Academic journal article International Social Science Review

The Wrong War: The Soviets and the Korean War, 1945-1953

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

The Wrong War: The Soviets and the Korean War, 1945-1953

Article excerpt

Introduction

General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1951 called America's deepening involvement in the Korean conflict, "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." (1) He was concerned that the U.S. had entered the war without sufficient consideration of its consequences, and that the widening commitments there might distract from the more important military task of deterring possible Soviet attacks in Western Europe. For almost everyone involved, the Korean War was indeed the wrong war: something they did not want, that they participated in only reluctantly. Engaged in a bruising political fight over the "loss" of the Kuomintang regime on the Chinese Mainland, the Truman Administration felt compelled to resist communist "aggression." The French and British went along in Korea in order for the sake of the infant Atlantic Alliance. The new Chinese leaders, having just won their revolution, hardly needed a major war, but could not countenance Western troops on their Yalu River border. Several times the war drove the two regimes on the Korean peninsula to near-collapse. After three years of grinding destruction, both sides were forced to settle for essentially the status quo ante bellum. The war was thus both profound tragedy and horrifying proxy for World War III. (2)

For the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was definitely the wrong war. Officially neutral, the Soviets nonetheless were vilified by both sides. U.S. officials saw Stalin as the puppet master for the Communist side, while the Chinese resented being the water carrier for the socialist camp and (along with their North Korean allies) grumbled about inadequate Soviet supply efforts. A newly minted superpower, the Soviet Union was reduced to handwringing from the sidelines, in constant fear of confrontation with America. Believing his junior ally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), would have little trouble defeating the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, Soviet leader Josef Stalin apparently gave his consent to a DPRK attack. Miscalculating possible U.S. responses, he quickly distanced himself from the war, while seeking a negotiated end to the potentially threatening conflict. He nonetheless supported Chinese intervention in order to keep American forces away from the Soviet border. (3)

Since the conflict ended, the genesis of the war has been viewed in scholarly literature from at least three different points of view. Until the 1970s, the prevailing view held that the war was planned in Moscow and heavily supported by Beijing, and began with an unprovoked attack by the North. Decisions were taken within the realm of high politics, i.e., they were driven primarily by concerns for national interests and national security. Revisionists in the 1980s, influenced by the Vietnam War experience, asserted that the conflict was part of an ongoing Korean civil war, and that the North Koreans did not depend greatly on their Russian and Chinese allies in the opening stages. Revisionist scholarship focused more on domestic factors than international relations in decision making. The release of Russian and Chinese documents in the 1990s returned attention to the centrality of high level decision making, as it added nuance and shading to earlier images of the war. Stalin, Mao, and Kim indeed made most of the key decisions that led to war, but recent literature on the war, notably by Sergei Goncharov, et al. and Kathryn Weathersby, suggest that a more nuanced approach focused on key leaders provides the best insights into how the decisions were made. (4)

How were the key decisions that shaped the war taken? Were nation-state, bureaucratic, or individual actors most important? This article indicates that, in the Korean case, Stalin was the key decision maker, and only he had the power to determine whether war would be launched. Mao and Kim were secondary players, the former through his endorsement of the attack, and Kim through his constant urging of forceful reunification of Korea from 1949 onward. …

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