The Road to Confrontation

Reading William Stueck’s excellent account of the making of foreign policy more than three decades ago provides a chilling sense of déjà vu: the assumptions, the problems, the fallacies that dominate American foreign policy today are basically the same as those of the late 1940’s. The title refers to the American confrontation with China in Korea in the fall of 1950, and Stueck scrupulously details the chain of events and the perceptions and misperceptions of the participants along that road.

At its base, foreign policy is built on assumptions—about the forces at work in the world, about national mission, about international reaction and response. Making extensive use of recently declassified documents and many interviews, Stueck reveals clearly the assumptions of American policymakers that led to tragedy. Emerging from World War II with a sense that collective action might have prevented that disaster, policymakers tried to fit the postwar world into the prewar mold: aggression, especially Red aggression, must be stopped. Furthermore, the United States should play a central role in seeing that world peace is maintained. Stueck’s major contribution to an understanding of postwar foreign policy—and it is his thesis—is to illustrate that American policy in the late 1940’s became in the main a “quest for credibility” in its role as world policeman. Foreign policy elites became obsessed with the fear that a show of weakness might undermine American credibility around the world.

The world must be policed, of course, from “the universal danger of Communist expansion,” and it was in China and Korea (and later Vietnam) that American credibility was put to the test against the presumed Communist aggression. Stueck shows how this concern for credibility pushed American policy in China and Korea in different directions. In the Chinese Civil War (1947-1949) it led officials to lessen United States involvement for fear that its resources might be spread too thin and that substantial prestige might be wasted in Chiang Kai-shek’s apparently losing effort. In Korea, on the other hand, the United States had already made extensive commitments: after the establishment of Syngman Rhee’s government in 1948, withdrawing would simply have meant loss of credibility with consequent severe political repercussions. The United States had to react forcefully in June, 1950, when North Korea invaded the South, in order to assert its credibility. Stueck suggests as well that the shift from containment to liberation in the fall of 1950 centered on the issue of credibility: a strong object lesson showing that aggression might have negative consequences—the unification of Korea by United Nation forces—would make the United States role more credible than if it merely contained the Communist threat at the thirty-eighth parallel.

Behind the quest for credibility in East Asia lay some serious problems. In the first place, there was a strong strain of cultural arrogance. With a few exceptions, most policymakers believed that Europe—the West—had priority over Asia. Cultural chauvinists, such as Ambassador John Leighton Stuart, approached China paternalistically and through American standards and values. Thus they failed repeatedly to understand events and their significance: they underestimated the ability of the Communists to unite the nation; they failed to understand the force of nationalism which stirred anti-American hatred and which ultimately propelled China into the Korean War; they continually overestimated inherent Communist hostility to the United States, thus missing several potential chances at rapprochement with the Chinese leaders. Furthermore, there was little knowledge of Korea in Washington. Dismissed at the end of World War II as a country whose people displayed “political immaturity,” Korea had low priority in diplomatic assignments. Dean Acheson emerges almost a paradigm of this arrogance, a man who had “not much respect for Asians.” As for arrogance, he clearly met his match in Douglas MacArthur, whose insistence that he understood “the Oriental mind” hid a serious lack of understanding of Asian culture and...

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