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The New International, March–April 1952

Jack Brad

U.S. Dilemma in Korea

The War and the Problems of Asia


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 1, January–February 1952, pp. 3–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It is impossible to get at the actual facts behind the claims of either side in the Korean stalemate. One of Ridgways’s first acts upon taking MacArthur’s place was to impose full-fledged wartime censorship on all news. Most dispatches now emanate from Tokyo and those sent from Korea are so carefully checked that news is sometimes delayed for days. Thus it has apparently become common practice for correspondents to listen to the North Korean and Peiping radio for information which they may not, however, transmit. It goes without saying, that no free reporting is permitted from behind the Stalinist lines.

Inside the U.S., Korea is a political issue and as such is hardly susceptible to reason. The atmosphere here is scarcely conducive to rational solutions where Stalinism is concerned, yet there is little desire to bog down in Korea indefinitely. But Korea serves major political purposes for Truman-Acheson as well as for Taft-Hoover. Newsweek magazine points out that Truman’s fabulous military budget would have little chance of adoption if a truce were achieved in the coming months. Re-armament is the very heart of the administration’s foreign policy as frequently expressed in Acheson’s “situations of strength” objective. To what extent do such considerations determine the nature of the directives issued by the Pentagon and the State Department to Ridgway? Are ultimata from the Dai Ichi Building, intended to threaten the Stalinists or Americans? There is no way of knowing, but there is certainly considerable reason to hesitate before accepting as gospel the many statements which almost daily claim to represent the very final offer or final rejection of either side.

The fact of the stalemate itself is by far the most significant event in Korea. Neither side has devised a formula for breaking out of its impasse without precipitating events fraught with even greater dangers. Korea is the site of a sitzkrieg, an unstable equilibrium which, for the moment, suits the needs of both sides.

Peiping-Moscow cannot undertake a military offensive aimed at throwing the Americans off the peninsula, as was the original war objective of the Chinese. Having attempted this twice they have found the cost too high, more than they can afford. The Chinese tacitly admit this in the negotiations by their insistence on the right to build unlimited airfields in the North. They are saying that until they have air superiority they cannot go further in making concessions. And for this same reason the UN negotiators have been adamant in refusing Chinese demands.

Inside China, the Peiping regime has conducted a vigorous campaign of forced subscriptions for the purchase of airplanes. The official claim is that “donations” have been made for over 2,000 planes. Mao is thereby proclaiming, beside the patriotism of his Chinese subjects, that he has to pay, and pay plenty and in advance, for his purchases of planes and other war materiel from his ally in Moscow. While it has not been too difficult to exact contributions for planes from the Chinese, Mao is silent on how many he has managed to obtain from the Russians. There are other indications, too, that Stalin has not been exactly open-handed about distributing warplanes.

An intensified struggle in Korea must assume losses in materiel on a large scale, including aircraft. To launch such an all-out struggle, Mao would need two things he does not have: planes, and the fields from which to launch them. In other words, China suffers from the technical inferiority of its economy and from the hesitancy of its ally, which is not now ready to broaden the military struggle in Asia and raise the curtain on the traditional Russian bugbear of a two-front war.

There are other reasons, equally potent, for this hesitation to take the final plunge. Peiping does not underestimate the seriousness of Washington’s threats to bombard the continent and clamp a blockade on the coast and to level Manchuria’s vital industries by air bombing. In such a struggle, China would be just as bogged down in Korea as the United States. Its freedom of action in other parts of Asia would be ended.

The entire Stalinist empire would have to reorient toward such an eventuality and reorganize itself on a war footing. Events would no longer be controllable but subject to the uncertainties of war. Russia would at least have to gear its industries and transport for this Eastern conflict, even if it were fought with Chinese soldiers exclusively. All this would happen at a time when Stalinism has once again, after a lapse of several years, begun to advance by political means in South Asia and the Middle East. Such a war might prove much harder to “contain” than the present limited engagement in Korea. Fortunately the time for such ultimate folly is not yet.

America may have the physical means to make a big advance in Korea. (We say, may, because not being military experts, we have no way of knowing what commitments this would require and what other commitments have already been made for other parts of the world.) Having twice traversed almost the full length of the peninsula, it is not surprising that Washington should be reluctant to undertake another such adventure.

Any sharp advance by U.S. troops would widen the already deep disagreements among its allies. Every advance creates more problems than it solves and a “complete” victory, such as MacArthur desired, would really put the fat in the fire. MacArthur’s strong point was his assertion that the object of war is to win and his charge that the administration did not have this goal hit home and was never answered directly. The weakness in his plan was that it was purely military. If Truman could give no satisfactory reply to MacArthur’s query on the military objective of the struggle, neither could MacArthur say what should be done with a victory.

The purpose of a military advance would be at least doubtful. Could it be to follow through on Syngman Rhee’s desire to “unify” Korea? Or to drive the Stalinists out? Or the more limited object of forcing the Chinese to sue for peace? The trouble with all these aims is that their achievement would hardly solve the present quandary.

Americans troops on the Yalu would mean an even larger military force permanently stationed on this untenable and destroyed land, which yields nothing of its own and must receive every tiny item from across the Pacific. Military government would have to remain indefinitely, as no one, least of all the military, trust Rhee to govern. (MacArthur proved this point succinctly when he rejected a Washington offer to arm larger South Korean forces.) Complete American occupation would broaden the area of civil war behind the lines. So long as the U.S. does not have any native base on which to rely it will remain committed in Korea to maintaining a large armed force capable of coping with an irremovable Stalinist cancer.

The initiative would remain with Stalinism in any case, which could at will create new situations behind the lines, in South Asia, or anywhere along the vast perimeter of its power. The entire U.S. position would remain defensive, as it has been, not in a military sense alone, but equally in a political sense.

Even if the objective were limited, as many have proposed, to just a large enough effort to force the Chinese to become more amenable to American truce terms, and if this object were achieved, the result would only ratify what is already an accomplished fact – an unstable equilibrium along the front. The principle underlying America’s limited military aims have been repeatedly stated by government spokesmen and most recently in his State of the Union address, President Truman declared: “We must and we will keep up the fight there (Korea) until we get the kind of armistice that will put an end to the aggression and protect the safety of our forces and the security of the Republic of Korea. Beyond that we shall continue to work for a settlement in Korea that upholds the principles of the United Nations ... These are our aims. We will not give up until we attain them.” The possibilities can then be reduced to this: there is still little likelihood of any change in the present situation until the Stalinists agree to an armistice and what America wants in Korea is a truce and not a victory. Basically this means that the Stalinists must agree not to use a truce to rearm for a renewal of the war (“protect the safety of our forces”). The U.S. will expect some kind of guarantee as assurance of good faith. The Chinese can have this kind of a peace at any time by asking for it.

“The principles of the UN” were spelled out subsequently by Washington as “united, democratic and independent Korea.” With past experience in mind, i.e., before the cold war and in the honeymoon period among the wartime allies which ended finally in a tragically divided Korea, it seems unlikely that the discussion stage of this subject will ever be reached. If it is, the discussion can hardly have a happier ending than the first time. In the long run the U.S. must decide either to continue indefinitely to squat in Korea waiting for the Third World War when the peninsula can be properly declared untenable, or, what is less probable, leave before then as a result of a complete global agreement with Stalinism. There remains also a possibility desired by some political circles here to simply abandon Korea. But all this is to come much later, if at all.

The reluctance of both parties to break off current negotiations despite frequent charges of bad faith and worse, is, under the circumstances, rooted in the reality that there is no way out. Since outside of testing the relative combat efficiency of each other’s jets and occasional patrol actions, there is little activity on the front. There is also no overwhelming pressure to achieve a formal truce. At the same time, a truce always remains a possibility. Renewal of the war, however, would mean that new, over-riding considerations had become determining factors.

Adding irony to the Korean tragedy is this: that for both sides original war objectives have been by-passed by events. The Stalinists launched their invasion and the Chinese entered the war to clear Korea of the last American continental base in Northern Asia. In this way they also sought to nullify, or at least minimize, the effects of a re-armed Japan. Stalinist might, poised at Pusan, would have been a great threat to the Japanese, strengthening their reluctance to become a floating aircraft carrier. The entire power relationship in the Northern Pacific would have been altered. Mao thought, in addition, to gain Formosa and acceptance into the UN.

On their face these aims are no longer meaningful. While Japan’s position is far from firmly jelled into the fixed American mold constructed by J.F. Dulles, it is no longer susceptible, at least for the time being, to the kind of pressures the Stalinists were prepared to exert. Formosa and the UN seat are further removed than ever from Mao’s grasp. To this negative degree, Truman has successfully realized his own aims in Korea. Stalinism has not succeeded – that’s what needs to be recognized as the limit of the Truman-Acheson accomplishment.


If Stalinism, however, has been frustrated, it has been at great cost and without tangible or permanent results in the great world struggle, and in Asia particularly. If Stalinism, too, has suffered tremendous losses in Korea, it has made great political strides in Asia, and retains the favorable opinion of most Asians on its own acts in Korea.

Washington’s responses remain defensive with regard to Asia. They are retaliatory, after-the-fact reactions, rather than actions taken from prepared political positions. Entry into the Korean war was itself the best example of this. The fundamental difficulty that undermines the best American intentions remains its inability to achieve an identification with Asia’s social aims and achievements, whereas Stalinism does achieve some measure of it in a tyrannical and destructive fashion. All the gnashing of teeth and frustration which occurs in the State Department’s policy-making sessions, the feeling that pervades there that whatever one does somehow turns out wrong or is misinterpreted even by friends (whether Point Four Aid is granted or refused, whether wheat is shipped or not, whether a firm stand is taken to repel Stalinist invasion or a hands-off policy is announced, whether support is given to Chiang or not) arises from the fact that in Asian eyes the United States is opposed to or does not understand the profound needs of Asia for a new civilization based on democratized social relations, which can be the lever for emancipation from poverty.

The struggle for Asia, and that now means South Asia, has become one of the decisive factors in the Korean conflict. While the Korean war has reached a stalemate in the broadest sense, a new factor has now entered, however, which far outweighs any of the obsolete considerations which caused the war in the first place. That is Southeast Asia.

For the time being, Washington has succeeded in strategically stabilizing the Pacific through the series of interlocking pacts around the Japanese treaty. Japan itself, the Philippines, Formosa, New Zealand and Australia have been tied in with American military, naval and air power and are not now susceptible to Stalinist attack from without, although Stalinism is a powerful force inside the Philippines, could become one on Formosa.

In order to get acceptance of these agreements among its friends, the U.S. studiously separated out the many serious problems over which there are conflicts and differences. The pacts ignore the question of what is China, the mainland or Formosa, and the Japanese treaty actually leaves determination of this to Japan, China’s former enemy. The fate of Formosa is put over to an indefinite future date. Japanese reparations are granted under circumstances which will almost certainly never arise. Japanese rearmament remains a question mark, while in all of Asia Japan alone is to have permanent U.S. bases. China and Russia were carefully excluded from the treaties which are actually military alliances. In establishing a Pacific policy, the U.S. carefully and unmistakeably directed it against Russia and China, ignored the desires of its own allies, postponed all political and economic questions as matters to be dealt with separately and piecemeal, and limited the objectives of its international relations in the region to its own strategic necessity. This is hardly a clarion call to the oppressed and scarcely conducive to convincing Asia of our peaceful intentions.

The strategic weakness in this arrangement is that it is an off-shore alignment pitted against a continent on which Stalinism remains entrenched and as such the new Pacific pacts do not come to grips with the power problems of Asia, let alone the basic social and political ones. Even within the military and strategic framework which determines American foreign policy Washington has yet to devise a formula for the prevention of Stalinist aggression in Asia. That it has not been able to do so goes back to its fatal Achilles heel of being alien to all the new aspirations which now moves Asia.

America’s allies in Asia are Chiang’s Formosa, Rhee’s rump state, Bao Dai and the French in Indo-China, the British in Malaya, and undoubtedly Pibul Songraam in Thailand can be bought. Hardly an impressive array, particularly since the first four are already heavily engaged on their own and could hardly add strength to the U.S. but require considerable reinforcement themselves. The independent nations of the area remain reluctant to align themselves in this world struggle and view the U.S. off-shore strategy with mingled fear and misgivings.

Two tests have already been made of this new strategic orientation. One is the war in Indo-China and Stalinist guerrilla wars elsewhere in the region. The new alliances have not affected these in any manner. Second, the danger of a Chinese invasion of South Asia through Indo-China. The U.S. did not and cannot activate its grand Pacific design to meet this immediate threat.

Washington acts in South Asia with the conception that any change in existing regimes creates a vacuum; that vacuums are abhorrent equally to nature, Stalinism and to itself; therefore it must prevent any change in the status quo so that no opportunity will be created for Stalinism which would require American intervention. The present states, regardless of their nature, are preferable to any change. A date has been drawn across the calendar: after Indonesian independence no more. That was the last national movement Washington deigned to recognize. This idea is hardly acceptable to Asians.

In this vast and populous area, with few allies among the people and dependent on foreign troops to hold the dike, Washington’s recourse, in case of Stalinist attack whether from within or without, would probably be the same as in Korea: intervention by full scale military means although it would prefer to do this through its allies. That is precisely what the United States has stated it will do in the United Nations Assembly.

That is why South Asia is the new shadow that looms over the Korean battlefield. Regardless of the on-the-spot outcome of the Korean war, Northern Asia is lost to the U.S. The prize for all contenders is now in the South, the only region that remains as yet outside both camps. The fate of Korea may very well be decided here and not in the frozen mountains of the peninsula. Korea was a pawn to begin with; it now becomes a pawn twice removed. Both parties will determine their attitudes toward a truce in Korea by their needs in the South. And conversely, the Chinese may determine whether or not to march in Indo-China on the basis of their needs in Korea. Korea and Southeast Asia are increasingly parts of an integrated picture, with their futures dynamically interrelated.


Two problems now dominate Asian international politics: how to end the Korean war and how to prevent Stalinism from advancing. We have seen that any projection of American policy into the future in this area indicates the same type of ineffectual and destructive outcome as has been true since the end of the Second World War. The American answer remains limited to the application of its superiority of force with a dash of Point Four dollars. Without Washington’s support British and French imperialism could hardly retain their remaining holds. It is also apparent that neither the West nor Stalinism can bring peace to Korea.

If a truce is finally achieved in that battered land Korea will remain divided, occupied, and militarized. Peace will remain a remote hope. And as long as there is no peace in Korea all Asia is threatened with extension of the war. Asia’s independent nations cannot hope to hold on to their Third Camp attitude by keeping aloof from this problem, for the problem is palpable and threatening. It must be said frankly that Free Asia’s Third Camp diplomacy is akin to an ostrich-like avoidance of the Korean reality, leaving the fate of that nation to its destroyers. India’s greatest contribution to the Korean situation, outside of some backstage work, has consisted of deploring – most often correctly – Washington’s actions. But India has yet to state clearly what it would like to work for in Korea. It is doubtful if avoidance of problems will suffice, since both sides in Korea eye South Asia as the next target.

When Nehru organized the last Asian Conference in Delhi he “solved” the question of whom to invite from Indo-China by inviting no one. The sum of India’s expressed feelings about la guerre salle in that colony is that France should get out and let Asians solve Asia’s problems, although even this idea finds only unofficial and sotto voce expression. In this respect, Truman is more alert to the realities of Stalinism than Nehru is willing to be. Free Asia correctly rejects the West’s formulation of the Stalinist problem as one of repelling it by force. This remains solely a negative attitude unless it is accompanied by an alternative. The threat of Stalinism to South Asia’s independence is just as real as Washington’s military imperialism, but realization of this fact is not present, nor does it appear to be emerging as yet. In truth, the new governments of South Asia are all thereby mired down in domestic problems with which they have shown slight capacity to cope. From this base they are unable as yet to lead internationally, despite the implicit catastrophe. The Third Camp of South Asian nations is still inert and afraid, not yet a dynamic force. In the meantime, Mao’s voice claims to speak for all Asia, with growing effectiveness.

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