The Korean Powder Keg III: the Roots of Conflict
by Richard Greeman
Dec. 12, 2010.The Korean crisis remains a tinderbox. For me, recent South Korean threats of air strikes against North Korea and the extension of U.S./ South Korean live-fire war games along the 38th Parallel revive eerie memories of June 1950, when similar provocative skirmishes led to the outbreak of a full-scale military conflagration which, sixty years later, still remains unresolved. I happen to have grown up in a ‘progressive’ (pro-Soviet) household during the dark days of the bloody Korean conflict, and I first became politically conscious during the hysterical (‘McCarthyite’) anti-Communist crusade that was its domestic counterpart. Here is my testimony.
[For detailed analysis of the current crisis, please see parts I and II of my ‘The Korean Powder Keg’]
The Hidden History of the Korean War
My kid’s-eye view of the world had been formed during the War against Hitler, when the Russians were our brave allies. Then came the Korea, and suddenly my patriotic, suburban N.Y. Jewish family became the ‘bad guys’ on the ‘wrong side’ of the new American war. I had just completing building a really neat Russian MIG-15 for a model airplane contest, but thought better of submitting it. Meanwhile a distant cousin, a WII pilot who had just managed to settle into civilian life and start a family, got called back and sent to Korea. I felt as confused as the legendary half-Jewish/half Japanese boy who on the anniversary of December 7, 1941 ‘attacked Pearl Schwartz.
As I grew up, my understanding was deepened by the Left wing independent journalist I.F. Stone, one of my boyhood heroes and a family friend, whose book The Hidden History of the Korean War first cast doubt on the Cold War myth of ‘unprovoked Communist aggression.’ Later, as a member of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League in solidarity with the pro-democracy Korean students, my eyes were further opened by an obscure mimeographed YPSL pamphlet called something like ‘Behind the Korean Revolt’ which recounted the tragic history of an aborted anti-colonial democratic revolution, a still-simmering civil war, and a failed ideology-driven U.S. policy.
Today, thanks to Wikipedia and thirty years of revisionist scholarship, the ‘hidden’ history of the Korean tragedy is a secret only to the mainstream media and politicians who chose to cling to Cold War myths in order to justify U.S. imperialism’s current provocations. Free and available to young and old alike, the Wikipedia article on ‘The Korean War’ (with its links to more detailed articles on everything from specific battles to human rights violations) is scrupulously documented with references to public documents, official military histories, commission reports and mainstream specialist historians.
These sources document a tragic story which we old New Leftists more or less understood during the Cold War — insights which enabled us escape from the US vs. USSR mindset, to anticipate Vietnam, and to sympathize with our contemporary South Korean comrades, the students and union members who, then as now, were fighting for democracy against U.S. imperialism and its right-wing South Korean allies. Here is their story, or what I know of it.
The Korean Conflict broke out in June 1950 under circumstances strikingly similar to those pertaining today. As far as the media and official statements were concerned, the North Korean invasion of the South appeared like a bolt out of the blue, a shameless act of pure aggression. In fact, both Korean armies had been continually harassing each other with skirmishes and staging raids across the 38th parallel border. Under the guise of counter-attacking a South Korean provocation raid, the KPA crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire at dawn on Sunday 25 June 1950 in a well-prepared mass attack.
The response of President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson was immediate: all out war on North Korea. The N. Korean offensive was presented as a clear case of ‘unprovoked aggression’ caused by Communist Russia’s ravenous appetite for conquest. If the Korean domino were allowed to fall, all of Asia would be ‘lost.’ Korea equaled ‘Munich,’ and ‘Appeasement’ was out of the question. So was consulting the American people, who were still licking their wounds from WWII and had never heard of a place called Korea. Truman and Acheson considered the Americans ‘backward,’ sunk into pre-WWII isolationism, unconscious of the momentous task of ruling a global empire, the manifest destiny which had fallen to their lot. So the elite needed to decide for them, behind their backs, in their own best interests.
The U.N. Figleaf
So there was no public debate, and U.S. troops were engaged in the Korean conflict by executive order. Two days after the June 25 N. Korean border-crossing, Truman went to the U.N. to obtain a legal fig-leaf to cover U.S. counter-intervention. In the absence of Russia (who had veto power but apparently assumed that no resolution could be binding without her vote). On the other hand, the Russians may have secretly relished a test of strength. In any case, a rump Security Council passed Resolution 83 authorizing member states to help the South Vietnamese militarily, ignoring the fact that officially the Korean conflict was classified, correctly, as a ‘civil war,’ barring outside intervention.
In any case, that contested Resolution 83 was all Truman needed, and on June 27, before the ink was dry, he ordered the U.S. Air force into combat. Truman thus presented the public with a fait accompli and, to avoid debate, didn’t even bother to request formal approval from Congress. This shut the mouths of the rabid Republicans, who in any case would only have clamored for a more aggressive anti-Communist stand. It also shut the mouths of progressive unionists, civil rights and peace activists, whose previous pro-Soviet sympathies now were proof of ‘treason.’ Truman also introduced compulsory Loyalty oaths and prosecuted U.S. Communist leaders, while Congressional committees hounded subversives everywhere.
The fighting in Korea was horrific, on the scale of WWII. There were even ‘thrilling’ (from a 13 year-olds point of view) dogfights between Russian MIGs and U.S. Saberjets in ‘MIG Alley’ on the Yalu River. There were amphibious D-day-type landings, rapid offensives and blitzkrieg counter-offensives, and major battles prolonged by two years of stalemated WWI type trench-warfare. Sixty years later, the military situation has remained frozen like a fly in amber, despite S. Korea’s ‘economic miracle’ and N. Korea’s isolation as the last existing Stalinist state. There is nothing to prevent it flaring up again in 2010. Indeed, by the time you read these lines N. Korean missiles may well be winging their way toward Tokyo and Seoul.
An Unfinished Asian Revolution
The roots of today’s crisis go back beyond the still-unfinished Korean Conflict of the 1950s, indeed back further, to the half-century Japanese imperialist occupation of the Korean peninsula (1890s-1945), to the century-old longing of the Korean people for national unity, to the anti-Japanese resistance and the anti-colonial Revolution of 1945, to the short-lived and long-forgotten united, democratic Korean Republic, to its subsequent dismemberment by the U.S. and Russian superpowers, and finally to the outbreak of the Cold War, of which the Korean Conflict was the prototype.
Although the Korean Conflict it is usually seen as a proxy-war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (which is how U.S. policy makers saw it), the North Korean Communists were at no time pawns of the Russians, nor for that matter of the Chinese Communists, whom they had helped to power in 1949. Indeed, Kim Il Sung, the North Korean Party chief was a veteran Communist infighter, whose Juche (go it alone) faction was able to outmaneuver and purge both the Stalinist and Maoist Party factions, while extracting aid from both Russia and China.
The Asian roots of the Korean conflict lie in the unfinished nature of Korea’s national independence revolution, aborted at the time of its victory over Japanese imperialism by the arbitrary decision by the US/USSR to occupy the liberated Korean peninsula and then divide it in half, without consulting any Korean representatives. Korea is an ancient nation-civilization, thought by some to be at the root (through trade and immigration) of modern Japanese culture, whose origins are more recent. However in the 1890s neighboring Japan emerged as a military and industrial capitalist power with imperial ambitions in Manchuria (where the Japanese defeated the Russian Empire in 1905) and Korea, which they formally annexed in 1910. The Japanese conquerors, who considered themselves racial superior, forced the Koreans to change their names to Japanese names, attempted to eradicate their language (like the British in Ireland) and reduced them to colonial semi-slavery (including sex-slavery during WWII). Koreans were also imported to work in Japan, where their descendants remain racial pariahs.
The Korean independence movement emerged in 1919 with demonstrations inspired by Wilson’s ‘right to self-determination.’ It fought the Japanese occupation from exile and through the underground until on Aug. 15, 1945 the Japanese Governor General turned power over to democrat Yuh Woon-Hyung’s moderately left Korean Provisional Government. As in France at the time of the Liberation, there was an euphoric unity among straight nationalists, democrats and Communists, themselves organized into a variety of independent resistance groups. On September 6, 1945, a congress of representatives was convened in Seoul, founding a modern, democratic Korean state just three weeks after Japan's capitulation.
The Brutal U.S. Occupation
Then, as now, U.S. imperialism acted out its knee-jerk hostility to democracy. On Sept. 8, the day after Korea’s declaration of independence, the U.S. military forces under General MacArthur’s orders landed at Incheon, placed southern Korea under a U.S. military occupation regime and, lacking troops to enforce it, put the Japanese garrison back in power to maintain order. The Americans refused to meet with Yuh Woon-Hyung’s Provisional Government and treated all indigenous attempts at self-government as communist insurgency. As the population rose up, the U.S. banned strikes outlawed the Provisional Government and the PRK People's Committees. The arrests and massacres of the independence demonstrator were carried out by the collaborationist Korean Police, who had served as enforcers for Japanese imperialists and now served the U.S. Occupiers.
As a sop to Korean nationalist sentiment, the U.S. set up a puppet state under Syngman Rhee, a right-wing anti-Communist who had spent most of his life in exile in the U.S. Rhee imposed a brutal dictatorship, based on ex-collaborators, in order to crush the democratic effervescence of the Liberation, persecute his political opponents and carry out military campaigns against strikers, students and left-wing insurgents who were forced to take up arms against the government. Between 30,000 and 100,000 people would lose their lives during Rhee’s war against the left-wing insurgents.
While the U.S. Command looked on, Rhee’s military police and right-wing paramilitary(civilian) armies executed thousands of left-wing and communist political prisoners at Daejeon Prison and in the Jeju Uprising(1948–49). U.S. diplomat Gregory Henderson, then in Korea, calculates some 100,000 pro-North political prisoners were killed and buried in mass graves. The South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commissionhas compiled reports of hundreds of thousands of civilian killings before and during the war. Thus Rhee’s ferocious anti-Communist repression pushed the mass of patriots and democrats into the ranks of the Communists, who numbered among the millions, spread about equally in both the South and the North.
The North Korean Communists Consolidate
Meanwhile, in August 1950 the northern half of the Korean peninsula was being occupied by Soviet troops, who had recently joined the anti-Japanese war at U.S. request and had quickly liberated all of Manchuria through massive broad-front attacks. (Some Leftists believed that Truman dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki as a signal to the Russians, whose rapid land advances in Asia were daily encroaching on U.S. spheres of influence). At a hasty Moscow meeting from which the Koreans were excluded, the newly liberated Korean nation was divided in two, with U.S. and Russia as occupiers.
Unlike the Americans, the Russian occupiers chose to recognize the popular Korean Independence Committees, mostly led by Communist resistance-fighters, and allowed them to proceed to self-government, while centralizing the independent groups and placing Communists in key posts. As in the South, the northern Communists were divided into factions, and although Kim il Sung, who was eventually to dominate the Party, spent part of the War in Manchuria under the Russians, he was not a Russian stooge (unlike his East German counterparts).
Kim based his popularity on the countryside, where the Party carried out a relatively successful land reform, without excessive violence such as occurred in China. Kim also sent N. Korean volunteer troops to China to help Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army defeat the reactionary U.S.-backed regime of Chang Kai-Shek in 1949. The Chinese returned the complement in 1950 when the U.S. invaded North Korea, but Kim prevented the pro-Chinese faction from dominating the Korean Party, and his regime remains independent to this day, probably to China’s great chagrin.
The Corruption of the Party
In this fluid situation, the multi-tendency Korean Communist Party retained some of the qualities of a genuine revolutionary mass-based socialist movement. Alas, during the War the North Korean Party-state became totally bureaucratized, with Kim Il-Sung purging all independent tendencies, fabricating his increasingly outlandish. personality cult, and consolidating his own Stalinist-style totalitarian military state, forced to live in impoverished autarchy by sixty years of U.S. war and sanctions.
The brittle gerontocracy that rules the DPRK Party-state today knows its days are numbered, one way or another. With little to lose, those old men would have little hesitation deploying their nukes if their regime is seriously threatened. Their goal is to finish their lives in luxury, like the victorious North Vietnamese Communist veterans now presiding over a state-controlled capitalist miracle. Obviously, victory is their only chance for survival, and attack has always been their military doctrine. What can Obama possibly hope to gain by stirring up this very nasty nuclear hornets nest?
To return to 1945-1948, the arbitrary division of Korea was still considered merely a temporary measure in view of national elections and the re-unification of the country, desired by both sides. There was much movement back and forth, as a ‘north’ Korean may have been born in the south and vice-versa, so it was never clear who belonged where as refugees from both sides moved north and south. And so the bloody civil war between the Rhee dictatorship and the Communist-led resistance in the south of Korea spilled over into the north, and was inseparable from the Communist movement there and from the mass aspiration for reunification and national sovereignty.
A similar situation obtained in Vietnam after 1954, when after France’s military humiliation and the Geneva Accords, Communist North Vietnam was ruled by Ho Chi Minh (a southerner) pending nationwide elections while in the South, the U.S. set up as puppet dictator an anti-Communist exile named Diem (a northerner). As later in Vietnam, the Americans reneged on the promise of national elections. In 1948, the U.S. set up dictator Syngman Rhee as the first President of the Republic of South Korea(ROK). Curiously, the U.S. then withdrew its forces from the still-divided peninsula. With the Korean civil war still raging, this was practically an invitation to invasion from the North.
The Smoldering Korean Civil War Bursts into Flame
Full-scale fighting began on June 23 when the Peoples’ Army of North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel in a massive, well-planned invasion and penetrated deep into the South, over-running the capital at Seoul and pushing the South Korean forces into a small enclave around Pusan on the SE coast. This brilliant initial military exploit compares with the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, both successful in the face of somewhat suspicious U.S. un-preparedness. (The U.S. military had ignored months of ROK warnings and requests for help).
But the battle of June 1950 is best understood as an episode in the ongoing Korean civil war – a conflict between U.S.-imposed right-wing tyranny based a repressive police apparatus inherited from Korea’s Japanese overlords on the one hand and a popular, mass-based national liberation movement led by a dynamic multi-tendency Communist Party relatively independent of both Moscow and Peking. This explains why the feeble South Korean Army melted away in the face of the Northern advance, with half the ROK troops deserting north to join their Communist brothers and the others deserting South toward Pusan to save their skins.
There were horrible massacres on both sides. The Rhee dictatorship, before evacuating Seoul, carried out the immediate mass liquidation of about one hundred thousand ‘Communists’ — trade-unionists, students, liberals and Communists long held in camps or under surveillance. Mass graves of thousands of men, women and children murdered by Rhee have recently been uncovered and identified. On the other side, during the period of Communist control of four fifths of the South, there were mass trials and executions of ‘criminals’ accused of collaborating with the Japanese and the Rhee dictatorship, similar to those held in France at the time of the Liberation, but on a vaster and more brutal scale.
The U.S. Intervenes
At the end of WWII, the U.S. had disarmed with amazing rapidity, abandoning or moth-balling huge stocks of military equipment. The humiliating defeat of U.S. ally South Korea was an ideal pretext for re-militarization. Meanwhile, there were still active-duty U.S. units in Japan, and Truman hurriedly ferried over planes and tanks to reinforce the besieged Pusan pocket before Rhee’s forces were driven into the sea.
As supreme commander of U.S. forces in the Asia/Pacific, Truman had inherited WWII General Douglas MacArthur, an arrogant right-wing ego-maniac with political ambitions who, after abandoning his troops in Bataan in a cowardly manner 1941, had eventually defeated Japan through a costly series of spectacular amphibious invasions of heavily-defended islands like Iwo Jima. Against the advice of the Pentagon and his own subordinates, MacArthur hastily organized a spectacular amphibious invasion at Incheon 100 miles behind N. Korean lines (where last month Adm. Mullen carried out provocative live-fire amphibious invasion exercises). MacArthur’s plan included sending armored columns driving north toward the Chinese border on the Yalu River, capturing the DPRK capital at Pangyong, and liberating the Korean peninsula from the Communist enemy.
In September 1950, MacArthur’s D-Day style landings and blitzkrieg armored drives to the north went off as planned, dramatically reversing the military situation and making him the hero of the day and likely 1952 Republican presidential candidate. Truman’s orders to MacArthur had been ambiguous. He had been authorized to cross the 38th Parallel only if there was no evidence the Chinese would intervene. In October, the President requested a meeting with his Supreme Commander, which took place on Wake Island since MacArthur arrogantly refused to go to Washington. There he reassured Truman that there was little risk of Chinese intervention in Korea as UN forces pushed north to the Yalu. The troops would be home ‘by Xmas.’
The Chinese Enter the Fray
The Chinese Communists, who had taken power in Peking just a year before and were still fighting a civil war with Chiang Kai Chek’s Nationalist Army, protected by the U.S. 7th Fleet Formosa, were naturally alarmed. The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) protested through the U.N. and private diplomatic channels making it clear that they would intervene if U.N. forces threatened their security — communications which Truman dismissed as ‘a bald attempt to blackmail the UN.’(Sound familiar?) Meanwhile, undetected, a huge army of Chinese ‘volunteers’ had been massing in Manchuria and infiltrating North Korea heavily camouflaged and under cover of darkness.
In October, with UN mechanized forces stretched out over long supply lines in the impassable wilds of North Korean, the Chinese suddenly unleashed wave upon wave nighttime mass infantry attacks, stunning the unprepared Americans and over-running their lines. In the celebrated Christmas 1950 battles around the Chosin Reservoir, Chinese ‘volunteers’ surrounded and decimated a whole battalion of Marines. ‘Frozen Chosin’ was a bloody defeat, comparable to that of the French at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina four years later, except that the surviving Marines were able to fight their way to the cost in the longest retreat and largest evacuation in U.S. military history. In see-saw battles, combined N. Vietnamese/Chinese again pushed the UN forces back far to the south.
No GIs were sent ‘home for Xmas.’ Instead, thousands of defeated and humiliated U.S. soldiers and officers were taken prisoner and a sizable number became demoralized, since they had no idea where they had been sent to fight or why. Harshly treated and half-starved (like the N. Koreans themselves), some were persuaded under heavy Communist political pressure to make anti-US propaganda, giving rise to the myth of ‘brainwashing.’
MacArthur’s grandiose solution to this humiliating U.S. military defeat was to ‘finish the job,’ carrying the anti-Communist Crusade farther north, into China itself, and his proposed use of nuclear weapons was discusses seriously at the highest levels. But the arrogant Supreme American Commander was contemptuous of his civilian President, a former haberdasher whom everybody called ‘Harry.’ The right-wing Man on Horseback over-played his hand, addressing his warlike appeals to the electorate and the Congress over Truman’s head, and Truman fired him.
General Ridgeway took over the UN Command, and a possible nuclear war with China was averted. Eventually, after years of heavy fighting (including savage battles like ‘Porkchop Hill’) and massive infusions of U.S. military might the two sides were reduced to a stalemate along the 38th Parallel. All in all, it was a defeat for the U.S., South Korea, their U.N. allies. Unwilling to admit defeat, the imperialists were equally unable to defeat the North Koreans or to sustain a continued war of attrition. Armistice talks were opened and dragged on for months and years. Sixty year later, nothing essential has changed on the ground. Only the stakes in the game have grown considerably higher. Obama faces the same dilemma as Truman and MacArthur, and North Korea remains an unpredictable wild card.
The ‘Korea Syndrome’
During the stalled talks Cold Warrior Truman kept up his anti-Communist rhetoric, while far-right Republican grandstanders like Joe McCarthy were accusing the hawkish Democrats of ’20 Years of Treason.’ Just like today’s rabid Republican attacks on our hawkish Obama, the rabid right served to reinforce the bi-partisan imperialist drive to war and lock the U.S. into an rigid stance. Nonetheless, after two years, despite witch-hunts and intensive anti-Communist propaganda, nearly half the electorate considered the decision to enter the war ‘a mistake.’[i] Truman and Acheson were correct in assuming the ‘backward’ American public would not support the burden of becoming the world’s imperialist policeman. Thus, the 1951 Republican nomination went not to the controversial warmongering MacArthur, but to a moderate WWII hero, General Eisenhower, who was swept in to office on the simple promise ‘I will go to Korea.’
During the presidential campaign, I unwittingly embarrassed my parents in front of their Leftist friends, who were earnestly debating whether they should support the Democrat Stevenson or the Progressive candidate, one Vincent Hallinan. One progressive lady asked me for my opinion, and little Richard answered that he thought a general who knew how bad war was might make peace. He was right. Unlike Nixon, whose 1968 ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War was a hoax, President Eisenhower immediately signed the Korean cease fire.
Eisenhower also had the authority to silence Joseph McCarthy’s demagoguery and bring the country back to relative normality. Eisenhower cooled down the Cold War, refused to aid the French, who were bogged down in Vietnam and wanted him to use the A-bomb; Ike confined his imperialist adventures to CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala, and famously warned about the ‘military-industrial complex’ and the dangers of fighting ‘a land-war in Asia.’ At the time, no one spoke of a ‘Korea Syndrome’ infecting the American public with a salutary mistrust of foreign military interventions.
The Truman Doctrine Revived
It took the charisma of the Democrat Jack Kennedy to revive Truman’s Cold War and the Imperial Presidency. As opposed to Eisenhower-era complacency, Kennedy’s bold new American vision demanded ‘greatness’ and ‘sacrifice’ to conquer an international ‘New Frontier,’ roll back Communism and to set a moral example for the world by ‘standing tall’ à la John Wayne under all circumstances. A professional anti-Communist (his brother Bobby worked for McCarthy), Kennedy succeeded in out Red-baiting Tricky Dicky Nixon with accusations of a mythical ‘missile-gap’ (shades of Saddam’s WMDs) and ‘won’ the 1959 election by a hair, thanks to some timely ballot-stuffing by Chicago’s Boss Daley.
During his brief presidency JFK, whose favorable posthumous reputation is based on the pathos of his untimely death, succeeded in dismissing Khrushchev’s ‘Peaceful Co-existence’ Policy as ‘Commie propaganda,’ invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, confronted the Russians eyeball-to-eyeball in Berlin, risked atomic war over Cuba, secretly took over the colonial role of the defeated French in the ongoing Vietnamese civil war and installed an exiled right-wing Catholic named Diem as his puppet dictator in the South (much as Truman had installed Rhee), setting the state for a new Korean-style U.S. defeat.
Once Kennedy revived the Domino Theory, made Vietnam a ‘test of American will’ and proclaimed that backing down would cause the U.S. an unacceptable ‘loss of credibility,’ he transformed the conflict from a routine imperialist colony-grab to an ideology-driven crusade with no possible retreat, making loss of domestic support and ultimate humiliating military defeat inevitable. Neither Johnson, with his fake Bay of Tonkin Incident nor Nixon with his ‘secret plan’ were able either to rally public support or to abandon U.S. imperialism’s rigid, ideology-driven, moralistic posture. They were doomed to fight on, searching for that ever-elusive ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ until the Americans were forced to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Saigon by helicopter, leaving their Vietnamese collaborators to their fate and ironically completing their self-fulfilling prophecy about destroying America’s ‘loss of credibility.’
Realpolitik or Imperial Madness?
To recapitulate: In 1950 in the crucible of the Korean War, Harry Truman forged today’s National Security State, anticipating today’ today’s USA PATRIOT ACT complete with FBI wiretaps, treason trials, and (never used) concentration camps in the South for folks like my folks. Truman was also the true Father of Presidential War, a dishonorable title that has been carelessly bestowed on fellow-liberals JFK and LBJ, on Republicans like Nixon and on pipsqueak Bush with his mythical WMDs. In retrospect, they were pigmies walking in the giant footsteps of this modest Missouri nonentity who earned his rightful place in history as the architect of the Cold War and Founder of the Imperial Presidency.
The geo-political basis for Truman’s National Security State was apparently rational, if cynical: according to his liberal advisor George Kennan, if the U.S. wanted to continue to dominate the world’s resources with one 20th of its population, it would have to do away such niceties as democracy and fairness. This meant intervening anywhere U.S. interests may be threatened by popular movements, supporting pro-US reactionary dictatorships wherever possible, and sustaining a high level of patriotic propaganda, repression and anti-Communist hysteria to limit criticism at home.
The problem was that Truman’s rational neo-colonialist geo-political strategy became the prisoner of the rigid ideology designed to justify it to a basically isolationist electorate. Korea in 1950 was the first domino. It was then that U.S. policy became frozen into irrational stereotyped postures of inflexible strength and uncompromising moralistic rigidity which, despite American imperialism’s indisputable military might and endless economic resources, has led to a string of quagmires and humiliating defeats (plus two puny victories: the invasions of Granada and Panama).
The March of Folly
In the wake of America’s defeat in Vietnam, the historian Barbara Tuchman published The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a meditation on the historical recurrence of governments pursuing policies evidently contrary to their own interests and persisting in that folly, despite the repeated evidence of past experience and the reasonable advice of critics and allies. Despite 60 years of stalemates, quagmires and humiliating defeats, U.S. imperialism is still trapped in the march of folly. Whether the crusade be called ‘anti-Communism,’ the war on ‘drugs’ or the war on ‘terrorism,’ no Administration dares step out of rank, listen to reason, consider making peace.
Like Truman, JFK, LBJ, Nixon-Kissinger and Bush before him, Obama is a prisoner of the ‘Frontier Myth’ of Americas manifest destiny to rule over ‘lesser peoples’ (beginning with the Indians) by ‘liberating’ them through what Richard Slotkin in his book Gunfighter Nation calls ‘redemptive violence.’ It is thus always ‘High Noon’ on America’s world-wide ‘New Frontier,’ and like a Hollywood sheriff with a fast-draw reputation to protect, the U.S. is under a perennial obligation to shoot it out with every young hothead with a six-gun who walks into the saloon and issues a challenge. Engaging in negotiation with an enemy defined as ‘Communist’ or ‘terrorist’ would be seen as shameful cowardice – if not by the U.S.’s democratic allies (who would in all likelihood feel relief) – then by America’s far-right noise-machine, which would holler ‘treason’ at the slightest show of flexibility. Hence Obama’s insane game of nuclear chicken with North Korea’s desperate diehard Stalinist regime.
Is there a way out of this deadly Asian impasse? There can be no real solution short of a democratic, unified Korea. For a century the youth, intellectuals and organized workers of Korea have been struggling for democracy and national sovereignty, first in the anti-Japanese resistance and then against a string of U.S.-supported right-wing dictatorships. In 1960, demonstrations by the Korean student movement (with which we YPSL’s were allied) overthrew Syngman Rhee, but the promise of democracy was thwarted by military coup. General Park’s ruthless military dictatorship, under which the Korean economy prospered through state intervention, lasted until Park’s assassination in 1979. Alas, the revival of democracy was thwarted by General Chou’s 1980 military coup, provoking mass demonstrations, brutally repressed.
Only in 1987, after revelations of the torture-death of a student, did uprisings by workers and students succeed in restoring the rule of law. Today, the Korean working class, allied with the students, is arguably the most militant, organized and politically conscious in the world. Popular demonstrations have succeeded in imposing the “Sunshine policy” (in favor of rapprochment with the North) of Presidents Kim and Roh (a former labor leader), put a stop to the 2003 flare-up of hostilities with the North, and forced the evacuation of the American garrison in Seoul, many of whose 37,000 U.S. soldiers routinely indulged in violent, drunken, racist and sexist off-base behavior. Surely they will have their say in the present crisis.
As for the American people, despite a naive patriotism exploited by 60 years of intensive government anti-Communist and anti-terrorist fear-mongering, the vast majority have always eventually rejected as ‘mistakes’ elite-imposed wars in Korea, Vietnam, and now Irak according to various polls. Indeed, under the illusion that Barack Obama would bring peace, as Dwight Eisenhower did in 1952, white Americans even overcame their racism and elected a Black President, for all the good it did us.
Don't mourn, internationalize!
As we have seen, the imperialist National Security State was an invention of liberal Democrats (Truman, Acheson, Brennan) who, then as now, relied on the howlings of their rabid Republican critics to stifle anti-war critics and appear ‘reasonable.’ So anti-war folks beware: rather than acting as cheerleaders in the Corporation-sponsored quadrennial Donkeys versus Elephant Stuperbowl, we Americans need to revive our independent anti-war movement, put Korea high on the agenda, and build links of solidarity with our counterparts among the Korean student, union and anti-war Koreans movements. Such an international U.S./Korean anti-war alliance is the surest way to break through the Cold War shibboleths designed to divide us and to build a powerful solidarity movement.
To unite with our Korean comrades, we must first understand their situation, their history and our country’s role in their plight. I hope that this Cold War era New Left testimony/analysis of the Korean Tragedy will help that necessary understanding. I urge my friends and readers to share this information as widely as possible.
Montpellier France, Dec. 11, 2010
URGENT APPEAL: Korea remains a tinderbox which could blow up again at any minute. We must inform people and raise a protest, beginning with the peace movement and Left who seem clueless on this issue. Please contact http://www.endthekoreanwar.org/
The Korean Powder Keg III: The Roots of Conflict
The Korean Powder Keg III: the Roots of Conflict