KOREA saved us - but you wouldn't think so today. Pyongyang's second nuclear test, followed by multiple rocket launches, and its repudiation of a decades-old armistice with South Korea are generating international consternation. The Obama administration's important nuclear reduction initiatives may be undercut, together with its hopes for blunting Iran's nuclear ambition. China, Taiwan, and Japan all face unexpected pressures. South Korea's "sunshine policy" of seeking accommodations with North Korea is all but dead - along with its main architect, former president Roh Moo Hyun, who committed suicide last week.
In America, the Korean War is sometimes referred to as "the forgotten war," but these events show that the most forgotten thing of all is that the war never ended. That a civil war on a peninsula in Northeast Asia so ensnared the United States - with more than 30,000 GI's stuck in its amber to this day - is now commonly taken as a Cold War mistake. The mirror-image mistake a decade later was US intervention in a second civil war on an Asian peninsula - Vietnam.
The critique of Korea is familiar. Only months before North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea in June 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had declared Korea to be outside "the defense perimeter" of US national security, yet he led the charge to join the conflict. Pentagon leaders warned against "a land war in Asia," but President Truman followed Acheson. The United States, under cover of the United Nations, went to war, scuttling once and for all the post-World War II movement to demilitarize America. Instead, the US defense budget jumped from $13 billion in 1951 to $50 billion in 1953; the US nuclear arsenal grew from 300 bombs in 1950 to 1,300 bombs in 1953. Welcoming the "permanent war economy," Acheson said, "Korea saved us." Cold War critics have decried this turn in history ever since.
But there is another, less noted - more authentic - way that Korea saved us. At first, General Douglas MacArthur led a brilliant offensive against the North Koreans, driving them back across the parallel and ever closer to the Yalu River, the Chinese border. Then China stunned MacArthur, in November 1950, by sending hundreds of thousands of its soldiers across the river - a "Chicom" rout of Yanks.
MacArthur retreated down much of the peninsula, warning Washington of a coming American Dunkirk, a desperate evacuation of troops by sea. MacArthur demanded that Truman authorize use of atomic weapons in battle. The Air Force chief of staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, proposed a preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. Truman later wrote, "I could not bring myself to order the slaughter of 25,000,000 non-combatants . . . I just could not make the order for a Third World War." Truman said no to MacArthur, the beginning of the famous dispute that would lead to the general's dismissal the following April.
American troops valiantly hung on, finally clawing their way back up to the 38th parallel. Truman chose to abandon victory rather than order total war. The resulting stalemate defines the problem between North and South Korea to this day. But in the forgotten war, Truman's refusal to order the use of atomic weapons is, except to a handful of historians, the forgotten decision. Its impact has been as permanent as it has been underappreciated, for the effect of Truman's rejection of the atomic bomb at that moment of extremity - America facing the worst defeat in its history - was to establish a taboo against nuclear use that has lasted all these years. That the president who ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when it was militarily dubious to do so, was the one to reject the atomic bombing of enemy forces in Korea, when it seemed militarily essential to do so, made the point. Because Washington did not use atomic weapons when, with relatively little danger to itself, it could have, other nuclear powers joined in regarding the use of these weapons as beyond the pale. If Truman had chosen otherwise, whether "successfully" or not, there can be little doubt that nuclear weapons would have been used again, and probably again, until . . .
This unsung story of presidential restraint has profound relevance for the present crisis.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.