Part 2: Cold War links Korea, Taiwan

Henry C K Liu

Part 1: Two Nations, a World Apart

This article appeared in AToL on January 7, 2004


A quarter of a century after the United States normalized its relations with China on January 1,1979, US-China relations are still plagued by residual Cold War issues of war and peace that were created five decades ago. Among these are the linked problems of Taiwan and Korea - two unfinished civil wars in Asia into which the US injected itself at the beginning of the Cold War and linked as key elements in its policy of global containment of communist expansion. The Taiwan issue was created by the US in response to an escalation of the Korean civil war. It is not surprising, therefore, that the current crisis over renewed Chinese war warnings on escalating Taiwan maneuvers toward independence is also linked to a mounting crisis over the North Korean nuclear-weapons program.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice from a military stalemate in an undeclared "limited" war. Fifty years later, that uneasy truce is still all that is technically preventing North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the US from full-scale resumption of that war, as no peace treaty has ever been signed. Both sides regularly accuse the other of violating the armistice agreement over the course of five decades, but the accusations have become more volatile as the tension rises in recent years over North Korea's nuclear program.

When the armistice was signed on July 27,1953, talks had already dragged on for two years, ensnared in testy issues such as the exchange of prisoners of war and the location of a demarcation line. If history is any guide, there is little reason for optimism that the current negotiations over the Korean nuclear issue will proceed with less entanglement or that the Taiwan issue can be resolved peacefully without fundamental changes in US policy.

After three years of bloody conflict, military field commanders from North Korea and China signed the armistice agreement on one side, with the US-led United Nations Command signing on behalf of the 16 nations participating militarily. South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), refused to sign the armistice, which was only intended as a temporary measure. The document, signed by US Lieutenant-General William K Harrison and his counterpart from the DPRK, General Nam Il, stated that it was aimed at effectuating a ceasefire "until a final peaceful settlement is achieved". However, that settlement never materialized.

A conference in Geneva in 1954 designed to thrash out a formal peace accord ended without agreement. The symbolic historical image of the conference was that of US secretary of state John Foster Dulles publicly refusing to shake the hand extended in conciliation by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. And the US, represented then by Dulles, had virtually threatened to wage war on China. North Korea has threatened to withdraw from the armistice, the most recent threat being delivered on February 18, 2003.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea is the world's most heavily militarized frontier with most of the nearly 2 million troops of both sides deployed near the border, including 37,000 Americans stationed in the South. The armistice is still the only safeguard against a shooting war on the Korean Peninsula, where a state of no-war-no-peace has existed since its signing five decades ago.

South Korea, having refused to sign the armistice agreement, is technically in a continuing state of civil war with North Korea. For security, Seoul forged a mutual defense pact with Washington to keep the 37,000 troops there, the largest US contingent in Asia after Japan, which has 45,000 troops in 39 bases. The defense treaty with South Korea has kept the US, by proxy, technically at war with North Korea for five decades. The US-Japan Security Treaty was also signed during the Korean War in 1951, at the same time as the San Francisco Peace Treaty that formally ended the Allied occupation of Japan. The security treaty with Japan enabled US troops to remain in Japan and use Japanese facilities as staging areas and logistics bases in the war then being waged on the Korean Peninsula and later in the Vietnam War.

US military bases in Japan were seen as essential to containing communist expansion in Asia, especially since the Soviet Union, China and North Korea were viewed as a monolithic threat. Throughout the Cold War, the US deployed more than 500,000 troops outside its borders, not counting troops directly engaged in shooting wars, such as Korea and Vietnam. Even now, after the end of the Cold War, the US military "forward deploys" almost 450,000 troops in foreign bases, with large numbers in Europe (112,000), East Asia (82,000) and the Middle East (240,000).

No other empire in history has maintained such a large permanent force in peacetime beyond its home for such a long time. These troop arrangements are largely the result of post-World War II arrangements and Cold War exigencies. The US had feared a massive land invasion of Western Europe from the former Soviet Union and placed large numbers of ground forces there to defend it. US forces in Korea and Japan have been in place for a rapid response to a North Korean or Chinese threat for the past 50 years. The current Iraq occupation takes about 110,000 troops, plus another 130,000 in the Persian Gulf.

Many knowledgeable figures with direct involvement in the situation, such as the late Channing Liem, Princeton-educated former ROK ambassador to the UN from 1960-61, have acknowledged that the Korean War did not begin as a sudden outbreak of fighting on the Korean Peninsula in the early morning of June 25, 1950. Indeed, forays by the two fraternal adversaries of the civil war into both halves of the peninsula nation artificially divided along the 38th Parallel took place continuously for a period of several years prior to that fateful morning, and increased in intensity throughout 1949 - as pressure grew more intense by the South to get the job of invasion of the North done.

In fact, some scholars of Korean affairs contend that the civil war actually started in a fierce battle in May 1949 when South Korea launched six infantry companies and several battalions, taking a toll of 400 North Korean and 22 South Korean soldiers. The division of the country had been the work of the US and the USSR - not of the Koreans themselves - who had never accepted the division as legitimate or permanent, regardless of ideology. By October 1949, the USSR had already tested its first atomic bomb in August and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had secured the entire mainland of China, with the Nationalists, or Guomindang (GMD, or Kuomintang, KMT, as it is alternatively transliterated), fleeing to the island of Taiwan, some 90 miles off the coast, taking with them US$300 million from the national treasury. These developments generated a paranoid mentality in the US leadership, whose geopolitical psyche dictated that the US did not fight World War II only to lose half the world to communism, notwithstanding that the communists worldwide had been its most reliable allies in the war against fascism.

Up to this point, many China specialists in the US government, such as Owen Lattimore, O Edmond Club, John Service, John Davies and Vincent Carter, were objectively sympathetic to the cause of Chinese communism, based on their field knowledge of the successful social reforms in communist areas during China's long war against Japanese militarism.

A declassified 182-page report by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on alleged espionage by Lattimore, who had been political adviser to GMD leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1941-42, reads as follows:

Informant X reports that November 1948, at this lecture [at Harvard University] Lattimore condemned Chiang Kai-shek unmercifully as a reactionary. Lattimore is alleged to have declared that there would be no hope or promise in China, or peace in Asia or of cooperation between the USA and China as long as Chiang Kai-shek held power. On the other hand, Lattimore expressed the opinion that communist control of China would bring unity to the nation, industrialization to its economic system, and launch a modernization program which would enable the Chinese to take their rightful position in the world. He urged that the foreign policy of the United States ought to be that of doing business with the Chinese Communists ... He indicated that he had left the service of the Government of the United States because the foregoing ideas, which he expressed, were contrary to the ones held by the policy-determining officials in the US Department of State.
For his prescient views, Lattimore was persecuted, along with other China specialists in government.

General Joseph Stilwell, General George C Marshall and president Harry S Truman were all openly critical of the corrupt Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek, who appeared more interested in fighting the Chinese communists than the Japanese militarists. After the failure of Marshall's attempt to broker a coalition government in China, the US maintained an official position of neutrality in the Chinese civil war, although the US remained ideologically and operationally partial to the GMD.

China was in the midst of preparing for the liberation of Taiwan in a final campaign of its protracted civil war when the US intervened in the Korean civil war on June 27, 1950. Only six months earlier, to clarify limits of the Truman Doctrine of March 12, 1947, in which the US declared its moralistic duty to combat communism worldwide to fill the vacuum created by Britain relinquishing its prewar imperialist role in Greece and Turkey, US secretary of state Dean Acheson, in January 1950, had delivered a speech at the National Press Club saying that South Korea and Taiwan were not part of the US "defensive perimeter", which seemed to indicate that the United States would keep out of a local Korean civil conflict or the liberation of Taiwan by force in a final campaign of the Chinese civil war.

"American assistance can be effective when it is the missing component in a situation which might otherwise be solved. The US cannot furnish determination, the will, the loyalty of a people to its government," Acheson said. The speech said nothing about restraining either South Korea from eliminating the North militarily, or the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan from recapturing the mainland. In 1949 both anti-communist governments repeatedly claimed these to be their goals.

Then in February 1950, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin began to accuse the US State Department of being run by communists and the Democrats of having "lost" China to communism, going so far as to accuse retired army general and former secretary of state Marshall of having been a communist agent since the beginning of World War II. McCarthyism eliminated a whole generation of insightful China specialists from US governmental and academic establishments. Republicans finally found an issue with which to overcome their stigma as the Party of the Great Depression - accusing the Democrats of being soft on communism.

The November 1946 mid-term congressional elections were a disaster for the Democrats, with the Republicans taking control of both houses. Truman, facing his first election as a presidential candidate in 1948, while viewed by most merely as a caretaker president after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death in office, desperately needed a neutral figure of high public stature and good rapport with Congress and the press to take charge of foreign affairs. Truman was no liberal. In fact, Roosevelt selected Truman to replace the liberal Henry Wallace as his running mate in 1944 to appease the conservatives. On January 7, 1947, Marshall, ending his failed China mission, was nominated as secretary of state, and he went on to propose the Marshall Plan as a concrete program to implement the Truman Doctrine of the global containment of communism.

George Kennan as a junior diplomat in the US Embassy in Moscow had authored in February 1946 the famous Long Telegram, a historic 8,000-word document that offered a coherent explication of the "Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs". He advocated the use of the "logic of force" in response to anticipated Soviet aggression. Sixteen months later, Kennan published a seminal article in Foreign Affairs magazine, "The sources of Soviet conduct", which set forth the policy of containment: "Soviet aggression should be opposed whenever encountered." The article was signed by "X", although everyone in the know knew Kennan was the author. For Kennan, the Cold War gave the United States its historic opportunity to assume leadership of what would eventually be described as the "free world".

After his surprise victory in the 1948 election, Truman was faced with developments unfavorable to US global interests. On January 14, 1950, Ho Chi Minh declared the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On January 27, Truman declared the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On February 3, the US recognized Bao Dai of South Vietnam, beginning the commitment that eventually led to the Vietnam War. On February 6, the Republican National Committee set its campaign slogan, "Liberty Against Socialism", for the 1952 election.

National Security Council (NSC) Report 68, dated April 14, 1950, written at the request of president Truman, under the direction of Paul Nitze, who three months earlier had replaced Kennan as director of the state department's influential Policy Planning Staff, concluded that "the Cold War is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake", and recommended massive military buildup, set at 5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), in response to global communist expansion. On February 8, Nitze identified Southeast Asia as a major theater in the Cold War. NSC Report 68 identified the support for the collapsed European empires against national liberation as part of the free world. NSC Report 68 embodied much of Kennan's Cold War perspective of exploiting anti-communism as a pretext for global US hegemony, although it tilted heavily toward military expansion, over the protests of Kennan, who advocated a balance of economic aid. Nitze went on to build a highly successful career in government as a strategic nuclear hawk.

Thus, notwithstanding subsequent manipulation of public opinion, declassified official documents show that the post-World War II US military buildup preceded events in Korea in June 1951 - and was not a response to them. On January 30, 1950, six months before the events in Korea, Truman approved the development of the hydrogen bomb, and ordered a re-evaluation of US policy that resulted in NSC Report 68 by April 12 - in the context of which the events in late June in Korea were viewed by Truman and his advisers. On July 3, Truman asked for and received US$260 million for the H-bomb program.

Domestic politics had hijacked US foreign policy and tragically misconstrued legitimate national liberation struggles against Western imperialism around the world as Soviet expansion and as evil incarnates against freedom that must be stopped at all cost. US anti-communist policies unwittingly and counterproductively served Soviet expansion by forcing legitimate national liberation movements into the geopolitical open arms of the Soviet state. National liberation against imperialism was then officially branded as the enemy of freedom by US propaganda. In the process, not only did the US create untold misery and destruction around the world for half a century, but the malignant policy also transformed the US itself into an oppressive regime in betrayal of its own founding ideals.

Simultaneously, a garrison-state mentality was systematically forced on the socialist world, turning it into a collection of harsh societies that mutated into the self-fulfilling prophesy propagated by anti-communist belligerence. This history is now being repeated with the hijacking of US foreign policy by neo-conservatives backed by an extremist Christian right in a fundamentalist crusade against non-Christian civilizations disguised as a global war first on "rogue states", then on an "axis of evil", and finally on global terrorism. The tragedy of September 11, 2001, will be avenged with a kill ratio of more than a thousand to one in distant lands before this "war on terrorism" is over, indiscriminately victimizing as collateral damage millions of families who are no more involved with international terrorism than the average family in Middle America.

Secretary of state Acheson in a "Princeton Seminar" comment, February 13, 1954 (Papers of Dean Acheson), recalled policy recommendations on Korea in the early days of the conflict:

The recommendations that we made [at Blair House during the renovation of the White House] were, first of all, to get the Americans out of Korea, as soon as possible - that is, the dependents of the Military Mission and people of that sort. The second recommendation was that General [Douglas] MacArthur should be instructed by airdrop to get all the ammunition and military supplies which he possibly could to the South Korean forces. The third recommendation was that the fleet should be ordered from Cavite [in the Philippines] north at once, and we added that we should make a statement that the fleet would repel any attack [from China] on Formosa [Taiwan] and that Formosa should not make any attack on the mainland.

The President said he would not do the latter that night; that he would order the fleet immediately from Cavite [but] ... not make any decision one way or the other [on "neutralizing" Formosa] ... It was an interesting discussion [on June 25] because as I recall it the assumption by everybody - I don't think there was a question in anyone's mind or that it entered into the discussion that took place - as to whether we would or would not stand up ... to this issue that had been presented to us. I think it was just sort of clear to us almost without discussion that we were going to [become involved in Korea]. These recommendations, of course, looked very strongly in that direction. I think there was some talk about what this meant, about what would happen if we let it go, and all that sort of thing. But certainly there was nobody there who took the view that we should not regard this as a crisis to which we had to respond ...

By Monday night it was clear that this was a rout. Or pretty much of rout. The second decision made on Monday night was that the 7th Fleet was to prevent any attack on Formosa, and any attack from Formosa against the mainland. The latter was to put ourselves into a defensible position. We obviously would be in a very bad box if we said that we would interfere with any attack of the [mainland "Red"] Chinese on ["Nationalist"] Formosa, but leaving these people [Chiang Kai-shek's forces] free to provoke the very attack which we would then be called upon to repulse. So in the interests of the security of the whole operation - nobody shall attack against it or from it.
Fifty years later, US posture on Taiwan remains basically the same, to prevent the ending of the Chinese civil war with a no-war, no-peace status quo to prevent a united China from challenging US hegemony in Asia. All the talk about defending democracy and preserving stability is merely "to put ourselves [the US] into a defensible position".

In Oral History Interview with Dean Acheson June 30, 1971, by Theodore A Wilson and Richard D McKinzie, Acheson said: "You see, you all start with the premise that democracy is some [thing] good. I don't think it's worth a damn ... People say, 'If the Congress were more representative of the people it would be better.' I say the Congress is too damn representative. It's just as stupid as the people are; just as uneducated, just as dumb, just as selfish ... In the old days when liberalism didn't persist and senators were elected by the legislatures, you got some pretty good senators, because they were not representative."

This from the man who launched the Cold War in defense of democracy - and tragically his view is quite representative of the attitude of the US elite even today.

Next: Wrong war in the wrong place