The wrong war: The Soviets and the Korean war, 1945-1953.

Author:Campbell, Joel R.


General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1951 called America's deepening involvement in the Korean conflict, "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." (1) He was concerned that the U.S. had entered the war without sufficient consideration of its consequences, and that the widening commitments there might distract from the more important military task of deterring possible Soviet attacks in Western Europe. For almost everyone involved, the Korean War was indeed the wrong war: something they did not want, that they participated in only reluctantly. Engaged in a bruising political fight over the "loss" of the Kuomintang regime on the Chinese Mainland, the Truman Administration felt compelled to resist communist "aggression." The French and British went along in Korea in order for the sake of the infant Atlantic Alliance. The new Chinese leaders, having just won their revolution, hardly needed a major war, but could not countenance Western troops on their Yalu River border. Several times the war drove the two regimes on the Korean peninsula to near-collapse. After three years of grinding destruction, both sides were forced to settle for essentially the status quo ante bellum. The war was thus both profound tragedy and horrifying proxy for World War III. (2)

For the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was definitely the wrong war. Officially neutral, the Soviets nonetheless were vilified by both sides. U.S. officials saw Stalin as the puppet master for the Communist side, while the Chinese resented being the water carrier for the socialist camp and (along with their North Korean allies) grumbled about inadequate Soviet supply efforts. A newly minted superpower, the Soviet Union was reduced to handwringing from the sidelines, in constant fear of confrontation with America. Believing his junior ally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), would have little trouble defeating the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, Soviet leader Josef Stalin apparently gave his consent to a DPRK attack. Miscalculating possible U.S. responses, he quickly distanced himself from the war, while seeking a negotiated end to the potentially threatening conflict. He nonetheless supported Chinese intervention in order to keep American forces away from the Soviet border. (3)

Since the conflict ended, the genesis of the war has been viewed in scholarly literature from at least three different points of view. Until the 1970s, the prevailing view held that the war was planned in Moscow and heavily supported by Beijing, and began with an unprovoked attack by the North. Decisions were taken within the realm of high politics, i.e., they were driven primarily by concerns for national interests and national security. Revisionists in the 1980s, influenced by the Vietnam War experience, asserted that the conflict was part of an ongoing Korean civil war, and that the North Koreans did not depend greatly on their Russian and Chinese allies in the opening stages. Revisionist scholarship focused more on domestic factors than international relations in decision making. The release of Russian and Chinese documents in the 1990s returned attention to the centrality of high level decision making, as it added nuance and shading to earlier images of the war. Stalin, Mao, and Kim indeed made most of the key decisions that led to war, but recent literature on the war, notably by Sergei Goncharov, et al. and Kathryn Weathersby, suggest that a more nuanced approach focused on key leaders provides the best insights into how the decisions were made. (4)

How were the key decisions that shaped the war taken? Were nation-state, bureaucratic, or individual actors most important? This article indicates that, in the Korean case, Stalin was the key decision maker, and only he had the power to determine whether war would be launched. Mao and Kim were secondary players, the former through his endorsement of the attack, and Kim through his constant urging of forceful reunification of Korea from 1949 onward. This analysis thus indicates the importance of key communist leaders in conflict decision making during the early Cold War.

Understanding the origins of the Korean national division can help illuminate North Korea's postwar development, the conditions under which the Soviets intervened in localized wars, and the nature of such intractable conflicts. Using Korean War studies written since the conflict, this article examines the Soviet role in the Korean War, from the initial division of the country in the late 1940s through the armistice in 1953. It asserts that the Soviet role was more nuanced and ambiguous than thought at the time; Soviet leadership illustrated strongly realist thinking on issues of national interest. It approved the conflict in its opening phase, encouraged prolongation of war during intermediate stages, but then sought ways to end the war when it became a burden for post-Stalinist foreign policy. After the death of Stalin in early 1953, the Soviet leaders thought that improving relations with the West was more important than continuing the Korean conflict.

The Roots of Conflict and NSC-68

Korea had been an area of vital strategic interest to the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union from at least the end of the nineteenth century. During World War II, Soviet intentions in Korea were simple: short of outright domination, Stalin had as a maximum objective control of at least the northern segment as a border buffer. At a minimum, he would settle for influence in Korea through a strong Communist Party. (5) Korea originally surfaced as a minor issue at wartime Allied political conferences, when it was initially yielded to Soviet control. The finally agreed-upon division of Korea into Soviet and American sectors of occupation was done in a very haphazard manner. Lacking a trusteeship agreement, and unable to land in Korea due to the suddenness of the Japanese capitulation in August, 1945, U.S. War Department officials proposed splitting the peninsula at the 38th Parallel in order to "place the capital city [Seoul] in the American zone" and prevent a total Soviet takeover. (6) Stalin accepted the demarcation at once to maintain good relations with the Americans and perhaps obtain a quid pro quo concerning Allied occupation of Japan. Only this restraint prevented the total Soviet occupation of the peninsula. (7)

The American and Soviet positions in Korea hardened, in part, because they were preoccupied with swiftly moving events in the Middle East and, especially, Central Europe. From the beginning of the Cold War, America saw Soviet attempts to control Korea in regional and global terms. By 1949, the apocalyptic linking of Europe and Asia, China and Russia hardened into NSC-68, the blueprint for America's global containment strategy. (8) Cold War policy had been made on an ad hoc, reactive basis since the Greek Crisis in 1947. Truman used each new crisis during the first years of the Cold War to extend U.S. policy incrementally. Meanwhile, a major bureaucratic battle between George Kennan and Paul Nitze over the nature of Containment preoccupied policymakers. Kennan envisioned Containment as operating at vital chokepoints in defense of key U.S. interests, while Nitze called for global containment of communism wherever it threatened to succeed. NSC-68 was a "fundamental policy reassessment" done in the light of the "loss" of China and explosion of the Soviet bomb, both in 1949. It viewed communism as a "coordinated global movement," and so cast aside any differentiation of central and peripheral interests. It also called for tripling of U.S. defense spending to counter the communist threat. U.S. President Harry S Truman had not accepted the document's recommendations by the outbreak of the Korean War, but then quickly changed his mind and endorsed them. Secretary of State Dean Acheson noted that the war shifted the NSC-68 recommendations from theory to "immediate budget issues." Some have charged that U.S. policymakers set the whole thing up, and maneuvered the communists into attacking South Korea, but John Lewis Gaddis contends that there is no "convincing evidence" of this assertion. (9)

The Creation of Two Koreas

The Americans and Soviet positions in Korea hardened, in part, because they were preoccupied with swiftly moving events in the Middle East and, especially, Central Europe. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union stayed in Korea in the late 1940s, with "neither side prepared to withdraw for fear that the other might not." The Korean standoff also showed the degree to which "peripheries can manipulate centers," as both superpowers settled on despots that seemed best able to restore order.10 The Soviets entered Korea much better prepared than the Americans for the task of administering the strongly nationalistic land. Throughout the war, they had kept close relations with indigenous Korean communists. The Soviets employed a number of Korean Soviet citizens, and there were up to 100,000 Korean cadres and guerrillas operating out of Siberia.(11) However, Soviet commander Col. General Ivan Chistiakov apparently had no set blueprint for the takeover when his forces moved into the peninsula, and used whoever was willing to help consolidate control, including non-Communists and Christians. (12) The Soviets also relied heavily on the local "people's committees" that had sprung up at the end of the war, a leftist force not directly under their control. (13) The early months of Soviet control were accordingly marked by caution, resulting in a greater degree of local autonomy than in Eastern Europe. (14) Throughout their occupation, the Soviets generally respected indigenous Korean practices, and tolerated a regime much closer in style to the coalition politics of Yugoslavia than to the rigidly Stalinized states of Eastern Europe, and as close in...

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