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James M. Fenwick

Korea and US Foreign Policy

A New Stage in World Politics

(September 1950)

From New International, Vol.16 No.5, September-October 1950, pp.287-292. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Hardly had the disappearance of the frontier been assimilated mentally and the preponderance of the city over the town established as a fact when, in the late twenties, the United States was ravaged by an unprecedentedly severe depression. The problems raised by the depression were destined to remain unresolved right up to the time that the United States began to be drawn into World War II, from which it emerged as the undisputed leader of the capitalist world bloc.

Seldom had a modern world power been more ill-equipped for world leadership. In terms of world necessities capitalist political thought in the United States evidences a cultural lag greater than most other major capitalist countries. This lag has its historical roots: an enormous internal market which has, in an absolute sense, not been exhausted up to the present moment, an internal market which undercut the necessity for the acute drive for colonial markets which possessed European capitalisms and gave an authentic patina to their domestic and foreign policies; a consequent isolation from the tensions of twentieth century European politics, where the almost daily crises of capitalism in decline mandated the acquisition of political sophistication, an isolation which was reinforced by simple geographical facts; and an enormous, highly developed, industrial plant which up to and including World War II permitted United States capital to resolve most internal and external problems by means of its crushing economic superiority.

The limitation of this relatively simple reliance upon economic strength to the detriment of political considerations periodically broke through the placid surface of allied and home front collaboration during the campaigns against Germany and Japan. Such was the nature, for example, of the flurries surrounding the Darlan contretemps, the dispute between England and the United States over the location of the second front, the Badoglio brief encounter, the slogan of unconditional surrender, the Morganthau proposals for the deindustrialization of Germany, the discrimination against Negro troops, and the decision to use the atom bomb.

But the real deficiencies of Allied and, particularly, United States policy began to become apparent in the latter phases of the fighting in Europe and the Far East. It then became obvious that concentration upon simple military objectives, formalized at secret meetings at Casablanca, Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam had left the Russian colossus straddling huge areas in Europe and Asia of an extent, power, and dynamism which Czar Alexander I, who in the turmoil of the Napoleonic debacle likewise thought to mediate Europe, could only have envied.

The naiveté, the political backwardness and the characteristic, if diffused, responsiveness of bourgeois democracies to public opinion – of which the rapid demobilization was a typical example – placed the United States at a disadvantage in the face of Russian expansion in Europe and Asia following the war. The result was a series of victories which even the whole pre-war Marxist movement had discounted as unthinkable.

Since the United States does not understand the laws of motion of capitalist society or the structure of Stalinism in any long term sense its reaction was sui generis – that is to say, it reacted with characteristic economic empiricism. It saw with more or less clarity that if the influence of Stalinism was to be destroyed in Europe the economic prostration which is one of the preconditions for its development had to be overcome. First-aid was administered in the form of UNRA supplies. Then the economic organisms next received extensive Marshall Plan transfusions. Capitalism had indeed traveled far since the Cobden epoch!

These transfusions, complemented by the remaining recuperative powers of the organism, helped see European capitalism through a bad crisis, though England and Italy, each in its own way, showed how unstable this Marshall Plan recovery really was. None of the contradictions of capitalism having been eliminated by these operations, however, the inherent imbalance of world capitalism began to assert itself on the world market. The fact of the matter was that debilitated and outmoded European capitalism could not compete with the United States in the field of foreign trade. The most obvious symptom was a dollar shortage which threatened to slow down the whole system of European foreign trade and production. A new world crisis loomed, which led capitalist and Stalinist court economists to speculate upon an economic collapse in the United States.

Fortunately for both the capitalist and Stalinist ideologues, the limits of elasticity of their various economic doctrines were not to be tested further. One of the variables in the equation had begun to assume a new value. This was the war danger, provoked in the immediate sense by Stalinist political and military successes in Europe and in Asia. This took on sharpest form in the Orient, where the stunning successes of the Chinese Stalinists finally provoked Washington into a belated recognition of the seriousness of the Stalinist menace.

The United States record in China has been an inglorious one. Prior to the present, three phases can be distinguished in United States policy. The first, founded upon the immediate post-war euphoria, consisted of the attempt to effect a Stalinist-Kuomintang coalition government. It expired in a few days. The second phase consisted of something less than whole-hearted aid to Chiang Kai-shek. When Chiang proved successful only in multiplying defeats the third phase ensued: Chiang and China were in effect written off and the liberation of China was more or less vaguely viewed as a semi-automatic function of disenchantment with the Stalinist regime. In so far as such matters were ever explicitly formulated in Washington, Korea and Formosa were similarly written off. There were those who were, by a process of strict logic, willing to do the same for Japan and the Philippines. It was an embarrassing confession of bankruptcy but it was a fact.

This was the state of affairs when the North Koreans invaded South Korea and United States forces were thrown into combat. The proportionate role played by the various factors motivating this abrupt reversal of policy is difficult to assess and may never be known. But the following are certainly the major elements: a desire to inhibit the immediate expansion of Stalinism to the extent that this expansion is the product of test probings and is abetted by the failure to take demonstrative action; fear of the guaranteed loss of prestige in the Far East and the correlative further heightening of the prestige of Stalinism were the forces in South Korea to be defeated; the similar fear of a loss of prestige in the more important arena of Europe and the consequent paralysis of will before totalitarianism which could ensue there; the knowledge that Russia possesses the atomic bomb and that every day that passes nullifies much of the effect of United States superiority in this weapon; the knowledge that the long post-war indoctrination of the population of the United States as to the inevitability of war with Russia has not been without effect, thereby permitting stepping up the tempo of intervention in Stalinist-threatened areas; the uneasiness over the ominous decline in employment last year, which made a limited transition to war production not unpopular even, unfortunately, in certain labor circles; and the needling of the present administration’s meanderings in foreign policy by the uncontrollables in the Republican Party.

The power of self-deception is practically infinite, but upon the significance of the Korean war there can only be one opinion: it is the prelude to all-out war directly with Russia.

To the degree that relative peace or all-out war depends upon the intentions of the present administration it can be said that there is no immediate danger of World War III breaking out. This condition is, of course, not the product of humanitarian considerations on the part of Washington; the governing cadres are, as one of their favorite phrases has it, faced with a condition, not a theory. And the bald fact is that the United States is in no wise prepared from the point of view of manpower, modern materiel, adequately armed allies, and new tactical doctrine for a large-scale war. Whatever impressions may have been created in the past months by some of the blowhards in the Department of Defense have been dissipated by the harsh realities of a war in a small and up to yesterday obscure country.

It is, in general, in the light of this unpreparedness that the temporizing of the administration in almost all fields must be viewed. This fear of spreading the war motivated the decision not to employ Chinese Nationalist forces in Korea for fear of involving Stalinist China – a task which the United States is by no means able to assume at the present time. A second factor is the total absence of a long-term strategic plan for the campaign against Russia. The indecision regarding the disposition of the Western European complex, for example, is in part a reflection of this absence of perspective. A minor element preventing the hammering out of a policy flows from the jockeying for the November elections.

For the moment the Korean war is delimiting the extent of the war preparations. The character of the economic and manpower mobilization (including the role to be assumed by organized labor) is an index of this, for the contemplated controls are by no means total in character and in many instances have been planned on a contingency basis, to be implemented at the President’s discretion. The military mobilization as it is currently evolving hardly exceeds what is necessary for the Korean war, including replacements, reserves, forces with which to mount an offensive, and what is necessary for the creation of forces which can be used on a stop-gap basis elsewhere in the world. United States capitalism badly needs time not only to produce war materiel but, as the Korean events have showed, to design and get into production new weapons. In World War II quantitative superiority on the part of the United States sufficed; in World War III a similar, comforting institutionalized mediocrity will not be permitted by events. The goal, at least, must be both quantitative and qualitative superiority.

The ideal of a small, neat war in Korea is menaced not only by the Stalinists who can, for example, commit Chinese troops in Korea or create diversions elsewhere, such as in Formosa, it is resident in United States policy itself. To answer only the following questions successively in the affirmative is to approach the point where the commitment of United States forces in the Far East itself becomes so large as to begin to threaten what must remain the major focus of activity – Europe! Shall United States troops, whatever the outcome of the current fighting, eventually be sent across the thirty-eighth parallel? Shall they drive to the Manchurian border? Shall a large army remain in Korea to occupy the country and defend it from attack from outside the borders?

Napoleon was able to gain crushing victories on the European continent because his military operations were supplemented by important political ones – the abolition of the residues of feudal property relations, the liberation of the peasantry. His failure to appeal to the serf accounted in great measure for his shattering defeat in Russia. Because the United States can not today transcend bourgeois property relations it finds itself unable to supplement its inadequate military strength with political weapons. Stalinism, this monstrous historical deviant, is hemmed in by no such limitations. Its power, far from resting on capitalist property relations, derives from their abolition. Therefore, in the Far East through policies of land reform, tax reduction, education, “social reforms,” and the curbing of the old corruption it has secured the allegiance of native masses in a manner that is absolutely denied to the United States. This permits the Stalinists to create native communist parties which can put Russian policies into action, while the United States is always forced to appear as the foreign, white imperialist intervening from the outside.

The Stalinist “socialist” demagogy has proved less successful in Europe, where powerful and educated ruling classes nave existed throughout the capitalist epoch, and where the level of misery of the working class has not been as low as it has been in the Orient. Here during the past decade Stalinism has been forced to achieve most of its major ends by military means or extra-legal violence. Nevertheless, by means of its social character it has been able to create mass communist parties in many of the leading countries of Europe. These parties are able to exert political influence among the working masses in Europe – and thereby in the chancellories themselves – which United States capitalism, possessing but few rags of propaganda to hide its capitalist nakedness, cannot duplicate. This is the mysterious secret of Stalinist dynamism, which congressional illiterates and their editorial confreres can ascribe only to the use of brute force and to the irrationalism of uneducated foreigners – or, on the other hand, to some equally mysterious semantic failure on the part of The Voice of America – a name which in itself must be an affront to any number of South Americans.

The United States, then, must seek to obtain its objectives by almost solely military means. But to cast up the possibilities of confronting Russia and her satellites on the manpower level alone reveals exceptionally depressing perspectives. None of the bourgeois ideologues seem to have pursued such an analysis to the end. France and Italy both possess a manpower pool. But who would guarantee the political and thereby military efficiency of an army drawn from these countries where Stalinism is especially strong among precisely those who would make up its ranks – the workers? England is an exhausted world power with limited possibilities. It is not surprising, therefore, that for man-power and for strategic reasons eyes are being cast upon the resources of Western Germany and Spain.

But can the political, economic, and military difficulties involved in recruiting these countries to the United States cause be resolved in time? There is a school of thought in Europe – aided in its reflections by Stalinist propaganda – which does not think so. Members of this school would prefer to remain neutral. They find the prospect of Stalinism less terrifying than that of another, and atomic war. Others would like to remain neutral but independent of the two major combatants. In either case United States imperialism has to overcome great apathy toward participation in another war. Evidence of this is contained in what has obviously been the ridiculously small response of the allied nations when asked by United States capitalism to provide troops for the manufacture of a UN fig leaf for the operations in Korea. The same lack of manpower is driving the United States to rearm Japan, which is one of the few remaining available sources of manpower in an Orient more than cool towards United States intervention in Korea, with its mass bombings of civilians, its ravaging of the country, its contemptuous, manipulative attitude toward Asiatics, and its open support of English, French, and Dutch colonialism. The meaning of the shameless pressuring of nominally independent India is not lost upon the colonial mind.

The prosecution of a war on who can say how many fronts also means tremendous drains upon the United States economy. This drain can be enormously augmented by the possibilities inherent in the atomic epoch, when huge industrial areas in the United States can be destroyed in a very few days and commensurate damage inflicted upon Russia only with great difficulty because of the dispersion of its industry, its location underground, and the lack of information concerning its location. Russia is in a much better position to control the timetable of the war than is the United States. Were she to decide at some point in the moderately near future to drive to the Atlantic before allied forces could be built up to oppose her successfully the attempt to reinvade Russia under conditions of atomic warfare would be exceptionally costly in terms of manpower and war equipment, and perhaps impossible.

What this all signifies is that the possibility of the United States being able to stabilize the world through military means is drastically reduced and the possibility of being able to do it through political means is nil. We will yet be witness to more blunders resulting from a foreign policy which necessarily consists in great measure of improvisation dictated by the initiative which Russia still exercises. Even by analyzing events in its own terms it is difficult to escape the conclusion that United States capitalism is rising to meet a mortal challenge with something less than minimal consciousness of the full implications of the struggle which has been so inauspiciously blundered into. It is a reflection of the historical insufficiency of capitalism in general and of United States political and military amateurism in particular.

This is not to infer that the future belongs to Russian bureaucratic collectivism. It will find the defeat of the United States and its allies hardly less difficult. Short of the socialist revolution, which alone can undercut Stalinism as well as capitalism, the most probable outcome of a struggle between the two world powers would be the destruction not only of a great portion of the material wealth amassed by mankind but the utter debasement of the conquests of the rationalism which emerged from the Renaissance and received such finished expression in the analysis and perspective offered in the works of Marx and Engels.

Whatever the temporary vagaries of United States and foreign policy may be, the main line of development is clear: the trend is gradually but inexorably toward authoritarianism. This will not be a simple repetition of the World War II experience. The demands which must be met are too great to permit the latitude which was extended labor in the last war. The Korean war is more than a passing summer storm, it is a warning of the fury that is to come.

The century which began with such great confidence in the forward movement of society is entering its second half cringing under the threat of atomic annihilation. It is the price which humanity pays for the continued existence of reactionary capitalism and reactionary Stalinism.


August 26, 1950


Note by ETOL

1. At this time in Korean there was a temporary lull in fighting on the Pusan perimeter and the Inchon landings had not yet taken place.

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