The Use and Misuse of History: What Should We Learn From the Korean War?

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The Use and Misuse of History: What Should We Learn From the Korean War?

Drawing the wrong lessons from the end of the Korean War hinders a useful assessment of deterrence in the original Cold War.

The Use and Misuse of History: What Should We Learn From the Korean War?

In this undated photo from the Korean War, U.S. airmen carry litter patients up truck ramps and into transport aircraft.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo

Policymakers often seek lessons from diplomatic and military history to inform the solution of present problems. However, pre-existing beliefs can often lead to misinterpretations of history, leading to misguided policies. As historian Stephen Kotkin has put it, “There’s a lot of junk history in the policy world. Everything is Munich… It turns out not everything is Munich. It turns out Munich wasn’t even Munich when you get down into the nitty-gritty details.” 

Indeed, major historical events are often results of contingencies, and any attempt of to extract a general explanation risks over-simplification. Furthermore, policy-oriented studies of historical cases tend to be one-sided – largely relying on American materials and archives, while overlooking primary sources from the other side of the Iron Curtain. It is relatively easy to tell when coercion attempts fail – when wars do break out – but the non-occurrence of war or avoidance of war escalation is not always attributable to coercion. Other motivations of the coerced adversary could equally lead to changes in the course of actions. Without a clear understanding of how the coerced party deliberated on their options, it would be hard to conclude whether their decisions were caused directly by coercion attempts.

Mike Gallagher and Aaron MacLean’s Foreign Affairs article on the lessons of the Korean War is a recent example; they are good at using U.S. sources for self-criticism, but they misread the intentions of the adversaries of the United States. Specifically, their criticism of the Truman administration’s failure in deterrence is correct, but their understanding of the changes in the strategic intent of the Chinese, the Soviet, and the Korean communists during the armistice negotiations is less accurate; the nuclear threats of the Eisenhower administration were also not a key factor in reopening the armistice negotiations. Drawing the wrong lessons from the end of the Korean War, moreover, hinders a useful assessment of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s attempts to weaponize the history of the Korean War. 

First, I agree with their criticism of the Truman administration’s inadequate deterrence. In 1949, Joseph Stalin was still urging North Korea to exercise restraint, but by 1950 he had changed his mind and began supporting Kim Il Sung’s desire to invade. This had to do with structural changes in international politics at the time. For instance, the victory of the Chinese communists in the civil war not only altered the balance of power in East Asia, but also greatly inspired the revolutionary “triumphalism” of Stalin and Kim. In addition, with the formation of NATO and the resurgence of Japan under U.S. support, Stalin felt increasingly threatened, which led him to elevate the strategic value of the Korean Peninsula. The Soviets’ successful nuclear weapon test in August 1949 was yet another factor.

However, these structural changes were not enough to change Stalin’s mind. At least until 1950, Stalin was still committed to avoiding a direct conflict with the United States, as he knew very well that the Soviet military power could not compete with the United States. Thus, only when Stalin perceived a significant softening in Washington’s stance on military intervention in East Asia did he greenlight Kim’s invasion. The limited historical materials currently available also suggest that Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s speech and the intelligence obtained by the Soviets had a considerable impact on Stalin’s judgment.

So much for the origins of the conflict. Why did this bloody war continue from 1951 to 1953? What were the strategic considerations of China, Russia, and North Korea? Historical materials from these countries suggest that it was the dilemma of the communist alliance politics, rather than a coherent political strategy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to increase battlefield gains, that prevented the communist camp from accepting the armistice until after Stalin’s death. The communist camp was not unified and monolithic; from the summer of 1951 to 1953, the Chinese communists, North Koreans, and Soviets could hardly reach a consensus on the armistice negotiations, with each party changing their positions multiple times.

In June 1951, due to the failure of the spring offensive, Mao Zedong temporarily lost confidence in the war’s prospects, which was why he was eager to negotiate with the United States to end the conflict. However, Kim Il Sung strongly opposed the negotiations and demanded that the Chinese army launch another offensive. Undoubtedly, the only possible arbitrator of this dispute was Stalin.

Mao, Kim, and Stalin had several discussions around whether an armistice should be negotiated, and Kim even traveled to Moscow to make his case with Stalin. Eventually, Stalin sided with Mao and stated in his ciphered telegram to Mao, “We recognized that an armistice is now advantageous.” Stalin advised Kim to cooperate with the Chinese on this issue.

Mao believed that the key issue in the negotiations should be the determination of the demarcation line. His initial plan was to restore the prewar status quo, that is, to use the 38th parallel as the demarcation line.  However, he was later prepared to accept the American demand to divide the demarcation line “on the basis of the present line of the front.” 

Gallagher and MacLean argue that the Chinese communists weaponized the issue of prisoners of war to win the international public opinion battle with the United States. However, based on the telegraphic communications between Mao and Stalin, one cannot conclude that this was a coherent strategy. In fact, in a ciphered telegram that Mao sent to his Russian counterpart on November 14, 1951, the Chinese leader still believed that “it will not be difficult to reach agreement on this question [the exchange of prisoners of war].”

The main dispute between China and the United States on the issue of prisoners was that Mao demanded an “all-for-all” exchange, while the United States insisted on the principle of “nonforcible repatriation” – that is, Chinese prisoners who were unwilling to return to mainland China could choose to go to Taiwan. In fact, a significant number of Chinese prisoners did not want to return to mainland China; many of them had been soldiers of the Kuomintang army in the Chinese Civil War and joined the communist army only after being captured. Their desire to go to Taiwan would undoubtedly deal a severe blow to the image of Mao and the CCP, if Chinese soldiers were willing to abandon revolutionary “Red China” and defect to the U.S. “puppet regime” in Taiwan. Mao refused to make concessions on the prisoner issue, leading to a deadlock in the negotiations. 

Starting from the second half of 1952, the positions of Mao and Kim flipped. The U.S. military still held air superiority, and the bombing damage inflicted on North Korea prompted Kim to be willing to compromise and accept a ceasefire, while Mao turned to support the protraction of the war. The two argued endlessly, as Kim pleaded with Mao to concede on the issue of prisoners. Once again, in this debate, Stalin chose to support Mao, ordering the continuation of the fight. 

Stalin calculated that he could use the lives of the Chinese and Koreans to ensnare the United States in a long war of attrition in the Far East. This would greatly alleviate the Soviet Union’s pressures in Europe. Facing pressure from the United States, Mao and Kim became increasingly reliant on Stalin’s support, vying to please him, which consolidated Stalin’s leadership position and the Soviet Union’s dominance.

For the Chinese communists, the negotiations that began in 1952 did provide some respite for the military. With the Soviet military aid arriving, the Chinese force was also restructured. However, the protracted nature of the war put enormous pressure on China’s economy. In 1951, military expenditure ate up 45.6 percent of China’s national budget, and most of the loans provided by the Soviet Union went to military expenditure rather than the development of civil industries. Due to Mao’s ideological rigidity, China’s human, material, and financial resources continued to be expended on the Korean battlefield. While serving Mao’s personal ambition as the “leader of Asian revolution,” the prolongation of the Korean War is better understood as the result of Stalin’s strategic calculations.

Furthermore, current materials available from China and the Soviet Union indicate that the nuclear threats from the Eisenhower administration were not the key reason why Moscow and Beijing eventually accepted the armistice agreement. On December 7, 1953, in Bermuda, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles confidently stated in a meeting attended by President Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “the principal reason we were able to obtain the armistice was because we were prepared for a much more intensive scale of warfare. It should not be improper to say at such a restricted gathering that we had already sent the means to the theater for delivering atomic weapons. This became known to the Chinese Communists through their good intelligence sources and in fact we were not unwilling that they should find out.”

The Chinese communists may have indeed received these threat signals and warnings, but they merely thought the Americans were bluffing. In 1953, the Chinese communists’ assessment was that they had the upper hand on the battlefield. On June 5, Zhou Enlai assessed in an internal diplomatic discussion: “As soon as Eisenhower took office, he began bluffing to scare people.” Zhou believed that U.S. allies would not agree to the use of nuclear weapons on the Korean battlefield as they feared it would trigger a world war.

While the Chinese communists reluctantly obeyed the decision of Moscow’s new leaders to reopen the armistice negotiations with the United States starting from the end of March 1953, Mao even ordered the Chinese army to step up their offensive. In fact, from the end of May, the Chinese army began a series of continuous offensives, which lasted until the day the armistice agreement was signed on July 27. On the second day of the ceasefire, July 28, Mao regretfully told the Soviet ambassador, “from a purely military point of view it would not be bad to continue to strike the Americans for approximately another year in order to occupy more favorable borders along the Han River.” Such evidence suggests that the Chinese government was not coerced by the American nuclear threats.

Regarding the Soviet Union, according to historians Oleg V. Khlevniuk and Vladislav Zubok, Stalin became more paranoid in the late stages of his life, even arguably insane. This not only manifested in the new round of domestic political purges, but also in his assessment of American military threats. From 1952 to 1953, under his orders, the Soviet Union launched a frantic military expansion, with the number of military personnel increased from 2.9 million in 1949 to 5.8 million in 1953, along with plans to significantly expand the bomber forces. Stalin deemed a third world war to be unavoidable, so he continued to use Chinese and North Korean lives to deplete American military power. 

In August 1952, Zhou Enlai went to Moscow, seeking Stalin’s directions for the war. In the meeting on August 20, Stalin blatantly stated, “the North Koreans have lost nothing, except for casualties that they suffered during the war… Endurance and patience is needed here. Of course, one needs to understand Korea – they have suffered many casualties. But they need to be explained [sic] that this is an important matter. They need patience and lots of endurance. The war in Korea has shown America’s weakness.”

Stalin went on to incite the Chinese with the Taiwan issue, “The Chinese comrades must know that if America does not lose this war, then China will never recapture Taiwan.” Finally, he confidently declared, “Americans don’t know how to fight. After the Korean war, in particular, they have lost the capability to wage a large-scale war. They are pinning their hopes on the atom bomb and air power. But one cannot win a war with that. One needs infantry, and they don’t have much infantry; the infantry they do have is weak.”

Therefore, had Stalin lived longer, this brutal war of attrition would have continued. The Eisenhower administration would have also faced an ultimate test: whether to use tactical nuclear weapons, and whether it could limit the nuclear conflict without having it escalate into World War III. Fortunately for the world, Stalin died in March 1953. His former cronies quickly began the process of de-Stalinization, which included ordering Beijing to resume armistice negotiations with the United States.

The CCP regime has recently pushed its narrative of the Korean War, as reflected in a series of propaganda films and TV dramas about the war produced in the past three years under the Party’s direction (of which “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a prominent example). Does this, as Gallagher and MacLean suggested in their article, indicate that Xi is mobilizing the public for war preparations, or even to instigate a war against Taiwan? It is not impossible. Intent has always been difficult to accurately identify and precisely measure, especially the intent of autocracies.

However, the CCP’s current mythification of the Korean War is more likely to reflect the regime’s inner weakness and insecurity about its legitimacy, rather than confidence about its readiness to wage a war. Since the 1950s, the historical narrative about China’s entry into the Korean War has been an enduring source of the CCP’s legitimacy. Every generation of CCP leadership, starting with Mao, has propagated the notion that this painful war represented a Chinese victory over the United States, the world’s leading imperialist power. It has been used to make the point that under the leadership of the CCP, the Chinese people have stood up and China has returned to the center of the world stage. Whenever the regime faces serious challenges (such as during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the suppression of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989), the CCP would hype up this war and invoke the “patriotic” emotions of the Chinese people.

Just like the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a “new Cold War” between China and the U.S. involves not only mutual military deterrence but also competition in political and economic domains. Faced with the economic containment strategy from the Trump and Biden administrations, Xi is preparing for the worst, that is, striving to achieve self-sufficiency. This does not bode well for the living standards of ordinary Chinese people and international exchanges. Through weaponizing the history of the Korean War and anti-American propaganda, it is more likely that Xi seeks to mobilize the Chinese people in preparation for a prolonged Cold War with the United States, rather than immediately instigating a hot war in the Taiwan Strait.