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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Korea and the Cold Warhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 8:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
Korea and the Cold War

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As the system shifts, as Americans become increasingly suspicious of the Soviets, the people that they bring in are people who are most anticommunist, and what this does is to begin the process of polarizing the leadership. The Russians do almost exactly the same thing, except they're not using the Japanese. They're using people like Kim Il Sung, whose son is now the ruler of North Korea.

So what the American occupation starts to do is to sift out these polarities. Now, at this particular point, American military policy and Korean policy start to merge in one particular area. The person that the Americans pick to be the leader, Syngman Rhee, is an ardent nationalist, and he's, as many Koreans are concerned to do, is [concerned] to reunify the Korean peninsula. And the Americans are afraid that if they arm him too much that all this will lead to is another war, which will drag the Russians and the Americans into a confrontation. So, consistent with American military policy, they create an army for the Koreans, for the Republic of Korea, but it's an army that's not equipped like a modern army. It's an army that's equipped more like a police force. There are few heavy weapons; there are no tanks; there is very little antitank capability.

On the other side, Kim Il Sung, of course, is building a regular national state, and he's being given support, with tethers and with restrictions, by the Soviets. Where this coincides with American military policy, as John Keegan says, is that the Americans assumed that the war was over. It was time to get rid of its weapons. To do so, there was also a kind of easy substitute. The atomic bomb had provided a means for the transition. So in the postwar contraction of the United States army, there was severe cost cutting—cutting back on training, occupation troops were sent to Japan, and they weren't put on active maneuvers. The very structure of the American military is altered. Where the American military had always been very, very strong, and where it was most difficult to work, was in the area of logistics. World War II had demonstrated that America needed extensive logistical capabilities. These were the units that were kept at relatively full strength, and in order to cut costs, combat troops, what military historians call the point of the lance or the point of the spear are brought down to size with the expectation that, in the time of war, those would be the areas that could be most easily and most efficiently expanded.

And it is at this point, where the North Koreans invade in June of 1950, which immediately sends the Republic of Korea forces and the Americans in occupation into retreat. The United States has bazookas and mortars that are inadequate to the task of repelling the new tanks that had been provided Kim Il Sung. The United States forces and the Republic of Korea are beaten back into a retreat.

In September, a brilliant military exercise at Inchon provides an initial recovery, but this brings into play MacArthur's expansive activities. America misjudges the extent to which crushing the North Korean army will bring in the Soviets and the Chinese. The Chinese in particular look at the problem of the United States in Korea. They see a growing power invading and very close to China's industrial plant, main industrial plant in Manchuria, and become deeply concerned. The problem of the A-bomb, as Mao Tse-tung points out, is not a problem in China or the Far East. The A-bomb is a weapon that is designed to take out mass concentrations of cities, of industrial plants, and for this China can retreat. Mao, in fact, says that they can use it on our troops, but we'll simply get more. He has a wonderful aphorism—"There is always more green wood in the mountains"—meaning that any troops that the United States wipes out with the A-bomb can simply be replaced.

It is this problem that confronts the United States in Korea as the Chinese intervene and as the pattern of proxy war starts to take place. The Soviet Union helps to provide manpower for the new jets that are engaged. This is a war in which the technology and the balance of foreign power, in the Cold War, will come to a head and will help to define and determine the outcome of future confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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