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Truman, Congress, and Korea: The Politics of America's First Undeclared War.

Truman, Congress, and Korea: The Politics of America's First Undeclared War. By Larry Blomstedt. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Pp. xi, 305. $50.00.)

From 1950 to 1953, the Korean War engaged America's attention. Often referred to as America's forgotten war, historians have concentrated their studies on its military aspects. The domestic front has often been neglected. In an attempt to correct this, Larry Blomstedt analyzes the relationship between President Harry S. Truman and Congress throughout the three-year war. Blomstedt divides the war into three periods. The first is the North Korean invasion and General Douglas MacArthur's Inchon landing and rollback to the thirty-eighth parallel. The second is reunification and subsequent Chinese entry. The third is stalemate--sometimes referred to as the Seesaw War--and peace negotiations.

In June 1950, Truman, without consulting Congress, ordered American forces into South Korea to roll back the North Korean offensive. Shortly thereafter, he informed sixteen congressional leaders of his decision. Only one of them, Senate Minority Leader Kenneth Whenny (R-NE), challenged it. Moreover, Congress did not insist on a congressional resolution endorsing it. Congress, in other words, abrogated its constitutional prerogative to declare war. But why it did this is not fully explained in Blomstedt's book.

To some historians, fear of McCarthyism prompted Truman's decision to send troops to South Korea. To be sure, the Republican Party's right wing, led by Wisconsin's Senator Joseph McCarthy, had consistently criticized the Truman administration as being soft on Communism. According to Blomstedt, however, McCarthyism was a negligible factor in Truman's decision to intervene in Korea. A more credible explanation, writes Blomstedt, was Truman's view, shaped by events in the 1930s, that failure to stop aggression early would lead to a wider war later.

As important, however, and only hinted at by the author, was Truman's view, shared by the American foreign policy community, that Communism was a monolithic force tied to Moscow. Thus, according to this view, containing its spread was in America's national self-interest. But critics of this view argued that nationalism transcended Communism.

In October 1950, after General MacArthur's rollback of the North Korean army to the thirty-eighth parallel, Truman decided to reunify Korea under Seoul's anti-Communist regime. To Blomstedt, domestic politics played a large role in Truman's decision: "After suffering relentless disparagement from the Republicans since 1949 for losing China to Mao Ze Dong," writes the author, "Truman's failure to proceed north to the thirty-eighth parallel could have branded him an appeaser of communism" (84).

Truman's widespread support for crossing the thirty-eighth parallel faded when Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into North Korea, pushing MacArthur's forces back to South Korea. From then on, preserving bipartisan support for the war proved to be daunting. Shortly thereafter, by dismissing MacArthur for publicly advocating carrying the war to China, Truman's congressional support further eroded. Firing a revered military hero, who also happened to be a Republican, "delivered the final blow to interparty cooperation in foreign affairs" (118). Yet, according to Blomstedt, if early in the war Truman would have consulted with Republicans on a confidential basis, as Republican John Foster Dulles--a State Department advisor--had suggested, it might have diminished their criticisms over MacArthur's firing (64).

According to Blomstedt, historians have overrated McCarthy's influence over Congress. Instead, the State Department was his primary target and Secretary of State Dean Acheson his chief scapegoat. Unlike State Department employees, lawmakers were much less fearful of McCarthy's anti-Communist subcommittee. After initially backing Truman's intervention, they reversed course when the war ground to a halt and casualties mounted. By the spring of 1951, many of them were proposing peace negotiations (221).

Throughout the war, Truman faced many challenges from both Democrats and Republicans. But his party let him down, argues Blomstedt, for not pushing for a congressional resolution to back up his decision to enter the war. The war's lesson, he suggests, was that "a president and his or her party in Congress must act as a critical check and balance against each other" (221).

Using his sources well, Blomstedt's studies include manuscript collections, oral histories, books, articles, and dissertations. Though the reviewer may have wanted him to go into greater detail on the war's military aspects, Blomstedt's purpose was to relate the domestic politics between Truman and Congress as they related to the war. In this respect, readers will find his book an excellent study.

Dennis Wainstock

Fairmont State University
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Title Annotation:THE AMERICAS
Author:Wainstock, Dennis
Publication:The Historian
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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