Something tells me that President Bush did not write the speech he gave today to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City. For one thing, it was relatively coherent. For another thing, it was steeped in historical references that, while taken out of context and run through the ideological wringer of the neo-conservative spin machine, displayed a historical breadth not frequently associated with the most intellectually-disengaged president since Andrew Johnson.
But the one section of the speech that made me absolutely certain that Bush had nothing to do with its preparation was its attack on journalist I.F. Stone.
Comparing the current quagmire in Iraq with the Korean conflict of more than half a century ago — as part of a new P.R. campaign designed to build support for maintaining a long-term U.S. military presence in the Middle East, and to cynically portray himself as principled wartime leader — Bush told the veterans, "After the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950, President Harry Truman came to the defense of the South — and found himself attacked from all sides. From the left, I.F. Stone wrote a book suggesting that the South Koreans were the real aggressors and that we had entered the war on a false pretext. From the right, Republicans vacillated. Initially, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate endorsed Harry Truman’s action, saying, ‘I welcome the indication of a more definite policy’ — he went on to say, ‘I strongly hope that having adopted it, the President may maintain it intact,’ then later said ‘it was a mistake originally to go into Korea because it meant a land war.’"
Anyone who seriously believes that George Bush is familiar with the writings of I.F. Stone and the long and complicated history of how the U.S. military found itself encamped on the Korean Peninsula will surely be among that dwindling percentage of Americans that is convinced weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.
For the record, the book by Stone to which Bush referred today, The Hidden History of the Korean War, 1950-1951: A Nonconformist History of Our Times, was a provocative text written during the course of the Korean conflict. It featured a dramatically broader critique of Truman’s approach to the war than the one Bush mentioned Tuesday; in addition to what would eventually be recognized as groundbreaking exposes of military misdeeds, it referenced a wide variety of concerns expressed by prominent figures on the left and right of the American political spectrum at the time. While reasonable people might debate Stone’s interpretations of specific details regarding U.S. foreign policy — and even friendly critics have suggested he was too easily swayed by Soviet criticisms of South Korea’s motivations and actions at the war’s beginning — the veteran journalist was hardly staking out radical turf when he asserted that the U.S. dispatched troops to Korea under dubious circumstances.
As Robin Andersen, a professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University who authored an exceptional book, A Century of Media, a Century of War, has noted, "There exists today little collective memory of the Korean War, a conflict in which Gen. Douglas MacArthur extended centralized control over the press, denied access and instituted blanket censorship. Reports that did come out of Korea were awash in jingoism. I.F. Stone was often a lone voice of reason."
Battling General Douglas MacArthur’s extreme censorship of war news, Stone exposed the horrors of the Korean conflict, particularly the killing of innocent civilians with napalm with what the journalist — who would eventually receive a prestigious George Polk Award for his investigative work — appropriately described as "a complete indifference to noncombatants."
The man who would become something of a journalistic icon for his reporting on U.S. wrongdoing in Vietnam and elsewhere as the editor of I.F. Stone’s Weekly was especially concerned about how the his country got into what would come to be referred to as "Truman’s War."
It bothered Stone that the Korean war was, like the current conflict in Iraq, entered into without a proper declaration of war by Congress.
As Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett — an old-right Republican who was Warren’s father — explained, "Truman entered that war by his own act."
Instead of going to Congress and asking for a formal declaration of war, the president gamed the system by claiming that U.S. participation in the United Nations required him to send American boys to again die in Asia not five years after World War II had finished. As Buffett explained, "On June 25, 1950, the U.N. Security Council demanded a cease-fire and called on members to render every assistance to the United Nations in the execution of this resolution. Nothing was said about entering the conflict…. But at 12 o’clock noon, on June 27, President Truman ordered United States air and sea units to give the Korean Government troops cover and support. That order put our military forces into the Korean civil war on the side of the South Koreans. At 10:45 that evening, 11 hours later, the Security Council requested members of the U. N. to supply the Republic of Korea with sufficient military assistance to repel invasion."
So it was that Buffett determined that, "Truman entered that war by his own act, and not because of a United Nations decision."
Like Stone, Buffett argued, based on the classified Congressional testimony of Admiral Roscoe Henry Hillenkoetter, the third director of the post-WWII U.S. Central Intelligence Group (CIG), and the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that South Korea had initiated the shooting war in Korea. History would raise serious questions about this assessment, but it would never challenge the fundamental wisdom of those who argued that Truman was wrong to send U.S. troops to die in an undeclared and unfocused war — and that Truman misguided approach would negatively influence the presidents who followed him.
Stone, Buffett and others on the left and right believed more in the Constitution’s system of checks and balances than in partisan games or ideological positioning. They wanted wars declared. They wanted Congress to share with the president responsibility for directing foreign policy, especially when it involved military endeavors abroad. And they wanted a an honest discourse about where the U.S. committed its troops — and why. Denouncing the Truman doctrine — which Bush seemed to be reasserting with his VFW speech — Buffett said, "Even if it were desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military force. If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be replaced by coercion and tyranny at home."
As the Korean conflict degenerated into the disaster that it became, Stone and Buffett found allies — on the right, on the left, and ultimately in the political middle.
"My conclusion," wrote Ohio Senator Robert Taft as he prepared a campaign for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, "is that in the case of Korea, where a war was already under way, we had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be, unless the whole matter was submitted to Congress and a declaration of war or some other direct authority obtained."
Taft did not become the GOP nominee. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe and a decidely more moderate political figure, was given the task. Eisenhower ran on a promise that he would go to Korea personally with the purpose of ending what had become an extremely unpopular war.
Eisenhower did just that, traveling to Korea before he was even sworn in as president. By the following summer, with his support and encouragement, a rough peace was achieved. Unfortunately, more than half a century later, the U.S. continues to spend billions of dollars annually to maintain a massive military presence in the region.
Bush did not criticize Eisenhower in his speech to the VFW, presumably because he is no more familiar with the 34th president than he is with I.F. Stone. But if he does actually develop an interest in the period of history he referenced today, the current president might be intrigued by two of his predecessor’s statements from the era.
"When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war. … War settles nothing," explained the old military man.
Eisenhower rejected the argument that keeping up the fight in Korea was necessary to protecting America, and he counseled that a permanent commitment to fighting abroad would — as his fellow Republican Howard Buffett had earlier suggested — cost America dearly.
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed," Eisenhower declared in the spring of 1953, as he was dialing down the Korea conflict. "This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. […] This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."
John Nichols’ new book is