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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Korea and the Cold Warhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 8:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript Two:
Lessons Learned from Korea

Lecturer: Professor Jonathan Chu

Image of Jonathan Chu

I want to make one comment before I wrap up our discussion of the Korean War, about the workshop and the activity that you've just done. We started this with some trepidation, because this could all have gotten out of control, and you could have actually voted not to intervene in Korea. The fact that you stayed so close and the fact that there was a division suggests the complexity of the process at which we looked. The fact that people responded in many ways also reflects the way in which a historian responds to events and circumstances and comes to view the whole process in a certain kind of way.

I'd like to share one little personal story about this that speaks to part of what one's approach can be with regard to the Cold War. You were given a duck-and-cover video to look at, and I was first shown that when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I was a little kid living in Hawaii, and they showed us this video about what we were supposed to do in the event of nuclear attack. Now, maybe it was just being a little precocious about reading newspapers or being a little precocious about other things, but I went home that night and looked out at our brand-new post-World War II subdivision. It was on a hill that overlooked Pearl Harbor. If the Soviets had wanted, they could have hired me to tell them how many ships were in the harbor. And I suddenly realized that a nuclear bomb going off, they were talking about H-bombs by this point that could take in 20 miles. And I didn't know whether to be more terrified about being vaporized or finding out that showing me this video was absolutely senseless, or that someone in a high place actually thought that this was going to make sense; that somehow little kids living in Honolulu would survive a nuclear attack. Anyway, this may color what I have to say about the Korean War. It's the way in which personalities intervene and the way in which we look at and construct the past.

The fact that you came to a narrow decision reflects the kind of almost inadvertent nature of the way America stumbles into the Korean conflict. It just seems to grow. John Lewis Gaddis says that from our information now in the Soviet archives, we know that the Soviets aren't terribly planned or deliberate about these things; that Kim Il Sung had, in fact, initiated much of this on his own accord. Gaddis also goes on to point out that this could have been one of those places, in the aftermath of the war, where we'd simply step back and the Soviets would step back, and we'd let people solve their own affairs.

That wasn't what happened. What happened as a result of Korea was the creation of a broad consensus in America on the issue of containment, on the issue of communism. The first and most obvious was the formal extension of the policy of commitment, not only to Korea, but to Asia in general, and most specifically to Taiwan. In fact, the policy expands, and now it becomes almost a kind of affirmative belief in America, that maybe Chiang Kai-shek should be allowed, should be let loose to go back at some point to the mainland. The issue here is, Joseph McCarthy may have been the wrong person to do what he was doing, and he may have been doing it ham-handedly, but that didn't mean he was wrong. And we see in the aftermath the development and the assumption by others of this policy of a kind of active, progressive, affirmative treatment of a policy of containment.

There is that wonderful "I am a donut" speech by John F. Kennedy, the one where he says, "Ich bin ein Berliner." It was a mistranslation that somebody screwed up. He should have said, "Ich bin Berliner"; that would have been "I'm a Berliner." And in that he was trying to say he was a citizen of the free world and that freedom needed to be defended at every point. The fact of the matter is nobody cared. This was one of those moments when nobody picks up this kind of silly little mistake and makes fun of it. It's because the sentiment seems so genuine and so extended.

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