The Rhetorical Politics of Ending the Korean War: Eisenhower, Dulles and Mao’s China
Chinese People’s Volunteers in Korea, 1952
The Korean War prompted a significant realignment of US foreign policy, famously put the ‘O’ in ‘NATO’, and helped to harden Western understandings of the Cold War. In this essay, Rory de Mellow examines the development of John Foster Dulles’ ‘New Look’ in the context of the long stalemate in Korea, and considers how the American experience of the first ‘hot war’ of the Cold War helped to set the stage for the decade ahead. –Luke Thrumble, Managing Editor
In October 1952 Dwight Eisenhower, the then-Republican presidential nominee reflected upon the ongoing war in Korea, publicly described the United States as in the midst of an ‘anxious autumn’. In this landmark speech, Eisenhower would go on to make two critical promises to the American people. First, the future president pledged to ‘review and re-examine every course of action open to us with one goal in view: to bring the Korean war to an early and honourable end’. Second, Eisenhower famously promised to visit Korea personally to achieve his stated aim. Dwight Eisenhower was shortly thereafter elected as president having placed the Korean War’s end at the heart of his foreign policy platform to great political dividend. To be sure, the perceived foreign policy failures of President Truman’s administration had marked out foreign policy as particularly fertile political ground for Eisenhower as a Republican candidate. Deadlock in Korea had become just one of several lingering unresolved foreign policy issues for which the Truman White House did not have a clear solution.
Public support for the war in Korea plunged after the Chinese People’s Volunteers pushed UN forces back towards the 38th Parallel following their entry into the war in November 1950. Eisenhower’s speech could not present a detailed plan for achieving peace in Korea but he had nonetheless seized the political initiative and won widespread acclaim from the American press in the process. Indeed, as the professor of speech communication, Martin Medhurst has stated, Ike’s exceptional ‘I Shall Go to Korea’ speech was ‘universally recognised’ as a decisive moment in securing his November 1952 election victory. Thus, Korea was unquestionably the most salient issue of the 1952 presidential election as Eisenhower won a clear mandate to bring the conflict to an end.
The Korean conflict was also the ‘pivotal event’ Eisenhower used to rhetorically convey to the American people his own wider vision of a foreign policy of long-term containment. The political foreign policy consensus around containment had collapsed as a result of the continuing ambiguity of the outcome of America’s intervention in Korea. Elements of the Republican party, in particular, were set against containment, as seen in Eisenhower’s principal rival for the Republican presidential nomination Senator Robert Taft, of the intensely conservative and isolationist faction of the party. Taft’s wing of the party was unilateralist in its foreign policy outlook and routinely opposed all the key elements of Truman’s multilateralist national security strategy such as the NATO alliance.
By contrast, Eisenhower thought it imperative that the United States engaged in an internationalist foreign policy in the 1950s and this principle was a key reason for his transition into politics. In Eisenhower’s mind, Korea represented exactly the type of limited war required for a wider victory in the Cold War struggle against communism. Nonetheless, despite supporting the UN intervention in Korea, Ike had become disillusioned with Truman’s heightened military spending and perceived failure to capitalise on America’s extraordinary position of global power at the end of World War II. Consequently, Eisenhower planned on using his platform and presidency to resurrect and reinvigorate the political consensus for pursuing a policy of containment.
Without mentioning communism explicitly, Eisenhower’s 1953 Inaugural Address was rich with the rhetorical symbolism of the Cold War and focused heavily on outlining a new conceptualisation of America’s global mission. The 34th President alluded to the present ideological division of the world in moralistic terms, stating that the ‘forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history’. Moreover, the new President asserted that the challenge of upholding America’s values necessitated that the United States accepted the ‘responsibility of the free world’s leadership’. This first speech as President constituted a determined and exceptionally public rejection of the isolationist ideas fostered by elements of his party. Eisenhower went on to endorse deterrence, multilateralism, foreign aid, and the United Nations as the bases of his foreign policy. Eisenhower hoped to use his oratory to redouble the American people’s long-term commitment to the cause of safeguarding personal freedom by calling for ‘proficiency in defence’ and ‘stamina in purpose’.
Eisenhower’s vision and electoral mandate did not mean that his approach to the Cold War and America’s Korea policy was without limitations. First of all, despite fulfilling his campaign promise to visit Korea as President-Elect in December 1952, Eisenhower began his Presidency without a concrete proposal for resolving the conflict. In reality, the President-Elect’s trip to the Republic of Korea, for all its electoral significance, was ‘primarily military theatre’ and provided no promise for a straightforward end to the conflict. Indeed, the leadership change of 1953 that truly facilitated the suspension of the Korean War was the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March, not Eisenhower’s entry into office in January.
Stalin opposed the termination of hostilities in Korea throughout 1952 and clashed with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, who was willing to countenance the peace negotiations. In their August 1952 conversation, Stalin had insisted that ‘endurance and patience’ was required despite the high human cost of the war to China, whereas Zhou reiterated the value of the talks at Panmunjom. Thus, Stalin’s demise and the subsequent positive shift in international relations was an important factor in facilitating a significant reappraisal of American policy by the new Eisenhower administration. Consequently, the real details of Eisenhower’s comprehension of US foreign policy and the Cold War were set out in his New Look national security policy rather than his political rhetoric.
Stalin and Mao amid other Soviet and Chinese luminaries, 1949
After securing the Presidency, Eisenhower began implementing his internationalist foreign policy agenda. Upon entering the White House, Eisenhower initiated a program of national security reforms and reviews, which strengthened the National Security Council and raised the profile of the Secretary of State, putting them at the heart of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy formulation.
The NSC’s bearing on Washington’s approach to the Korean question at the start of the first Eisenhower administration is demonstrated by a report published in July 1953, NSC 157/1. This report, published twenty days before the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on the 27th of July, evaluated Washington’s aims in Korea in the context of a likely armistice. The two possible long-term outcomes of an armistice envisioned by the NSC were summarised as follows:
- A Korea divided for an indefinite period on the present demarcation line with the Republic of Korea tied into the U.S. security system and developed as a military ally.
- A unified neutralised Korea under a substantially unchanged ROK. Such an objective would entail Communist agreement to a unified Korea with a U.S. political orientation in exchange for U.S. agreement to withdraw U.S. forces and bases from Korea and not conclude a mutual security pact with Korea.
NSC 157/1, however, is clear in its preference for the latter outcome of a post-armistice negotiated settlement achieving Korean unification and neutrality, because such a resolution would meet the administration’s wider strategic goals. Economically, a unified and de-militarised Korea would avert the ‘drain on U.S. resources’ perpetuated by continued division on the peninsula, and would facilitate a refocusing of military capacity towards other key ‘free world’ allies in Europe and Asia. Politically, a negotiated settlement would meet American objectives by not only eliminating ‘an area of dangerous friction’ but also by delivering a reputation-enhancing conclusion for the UN and the United States.
Such aims closely reflected the wider priorities of Eisenhower and Dulles’s New Look national security approach. Eisenhower’s White House wanted to pursue a more active strategy for fighting the Cold War, but at a lower monetary cost than Truman had after he adopted the NSC 68 policy paper. After the initiation of the Korean, War Truman’s administration had increased the US’s defence budget massively by approving NSC 68 and then drafting NSC 141 to recommend further increases. Eisenhower, however, was strongly opposed to such high levels of haphazard outlay as he believed that America’s defence budget should be both logical and sustainable to wage a potentially open-ended Cold War. Thus, the 1954 defence budget was not increased but cut by $5 billion. Hence, NSC 157/1 favoured the neutralised reunification of Korea on the basis of cost, as Dulles and Eisenhower viewed the establishment of inconclusive partitions as a principal failing of Truman’s approach.
John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State 1953-59
Indeed, the ‘severe drain’ of the Korean War on resources was a key strategic reason for Eisenhower’s determination to end the conflict. Furthermore, the rapid development of nuclear weapons capability in both the US and USSR was also cause for Eisenhower to revaluate America’s national security and adopt the New Look. Nuclear weapons would form a central element of the New Look policy codified in NSC 162/2, as a cost-effective means of deterrence against Soviet belligerence. Although the sincerity of Ike’s willingness to use nuclear weapons is contested by historians, their use in the Korean conflict was discussed and seriously considered by Eisenhower’s administration. Finally, the New Look strategy also endorsed ‘alliances, covert operations and propaganda’ as cost-effective foreign policy tools.
The most insightful element of NSC 157/1, however, is the lack of nuance the report gives to the positions of Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang. Subsection 5, dedicated to the ‘Communist Position’, makes little effort to differentiate between the views of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Likewise, the report gives no agency to Kim Il-sung’s DPRK when discussing the possibility ‘of the satellite North Korean regime’ being dissolved as a result of negotiations. This American tendency to downplay the agency and independence of Asian communist states from the Soviet Union, however, was not a new or unique phenomenon. General MacArthur, in his position as leader of the United Nations Command at the outset of the Korean War, had famously ‘refused to believe’ that China was capable of acting independently from the USSR.
Similarly, Western policymakers had wrongly believed that the impetus for North Korea’s June 1950 invasion of the South had come from Stalin rather than Kim. Yet, this misconception lingered on throughout the Eisenhower era. When Mao unilaterally decided to withdraw the Volunteers from North Korea in 1957 to bolster ties with Kim, the US State Department failed to consider the decision in terms of Chinese-North Korea relations. Likewise, when writing in the context of the developing Sino-Soviet Split in early 1961, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) grossly oversimplified the developments of the 1950s by describing Pyongyang’s ‘traditional role’ as that of a ‘docile Soviet Satellite’. Successive American administrations consistently belittled North Korea’s sovereignty by incorrectly omitting Sino-North Korea relations as a relevant factor.
Dwight Eisenhower, pictured later in his presidency
Nevertheless, various CIA reports from both the beginning and the end of the Eisenhower Administration do suggest that the American intelligence community did have a reasonably sound understanding of the DPRK’s evolving relationship with the PRC. In May 1953, a CIA report described the enhanced authority Beijing had over Pyongyang as a result of the Korean War and correctly predicted that China would seek to strengthen its influence further in future. The report also discusses the trilateral nature of North Korean issues with a detailed consideration of the still-positive Sino-Soviet relationship. The CIA thus recognised that the Soviet leadership would likely accept China displacing the USSR’s primacy within North Korea to ‘maintain the harmony’ and ‘avoid jeopardizing’ the irreplaceable Sino-Soviet alliance.
A December 1953 National Security Council briefing entitled ‘North Korean Integration into the Bloc’ discussed the economic measures both countries were taking to aid the war-torn member of the communist camp. This report detailed the extensive reconstruction aid that China had already provided to the devastated DPRK by the end of 1953 which included provisions of resources, labour and financial support. These generous and rapid provisions of reconstruction assistance indicated mainland China’s increasing significance to North Korea. Consequently, the CIA’s intelligence strongly suggested that a positive and supportive connection existed between Pyongyang and Beijing. In addition, the CIA also clearly understood how the war had served to ‘complicate North Korea’s external relations’ by strengthening mainland China’s political authority within the country to the detriment of Soviet dominance.
Most revealingly, however, the CIA’s reporting also demonstrates an American awareness of the varying factions within the Korean Workers’ Party. The May 1953 report, for instance, specifically acknowledged the existence of both a pro-Soviet faction and a pro-China Yan’an faction. Similarly, in a November 1953 report, the CIA observed that August 1952 had seen almost all South Korean Communists within the regime and KWP replaced by Soviet-Koreans.
Finally, the CIA stated in a 1961 report that the DPRK had been ‘plagued by factionalism and purges’ as the regime ‘appeared firmly committed to the pre-Khrushchev model of Stalinist totalitarianism’. This infers that CIA intelligence analysts were aware of Kim’s successive purges throughout the 1950s and understood the nature of North Korean politics accordingly. Broadly speaking, American intelligence seemed to have a strong grip on the structural aspects of the DRPK’s foreign relations. Likewise, the importance of domestic Korean power politics is also clearly reported by the CIA. However, this nuance is lacking from NSC 157/1, suggesting that the CIA’s accurate intelligence reporting on North Korea did not always translate into political decision making.
The dissonance between the insightful reporting of the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration’s actual policy approach to the Korean Peninsula suggests intelligence analysis did not always reach the political level Furthermore, understanding the complexities of the Sino-North Korean relationship does not appear to have been a strategic priority for the White House in the 1950s despite the introduction of the New Look policy. Eisenhower’s overriding interest in the Korean Peninsula was ending the war which he had inherited from Truman. However, once this was achieved, Eisenhower’s attention quickly moved on from Korea as the 1950s developed into a decade crowded with landmark events such as the division of Vietnam (1954) or the Hungarian Revolution (1956).
The Korean Peninsula was a peripheral corner of the globe which hindered Eisenhower’s wider objective of using the New Look policy to reinvigorate America’s strategy for waging the Cold War. NSC 157/1’s preference for achieving Korean unification and neutralisation through negotiated settlement is a testament to this. The Eisenhower Administration’s failure to achieve this aim allowed the existing status quo of a divided Korea to quickly solidify thereby perpetuating a conflict that imperils American interests to this day in ways surely unimaginable to Eisenhower. Nevertheless, the DPRK’s quest for nuclear capabilities can be traced back to the 1950s, when in the aftermath of the Korean War, the Eisenhower Administration deployed tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.
Rory de Mellow is a University of Leeds graduate in International History and Politics. His interests include international security, US foreign policy, and Sino-Korean relations.
 Saki Dockrill, Eisenhower’s New-Look National Security Policy, 1953-61 (Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1996), pp. 16-17.
 Richard A. Melanson, ‘The Foundations of Eisenhower’s Foreign Policy: Continuity, Community and Consensus’, in Re-Evaluating Eisenhauer: American Foreign Policy in the 1950s, ed. by Richard A. Melanson and David Allan Mayers (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987), pp. 31–66 (pp. 40-41).
 Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (London: Profile Books, 2013), p.268.
 Martin J. Medhurst, ‘Text and Context in the 1952 Presidential Campaign: Eisenhower’s ‘I Shall Go to Korea’ Speech’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 30.3 (2000), 464–84 (p.482).
 Jager, p.267; Xiaobing Li, The Cold War in East Asia (London: Routledge, 2017), p.89.
 Kenneth S. Zagacki, ‘Eisenhower and the Rhetoric of Postwar Korea’, Southern Communication Journal, 60.3 (1995), 233–45 (p.235).
 Melanson, p.41.
 Irwin F. Gellman, The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), pp. 15-17.
 Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 70-71.
 Melanson, p.41; Gellman, p.157.
 Zagacki, p.235.
 Saki Dockrill, p.17.
 Melanson, p.41.
 Gellman, p.183.
 Millett, p.167; Bowie and Immerman, p.84.
 Jager, p.274; Dockrill, p.19; Li, The Cold War in East Asia, p.89.
 Jager, p.274.
 Dockrill, p.19.
 Campbell Craig, Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998), p.41.
 Bowie and Immerman, p.98,
 Bowie and Immerman, p.98; p.178; Millet, p.170.
 Peter J. Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p.20.
 Craig, p.41.
 Bowie and Immerman, p.181.
 Bowie and Immerman, pp. 178-179.
 Roman, p.21; Jackson, Michael Gordon, ‘Beyond Brinkmanship: Eisenhower, Nuclear War Fighting, and Korea, 1953-1968’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 35.1 (2005), 52–75 (p.53).
 Jackson, ‘Beyond Brinkmanship: Eisenhower, Nuclear War Fighting, and Korea, 1953-1968’, p.55.
 Roman, p.21.
 Li, The Cold War in East Asia, p.81.
 Kathryn Weathersby, ‘The Soviet Role in the Early Phase of the Korean War: New Documentary Evidence’, Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 2.4 (1993), 425–58 (p.432).
 Shen and Xia, A Misunderstood Friendship, p.118.
 Li, The Cold War in East Asia, p.90.
 Buszynski, p.157; Smith, p.141.
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