Lessons from the Korean War to consider in this tense moment [column] | Local Voices

When Vladimir Putin began his brutal invasion of Ukraine, alarm bells went off in the West. A new Cold War loomed, more complex and challenging than before. China, Russia and Iran had long since shown their teeth. However, this Second Cold War has taken on a deadly guise with the Ukrainian devastation and horror before our eyes. What can we learn from 45 years of original Cold War combat? A lot, I think.

Harry Truman’s administration learned from its early mistakes and successfully engineered the architecture to continue the Cold War. The Korean War, a pivotal moment, contains lessons for the war now taking place in Ukraine.

Lesson One: Don’t tell your enemy what you won’t do. In June 1950, with Joseph Stalin’s blessing and support, North Korea launched a military invasion of South Korea. Earlier, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the army in Japan, publicly signaled that South Korea was not within the American defense perimeter. American occupying forces had left South Korea in early 1950, and Congress had delayed military aid. Just as President Joe Biden assured Putin that the US would not send troops to Ukraine, the Truman administration publicly stated that we would not. Both presidents rued the day.

Lesson Two: Separating vital interests from peripheral interests is extraordinarily complex. Truman’s decision to intervene in support of South Korea, supported by all of his senior advisers, reflected an immediate recognition of this complexity. Leaving certain allies, like South Korea, in limbo while protecting others with binding treaties is a line drawn not in the sand, but in the water.

America’s credibility and its willingness to defend vital interests in Japan and NATO were at stake in Korea. Giving up an ally, regardless of the legal understanding, unsettles the others. Truman and Acheson understood this immediately and considered failure in Korea unthinkable. If Ukraine does not receive continued support from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, how would the new Eastern European NATO members assess the stability of this alliance? Such economic and military aid must be sustained and effective, as was the case in Korea.

Lesson Three: Bring as many allies into battle as possible. Acheson persuaded Truman to call for a UN Security Council resolution to demand a North Korean withdrawal and to invite UN members to support South Korea’s defenses. After the Soviets withdrew from the Security Council for refusing to give Communist China a seat, the UN was able to comply.

It was more than a paper commitment. Numerous nations provided military and non-combat support. By August 1950, 9,000 non-US and non-South Korean troops were in Korea, with another 27,000 en route.

When Poland offered to send MiG fighters to Ukraine, Biden should have found a way to do it. These moves would encourage other allies to do more.

Lesson four: Terrorist bombing takes unnecessary lives and cannot win a war on its own. The United States learned this in Korea (and later Vietnam), and Putin may be learning it now. Truman ordered air and sea forces to assist the retreating South Koreans. More importantly, MacArthur was to lead US troops under his command in Japan into combat on the ground.

For several months these measures seemed insufficient. MacArthur’s troops were occupying forces in Japan and not ready for combat. The massive bombardment of North Korean cities has done little to halt their army, just as brutal Russian bombing has failed to end Ukrainian resistance.

By August 1950, American, South Korean, and other Allied troops were defending a small perimeter around the port of Pusan.

Lesson Five: When a bully says he will do something, he often does it. MacArthur’s successful invasion of Inchon Harbor north of Seoul enabled the now reinforced Allied forces to break out of the Pusan ​​perimeter and advance north.

Originally, the United Nations and the United States had said that the intervention was intended to protect South Korea’s sovereignty and not to unify Korea. MacArthur’s rapid military success gave the Truman administration dreams of uniting Korea. The UN General Assembly agreed and endorsed this new war aim.

Caution was overtaken by over-optimism and another misjudgment followed. Mao Zedong had warned through intermediaries that if UN forces crossed the 38th parallel, Chinese forces would intervene. MacArthur rebuffed this threat, continued north with the support of the Truman administration, and foolishly dispersed his troops when they reached the Manchurian border. Chinese troops poured in, driving Allied forces south of the 38th parallel. Not taking Mao seriously led to a protracted conflict.

Putin made it clear that he would invade Ukraine if she did not accept his neutrality and disarmament terms. Forewarned is armed. The Biden administration, like the Truman administration with Mao, has not taken Putin at face value. The Biden administration should have given the Ukrainians the level of military support to turn this country into a porcupine for any potential invader.

Lesson Six: Wage a war with a clear and limited strategic purpose and understand its broader meaning. Faced with Chinese intervention, MacArthur wanted to escalate the war, bombing Chinese bases in Manchuria, blockading the Chinese coast and arming Nationalist troops to wage guerrilla warfare in mainland China.

Acheson saw the war in a broader context, arguing that resuming the Chinese Civil War would shatter the NATO alliance and begin an endless struggle. Truman took Acheson’s advice and eventually fired MacArthur, who had publicly challenged the President. The war was confined to the Korean Peninsula, and American and South Korean troops fought for two years before an armistice was signed, mostly on American terms.

The United States, NATO and the Ukrainians must wage war within borders, which requires a fine line to walk.

Lesson Seven: Prepare the American people for a long struggle, ask them to make sacrifices and put steel in their spines. When the Korean War began, the Truman administration understood that America needed to remobilize, which Acheson had long insisted on doing.

The defense budget tripled from $14 billion to nearly $43 billion, tenders doubled, the navy and air force expanded, and additional army divisions went to Western Europe. Even though gross national product and personal income were a fraction of what they are today and five years away from World War II, the American people supported every move.

Our opponents in Russia are more brutal and ruthless; in China they are richer and more calculated; and in Iran they are led by religious extremists. Truman and his successors have been steadfast in their struggle, as has the public. Do we have such leadership today? Are the American people as tough and self-sacrificing as these generations? we are better

Robert J. Bresler is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at Penn State Harrisburg. He lives in East Hempfield Township.

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