islands and he was desperately seeking a commitment from the United States to defend his beleaguered armies on the islands.
The narrative, of course, includes defense department officials and military contractors who remained, even in 1950, under the yoke of fiscally conservative legislators. They wanted a justification for massive increases in military spending such as those recommended in the secret document National Security Council Document 68.
In addition, Republican politicians were looking for an issue to finally end the twenty year domination of the Democratic Party in national political life. Issues such as the “fall of China,” “the spread of Communism,” the “lack of attention to Asia,” and “subversion inside the State Department” became part of their public agenda. And President Truman, his Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and other key advisers saw the need to expand U.S. military reach to Asia as well. With “the fall of China” Japan and the Korean peninsula were central to the geo-political expansion of US empire and the institutionalization of vibrant capitalist systems in Asia to challenge Communism.
Everybody Has an Interest in War
After describing the central characters in the Korean War drama, it becomes clear that they all would benefit from a massive and irrevocable U. S. military commitment to the anti-Communist regime in South Korea. Such a war would cap the distinguished military career of MacArthur, bring Christianity to Asia, shift foreign policy influence to missionary Republicans such as Dulles and others who wanted to expand U.S. domination to all of Asia, and would save the faltering political fortunes of the dictators in South Korea and Formosa who lacked support among their own people. Last, and not least, a Korean War would institutionalize, militarize, and globalize a United States foreign policy that would bring capitalism and democracy to the world.
The story Stone then tells is of lies and deceit designed to threaten and entice the North Koreans into making war on the South, changing the United States/United Nations response from defending the territory below the 38th parallel to expanding the war to the North, and doing whatever could be done to scare the Chinese into entering the war in full combat. Stone’s narrative shows how desperately the Chinese resisted all-out military response and how MacArthur’s headquarters at every turn resisted peace overtures.
The Stone narrative is long and complicated. Of course many have written about the Korean War since. But what so impacted me reading the book almost 60 years after its publication was the plausibility of the descriptions about how broad economic and political forces shaped and encouraged key decision-makers to act in despicable ways to serve their own interests, as well as United States empire. I am afraid that the United States approach to the Korean peninsula and foreign policy in general has not changed much since.
Any Way Out?
The best alternative to current U.S. foreign policy toward Korea and the world was recently expressed by the Veterans for Peace President Mike Ferner in a press release remembering the 60 year anniversary of the Korean War:
The recent unfortunate sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, should not be used as an excuse by any parties to renew the armed conflict that the armistice was supposed to address on July 27, 1953. Rivers of blood, mountains of pain and a permanent war economy in the U.S. are the true costs of this conflict. This sad anniversary renews VFP's commitment to abolish war as an instrument of national policy.
The press release concluded:
As we observe the 60th anniversary of the Korean War of 1950-1953 today, it is time to end this tragic war, not re-ignite it. We urge all concerned parties in the Korean War--both Koreas, the United States, and China--to begin negotiations for a peace treaty and an official end to the war.
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Sunday, June 20, 2010 KOREA:"OUR FORGOTTEN WAR"
"If we stand up to them [the communists] . . . they won't take any next steps. There's no telling what they'll do if we don't put up a fight now."
President Harry Truman at the outbreak of the Korean War, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2010
On June 25, 1950, communist-backed troops from North Korea invaded a hopelessly overmatched South Korea. American-led U.N. forces quickly came to the aid of South Korea, but the war unexpectedly escalated five months later when China, in support of North Korea, launched a massive attack on U.N. forces near the Yalu River.
Three years of brutal fighting followed as both armies hurled each other up and down the Korean peninsula. More than 54,000 U.S. soldiers died during the war, which technically has never officially ended but has been in a prolonged cease-fire since 1953.
North Korea often states that it is still at war, but the reality is that tenacious fighting by U.S. and U.N. soldiers successfully repelled the invading communist forces and pushed them back across the 38th Parallel border. South Korea remains a free nation, one of the most prosperous in Asia, while North Korea is one of the most repressive.
Chris Gibbons, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2010
The Annual Fantasy
Americans relive and debate the Vietnam War. Analysts discuss “the Vietnam Syndrome,” the “albatross” that shackled every president, and/or claims about where every candidate for public office was during Vietnam. To the contrary, the Korean War, which in the words of the U.S. government was launched by the aggressive invasion of North Korean armies below the 38th parallel into South Korea 60 years ago on June 25, 1950, is beyond question.
As newspapers often title Korea, “Our Forgotten War,” the story is simple; Communist aggressors (inspired by Moscow) invaded a free nation (South Korea). The Americans mobilized United Nations support and boldly counter-attacked forcing the Communist aggressors back North. Then, the story goes, the US-led army of the free people went North of the 38th parallel to liberate North Korea from its dictatorship. This invasion was foiled by a massive Chinese Communist military response. While a ceasefire was established in 1953, conflict on the peninsula remains between the prosperous and free South Korea and the poor and totalitarian North Korea.
This fantasy, created in 1950, set the stage for a sixty year rationalization for trillions of dollars of military spending, hundreds of thousands of US soldiers killed and wounded, and the deaths of millions of people, largely from the Global South, who were unwilling hosts of wars, interventions, and domestic violence related to the Cold War.
Just a brief examination of the history of the Far East suggests that the fantasy is just that. The Korean Peninsula was colonized by the Japanese before World War I. At the end of World War II, with their defeat, Koreans all across the peninsula believed that they, at last, would be able to establish their own independent government. “Peoples Assemblies” began to meet to plan for a post-war Korean government. However, at the urging of the United States, it and the Soviet Union agreed to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel until such time as an independent government, desirable to the victorious powers could be established.
The United States government over the next three years brought exiled Korean Syngman Rhee back to the country to establish a government in the US occupied zone. Rhee, an émigré with ties to large landowners, was not popular with South Korean farmers, many of whom rebelled against the new government imposed by Washington. In areas where rebellions were stifled, the United Nations held “elections” for a new government. Rhee and his party were victorious. And in the North, a regime allied with the Soviet Union was established led by Kim Il Sung, long-time Korean Communist party organizer.
In 1948 Soviet troops were withdrawn from the North and in 1949 US troops from the South. Both leaders, Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung, declared their commitments to liberate the other half to establish one Korean government. Some US congressmen began to balk at Truman requests to continue to fund the corrupt Rhee government in the South.
In May, 1950 Republican spokesman on foreign policy John Foster Dulles visited South Korea and spoke in support of Syngman Rhee, whose domestic support was faltering, and then Rhee and Dulles flew off to the Tokyo headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur, overseer of post-war Japan. It is important to note that shots had been fired both ways across the 38th parallel for months before these events.
Finally, as the official story suggests, North Korean troops invaded the South on June 25, 1950. South Korean military forces, heavily subsidized and trained by the United States, fled South and within a month much of the country below the 38th parallel was occupied by Northern armies.
Then the US, with UN support, launched a counter-assault in September, 1950, led by General MacArthur, who already had declared his vision of creating a Christian and anti-Communist Asia. North Korean armies were forced back north of the 38th parallel and with the urging of MacArthur and other virulent Cold Warriors in the Truman administration an apocryphal decision was made to take the war to the North. The Chinese, fearful of an invasion of their own land, entered the war on the side of North Korean armies. The Korean War was extended until 1953 and a troubled ceasefire was established that still prevails today.
What the Real History Suggests
First, as historian Robert Simmons wrote: “There were constant and sizeable armed clashes and border incursions between the North and South for over a year before the final crisis…the Seoul regime enjoyed little popular support…it had announced its intention to invade the North and appeared to be preparing to do so…”
Second, the division of Korea in 1945 defied the wishes of the Korean people, Communist and non-Communist alike. In the South, Syngman Rhee was regarded as an outsider and representative of the small land-owning class of Koreans (a character similar to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam).
Third, the Korean War was in fact a civil war which the Truman administration chose to define as the first great conflagration in the global struggle against worldwide Communism. Many scholars suggest to the contrary that North Korean Kim Il Sung’s decision to invade the South was made by him without approval or support from the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet delegate at the United Nations was boycotting the Security Council at the time the Council voted to condemn the invasion of the South. If the Soviet delegate was aware of the planned invasion he probably would have attended the Security Council session to veto the US resolution condemning the North Korean invasion.
Consequences of “Our Forgotten War”
The decision by the Truman administration to enter the war to “save” the Rhee regime in the South signified a permanent commitment to an imperial policy that continues to this day. As political scientist Hans Morgenthau once wrote, after the Korean War started reversing US/Soviet conflicts and the militarization of the world was no longer possible.
The Korean War gave support to those Truman administration advocates for the full militarization of United States foreign policy and US society. National Security Council Document 68 had been circulating inside the administration at that time. It called for a dramatic increase in annual military spending based on the proposition that each president should give the military all it wanted before any other expenditures for government programs were adopted. Specifically it called for an immediate four-fold increase in military spending, a proposal that some fiscal conservatives had opposed. After Korea virtually all restrictions on military spending were lifted.
Additional byproducts of the new US commitment to a Korean War included the following: finalizing the construction of an anti-Communist Japanese economy to balance the new Chinese Communist regime; making permanent the US financial commitment to the French in Indochina (a prelude to the next big war, in Vietnam); circulating the idea of an Asian military alliance to be called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO); expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and stimulating anti-Communist repression domestically.
As we reflect on the limited economic development in the North and the dramatic growth in the South, both products of the Cold War, the impacts of “Our Forgotten War” on the Korean people should be recalled. As Joyce and Gabriel Kolko wrote:
“The United States air force had completely destroyed all usual strategic bombing targets in North Korea within three months time, and by the end of the first year of combat it had dropped 97,000 tons of bombs and 7.8 million gallons of napalm, destroying 125,000 buildings that might ‘shelter’ the enemy. In mid-1952 it turned to the systematic destruction of mines and cement plants…” and the “…Suihu hydroelectric complex on the Yalu.”
They added that Syngman Rhee rounded up 400,000 South Koreans who were put in concentration camps. The authors wrote: “The Korean War, in effect, became a war against an entire nation, civilians and soldiers, Communists and anti-Communists alike. Everything-from villages to military targets-the United States considered a legitimate target for attack.” At least four million Koreans, North and South died, were wounded, or were made homeless (Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-54).
So despite the fact that the Korean War has become “Our Forgotten War,” the decision to enter Korea globalized, militarized, and institutionalized a U.S. policy that rationalized wars on entire populations ever since.