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To what extent was the Korean conflict of 1950 to 1953 a ‘turning point’ in the Cold War?
The beginnings of the Cold War, the period between 1945 and 1949, were fraught with a mutual tension and distrust sustained chiefly by the bold, economically expansionist policies of the USA and the defensive, albeit retaliatory, responses of the Soviet Union. Until 1950, America had relied upon her own currency in curtailing what she perceived as the spread of communist influence. The start of the Korean War, however, saw the revampment of American policy and the globalisation, as well as the exacerbation, of the existing superpower tension. As such, to a large extent, the Korean conflict was a departure from previous trends in the American-Soviet conflict.
In reaffirmation of my stand is the fact that the battlefield had expanded beyond the borders of continental Europe into the environmentally hostile regions of Korea, and that the participants of this ‘new’ Cold War were no longer confined to the superpowers themselves. At the same time, though only to a slight degree, the Korean War was still reminiscent of the old, European Cold War, as manifested by Truman’s citing of the Domino Theory in the face of an invasion of South Korea by the communist North, a typical instance of American failure to fully grasp the situation with which they are dealing.
Of foremost importance to the turning point of the superpower enmity is the implementation of NSC 68. As aforementioned, before the conflict extended to Asia, the USA had capitalised upon its financial power by channelling economic aid to client states in combating Soviet communism. This policy of economic expansion was no longer adhered to in Korea, as demonstrated by the NSC 68 which marked the militarisation of the Cold War in essence. Under internal pressure, the Truman administration propounded an expansion of American military forces and atomic stockpile, as well as the hastened development of a thermonuclear bomb to remain a step ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear field. This new policy of ‘rollback’ is evident from the period of 1950 to 1953, during which the USA had increased its military output sevenfold and was in a state of preparedness for war.
Believing in the necessity for the US military to outnumber or be on par with the large Soviet army in terms of number, Truman advocated an increase in military spending and managed to extract billions of dollars from Congress to be spent on the expansion of American armed forces, the rendering of military succour to potential allies, and the development of the hydrogen bomb. The president’s belief in the importance of armed and nuclear supremacy also resonated with Washington as a whole. In addition, in response to North Korean invasion of the democratic South, Truman had called for international involvement in the regional conflict in forming an attack force consisting of the South Korean army, as well as contingents from fifteen other countries not including America herself.
The expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was also a deviation from American action in post-war Europe. NATO was immediately given a larger secretariat and a more unified command structure. A total of four US divisions were sent to Europe to act as reinforcements and, in 1951, the organisation was enlarged to accommodate new members, namely Turkey and Greece. Acting opportunistically to threaten the USSR, the USA had made use of Turkey, which lay in close proximity with Soviet Russia, as a military base on which American Jupiter missiles could be established. Due to the excellent geographical location of Turkey, these missiles could be aimed and fired at the Soviet Union, and acted as a deterrence against the Soviet invasion of Middle Eastern oilfields.
To strengthen NATO and assist its member allies, the USA had been in favour of an increase in military spending and had channelled economic aid to its allies. Previously, in 1949, before the superpower conflict expanded beyond its regional borders, the organisation was set up with only the intention of acting as a disincentive against a communist attack on the capitalist West. While it was still meant to deter potential communist aggression, the new, expanded NATO had also posed a direct military threat to the Soviets, as demonstrated by the placing of US Jupiter Missiles in Turkey and American exhortation of increasing military spending, and had thus contributed to the militarisation of the conflict as a whole.
American advocacy for West German rearmament and sovereignty differed significantly from earlier policy as well. In the past, after German defeat in World War II, the USA had feared the recrudescence of German aggression. With the outbreak of the Korean War, however, the fear of a revived Germany was transcended by an intense paranoia of communist expansion. The rearmament and procurement of full-fledged independence of West Germany was deemed a necessity as a result; the resurrection of Russia’s former wartime adversary would rekindle old fears of German expansion and deter Soviet aggression. After the occurrence of war in Korea, in hopes of putting up a stronger attack front against the Soviets, the USA had begun to favour the idea of West German rearmament, which the French strongly opposed.
Ultimately, to dispell French fears, the USA agreed to the French Pleven Plan to allow West Germany to be part of a European Defence Community. This, however, was met with disapproval from the Germans, most of whom were opposed to the idea of military rearmament and preferred instead to be independent of foreign control. Seeing as how the political and economic reconstruction of West Germany was a long-term goal, the USA agreed to remove all occupation controls and grant Germany full statehood. The Korean War was indubitably a turning point in the Cold War, as seen in the fact that its occurrence galvanised the Americans to rearm and grant independence to Germany, something that would previously have been regarded with doubt and apprehension.
American signing of the ANZUS pact and recognition of Japan as a post-war ally varied from previous policy too. Like in the case of Germany, the USA had erstwhile been wary of future Japanese expansion and was not likely to grant Japan freedom from foreign supervision. The Korean War had changed American attitude entirely and had accelerated the political and economic recovery of Japan, which was confirmed in the signing of the San Francisco peace treaty in 1951.
The treaty restored Japanese sovereignty and ended American occupation in Japan in the following year. In exchange for independence, Japan had to sign a Mutual Security Agreement, under which the Japanese islands were to act as a breakwater against the currents of communist expansion. The USA had also signed the ANZUS pact with New Zealand and Australia and, in so doing, agreed to defend Asia and Australia from Japanese aggression. In return, the two countries would assist in the deterrence of communist expansion in the Pacific. Similarly in the case of Germany, Japan would not have received its sovereignty if it were not for the Korean War, especially since the granting of Japanese independence might have been at the expense of the security of Australasia.
American policy in Southeast Asia revealed the sudden central importance of the continent to the USA and this, in itself, was another departure from existing Cold War trends. In the early years prior to the start of war in Korea, the scope to which American policy functioned was limited only to continental Europe and parts of the Middle East. However, with the globalisation of the conflict, American operations in favour of confining the spectre of communist influence within the sphere from which it originated spanned from Europe to Asia.
The USA provided relentless economic and military support to the French in their war with the Vietminh led by communist Ho, whom the Americans viewed as an agent of the Kremlin. In American eyes, both the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia and Japan were of pivotal significance in guaranteeing prosperity and hence freedom from communist influence. Before 1950, American intervention in communist acivities were confined only to Europe. However, with the outbreak of war in Korea, the scope of its policy had extended across the oceans to a foreign continent. This is revelatory of the far-reaching impacts of the Korean War on the superpower conflict.
To an extent of lesser significance, however, the Korean War was an affirmation of the trends of the European Cold War. For instance, the USA had intervened in the regional conflict thinking that North Korean crossing of the 38th parallel was premeditated by Stalin. Such misrepresentations of global communist activities as being a result of the sole manipulation of the Soviet leader, and not the local leaders themselves, are a quintessence of American paranoia and oversight.
Truman had also misread the situations in Greece and Turkey, unwavering in his erroneous view of communism as inherently monolithic. Truman’s misunderstanding of the situation in Korea was further reinforced by his citing of the Domino theory in response to the North Korean invasion. The president stated that Asia would fall to Soviet communism should there be no action taken by America. As can be seen from this misinterpretation that was so typical of the irrational fear of the USA, the conflict in Korea does prove to be a confirmation of Cold War trends that were already in existence in post-war Europe.
American response to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China was another typical instance of the trends of the Cold War before 1953. On a basis of reasoning that was largely gratuitous by nature, Truman surmised that the Chinese communists were agents of Moscow sent by Stalin to communise the Asian periphery, referring to the communist takeover as the ‘fall’ of China.
America had responded ambivalently to the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, outwardly declaring the formation of diplomatic relations with the new regime, yet ordering the cessation of economic aid to Chiang Kai Shek. Hence it would seem that Truman had not only inherited Roosevelt’s title as president of America but also his intrinsic uncertainty and diplomatic ambiguity displayed at Yalta in 1945. Truman’s ambiguous response to the ‘fall’ of China reflected an inconsistency in American policy that was already exhibited earlier in the days when the Cold War was confined only to continental Europe.
Even so, the events in Korea from 1950 to 1953 largely marked a turning point in the Cold War. This is seen in the extent of change in American policy thereafter, as well as the fact of international involvement in the conflict. Though only regional by nature, the Korean War had had far-reaching effects on foreign politics, like those of Japan and Germany, playing a major role in influencing American decision to grant full-fledged independence to these countries. Also, the Korean War marked the globalisation of what was once a regional conflict, as well as a departure from earlier American policy, from the provision of economic succour to the building up of armed forces and military and nuclear arsenal. As such, to a large extent, the Korean War was a turning point for the superpower enmity.