The U.S. Response to the Korean Invasion of 1950: A Study of Predetermined Policy Implementation and Unintended Consequences
On June 25, 1950, the Cold War turned hot. The battleground was Korea, a country divided into U.S.-Soviet spheres of influence since 1945, and hostilities were initiated when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Acting on the assumption that the North Korean government was a Kremlin puppet regime, and the invasion therefore a clear case of Soviet-backed Communist aggression (Hunt, p 5), the U.S. response was swift. President Truman committed U.S. air and naval forces to the defense of Korea on June 27, and ordered U.S. ground troops based in Japan to proceed to Korea on June 30 (Ambrose, p 121).
However, the U.S. response to the June 25 invasion also included a series of other regional foreign policy steps which went far beyond what was necessary for the immediate defense of South Korea. The U.S. Seventh Fleet was dispatched to the waters surrounding Formosa (Taiwan), ostensibly to prevent any Chinese communist attack on Formosa. U.S. forces stationed in the Philippines were strengthened and increased military aid was provided to the Philippine government, at the time engaged in crushing the nationalist peasant Huk movement (Ambrose, p 119/Document 14). U.S. military aid was also further extended to the French, then fighting Ho Chi Minh's nationalist Vietminh in Indochina.
Taken together, these additional steps lend credence to the hypothesis that the outbreak of fighting in Korea presented U.S. policymakers with a pretext for implementing previously-agreed upon Cold War foreign policy objectives. Meeting with President Truman and his other advisors on June 25 and 26, Secretary of State Acheson was quick to spell out the numerous additional steps he thought should be taken to ensure regional security as part of the U.S. response to the Korean invasion, obviously initiatives long-planned and agreed to without debate or surprise from the President.
No wonder, since they fit perfectly with the foreign policy prescriptions contained within the Truman Administration's own NSC 68 of April, 1950, which essentially called for the U.S. "to assume unilaterally the defense of the non-Communist world...to assume the role of world policeman" (Ambrose, p 113). This meant a doubling or tripling of the U.S. defense budget, which stood at less than $13 billion in 1950 (Ambrose, p 112).
At this point in Cold War history, two of Truman's political objectives converged: the need to justify such greatly increased defense expenditures and his political need in the face of then-emerging McCarthyism to prove to the country that he and the Democrats were not soft on Communism. A Communist tide seemed to be rising in the Far East: Japanese Communist demonstrations against American military bases in Japan; the fall of China to the CCP and subsequent Nationalist retreat to Formosa, where a Chinese Communist invasion seemed imminent; full-scale civil war in Vietnam between the French and Communist/Nationalist Vietminh; "petty dictator" Syngman Rhee's loss of popular support in U.S.-backed South Korea and growing demands for immediate unification from the Communist-controlled North (Ambrose, p 116-118). It was obvious to Truman that bolstering his anti-Communist credentials and "the whole package envisioned in NSC 68, in short, could be wrapped up and tied with a ribbon by an Asian crisis" (Ambrose, p 116).
This does not imply that the North Korean invasion was a U.S.-fabricated event, as most historians have labeled the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964 - although a case could be made that U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson may have encouraged the North Koreans to act by making public statements to the effect that South Korea was strategically peripheral to the U.S. Nor does it point to the existence of a conspiracy in the Truman Administration to hide these other regional foreign policy initiatives from the U.S. public. The additional steps taken by the U.S. in the days following June 25 were initially justified as necessary in case the Korean invasion was only a prelude to a wider regional conflict (Hunt, p 5). In any event, these measures were all in keeping with previous publicly stated U.S. Cold War containment aims.
Regardless, these additional security measures had long-range consequences for U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, increased military and intelligence aid to the Philippine government resulted in U.S.-guided suppression of the nationalist Huk movement, a peasant movement based more around legitimate land reform grievances than Marxist-Leninist ideology. It laid the groundwork for direct U.S. involvement in the election of a string of Philippine rulers more responsive to U.S. interests than the interests of their own people, the first being Ramon Magsaysay (elected in 1953), and later, the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos (Bonner, p 38-44).
In Vietnam, the extension of U.S. military aid to the French announced by President Truman on June 27, 1950 marked the beginning of three decades of tragic U.S. involvement in Indochina. This particular initiative, ostensibly aimed at containing communism and thus protecting U.S. interests, would ultimately bear fruit in the form of more than 58,000 American lives lost, over 300,000 wounded, an estimated 1.6 million civilian and military Vietnamese deaths, more than 2 million killed in Cambodia during the turmoil of the 1970s, and a total cost to the U.S. government over twenty-five years of more than $150 billion in pre-1975 dollars (Vadney, p 341).
The preceding facts and statistics underscore the lesson inherent in this tale of unintended consequences. In the long-term interests of our nation's security and relations with the world around us, American policymakers must learn the wisdom of allowing policies conceived behind closed doors to undergo vigorous public debate before proceeding with their implementation.