Korea quickly became the so-called “forgotten war.” Even during active combat American public opinion shifted dramatically, from 78% approval of the war in its early days to 50% of the public viewing the war as a “mistake” by early 1952 (versus 37% who thought it wasn’t a mistake).(1) Most Americans believed that Korea was the first war American didn’t win outright,(2) and people couldn’t understand how we could defeat Germany and Japan but be stalemated by a bunch of Third World conscripts. It was true that if our objective was to protect South Korea from Communist domination, we had succeeded. But the cost had been very high and the spectacle of America’s 8th Army in panicky retreat from the Chinese had been appalling. The quicker the war was forgotten, the better.
Politically, the war had been a thrill-a-minute. Douglas MacArthur, even fuller of himself than usual, had advocated sending US troops into China to deny sanctuary to the remaining North Korean army units, possibly precipitating World War III. He had speculated aloud about the possibility of using nuclear weapons against China.(3) When his Commander-in-Chief, Harry Truman, asked for a meeting, MacArthur claimed to be too busy to fly to Washington, so poor Truman (why would he be busy?) had to fly all the way to Guam.
The last straw for Truman occurred in March of 1951, when secret communications between MacArthur and the embassies of Spain and Portugal were uncovered in which MacArthur claimed he would succeed in expanding the Korean War into full-scale hostilities with China. Truman had had enough, and on April 10, 1951, MacArthur was removed from his command and Matt Ridgway was named to replace him.
The removal of the popular MacArthur by an unpopular President(4) precipitated a Constitutional crisis. Eventually, though, a joint Senate committee would conclude that the firing “was within the constitutional powers of the President but the circumstances were a shock to national pride.”
Viewed as a conventional war, Korea was, at best, a true stalemate, and America could be forgiven for not wanting to think about it. Viewed as a war of detainder, however, Korea was a home run – in fact, it was home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the World Series.(5) If Stalin and Mao had succeeded in placing South Korea under Communist control, Taiwan and Japan would not have been far behind. As Truman himself put it, the USSR and China would “keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.” Japan would have served as the last redoubt in East Asia for America and its allies, and the country would have been turned into an armed camp.
But none of that happened. America’s “stalemate” in Korea resulted in a whole series of positive geopolitical developments for the democratic West (and the democratic East). North Korea and China were “detained” from conquering South Korea, and the latter would soon launch itself into an extraordinary period of economic and political development. Although North Korea had a significant economic head start, South Korea caught up and surpassed the north so thoroughly that the contest between the two countries became a laugher. If anyone in the world wondered whether Communism or free market democracy might be the better system, no better or fairer comparison could be imagined than the competition that played out on the Korean peninsula.
But it gets better. Freed from the burden of serving as democracy’s armed camp, Japan’s economy – and its democracy – also exploded, resulting in Japan becoming the second-largest economy in the world. Taiwan, although a much smaller place, also developed into a rich and politically stable democracy. The result was that, far from gobbling up South Korea and other nations, China quickly found itself surrounded by enemies. On the east (Taiwan, Japan, South Korea), the south (Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines) and the west (India), China was hemmed in by staunch American allies. On the north and southwest (Russia and Vietnam), China was bordered by ancient enemies.
Viewed as a conventional war, Korea left a deeply unpleasant taste in America’s mouth. But viewed as a war of detainder, it can easily be seen that American boys didn’t die in vain on those cold, remote mountaintops. They died to ensure the freedom of two billion people.
Next Friday we’ll take on a much tougher subject: Vietnam.
(1) Interestingly, when the question was phrased this way: “Do you think the United States was right or wrong in sending American troops to stop the Communist invasion of South Korea?” majority opinion consistently supported the war, peaking at 81% approval just after the Chinese invasion.
(2) Actually, the US often failed to achieve its objectives during military actions. Early in the 20th century, for example, Augusto Nicolás Sandino led a band of guerrillas in Nicaragua that gave American marines fits for years. Although the marines succeeded in keeping Sandino out of Nicaragua’s main cities, they were never able to capture him and eventually gave up and left the country in 1933. Today’s “Sandinistas” in Nicaragua assumed the name in honor of Sandino’s great “victory” over the hated Yanquis.
(3) The US Joint Chiefs of Staff were so worried that MacArthur might use nuclear weapons impetuously that they gave command of the nuclear strike force to the Strategic Air Command, rather than to MacArthur.
(4) Truman’s poll numbers would decline to a low of 22% approval, still a record for a sitting President.
(5) Okay, okay, I’m a Pittsburgher, so naturally I’ve spent most of my life channeling Bill Mazeroski.
Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 4
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