How Politics Shaped the Korean War


As is the case in any war, politics can be a driving force.  Militarist Carl von Clausewitz said that “war is politics by another means.”  The Korean War was no different than any other war.  Many decisions involving the conduction of the war were politically driven on both the domestic and foreign fronts.  Conversely United States’ politics was affected by the Korean War.

The United States was involved in the economic recovery of Europe at the end of World War II.  This assistance had the beginnings of anti-Russian communist intent. The Truman Doctrine promised U.S. aid to any country who sought protection from aggression, either externally or internally, by countries or factions within countries who espoused Communism.   The Truman Doctrine gave Turkey and Greece economic support but was also a doctrine of encirclement as it also included Iran, Pakistan, Japan, and China.  Also at this time the French were back in Indochina and the United States’ aid was supplied to Chiang Kai-shek for his Nationalist cause in China.

The Marshall Plan poured money into the recovery of Europe after World War II.  European countries were pleased with U.S. aid and sought assurances of total U.S. attention to their concerns.  The European nations did not want money diverted from their uses to that of the Koreans as these people fought for their freedom and reunification.  Congress sided with the European countries.  Europe also wanted assurances that the U.S. would assist in keeping Russia out of Eastern Europe.  Involvement on a second front, in the Pacific, might very well cause United States’ support to be lessened on the European front

Before U.S. involvement in Korea the Republican Party was comprised of internationalists and their counterpart isolationists.  The isolationists, under the guise of non-interventionism were support for Nazi Germany and feared that FDR’s New Deal policies were socialist in base.  Additionally, key Republicans had long term business relationships in Nazi Germany.    These businessmen and corporations used isolationist policies in an attempt to pressure the government into continuing to give them a free hand to support German war industries despite the Neutrality Act.

Though isolationists and noninterventionists were characterized as Midwestern conservatives, often of German ancestry, these groups full filled a primary purpose of influencing public opinion against American efforts against Axis intervention on a world-wide scale.

The eighty-first Congress, which Harry Truman had inherited with his Presidential win, had no intention of cooperating with its new commander-in-chief by supporting the Truman Doctrine or the Marshall Plan.   The conservatives did not share Truman’s or Secretary of State Marshall’s enthusiasm for a program for containment of Communism.   Republicans wanted an end to the graduated income tax, no labor unions, an end to the social security system, end of antitrust legislation, and a foreign policy based on the use of military force in support of American economic interests. Conservative Democrats (Dixiecrats) wanted   continued restriction of voting franchise, an implementation of a national police force with broad powers of search and seizure, control of the press, arrest and detention without habeas corpus, recognition and implementation of a national religion that is Christian, Protestant, Evangelistic and xenophobic with mandated prayer in schools and direct financial support for religious institutions, the creation of a secondary level of citizenship based on race, religion, national origin, political beliefs, and a series of physiological and intellectual criteria, and restriction of women’s rights and the enfranchisement of women.. This is the traditional Republican agenda.

The collapse of the Nationalist China gave the Republicans fuel against the Democrats.  The United States wrote the China White Papers to state its attitude towards the Communist versus Nationalist civil war in China.  The U.S. denied any responsibility for the loss of mainland China to the Communists, but the Republicans issued a public statement that the U.S. withheld weapons from the Nationalist Chinese and placed Asia in danger of being consumed by Communism.   The Republican Party wanted Kai-shek returned to mainland China and did not want the Truman Administration to recognize Red China.   The China White Paper states that “social and political upheavals within China gave Communists the country.”    Republicans blamed the results on pro-Communists in both Roosevelt’s and Truman’s administrations and further declared that these pro-Communist groups gave China to the Communists.

Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked the State Department and accused it of being pro-Communist and responsible of Mao’s victory in China.  McCarthy said, “In my opinion the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with Communists.”   The explosion of Russia’s first atomic bomb and the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury after declaring he had never been in the Communist party all increased the pervading fear or distrust of Communism.

A Congressional election was approaching for November 1950 and the Republicans decided the most effective way to win more seats in Congress was by opposing the current administration. Congress was often divided on acceptable policies in dealing with the Korean War.   This political body alternately advocated the opposite positions of complete withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula or the waging of an all-out war against China.   An all-out war at this time would have meant global war.  “The Congressional Republicans throughout the 1950-1953 periods were seriously divided over the question of transforming the unification of Korea from a political to a military goal.

David Rees, author of Korea: The Limited War states that “The Korean decision was primarily a political decision in the Jeffersonian tradition of American idealism.”   The U.S. interest in Korea went beyond disgust of the Communist invasion of Korea, a defenseless country.

A limited war is a political war in that the home government’s political demands restrain the military.   The U.S. at times favored a limited war despite the military wishes for all-out war.  The three reasons why the U.S. decided to conduct a limited war were that they did not want to provoke Russia to enter the war, did not want to overextend in Korea and leave Europe vulnerable, and the U.S. allies were reluctant to expand the war.  The Republican dominated Eightieth Congress cut defense spending and delayed appropriating money for the army in 1949.  This was why the U.S. withdrew from South Korea in September of 1947.  Congress withheld monies again when it refused to give $60 million more in 1950 and 1951.  Without money armies cannot be maintained.

In the early part of the war the congressional Republicans approved of U.S. actions of moving into Korea.  Republican Senator Knowland warned of a Munich-like appeasement.  He vowed that if Korea fell to Communism, then all of Asia would be threatened.    He referred to appeasement as surrender on the installment plan. Republican Alexander Smith of New Jersey said,” We Republicans to a man—while we have been critical of the Far Eastern policy of the past—are united now with the administration.   While some Republicans were behind the administration, McCarthy was spouting that any failure of foreign policy was due to Communists within the State Department.

Eventually Republicans rallied around McCarthy and also joined in the anti-communist rhetoric.  Even Democrats voted for anti-subversive legislation.   There were witch hunts for Communists in the United States including the State Department.  Public demand for anti-Communist and anti-subversive legislature encouraged both Republicans and Democrats to vote for these measures.  The anti-communism band wagon seemed like a good ride as the elections of 1950 approached.  The Republicans planned to unseat the Democrats in Congress.

Republican charges of subversion in the administration colored foreign policy in the Far East.  By the summer of 1950 Truman had rejected peace efforts by India and England.  Then the administration used the conflict to achieve policy objectives in Europe.   The peace efforts of both India and England included the acceptance of People’s Republic of China into the United Nations as well as Korean War settlement. England wanted to maintain good relations with China for her own economic reasons.   If the administration had shown a willingness to accept Communist China, the Republicans would have used this to prove that there were Communists in the Administration as well as the State Department.  Public opinion in the U.S. was in favor of not accepting India’s peace initiative.

Republicans had allocated a tremendous amount of money for military aid in South Korea in October, 1949.  This money was to be used to build Korea’s army, but was never used for this purpose.  This would have been due to the reservations of the administration to give Rhee an army to use at his own discretion.  The administration was concerned that Rhee would take this army and attack North Korea and this would bring China and Russia into the fight.

The republicans had started to “prey on the fears of the electorate in times of crisis for the sake of political gain.”   The conspiracy group in Congress started to say that the U.S. had deliberately lost Manchuria, China, Korea, and Berlin in a loss of strategic areas throughout the world.   Republicans played on the U.S. population’s mounting fear of Communism within the U.S. as well as through out the world.

Truman asked Congress to “…remove the limitations on size of armed forces…authorize the establishment of priorities and allocations of materials to prevent hoarding and requisitioning of necessary supplies…raise taxes and restrict consumer credit…and (allocate) an additional ten billion for defense.”    The authority to control prices, wages, and distribution of consumer goods at retail level vested in the President more arbitrary power over lives of American people than any other legislation past or present.   Republicans demanded a cut in domestic spending and protested the increase powers the President would have.

The major fact that Truman did not consult with Congress before committing troops to Korea affected the 1950 Congressional elections.  If he had consulted them, hoping they would approve, those opposed to the way the conflict was going would have not be able to place blame on Truman and call the conflict Truman’s War.

Republican Senator Taft called for votes for the GOP in order to stop Communism on the home front, “creeping socialism” as well as high taxes and inflation.    Finger pointing at the Democrats in essence said that Democrats are why we have this problem with Communism and that is a good reason to get them out of Congress.

By 1950 the Republicans were supporting American intervention in Korea and aligned themselves with the “no substitute for victory” mentality of McArthur while at other times calling for withdrawal from Korea.  Congress professed to want intervention in Korea but withheld funds necessary to keep an army there.    It is possible that Truman may have thought about the political consequences of his acts, but this did not stop him from doing what he thought was necessary.  The policies changed from time to time and at times there seem to be some confusion as to which policy or military strategy was appropriate and would be successful. The Republicans used McCarthyism to create fear of Communism to turn the public against the administration. This was done strictly for partisan reasons and to affect elections.

By the 1952 Presidential election, the real intent of the Republican Party was visible.  Despite at one time wanting both the U.S. out of Korea and supporting McArthur’s all out policy they nominated a military hero who had no plan for ending the war even though his platform was against unification at times and all out military policy.  The Republican Party was not consistent in what it thought the U.S. should do and did not present a working alternative, thus what they did was for political maneuvering. Foreign politics put pressure on the United States to abandon financial aid to Korea to assist it in its fight for independence and reunification.  American politics did affect the Korean War, but not to the extent that the Republicans would have wished. Truman was able to conduct the war as he saw fit.  Domestic politics did bring a Republican President to the White House, but not one whose policies differed that much from the outgoing President’s.


Caridi, Ronald J.  The Korean War and American Politics: The Republican Party as a Case Study.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968. pp. 3,5,11,12,15,21,29,55,98

Congressional Record, June 26, 1950. p. 9158

Congressional Record, July 5, 1950. p. 9666

Congressional Record, Aug. 14, 1950. p. 12400

Congressional Record, Sept. 5, 1950. p. 14214

Duff, Gordon.  Historian.

Goldman, Eric.  The Crucial Decade and After. New York, 1960. p. 142

Highman, Charles.  Trading With the Enemy:The Nazi-American Money  Plot 1933-1949.  New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1983. pp. XV-XiX.,7

Kaufman, Burton I.  The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command.  New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1986. pp. 52, 55

Rees, David. Korea: The Limited War. New York, 1964. p. 11

Reeves, Thomas C.  Life and Times of Joe McCarthy.  New York, 1982. pp. 305-314

The New York Times, January 4, 1950, pp. 1 & 6

Truman Memoirs II. pp. 329, 348


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  1. Years ago I met a girl in Austin who’s father was in Bataan when it fell, went on to Korea, and then multiple tours in Nam. He told me that the worst of it was Korea; he was wounded, over-run and put his own 45 on an American Soldier to carry him out. He taught a rifle team at a Houston HS. Walked daily picking up hub-caps for sale. Every Japanese one he threw into the woods. He refused to eat rice; even after I pointed out that rice keep him alive. He made the best biscuits I’ve ever eaten. His name was Hi Andersen..

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