War in Iraq: Comparisons with the Korean War

I. F. Stone had been unable to find a publisher for his 1952 book, The Hidden History of the Korean War. until he met Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. Thus his book became the first published by Monthly Review Press. A perusal of a friend’s recollections as an infantryman during that war prompted me to read the book.

And the parallels between outbreak of the Korean War and the reasons for initiating a war against Iraq are frightening.

First came the lie – that the war began with a surprise attack from the North. And now, 50 years later, the lies are returning: the autocratic ruler of Iraq may have connections with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and if not, he will someday let loose on his own. Lies have, of course, ushered in other wars: the Tonkin Gulf affair prior to Vietnam or “Remember the Maine,” as an excuse for the Spanish American War in 1898.

The timing of a war’s beginning may hint at its purpose. Stone reports that prior to June 25, 1950, the Truman administration was turning away from defending Taiwan against Communist China. In response, John Foster Dulles, a State Department advisor and a no-holds-barred anti-communist, joined forces with General MacArthur and the China Lobby, and the result was an invasion of South Korea by North Korea. All at once the U.S. government took Taiwan under its wing. Syngman Rhee, the autocratic South Korean ruler, gained respectability and the policy of containment became a reality, with Korea the pawn.

As wars progress, military leaders may find openings through which they assume some prerogatives of civilian leadership. Stone sees MacArthur blocking peace efforts with staged offensive actions and exaggerated estimates of opposing Chinese forces. He moved into the realm of preventive war by sending U.S. forces to the Yalu River and bombing Chinese and Russian targets. MacArthur is alleged to have made it easy for North Korean forces to drive UN forces back to the 38th parallel.

Whether or not military-based decision making will gain ascendancy now – or already has – is uncertain, but the drumbeat for a pre-emptive strike is ominous.

Stone uses diplomatic historian George Kennan, to suggest a process by which the Korean War might have been planned. Kennan was describing how a U.S. war in the Caribbean had been extended to the Philippines in 1898, a scenario that may well apply to war with Iraq,

“The action of the United States government had been determined primarily on the basis of a very able and very quiet intrigue by a few strategically placed persons in Washington,” Kennan wrote, adding that the intrigue “received absolution, forgiveness and a sort of public blessing by virtue of war hysteria.”

The Korean War became intertwined with rabid anti-communism and the driving force of domestic politics. The draft was reborn, and support for social programs gave way to spending for rearmament. As Winston Churchill allegedly said, “I’d never heard of the bloody place (Korea) until I was 74. Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.”

Then and now, war means massive military spending, restrictions on individual liberties, inhibitions on criticism, and a lowered priority for programs favoring social justice. As long as the Soviet Union still existed, and long after the Korean War ended, Washington flaunted the threat of a red menace to gain acceptance for such sacrifices. From now on, the specter of terrorism, brought close by means of another war on the horizon, will be filling that role.

I. F. Stone quotes General Van Fleet: “Korea has been a blessing. There had to be a Korea here or someplace in the world.”

A “blessing”? Almost four million people died out of a population of 30 million, 34,000 U.S. troops dead, indiscriminate bombing with napalm bombs, tens of thousands of civilians tortured and murdered

It is called the “forgotten war.” But we remember it through I.F. Stone. His kindred spirits of today are already preparing a place in our historical memory for the present war.



W.T. Whitney Jr. is a pediatrician and activist from Maine. The author can be reached at atwhit@megalink.net