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Forgotten War, Tragic Peace

by Ira Chernus on Jul 23, 2003

Ira Chernus

Renewed concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are reviving memories of “the forgotten war,” the war in Korea. But the real key to U.S. policy is the forgotten peace that began at the war’s end, 50 years ago.

The armistice of July 27, 1953, ushered in a new kind of peacetime: not a time of cooperation and harmony, not a time to change 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 the rest of the world.

When the Korean fighting began, most Americans assumed that peace meant defeating our opponents unconditionally, whether their sign was a swastika, a rising sun or a hammer and sickle. American troops were sent to Korea in the spirit of a crusade to vanquish an enemy. But they came home in 1953 with only a tie.

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.

President Eisenhower, announcing the armistice to the nation, insisted that the United States had won in Korea, simply because it had stopped the enemy from winning. In the newly ascendant policy of containment, victory did not mean eliminating threats, but merely preventing those threats from eliminating us. The United States accepted the 38th parallel as a line dividing safety from danger in the Korean peninsula and, by extension, the world.

As long as the sources of danger stayed on their own side of the global dividing line, the “free world” would consider itself at peace. U.S. foreign policy, in Korea and around the world, got stuck at that point.

It remains there today, as the events of recent months have shown. Just as the war in Iraq seemed to be reviving the crusading language of World War II, North Korea announced its nuclear capability. It was another in North Korea’s long line of transparent bids for American respect.

The reaction of policy-makers in the United States hardly admits the possibility of a constructive “win-win” resolution to this new crisis. Instead, we have the same old options: contain, or crusade and conquer. Thus far, the advocates of containment seem to have the upper hand. North Korea’s rude boasts remind us that even a very minor power can force us to cancel the crusade if it plays its nuclear card adroitly.

Of course, U.S. leaders still proclaim their dedication to purifying the earth by defeating all evil, just as Eisenhower did in 1953. For all practical purposes, though, the lesson of the Korea armistice still prevails. We must share the world with forces we label as global perils, because we have no choice.

Unfortunately, the only kind of sharing most Americans can imagine is still endless containment. Many voices, in Korea and around the world, are urging U.S. 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 50 years ago.

It is not surprising that we remain stuck in the past. When the Korean armistice enshrined containment, it made stability — preventing fundamental change — the preeminent goal of U.S. foreign policy. The alternative of cooperative effort toward fresh solutions was declared “unrealistic.” Peril was accepted as a permanent fact of life.

Perhaps that is why both the Korean war, which caused millions of casualties and decimated a whole nation, and the altered meaning of peace were so soon forgotten.

The fear of change still combines with fear of recurring threats to make the United States 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. Much has changed in the world these past 50 years, but not the inadequacy of meeting global threats solely with the two options of containment or conquest.


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.