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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Korea and the Cold Warhomesitemap
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Workshop 8:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
Korea and the Cold War

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In all of this, Americans are, in part, surprised by what they came to see as the loss of China: the turnover of government from the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek to the People's Republic led by Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. To the United States, this seemed very strange and very odd. It seemed to be a repudiation of America's long, apparently benevolent interest in China. The war, in fact, had brought Americans to China and given them an image of potentially the world's largest democracy. Chiang and his wife, Madam Chiang, were made public heroes. Henry Luce made them the first people of the year on the cover of Time magazine. China was presented as a gallant democratic ally challenging the forces of totalitarianism. And in 1949, when China fell and Chiang had to leave for Formosa (Taiwan), all of this became inexplicable. Why was it that a democratic power would be repudiated? The answer could be, of course, seen within the prism of the policy of containment. Those very words about minorities taking over and suppressing free human rights provided a kind of image which made China's loss consistent with a kind of expansive communism, if not Soviet policy.

Thus the Cold War came to be seen as a process in which two rival powers were expanding, not by direct confrontation, but by subtle means, at different points, and, from the increasingly—from the American perspective, in a way that was undemocratic, unfair, that was reflective of sinister, totalitarian governments. China also provides the United States with the sense that maybe there were also some Americans who may be involved. The various spy scandals, the problems of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, all suggest the need for more vigilance. If there was not going to be a hot war, there still needed to be a sense of vigilance.

Korea emerges into this context. No one had thought seriously about Korea during the course of the war, other than the fact that if the United States were to invade the Japanese homeland, there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops that were in Manchuria and in Korea that might be released and brought back to the home islands to defend against the invasion. This would mean, again, intolerable loss of life for the American soldiers. This, too, fits into the context of the development of the atom bomb, its need as a weapon to conquer the fanaticism of the Japanese soldier.

Thus the United States wanted the Soviet Union to intervene in Korea and was willing to let the Soviets move into Manchuria and Korea to take over much of that industrial plant in Northeast China. The Soviets had been interested in getting this to help them replace their shattered industrial plant and to exploit the natural resources of the region. As Russians moved in to Korea, increasingly the United States became suspicious of their intentions. One test of their intentions was to negotiate how far the Soviets would go. Two American military officers casually one day suggested that the 38th parallel might be appropriate. They simply took a line and cut it across, and it looked like about halfway down, and that seemed appropriate. It was one of these map exercises that doesn't take into consideration terrain, natural geography, and that was accepted.

Now, at this point, in the aftermath of the war, the Soviets, having taken what they were going to do, wanted also to make sure that the United States withdrew. But the American occupation of Korea was a sideshow. The main problem, the main concern of the United States in the Far East, was to demilitarize Japan. General MacArthur moves into Japan; he sets up a new government and works the new constitution. In the new constitution, he very clearly delineates the Japanese will not engage in aggressive wars. The Japanese constitution outlaws war.

In Korea, the few Americans who arrived looked to create a government. Now, in Korea, as with so many other Far Eastern nations, there are various factors and various forces, each jockeying for their vision of what their nation should be, given the promise of the Second World War, that there should be freedom—Roosevelt's four freedoms; that they should parcel out and be able to create democratic governments on their own. But the Americans moving in to Korea are also concerned about the dislocations that are caused by war; that with all of these factions, with all of the chaos, with all of the destruction, something needed to be done to bring Korea into order. The solution was to use the existing Japanese political machinery. Hence, what they brought in to and as they transitioned from the Japanese to Koreans was to pick people—first people who had been Japanese collaborators, because they were in place; they were operating the government—and then to bring in people who were—that they thought were nationalists.

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