It was a grim autumn. The United States was trapped in an increasingly unpopular conflict, with much of the nation's military strength committed to a grinding, seemingly endless struggle. America was confronted by a dangerous new enemy in the world, but critics on both sides of the political spectrum argued that the current battleground was far from the best theater in which to confront it. At the United Nations, the Security' Council was in gridlock as other powers stymied U.S. initiatives. America's allies, including the British, whose troops were fighting beside the Americans, were growing more and more uncomfortable with Washington's bellicose rhetoric, worrying that the Americans' loud talk would inflame the entire region. The United States could reassure itself with the thought that it beaded an international coalition, but this was cold comfort when the U.S. Treasury was paying most of the bills for the foreign troops and local forces. There was no easy way out. Americans realized that military action had committed them inescapably to a prolonged effort to reconstruct and modernize a distant land. To abandon a country shattered by war and decades of authoritarian role would be a poor advertisement for the type of political and economic system the United States wanted to promote.
But the situation in South Korea would improve the following year. Events in 1953 would diminish, to some extent, the anxieties that had marked the end of 1952. Exhaustion on both sides of the conflict brought a tenuous truce. Joseph Stalin's death in March prompted changes in Soviet strategy. In Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower took office, bringing with him a fresh approach to the Korean conflict, and in New York a new UN secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, began to revive the organization's reputation, which had declined under his predecessor, Trygve Lie. But even as the military side of the conflict lurched to a conclusion with the signing of an armistice in July 1953, and a degree of equilibrium returned to international politics, the United States was forced to confront once again its seemingly open-ended commitment to building a modern nation-state in South Korea.
That commitment had begun suddenly--almost accidentally--in 1945. We've forgotten today just how deep it has been and how much it has cost in blood and treasure. By 1980, the Republic of Korea had received $6 billion in nonmilitary aid from the United States, much of it during 20 years of intensive effort in South Korea between 1945 and 1965. But the development programs weren't about dollars only. America aimed to remake many aspects of South Korean life in order to lay the foundation for a modern society on a Western model. It was a process subject to constant alteration, negotiation, and opposition.
American involvement in Korea began in the backwash of World War II, but it took on increasing significance as the global Cold War evolved. Success in Korea would allow the United States to prove to the world the superiority of its approach to development. After Japan's defeat in World War II, American and Soviet troops rushed into the power vacuum that bad been created in northeastern ,Asia. Korea was abruptly freed from the colonial rule to which it had been subject since annexation by Japan in 1910. A hasty decision in August 1945 split the peninsula into a Soviet sphere of influence in the North and an American zone in the South. In a late-night meeting at the State Department, Americans suggested the 38th parallel as the boundary between the two--and were surprised when the Soviets accepted. They should riot have been. The demarcation resembled an agreement made some 50 years earlier between Japan and tsarist Russia when both were wing for dominance in Korea.
For the Americans, stability in the South was essential to counter a communist-controlled North and to carry out the larger U.S. strategy in East Asia at a time of uncertainty and peril in the region. …