Reviewed by Al Ronzoni
For most of America’s history, a large, permanent standing army was considered an unnecessary expense or worse, a threat to liberty reminiscent of European monarchies. Naval power was seen as a more needed and appropriate “first line of defense,” for a nation without military rivals to either its north or south and two great oceans to its east and west. In times of major conflict like the Civil War or World War I, a large army could be built by conscription then rapidly demobilized after the emergency had passed. On the eve of World War II, the U.S. Army had 187,893 active-duty soldiers, which made it nineteenth in size in the world, behind Portugal and only slightly ahead of Bulgaria. After the war, it looked like the pattern was going to repeat itself once again. Between September and December 1945, the Army discharged an average of 1.2 million soldiers per month. But in 1945, there was a militarily powerful Soviet Union, which was asserting dominance over most of Eastern Europe and was seen by President Harry S. Truman and his advisors as desiring to expand its world influence even further.
An often overlooked aspect of World War II, occurred when British troops entered Greece in mid-October 1944 to both displace the remaining German occupation forces and also help pro-monarchist/right-wing Greeks neutralize the strong indigenous Communist resistance movement that had arisen during the war. Things were quiet for a while after the British intervention but civil war erupted in 1946. Though Communist Albania and Yugoslavia provided aid to the Greek Communist forces, Stalin considered Greece to be in the British-Western “sphere of influence” and was opposed to doing much to help them. This was one factor that led to the bitter Yugoslav-Soviet split in 1948, which demoralized the Greek Communists and helped lead to their defeat by 1949.
But as early as 1946, Britain informed the United States that due to its war weakened economy, it could no longer continue to provide military and financial support to royalist Greece. Truman, who could only see the Greek conflict through the lens Cold War competition with the Soviets, needed to gain support from non-interventionist Republicans and their supporters among the American people, for the U.S. to step in for the departing British. In early 1947, Truman met key congressional leaders with Secretary of State George Marshall, and Undersecretary Dean Acheson. Acheson laid out the “domino theory” in the starkest terms, comparing a communist state to a rotten apple that could spread its infection to an entire barrel. “Internationalist” Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg was convinced and advised Truman to appear before Congress to “scare the hell out of the American people,” which he attempted to do before a joint session on March 12, requesting aid for Greece. Two months later, a large majority in Congress approved $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. The aid helped to defeat the Communist rebels once and for all. But how were Truman and the internationalists going to keep the American people on board for a long-term program of vastly increased foreign aid, military spending and the unprecedented build up of a large permanent standing army, in order to “contain” or even “roll back” “Communist expansionism?”
Seen in this context, the Korean War was a godsend. On the surface and as far as Americans and other Westerners were being told, a militarily powerful Communist North Korea, armed and supported by the Soviet Union and “Red China,” was carrying out an “unprovoked” act of aggression against the weaker democratic/Capitalist South. The apparent surprise and speed of the North Korean advance and virtual collapse of South Korean resistance was reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. Once again, the U.S. had been caught napping while its ruthless Communist adversaries had been preparing to take out a “bastion of freedom” in Asia. If the conquest of South Korea was allowed to stand, where might the Communists strike next? Taiwan? Somewhere in Europe? And it now seemed that the U.S. had foolishly allowed its army to draw down after World War II, so that now there were few troops available to help the South Koreans. It was a great story, one guaranteed to scare people a lot more than a civil war in Greece.
But the great American journalist I.F. Stone (1907-1989) wasn’t buying it. Isidor Feinstein Stone was born in Philadelphia to Jewish Russian immigrants who owned a dry goods store in Haddonfield, New Jersey. His career began in his second year of high school, when he founded The Progress newspaper. Stone later worked for the Haddonfield Press and for the Camden Courier-Post. After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he joined The Philadelphia Inquirer, then known as the “Republican Bible of Pennsylvania.” After advice from a newspaper editor in 1937, Stone changed his byline to I. F. Stone; the editor had told him that his reporting would be better received if he minimized his Jewish identity. Years later, Stone expressed remorse about having given in to the systemic anti-Semitism then prevalent in American society.
Influenced by the work of Jack London, Stone became a politically radical journalist and joined the Philadelphia Record, the rival of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Record was owned by J. David Stern, a Democrat. Stone later worked for the New York Post after Stern bought it in 1929. He also joined the Socialist Party of America but later quit the due to the intractable sectarian divisions that existed on the American Left. As noted by D.D. Guttenplan, one of his biographers, Stone was an “an enthusiastic fellow traveler” of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. But even then he was critical of Stalin for using the assassination of the powerful and charismatic Leningrad Party boss, Sergei Kirov in 1934 (possibly orchestrated by Stalin), as “an excuse for weeding out anyone who disagrees with his views.” Stone’s final break with Stalin came in 1939 with the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which he viewed as a betrayal of leftist political principles. Nevertheless, by the 1950s, even as an independent-minded, non-party affiliated leftist, Stone found himself blacklisted and unable to get work in mainstream media. So, in 1953, he founded the self-published, I.F. Stone’s Weekly.
In 1952, while the war was still going on, Stone published, The Hidden History of the Korean War. As Tim Beal and Gregory Elich tell us in their excellent introduction to the new 2023 edition of the book, by closely examining various sources, Stone found inconsistencies that challenged the official narrative of how and why the war started. Most prominently, Stone found considerable evidence suggesting that U.S. and South Korean officials had probable foreknowledge of the North Korean offensive, which they chose not to try to prevent. For example, he quotes a July 26 New York Times article, which states that when reporters called at the Pentagon, “an aide said privately that the United States expected the attack.” This official also pointed to “the fact that ships were ready to evacuate the families of American officers and others in South Korea as evidence that the invasion was not a surprise.”
Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, then director of the CIA at seemed to confirm what the unnamed Pentagon official had said. He told reporters that American intelligence had been aware that “conditions existed in Korea that could have meant an invasion this or next week.” Stone notes, “The press did not take this statement too seriously,” seeing the Admiral’s statement as being “the natural reaction of an official trying to cover up a blunder by pretending he-knew-it-all-the-time.” Hillenkoetter was summoned to appear before a private hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee but was diverted by a request that he meet with the president first. Upon leaving the White House, Hillenkoetter now said “North Korean forces have had the capability of invading the South for a year but that it had been impossible to predict the time-table under which they would march if at all.
Beal and Elich also take note of the fact that South Korean President Syngman Rhee, an extremely pro-American, Christian alumnus of both George Washington University and Harvard, had recently suffered a dramatic defeat in legislative elections and his political future looked shaky. On the American side, General Douglas MacArthur and other hawks in Washington were eager to launch a global anti-communist crusade and war in Korea held the potential for a wider conflict. Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan also dreamed of a wider war, in which he might be be able to retake the Chinese mainland. As Beal and Elich tell us, the Korean War also boosted Truman’s “get tough” policy to escalate Cold War tensions. It provided the pretext for quadrupling the U.S. “defense” budget, cemented the American base presence, throughout Asia and the Pacific and, as they say, “set the United States on a one-way road to a militarized economy and foreign policy that remain with us to this day.”
Using Air Force communiques, Stone also reveals in chilling detail the U.S. “carpet bombing” campaign against North Korea that may have killed as much as a tenth of its population and destroyed almost every substantial building in the country. One communique complained of a paucity of targets because not much remained to destroy. Another described an attack on several villages as having achieved “excellent results” with bombs, rockets and napalm. Stone found some of these reports deeply disturbing. In contrast to the usual indifference to human life expressed by USAF bombers, he found expressions of delight in the death and destruction they were causing:
There were some passages about these raids on villages, which reflected not pity, which human feeling called for but for a kind of gay moral imbecility, utterly devoid of imagination – as if the flyers were playing in a bowling alley with the villages for pins.
As Beal and Elich note, Stone’s analysis of the peace negotiations that began on July 10, 1951 at Kaesong in North Korea (later moved to south to Panmunjom) is a masterpiece of investigative journalism. Stone unveiled the ugly reality that the United States intentionally kept the war going long past the point where either side could make any significant gains on the ground. The main sticking point was the refusal of the United States, in collusion with South Korea and Taiwan, to return North Korean prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention. Instead, prisoners held by the U.S. and South Korea were subjected to enormous pressure to reject return to their homeland, in order to score propaganda points for the authoritarian regime of Syngman Rhee as being preferable to the “totalitarian” North, even by North Koreans themselves.
In the seventy years since an armistice was concluded ending hostilities, it has been the United States that has been the prime obstacle towards achieving a true peace agreement in Korea. Negotiations took place in Geneva in 1954 but no progress was made and no peace agreement was reached. U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, refused to negotiate and would not even shake hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai. Other representatives, including those from Britain and Belgium, were privately critical of the obstinate approach of the United States at the conference. At its, Dulles, who became TIME’s Man of the Year for 1954, refused to agree to a proposed joint statement reflecting a common desire to achieve the peaceful settlement of the Korean question. A few years later, the prospect of a peace treaty was further diminished. In 1956, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs announced that the Pentagon intended to introduce nuclear weapons into South Korea in contravention of clause 13 (d) of the armistice.
Today there are increasing calls for the United States to “atone” for its role in the war by replacing the armistice with a true peace agreement and ceasing to contribute towards the peninsula’s nuclear tensions. What remains to be seen is, can the U.S’s militarized political culture, which was first formed during the Korean War, can find the presence of mind to do this.
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