Korea: Better than Vietnam, anyway

Thomas C. Reeves, perhaps my least favorite HNN blogger, is arguing that the success of South Korea justifies our Middle East policies, especially Iraq. The comparison of Bush to Truman is nothing new, nor is the analogy of Iraq and Korea. But this particular one is quite egregious, and I can’t let it pass without comment. Reeves’ main point — that South Korea is better off than North Korea and that the US had a hand in that — is true, but in such a shallow manner as to be empty rhetoric. His larger theme — that the support for freedom and opposition to tyranny are worthwhile even when unpopular — is also true, but the use of the Korea and Truman raise serious questions.

First, of course, is the sheer hubris of attributing the difference solely to “American influence and protection.” The Korean War was initiated by North Korea in direct action against US/UN troops, not by a US invasion. The US was already in Korea, for good reason, but ham-handedly refusing — as was the Soviet Union — to allow Koreans to determine their own post-colonial path. US involvement in South Korean politics over the quarter-century after the Korean War delayed progress towards democracy, did nothing in particular to promote religious tolerance (unless you count supporting Christian missionaries, which seems a bit self-serving), and I’ve never seen anyone argue that US involvement was particularly good for the Korean economy, either.

The attempt to tar opponents of Bush Administration policy as new McCarthyites — well-intentioned, perhaps, but short-sighted, partisan and hypocritical — ignores literally years of critics saying “it would be good for everyone if we could proceed in a responsible and effective manner.”1 Instead, Reeves pulls out the middle ground, leaving only support for the Administration (who are, according to Reeves, more Trumanesque than Johnsonesque or Kennedyesque or Rooseveltian or Wilsonian….) or “appeasement and retreat for mere political gain.” It’s a short step from this kind of manicheanism to “stabbed in the back” revisionism.

Ultimately, this is a classic case of the political rhetorical use of historical analogies: pick the one which has the most obvious parallel for the result you want to see, and ignore differences.2 It’s irresponsible for a historian to trade in these facile arguments.

  1. e. g.  

  2. Reeves waves it away with “Yes, of course, there are many differences between Iraq and the Middle East today and the Korean peninsula of more than a half century ago.” My students wouldn’t be allowed to get away with that!  


  1. This reminds me of the way “Asian Values” were used by many Australian and NZ politicians and business leaders in the ’90s to promote their domestic agendas. It certainly helped that Asian Values were extremely vague and open to interpretation at best, allowing them to be used to promote, well, pretty much anything!

  2. Your posting doesn’t tempt me to go over and read the original piece by Reeves, but I may force myself if I’m feeling particularly masochistic at some stage. As you say, these are facile arguments, but they also appear to be (willfully?) ignorant ones too. What, for example, would Reeves have said in the mid-late 1960s when North Korea was far richer and more developed than South Korea and both North and South languished under authoritarian regimes on opposite sides of the Cold War divide?

    As if that wasn’t enough… the idea that the US warplanes currently raining thousands of tons of bombs onto Iraqi towns in the escalating airwar there (to give but one example of the current activities of the liberators) are defending freedom and democracy just makes me want to scream. Iraqis will most likely get democracy and freedom the same way the South Koreans did – by snatching it from the jaws of a US-backed authoritarian regime. I just hope they don’t have to wait as long as the South Koreans did for their moment to come.

  3. Reeves is an Americanist, so I wouldn’t expect him to know about the developmental lag in South Korea — I don’t think I knew about it until a couple of years ago — but ignoring the democracy lag is gross misconduct, especially for a Cold War historian (he’s Sen. McCarthy’s most authoritative biographer, by most accounts, and a Kennedy scholar as well).

    Interestingly, though, I don’t yet see a lot of evidence that the US is prepared to back an Iraqi strongman the way it backed Rhee and Park, or Chiang in Taiwan. Maybe it’s dissembling, and there’s something going on behind the scenes, but it seems to me that we’re actually more or less on the sidelines still.

  4. Yes, I think you’re correct on the last point, the US will probably have to take whatever it can get in Iraq, barring an out and out anti-US government. But I imagine three loosely federated governments each run by an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leader keeping a lid on the Islamists would be considered a ‘good’ outcome.

  5. The ignorance of both Viet Nam and Iraq is behind the left’s claim of Iraq as Viet Nam…the analogy is only used so that the left can bash the US…

    A better comparison would be Luzon and the Huks, where throwing out an evil dictatorship of Japanese proxies led to a hard core insurgency that had to be fought.

    But of course it wasn’t the US but the Philippines themselves who did so…

  6. Ha Ha Ha. I especially like the part where the US (via Truman) is given “much of the credit for halting the advance of totalitarianism in Korea.” Does that make up for the whole Taft-Katsura thing?

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