Monday, November 24, 2014

The Korean War, anti-Communism and California politics with Nixon in 1950

My close encounter with the Nixon Library and Museum a few weeks ago got me curious about Tricky Dick's early political career in California, which was steeped in Red Scare politics. "Red" in the 1940s and 1950s referring to Communists, not Republicans.

A couple of references reminded me how significant the Korean War was in allowing its practitioners to ramp up the Red Scare to even more hysterical proportions than it was going into 1950.

Stephen Ambrose in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962 (1987) wrote about the boost the Korean War gave to Nixon's red-baiting "Pink Lady" campaign against Democratic liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas in the 1950 Senate race:

... Nixon's campaign got a tremendous boost when the Communist North Koreans attacked South Korea [June 1950]. He and the other China Lobby people had been warning that such an event was coming because of the Truman-Acheson policy of Europe first. Appeasement in Asia, Nixon charged, led to war. Like most other Republicans, Nixon praised Truman for his quick and vigorous response to the Communist challenge in Korea, then in the same breath criticized him for not doing enough beforehand to deter the enemy. ... [my emphasis] (pp. 214)
Which reminds me of Arlo Guthrie's saying, "Some things don't change, you know. Some things do."

We tend to think of the Democrats' chronic defensiveness over military affairs to the experience of the Vietnam War and the Reagan reaction against it. But this is an older problem. The Cold War, like the War on Terror, involved the promotion of irrational fear, chronic fear. The Republicans have just been better than the Democrats for decades on politically profiting from irrational fears of menacing foreigners. Maybe it's time for the Democrats to take a different approach. Like maybe promoting a consistently more realistic view of the situation of the United States in our world.

In the case of the Korean War, even though it was the Democratic Truman Administration that was being Tough against the Communists, the Republicans profited from it politically. Ambrose explains:

The Korean War made Nixon an almost certain winner. It made him look like a prophet, and made his appeal to fear irresistible. At the end of spring 1950, anti-Communism, which had been growing at a steady rate ever since the end of World War II, came into its own. It had not happened suddenly, not [sic, surely "nor" was meant] was it inevitable, but when it came, it did so with a vengeance, and it stayed onstage far longer than most political issues. The air was poisoned with anti-Communist talk and hate literature. The picture most Americans had by the end of June 1950 was of a Soviet Union led by a madman worse thah Hitler and just as bent on world conquest, who had fifth columns all around the world striving to topple free governments, and who was being helped even in the United States by unwitting dupes and outright traitors. Since the people felt these fears so strongly, obviously politicians used it to help themselves. [my emphasis] (pp. 214-215)
John Steinbeck was to write a few year later, comparing the days of the Second World War to that of the Cold War in the Introduction to a collection of his wartime reporting:

For what they are worth, or for what they may recapture, here they are, period pieces, fairy tales, half-meaningless memories of a time and of attitudes which have gone forever from the world, a sad and jocular recording of a little part of a war I saw and do not believe, unreal with trumped-up pageantry, so that it stand in the mind like the battle pictures of Crécy and Bunker Hill and Gettysburg. And, although all war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal, still there was in these memory-wars some gallantry, some bravery, some kindliness. A man got killed, surely, or maimed, but, living, he did not carry crippled seed as a gift to his children.

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air with our test bombs, so are we poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid sarcomic terror. [my emphasis] (Once There Was a War; 1958)
Like Steinbeck, Ambrose in the quotation above references how fanatical anti-Communist poisoned the political atmosphere. "The air was poisoned with anti-Communist talk and hate literature."

One the result of this atmosphere of exaggerating fear, hatred and suspicion was the McCarthyist attacks on the State Department, in which anyone writing reality-based analyses of the Chinese Communists might fall under suspicion and attack for not enthusiastically promoting the pro-Nationalist position favored by the Republicans in the Chinese Civil War, which Mao Zedong's Communists won in 1949, everywhere but in Taiwan/Formosa.

As Roger Morris notes in his Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1990), the lack of realistic understanding and evaluation of what was happening in the "Sino-Soviet bloc" was a real problem in 1950 and the coming years:

The war in Korea: within hours, U.S. armed forces were to be committed to the defense of the south "in a seemingly routine manner," as one historian recorded Harry Truman's decisions, and "turning back ... thereafter was practically out of the question." Seeing the invasion by North Korea as a direct, orchestrated Soviet challenge to U.S. interests and prestige - the fall of South Korea having "calculably grave ... repercussions" everywhere, as the U.S. Embassy in Moscow cabled Washington that weekend - both the administration and their right-wing critics forgot their earlier depreciation of Korea's strategic importance. Forgotten, too, was how much the chauvinistic, feudal oligarchy in South Korea resembled the brutal Communist Party zealots of the north. Only long afterward would U.S. intelligence learn or begin to measure the Byzantine nationalist politics within the Soviet camp, politics that left Moscow with much less actual control or instigation in client governments like North Korea than presumed or feared in the simple demonology of the postwar years. But none of that would matter now. No subtleties of international communism would be recognized or pondered by either Republicans or Democrats as the sudden fighting in northeast Asia seemed to give awful reality to the worst evocation of the Red peril. Without the outbreak of war that summer, some other political posterity for the country-even for the 1950 Senate race in California-might have been possible. With it, the sequels seemed inevitable. (p. 570)
That "fear, faceless, stupid sarcomic terror" that Steinbeck wrote about in 1958 exacted a heavy price.

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