September 6, 2007
In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 22, President Bush made an unprecedented appeal to history to support his policies on Iraq and Afghanistan. While it was atypical for him to make any reference to history at all, it was typical for him not to reason from premise to conclusion: Thanks to American occupation after World War II, he summarily stated, Japan was transformed from a totalitarian state into a thriving democracy; thanks to American intervention, South Korea was not overrun by the North and became an economic powerhouse; and conversely, thanks to the anti-war movement, South Vietnam was overrun by the North, causing "agonies" to "millions of innocent citizens." History in the Bush mind is a simple "was/is," with no steps in between — very much like his "was/will be" vision of a democratic Iraq.
His use of history in this speech was, of course, not analytic but polemic: to denounce naysayers in Congress and the press, past and present. "Will today’s generation of Americans," he asked, "Resist the lure of retreat, and will we do in the Middle East what the veterans in this room did in Asia?"
Despite his omissions, or even because of them, the speech is valuable as a challenge to refresh our own historical knowledge and memory and do the reasoning that he refuses to do. It’s a ready-made assignment for a history class.
In last week’s column I tried to fill in Bush’s blanks on post-war Japan, concluding that its dramatic transformation into a Western-style democracy was the result of a comprehensive American reorganization and re-education plan for Japanese society, something entirely lacking in the administration’s policy on Iraq.
What about his history lesson on Korea? "After the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950," Bush begins, "President Harry Truman came to the defense of the South." Not true; the United Nations did it. Rather than bypassing the U.N. as Bush did in invading Iraq, Truman immediately went to the Security Council for resolutions condemning the Communist aggression and requesting member nations to assist the Republic of South Korea in its self-defense. Though the U.S. was given overall command of the operations and supplied much of the manpower and equipment, 15 other U.N. members sent troops and over 50 contributed medical or economic aid.
On July 19, 1950, less than a month after the Communist invasion began, Truman addressed the nation on TV. As David McCulloch writes in his biography, Truman, the president stressed that American forces "were fighting under a U.N. command and a U.N. flag, and this was ‘a landmark in mankind’s long search for a rule of law among nations.’"
"Nor was he the least evasive about what would be asked of the country," McCulloch continues. "The ‘job’ was long and difficult. It meant increased taxes, rationing if necessary, ‘stern days ahead.’" Contrast the Bush approach to national commitment to "getting the job done" in Iraq.
But what was the job in Korea? After pushing the invading forces back across the 38th parallel in October of 1950, U.N. commander Douglas MacArthur proposed continuing the drive northward to unite the two Koreas. Since unification was an expressed goal of the United Nations that had been blocked by the Soviet Union, Truman agreed. Then Communist China entered the conflict, surprising the advancing U.N. forces, driving them down, and eventually retaking much of the South. MacArthur pleaded to employ Nationalist Chinese troops from Taiwan and even to use up to 50 atomic bombs to take out major cities on the Chinese mainland. As summarized by McCulloch, General George Marshall warned Truman that "the United States must not get ‘sewed up’ in Korea, but find a way to ‘get out with honor.’" "There was no doubt in my mind," Truman later wrote, "that we should not allow the action in Korea to extend to a general war. All-out military action against China had to be avoided, if for no other reason than because it was a gigantic booby trap." He reconsidered the unification goal, and when MacArthur questioned his judgment, Truman fired him.
MacArthur was unrepentant. In his "old soldiers never die" farewell speech to Congress in April of 1951, he defiantly declared: "In war, indeed, there can be no substitute for victory. There were some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China. They were blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches, with unmistakable emphasis, that appeasement begets new and bloodier war."
Under the new U.N. commander, General Matthew Ridgeway, Communist forces were turned back and the situation eventually stabilized into skirmishes and mutual bombardments across the 38th Parallel while the U.N. and the Communists squabbled over the terms of a truce. An armistice establishing the present borders of North and South Korea was at last signed in July of 1953.
In his speech, Bush quotes (but, strangely, does not name) many politicians and pundits critical of U.S. involvement in the Korean conflict, an implicit chastisement of his own critics on Iraq. He never utters his favorite word, "victory"; how could he? He would sound more like the fanatical MacArthur than Truman, who thought it wiser to settle for a stalemate that contains violence rather than a rash move in the name of honor that spreads it.
What Bush also misses is what may be the real comparison of Korea to Iraq: that it has taken 50 years and countless coups and juntas for South Korea to settle down, and that there are still 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there.
"I recognize," Bush concludes, "that history cannot predict the future with absolute certainty." In this case, it might.