After Reading I.F. Stone’s “Hidden History of the Korean War”

War on Iraq—and Reflections on the Korean War

by W.T. Whitney Jr


The book’s picturesque beginnings are well known. Reporter I.F. Stone in 1952 happened upon editors Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman in New York’s Central Park, and The Hidden History of the Korean War thereby became the first book published by the Monthly Review Press. A perusal of a friend’s recently written recollections of infantry service during that war prompted a first time reading of Stone’s book. It has a dreadful contemporary relevance.

First, there is the lie. The war did not begin, as alleged, with a surprise attack from the North on Stalin’s orders. The United States and South Korea were anticipating an invasion. Their military leaders were aware of North Korean troops massed at the parallel. They kept quiet about such knowledge and took no military precautions. The South Koreans had already sent several attacks across the border, and in the context of a civil war, Stone suggests that these attacks were deliberately intended to provoke war.

Fifty years later, lies are being used to set the stage for another war. The story is that somehow the autocratic ruler of Iraq has connections with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—and if not, that he will someday let loose on his own. The truth, of course, is that arrangements are being made to establish stronger U.S. control of the oil-rich Middle East, not just Iraq. Lies, have, of course, ushered in other wars, for example, the Tonkin Gulf affair prior to war in Vietnam, the alleged surprise of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and “Remember the Maine,” in 1898.

The matter of when wars begin may provide insight as to their purpose. Stone reports that prior to June 25, 1950, the Truman administration was moving toward a policy whereby Taiwan would not be defended against mainland Chinese forces. Thereupon John Foster Dulles, a State Department adviser and a no-holds-barred anti-Communist, joined forces with General Douglas MacArthur and the China Lobby, and the North Korean invasion took place. All at once, with Korea as the pawn, the defense of Taiwan became official policy, Syngman Rhee, the autocratic South Korean ruler (imposed on the South Korean people by U.S. occupying forces after the defeat of Japan in 1945), gained respectability, and the policy of expanding the American Empire under the guise of “containing Communism” had taken a further step.

During wars military leaders may find openings through which they can assume some of the prerogatives of civilian leadership. Stone relates how MacArthur blocked peace efforts with staged offensive actions or exaggerated estimates of opposing Chinese forces. He moved into the realm of preventive war, advancing to the Yalu River (the border between North Korea and Communist China), bombing Chinese and Russian targets, and creating a situation in which Chinese Communist forces intervened and drove U.S./ “UN” forces back to the 38th parallel (the border between North and South Korea).

Whether or not the primacy of military-based decision making will gain ascendancy now—or already has—is uncertain, but the drumbeat for preemptive strikes is an ominous sign. Stone’s description of what happened during the Korean War may well apply to our present era. That war was started and continued through a process described earlier by Ambassador George Kennan, the principle proponent of “containment of Communism.” Kennan was referring to the extension of a U.S. war in the Caribbean to the Philippines in 1898. Stone quotes him:

The action of the United States government had been determined primarily on the basis of a very able and very quiet intrigue by a few strategically placed persons in Washington, an intrigue which received absolution, forgiveness, and a sort of public blessing by virtue of war hysteria.

Stone shows how the Korean War took command of domestic politics. The draft was reborn, and support for social programs gave way to spending for rearmament. (Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “I’d never heard of the bloody place until I was seventy-four. Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the rearming of America.”—Monthly Review, April 1997.) And the Korean War became linked to a rabid anti-Communism that had been put on hold during World War II, when Washington and London were allied with the Stalin regime against Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan.

The Democratic Party’s Truman administration found that to gain a hearing for its mildly populist Fair Deal, it had first to fend off charges of being “soft on Communism.” In fact, prosecution of the Korean War was used by the Democrats as an effective antidote to red-baiting against them by Republicans. (This illustrates once again how monopoly capitalism uses both major parties in the American “two-party system” to attain its objectives of global expansion.) Stone reports that the Truman administration’s reaction to peace breaking out on November 28, 1951, the day the shooting stopped, was one of fear.

Then and now, war means massive military spending, restrictions on individual liberties, inhibitions on criticism, and a lowered priority for programs favoring social justice. But it means bigger profits for monopoly capitalist corporations, especially the arms industry. As long as the Soviet Union existed, the bipartisan politicians in Washington, loyal servants of their corporate capitalist masters, could flaunt the mythology of a “Red menace” to gain acceptance for sacrifices, even after the Korean War. Now the specter of terrorism will have to do instead of “Communism.”

A real war serves numerous purposes for expansionist corporate capitalism. The system in its present stage of Enron decay needs a war. Last year Afghanistan, this year Iraq.

I. F. Stone quotes General Van Fleet: “Korea has been a blessing. There had to be a Korea here or someplace in the world.”

Yes, a blessing: almost 4 million people died out of a total Korean population of 30 million. They were referred to as “gooks.” (One recalls W.E.B. Du Bois: “For the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”) 34,000 U.S. troops died. “The U.S. Navy shelled the…coastal city of Wonsan twenty-four hours a day uninterruptedly for 861 days…Napalm …was being dropped ceaselessly on villages throughout the North for three years…leaving nothing of life behind.” U.S. troops and their allies under “the UN flag” murdered tens of thousands of civilians. The Rhee regime tortured and executed a vast number of opponents on the grounds that they were “Communists.” (A decade or so after this horrendous war, Syngman Rhee himself was overthrown in a popular uprising by the people of South Korea!)

It is called the “forgotten war.” But we remember it through I.F. Stone. His kindred spirits are already preparing a place in our historical memory for the present war.