With the signing of the Korean ceasefire agreement last summer the first armed clash between the world’s number one land power, the Communist Bloc, and the world’s number one sea power, the United States, passed officially into history—a draw. Whether the fighting between these two great giants who dominate the political affairs of the modern world will ever be resumed—and if it is, whether the results will be any more conclusive— only time can tell. But in the current breathing spell that the cease-fire has given us, the student of military affairs can scarcely do better than to appraise the Korean fighting for any lessons it may contain as to the strengths and weaknesses of our own military position, and any hints it may suggest as to the most likely way to exploit that position for our future security.
We entered the Korean war in June, 1950, to stop communist aggression. With the tragic lessons of Japan in Manchuria and Germany in the Rhineland vividly in mind, we were determined to make it clear this time that aggression would not be condoned and that to prevent it we were prepared to use force and accept the risk of even greater war.
That purpose fit admirably into the overall policy of the Truman administration towards the Soviet Union, summarized in the policy of “containment” first expounded by George F. Kennan in 1947. Containment had held that if we confront the Russians “with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world,” they will back down; and the “added strains” under which such counterforce would oblige the Soviets to operate would “eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”1 Our intervention in Korea was thus a crucial test of whether the application of “unalterable counterforce” in this specific case would indeed produce some such “mellowing” as Kennan envisaged.
Subsequent operations in Korea did succeed in stopping communist aggression south of the 38th parallel, not once in fact but twice—once in the case of the North Koreans, who were held and then substantially routed by October, 1950, and again in the case of the Chinese communists who were held (though never routed) by June, 1951. The difficulty arose when it came to translating this military result into diplomatic terms. Would our firm and successful “counterforce” bring about the expected communist diplomatic retreat? Would our solid military phalanx persuade them to renounce their unsuccessful aggression? The response to these questions was not immediate. Indeed not until two years had elapsed and the sudden death of Stalin apparently convinced the new Soviet government that internal tensions at last required the temporary liquidation of certain sore spots abroad did the communists “mellow” to the extent of recognizing in a formal cease-fire document the military stalemate with which they had long been confronted. The effort with which even this relatively mild diplomatic “concession” had to be extracted from the communists raises serious doubts as to just how much they had actually “learned” from the Korean war themselves, or to what extent our demonstrated willingness to stand up against their threatened aggression had altered basic Soviet objectives.
Unsatisfactory as this situation had seemed to many Americans, at no time during the three years of Korean fighting did any wholly satisfactory alternative develop. The testimony of General Van Fleet following his retirement from active service indicated that our forces had the physical capability of pushing north of the 38th parallel at almost any time after June, 1951, had we been willing to pay the price in increased casualties, increased commitments of our limited military might to the Korean theater in preference to other theaters, and in the increased vulnerability of our advanced positions. We did not exercise this capability, either under the Truman or the Eisenhower administrations, because our top leadership was not convinced that the advantages in terms of real estate compensated for the expenditures required. Nor was there any clear assurance that increased military pressure— short, that is, of all-out military defeat for the enemy—would result in any corresponding increase in the communists’ desire to settle the Korean war diplomatically. Counterforce along the 38th parallel had not provoked any noticeable communist diplomatic retreat. What certainty was there that similar pressure applied at, say, the narrow waist of Korea or along the Yalu frontier would be any more successful?
For these reasons suggestions that we obtain a military victory in Korea or that we liberate North Korea or portions of China from communist control were both rejected. Instead we clung steadfastly through two administrations to the basic provisions of the old containment policy. In the end it even looked as though containment had paid off after all when the cease-fire agreement was finally signed, though to what extent we can thank our steadfast resistance along the 38th parallel for that result and to what extent we must credit the death of Joseph Stalin we shall probably never know.
At the present writing the peace conference which was to have followed the ceasefire agreement to “settle” the Korean war still has not been convened, and the various obstacles it presently faces suggest it may never be convened at all. But as far as our understanding of the strategic significance of the Korean war is concerned, that is not important. For all practical purposes the Korean war came to an end with the signing of the cease-fire, which was agreed to only after both sides were convinced there was nothing more they could get out of the fighting that they were willing to pay for. This did not amount to victory for either side, nor did it amount to real peace. All it did in fact was to substitute an armed truce for the previous military stalemate. But anything that an ensuing peace conference might agree to would hardly be likely to alter that basic situation. What the communists could not be forced to give up under military pressure we can hardly expect to be able to talk them out of.
Any military stalemate represents a condition of balance between the power of two contesting parties. What makes this occurrence of special significance in Korea is that the balance was achieved between a land power on the one hand and a sea power on the other. And this balance moreover was achieved almost on the back doorstep, so to speak, of the land power.
The Soviet Union and her satellites presently control a greater part of the Eurasian continent than any single military power has ever done before. Even so, substantial portions of this “world island” (as the geopoliticians like to call it) remain beyond the control of the Soviets—chiefly peripheral positions such as Western Europe, South Korea, India, and Southeast Asia. From their continental base the Soviets operate a formidable army, manned in part by satellite troops and supplemented with sizeable air and naval strength. By virtue of their continental position and their enormous infantry strength the Soviets are basically a “land” power, one of the greatest indeed that has ever been assembled. The chief offensive objective of this land power, as was perfectly evident when the North Koreans struck south of the 38th parallel, is to extend Soviet control to those positions on the fringes of the Eurasian continent, like Korea, not presently in Soviet hands. With that objective satisfied we may presume that the masters of the Kremlin would then turn their attention overseas, principally in the direction of the American hemisphere.
By contrast the United States is a sea power. Her American hemisphere base, relatively speaking, is not a continent but an “island,” surrounded by water. And she finds it possible to exercise control outside that hemisphere by virtue of her ability to transport and to maintain over the vast water lanes of the globe powerful land, air, and naval striking forces. In this modern sense, by the way, it is obvious that “sea power” is more than just a matter of ships and sailors. It embraces the whole panoply of a modern striking force which is capable of delivering and sustaining coordinated attacks with all weapons almost anywhere around the globe, including attacks against positions on the periphery of the Eurasian continent.
In Korea communist land forces—in this case North Korean and Chinese infantry troops—fought American and South Korean Army and Marine units to a draw along the 38th parallel front. The communist infantry were part of a larger Soviet land force based ultimately in the “heartland” of the Eurasian continent. American and South Korean troops, together with their United Nations allies, were the spearhead of a United States sea power based on the North American continent. It was possible for these troops to fight on the ground in Korea only because sea power kept them supplied and reinforced over lines that extended across the vast water reaches of the globe separating the American hemisphere from the Eurasian continent.
The significant thing about Korea is that operating under these conditions American sea power should be able to hold the line against communist land power and do so on the very edge of the communists’ own continental holdings. The stalemate balance achieved in Korea thus is important because it was accomplished under the very noses of the communist land power, half a world away from home. That single feat speaks volumes for the comparative effectiveness of sea power and land power in the framework of today’s political alignments, and it is little wonder that the followers of Mahan have not been reticent in pointing out the relevance of the Korean war to their own doctrines.
To what extent American sea power is also capable of pushing beyond a mere holding of the line along Russia’s extensive frontier to exercise some measure of control over communist-held areas inland, in other words, “rolling back” communist power and “liberating” the peoples involved from communist domination, is something on which our Korean experience, unfortunately, can offer little guidance. As we have already seen, some such roll-back could have been carried out there had we been willing to pay the price. But the fact is that it was not done, and as a result we have no way of knowing just how far such a liberation movement might have been able to push or how costly it might have been. Presumably such operations can be carried on successfully to a considerable distance inside the limits of present communist control. But it also seems clear that we could not support a land operation all the way to the center of the communist heartland. Even General MacArthur cautioned repeatedly against letting ourselves be foolish enough to get bogged down in a land campaign on the Chinese mainland. Hence the capacity of sea power to exercise control beyond the fringes of the Eurasian continent, even with the assistance of modern air power, must be recognized as distinctly limited.
But where does one draw the line? How far inland from the water’s edge is liberation feasible? The answer, as in Korea, would seem not to be a dogmatic one but to vary with the particular circumstances. All that Korea shows is that these limiting factors, whether military or political in nature, cannot be ignored. Many of the same considerations that impelled caution to override both General MacArthur and General Van Fleet might well turn up on other occasions too, in connection with either a total or a limited war.
The fact that American sea power is subject to limitations in this way concerning what it can accomplish against the land power of the Soviet Union naturally raises some query as to whether in those circumstances we can really be said to possess an adequate security system. Perhaps honest doubts on this score have helped as much as anything to exert a restraining influence on those who felt occasionally moved to urge preventive war as the swiftest and easiest solution to all our cold war ills. But the situation is far from hopeless. In the first place, from a strictly defensive standpoint, sea power is eminently equipped to contain any threatened expansion on the part of the Soviets, either into the crucial fringes or “rimland” of the Eurasian continent or beyond that overseas. Yet considering the additional threat from the air, it would appear that we still need some offensive power of our own capable of striking a crippling blow directly at the heart of any would-be aggressor. Not, of course, because we wish to exercise that capability on an aggressive basis ourselves, but only as a deterrent to warn such a would-be aggressor that he would never be immune, even in the heartland of his continental base, from a crushing, retaliatory attack.
On this score our atomic weapons, delivered either by sea, air, or guided missile, ought to provide us most of the security we seek. And with such weapons, it may indeed turn out, as Sir Winston Churchill remarked the other day, that the growing capability of atomic weapons in making it possible for anybody to kill everybody may mean in the long run that nobody will want to kill anybody.
In the light of this analysis of our military strength as revealed by the Korean war, what can we properly conclude as to the suitability of our current policy towards the Soviet Union? To what extent do these facts dictate a change in that policy to keep it within the proper limits of the military power available to back it up? Are we justified in concluding that the containment policy, which originally motivated our intervention in Korea, has outlived its usefulness? If so, what alternative is available?
In so far as containment is a defensive doctrine that maintains that we must defend ourselves against the growing threat of an expanding communism by resisting every Soviet attempt to extend its control beyond the borders of the present Soviet world, Korea has fully demonstrated its validity. By moving promptly and decisively into Korea, instead of just talking and deliberating about it, we stopped aggression dead in its tracks. In so doing we made a substantial contribution to our own security. Korea demonstrated that containment in this defensive sense is not merely possible with the military forces at our disposal, not merely desirable in view of our strategic position as a sea power, but absolutely essential if we are not some day to find ourselves swallowed up by the communist behemoth. Since we moved decisively—and, it might be said, unexpectedly—into Korea there has, incidentally, been no further attempt on the part of the Soviets to extend their control over other uncommitted areas on the rimland of the Eurasian continent. To that extent the Kremlin has already taken the hint. As a defensive policy containment has therefore more than proved itself. We can certainly do no less than it recommends.
But the flaw in containment that has most frequently been charged does not lie in whether we can or should do less than containment advises but whether by all rights we shouldn’t do more. Containment says (or at least implies) that we can properly limit our activities merely to holding the line and still expect communism to yield and eventually to collapse without any further assistance on our part. On this point the Korean war certainly offers little corroborating evidence. To be sure, simply by holding fast in Korea we eventually persuaded the communists to sign on the dotted line. But, as we have already seen, no one knows how much this minor diplomatic concession was forced on the Reds by our stubborn counterforce along the 38th parallel and how much it was dictated by factors entirely outside Korea associated with the internal power struggle that followed the death of Stalin. And even without this the length of time required for the communists to react to our Korean containment—some two years after the fighting lines had actually been stabilized —hardly suggests that the ultimate collapse of communist power can readily be brought about simply by a rigorous application to other areas of the same measures used in Korea.
Similarly Korea offers little evidence for Kennan’s other contention in his containment doctrine that stopping communism’s expansive drive will in itself be enough to start the gradual break-up of Soviet power. Indeed quite the opposite may have been true as far as North Korea and Communist China were concerned. War potential and the capacity to survive as these factors exist behind the Iron Curtain are not, of course, items which most outsiders can assess with any great degree of confidence, at least not on an up-to-date basis. Yet there is already evidence to suggest that as a result of the Korean war both the North Koreans and the Chinese Communists have actually increased in military potential. The same may well hold true for the Soviets too, since it is hard to imagine that they have suffered too severely from this unique opportunity to test their newest types of aircraft, pilots, tanks, and ordnance pieces in the incomparable laboratory of actual combat, much as they did a decade and a half ago against the Germans and Italians in Spain.
To be sure we in America have also experienced a substantial increase in our own military power as a result of the Korean war, to say nothing of a much-needed stimulus to partial mobilization. In that sense Korea came as an eye-opener for us after the easy demobilization and the false defense economy of the years immediately before. Yet, even considering this, it would be hard to claim that the net effect of the Korean war was a reduction in the war-making potential of the Soviet world relative to our own, or that Korea substantially impeded the capacity of the Soviet Union to continue to weld the productivity and almost limitless manpower of the Asiatic portions of her world island into a fighting machine that could very seriously threaten the non-Soviet world in the years immediately ahead.
Strictly speaking, it might be argued that on both counts it is still too early to tell whether the Korean war has been a net asset or a net liability to the staying powers of the Soviet Union and her satellites, and hence it is also too early to condemn the Kennan analysis out of hand. That may be true; but in dealing with life and death matters like these no prudent commander would ever dare to sit idly by for an indefinite period on the off chance that evidence favorable to some pet theory of his might turn up, while at the same time he does nothing to protect himself against the possibility that the theory might actually prove to be fatally in error.
Thus on both of these counts—that defensive measures alone are adequate, and that the firm application of these defensive measures will eventually precipitate the collapse of communist military power—we must acknowledge that the Korean war has shown the containment doctrine to be seriously deficient. But does that mean that we should, or indeed that we can, entirely discard it? Unfortunately, it is often easier to point out deficiencies such as these than to discover a more promising alternative. And in the field of foreign policy, as in so many other fields, the old dictum that you can’t beat somebody with nobody holds true. During the 1952 presidential election, for example, there was widespread criticism of containment along lines very similar to the ones we have just considered, and in its place the alternative concept of rolling-back communist power and liberating areas under communist domination was advanced.2 Containment, it was charged, was a negative doctrine, whereas the impact of this new liberation concept was positive. According to that idea the best way to break the back of Soviet world power is to keep applying external pressures to her relentlessly, not just counterpressures to keep her from extending her control to still wider areas, as containment dictates, but pressures against her own present boundaries that would gradually roll back the area of her control and chip away from her grasp the satellites that now comprise her empire.
The difficulty with this liberation notion is that it was considerably easier, as we have already seen, to announce and advocate than to put into effect on a responsible basis. This was certainly our experience in Korea where the possibilities for liberating at least one of the Soviet satellites, North Korea, were both immediate and clear-cut. Nevertheless the Eisenhower administration rejected this opportunity no less forcibly than the Truman administration had done before it. And the same factors that apparently dictated that decision in the case of Korea, where armed forces were actually on the scene and where the excuses for conducting liberation action were indeed plentiful, have since then militated against any serious application of the liberation doctrine in other areas of the world. As a consequence we have heard increasingly less from official quarters in recent months about liberation. And though there has been no particular fanfare or formal pronunciamento, the basic framework of the containment policy in the shape of firm resistance to communism but with few additional overt counteroffensive pressures has been continued by the present administration as our basic program towards the Soviet Union.
With all of this in mind it should now be possible to determine whether containment still represents the best policy for us to pursue in the light of the strengths and limitations inherent in our world strategic position.
As a defensive doctrine containment has more than proved itself. It certainly must be continued. On the other hand, when it comes to suggesting that we limit ourselves to defensive measures alone, we can be far less certain. Much more than just holding the line and hoping for the best will in all likelihood be needed to bring the Soviet giant to his knees. More also will probably be needed to prevent him from consolidating and organizing into a potent military machine the vast manpower and resources included in his huge continental base. But what more? What additional measures can we take? What new pressures shall we apply? If we were unwilling to risk offensive military action into even North Korea, where the provocation was tremendous and the opportunities immediate, how shall we ever find the will to undertake it elsewhere? And if these pressures that we are told must repeatedly be brought to bear against the Soviet Union are not to be military in nature but only persuasive (possibly in the form of propaganda or some of the other manifold activities that go under the heading of “psychological warfare”), then what assurance have we that they will prove to be any adequate substitute for military force?
The answers to these questions are not easy to give. That undoubtedly is why they have not been officially offered even by an administration that campaigned in part on just that theme. And yet the search for such kinds of alternative pressures to supplement the purely defensive action of containment must go on. Our experience in Korea dictates this precisely because it gives us so little reason to hope that by simply holding the communists back whenever they try to break through the boundaries of the non- Soviet world, we can eventually tip the scales of world power decisively in our own favor.
In this revised and amended form containment remains the most suitable policy for our current needs. All things considered, it is a policy peculiarly suited to a combination of nations whose military forces make it possible for them to exert pressure and exercise control over land areas that are separated, like Korea, by thousands of miles of water from their home bases. Our preoccupation with what is required beyond containment must not, in the last analysis, blind us to the fact that against a power based upon a continent as vast as the “heartland” of the Eurasian world island even this relatively simple defensive job which containment mandates to us is no easy task. How indeed can one exercise effective control along the vast periphery of an area that covers almost a fifth of the land surface of the globe? The answer, of course, is sea power—that modern, high-speed, coordinated striking force which, as much as anything outside the realm of fairy tales today, has the capacity to be in more than one place at the same time.
When all the frustration that has been associated with Korea has been put aside and all the partisan politics temporarily suspended, we discover that the lasting lesson of the Korean conflict is that holding communism in check is itself a job that is infinitely vital to our survival, and vastly demanding of our time and treasure. Few other powers in history could have afforded, as we have been doing, the luxury of even considering what more than mere containment might be required in a situation like this. That we here in America possess the opportunity to take containment so much for granted is a tribute primarily to our skill in employing the weapons of sea power along the whole periphery of our continental enemy.
Let us hope that we shall always have the wisdom and the courage to keep those weapons equally strong and equally ready.
1. See “Korea: Acid Test of Containment,” by Samuel S. Stratton, Proceedings, March, 1952.
2. See Containment or Liberation, by James Burnham, New York, John Day Co., 1953.