Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the war that never ended – the Korean war, to be exact, the first real face-to-face armed conflict of the cold war era. Although a truce was declared, a peace treaty was never signed, and the threat that Harry Truman’s war will erupt once more hangs over our heads to this day. Yet the North Koreans are a threat mainly to themselves, as they rail and rant and launch provocations that are almost comical in their extravagance: Pyongyang, which routinely threatens to incinerate the South, has elevated bellicosity into an art form.
However, these odd relics of a half-forgotten past are not what haunts us today: after all, the Korean peninsula is on the outer fringes of the Empire, and what happens there is of little consequence to most Americans. What has the Korean war to do with us, in the here and now?
Well, now that you ask: plenty.
The war was a turning point in terms of the domestic political debate: when it broke out, the American political landscape was undergoing one of those seismic changes in which left becomes right, right becomes left, and the world is turned upside down.
On the right, the Republican party was recovering from its marginalization during the New Deal era, mobilizing its forces – and the nascent conservative movement – around the banner of militant anti-communism. Having been on the losing side of the foreign policy debate since Pearl Harbor, when the party’s “isolationist” wing was soundly defeated, the GOP wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to get their own back, and get it back they did. Except for an anti-interventionist old guard, led by the remnants of the Taft wing, the Republicans went on the warpath, literally, and launched a campaign designed to smear the Democrats as “soft on communism.” In very short order, the arguments they had made against the emergence of the US as a global power in the pre-war era were swept under the rug, to be replaced by a militant interventionism. McCarthyism – the movement personified by Senator Josepth “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy, the alcoholic loose cannon of the Republican right – was the bridge that allowed the GOP to cross that Rubicon, and there has been no going back ever since.
The identification of a supposedly all-pervasive domestic enemy – American Communists, who had, in fact, permeated the Roosevelt administration, especially in its lower echelons, during the old Popular Front days – energized their base and paved the way for the party to abandon its former “isolationism.” If it was okay to use the police powers of the emerging national security state to hunt down and identify Communists on the home front, then there was very little to stop us from carrying that crusade to the four corners of the earth – and we did just that.
In taking this path to power, the GOP went down the same road traveled by the Democrats only a few years before, when another form of socialism – National Socialism – was the enemy, and FDR used the threat posed by Hitler to brand his domestic opponents “copperheads” and worse. Roosevelt and his American Communist janissaries used every opportunity to drive home the point that the anti-war anti-New Deal Republicans and their conservative and libertarian allies were Hitlerites, active agents of the Third Reich intent not only on delivering the world to the Axis powers but also determined to undermine and reverse the glorious achievements ofKing Franklin. This smear campaign – the “Brown Scare” — was led by the extreme left wing of the wartime Popular Front, i.e. the Communist party, which was in the vanguard of the literary campaign to tar the Right with the Nazi brush. The fellow-traveling John Roy Carlson, aka Avedis Derounian, wrote a best-selling book that retailed this farrago of lies and established, to this day, the “official” history of that era which characterized the old America First antiwar movement as a “transmission belt” for Hitler’s propaganda, as one Commuinst-inspired tract put it.
It was only right, or so the conservatives thought, that the Brown Scare should be followed by a Red Scare, and so it was.
The Republicans went on the offensive, after the war, and, eager to recoup their losses – after having been almost completely marginalized during the war years – launched a campaign that accused the Democrats of “twenty years of treason.” As Russian armies moved into Eastern Europe and set up “people’s democracies,” and China fell into the Soviet orbit, this charge had a certain ring of truth to it. Indeed, the Roosevelt administration had collaborated with the American Communist party, especially in New York, where the Communist-dominated American Labor Party wielded a pivotal influence. The Communists had jumped on the New Deal bandwagon, and, in many instances, ridden it all the way to Washington, D.C., where their agents penetrated government agencies and set up an extensive espionage network, as documents culled from old Soviet archives have recently revealed. Alger Hiss was far from alone.
Such critics of Roosevelt’s road to war as Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick, publisher of the militantly “isolationist” (i.e. pro-peace) Chicago Tribune had presciently warned that Stalin would be the victor in a war to destroy National Socialism, and that we had better let the two dictators fight to the death like scorpions in a bottle. McCormick was vilified as a traitor for that, but history proved him right, and as Stalin’s armies were taking one Eastern Euopean capital after another, the tables were turned. This time, it was the left that was vilified as a “fifth column,” and the Republicans used the extreme right as a battering ram against the Democrats just as the New Dealers had used their Communist attack dogs in the war years.
Yet not everyone on the right was ready to throw their principles overboard, and a few voices of dissent were heard, albeit briefly and to no avail. When McCormick raised objections to NATO and the Marshall Plan, he was attacked by the leftist Nation magazine, as well as The New Republic, as taking the “Soviet line.” Senator Robert A. Taft, although he supported NATO, did so reluctantly, and his followers in the GOP congressional caucus, such as Rep. George H. Bender, had no compunctions about voting “nay.”
The siren song of “collective security,” and all the shibboleths of interventionism, had failed to work their charms on these stalwarts all though the war years, when the pressure to conform was really intense, and they weren’t about to abandon their hard-won principles now. The results of the war had validated them, and such writers as Garet Garrett, an editor of the Saturday Evening Post and a popular financial writer, warned us what was coming when he pointed to Truman’s “usurpation” of what had formerly been the sole prerogative of Congress: the power to declare war.
Roosevelt had carried out a complex campaign of deception, carrying on a secret war while publicly declaring his desire for peace: Truman, on the other hand, a pygmy in comparison, simply ignored Congress and went ahead and made war on the North Koreans. The Constitution, by this time, had become a mere parchment: this relegated it to the attic, finally, where it has lain ever since.
When Truman followed up his victory over the rule of law and the intent of the Founders with an order sending US troops to Europe, a few Republicans objected, and Truman commanded his lawyers and shills to come up with a rationalization for ditching the Constitution. They promptly complied with "Powers of the President to Send Troops Outside of the United States,” which was submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations committee. “This document,” averred Garrett,
“In the year 2950, will be a precious find for any historian who may be trying to trace the departing footprints of the vanished American Republic. For the information of the United States Senate it said: ‘As this discussion of the respective powers of the President and Congress has made clear, constitutional doctrine has been largely molded by practical necessities. Use of the congressional power to declare war, for example, has fallen into abeyance because wars are no longer declared in advance.’
“Caesar might have said it to the Roman Senate. If constitutional doctrine is molded by necessity, what’s a written Constitution for?”
FDR had greatly expanded the power of the presidency, not only by the sheer force of his personality but by the rise of administrative law, i.e. law written and administered by the growing bureaucracy, which was and is answerable directly to the White House. This was the signal achievement, if it can be called that, of the New Deal: the Imperial Presidency was born in the war years, and Truman sought to continue the tradition. As US troops were mired in the Korean mud, in 1952, the President invoked the mantra of “national security” and his alleged wartime powers to nationalize the steel industry, and call in the troops to break a strike. Steel was essential to fighting the war, he reasoned, and therefore it was entirely within his power as commander-in-chief to seize the steel mills: once again, the Constitution would be molded by ever-present “necessity.”
The steel industry took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won a tentative victory. As this piece on the case recounts:
“On June 2, 1952, the Supreme Court, by a 6–3 margin, ruled that President Truman’s seizure order was unconstitutional (Youngstown, Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579). Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, concluded: "The Founders of this Nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times." Justices Black and Douglas took the position that under no circumstances could a president alone constitutionally "make laws" as Truman had attempted to do with his executive order. The other four justices making up the majority did not go so far. Evidently, they believed that the national emergency in the spring of 1952 was not severe enough to justify the government takeover of privately owned steel companies. However, these justices implied that under more extreme circumstances, such an action by a president may be constitutional.”
Which is why, today, the courts would have no problem upholding Joe Lieberman’s bill giving the President power to switch off the internet — or, for that matter, effectively seize any and all industry — according to the dictates of “necessity.” Don’t you know there’s a war on?
Every administration uses the “national security” bugaboo to increase its power, and Truman outdid even FDR in the boldness of his usurpations, sending the troops to occupy the mills to avert a strike led by FDR’s former allies, the Communists and their fellow travelers in the unions. The national strike called by the steel workers was the last gasp of the left as it fell victim to the growing witch-hunt. The cold war years saw the rise of the “anti-Communist left,” i.e. right-wing Social Democrats and the forerunners of today’s neoconservatives, a shift prefigured when the Democrats dumped FDR’s first Vice President, Henry Wallace, and replaced him with Truman. The Wallace-ites soon hived off to form their own short-lived Progressive Party, and the left was marginalized until the 1960s. The legacy of Trumanism, i.e. cold war liberalism, was Vietnam.
As we sink in the mud of yet another quagmire, this time in the wilds of Central Asia, let us remember how we got here, and who brought us to this moment. Let us remember, and curse their names.