Truman, Congress, and Korea

Title:                      Truman, Congress, and Korea

Author:                 Larry Blomstedt

Blomstedt, Larry (2016). Truman, Congress, and Korea: The Politics of America’s First Undeclared War. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky

LCCN:    2015034445

E813 .B56 2016


  • Introduction: Truman versus Congress — Into Korea — The first war, July-October 1950 — The second war, November 1950-July 1951 — The forgotten attempts to end the forgotten war — The third war, July 1951-December 1952 — The fall of the Trumanites — Conclusion.


Date Posted:      June 20, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

Abruptly thrust into a role as wartime commander in June 1950 upon the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, President Harry Truman quickly realized he faced a crippling adversary in Washington in addition to Communist invaders on the battlefield: the US Congress, including prominent members of his own Democratic Party.

Truman was titular leader of a party torn to its core over civil rights issues, with racist Southern congressmen hectoring his every move to protest his insistence on racial equality. Republicans gleefully joined the attacks, accusing Truman of being soft on such issues as domestic communism—specifically, the known Soviet agents in the Roosevelt Administration—and corruption condoned by big city Democratic politicians.

Historian Larry Blomstedt, a professor at Galveston College in Texas, recounts the death of the bipartisanship that enabled Truman to win support of such programs as the Marshall Plan when the Senate was under GOP control. Ironically, when his own party became the majority in Congress in 1948, relations took a sharp dive, largely because of HST’s racial integration of the military and a Fair Employment Practices Committee.

Under Senate majority rules, Southern Democrats—the “Dixiecrats”—chaired most committees. Cooperation with the White House was minimal. Blomstedt assigns some fault to Truman, noting that “he did not dedicate any staffers to congressional relations until his fifth year in office.”

With Cold War hostilities with the USSR deepening, questions arose in Congress and elsewhere as to the extent of US obligations to protect other nations. One area of quiet concern to policymakers, if not the general public, was South Korea. In a secret warning in February 1949, the CIA asserted that should US troops withdraw, it was “highly Probable” that North Korea would invade, either alone or aided by other Communist nations. A month later, in an interview with a British newspaper, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, US commander of Pacific forces, excluded South Korea from the arc of nations which America would defend.

CIA repeated its warning in January 1950, noting a “continuing southward movement of the expanding [North] Korean People’s Army.” The same month, Secretary of State Dean Acheson reiterated MacArthur’s words—but added that in the event of aggression against South Korea or Japan, the US would defend them under United Nations obligation.

Acheson’s caveat was quickly forgotten when war erupted in June, with members of Congress (of both parties) repeatedly blaming his speech as “opening the door” for North Korea’s invasion. They ignored MacArthur’s earlier statement—and, inexplicably, the White House never cited it in Acheson’s defense. Meanwhile, Congress knocked down attempts by Truman to increase defense spending—including a $150 million aid package for South Korea.

A week before the June 1950 invasion, CIA noted “the massing of North Korean forces, including tanks and heavy artillery, “along the border. But as Congressional critics complained later, CIA never warned of a specific time line for an invasion. In its defense, CIA operated at a handicap. During World War Two, MacArthur banned the Office for Strategic Services from his theater. The successor CIA was also unwelcome, permitted to assign only three officers (of 5,000 world-wide) to South Korea. MacArthur relied on his own intelligence staff; which was spectacularly ineffective. Nonetheless, the CIA’s reputed “failure” provided more ammunition for Congressional critics.

Strangely, MacArthur at first did not take the invasion seriously, according to John Foster Dulles, visiting Tokyo at the time as a special presidential envoy. MacArthur told Dulles that South Koreans could “handle it alone.” Later that evening, when South Korean forces were in full retreat, MacArthur’s staff refused to awaken him, unwilling to break his “strict orders” not to disturb him after office hours. Dulles himself had to arouse the general with the bad news.

But Truman proceeded to make his own errors. He put the US into the war on the basis of a United Nations resolution, rather than going to Congress. White House aide George Elsey later concluded that his boss had been “dreadfully wrong.” Elsey took partial blame. “We of the staff had served him poorly by not…seeking congressional involvement. …We had ‘Truman’s war’ to deal with.”

Truman also faced an onslaught by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who made broad accusations of “communists in government”—some substantiated, others unfounded. Truman struck back: “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan policy of the United States.”

Blomstedt postulates that Truman erred in his efforts to create a truly “bipartisan” foreign policy on Korea. Rather than consulting Congress while policy was being formulated, he made decisions, and only then informed Congress, expecting members to go along with him. But Truman did succeed in establishing the concept of a “limited war”—unpopular in many circles to this day, to be sure, but not the nuclear conflict that always lurked on the periphery of the Cold War.

Whatever, as the war became a casualty-consuming stalemate, the president suffered the lowest presidential approval rating in history to that time—22 percent. And he continued to make decisions that, while brave, were also unpopular. For instance, he refused the return of POWs to the north, where they faced possible death. And, in the end, the newly-elected President Eisenhower ended the war on terms that Truman had established months earlier.

Blomstedt ends his book with a quotation from an anonymous Truman hand: “Korea is a place where we have had to learn hard.” So, too, did the entire country.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 107-109). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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