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How Truman’s Speech Shaped Public Perception on the Korean War

The Korean War started on June 25, 1950. The outbreak of the Korean War was a culmination of decades’ worth of tension between North and South Korea, rather than an unwarranted invasion, as Truman’s statement would make it appear. The Korean War represents an ever-present battle between communism and democracy, a common theme in the Cold War Era. The war between North and South Korea ignited the United States worst fear, an attempt to spread communism throughout the eastern world. The idea of the containment of communism led to U.S. involvement in both “hot wars” that existed during the Cold War Era: Vietnam and the Korean War. The Korean War, despite the Truman’s Statement, was anything but surprising as tensions between North and South Korea escalated for decades surrounding economic, social, and political differences in combination with the effects of colonialism.

President Truman’s statement on Korea openly denounced North Korea’s “invasion” of South Korea.[1]Truman carefully chose the word “invade” to place the sole blame of the war on North Korea. President Truman blamed the start of the Korean War on North Korea because of its communistic form of government. Truman used the idea of “invasion” in his rhetoric to make North Korea and communism appear as a direct threat to the United States. Truman makes the threat eminent by stating that “communism has passed beyond the use of subversion […] and will now use armed invasion and war”.[2]This statement frees North Korea of any blame in the start of the Korean War. Contrary to Truman’s statement, the outbreak of the Korean War was a culmination of “a failed traditional society, forty years of Japanese colonialism, the leaching effect of Japan’s wars and the trauma of political division and revolutionary social change”, leaving both North and South Korea to blame .[3]Truman publicly reviled North Korea in an attempt to rally both national and international support for the war against communism.

The Truman Statement drew a metaphorical line between North Korea and the entirety of the “free world”. The “free world” defined in the context of the Cold War represents any nation that was not ‘tainted’ by communism. Communism was a polarizing ideology in the Cold War Era. The distinction between the “free” and communist world was translated into a theme of good versus evil. The idea of nations outside of the “free world” like China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union being the “enemy” were represented in popular media, even within children’s textbooks.[4]The concept of the “free world” represented America’s visualization and actualization of a city upon a hill. Communism and the “free world” could never co-exist, and the United States would continue to involve itself militarily until the entirety of the world became a republican state.

The Truman Statement on Korea represents American sentiments towards communism in the Cold War Era. The United States believed that it was their obligation to police the world in an attempt to save it from communism. The idea of the United States as a global police force can be seen throughout the entirety of the Cold War Era. Truman exemplifies the idea of the United States as a global police force by stating that it is America’s job to “uphold the rule of law”.[5]Senator McCarthy accurately represents the anti-communist frenzy that would ensue within the United States during the Cold War. When McCarthy was elected to the senate, he immediately condemned communism and declared that it was “eating away at the vitals of the nation”.[6]Anti-communist sentiments formed within the United States from the top down. Government officials from the president to the senate declared not only an international war on communism, but a domestic one as well. The Truman Statement on Korea depicts the power that certain individuals had in shaping public perception.

The Cold War was defined in large part by colonialism and foreign military occupation. Truman states the importance of preventing attacks on Formosa and strengthening the United States military presence in the Philippines.[7]The United States believed that it needed to “protect” those nations by asserting its dominance to further its own goals and ideologies. Prior to the Korean War, the United States had a three-year period of joint occupation in Korea with the Soviet Union.[8]During this time, the United States attempted to create a democratic system of government in South Korea, while attempting to “protect” it from communist influence. During their occupation, the United States discouraged South Korean nationalism.[9]The United States occupation of South Korea highlights a contradiction between its containment policies and the ways in which the U.S. pushed democracy. The United States condemned North Korea and communist nations for attempting to spread their ideologies, while the U.S. attempted to force democracy upon any non-republican nation. It is contradictory because the United States attempted to spread its own ideologies in the same way that communist nations had. In the eyes of the U.S., it was okay to spread ideologies only if those concepts aligned with American policies. The concept of forced ideologies appealed to the American superiority complex.

The American superiority complex can be seen in its condemnation of North Korea throughout the entirety of the Korean War. This superiority complex can also be seen in the arrogant tone present in the Truman Statement. The United States believed that communism was inferior to a democratic form of government. The phrases “plain beyond all doubt”, “cease hostilities and to withdraw”, “ordered”, and “execution of this resolution” depict Truman’s arrogance in stopping not only North Korea, but communism as well.[10]The United States felt as though its policies and people were superior to those belonging to other nations. This perceived superiority can be seen through “a system of unfreedom, of exclusion, confinements, and restrictions” that the U.S. government forced on Japanese Americans during World War II.[11]The idea of American superiority can be seen within its containment policies as well as individuals who seemed to prohibit these ideals.

The Truman response to Korea exemplified American sentiments regarding communism and foreign ideologies. The statement clearly defined the American position on the war in Korea. The arrogance present within Truman’s response illustrated America’s stance on foreign policy within the Cold War Era.

[1]Truman Speech, “Statement by the President, Truman on Korea” (June 27, 1950), in History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Public Papers of the Presidents, Harry S. Truman ed. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116192.

[2]Truman Speech, “Statement by the President, Truman on Korea”.

[3] Allan R. Millett. The War for Korea: A House Burning, 1945-1950: (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 921.

[4]McDougal, 609.

[5]Truman Speech, “Statement by the President, Truman on Korea”.

[6] Bruce Cummings. The Korean War: A History (New York, New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2010), 77.

[7]Truman Speech, “Statement by the President, Truman on Korea”.

[8] Charles K. Armstrong. The North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003), 167.

[9]Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 183.

[10]Truman Speech, “Statement by the President, Truman on Korea”.

[11] Takashi Fujitani. Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II (London, England: University of California Press, 2011), 127.