The Korean War
To a great many people, the Korean War means nothing more to them than any other forgotten conflict, which took place on a continent far far away. Yet, the Korean War is as relevant as it is fascinating, because even today, its influence can be felt. From 1950-53, the United States, Britain, France and even Turkey sent men and support to the South Korean Republic, in a bid to defend it against the Northern aggression supported by the other communist powers of China and Soviet Russia. Even then though, there was far more to the story than a case of rushing to defend the South. There was, as we'll learn, a great deal going on that the traditional account doesn't necessarily reveal.
In our series on the Korean War, we will spend 48 episodes detailing not just the build up to the War and its outbreak, but also the diplomatic connections, failures and successes which shaped and moulded it. We will examine the role of the United Nation, previously underrated in other studies, and ignored altogether in podcast format. We will assess the aims and motives of the major players involved, from the Soviets, to the Americans, to the Chinese, to of course the two Korean states themselves. We will provide all listeners with a comprehensive, but also accessible and enjoyable narrative, that anyone at any level of knowledge about the conflict can sink their teeth into. We come armed with a new theory and a revolutionary - some may say controversial - thesis, to explain why the Korean War erupted and then played out in the way that it did.
If you're interested in listening to this conflict from the beginning, then please scroll down to the top of the episode section, where you'll find the introduction episodes.
If you'd like to just jump in, then the most recent episode will be at the very Bottom of this section.
As always, be sure to connect to the actual podcast feed, and to expect a new episode on the Korean War to be released every Monday (with a break between 6th May-18th June 2018).
Make sure you subscribe to always get the latest episode as soon as it's released.
You can access ad-free episodes, as well as the scripts for each episode, complete with references and images, by purchasing a membership for When Diplomacy Fails' Patreon page at the price of just $2 a month!
Korean War Episodes
Korean War Introduction Part 1
The Korean War is a project which I have been preparing for for several months. It is in this episode that I drop some knowledge on you guys, such as, above all, what my take on the Korean War will look like, and what exactly I have here that is so potentially controversial. My revisionist take on the conflict is a brave approach considering the conventional views, but I do hope you'll give it a chance. Either way there are some fascinating stories to get through, and we have so much to get through in terms of introducing this series, that we need TWO Introduction episodes to get us all up to speed!
This is diplomatic history at its most juicy, and at its most underrated and glossed over. I hope to change all that, by bringing you all the most detailed account of the diplomatic origins of the war, in a 48 episode epic unparalleled in history podcast land. Why in the 21st century does a regime like Kim Jong-un's exist? All of it can be traced back to the events of the Korean War, and thanks to the legacy of the war, it has never been so relevant. We need to be able to properly understand and appreciate it if we are to then understand why North Korea does what it does today. Here we unwrap my plans, but be sure to check out the second introduction episode if you'd like more information on the sources and structure used for this series.
Other than that history friends, I'm so excited to finally bring this to you, so I have to say thanksss and I hope to see you all there!
Korean War Introduction Part 2
Is it the forgotten war, or simply a war we need to look at differently? Let's investigate.
We need to make some things clear. We have to set out the structure and scope of this project, outline what sources we used and of course, talk a bit about how each one of the episodes will be structured. What music will we used? What will Patrons get? What will the series actually look like? This is the place to find out - the Sources and Structure of the series will be learned of here.
You don't NEED to check this episode out, but if you like to be filled in on a variety of details, do check this episode out. Remember of course that I am excited to hear what you think about this - I am super excited to talk and nerd out with you about this conflict. As ever you can find history nerds and some other normal people in the Facebook group linked below. A huge thankssss to all of you that have supported us thus far, and after such a long time, I can't wait to finally unleash this massive series on you guys!
Korean War Prologue
The Korean War was fought from 1950-1953, and while many of us today have a rough idea of how it went, to most it is those two lines in a textbook, an irrelevant blip on the Cold War radar. An unimportant, unappreciated event in the crowded literature of the 20th century. To me, the Korean War is many things, and over the last few months I have been working tirelessly to create the most comprehensive, authentic and accurate account of the diplomatic and political origins of this conflict.
Not only that, but I will also be dropping some controversial conclusions and hypothoses on you guys, as we follow the trend of projects like the July Crisis and 1916 by giving you a fresh, revisionist take. Not merely for the sake of it, of course, but because I have come to be persuaded to see this war in a certain light, and I have come to understand its cause and effect formula in a different way to most conventional narratives.
If you will let me then, I hope you take you on something of a journey. Make sure to look out for the other two introduction episodes, yes TWO, but for now, try to place yourself in the era of the post-war world, as we go somewhere WDF has never gone before. I hope you enjoy it, and that you are excited to finally explore the Korean War.
KW: Cold War Crash Course Part 1
"I thought you’d be there waiting for me…what greeted me instead was the lingering stench of ashes and the empty sockets of our ruined home."
Polish citizen Samuel Puterman returns to Warsaw in late 1945.
We begin our examination of the post-WW2 world by looking at the sheer impact the conflict had on the peoples, infrastructure and industry of Europe. Once considered the centre of the world, now Europe was its shattered, gloomy shell. It would take an immense amount of rebuilding, of money and of effort to bring Europe back to the level even approaching the pre-war state of affairs.
Yet in the background, a sinister presence loomed. While the war against Fascism had been won, a new ideological world view - communism - had rooted itself in every broken dream and lost cause that remained left over from the war. Time would tell how this world view would represent itself, but already in the East, signs were emerging that the triumphant Soviet Union planned to create its own system at the expense of those in its path.
KW: Cold War Crash Course Part 2
In the second episode of the CWCC, we look at how the US managed to tie Western Europe closer to its orbit through political strategy, closer cooperation and sheer economic investment. The Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan and NATO were critical building blocks in the Euro-American relationship in the late 1940s, and we get to grips with them here.
As the US worked with its beleaguered allies, the chronic lack of food as much as coal threatened disaster. With the dollar above all being the top currency of the shattered continent, a shortage of these same dollars represented disaster to many European states. The initial solution, so it seemed, was favourable loans. Eventually, the solution, stark as it was, was the provision of American sponsored grants. The provision of billions of dollars of aid to get the West back on track, so that it could stand up to communism and hold its own.
All the while, Moscow schemed, and the critical question of what to do with Germany loomed large. Neither question would be answered quickly, or without the expenditure of a great deal of effort, money and other resources. Although they were on the right track, there was much to be concerned about in this post-war world, and several challenges still lay on the horizon. The dangers of a communist takeover, or of the big freeze that the winter of 1947-48 presented, threatened ruin for Western civilisation, and one man in particular George C Marshall (pictured), believed that strategic charity, not a tough business sense, should take centre stage. Marshall Aid was en route, but would it get there in time?
KW: Cold War Crash Course Part 3
In our latest installment of the series, we look at the person of Josef Stalin, a dominant figure for our wider Korean War series, and his security blanket he was in the process of creating in Eastern Europe. The spread of communism in Europe's shattered cities, combined with the looming threat of the Red Army and the sweeping impact of its soldiers into the East, created a new dynamic in Europe. At the head of this new dynamic was the will and ambition of Stalin, who had a direct hand in everything that occurred.
Stalin was critical in his creation of the Soviet Union bloc, but he was also critically important to any arrangement which would be reached on the future of Germany. Exactly what form Germany would take, whether it was feasible or sustainable to preserve Germany in its divided state - these were questions that the post-war governments in Britain, the US and France all grappled with. Without Stalin, they initially believed, any progress on this question would be impossible.
With Churchill's Iron Curtain speech, and Stalin's pronouncement of the West's hostility to the needs of Eastern Europe's citizens, the Cold War lines were clearly being drawn. Several conflicts lay ahead, but the more immediate questions, such as how to rebuild the continent and what to do about the continent's integral centrepiece - the Germans - remained a sore point for some and pressingly urgent for others. Here we find out how the post-war allies of east and west attempted to cooperate in spite of the looming divisions into the different ideological camps.The German question, as we'll see, could not be answered in a year, (or one episode!) it was instead a question based fundamentally on Berlin's past behaviour, where German revanchism and a repeat of the post-WW1 experience remained at the forefront of many minds.
KW: Cold War Crash Course Part 4
The question of Germany and how the east-west divide played a role in answering that question forms the basis of the latest episode in the series. The repairing and restructuring of Germany, so that it was strong enough to contribute to Europe's rebuilding, but not so strong that it pulled another war of revenge out of its hat, was a critical balancing act. It profoundly unnerved some people and inspired others. It puzzled some and excited others. Above all though, it was the legacy of Hitler's war, of Nazism, that was struggled wit
Could Hitler be purged from the consciousness of these Germans, and how many 'Good Germans' were left that could be expected to lead a democratic Germany into the future? Everyone, from the " first-class comrades" to those that had once resisted Nazism, would have roles in this post-war German order. As the clock ticked by, it remained to be seen what form the new Germany would take, and what role if any the Soviets would be able to have. History as we know, would provide the two halves of German life - the Western democratic, and Eastern communist. This episode is about that journey, its arrival and the problems, challenges and victories therein.
To the east, opportunities for Soviet expansion in Prague profoundly influenced the way that the Western allies looked at the world and Germany's role in it. More threatening than a resurgent Germany, perhaps, was an all-powerful, expansionist Soviet Union. It proved to be the case, thanks mostly to Stalin's own blundering and strong arm approach, that the lesser of two evils was a Western German state, rather than a co-opted and empowered Soviet Union. Stalin, not Hitler's ghost, was the true enemy.
KW: Cold War Crash Course Part 5
In the final episode of this miniseries, we look at the several crises which accompanied the answering of the German question. The Berlin Blockade, as well as the Prague Coup, provided key pieces of evidence in the Western mind that Stalinism was expanding its reach through the use of intimidation and brute force. Stalin, it was clear, was determined to pose as the champion of his own brand of Soviet, expansionist communism, powered by the Red Army and the threat of force. It was vital in these circumstances that the West provided a foil to such a challenge, but the question remained one of how to do so in a shattered Europe and a de-mobilising American armed force. To the surprise of all, the solution would be provided not in Europe, but thousands of miles away in Korea.
Formidable though he seemed, Stalin had his own problems with Yugoslavia. Tito, it emerged, had developed his own cult of personality, and was far less willing to fall in line that his other Eastern neighbours. This, coupled with the creation of NATO in spring 1949, provided Stalin with a great strategic challenge. Europe was evidently not his for the taking, and the soft power of communism was evidently waning with the hardening of the communist party's attitudes towards their peers in the likes of Italy and France. Had Stalin missed the boat, or was he merely scheming to launch an attack somewhere else? Either way, it was clear that Stalin was the face of Soviet power, and that this Georgian native, this paranoid, cunning, ruthless man was the face of all of democracy's problems.
Stalin responded to these challenges as only he knew how - with purges, a second reign of terror and show trials on a vast scale, as Eastern Europe's native communist parties were put through the ringer, and Stalin's worst qualities again bubbled to the surface. In our final installment of the Crash Course, these qualities inflict their damage on Stalin's position and reputation, but it was nothing the Kremlin leader could not handle. In the background, Stalin was already turning his attentions further East. He was in regular contact not merely with the Communist leader of China, but also with the most obscure Stalinist vassal in Korea, a man known as Kim Il-sung. Though nobody could know it yet, within the year, it would be Korea, not Europe, that attentions would be focused, with consequences that are felt to this day.
Episode 1: America Dawns
...looks at the situation which greeted US policymakers between 1945-50. As an episode it serves as a good roundup of all we've learned in the Cold War Crash Course, but a simple summary episode THIS IS NOT!
We delve into the mindset behind the Truman Doctrine, ask what the goals of NATO were and investigate how Washington viewed Soviet moves by examining their additional policies and proclamations.
We also look at the problems which faced the US in the late 1940s, including the mindset which insisted that there was no money in the kitty to fight the Soviets, and that Washington would have to cut its cloth to suit its pocket. This attitude towards defence expenditure and confrontation with the forces of communism would change in time, but not yet. The three losses - of China, of its status as the sole nuclear power, and of Mao Zedong himself to the Soviet Union, after the Treaty of Friendship was signed in February 1950 - all influenced American policymakers to consider a radical change in policy, and they settled upon a blandly named report called NSC68.
What was meant by Chinese Titoism? And what had American policymakers hoped to achieve by cosying up to the Chinese communists? Could they really expect to change the perspective of the Chinese, when the Soviets loomed so large in Mao's estimation? Make sure you join us to find out the answer to this question as well as a host of others. Our first episode, at long last. I hope you enjoy it.
Episode 2: The Force of Peace
...we examine the founding moments of the United Nations, where the idea for it came from, why it was established and how it developed as an institution in the 1940s to have a leading role in the post-war world. The UN, as we'll see, was quite effective when its aims didn't conflict with the American or Soviet world views. Limited cooperation was, it seemed, a possibility in this shattered, traumatised world. Yet, this cooperation would only go so far.
Clouds were looming on the horizon, but these clouds were largely invisible to General Douglas MacArthur (pictured with Hirohito in an immensely controversial photograph for the time) the other interest of this episode. We look at MacArthur's days in post-war Japan, and how he managed to craft for himself an incredible legacy, with not a small amount of Japanese adoration to boot. MacArthur was busy creating not merely a post-war Japanese order, but also his own legend.
His success in this measure would lead in time to his appointment as Supreme Allied Commander in the critical early phases of the Korean War, at a time when his hubris could barely fit within the Japanese islands. It was a recipe for disaster, or was it? Let's investigate, in this second episode of the Korean War!
Episode 3: The Brittle Curtain
...examines the actual situation Comrade Stalin faced when he considered his options in the post-war world. Exactly how strong, or powerful, was the Soviet Union, and how stable were its East European satellites? Was the USSR's control based on more than merely the threat of force, or was the power of fear the glue that tied the entire edifice together?
All of these are important questions, and it is immensely important that we get to the bottom of exactly what the position and perspectives of Stalin were in the pre-Korean War world, and we do our best to answer them in this critical bit of background, so I hope you enjoy it my lovely history friends!
Episode 4: The Cat's Mao
...looks at Mao Zedong, the man, the myth, the legend, the disgusting, horrible war criminal and mass murderer who...ahem. Sorry about that. Mao Zedong remains a controversial figure to this day. Some believe China would never have recovered in the manner that it did, and that China would never be the power that it is today, without Mao Zedong at the helm. At the same time, while some are content to name fast food restaurants after him, others decry his responsibility, both directly and indirectly, for the loss of millions of lives - figures too difficult to pin down, but certainly high enough to qualify him in the rank of mass murderers alongside Stalin and Hitler.
Indeed, controversy followed Mao, but in this episode we do our best to dispense with what Mao would DO, and focus instead on what the leader of the Chinese Communist Party actually DID. To find out, we look at his birth, his growth, his involvement in the civil wars, in the wars against the Japanese and then in the last phase of the civil war in the late 1940s, whereupon he would be pushed into a position of power arguably never attained by a Chinese figure since the all-powerful Emperors of yore. As was customary though, Mao's power disguised the bare facts of his country's vulnerability and devastation, themes which we will grapple with over the coming episodes.
Episode 5: Sino-Soviet Talks Part 1
...examines, as you may have guessed, the detailed and complex Sino-Soviet relationship, as we build towards the signing of the Sino-Soviet alliance in February 1950. Much like Stalin and Mao had much to do before that alliance was signed, so we have much to cover before we can get to that point in our narrative, and this episode here provides a good deal of background to the Sino-Soviet relationship in the late 1940s.
Episode 6: Sino-Soviet Talks Part 2
...continues the story from where we left off last time. The Chinese communists launch their final great offensive of the civil war against the Nationalists from April 1949, as Stalin watches his old strategy crumble. Faced with the emergence of a dominant Chinese Communist Party, rather than the divided Chinese state that he desired, how would Stalin respond? In the event, he welcomed Mao's ally Liu Shaoqi to Moscow in summer 1949 to talk through some important issues, and pave the way for a deeper friendship between the two communist regimes. Even at this stage, with both parties harbouring great and conflicting ambitions, success or alliance were by no means certain outcomes. Much, it seemed, still needed to be done.
Episode 7: Sino-Soviet Talks Part 3
...picks up in this developing story, as the Chinese and Soviets cautiously move ever closer to one another in world affairs. Stalin's mission was clear. He welcomed Mao Zedong to Moscow in December 1949, in the midst of rumours that the Sino-Soviet bloc were keen to furnish some kind of alliance. Stalin, much like Mao, wanted to have his cake and eat it too, and would put up several obstacles to the successful conclusion of an alliance treaty, blaming Yalt, the West, the Americans and bad weather instead of his own personal intransigence.
Mao would have to persevere if he wanted the alliance that he had travelled to Moscow to acquire. Much still needed to be done though, and in this penultimate episode analysing these talks, we see the thorny issues like Manchuria, the Soviet occupation of naval bases and the provision of resources to the Chinese in the context of the early Cold War. I hope you'll join me then, as we continue to countdown towards the cementing of one of the most important alliances signed in the 20th century.
Episode 8: Sino-Soviet Talks Part 4
...is the final episode examining the scene in Moscow, where the defining alliance between the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Union was signed. It took a great deal of compromise...or wait, no it didn't. It required a lot of trust...no wait, that's not right either. Em, it was mutually beneficial to both sides thanks to a whole load of scheming and power plays? Yes that's a bit more accurate. The Sino-Soviet alliance wasn't your typical alliance - it was forged by two paranoid entities at a time when each party seriously mistrusted the other.
Within this episode, we are confronted by Stalin's changing policy towards Korea, as his own policy aims seemed in jeopardy if the Chinese managed to forge a deal with the West. At the core of Stalin's concerns was that his own influence would be diluted even if the Chinese managed to forge an alliance with Moscow, as American aid or agreements could replace those of the Soviet variety. To intercept this challenge to his supremacy, Stalin began to set in motion plans which would lead directly to the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula six months later. This episode is thus a critically important one if we are to understand Stalin's mindset and his overall policy aims. Here we discover exactly how responsible Stalin was for the conflict that followed, so I hope you enjoy it!
Episode 9: Sino-American Talks Part 1
...introduces us to the OTHER side of Chinese diplomacy between 1949-50; that involving the US, and how Washington attempted to wrest some benefit out of the rapidly changing situation in China, as the Republican/Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek suffered successive defeats at Mao's hands.
The US would attempt to drive a wedge between the USSR and the PRC during 1949 - a policy which we know, in light of the signing of the Sino-Soviet alliance, eventually failed, but this was not from lack of trying! To set the proper for context for the radical change in American foreign policy which emerged in spring 1950, it is necessary here to detail what came before. I hope you guys enjoy our examination of a period of post-war American diplomacy which is largely skimmed over today.
At the head of this wedge strategy was the Secretary of State Dean Acheson (pictured), who rebelled against the policy insisted upon by the right of centre Republicans that wanted the US to fight for Chiang Kai-shek. Acheson was adamant that only through the appeasement of the communist Chinese, through a realistic approach to their civil war, and through an appraisal of the advantages the US had over the Chinese, could the feared Sino-Soviet agreement be prevented. Time would show, as we know, that Acheson, as well as his peers, were wrong on all accounts.
This episode, much like the previous take on Sino-Soviet relations, forms a critically important building block, and is a necessary scene setting step towards the REALLY juicy stuff in early 1950, so I hope you enjoy it!
Episode 10: Sino-American Talks Part 2
...concludes our take on where the Sino-American diplomacy led as 1949 became 1950. It provides a crucial bit of background to how the US reacted to the actual signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty, so make sure you have a listen in, and as always, be sure to let me know what you all thought!
The increasing supremacy of the communists, as well as the difficulties posed by the British, were among the complications that the Truman administration faced when its face, Dean Acheson, (pictured here at work with NATO) attempted to continue with the wedge approach. As we learned last time, Acheson believed that only by accepting the facts of the day and abandoning the doomed Chiang Kai-shek could US interests in Asia and across the world be upheld. Unless America abandoned Chiang, it could never pose as a friend to Mao, and thus Acheson attempted, in a last ditch effort in autumn 1949, to be that friend.
Mao was in indeed looking for a friend, but as we have learned, Acheson's efforts came as too little too late. Worse, the Soviets managed to detonate their own atom bomb in August, reducing the American supremacy in world affairs. Pressure was mounting on Acheson to wrest something from Mao, just as it was mounting on Mao to reach an agreement with Stalin. As we know, only one of these outcomes could come to pass, and Beijing would side with their ideological allies rather than the suspicious Washington.
Acheson didn't know it yet, but his failure here would lead him to trumpet an even more radical policy than appeasing the Chinese. If the Soviets and Chinese wanted to be in cahoots, then America would allow it and confront the problem head on, but first she needed to re-arm. The march towards Korea was beginning.
Episode 11: Coming Full Circle
...ties together the last six episodes that examined the Sino-Soviet and Sino-American relations in their different boxes. The countless ways in which American, Soviet and Chinese interests overlapped in the world made hammering out satisfactory deals somewhat difficult, but as 1950 dawned, the Chinese were finally closing in on signing the deal with the Soviets, but not if Dean Acheson had anything to say about it!
This is a VERY detailed episode, and can be best divided into three parts.
1) Explaining the different NSC reports and papers, and how they were reconciled as new developments affected a change in US foreign policy.
2) Stalin's decision to walk out of the UN Security Council, and why he did it!
3) Acheson's speech to the National Press Club on 12th January 1950 - so long lambasted as an example of the Secretary of State's carelessness, but in actual fact representing a veiled attempt to appeal to Mao Zedong.
In the course of his last efforts to drive that wedge between China and Russia, Acheson performed the now infamous speech at the National Press Club on 12th January 1950. Ever since that moment, Acheson came to be regarded as the man who led the world to believe that the US did not care about South Korea, and thus he is sometimes criticised for giving the green light to Kim Il-sung, who interpreted his speech as saying that Washington would leave Seoul to its fate. The reality, as we'll discover, was a bit more complicated, FAR more interesting and had, at its goal, the friendship of China.
Acheson was not going down without a fight, but within days, everything he held to be true about American foreign policy would change. See how such an incredible story unfolded, in our latest episode of the Korean War!
Episode 12: A Treaty of 'Friendship'
...we examine Mao Zedong's visit to Moscow reaching its conclusion. The long awaited treaty, so long feared in the US, was concluded on 14th February. Yet, while on the surface, the agreement was steeped in mutual cooperation and Sino-Soviet happiness, the truth was far more complex, and far less warm.
Under the surface, Stalin had already set the ball rolling for a war in Korea by providing Kim Il-Sung with thousands of new experienced soldiers, freshly returned from their campaigns in China. This sudden influx of experienced and enthusiastic veterans meant that Kim was in a position to invade the South, at least, so he thought. To Mao Zedong, this meant a whole load of bad things, but above all, it meant complications and security problems for his fledgling People's Republic.
Having sown this seed in the background, Stalin was bound to see it bear fruit in the near future, and he found that Mao was a great deal more suspicious of him when they met in late January to conclude their long awaited deal. The rumour and whispers about Stalin's moves and the dangers these posed Mao compelled the Chinese leader to change his stance in many, almost hilarious respects. While Stalin, altered also by the events he was setting in motion, had changed his tune as well. The Treaty of Friendship, while lamented in Washington, was as much a blessing as a curse for Mao - above all, it now meant that the race was on to make war against Taiwan before there was war in Korea. The problem being, Stalin had his hands all over the necessary equipment, and he was in total control
Episode 13: A Useful Bombshell
...examines the immediate reactions to the Sino-Soviet Alliance in the US. Now that their wedge strategy had been torpedoed, and the Truman administration had failed to save China again, the question remained as to what Dean Acheson could do next. Under pressure from foreign and domestic critics, it was imperative that something was done to reverse these negative trends, and get some kind of a win for American foreign policy.
If you've been paying attention so far, you'll know that THIS is the moment in our story when our coverage really diverges away from the mainstream version of what happened, but bear with me, because we certainly aren't being 'alt' for no reason!
The version of the KW which I plan to present in this series is this: far from twiddling its thumbs and living in blissful ignorance of the threat to Korea and Taiwan, Acheson and some newly installed, more hardline colleagues determined that Korea could have some real value as a piece of bait. This bait could draw first the North Koreans and then the Chinese in, while Taiwan would be secured, a new frontline against communism would be drawn in Asia, and, most importantly of all, Washington would wrest approval in these desperate times for a manifold explosion in its defence budget, from $15 billion to $70 billion, as we have seen.
"No people in history have preserved their freedom who thought that by not being strong enough to protect themselves they might prove inoffensive to their enemies." Such was the opinion of NSC68, our boo for this series, and the key to understanding why the US pursued the foreign policy that it did. Having tried and failed to disarm the Soviet capabilities through diplomacy, plan B looked to contain the Sino-Soviet bloc, although it was tacitly acknowledged that to bluff the Soviets from a position of weakness would be a recipe for disaster.
NSC68 did not mean war with the Soviets - it meant the creation of a military industrial complex that would enable Washington to contain communism, and peacefully dictate to Moscow from a position of strength. Episode 13's useful bombshell was thus that Sino-Soviet alliance, because without it, the Truman administration could never have turned American fortunes around as they did, and the US may well never have emerged as the supreme military power in the Cold War. This, and some other musings, are our episode 13, so I hope you enjoy it!
Episode 14: The Race To Ruin
...examines the Asian theatre in spring 1950, and the different concerns which the North Koreans, Soviet and Chinese leaders grappled with. At the apex of these concerns was the alternative plan of Mao's, as Mao desperately wanted to invade Taiwan, and end the Chinese Civil War once and for all before either American support or some form of republican resurgence on that island threatened China. This fear of the implications for Chinese security in Taiwan compelled Mao to act entirely as Stalin expected.
Mao was eager to invade Taiwan, but required Soviet aid to launch such an invasion since he lacked the necessary landing craft. Thus, Stalin held the cards, and he also held them in the Korean case, as supplies began arriving in Pyongyang at the same time as Stalin met with the North Korean delegation over February to April. Important details, and the blueprint of the war were essentially hammered out, and Stalin presented the conflict going the way which Kim had hoped. It would not be a long war, Stalin claimed, but a short sharp one, whereupon the fall of Seoul would cause a pro-Kim uprising in South Korea, and the country would fall without Kim Il-sung having to lift a finger. This, of course, was what Kim Il-sung wanted to hear.
If Kim was being duped by Stalin on this issue, then Mao wasn't doing much better. Gradually, at least, the Chinese leader was beginning to suspect that something was underway in North Korea. Because Stalin kept Mao in the dark on point of principle, Mao couldn't be sure of Soviet moves, but he felt a pressure upon his goals to invade Taiwan, and this was enough to force him to accelerate his plans for an invasion, with or without the necessary craft. This increased preparedness, of course, caused Stalin to increase his own Korean War plans. If Mao managed to seize Taiwan before the Korean War was launched, then Chiang Kai-shek would be absent, and the Sino-American relationship could be potentially healed. To prevent this, Stalin attempted to intercept the Chinese by pushing Kim forward in Korea. It was thus a race, yet on any consideration, it was a race to ruin. Stalin was eager to launch the war, but he was far from eager to actually fight it.
Episode 15: Ignorance Is Bliss
...examines the behaviour of the US towards its South Korean ally. Since the American strategy was now to lure North Korea into attacking, we'll see in this episode exactly how determined the Truman administration was to chronically underfund and jeopardise the security of Seoul. Ignoring the protests, concerns and urgency professed even by some of its own State Department staff, the US behaved as though it had no concept of what was happening in South Korea in spring 1950, and that it did not know that the Soviets were now actively supporting the North as it prepared to invade.
If the North planned to invade, Washington planned to make South Korea as juicy a target as possible for its neighbours. Only in this way would the conflict necessary for the realisation of NSC68 be achieved. So Syngman Rhee was faced with complaints from Washington that inflation in his country was rife, and that he would have to sort this out before sufficient military aid would be provided. Where Rhee protested that his state was desperately vulnerable in light of rumours of Northern rearmament, Acheson(pictured here with Truman) stalled, and presented the South Korean regime as too beligerent to be trusted with greater defensive capabilities, a claim which has mostly stuck to this day.
In the height of his desperation, the uninformed American ambassador to South Korea, John J Muccio, would attempt to travel to Washington and make his case. As he planned his trip, it was difficult to believe that the Truman administration could indeed be this grossly incompetant and ignorant of the situation. As we'll see, this conventional explanation for why the US ignored the repeated warnings doesn't hold up particularly well under scrutiny. It's time to challenge what you think you know, and I'm here as always to help you do that!
Episode 16: Selective Perspective
...examines further the American policy towards South Korea in late spring 1950. We open the episode with the arrival of America's ambassador to South Korea John J Muccio (pictured) returning home, to plead in person for the things that Seoul desperately needed. While Muccio did this, the Truman administration set about crafting a perfectly coordinated image of its approach to South Korea, be that through suggestive magazine interviews or tactically ignoring Muccio's recommendations, while giving the impression that he had been listened to.
If the order of the day was to stall Muccio, and to momentarily ease Syngman Rhee's fears, then it was mission accomplished.
As the Truman administration well understood, their policy towards Korea was being watched by the communists, and any signs of hesitation, of a reluctant or unwillingness to support Rhee's regime could all be construed as signals that Washington wouldn't put up much of a fight if the North invaded. This was what Kim Il-sung wanted to hear, and it was also exactly what Washington wanted him to hear. Faced with these bits of evidence, Kim would invade South Korea convinced of the American weakness and hesitation, only to face a total buzzsaw.
The US did have some cause for concern though, when intelligence was received that underlined the sheer number of armoured columns collecting in North Korea. While they required a Northern invasion and an allied holding action, there was a danger that the North would push the allies off the peninsula entirely if the hundreds of T34 tanks burst over the 38th parallel. Thus, Washington engaged in some other policies, seemingly at odds with their plan to sabotage South Korea's defensive capabilities. Task forces, air and naval forces and other preparations would be made. Even while it would seem that the US was unprepared when the North attacked, the arrival of more soldiers in the nick of time in several areas would, hopefully, be enough to plug the gaps. Any suspicion about the American response was a matter of perspective.
Episode 17: The Balancing Act
...contains several fascinating nuggets, as the US did its best to balance the needs of its policy towards South Korea - the luring of its enemies there into a false sense of security by making the regime vulnerable - with its real strategic concerns if the North made use of its increasingly powerful armoured columns. In spite of Syngman Rhee's pleas in the months before, the anti-tank capabilities of the ROK Army were insufficient at best, and there was a real danger that if the North pushed south with its abundance of T34s, it would roll up everything that the allies had to offer.
In such circumstances, we are also introduced to War Plan SL-17, a detailed dossier on how to act in the event of a war in Korea, developed by the US government in early June 1950, in other words, only a few weeks before the invasion was launched. This War Plan also detailed the defence in the Pusan Perimeter which was later made famous by heroic allied actions, but also "an amphibious landing at Inchon to cut enemy supply lines". Far from General MacArthur's brainchild, the Inchon landings were in fact put to paper many months before, all as a response to the fears that the North was capable of defeating the allies on the peninsula before the wider goal of NSC68 could be pursued.
This is our final analysis of American policies towards Korea before the shooting begins, and it is rife with some last minute considerations, as war preparations in late June 1950 reach a fever pitch. Having crafted and prepared this policy, it was essential that Washington not mess up this late in the game - the risk was high, but the endgoal of containment required that Korea be a theatre of risk. If the allies could stand fast in the initial attack, then the subsequent response would hopefully cover up any bad taste that the initial allied failures left. Hopes and aims were thus a dime a dozen in the final days of peace; it remained to be seen exactly how secure the American position was. A succession of punches, some of them in the public sphere, some on the battlefield, and some in the upper echelons of government and military command, were soon to land, and then, a new balancing act would begin.
Episode 18: Korean Background Part 1
...examines, oddly enough, the background in Korea before the war broke out, in the early years of Syngman Rhee's career. Rhee's life existed in the backdrop of the creeping Japanese influence in Korea, as the peninsula was passing from a Chinese to a Japanese satellite in the late 19th century. All the while, Russian tensions with the Japanese also escalated, and Rhee found himself trapped in a homeland with few friends, and many predators.
At 30 years old in the early years of the century, Rhee began his auspicious journey to the US, where he gathered up several degrees and distinguished himself, before returning home as a missionary of all things, just as the Japanese were preparing to annex the region. Rhee's departure in 1910 signalled a watershed moment in his life - for the next 35 years, Rhee would remain an American resident, tirelessly campaigning for the rights of Koreans to independence, as his calls fell on mostly deaf ears. Not until 1945, when he was needed as a Westernised, English speaking Korean person, would Rhee be called upon by the US.
We conclude the episode by examining the arrival of the two sides in the peninsula in 1945, and the decision made thereafter to divide Korea along the 38th parallel. It was a decision taken, we'll see, without any consultation with the Korean people, and it was also a decision taken entirely with the interests of the US and Soviets in mind. Time would tell exactly how important this dividing line would be, but for now, it sufficed to keep everyone quiet, if not happy.
Episode 19: Korean Background Part 2
...picks up where we left off last time with an examination of Syngman Rhee, by examining his counterpart up North. Who was Kim Il-sung, and where did he come from to assume a position of unrivalled power in Pyongyang by 1950? Was this rise all by accident, or exclusively by Soviet design, and what was it that recommended Kim to Stalin in the first place? All of these are critical questions which we will examine here, as one of the leading antagonists of our narrative is brought out into the open, freed from his mythical bubble.
The story of Kim is one of the creation of Korean nationalism, as much as it the creation of the Korean Communist Party, which won only 4% of the vote in the Soviet zone in 1946. This would never do, and the ascent of Kim Il-sung had much to do with his passionate zeal for communism, as much as it with his loyalty to Stalin. Both qualities would be greatly tested over the next few years, but they would also enable Kim to manoeuvre himself and his family into an unprecedented position of leadership and control. The seeds of this position were already being planted here.
Episode 20: Korean Background Part 3
...concludes our examination of the Korean elements of the Korean War, by looking at the events which shaped the peninsula North and South between 1945-50. These were years of trouble, of building political bases and of tackling the inherent problems which each zone posed. Cultures of corruption, of political difference and of nationalism would all have to be adapted in this divided world. In the midst of these changes we also see the role which the many institutions of the United Nations had in bringing Korea back together on a basis which would be acceptable to both sides.
In the late 1940s, it was far from certain that the division in Korea would be permanent. Since both Moscow and Washington were by now far more occupied with events going on in Western Europe, where events like the Berlin Blockade and the Prague Coup dominated, it was unsurprising that both had little time for affairs in Korea. In time though, as this episode shows, both sides saw the value in holding onto their zone, even while this act required some additional investment, and a consistent support of their favoured candidate, who didn't necessarily have the support of the country behind him. These years, indeed, show us what the Korean origins to the Korean War were, and how it was that over 100,000 Koreans had lost their lives in an undeclared civil war on the peninsula before the outbreak of war in June 1950.
Episode 21: In Support of My Thesis
...is a kind of culmination of all we've learned so far. It's also a recap of our findings and my theses for this series. What do I believe, and why do I believe it, and how do I respond to some other scholars who claim that the Korean War began for different reasons? All of these are questions I grapple with here, so if you like your debates historical be sure to stop by.
Throughout this episode we delve into the arguments and conclusions of several historians, and we rationalise our findings by asking you guys a set of hypothetical questions. Let's just say that if you were unconvinced about how we got to our conclusions and why, you should find this episode here very persuasive, and hopefully effective in conveying my points of view. Make sure as ever that you guys let me know what you think! Do you side with the conventional explanations, given by a guy like Max Hastings, (pictured), or are you looking for something more? Have a listen, and see where you stand.
Episode 22: Crossing the Rubicon
...looks at the moment where the North invades, and the different pieces fall into place for some, and fall apart for others. At 4AM on 25th June 1950, the buildup, all the preparation, all the pressuring and all the lies produced their anticipated outcome. In more force than anyone could have expected, North Korea invaded its Southern neighbour and instigated what appeared to be a catastrophic collapse in Southern defences. Syngman Rhee, it seems, had been right to warn his American allies of his country's vulnerable state.
The ROKA proved useless in the face of the North's veteran troops, many of whom had served in the Chinese Civil War for several years. We follow from the perspective of Paik Sun Yup, who began the war as a Colonel, he would end it as one of the highest ranking military personnel in Korea. His war was only beginning, The nightmare for Korea was only beginning, as the war which has flummoxed and fascinated people for many decades since erupted across the 38th parallel.