John Buell

North Korea and Cold War Politics

From its inception the nuclear arms race has been sustained by lies, secrecy, and manufactured crises. The United States is the only nation to have deployed nuclear bombs against an enemy in warfare.

That decision, portrayed by President Truman as based on the concern to save US lives, might be better understood as the first shot in the Cold War. Not only were most of his military advisers opposed, Japanese industrial capacity and transportation systems had been totally disrupted, and the Japanese were suing for peace.

In this event Truman and the National Security Establishment set a pattern that would be reasserted periodically down to the present. Intelligence agencies would acknowledge the lack of military threat posed by foreign insurgencies or left revolutions even as political leaders continually emphasized their immediate, even catastrophic significance. Nor was this dichotomy simply a difference of opinion between the political leadership and the State Department bureaucracy.

Suggesting left or insurgent movements could prevail only by force is one way elites relieved the electorate — and even themselves — of any inner doubts about the validity of their own institutions and world view. And these were bipartisan accomplishments that helped firmly entrench the Cold War.

Consider the immediate post-WWII era. International Relations scholar David Campbell has made a close study of declassified internal National Security documents of the early post World War II period including especially NSC-68, generally considered the most significant. It describes the Soviet Union as a threat to the US but conceives this threat primarily in political terms, especially its potential popularity in an anarchic world.

Even as Truman pushed for NATO and for military aid to Greece and Turkey, internal State and CIA documents acknowledged the Soviets were unlikely to resort to military means to achieve their ends. Moreover such luminaries as George Kennan worried more about declining faith in our institutions and defined this lack of faith in terms of commitment to our individualist, market oriented ideals. And as Campbell points out, these documents were written for internal eyes only yet spent much time extoling the virtue of US institutions. This suggests elites themselves were in need of a periodic pep talk in the decade following severe depression and world war.

Consider specifically how this played out. As Daily Beast columnist Gil Troy describes it, “In 1946, Republicans won both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1928, forcing the unpopular Truman to become even more bipartisan. [Sen. Arthur] Vandenberg [R-Mich.] became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This new cooperative spirit faced a major test as Communist operatives threatened shaky Western allies like Greece and Turkey. “We are met at Armageddon,” Dean Acheson exclaimed when briefing Vandenberg and other senators, fearing “Soviet penetration” on three continents.

Vandenberg said there was “only one way to get” what Truman needed. “That is to make a personal appearance before Congress and scare the hell out of the American people.” Addressing both houses of Congress in March 1947, Truman proposed granting $250 million to Greece, $150 million to Turkey. The Republican-dominated Congress’s assent to this Truman Doctrine endorsed the successful bipartisan Cold War foreign policy.”

The first question every citizen should ask is: Are the Korean nukes another in a long list of efforts to scare the hell out of the American people? MIT Technology professor Ted Postol, who has worked for the government on missile design projects but has not been afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, argues: “calculations we have made—based on detailed study of the type and size of the rocket motors used, the flight times of the stages of the rockets, the propellant likely used, and other technical factors—indicate that these rockets actually carried very small payloads that were nowhere near the weight of a nuclear warhead of the type North Korea could have, or could eventually have. These small payloads allowed the rockets to be lofted to far higher altitudes than they would have if loaded with a much-heavier warhead, creating the impression that North Korea was on the cusp of achieving ICBM capability.”

Several earlier stories about North Korea’s military capacity have been proven unequivocally false. That does not mean this one is, but it surely argues for caution and verification.

The second question citizens should ask also follows from earlier national security documents: Is Kim so bad because he raises the issue of the legitimacy of the elite nuclear club? If nukes are a source of power, prestige, and collective moral worth, perhaps the US regards as intolerable the wish to expand the membership or question the very legitimacy of the club.

Portraying anyone who dares raise these questions as vicious or deranged may ease citizens’ or even elites’ inner doubts. Kim is no model democrat, but he has been falsely accused of a sling of outrageous acts with little follow up retraction when the stories prove to be false.

As AlterNet writers Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal point out::”Even Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, has acknowledged that Kim is a rational actor. Coats conceded that Kim’s decision-making process was influenced by watching Muammar Gaddafi be butchered by US-led forces after willingly ending his nuclear ambitions.

“The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes … is, unfortunately, if you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them,” Coats said.

I suspect that British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s exceedingly courageous declaration that he would not use nuclear weapons under any circumstance is one major reason he has consistently received such savage press treatment. Nonetheless the issues he raises deserve renewed attention.

As Nikita Khruschev argued, the winners of any nuclear exchange would likely envy the dead.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017

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