The Forgotten Attempts to End the Forgotten War: Congress, Korea, and McCarthyism

By Blomstedt, Larry W. | The Historian, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Attempts to End the Forgotten War: Congress, Korea, and McCarthyism


Blomstedt, Larry W., The Historian


NEARING THE EIGHTH anniversary of America's war in Afghanistan, one U.S. senator declared, "I and the American people cannot tolerate more troops without some commitment about when this perceived occupation will end." (1) After several months of public debate over an increasingly unpopular war, President Obama announced his decision to increase troop levels while setting a tentative timeline for their withdrawal, resolving--for now--the latest struggle between Congress and the President over the conduct of a limited war. More than a half-century earlier, Rep. Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), expressed similar concerns about another seemingly stalemated war detested by many Americans, declaring, "Korea has become a meat grinder of American manhood." (2)

The wars in Afghanistan and Korea both proved problematic due to hazy definitions of victory and dwindling public support over time. Yet, these conflicts were fought and debated in very different political environments. The Korean intervention of 1950 coincided with the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communism crusade, giving his quest a significant shot in the arm. Political dissent, particularly on the issue of communism, was widely perceived to be a dangerous thing. Many viewed President Harry Truman's decision to intervene as a long-overdue response to the spread of communism. No one in Congress would dare suggest a peaceful resolution to the war short of unconditional surrender of the enemy, making them vulnerable to the dreaded "soft-on-communism" label. But they nevertheless did.

Scholars have analyzed the roles of the President and Congress in the formulation and execution of policy during the Korean War with one important exception. Most research has examined the decision to go to war, arguing the degrees to which Truman bypassed the legislature or demonstrating how Congress abdicated its constitutional responsibility to declare war. However, researchers have not fully studied how legislators tried to get the U.S. out of the conflict, a topic of special pertinence against the backdrop of McCarthyism. The best work to date on this topic is Rosemary Foot's A Substitute for Victory, which concentrates on how American domestic politics affected the conduct of the formal armistice talks that began in Kaesong in July 1951. (3) Overlooked thus far, however, are the ways that members of Congress tried to get the U.S. and its enemies to the armistice table in the first place.

This article examines how lawmakers tried to end the war during the Truman presidency. How did members of Congress respond to peace overtures by the enemy prior to the Kaesong talks? What was the nature of Congressional efforts to stop the fighting? Did their proposals influence the administration? Of particular interest is how these lawmakers could openly recommend ending the Korean conflict short of total victory during the height of McCarthyism. Several historians argue that the anti-communist vitriol of the day squelched most criticism of the war, yet legislators from both parties felt secure enough to push the nation towards peace. The answers reveal proposals ranging from the bizarre to the pragmatic to the idealistic as Capitol Hill, like the White House, struggled to simultaneously stop the shooting and claim victory without the unconditional surrender of the Communists. (4)

PEACE PROPOSALS DUPONG THE EARLY WAR, JUNE--DECEMBER 1950

A couple of congressmen advocated ending the fighting less than two months into the war. In August 1950, Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-FL) recommended to Truman that he ask the Russians to accept a cease-fire, and to allow the U.N. to station police forces throughout the Korean peninsula to oversee free elections. (5) Bennett, a freshman congressman, admitted the proposal was a long shot. Nevertheless, he was naive to suggest it, given that Soviet refusal to accept such elections had hardened the division of Korea in the first place. …

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