THE cold war took a decisive turn when communist North Korea
launched its invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. For US
policymakers at the time, and many historians since, the attack was
conclusive evidence of the Soviet Union's global, aggressive aims.
In the years and the conflicts that followed, from Berlin to
Vietnam, Washington's goal was to "prevent another Korea."
But evidence presented at a conference here by Russian and US
scholars, based on recently opened Soviet archives, casts doubt on
that cold war doctrine.
The historians resolved a long-standing mystery, revealing
conclusive proof that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin approved of the
invasion plan. But those documents also show that Stalin did so
only after repeated requests from the North Korean leadership,
which was backed by the newly victorious Chinese Communists.
Perhaps as important, Stalin's approval was based on the mistaken
belief that the United States would not enter the conflict.
The joint US-Russian conference "On New Evidence on Cold War
History" produced many new revelations about key moments in the
superpower confrontation, including the Berlin crisis of 1958-61,
the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958, and the Vietnam War. From all of
these emerges a pattern of Soviet behavior that runs contrary to
the cold war image of a bloc tightly controlled and orchestrated by
Moscow. Instead Moscow was often compelled to act by its erstwhile
clients, a case, as one scholar put it, of "the tail wagging the
Many of the documents aired here come out of the Storage Center
for Contemporary Documentation, which houses the records of the
Soviet Communist Party Central Committee from 1952-1991. The center
and the Russian Institute of Universal History are working with the
Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars in the US to open these documents.
The conference, held Jan. 12-15 in Moscow, also made clear,
however, how much Soviet-era material remains closed. Almost all
the documents reflecting decision-making at the highest level, the
Soviet Politburo, remain in the Presidential Archive, a closed
collection under the control of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
The archives of the KGB and the Army's General Staff also are
sealed to outside use. Russian scholars presenting papers on the
Cuban missile crisis, for example, complained that they still have
no direct knowledge of the Soviet leadership's deliberations.
While acknowledging this, US scholars are hopeful that the new
openings will be followed up.
"It's a beginning, a good one, for Russian historiography of the
cold war and a beginning for reconsideration of Western
historiography of this period," Soviet specialist Raymond Garthoff
of the Brookings Institution says of the new research.
N. Korea pressed Moscow
In the case of the Korean War, a key piece of the historical
puzzle was contained in a 10-page report on the history of the
Korean War prepared in 1966 for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. It
reveals that from the beginning of 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il
Sung sent almost 50 telegrams to Stalin seeking support for plans
to unify Korea by military means.
Mr. Kim presented a three-stage plan for war. …