Tuesday, October 24, 2006

My thoughts on Korea and NSC 68

I was late to the start of this topic. I found the summaries of the discussions by the presenters were really usefully in consolidating the ground that had been covered in the discussions.

Some thoughts.

Sergio’s comments on the motivations behind NSC-68 and the extent to which it showed up a fear of failure on the U.S.’s part helped round out my thinking about this document. It’s a complex thing – on the one hand it’s a clear argument in favour of military superiority as security and has widely been discussed a blueprint for the massive increase in defence spending which was to influence both internal and external relations in the U.S. as well as providing a welcome economic boost to the U.S. and also to its allies. On the other hand the document does show, as Sergio points out, the extent of U.S. “fear” of failure. From a purely emotional perspective, parts of read even more subjectively and with even greater bias then does Kennan’s long telegram about the Soviet system. Its assumption of the coherence of the Communist movement and more to the point the conflation of the Kremlin with the Communist leadership suggests an incomplete understanding of the extent to which Communism was capable of developing strands which were able to operate semi independently of Moscow’s control. Obviously this would become more valid after Stalin’s death.

A couple of observations I made while reading on this subject were as follows:

1-The extent to which NSC68 supports the idea of an increasingly messianic U.S. foreign policy, and reflects a shift from the long-telegram’s advocacy of creating a combined front to contain the communist threat, towards a thoroughly long-term view of the struggle between the free world and the Kremlin’s totalitarian regime, the “Soviet design”. It establishes U.S. moral “superiority” and therefore a justification for taking action which certainly surprised me. The extent to which it emphasises an ideology of the free world and free man in opposition to communism is also illuminating. All of this, I assume, will help explain how the cold war became increasingly globalised and lost the distinctions made between vital and peripheral interests by Kennan (Gaddis).

2-I found the Freedman book on nuclear strategy to be the most useful in filling in the context of how important this document was in the subsequent nuclear arms race. He makes the point that it is turgid and relentless in hammering home its message of the need to increase defence spending (this ties into Sergio’s point as well – those who wrote this were concerned to get their message across). The “bludgeon” of NSC-68 softened up Truman’s administration to greater militarization and the idea that Soviet foreign policy was expansionary and ensured ultimately that when crunch time came and the U.S. was facing the U.S.S.R in its second arena, Korea instead of Germany, Truman was to be more open to its arguments.

An unexpectedly interesting debate to me was why the Korean war did not go nuclear. I found this summary of our debate by Stephen was the most concise: “it was agreed that a realisation occurred that conflicts could be fought by proxy and needn’t be nuclear just because nuclear weapons existed – an important paradigm for the rest of the Cold War.” Freedman talks of the emotional, political and practical reasons why nuclear weapons could not be used during the Korean war. I tend to agree with the notion that it would have been clearly disproportionate. But also, the issues of resources come in to play again.

There was an interesting discussion on this subject in the context of perception and misperception as to the importance of Korea to the two superpowers. A lack of resources was seen by Lowe as one of the major reasons that Korea was not considered a vital interest by the U.S. at this time. MacArthur had to struggle to get the other U.N. countries to commit to Asia at a time when the Cold War was assumed to be focused in Europe. The fact that the U.S. were ambivalent may have prompted or at least contributed to Stalin’s change of heart to Kim on attacking south Korea. That change of heart in turn sounded the alarm in Truman’s administration as to the extent of Soviet ambitions. Korea then went from being a peripheral concern to a proxy war between the superpowers, neither of whom, while facing off in Europe, could afford the loss of credibility which would result from losing another battle.

This state of affairs then sets up the ground for the third-world conflicts where the risk of a nation turning to the other side and the loss of credibility to the losing superpower’s ideological system which ensues becomes one of the defining qualities of each of those later conflicts. That together with the knowledge shared by the leaders of third party states, with nationalist ambitions and whatever else, that the superpowers would step in: the tail wags the dog. The knowledge of what could occur if a vacuum was left, an increasingly likely prospect with the decline in empire, was all that was needed to ensure U.S. and U.S.S.R. involvement in all kinds of seemingly peripheral wars.

Finally, I would also make reference to Mao and the role that he plays in prolonging the war in Korea, together with his desire to boost his own credibility by fighting the Americans, as an example of how interests beyond those of the superpowers would end up influencing their policy. Mao’s apparent manoeuvring in line with the Soviets unsettled the U.S., as Gaddis says, at a time when the were sensitised (perhaps overly so due to NSC-68) to the Red Threat.

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