Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

Legacy of Korean War Still Shapes Our National Myth

>>> Itís time to remember "the forgotten war," the war in Korea that began 50 years ago.

>>> It's an anniversary that will hardly approach the magnitude of recent commemorations of World War II and Vietnam. The Korean war will remain relatively forgotten, compared to those other two epochal wars. Thatís a shame, because in its own way Korea was just as much a turning point in our nationís history.

>>> Before the Korean war, the great American myth assumed that the U.S. was a land of endless movement, of constant progress through conquest. After that war, security through permanent stability became the great goal of U.S. foreign policy.

>>> The key to this transformation was the atomic bomb. On Nov. 30, 1950, President Truman declared that he was considering using the bomb to win in Korea. He retreated in the face of stormy protests from European allies, who feared it might trigger atomic war on their soil. But there was no storm of protest here. After General Douglas MacArthur proclaimed that there was no substitute for victory, even if it required atomic bombings, Truman fired him. Returning home, the General was thronged by cheering millions.

>>> The possibility of victory via the bomb raised a larger question: Would the U.S. press on at any cost to total and unconditional victory, as it had in World War II? If so, then using the bomb would be permissible because it was necessary, and MacArthur would be a wise hero. If not, then there would be an acceptable limit on U.S. power, and MacArthur would be a dangerous zealot.

>>> When the MacArthur fervor subsided after a few weeks, and public opinion swung to Trumanís side, the future course was clear. The war against communism would be a cold one. U.S. power would be limited. Use of the bomb would be taboo. Those decisions could have been reversed later on, of course. But in fact they never were.

>>> Trumanís war taught the nation to accept stalemate, not unconditional victory, as its highest goal. There would be no dynamic thrust into the enemyís heartland. There would be only stability: two sides so evenly balanced that neither could move against the other.

>>> The myth and goal of stability remains central to our public discourse today. We do not expect our leaders to eliminate threats and foes. We do not ask them to lead us to dynamic conquest and victory. We ask them only to preserve stability, to keep our foes securely stalemated, without firing one of our thousands of nuclear warheads. As long as they prevent harmful change, we pay the bills for endless, immense military preparedness and a permanent military industrial complex.

>>> Those bills are another legacy of Korea. Before the war, it was doubtful whether the public would buy the Truman plan to keep us permanently on a war footing, with massive peacetime military budgets. The war in Korea "saved" that plan, as one Truman aide put it. Half a century later, what was once emergency is now routine. Most Americans cannot imagine keeping our foes in check without a huge permanent military establishment.

>>> It remained to Trumanís successor to complete the new national myth. During the 1952 campaign, the pollsters told Eisenhower that the people longed, above all, for peace. But the peace they wanted was merely an end to the killing of Americans in Korea. The enemies might target each other across the 37th >>> parallel forever. A s long as there was rarely a shot fired, and American blood was never spilled, the public would call it peace.

>>> When the fighting ended in mid-1953, Eisenhower, the hero of World War II, had to announce that the U.S. had abandoned all efforts for victory. He worried that this news would weaken cold war morale. So he proclaimed that the U.S. had indeed won a victory, because it had stopped communist aggression. Victory now meant not conquering the enemy, but merely stopping the enemy from conquering us. Victory, like peace, meant staving off disaster forever. Cold war stability became not merely the path to, but the substance of, the publicís greatest aspirations: lasting world peace and whipping the Reds, with no American blood shed.

>>> The Reds may be gone, but the cold war myth remains. Our public discourse can not imagine, as Americans used to, cleansing the world of evil. We take it for granted that enemies will always face us across some physical or cultural border, threatening disaster. We assume that any significant change might trigger that disaster. The most our leaders promise is to manage every apocalyptic crisis and threat, to prevent change from overwhelming us, without risking bodily harm to Americans. If they seem to deliver on that promise of stability, we count them successful and ourselves lucky. Within the terms of our prevailing national myth, nothing more can be asked. This is the enduring legacy of "the forgotten war."


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