Ira Chernus  



They call the Korean War "the forgotten war." But it may be more important to remember the forgotten peace, which began when the fighting in Korea ended, on July 27, 1953, just fifty years ago. This new kind of peacetime is not a time of cooperation and harmony, not a time to change the world for the better, but only a time to contain threats and prevent changes that might make the world worse.

This conservative spirit is the tragic legacy of the Korean armistice. Still caught in its grip, we can scarcely think about how we might improve things for ourselves, the Koreans, or anyone else.

The armistice profoundly changed America’s approach to a question that is always at the heart of our public discourse: What shall we do about evil? When the Korean fighting began, the question hardly seemed worth asking. Most Americans assumed that World War II had answered it once and for all. Evil had to be defeated, unconditionally, whether its sign was a swastika, a rising sun, or a hammer and sickle.

When the Korean fighting began, "our boys" once again marched off determined to vanquish an embodiment of pure evil. When the fighting ended, they came home with only a tie. There would be no grand celebrations, no V-K day.

The armistice did bring total victory on the policy front, in a battle fought here at home. The advocates of containing communism clearly defeated those led by General Douglas MacArthur who demanded unconditional surrender, even if securing it meant using nuclear weapons. The American mission to purify the world had proven impossible.

It was a painful irony that General Eisenhower was in the White House when Harry Truman’s war came to an end. What could the hero of V-E day tell a nation that wanted to fight its wars as moral crusades, a nation that would accept nothing less than unconditional victory? Ike and his speechwriters were up to the task. They simply re-defined the meaning of victory. They proclaimed that the U.S. had won, because it had stopped the enemy from winning.

Victory now meant, not conquering evil, but merely preventing evil from conquering us. There would be no more crusades to purify the world of evil. The U.S. accepted the 38th parallel as a line dividing good from evil. Evil would be left to its own devices, as long as it stayed on its own side of the line. As long as the sources of danger stayed on their own side of the global dividing line—as long as the status quo prevailed and nothing really changed—the "free world" would consider itself at peace.

It was a turning point in American culture so profound that few could even talk about it. Perhaps that is why the war, which killed countless thousands and devastated all of Koreans, and the peace that followed it were both so quickly forgotten.

Like the darkest family secret in an O’Neill or Tennessee Williams play, the repressed truth continued to drive U.S. foreign policy. Always there was the awkward, embarrassing contradiction between rhetoric and action. U.S. leaders still had to proclaim our dedication to scourging the earth of all evil. Americans would settle for no less. For all practical purposes, though, the cold war taught us to share the world with the forces we labeled as evil, because we had no choice.

The 9/11 attack raised the contradiction between rhetoric and policy to a new urgency. Shortly after the attack, Dick Cheney suggested that we should accept the terrorist threat as a permanent fact of life. The war on terror was now "a new normalcy," Cheney said: "There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, `’There, it's all over with.’'' A Korea-style stalemate would be the best to hope for.

This truth was too much for most Americans to take. So it was quickly forgotten, buried in an avalanche of World War II-style rhetoric about wiping out evil forever. The indisputable evil of Saddam Hussein let the Bush administration turn the rhetoric into reality.

But just when it seemed that the glory days of moral crusade had returned, North Korea rudely reminded us of the family secret we had been trying to forget for fifty years. We can re-enact World War II only in against our weakest, least significant foes. Even a very minor power can force us to cancel the crusade, if it plays its nuclear card adroitly.

This need not do serious damage to the Bush presidency. George W. can easily steal a page from Ike’s book; he can proclaim victory over North Korea simply by "containing" a supposedly expansionist enemy. After half a century, it has become a time-honored American tradition.

Sadly, however, neither Bush nor anyone else in the policy elite can see the possibility of a constructive "win-win" resolution, in Korea or anywhere else. Instead, we have only the same old options: contain, or crusade and conquer. As far as Korea is concerned, the advocates of containment seem to have the upper hand. North Korea’s boasting rudely reminds us that even a minor power can force us to cancel the crusade, if it plays its nuclear card adroitly.

Many voices, in Korea and around the world, are urging U.S. to leaders to move beyond the narrow confines of "contain or conquer," to explore possibilities for real cooperation. Yet the framework of our policy debate remains where it was fixed fifty years ago.

It is not surprising that we remain stuck in the past. When the Korean armistice enshrined containment, it made stability the preeminent goal of U.S. foreign policy. Stability means two opposing sides recognizing that they are stalemated, because neither can defeat the other. Each sees fundamental change as a threat, so both agree to prevent change. When stability is the goal, the possibility of cooperative effort toward fresh solutions is declared "unrealistic." Peril is accepted as a permanent fact of life.

The fear of change still combines with fear of endless threat to make the U.S. a conservative society. It prevents us from even considering new alternatives. We cannot see any options beyond military crusade and stalemate. When war is too dangerous, our only goal is to preserve the stability of the status quo. We mobilize our forces to prevent change. We forget how to think about constructive initiatives that might yield solutions that could make everyone more secure.

Change need not require war. A society that chooses stalemate because war is the only alternative it can imagine is an impoverished society. It has no way to pursue, or even consider, new possibilities for cooperation and progress. Genuine security eludes it. After fifty years, it is time for the U.S. to move beyond the frighteningly narrow policies of containment and conquest, to look for new approaches to genuine cooperative peace, in Korea and all over the world.